Michael Soule - The Grandfather of Conservation Biology

Back in November of 2012, I was transitioning from my ill-fated book attempt to my current potential pie in the sky movie endeavor.  I’d just read a book titled The Spine of the Continent by Mary Ellen Hannibal that featured the “most ambitious conservation effort ever undertaken.” It’s an effort to create connected wildlife habitats all the way from Mexico to the Yukon Territory - the length of North America - and is the brainchild Michael Soule who is considered by some as the “Grandfather of Conservation Biology”. 

Here’s an excerpt from an article about Mr. Soule: “In recent years, in pursuit of an ultimate explanation for human reluctance to protect biodiversity, Soule has turned his attention to the seven deadly sins, examining their history and evolution as both a scientist and a longtime Buddhist practitioner.”

Not averse to bending the ear of someone like Mr. Soule, I contacted him with the hope of somehow finding help for getting my message out that just might get the average person to never see themselves – or their place in the environment – the same way ever again.  Some might call this my harebrainedchild!

The E-mail letter below, partly explains why I chose to forgo the book and focus on a full-length feature film.

I, like Mr. Soule, prefer talking in person or on the phone rather than correspond via E-mail or texting; subsequentluy, he asked me to call instead of going back and forth with lengthy E-mails…and I was grateful for that.

In our ensuing phone conversation, Mr. Soule discussed The Seven Deadly Sins  and how that relates to our environmental woes.  At the time, he was writing a paper about those turpitudes, but adding another – denial.   

Why was I thankful for his willingness to take time out of his busy schedule and discuss our common concerns?  It has something to do with his closing comment as we discussed my inability to network with like-minded people about our concerns for the future of mankind.  Although he said he wished he could be more encouraging and helpful, he finished the conversation with, “Well again, thanks for the work you’re doing up there – I know it must be lonely and difficult.”  To which I responded while chuckling on the outside but crying on the inside, “That’s an understatement.”

But what he said earlier (i.e., that he’s at a loss as to how to wake the masses up regarding impending environmental calamities) is what I’m driven - perversely driven - to do.   

In a brash statement, I told Mr. Soule that, “I’ve got a pretty drastic idea as to how we can change the public’s paradigm as far as the environment, and I believe that it’s going to take something drastic to get people to wake up and do the right thing.”  His response was, “I couldn’t agree more…yes, but what that is, is still beyond my grasp.

I’ve done everything from blogs to Youtube clips (one as short as 37 seconds all the way up to 45 minutes!) in my quest to find help in getting the most powerful environmental message out that mankind will ever hear. 

Noting the average person’s attention span is about as long as a jellyfish’s, all my friends tell me that my video clips need to be shorter – three minutes max!  Here’s one fellow biologist’s remarks after watching one: “The brutal truth is that if it’s longer than about 3 minutes it’s going to be very hard to get anyone who doesn’t know you to watch it.  Do you have a message that’s not being delivered elsewhere, by for example Carl Safina, Al Gore, Richard Nelson, and many others?  If you do, what’s your hook?  It is even more true now in the era of Twitter and Instagram but it’s always been true that you have only a very short time to get the attention of people you don’t know to your message so you can then later hope they’ll give you more than a minute or so.” 

Here’s a FB exchange from another biologist after watching this video where I compare my proposed movie with George Lucas’ Star Wars.

In my recent series of videos seeking help, I’ve mostly hit on the mounting environmental concerns, only hinting on where this unique endeavor would ultimately go…that can be summed up by a quote by Joseph Campbell: “We’re not on our journey to save the world, but to save ourselves.  But in doing that you save the world.”

Why do I need help with telling this story?  Well, for two reasons. 

First and foremost is because how different my message is from Carl Safina’s, Al Gore’s, and Richard Nelson’s (hint – it won’t be super optimistic).  Early on in my professional fisheries career I experienced tremendous mental anguish, so much so, that to this day I have a hard time disclosing or even discussing it; a talented screen writer would need to uncover some of my repressed memories.  The trauma was brought on by psychological abuse (i.e., gaslighting) by a supervisor who set me up to fail every chance he had.  This would put me on a tumultuous path of angst and self-doubt for over fifteen years, all the while, while trying the “save the fishes” I care so much about.  Later in my career, I found out that that’s a charge that maybe no one can do.  

