An Interview with Tim Barksdale
Why Prairie Chickens? What captured your imagination to the point of making such a large investment of time and money to tell their story?
Well, Prairie Chickens are just so personable and charismatic. I mean the displays, fighting, and dancing are too cool. I’ve never met anyone who, once they spend a morning in a blind watching the whole thing unfold, that doesn’t fall at least a little bit in love with the birds.
When I was a young biologist, I think the seeds were planted. I worked in the research division in Columbia, MO with renowned people. Several were artists/ photographers as well as great scientists. Charles & Elizabeth Schwartz were just leaving as I was arriving. But I was able to glean tidbits from them and especially Glenn Chambers. I soaked up tiny seeds of information and later these came to fruition. Charlie has spent a good deal of his life studying the prairie chickens and the whole ecosystem was just beginning to really be looked at in the mid 1970’s. Don Christensen and Glenn were carrying on with much of Charlie & Libby’s ground work.
Later when I read Phil Wire's paper on the declines I had this very sudden realization that these dropping populations were going on right now and having been so severe while I was not paying attention. it just hit me hard. I remember a Wildlife Society meeting where there was a lot of discussion about farm sizes. Much of the conversation was about pheasants, but I would keep asking about prairie chickens. so I’ve always had them in my head. But I had no idea that we had lost 96% of the population in my home state since I was a young man.
I know that about 1979 when I was at the Department of Conservation, I specifically asked Don how many Greater Prairie Chickens were left in the state. I clearly recall the discussion that followed and while he expressed the first idea of a beginning of a decline, he clearly stated that there were right at 12,500 birds left.
After I read Phil's paper it was clear that less that 500 birds were left and virtually none in northern Missouri. To me that was too much. I just knew I had to do something. I mean that is 3% left of what was there in my life. That really is alarming because I do get the concept of the "Web of Life". We are all interconnected.
As I began to learn more about the whole situation nationwide the story became more complex, but after American Public Television gave us the first reaction to the first rough cut, they wanted a story to come back closer where we had started. So it became more personal again. I think I just realized that in the over 20 years I spent raising the kids and the 7 years I had spent in Montana that a lot had changed back "home". I have always loved my home state and still am very connected to it.
How many months/years did it take to do all of this filming?
Well, I began this project in the fall of 2007. But I’ve had to take breaks to earn some money to keep the bills paid too. If you condensed everything into a solid workflow, I’ve spent pretty close to five years working on this. There is only very little bit to still do today. mostly just begin the formal editing and finalize every word in the script. But I've never had enough funding to complete the film from start to finish. We are going to change that now. We need this to be on the air in late 2015 and early 2016. Things have become too critical for the birds and the habitat.
The final movie is nearly an hour long. How many hours of film did you have to process to get your story "right"?
The show will be 56 minutes and 44 seconds in length. I have not added up the total amount of footage since it of necessity got scattered among other projects but I suspect with the interviews and other deleted scenes we have very close to 24 hours of footage, possibly higher.
Much of this was shot, especially the natural history footage, before lightweight portable monitors which are so common today were readily available let alone affordable. That has really changed outdoor filming for the better.
The actual script is a different story; I went to a third writer before everything really fit. But PBS/APT had a little to do with that also. Their comments on the first rough cut were very helpful and really made this a much stronger film.
What do you want your viewers to take away from watching your movie?
Well, there are a couple of things. First I just want them to understand what a prairie chicken is and that they are totally cool; then I guess the beauty of the prairie. I mean some acres of our native grasslands have up to 400 species of plants. That is incredibly productive. and I'd think that if people realize that prairie grasslands are really responsible for the soils, which created the entire wealth of the American agricultural system, then they come to an understanding of the value that is blowing and eroding away washing down our creeks and rivers into the gulf of Mexico.
You know, it has happened to every great society. My Dad first told me about erosion and how the great civilizations in Mexico had lost all the topsoil. Well the clay poking through the ridges outside of Des Moines, Iowa are the symptoms of the same illness. We stop paying attention to rather important details when landowners are removed from the land. We can fertilize anything but plowing the prairies that are making the topsoil is perhaps the great looming crisis for our world.
I keep saying to people that they can't grow the billions of tons of corn, wheat and soy in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. They sure have the money to try if they want and they can irrigate and fertilize because they are so rich from oil. But they can't make the soils in that climate.
If prairie chickens become the excuse to save native grassland and take longer term looks at our system then I will have helped my grandchildrens generation. But they are giong to have enormous challenges in ecological ways. When I was in the bank during the 1980’s the watch word was "The Global Economy". Now we should begin to hear the Global Ecology as the next big deal.
You are generally an optimist. Are you optimistic that the American public will embrace the story and help turn the corner on protecting a vanishing ecosystem?
I am a crazy optimist. I think we will see and in small way are already seeing the beginning of the change. Part of it is the organic movement. There is consciousness there about what the chemicals are doing. So many chemicals are not required to be tested for long term effects. when you begin to think "organically" you are thinking about carbon cycles too. You are thinking about manure and worms and all the stuff that make soils rich again.
Prairie chickens are such a great symbol of our culture. We strut and we cackle too and we fight to survive. In many ways, Ben Franklin should have taken a better look at Prairie Chickens when he spoke about a national bird, but the Heath Hen (of the east coast) had already been relegated to a very low status among the class structure. I mean they saved the pilgrims but really soon afterwards became the food for the indentured servants.
Also, I think they represent the underdog and Americans always love a story about the underdogs who win out in the end. But we are a compassionate people and once we get the political talk out of the way we really will get the fact that we must immediately deal with a bunch of ecological problems and solve them. Now. That is when restoring prairies and saving the genetics of all the plants will become part of the plan to also save the prairie chickens.
We’ve been talked into believing that everything is separate. In reality, everything is connected. You hear people talk about flutter of the butterfly wings are being felt by atoms on the edge of the universe. So the basics are there in the public consciousness. As always it takes a crisis before we act on things. My optimism shows in that I think we are moving now before that really big crisis hits. It is coming but by acting now we will mitigate the huge damage before it takes out half of the world population. And the more we can do now, the gentler the correction will be that nature forces upon us.
I really do think we are a smart species. It is the greed and selfishness that will hold us back and make things worse. That being said, I do prayers every day.