"We're not on our journey to save the world but to save ourselves. But in doing that you save the world." Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces
I’ve spent over ten years working on a book that I had hoped would stem the tide of our rapidly declining fish populations. It was to come from a fish’s perspective and be a critical and irreverent look at the human race and the shortcomings of human nature. Unfortunately, given the propensity for us humans to take the majority of our aquatic resources for granted, no mortal seems capable of reversing that particular trend.
The initial theme for the book was:
Why does even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service neglect the fishes they espouse to protect?
Answering this question helps explain why of all the organisms on this planet, aquatic species are fairing the worst in this so-called era of environmental awareness.
But understanding the answer to that question only raises the ultimate question: Are Homo sapiens (i.e., "the wise ones") capable of sustaining biological diversity, which includes the human race, for much longer?
And if not, those who feel for the fishes, other imperiled fauna, and mankind must find ways to cope with that reality...yet persist and persevere with efforts on behalf of those with no voice!
Not to sound overly eccentric, but I think about fishes and the environment as much as Bobby Knight thinks about basketball, Brett Favre thinks about football, Donald Trump thinks about money (and making America great again)…or Billy Graham thinks about God. I even think about fishes more than the average American thinks about American Idol, Dancing With The Stars and the Kardashian family, or similar esteemed purveyors of fine entertainment like Miley Cyrus. Unfortunately I’ve not been near as successful as a biologist as those individuals…especially Mr. Graham. I not only pale in comparison to that iconoclast in converting people to his cause, I’ve had a paucity of success in converting anyone to mine…and that sometimes includes some of my fellow biologists. Subsequently, I’ve experienced feelings of inadequacy over my many failed attempts to “save the fishes”.
For some innate reason, I’m driven to increase people’s awareness of how interconnected our planet’s varied ecosystems are. For many decades, earth has been experiencing a vast number of ecological stressors brought on by human activities, which are synergizing into a potentially catastrophic positive feedback loop (but in this case, positive is not a good thing!). Some day, sooner than many speculate, they could coalesce into a disastrous perfect storm. When this happens, mankind will be catapulted into “uncharted territory” - a place that none of us – not even the most heinous politician or anti-environmentalist - wants to be.
Why do I say this? Because most things that occur in the natural world, as well as our world (i.e., a humans world), are only a matter of scale. In an interview with Kim Barnes in High Country News (author of A Country Called Home), she said this about her father, who was a logger in the Clearwater River area of Central Idaho, “As I once told an audience in Berkeley, who seemed stunned to hear it, no one loves the wilderness more than loggers do. ... It seems contradictory, I know, but I'll never forget my father talking about his passion for living in the Clearwater Forest and how he didn't realize that he was destroying the very thing that he loved the most. "We didn't know," he said, and for the first time in my life, I saw tears in his eyes. ... All my father knew was this was where he wanted to live and that (logging) was what he had to do to recognize his dream.”
Over a beer one evening in Idaho’s Elk City Saloon, I had a logger admit to me, a fish biologist, that, “Maybe we have hit it a little too hard.” in regards to the extensive logging that had contributed to the pervasive degradation of salmon habitat. That was in 1996 at a time when fish biologists (and the agencies they worked for) were getting immense opposition over just trying to slow the decline of the dwindling salmon populations; and it was not unusual for biologists to get death threats because of our efforts. Tensions ran high in Elk City, so much so that I applied for a position in Stanley, Idaho where that biologist vacated due to several threats. Around that same time a Forest Service office in Nevada was bombed, a consequence of tensions between the Service and ranchers and miners over how public lands should be managed. (NYTBombings)
Similarly, a few years prior to that, I had a Wyoming range conservationist with the Forest Service finally admit that the cows he was supposedly managing were causing extensive damage to a stream on public land. He knew he was had when I walked into his office and told him I’d just visited Wagon Creek, and surprisingly, his response was almost identical to the logger in Elk City - “Ye, maybe we have hit that one a little too hard.” Unfortunately, the majority of the streams in that part of the Bridger-Teton National Forest were in a similar state.
Mark my words, there will come a time when even the James Inhoffes and Dick Cheneys of this word will admit, although somewhat sheepishly, that the human race has collectively ravaged, plundered and pillaged much of the natural world capital to the point where it might be impossible to recover from relatively unscathed.
Can Anyone Make A Real Difference - And If So, How?
Roughly five years ago I realized that I didn’t have the literary talent to pull off such a lofty undertaking as changing human behaviors with my book, so I sought help (see videos above). I asked Charles Morris, author of The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, what he would have done differently - if he could - that would have steered the powers that be on a different course of action to prevent the economic collapse of 2007-2008. Mr. Morris, along with several others, predicted exactly what happened long before the credit bubble imploded. I had hoped that if he had such a solution, then I might tap into his knowledge and help fend off many of our impending ecological collapses, particularly of the aquatic realm.