Below is an excerpt from a book by Terrence Real titled I Don’t Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression that helped me understand the meaning of Joseph Campbell’s words many years ago.  Only in the last 2 ½ pages was the environment mentioned; surprisingly, out of the blue here’s what Mr. Real, a psychotherapist, had to say: “The dynamic of dominance and submission which has been at the heart of traditional masculinity can play itself out inside the psyche of man as depression, in his interpersonal relationships, as irresponsibility and abuse, in one races’ contempt for other people, or in humanity’s relationship to the earth itselfWe have abused the environment we live in as if it were an all giving and all forgiving mother, an endless resource, like the Grail.”

It was only after reading that paragraph did I realize that overcoming my depression would be a subtheme for a heart-wrenching movie that will strike a chord with a lot of people (there are over 16 million depressed people in the US alone – 350 million worldwide)…even some climate change naysayers.

The holy grail I’ve been pursuing for over fifteen years is to get the average person to never see themselves – or their place in the environment – the same way ever again by getting them to fully understand what’s at stake if we humans don’t mend our destructive ways – that’s individually and collectively.  An old Forest Service crony once told me, “You got to know sin to preach against sin.”.  Consequently, I contend that Homo sapiens (i.e., “the wise ones”), must get in charge of ourselves psychologically in order to avert widespread ecological and social calamity. 

And that, right there, is the ultimate theme of the movie I have in mind.

Here’s the 2nd reason I’m in need of help – I simply don’t have the literary aptitude to weave the complexities and convolutedness involved with the chaotic nature of everyday life.  This movie would have seemingly diverse and disjointed threads (e.g., psychology, the environment, mental illness, and the fast pace of life), that when merged together with wit* will ask the big-picture question whether or not “the wise ones” are capable of averting a dreadful future.

As discussed with Mr. Soule, the only thing that may attain that holy grail of a fix is something vastly different than anything that has been brought forth to date.

Here’s the logline for this unique film I’m pitching:

This is a story about an unknown and unassuming - possibly delusional - fish biologist living in the middle of nowhere leading a life no different than Dr. Joel Fleischman of the Emmy winning show Northern Exposure of years gone by.  This biologist - known to some of his colleagues as “The Don Quixote Of Fish Biologists” - is perversely driven to make a difference by reaching the masses in a way that gets the individual to fully contemplate their place in the environment and never see themselves or the environment the same way ever again.

It’s a story not unlike a Robert Altman** film; in fact, it’s very much like Prairie Home Companion, which Altman directed.  Speaking of Prairie Home Companion, this biologist’s narrative mirrors a Garrison Keillor News From Lake Wobegon yarn; the only difference is that the eccentric people in the biologist’s story are real…including every zany adventure and misadventure. 

However, it’s mostly about his failed attempts in his pursuit of such a noble and lofty dream and the personal antagonists he’s learned life-changing lessons from.

Ultimately, it's a story about psychology and mental illness and the need for the human race to “get in charge of itself psychologically” in order to avert unimaginable widespread ecological and social disruption. 

* As serious as this discussion has been, this full-length feature film will not be lacking in humor.  For it was Oscar Wilde who said, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, make them laugh.  Otherwise, they’ll kill you.”. 

** Robert Altman was an astute observer of humanity and loved the chaotic nature of real life, with its conflicting perspectives, unforeseen twists, unexplained actions, and ambiguous endings.  He was averse to telling straight forward stories, his films had fractured and fragmentary narratives, a sloppy imperfection associated with how we human beings work, and he often used overlapping dialogue with a camera that was constantly moving...much like real life.

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Here’s my correspondence to Mr. Soule.

Hello Michael,

Thanks for responding!

