Hundred Year Films

Filmmaker Jared Flesher taking a stroll.

Filmmaker Jared Flesher taking a stroll.

Dear Friends,

Many of you know me as the director of The Creature ShowField BiologistSourlands, and The Farmer and the Horse. I wanted to take this opportunity to let you know about my latest venture, Hundred Year Films.

Hundred Year Films is the name of my new commercial production company, up and running for a little over a year now. During that time I've had the opportunity to create some work I'm really proud of, including:

  • "The Deer Stand," a 15-minute documentary short about ecological deer hunting for the Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space and Sourland Conservancy

  • a series of short videos for Princeton University about sustainability on campus

  • "Bobcat Alley," a 3-minute video about bobcat conservation for the Nature Conservancy of New Jersey

  • a 3-minute video for the New Jersey Division of Fish & Wildlife about a new program called "Connecting Habitat Across New Jersey."

  • several videos for some cool restaurants in Princeton, including Agricola and The Dinky Bar & Kitchen

If you (or an organization you work for) ever find yourself in need of professional video production services, I hope you'll take a look at the new Hundred Year Films website for more information, or send me an email directly at jtflesher@gmail.com.


Warm regards,
Jared Flesher

PS: Many of the videos mentioned above aren't released yet, but they will be over the next few months. I'll send links when they're ready to watch.

PPS: Stay tuned for more details about a special Birds of May screening at Duke Farms on July 21.

PPPS: The next episode of The Creature Show is in the works and will be about... New Jersey bobcats!

Ancients of the Deep, Travelers from Afar

I started filming Birds of May on the stormy full-mooned-but-clouded-over evening of April 22, 2016. Which means I've now been thinking about the film most every day for eleven months. It premieres tomorrow at the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital. I'm happy to let it loose.

A few months ago I wrote this, thinking I'd use it on a blog post somewhere down the line:

 

As I stood shin deep in the waters of the Delaware Bay, at a place called Reeds Beach, one hour before midnight, a few things happened seemingly all at once. A steady rain began to fall. As if on cue, the helmet-like shell of the first horseshoe crab appeared in the waves, like a 400-million-year-old monster emerging from the deep. Moments later, more crabs joined her, and soon there were dozens of them plodding toward the beach to perform their ancient spawning ritual, which involves hitching together like train cars and walking in circles.

Two weeks later I got my first look at red knots. Thousands of them had flown to the bay overnight, some of them had come from as far as the southern tip of South America. Now they were engaged in a feeding frenzy on the beach that involved gorging themselves on horseshoe crab eggs while sidestepping the bullying of the much larger gulls who were also partaking in the feast. The eggs, of course, had been left behind by many of the same crabs I had spied upon two weeks prior.

It bears repeating: If you look hard enough, and watch closely, everything in the natural world connects. That includes us. I hope that Birds of May, in some small way, reminds viewers to follow the threads, and to help safeguard them from becoming frayed.

 

Now that the film is finished, the sentiment holds. What excites me about Birds of May is that it's not just a movie about birds, and it's not just a movie about one special place in New Jersey. At the heart of the story is the age-old conflict between the needs of wildlife and the desires of human economic development. How humans should make decisions about what to protect and what to develop is an important and universal question. It's more important than ever.

Warm regards,

Jared Flesher
director, The Creature Show


Click here for a full list of where and how to watch Birds of May:
www.creatureshow.com/birds-of-may-screenings

 

What Good Are Snakes?

Blog post and photo by Jared Flesher.

Blog post and photo by Jared Flesher.

I have a distinct memory, dating to my early childhood, of my father being surprised by a colorful snake in a pile of firewood outside our home. I remember bands of orange. A milk snake? Thirty years later I wouldn't swear to it, but—as snakes tend to do—this one lingers as a mental image.

I'm not aware of any other phobias my father possesses, and I never witnessed him be unkind to animals, but I learned young about his fear of snakes. After lurching back in startle, he retrieved a shovel. My father didn't bash the snake to death. But he did take the snake up in the scoop of the shovel and catapult it high and far into the small patch of woods that abutted the property. I don't know what happened to that snake, and I never saw it again. I like to think it lived to tell other snakes an amazing tale of soaring through the treetops before landing safely on a pile of cushy forest moss and leaves. Or it may have died on impact.