He responded to a couple of E-mails with:
"The problem that you're posing is much harder than any that I think about. Money is a metaphysical thing that we can create or destroy at will. You're talking about real things that die and disappear. When they start to disappear, prices will get much higher and that may save them, or at least some.
I have no good ideas to offer."
"Your message is very saddening. I have no advice. Fish are real entities; money is not. Governments can will money into and out of existence at the flick of a finger. You are dealing with a much harder problem. Please accept all my good wishes and hope."
Mr. Morris wasn’t the only one I hounded for help with getting my dire message out from remote Alaska; I also contacted several other highly regarded writers seeking support or guidance of any kind. Now these weren’t just your ordinary esteemed writers, these were immense talents who have a keen interest in fish and fishing. Much to my dismay, I couldn’t even entice one of them to come to Alaska and fish with a fish biologist on his home river - a unique experience because the Aniak River is the northern-most extent of rainbow trout habitat in North America - just to discuss the possibilities.
Unfortunately, I’m not a good salesman. But perhaps it’s not me, necessarily. Maybe since those writers were such avid fishermen, and had written extensively about the art of fishing, that they knew what the average person doesn’t…and that is why fish biologists tend not to catch many fish. A little known fact is that they tend to fish where the fish are supposed to be.
Much to my chagrin, there was a time when I thought being a fish biologist meant something to some people…apparently not!
I did at least hear back from several of them, which sporadically lifted my spirits to the upper crest of my many emotional roller coaster rides…only to have me eventually nosedive to the trough. One such person was John McPhee, a Pulitzer Prize winner, who wrote a book about the successful shad restoration efforts of the East Coast in Founding Fish. Although he didn’t provide much, if any, substantive help (he is, after all, 84), he did respond with a two-page hand written letter after digesting my 33-page letter. Here’s an excerpt: “You need an agent and a publisher. In the internet, look up literary agents, pick out several at random, and send them a brief synopsis of the book you want to write - don’t send them the many thousands of words you sent me.”
I don’t usually write such extensive inquiries, but felt that if anyone would read such a tome, it would be a guy who wrote a forty-thousand-word piece on oranges.
But as time wore on, I wondered if a book, any book, could make much of a difference these days. I’d read many an enthralling literary masterpiece about fish, fishing, fishery related concerns (e.g., Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World), and general environmental issues - some by colleagues, some by journalists and several by award winning fiction writers (e.g., Carl Hiaasen considered to be one of our premier humorists and satirical novelists). However, I often asked how many of those were read by the average person – or made a real difference? Even many of my colleagues weren’t familiar with the majority of books and other media I’ve collected over the years in my eclectic library.
Subsequently, I wrote to an award-winning writer by the name of Rowan Jacobsen, who’d written an enlightening article in Harper’s Magazine about the decline of the Yukon River king salmon, a species I dealt with while on the staff of the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge (FastFishLooseFish). Since I was in need of validation, I asked him a question that I already knew the answer to, and that was, “If Rachel Carson were alive today, would she have the influence that she did fifty years ago in regards to the environment?”
Here’s how he responded, “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”
The Only Thing That Will Make A Difference Is Something Different!
Undaunted by that somewhat disheartening response, I forged ahead knowing that something different was needed to engender a major paradigm shift among the masses.
I thought long and hard about what might be different and how such a game-changing story could be told?
One day it hit me. I’m a different sort of biologist and my personal and sometimes-quirky narrative is unique among my peers. How about a real reality show of sorts? I’m talking a full-length feature film about the trials and tribulations of one biologist who is driven – possibly perversely – to make a difference?
It would be about the escapades of an unknown, unassuming, unorthodox, and possibly delusional fish biologist living in the middle of nowhere who is obsessed with making a significant difference on the environmental front. Yes, it’s about environmental concerns - from the small to the large. However, it’s more about the experiences I’ve had and why I have the perspective that I do - that maybe Homo sapiens (i.e., the wise ones) may not be capable of comfortably sustaining ourselves much longer.
Given my feelings of inadequacy and concomitant depression over the current state of the environment and some demoralizing events early on in my career, my story is about one biologist’s attempt to get in charge of himself psychologically, knowing that the human race must collectively do the same if we are to avert widespread ecological and societal calamity. Simply put, “You got to know sin to preach against sin”, and we humans exhibit too many biases that cause even good people to make poor decisions. Somehow Homo sapiens (i.e., the wise ones) must find a way to overcome those biases, among other behavioral maladies.
The summary or formal logline would be:
This is a story about an unknown and unassuming - possibly delusional - fish biologist living in the middle of nowhere living a life no different then 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 again.
However, it’s mostly about his failed attempts in his pursuit of such a noble and lofty dream and the personal antagonists he’s had to overcome.
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.
* Thom Hartman in Tom Shadyac’s documentary I Am, states that most native cultures historically believed that the idea of the accumulation of private property beyond your needs was considered a mental illness.