I mentioned in that E-mail that I have a plan to help the environment and that I’m in need of help myself.  I’ll cut to the chase - I’m looking for someone who understands the environmental concerns - and the causes of those concerns - who’s got connections in the writing and motion picture industries.  From the interviews I’ve read of yours, I have no doubt that you’re on top of those concerns better than most anyone.  Usually when I bring up the topic of psychology to fellow biologists (e.g., mankind’s inherent biases like discounting the future or a desire to maintain the status quo - not to mention the ever-present seven deadly sins), I get this glazed look staring back as they fretfully claim how they’ve got important things to tend to and scurry off to the nearest exit. 

When I said that my networking abilities here in “bush” Alaska are extremely limited, I’m not kidding.  That was reinforced several weeks ago.  I was fortunate to travel to Kodiak Island and network with a slew of botanists and other scientists during an invasive species workshop where we commiserated over the need to act fast to prevent many of the invasives down your way from coming up here - knowing the best we may be able to do is only postpone the inevitable. 

Even though we commiserated, it was good to spend time with like-minded folks; I simply don’t get out enough, so when I do it’s extremely beneficial for my emotional well-being.

To date I’ve had little success from influential writers through letters or E-mails regarding help for a book I’ve been working on for over ten years.  Why write to such people?  I know what’s at stake, and as much of an idealist as I am - I’m also a realist.  The odds are slim to none that I’d be able to produce a best seller that makes a real difference; and to be totally honest with you I don’t have a propensity for prose…not by a long shot! 

But I’ve recently realized that a book isn’t the answer and had that epiphany validated when I wrote to one talented writer - Rowan Jacobsen - who published Fast Fish, Loose Fish: Who will own Alaska’s disappearing salmon? in Harper’s Magazine.  I asked him if Rachel Carson were alive today, would she be able to make a significant difference?  Here’s his response: As to your other question, sadly, I think that the days when a book like Silent Spring could galvanize the public are gone. It’s hard enough to get anyone to actually read an entire book at all! The world of iPhones and Facebook just makes life too darned distracting. Still, there are many good reasons to buckle down and write a good book. You can at least influence the thinking of the small minority that still reads, and I like to think that this is a group with an outsized ability to act on things! I like to think that, anyway. Best of luck!

If not a book - then what can heighten people’s awareness for the need to maintain biological diversity and engender an effective movement toward sustainability?  I’ve got two trains of thought.  The first is a movie or television series that objectively lays out what’s at stake, and features a compassionate biologist who struggles to deal with the realities of the situation, to the extent where he’s experienced - and overcome - depression.  When I mention the word depression to most people, however, I get the same uncomfortable reaction I did when conversing with biologists about psychology. 

Please bear with me for just a while. This story that I’m compelled to tell is obviously my story - but it’s much more than that.  It’s nature’s story because it’s about human nature with its seven deadly sins and plain old dysfunctionalism waging a war against natural nature.  I won’t go into it too deeply here, but some of the obstacles I’ve faced trying to “save the fishes” by heightening people’s ecological awareness have included:

Working for a tormentor - no, not a mentor - in Pinedale, Wyoming with the Forest Service while I was going back to college in my mid-thirties to be the biologist I am today.  This person set me up to fail every chance he could, both publicly and privately.  I was told he was dealing with some sort of an inferiority complex…imagine that!

To get away from that caustic environment I transferred to Elk City, Idaho where I did a stint doing combat biology on a ranger district where over 80% of the streams were nuked from excessive logging, historic hydraulic and dredge mining and overgrazing by cattle.  There were no wild salmon or steelhead; the few that did return were all hatchery clones.  Things were so bad there that I eventually put in for a job in Stanley, ID where the vacating biologist left under the cover of darkness due to several death threats.  Being somewhat naïve, I thought my laid-back demeanor would not get the same results as my predecessor; luckily, I never found out because I didn’t get that job.              

I then ended up at the Jackson National Fish Hatchery on the National Elk Refuge where I witnessed first-hand the premiere wildlife agency neglect aquatic and riparian dependent species by favoring the majestic and more charismatic elk which were allowed to totally denude the riparian vegetation.  At least the Forest Service tried to conduct ecosystem management!

