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Letter To Tom Mangelsen - World Renowned Nature Photographer
I've known Tom for over thirty years, although not extremelly well. But our paths crossed hundreds of times at the World Famous Cowboy Bar in Jackson Hole, Wyoming because that was our mutual hangout. I've lived in Jackson two different times over my life, the first time from 1978 to about 1984, then from 1996 to 1998. Between 1984 and 1996 I lived mostly in Pinedale only 77 miles to the south of Jackson; needless to say, I still made it back to "The Cowboy" on occassion. Tom is originally from Nebraska, but like me moved to Jackson as a young man but has never left.
Over those years, the longest I ever talked to Tom was the night before I moved to Bethel, Alaska in 1998. I was working at the Jackson National Fish Hatchery and took a job on the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. I really didn't frequent the Cowboy Bar much those last few years, but I thought I'd go into "The Cowboy" one last time before heading north to Alaska...pretty much for old times' sake. Well, who did I run into - but none other than Tom.
I told Tom I was moving to Bethel and he told me he'd gone through there years before prior to traveling on to one of the smaller villages out near the coast for a photo shoot for cranes, swans, and/or various other water birds. During the summer, the Yukon Delta is home to over one million ducks and half a million geese, along with nearly 40,000 loons, 100,000 swans, 30,000 cranes, and 40,000 grebes. Because millions of shorebirds breed and stage each summer on the delta, it's one of the most important shorebird nesting areas in the U.S.
Tom told me to look up a local Yup'ik resident in one of the remote villages who was gracious enough to put Tom up while he photographed the splendor of the Yukon Delta.
Since Tom was an acquaintence, I was hoping he'd be able to help me out with getting my all-important environmental message out. In late September of 2016 I flew to Denver and drove to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to take part in photography workshop that Tom was, without a doubt, the most sought-after instructor. The workshop tuition was $2,500 and was held at the spectacular National Museum of Wildlife Art. During the introductions I mentioned how I was really there to make connections for getting my environmental message out, and while we were exiting the auditorium Tom came up and said that we'd have to get together sometime that week and further discuss what I had in mind.
Unfortunatley, that never happened; Tom was too busy and there was so much going on. I did get to go out with Tom and a whole gagle of people one day on a shoot in Teton National Park, but there never was any one on one time. On the final night of the workshop, we had a splendid gathering at the Teton Pines Golf Course, Tom was busy as usuall mixing with everyone so I asked if I could connect with him via E-mail...and he said sure.
Below is the letter I sent Tom in November 2016, but I've never heard back.
I really enjoyed my time in Jackson and Pinedale two weeks ago, but am glad to be back in Aniak. Some people thought that I was crazy in 1998 for leaving Jackson Hole for Bethel (which many people consider to be the armpit of Alaska), but as I told many of my friends last week, “Wyoming is an amazingly beautiful place with an abundance of wildlife that includes my personal favorite fish, the cutthroat trout. Unfortunately, the only thing missing are salmon!”
From the looks of it you’re busier than ever; I see that you’ll be traveling to Ohio in a few days with Todd Wilkinson. I’ve followed his work for some time; he’s quite the prolific writer and extremely talented too.
Shortly after arriving in Bethel I read his Science Under Siege and immediately flashed back to my dismal days in Elk City, Idaho doing “combat biology” while working on the Nez Perce National Forest (“Elk Shitty” was a for-sure armpit community back then).
It was a depressing period in my life because I had to leave Pinedale under harrowing circumstances and it was not unusual to get death threats over attempts to save the few remaining wild salmon of the Salmon and Clearwater rivers shortly after being listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Bar none, my “Elk Shitty daze” were the three worst years of my entire life; however, during my time there I had the good fortune of crossing paths with several of the good folks that Todd featured in his book.
But back to the week of the Summit Workshop
The primary reason I signed up for it was to get with you and others to network on my efforts to get an all-important message out to the masses about the future of not only the fishes, but also the environment in general. While frequenting many of the businesses, I wasn’t at all surprised to find a plethora of locally oriented environmental material just about everywhere I turned, much of it focusing on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE).
For instance, I came across the Headwaters publication by the Jackson Hole News that featured your piece titled Wild Sentience. I realized after reading this that you and I have long had similar goals.
Like you, I’m trying to convince people to care more for the amazing creatures we both care about. However, my concerns go way beyond the GYE, for so many critters around the world are in dire trouble along with their ecosystems. I doubt I have to tell you this, but of all the organisms, the aquatics that I’m most fond of are hurting the most.