The next episode of The Creature Show is devoted to snakes, so at the start of the project I delved briefly into the scientific literature on snake fear, which is a very real phenomenon. A majority of Americans—51 percent—report being afraid of snakes, which makes them the most fearsome of all creatures, at least in the eyes of the average citizen willing to answer a phone call from Gallup.

It does indeed seem to be the case that snakes, both the venomous and constricting kind, were major predators of humanity’s early primate ancestors. This is, likely, the reason many of us still harbor snake fear—it was an evolutionary advantage to be aware of snakes and to stay away from them. Furthermore, some of that old snake-adverse wiring may still be kicking around our brains. Studies have found that three-year-olds of the human variety can pick out the image of a snake from a crowded picture faster than they can pick out the image of a flower or frog, and other studies show that children learn faster to be afraid of snakes than they learn to fear other objects.

So the long and short of it is yes, you're forgiven for perhaps not liking snakes, and it's completely healthy and normal to not like them, and maybe even it's an evolutionary virtue.

But an interesting question follows from all this. Are animals we like more deserving of our consideration and conservation efforts than animals we wish would stay far away? This seems like a straightforward question, but it's kind of thorny. Contemplate, for example, the mosquito.

Certainly, we can all agree, mosquitoes are horrible, and doubly so since the recent spread of the Zika virus. But the science writer David Quammen has argued, convincingly, that mosquitoes are “one of the great ecological heroes of planet Earth.  If you consider rainforest preservation.”

Tropical rainforests cover a small fraction of the Earth’s surface, but are home to a majority of our plant and animal species. While much of the rest of the planet has been paved over, the rainforests and their rich biodiversity have largely persisted. Why? Because “ten million generations of jungle-loving, disease-bearing, blood-sucking mosquitoes” have made the rainforests virtually uninhabitable to humans, writes Quammen. “Tropical forests are elaborately booby-trapped against disruption.”

Maybe Quammen’s completely wrong. I think it depends on how you value the persistence of biodiversity on Earth, versus the undeniable suffering that mosquito-borne illnesses cause millions of humans each year, versus the negative effect the destruction of the rainforest would have on global climate, versus how nice it would be to have a vacation home in the middle of the rainforest, versus the threat of devastating zoonotic diseases being unleased if humans conquer the rainforest, etc. etc. In short, it’s complicated. But Quammen’s argument in defense of mosquitoes got me thinking that maybe the reputation of a snake could also be rehabilitated by a counterintuitive leap.

Here’s all I’ve come up with: The best way to think of a snake is as a worthy adversary, deserving of respect and admiration, though falling short of cuddles.

To this point, Lynne Isbell, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis, offers a compelling theory that the threat of a venomous snake lurking in the grass is directly responsible for the development of superior eyesight in early primates and—consequently—humans. It seems that primates that were surrounded by poisonous snakes evolved much better vision than primates that lived in areas with few venomous snakes. Lemurs in Madagascar, for example, have terrible eyesight, the worst in the primate world. It's no coincidence, says Isbell, that there are no venomous snakes in Madagascar.

So I ask you: Will you be glad to watch the TV screen tonight or read a book? Thank a snake.

But I wouldn’t want to suggest that the true value of the snake is that it bestowed ancient evolutionary superpowers that have allowed us to watch Seinfield, or that it squeezes and gobbles untold numbers of mice and rats, or anything of the sort. None of these answers are satisfying.

I don’t in fact have an answer to the transcendent measure of a snake's worth, at least not one of my own design. But I did finding something concise and thought-provoking in the writing of the aforementioned Quammen. He wrote:

“Some simple minds would say: Life is life.”

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Come celebrate the release of The Creature Show snake episode on April 15 at Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey. It’s a party, and it’s also a fundraiser for future episodes. More details here: http://bit.ly/1pdbDUR

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Summer of Bats

Tracking the federally threatened Northern long-eared bat across Sparta Mountain.

Tracking the federally threatened Northern long-eared bat across Sparta Mountain.

By Jared Flesher
director, The Creature Show

The second episode of The Creature Show is almost ready. It’s about bats and biologists.

When I was six years old, my best friend’s father was scratched by a bat in his attic. As a precaution—because some bats carry rabies—he received a series of extremely excruciating shots. It was about 500 shots, I recall, all into his stomach.

My second distinct memory of bats: I was 25 years old and living in a crumbly farmhouse, trying to chase a wayward bat out of the living room using a large bedsheet, all the time imagining half-a-thousand shots to the gut.

My third memory of bats came just a year ago, while visiting friends in Missouri, which is of course The Cave State. During a cave tour, the flashlight-wielding tour guide pointed out the solitary Northern long-eared bat perched on the cave’s ceiling. She said there used to be hundreds in that cave alone.

But this summer is when I came to actually know bats, at least a little. The Creature Show was privileged to follow two of New Jersey’s hardworking wildlife biologists, Mackenzie Hall and Stephanie Feigin, as they crisscrossed the state during their efforts to better understand—and ultimately conserve—New Jersey’s threatened bat populations.

For me, the summer of 2015’s most enduring memories will undoubtedly be filled with bats. In the forthcoming episode, you’ll see bats living in a dark church attic, and bats flying out over a beautiful graveyard at dusk, bats in a damp bat hibernaculum, and bat’s living comfortably, if not unusually, in a little boy’s bedroom window, squeaking at him if he leaves the lights on too long. I’m proud of the many creative wildlife shots The Creature Show was able to capture this summer, and for that we have not only our biologist friends to thank, but also several families who graciously shared their bats with us.

But for all the cool bats I saw this summer, I think the most striking moment was decidedly human. If you don’t know, Northern long-eared bats have declined by as much as 99 percent over the past decade, victims of an invasive fungus unwittingly transported to the United States by tourists. One mission of the bat biologists this summer was to try to discover if New Jersey actually has any Northern long-eared bats left to try to save.

On the first night I caught up with Mackenzie and Stephanie, they had already spent several weeks setting up mist nets at various sites in hopes of catching a Northern long-eared bat, often monitoring the nets until 2am. So far, the results were grim: a ton of work, but zero Northern long-eared bats to show for it. I told them don’t worry, I’m often good luck. About an hour later, I trailed behind in the darkness, camera rolling, as the biologists walked out to do yet another net check. And this time there was a bat in the net. ‘A little brown?’ someone guessed. Mackenzie and Stephanie worked carefully to untangle the tiny bat. It slowly and then suddenly dawned on them that the bat in their hands was not a little brown. It was the prodigal bat from the north with long ears.

If there is a word in English that describes such a moment—a complex burst of joy and relief upon the return of a feared-lost friend—I’m not sure I know it. But for a documentary filmmaker who chases not only bats but emotions, I was glad to share in it.

So that was fun. Telling the story of a species’ mass die-off is often not. I’ll be curious to hear from viewers whether they think The Creature Show was able to strike the right balance with this one.

I can also report back now with some personal experience about the viciousness of bats. I have stood in a church attic with bats flying past at nose level and perched overhead, I’ve done the same in a bat cave, and I have at moments shined my annoying light into their sensitive bat eyes. The truth is, they are delightful, curious and social creatures, and they have adorable faces. They never once went for my throat, and I didn’t lose an ounce of blood to their razor-sharp fangs. I get the feeling they just want to be free to live their bat lives in peace and good health. Like the rest of us.

Comment

Salamanders & Jetports

by Jared Flesher
director, The Creature Show

In late 1959, those who would build jetports told the people of New Jersey that a giant new jetport was essential, and that the Great Swamp in Morris County was the perfect place to build it. Citizens living near the Great Swamp banded together to ensure that the swamp would instead be preserved as a National Wildlife Refuge, and sent the would-be-jetsetters packing.

Those jetport enthusiasts next turned their sights south, to the New Jersey Pine Barrens, telling the people of New Jersey that the age of supersonic passenger jets was inevitable -- boom! -- and that an absolutely enormous new jetport in the Pine Barrens was in everyone’s interest. Citizens joined together with environmentalists and politicians to oppose the plan, while John McPhee wrote a classic book, The Pine Barrens, that memorialized the unique ecological value of the Pines. The result is that instead of a jetport, the Pine Barrens became a National Preserve, and later, an International Biosphere Reserve. Worth noting, not a single supersonic passenger jet flies today anywhere in the world.

In considering these two tales, I can’t help but be reminded of a contemporary issue, in which natural gas enthusiasts are telling New Jerseyans that fracked natural gas is the future, is inevitable, and that piping huge quantities of it through New Jersey’s preserved farmland and forests is in everyone’s best interest.

