Sunday, April 26, 2009

My Humble Earth Review

After all the hype and all of you putting up with me talking incessantly about this movie, I finally found the time to go see the Disneynature film Earth yesterday. My Earth Day had been previously booked with drumming performances and tickets to see John Waters speak at Sweetbriar College (Hence the photo from a truly fabulous night that I would not trade for anything). Initially, I told myself it would be better to wait until the crowds died down at the movie theater anyway. Then, I was handed the amazing opportunity to interview the movie's two directors, as anyone who has ever met me now knows (the interview reprise is in the last post). Plus, I was glued to the television for the entire series Planet Earth when it played on the Discovery Channel, and I loved every moment of it. Since the series ended, I have watched or read every scrap I could find on the making of it. Needless to say, I hated waiting so long to see this film, and I was really excited about finally getting to the theater last night. Did it live up to the hype? I am happy to report that it did.

Although some of the footage was seen in the television series, much of it was not. Some of the most famous footage of the series, like the Great White Shark attack, is shown again but also supplamented with new angles and additional footage. Even so, seeing it on television cannot compare to a big screen. Fothergill was not exaggerating when he said nature documentaries have needed the benefit of a theater setting. I found the big screen coming really close to the feeling I get when seeing natural phenomena live. I really felt some of the thrill of standing in the face of nature's awesome power. After many adventures into the wild to view things like the the monarch sanctuaries, where the world is literally blanketed in butterflies, or a volcano spewing it's lava into the ocean, or some of the worlds most spectacular waterfalls, having hiked out to see these spectacles live, I was really stoked to find myself getting that same heart pounding, thunder-struck experience from watching filmed footage on a movie screen.

Even better, some of the spectacles shown in Earth are filmed in places many of us will never be able to travel, nor would we even if we could, so I feel like the makers of this film have offered a great gift. In addition, they offer the idea that even though the planet is in great peril, there are still plenty of wonders out there to protect and save. All is not lost. Some might call it conservation light, but I have to agree with Fothergill when he said there have been enough fear driven, negative documentaries. The positive spin of Earth is refreshing. It makes it's point about earth's troubles, sure, but it also leaves the viewer feeling hopeful. Upon leaving the theater, I felt refreshed and ready to continue fighting to save what's left of our planet rather than feeling frustrated and angry and ready to chuck it in.

My only complaint is the sometimes anthropomorphic dialogue given by the narrator. For the most part it is okay, but in places the sap begins to rise. What do I expect? After all, this is Disney. Perhaps they could have laid off some of that cheesy stuff, but the kids probably love it. James Earl Jones delivers the narration beautifully, and the cheese factor is kept to a minimum, so it was not enough to turn me off entirely. I hate nothing more than a so-called "documentary" with a bunch of lovey dovey cooing and cawing. It's almost as bad as what Fothergill calls "crocodile strangling films," all teeth and blood and guts. For the most part, Earth stays between these two extremes, only slipping to the sappy side in a few places and never once straying too far towards the blood and guts.

Without giving too much of the film away, I thought some of the best scenes were the time lapse photography sequences where the changing seasons are shown over entire areas in a matter of minutes. It is truly breath taking. I highly recommend taking the time to see this film on the big screen. You will follow three amazing animal migrations, a polar bear and her cubs as they hike from den to sea, two humpback whales on their swim from the tropics to the South Pole, and an Elephant family as they migrate across a desert in search of water. In between, you will witness many amazing animals and natural wonders from around the globe. Take the whole family, and enjoy nature documentary film-making at it's finest. Make sure you stay through the credits to see some of the filming process and learn about the unexpected fun of working around wild animals. You never know what a hungry polar bear might do next.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day 2009!

Because Disneynature has offered to plant a tree for every person who sees the movie Earth, which opens today in celebration of Earth Day, I have opted to post my interview (courtesy of Got2BeGreen) with the movie's directors. I apologize to all of you who have already read it and offer you a gentle reminder to make time to see the movie. I also ask that you take a few moments out of your day to reflect on and look for one thing you can do to be kinder to the earth this coming year. It can be something simple and affordable. Every little thing helps. I plan to convert to the use of reusable shopping bags. I'll stock my car trunk with a stack of them, since I am always forgetting them and end up asking for paper bags at the grocery store. Anyway, please enjoy the article from Got2BeGreen, and feel free to search me on their site for green events and news every week.

Taking Planet Earth to the Next Level


This Earth Day, Disney will launch its new film label,Disneynature, with the movie Earth, Disneynature, with the movie Earth, a film shot in conjunction with the ground breaking television series Planet Earth. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield, both winners of multiple awards, graciously chatted with us about making the movie, their hopes for raising conservation awareness, and the environmental impact of filming.

Fans of the BBC and Discovery Channel series Planet Earth will not want to miss this movie. Filmed in remote locations around the world from the Okavango Delta in Botswana to the Svalbard archipelago between Greenland and Norway, viewers can expect to see the wonder of nature as they have never experienced it before. In addition, for every ticket sold in the opening week of the film, Disney will plant a tree in the endangered rainforests of Brazil.

Fothergill says that the big screen is really the best place for natural history documentaries because it can help transport people and truly give them a sense of what it’s like to be in the environments filmed. Both directors are very excited about Disneynature’s promise to produce at least one major nature documentary each year. The directors of Earth have already been contracted for the next two releases. This gives them both an ongoing larger scale forum to produce quality films that raise awareness about the environment. According to Linfield, Earth is intended to be “a celebration of our planet,” one he hopes will empower people to preserve it.

Although Linfield says it was necessary to film the movie and the television series in conjunction “because of the logistics of what we were trying to achieve,” the film does offer new, never before seen footage. Fothergill says they kept both projects in mind during the filming and slated “key scenes” to be “unique to the movie.” In addition, the big screen and surround sound and “eighty-five uninterrupted minutes make a great deal of difference.”

“There is a real desire for Disney to keep these films absolutely true to nature to the extent that it’s actually [written] in our contracts,” Fothergill says. Therefore, they made a conscious effort not to break what he calls “the first rule” of documentary filming, never to interfere. Although they may edit scenes, they always strive to depict the stories in nature strictly as they were observed.

Fothergill admits there seems to be a desire for “high-octane, biting, snapping, teeth type movies, [where] every animal in nature is dangerous, and you have to make sharks horrible. You have to make snakes poisonous.” He calls these “crocodile strangling movies.” But, this does not depict the true sense of things, so he’s not interested in making this kind of film.

“There are some very tough sequences in the movie, you know, and we don’t shy away from that at all. But, we have chosen not to show blood and gore because, frankly, these are family movies…once the wolf has run down and grabbed the caribou, you don’t need to dwell on it.” He takes what he calls his “privileged position” of coming into people’s homes very seriously. Regardless of the pressures in today’s market to produce exciting fear monger drama, he chooses to show the true stories of nature without the use of this kind of sensationalism.

Linfield follows this up by adding, “We made a very conscious effort to not make a finger wagging, heavy handed, environmental movie.” He feels there are enough of these kinds of films already. He says, “This can be a little bit paralyzing, and it reaches a point where you actually feel that people have an excuse just to hold up their hands and give up. It’s the, “Oh, well, it’s too late already” factor. “Let’s not bother. Let’s just get that new SUV.” Instead, he and Fothergill have chosen to go for an “emergent effect of seeing all that wonder, all that fantastic diversity, all those fabulous things so that people will realize what’s at stake.” They want people to see there is still plenty left out there to preserve and protect.

Most who have seen the series Planet Earth would agree with both directors that this approach indeed made quite an effective conservation piece without the need for heavy handed messages. The series focused on showing the planet as a whole, and by doing so, it also showed the issues which have negatively impacted the planet’s health. The movie Earth promises to take this same innovative approach to the next level by showing our planet on the big screen, bringing nature’s stories to the diverse and potentially enormous audiences generated by Disney.

Of course, the filming of these documentaries carried a heavy carbon footprint. Although they did not calculate the exact amount, both Fothergill and Linfield freely admit that they would not have been able to film in these remote locations nor show the incredible aerial photography of the wildlife “crucial to the movie” without the use of helicopters and airplanes.