Of particular interest to me in your book featuring grizzly 399 was Ted Turner’s Introduction. I’ve respected Mr. Turner for some time, especially after hearing his keynote address in Bozeman in 1990 during an American Fisheries Society gathering. Two years later Mr. Turner held a contest where he offered a $500,000 prize for a book he’d hoped would have some creative and positive solutions to global problems; I’d find out later that he was deeply disappointed in Daniel Quinn’s prize-winning entry Ishmael.
Ishmael was written from a gorilla’s perspective, but long before I heard of it I began writing one from a fish’s perspective that took a critical and irreverent - yet humorous - look at the human race and our many foibles. Unfortunately, I don’t have a penchant for prose; if I did, I might be famous and wouldn’t be going broke in a place where gas is still near $7.00/gallon and milk $11.00. After years of that effort going nowhere, I began asking if anyone or anything could make a difference, especially in the form of the written word. I’ve thought long and hard about what could engender a necessary shift in human thinking and behavior, and the only thing I can come up with was a full-length motion picture…and not a documentary.
What about a heart wrenching film about one biologist’s relentless efforts to make the difference Mr. Quinn and others couldn’t while overcoming the seemingly insurmountable and challenging hurdles he’s encountered along the way? The gist of the story involves the journey of the world’s worst salesman – who happens to be a biologist - trying to sell the biggest environmental message since Rachel Carson…or maybe ever! It would disclose the debilitating bouts of depression and feelings of inadequacy he experienced when he realized that not only could he not save his beloved fishes…but no one could, coupled with the discouragement from the countless rejections he received in pursuit of help (although there is downright humor with some of them).
Not to worry, it wouldn’t be all gloom and doom. Given that dire assessment, he’s still an optimist - possibly the world’s biggest. As you might have guessed, that biologist is me and I still hold out hope that something can stimulate an ecological ethic in humanity’s collective conscience. That’s why I’ve persevered for several decades sacrificing dearly for the fishes and other critters we hold dear in our hearts. In a nutshell, that is what the story I’m compelled to tell is all about - the trials and tribulations of trying to heighten the public’s awareness of environmental issues (including some fellow biologists), some that took me to my knees and tears, yet have overcome as I learned what the environment is really up against, all the while obstinately searching for a different approach that will make a difference.
If I had to pick one word that embodies what the environment is up against and what might contribute to the solution we’re all looking for - it would be psychology. I contend that if Homo sapiens are going to turn our pressing environmental conundrums around, we must get in charge of ourselves - individually and collectively - psychologically.
After leaving Elk City and the Forest Service under great duress and an emotional wreck, I went back to Jackson not a fish biologist any more and in need of employment. Fortunately, my good friend and manager of the Orvis store hired me in the sales department. Soon a job at the National Fish Hatchery opened up and some friends encouraged me to apply. But never in my wildest dreams did I ever aspire to work in a freaking hatchery - even if they did raise my favorite fish, the cutthroat trout!
When I expressed my trepidation on taking the job, an old Forest Service crony passed along this advice; “Cannon, you got to know sin to preach against sin.” So I took the job and learned a life-changing lesson, that I was a sinner in more ways than one.
As much as I hate to admit it (especially publicly), I’m a sinner regarding psychological well-being or lack thereof. In order to get my important message out, I’ve had to overcome two enormous hurdles, the second of which is convincing someone like you that I’ve got something worth considering - and that dilemma is caused by the first impediment which has dogged me all my life. That would be attention deficit disorder or ADD.
In this story of mine, ADD and the often-accompanying depression - from knowing the reality of the plethora of sobering environmental quandaries - would be my antagonists. But these two malaises have given me unique insights as to why we have so many ecological dilemmas breathing down our necks (simply put, most agencies, governments and bureaucracies operate no different than someone with ADD - I’m referring to being scattered, inefficient and sometimes dysfunctional).
It was only after reading a book about ADD titled Attention Deficit Disorder: A Different Perspective did I realize how this malady would fit into my plan to get this vital message out. Thom Hartmann concluded the final chapter with: “This may seem far afield of a discussion of ADD and its causes, but no one can travel in the world today with open eyes and fail to see an ongoing escalation of social and ecological destruction. Drastic solutions are called for. We need to change our way of living, or perish. Historically, necessary transformational changes in our culture have been brought about by misfits, malcontents, and dropouts – people like Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin. Perhaps some of our young Hunters who we view as having difficulty in school and with adjustment to our society, will be the ones to show us new ways into a new future.”