Eventually I found myself in Bethel, Alaska where I was the first fish biologist that the 20-million acre Yukon Delta National Wildlife ever had…and that opened my eyes even further.  Still smarting from seeing what went on on the National Elk Refuge, I had to listen to every visiting fish biologist conducting research there tell me that they were treated differently than the other researchers (e.g., waterfowl & big game) passing through while staying at the bunkhouse.  The National Elk Refuge obviously was created for the elk, and this refuge was originally created for waterfowl…and that quickly became apparent.  It was a bizarre situation in a highly surreal place (are you familiar with the Emmy winning show Northern Exposure?); the fact that my office was a broom closet with no windows didn’t help my attitude or my mental state.   

In one of your interviews you discuss how you’ve occasionally teared up when lecturing, and how that had a tremendous impact on your audience.  Well I’ve downright bawled at the loss of the salmon and other fishes because I have a passion - and deep compassion - for them like few others.  I also know what they’re up against. 

You’re absolutely right when you say that facts compute but don’t convert.  I think that my story, if molded in the right hands and by the right minds, can do what no other environmental documentary or feature film has done by tugging at the heartstrings of the masses (not just students in a lecture).  That may sound highly presumptuous on my part, but there’s a lot more to my story and I hope that I’ll have a chance to further explain it.

The writing on the wall is readily apparent to you and I, but the average person really doesn’t understand the extent of the synergistic pressures that are bringing the world’s biota to its knees.  Something must do that.  I see the need for something that causes viewers to reflect on their own lives and ask themselves, “What is my place on this wheezing planet of ours?”. 

Michael, do you know how many people suffer from depression?  There will be a lot more when the ecological shit really hits the fan.  Just look at the people living along the New Jersey shore, many of whom now have no idea where to turn for even the tiniest of comforts.  The emotional toll from Hurricane Sandy is mounting, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. 

One obvious and farther-reaching environmental concern that has the potential to impart psychological stress on most everyone on the planet is the impending ocean acidification crisis.  I despise cliché’s, but this one seems to be popping up like meadow mushrooms after a gentle spring rain.  It’s often used when considering the ubiquitous economic collapses, but it has never been more appropriate for environmental concerns - the fact that we are finding ourselves in “uncharted territory”. 

You may have noticed that I’m a dreamer.  I’ve heard it said that it is better to aim high and miss than aim low and succeed.  One thing I do know is that whatever is done to save the environment, in order for it to be effective in this day and age of immediate gratification, incessant distractions and off-the-wall entertainment (e.g., Jackass, those freaking reality shows, etc.), is that the message has got to be grippingly different.    

Am I delusional to think that there might be a kernel of something in all that that might interest someone in the film industry?  I believe that if I could talk to someone - in person - that I’d be able to persuade them that it’s worth taking a chance. 

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The second facet of my plan is as big a picture solution to the sustainability quandary as you’ll find…yet it’s amazingly simple.  After thinking long and hard about what truly is hindering mankind’s ability to exhibit the restraint that is necessary to live in harmony with nature - this is what I’ve come up with.  And this is where your possible connections come in. 

My plan involves some of the most influential people alive, people like Oprah, Ted Turner, Robert Redford, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet; it would definitely include Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  I believe it’s the only hope we have to change the minds of enough people to make a real difference and I’m afraid that to think that anything less will work would be exuding misguided optimism. 

Here’s a quote from an Occupy Sandy worker that is a testament to what is needed, "We always had mutual aid going on.  It's a big part of what we do. That's the idea, to help each other.  And we want to serve as a model for the larger society that, you know, everybody should be doing this."

Everyone needs to do their part - it’s going to take an honest-to-goodness concerted effort to live on this planet in a sustainable way with so many people. 

To get the ball rolling all it would take is for that impressive contingent to publically admit that they’re all Cookie Thieves.  I hope you’ll get my drift after reading the following poem by Valerie Cox titled The Cookie Thief

A woman was waiting at an airport one night,

With several long hours before her flight.

She hunted for a book in the airport shops.

Bought a bag of cookies and found a place to drop.

 

She was engrossed in her book but happened to see,

That the man sitting beside her, as bold as could be,

Grabbed a cookie or two from the bag in between,

Which she tried to ignore to avoid a scene.