Fothergill points out, “You can’t normally follow a polar bear out into the open ocean. You obviously can’t walk on the ice because it’s melted, and you can’t get close on a boat really without disturbing them.” In addition, with the use of a new special stabilized camera system mounted to the helicopters, they are able to zoom in incredibly close and then pull back and pull back until you see the polar bear as a tiny white dot in a huge expanse of ocean. These types of scenes really give the viewer a sense of the wonder of our planet as a whole and push them towards a more ecological mind set where every tiny speck of life on the vast expanse of earth has an equal stake in its health for their survival.

In order to offset their heavy carbon footprint and give something back to the planet, the directors of Earth and Disneynature have taken some important steps. First and foremost, Fothergill says that on future projects they will be calculating their carbon footprint. Regardless of the oversight on this project, he says “As a team, we were very conscious of wastage and, wherever possible, tried to minimize those things.” For example, “we travel very, very light [in small crews], and do simple things such as watching paper wastage and being very careful that we leave things exactly as we found them.”

Fothergill adds, “We’re delighted by the fact that Disney has an initiative around the release of this movie that in the first week, for every person who buys a ticket, they’re going to plant a tree in the North Atlantic Rainforest in Brazil,” a highly threatened rainforest area. The initiative also includes looking after those planted trees in the long- term.

In addition, the Disneynature website will be providing links to many of the conservation and science organizations that helped them during filming. Organizations like Elephants Without Borders, who Linfield says “helped us with the filming of the Okavanga Delta elephant story.” Upon browsing the site, you can also find links to suggested teaching tools and classroom activities which will help educators teach their students about the important environmental and scientific concepts shown in the film.

Earth allows viewers to experience the wonder of the changing of the seasons, the magic in a transformation from the dry season to the wet season, and the majesty of wildlife across our planet, from polar bears on ice flows near the North Pole to Birds of Paradise on the rainforest floors of New Guinea. One can admire predator/prey relationships like that of the Cheetah and the gazelle for what it is, a part of the circle of life that is necessary for survival. One can admire the natural world for its beauty and power, from each unique individual to their intrinsic part in the make-up of the whole of this planet.

Be sure to see Earth during its opening week in a theater near you starting April 22nd. By doing so, you can help the planet by helping to plant a tree in the rainforest. For more information, visit Disneynature. Please remember, it takes the viewers and consumers of earth to keep the issues of conservation and the need for preserving our natural world in the forefront of public awareness. Please continue to support organizations that are working to raise awareness, and help to keep those organizations on track to ensure they are truly continuing to work for the good of our planet, for this is a job that belongs to us all.

Special thanks to Meg Roberts of New Media Strategies for making this interview possible.

Production image appear courtesy of Disneynature.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Poem for the Polar Bears

Well, after receiving the fabulous news that my poetry, including the Nene Poem, and one of my earlier essays called "Animality" from this blog are getting published in The Canary, a literary journal by Hip Pocket Press, I am finally feeling like my new career as an environmental artist is taking off. Strange how this milestone seems to make such a difference, after already publishing articles in journals and magazines.

Shameless Plug - Read my interview with the award winning directors of the upcoming Disney movie Earth at Got2BeGreen to find out how you can help the rainforest in Brazil.

Anyway, I love writing the environmental, journalistic style articles, but the creative works like my poems and essays are somehow different, somehow deeper. They take more of me and give more back, I guess. They are, after all, often the culmination of years of work and numerous drafts. Most have changed drastically from their youths into these adult versions, and finally seem old enough to leave home, to make their way out into the world. This must be what it feels like to send your child off to college.

I've been reluctant to share the poetry, feeling like an exposed nerve ending every time I put one out there in the world where I can no longer keep it safe. But, I guess it's time, and so in light of the situation the polar bears find themselves facing these days, I thought I would share my favorite of my most recent poetry series with you.

Polar Bear, (Ursus maritimus)

Transparent hairs soak ultra violet
rays through hallow shafts, transferring
heat into a black hide for her insulation
against the frozen mass she floats on.
Trapped by melting tundra, she lies
conserving energy, growing thin, adrift
on this burg on the midnight sea, no prey
to hunt, no seals who once denned
under the ice.

Deep groans belch up from the belly
of the ice. She wakes with a shifting
tremble, stands to peer over the ledge
at wakes rippling out from her perch.
Her white reflection blurs. Another
shudder staggers her, and boulder-size
ice breaks free to slide down the wet
mountain towards her. She leaps
over building waves, plunges
into the sea.

Swimming hard toward a shelf
once only a mile from here, sluggish
limbs fight the churning surf. The ice
burg behind her splits, half its giant mass
plummeting, raising a cresting
tidal wave that rolls towards her, over her,
pulling her under, spinning her thousand-pound
body like a drift of powdery snow. She peddles
once-powerful legs, each swipe slower,
never finding the surface she seeks
until at last she rises and floats
face down.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spring Should Be Here!

Let the Blooming Begin, 2009, Blue Ridge Parkway

In the interest of hastening along the warm weather,and since Mother Nature does not seem able to make up her mind here in the Virginia mountains this year, I thought I would share a few of my photos of spring around the world. Bring on the sun, mamma!

A Rose By Any Other Name, 2008, Loire Valley France

The Butterfly Bush, 2007, Forest, Virginia

Crabapple Blooms, 2009, Virginia

Spring in Rome, 2008, Italy

Spring in Mexico: Rooftop Garden, 2007

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Poem for the Nenes

I have been remiss about posting. This is about to change. Up until now, posts have been limited to full-fledged essays, rather than any kind of regular chat or blog. This has lost its excitement for me and does not allow me the time to post with any kind of regularity. So, I figure it's time to start inserting more of me into the mix, although I plan to keep the essays coming for those who have been enjoying them. Thanks again to all who have been reading and sending me notes. It means so much to every writer, no matter how big or small, that someone is out there reading what they have to say. Anyway, it already feels like I will enjoy coming here and writing again now that I've allowed myself the freedom to be less structured, instead of imposing deadlines and making the whole thing into some kind of a job. Who wants to return to that? Life is sweeter when we can keep the feeling of work to a minimum and fan up the fun.

So in the interest of fun fanning, I have decided to share with you a little bit of my poetry today. Now, the subject matter is a bit sad, I admit, but it's poetry, the writing I do for fun. Poetry for me is that fabulous stuff I know will probably never make me the first dime, and I don't really care because I love doing it. Regardless of the tone of the work, the fun of this is in sharing it with you.

The poem I chose is a tribute to the Nene Goose, state bird of Hawaii, and one of the fabulous species I had the great honor to care for during my time at Keauhou Bird Conservation Center on the Big Island, just outside of Hawaii Volcano National Park. These highly endangered geese now make their home at the tops of the volcanos. On the Big Island they stay mostly on the open rocks and grassy fields near the national park. You've already guessed that the top of an active volcano isn't really the best place for a goose, but alas, it's the home they are stuck with and they are making a slow but steady come back. The park rangers and conservationists have had quite a time in the ongoing effort to protect them from the introduced species of the islands (humans included). Anyway, an entry in one of my guide books to the island inspired this poem...

Nene Goose (Branta sandvicensis)
Volcano National Park, Big Island, Hawaii

She builds their nest under sparse scrubs, lines bare rock
with down, guards her mate while he incubates, moos soft
warning calls. Together, they hatch three chicks; survive
mongoose, black rats, dogs, cats, tourists, scientists. Together,
they find ohelo berries or dry fruits on stiff
pukiawes, always feeding
their young first.

The guidebook says: “This endangered goose has evolved;
prefers land to water.” Such strength in this state
bird, frame stunted like a miniature Canada,
only partial webbing between short, black toes.
Today, she stands beneath her own silhouette
on the yellow sign,

here on barren lava flows, along Chain of Craters Road
under pioneers; woody shrubs that first emerge from porous,
black rocks. Here, beside rerouted drives rebuilt each time lava
seeps out of fissures, buries asphalt. Here, where rain collects
in crevices heated by liquid rock, steams to scalding clouds,
miles above the sea.

Today, she guards his silent remains, hissing
with her three chicks in the middle of the desolate
road, under the Nene Crossing sign, goose
silhouette above, “Drive Slow”
in black letters below.