Hartmann uses the term Hunter to mean people who are “Constantly monitoring their environment”, “able to throw themselves into a chase on a moment’s notice” and are “Flexible; ready to change strategy quickly” as opposed to those who are organized, purposeful and not easily distracted.
I am of the hunter type, and that has strongly shaped my environmental perspective. Consequently, I’m observant and pay close attention to others’ behaviors - particularly human nature. It allows me to see what even many of my fellow biologists don’t, especially those who haven’t experienced what Todd Wilkinson wrote about in Science Under Siege.
But it was something that Mr. Hartmann stated in the documentary I Am, that reinforced the connection between my personal struggles and what the environment is up against; he contends that most native cultures believe that the idea of the accumulation of private property beyond our needs is a form of a mental illness. (Tom Shadyac, the director of I Am and feature films like Ace Ventura - Pet Detective with Jim Carey and Patch Adams with Robin Williams, is the prime candidate to direct the movie I envision).
Please keep in mind that it’s not “my story” per se - it’s the fishes’ story as well as grizzly 399’s; and ultimately, it’s the environment’s story. Its message must resonate with the masses if Homo sapiens are to avert calamitous ecological consequences.
Do you know the Latin derivation of our species name is “the wise ones”? Yet we aren’t wise enough to adequately discuss environmental concerns during a presidential campaign. Something has got to trigger an environmental ethic in the collective conscience of the masses of not only the U.S., but throughout the world.
I’m at a tremendous disadvantage here in Aniak; my ability to network is slim at best. It doesn’t help being painfully aware of my literary limitations that afford me no chance of writing a suitable screenplay like some have suggested. I’m hoping to convince you that I have the basis for getting a different sort of message out to the masses in an entertaining way - somewhat akin to the Emmy winning show Northern Exposure. And then I’m hoping that you’ll help me find the right people to bring this vision to fruition.
Below is a picture that you’ve seen before; I submitted this during the final critique session at the workshop in Jackson. It’s one that Bill Allard would say has no handle. Your exact words were, “This is really complicated.”
I can’t argue with that, but this embodies my ADD tendencies and something called learning styles which is how we perceive and process information, something that we can talk about later if you’d like. The ADD and my abstract random learning style combine to give me, “the ability to see all at once all the forces working against the fishes”, which is what the Research Director with the Great Lakes Fisheries Commission once told me.
I can spend hours looking at abstract photos like this, savoring all the subtle hues and nuances, curves, straight lines, and color variations. For better or worse, I can intuitively create a meaningful synthesis out of seemingly contradictory things. What I see in this picture is what I see in life; namely the non-linearity of it all.
I’m going to take a chance here and take this discussion to the fringe and talk briefly about complexity theory and organized complexity. A colleague of mine wrote an interesting chapter in a book titled Salmon 2100: The Future of Wild Pacific Salmon. Here’s what David Bella had to say, “Linear presumptions - embedded in our institutions, language, and practices - distort our perceptions, misdirect our actions, and undermine our sense of responsibility, setting the stage for emerging outcomes that are contrary to our highest ideals, our most treasured values, and the faith traditions that many of us hold dear. The decline of wild salmon is a symbol of such emergent outcomes. Radical changes in these presumptions are necessary.”
Now that pretty much sounds like what Thom Hartmann was talking about when he mentioned drastic solutions…doesn’t it?
We’re dealing with the most complicated and vexing environmental issues that mankind faces – somehow, we have to touch on the complexity of it all yet express the reality into more simple terms for the average person. As noted in my E-mail, we’ll have to bring in some very talented people to do what no one has done to date.
I’ll wrap up with a logline for what I think would make a different kind of environmentally-minded movie with a different kind of message:
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. However, the only difference is that the eccentric people in the biologist’s story are real…including every zany adventure and misadventure. Our biologist is a testament to the saying that life is stranger than fiction!
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.
Since we’re on the topic of psychology, here’s a pull quote from an interesting article I came across in Discover dealing with that very topic. This may validate the fact that maybe I am delusional by believing that my story is good enough to make a significant difference on the environmental front; however, you or Hollywood directors would be the ones to make that call. But here’s how I see it - even if I have bamboozled myself into thinking that my personal story can generate a massive environmental paradigm shift - that alone could make a compelling story that fits nicely into the monomythic structure and gets the biggest environmental message out of all time.
I can only hope!