So she munched the cookies and watched the clock,

As the gutsy cookie thief diminished her stock.

She was getting more irritated as the minutes ticked by,

Thinking, "If I wasn't so nice, I would blacken his eye."

 

With each cookie she took, he took one too,

When only one was left, she wondered what he would do.

With a smile on his face, and a nervous laugh,

He took the last cookie and broke it in half.

 

He offered her half, as he ate the other,

She snatched it from him and thought... oooh, brother.

This guy has some nerve and he's also rude,

Why he didn't even show any gratitude!

 

She had never known when she had been so galled,

And sighed with relief when her flight was called.

She gathered her belongings and headed to the gate,

Refusing to look back at the thieving ingrate.

 

She boarded the plane, and sank in her seat,

Then she sought her book, which was almost complete.

As she reached in her baggage, she gasped with surprise,

There was her bag of cookies, in front of her eyes.

 

If mine are here, she moaned in despair,

The others were his, and he tried to share.

Too late to apologize, she realized with grief,

That she was the rude one, the ingrate, the thief.

I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely an Environmental Cookie Thief.  I often ask how much of the lettuce and other produce I eat is grown in the San Joaquin Valley where large quantities of water (and salmon smolts) are diverted from the Sacramento River for crop irrigation?  Also, does the Tyson Chicken Tenders I purchase contribute to the ever-increasing Chesapeake Bay dead zone, where excessive nitrogen from agricultural runoff is a leading culprit?  Sport fishermen the world over and commercial fishermen from Alaska to Washington are concerned about the proposed gold and copper mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay.  They’ve spent millions of dollars to halt the mine.  Yet how many of them, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, invest in gold in one form or another in their retirement plans?

It’s a complex and intertwined world in which we live.  But if an alcoholic wants to begin the process of recovery, the first thing he must do is admit that he is one; that is step one.  He may not know what to do about it, but at least he’s aware he’s got a problem.  The environment is no different.  Unfortunately, we’re all Cookie Thieves in one way or another.  Even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must admit to it.  In fact, they may be the consummate Cookie Thieves by favoring those elk over the other species. 

If I ever do complete a book, here’s what I envision to be on the back cover:

When Dave Cannon decided to go back to college later in life to become a fish biologist, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.  He had hoped he could make a difference, but his naivety ill-prepared him for what lied ahead.  He knew that many aquatic resources were suffering from man’s detrimental antics, but he didn’t know exactly what the fishes and their ecosystems were up against…or how frustrating his life would be. 

Over time he learned that man’s behaviors and inherent biases, including his own ignorance, contributed to small incremental environmental impacts.  He realized that he wasn’t the solution he thought he was for many of the ecological concerns…that he may be part of the problem.  But it was during his tenure with the very agencies that are supposed to preserve and protect the fishes that he understood why it is that, at a minimum, many of the world’s aquatic resources are doomed.  The day he realized he couldn’t “save the fishes” was the day he relinquished his ultra-optimist tendencies and became a realist.

In a life-long effort to heighten people’s awareness of fish and other environmental issues, he struggled with great discouragement and even depression until he unlocked the mysteries as to why many of his most trying times arose.  

Believe me, I haven’t given up all hope that some difference can be made.  If nothing else, the depression I’ve suffered has actually made me a stronger person.  If I didn’t believe that a difference could be made I wouldn’t be pestering you to help me find the help I need. 

One last note, because of my interminable efforts to make a difference, two colleagues of mine, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, refer to me as “The Don Quixote of Fish Biologists”.  I can’t explain it, but there is something inside of me, a deep-seated need to make a difference for the fishes and the environment.

I’m a sucker for inspirational things, and the following benediction gives me the inspiration to keep forging ahead; I’m guessing that if anyone would understand my passion for all things natural and the need to never give up, it would be you:  

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that you will live deep in your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people and the earth, so that you will work for justice, equity, and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer, so you will reach out your hand to comfort them and change their pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, so you will do things that others say cannot be done.

Thanks for your time

Dave Cannon

The Vent: