Green themes and silver screens

Northwest nature writer marks release of new collection, first feature film

Luciano Marano
lmarano@ptleader.com
Posted 10/15/20

The recently released film “The Dark Divide” is the first narrative feature adaptation of the writings of noted Northwest author Robert Michael Pyle, based on his nonfiction account of a …

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Green themes and silver screens

Northwest nature writer marks release of new collection, first feature film

Posted

The recently released film “The Dark Divide” is the first narrative feature adaptation of the writings of noted Northwest author Robert Michael Pyle, based on his nonfiction account of a Guggenheim Fellowship-funded Sasquatch investigation.

But it is not the only title in the filmography of the Yale-trained ecologist and renowned lepidopterist (butterfly expert).

That’s a whole other story, one that involves Michael Crichton, Tom Selleck, and a little 1984 sci-fi/action outing “Runaway” (which The Chicago Tribune called a “routine chase thriller”).

Pyle, who was the film’s uncredited caterpillar wrangler, isn’t exactly raving about it either. And that experience, plus participating in a few documentaries and Japanese and Bavarian TV productions, didn’t leave him longing for the lights of Tinseltown. His work is often introspective, he said, and cerebral, not quite the action-flick fuel of which blockbusters are made.

And yet, “The Dark Divide” — starring comedian David Cross as Pyle, Debra Messing as his ailing wife, and written and directed by Tom Putnam — is raking in rave reviews.

The mostly true retelling of Pyle’s actually embarking on a dangerous, life-changing trek through one of America’s greatest wildernesses at the urging of his dying wife is just one of a triumphant trio of accomplishments that have made 2020 a banner year for one of America’s preeminent natural history writers, in addition to the release of a new collection of essays and a book of poems.

Given other recent developments — the pandemic and forest fires and political turmoil all come shrieking to mind — he’s well aware of the irony.

“It’s been quite a time,” Pyle said.

“By all means, I’ve been having way too much fun of a plague, much more than most folks. Actually, I’ve been having quite a good time and I feel almost guilty about it.”

Three projects long in the works came to a head at the same time this year, the author said, at what initially seemed “like the worst possible time.”

However, both the film and books have been thus far well received.

“The Dark Divide” has been widely praised by critics and is available to rent via Port Townsend’s Rose Theatre’s special streaming service ($9.99 for three days; half of all proceeds benefit the theater) through Tuesday, Nov. 10.

“Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays,” a new collection of Pyle’s most significant, original, and timely writings, is available now in print and digital formats from Counterpoint Press.

And “Tidewater Reach: Field Guide to the Lower Columbia River in Poems and Pictures,” the inaugural offering from Columbia River Reader Press (www.crreader.com), a collection of Pyle’s poems alongside photos by Judy VanderMaten, was published earlier this year and just entered its second printing.

Recently, Pyle chatted with The Leader from his home in Grays River about his new books, gave an ecologist’s perspective on the pandemic, and dished about his often less-than-flattering depiction in “The Dark Divide.”

* This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

From butterflies to Bigfoot and back again

Leader: The book on which the new movie is based, “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide,” is mostly about Sasquatch, but the film has you searching for butterflies and coping with your wife’s illness, with everyone’s favorite hairy hominid playing a more minor role.

RMP: I think you’ll find a lot of fidelity to the book in many ways. Most of the scenes come directly from episodes in the book, but some of them were dramatized to some extent for the purposes of the narrative. Then, there are a couple of departures from the actuality of things. For one thing, I am presented in a little different light from how I actually am in terms of my aptitude in the woods and so on, but that’s all right. The character had to have room to grow and change and learn stuff.

Leader: It’s true, I always imagined you to be a more competent outdoorsman than the trailer would have one believe.

RMP: That is actually the case, which was a little bit hard to swallow, to be portrayed that way. But, on the other hand, as I say David had to have some room to grow and he had to have room for his formidable comic chops. So if I was able to give him that at my expense that’s OK with me.

Leader: Were you familiar with his work?

RMP: To some extent. Not as much as I am now, of course, because I’ve watched a lot this stuff since then. There were several different actors who were considered to play the role… I was humbled in any case, but I think David was far and away the best cast of that lot. He’s got a lot of dramatic latitude as well as being funnier than heck. Physically it was a very demanding role and he was able to pull that off very well. And the way in which Debra Messing played my late wife Thea was just stunning.

Leader: Yes, I was going to ask. A lot of that is very personal and obviously painful for you. Were those scenes tough to watch?

RMP: It was very tough. Every time, every time I see the movie … it’s always tough and I’m always bawling during those. But she’s so good and there’s such compassion there. She has a couple of opportunities to be funny, too, and show some wit and some of the lighter side of things, so I’m glad for that. I would have liked to be able to see Debra portray Thea a little younger, before she was ill, a little more than the script allows, but it gives an impact the way it is. So yes, frankly, it is tough to watch those parts but it’s done so well and so respectfully that I can deal with it.

A long journey to the big screen 

Leader: Did the new version of the book initiate production of the movie or how did that come about?

RMP: No, [the original] is the edition that Tom had read. And he called me out of the blue, I didn’t know him, more than 10 years ago and said he really liked the book; he’d grown up not too far from here and he loved the premise of it. He loved the scenery and everything else about it and he wanted to talk to me about making a movie. I said, ‘Well, that’s cool. It will be a difficult movie to make.’ And, in fact, his friend who turned him on to the book said, ‘You’re going to love the book but don’t even think about making a movie, it will be impossible.’ But Tom thought he might think about that anyway.

I talked to my agent and she was intrigued, but said she had to turn it over to the film department at Curtis Brown, my agent in New York. And the film department, when they found out he was an indie documentary maker, what he primarily did, were not interested. They said there’s not enough money here to waste our time on and you probably shouldn’t be interested, either. And I said heck with that, nobody else is going to make a movie of my book, I’ll just do it myself. So Tom and I negotiated our contract between ourselves, I didn’t even bother the agency. And it went from there.

‘Nature Matrix’ half a century later

Leader: You have a new book of essays out, a sort of return to nonfiction after your first novel came out in 2018, but it was actually much longer in the works than that. Begun when you were still a student at the University of Washington, I understand, several of the essays come straight from that first edition and many others are revised, updated versions of pieces you’ve written since. In reviewing half a century of your work, did you get a new perspective on how the world has changed since then in terms of reception to conservation ideas, or nature writing in general?

RMP: I would say qualitatively no. I hope to write, as Jonathan Raban once said … it sounds kind of haughty or British or both, if they’re not synonyms, but he said, ‘I write for the intelligent general reader.’ And I’ve always thought that was a pretty good answer. I don’t want to think I write solely for naturalists or solely for conservationists; solely for the choir, people who already get it. I want to write for people who enjoy good reading and hope that they might pick up something they’re not so used to.

And yet, I’m under no illusions that the majority of my readers aren’t people who do read so-called nature writing … There is no nature writing; it’s all writing that has more or less attention to other species than ourselves. That, of course, is the theme of one of the last essays [in ‘Nature Matrix’]. The last essays in that book, the last four, are all newer, they’re all shorter, the prose is definitely crisper than some of the earlier, longer essays.

Having said that, and having said nature writing needn’t be restricted to naturalists … With every book, I have heard from people, they’re people that mostly read fiction or people that mostly read urban stuff or biography or whatever, they’ve picked it up and they’ve become a little bit seduced by it. That’s my goal, to speak to a broader audience every time.

To answer your question, I would say my audience, however that’s defined, is maybe not fundamentally so different from what I thought way back then. People who really care about the world, that’s who I want to reach. In some ways they’re more sophisticated because there has been an awful lot of David Attenborough [films] and attention to the natural world since then.

Leader: I was thinking specifically of climate change, which is being discussed like never before.

RMP: In terms of the environmental end of things, particularly climate, that’s one thing that I am sorry about with all the discussions: People tend to equate environmental issues with the climate.

During the 1964, ’68, ’72 [presidential] campaigns, there was a lot of discussion. They weren’t talking about climate yet, but there was a lot of discussion of not only clean air and water but also biodiversity. Way back then! And you don’t hear much of that now even though we know so much more.

I think people, both politicians but certainly also my readers and other readers, yeah, they’re more sophisticated in some ways. But they’re also a little more jaded because there is so much to worry about and it’s so bad in many areas.

Harsh headlines, the present picture

Leader: You once said you were optimistic about the future of the planet on a macro scale but less certain of our fate as a species. You said that wasn’t a pessimistic outlook if one takes a larger, cosmic view of life. So, in light of the current administration’s undermining of environmental protections, outrage over our withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, and the COVID-19 pandemic and our response, do you have any thoughts about our future relationship to the planet? Has anything changed your mind about our longterm odds?

RMP: Yes and no. I am impressed by the ability of government to mobilize, when they do it … On the whole I’d say I’m a little less optimistic after this. Not necessarily because I don’t think people are clever and can cope with a great deal, I do and I think they can. But — oh, wow, a school bus just went by. That’s the first one I’ve seen since April … I’ve been missing them; I love the sight of a school bus going by on an autumn afternoon on my little road …I should say I’m optimistic because I’m seeing the school buses again, part of me wants to say that, but I think that’s a little shallow or at least short-term.

[A colleague of mine wrote a book] based on a critical look at the biology of cramming together other species. Not just in Chinese wet markets, but in the forest through bushmeat hunting and the compressions of their populations genetically and also the reduction of their space into little tiny places, so that Jane Goodall’s chimps are trying to survive in a little preserve surrounded by inhospitable habitat. And this is the growing rule, not the exception. The combination of cramming species together and thereby dramatically disrupting both their genetics and their epidemiology, or at least their disease biology, and then bringing them in as human meat. You put those things together and it wasn’t much of a Russian roulette game with this [pandemic]. It was Russian roulette with very few chambers. This thing was going to happen; [my colleague] predicted that 10 years ago and other people have too, and nothing that I see being done, with the exception of a few of the campaigning organizations, is being done to try to reduce the threat of that, the species cramming, that ultimately will lead to these situations happening again. HIV began that way and a bunch of others.

What people are doing that is impressive, the reason that I just saw a school bus go by — or that might be stupidity or it might be that they’re doing it well, who knows? — but what has got people to respond well, making PPE available and all that stuff, is reaction. People are responding cleverly and energetically and heroically, but it’s all reaction. There is almost nothing that I see being done in a major way preventative.

The environment is not just climate. It’s also biodiversity and the integrity of ecosystems. The same stuff that I’ve been writing about for that entire 50 years, some of the ideas that I tried to express as a kid in those earliest essays, I would say are absolutely relevant now.

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