The chance to dig deeper into these kinds of stories, and the New Jersey habitats inherent to them, is what The Creature Show exists for. In the first episode, we’ll visit the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge to seek out the state endangered blue-spotted salamander. The Great Swamp, thanks to its continued existence, now represents the southern edge of the blue-spot’s range along the entire East Coast, not to mention a sanctuary for other threatened and endangered species. 

In another episode, we’ll head to the Pine Barrens to tell the story of threatened and endangered snakes, including Northern Pine Snakes and Timber Rattlesnakes. One thing that interests me about snakes is that Americans fear them more than anything else—at least according to the polling data. Here’s an opportunity to tell a dynamic story about the preservation of species that aren’t cuddly and charismatic, but which are inherently valuable and which play an important role in functioning ecosystems.

And finally, New Jersey is ground zero right now in a battle of pipeline infrastructure vs. the environment. One project that’s high on my radar is the PennEast Pipeline, slated to cut through the Sourlands and Baldpate Mountain. At some point in the process, a company hired by PennEast to conduct an Environmental Impact Statement will—bet on it--come back with a finding that the environmental impact of the pipeline will be minimal. (That's always the result of their study.) But The Creature Show knows those woods and the animals that live there, and we look forward to taking an even closer look, with cameras rolling.

Restoring Connectivity

A new wildlife crossing tunnel in Bedminster, NJ.

A new wildlife crossing tunnel in Bedminster, NJ.

by Jared Flesher
director, The Creature Show

A few weeks ago I visited Bedminster Township in Somerset County with my camera to see something new: New Jersey’s first modern wildlife crossing tunnels, five in all. They provide safe passage under the road for the state-threatened wood turtle, not to mention all the other amphibians and reptiles that will use them. Very short wooden fences funnel the animals into the tunnels rather than onto the road, where they regularly get squished by traffic. You’ll see us crawling through one in the first episode of The Creature Show.

These wildlife tunnels strike me as remarkably noteworthy because they represent a very local, very tangible example of the next big movement in global conservation biology: restoring connectivity.

The biggest threat to species on Earth is habitat loss, and the biggest new driver of habitat loss is climate change, which will impact each and every habitat on the planet. It’s nice to think that humans will get their act together to stop climate change, but pragmatic conservationists are beginning to think about the escape routes that hundreds of thousands of displaced species will need to travel if they are to survive into the next century. This means connecting two sides of a busy road, as well as connecting national parks across countries and entire continents.

In New Jersey, a new coalition of biologists and planners called Connecting Habitat Across New Jersey is beginning to think through this challenge on the state level. As they begin to get down to work, The Creature Show is excited for the opportunity to highlight some of their efforts.

What is The Creature Show?

A Beekman road spotted salamander encounter.

A Beekman road spotted salamander encounter.

by Jared Flesher
director, The Creature Show

On Beekman Road, a large orange and white sign announced the occasion: “Salamander Migration. Road Closed.” And so I found myself in East Brunswick, NJ, camera over my shoulder, in a misty drizzle, ready to learn just how waterproof my new LED videolights might be. (Answer: Not extremely waterproof.)

On the road, I found wood frogs and spotted salamanders making their annual migration from their woodland wintering grounds to the vernal pools on the other side of the street. I also met a father with his son, flashlights in hand, there together to witness the emergence of these spotted forest dragons never seen except on a wet spring night.

I’ve been lucky in my own life to have people who have grabbed me by the hand and dragged me out to the forest to show me incredible creatures I never would have known existed. I’ve had exceptional tour guides. Not everybody does. It is my hope The Creature Show will become someone’s first tour guide, someone who never knew they have the birthright to interact with their awe-inspiring natural heritage.

The Creature Show is being planned as a web series that will live on Creatureshow.com. It will be free for anyone to watch. Each episode will feature New Jersey’s most intriguing fauna, with a special focus on rare, threatened and endangered species. The show will also introduce viewers to the many wildlife biologists in the state who are on the front lines of working to save these species from extinction.

Why should humans care if another species goes extinct? What is truly lost? This is the question I’ve been wrestling to answer in my last two documentary film projects, and now in The Creature Show. What I think is that you can’t tell people. You have to show them.