Jon Bowermaster, Writer & Filmmaker
9.10.16 Ulster County, NY
What drew me to Bowermaster was his unyielding yearning for adventure and discovery and his profound commitment to the environment. He is a true inspiration for how creators can have an impact, implementing change through bringing awareness to issues most of us only complain about on social media. I urge you to watch his recent film, 'After the Spill', which is now available on Netflix. You will be glad you did.
After The Spill is now avail on Netflix
Learn more about Jon Bowermaster's acclaimed films & books.
Q's & Photos by Kate Orne
Current frame of mind:
These days I wake with a dull-to-pounding sense of dread, equal to the dose of Trumpism I subjected myself to the day before. I’ve also just finished a 50-city tour with a new documentary, ‘Dear President Obama,’ which meant each night I was talking about our energy future in a new town, with a new audience, proving to be either uplifting or a real bummer.
Which came first, your desire to write or your interest in politics & government? Did your upbringing have an influence on this desire?
I was a voracious reader and wanted to write early on, spawned by a boyhood of Jack London, Hemingway, Boys Life and the Hardy Boys. I thought I wanted to be a sports writer, until I tried it in college and it was so boooooring. My university studies focused on reporting on government and politics and I learned lessons then that I apply to everything I’ve done since, whether in the books or films, especially in regard to environmental fights where politics and government play huge roles.
My parents were both teachers; when they went to the polls they canceled each other’s votes. My maternal grandfather was very involved in local, Republican politics in Central Illinois; I have photos of him with candidates going back to Eisenhower and Nixon. But my paternal grandmother was a proud Libertarian before there was a name for such a thing.
Who are the people that, early on, inspired you in a profound manner?
I’m a big believer in mentors. Studs Terkel was one of mine, particularly his oral histories. I was interviewed on his Chicago radio show in the spring of 1990 and it’s one of the highlights of my traveling life. Unlike lots of people who interview you, he’d actually read the book (Saving the Earth) and scribbled notes in the margins and turned down page corners. Even better, before we went on air he ran around his studio to find the right album with what he called the perfect song to introduce the segment: Tom Paxton’s Tend Your Garden.
What was your first assignment from National Geographic?
1988. To write about a 3,741 mile, 221 day dogsled expedition across Antarctica continent...the longest traverse ever and the last by dog!
In your wonderful book 'Wildebeest in a Rainstorm' you profile environmentalists and explorers such as Robert F Kennedy Jr., Sir Richard Branson, Winona LaDuke, Peter Beard and more. In your experience, are there common attributes that these subjects share?
As a storyteller I’m attracted to strong characters, people who can love and hate at the same time. I spent six months in Kenya with Beard and he was a genius half the time, an asshole the other half. Like others I’ve traveled with, I love Beard for his extremes.
You have traveled to some of the most interesting locations in the world, where would you like to return and are there any places to which you wouldn’t return?
My two favorite places, after the Hudson Valley, places I go back to over and over? Antarctica and French Polynesia — obviously quite different: the Antarctic because it’s the most remote, most pristine place on the planet, and Polynesia for its ocean beauty and because its native people love their own culture of music and dance more than even visitors. I’ve been with lots of bored safari guides in the bush in Africa who can’t wait to get back to the discos of Nairobi … They could care less about seeing the Big Five.
Most memorable or wackiest assignment?
Taking Martha Stewart kayaking in Newfoundland.
Water is a reoccurring theme in your work, what is it about water that draws you back to the subject?
I’m one of a dozen “ocean heroes” at the National Geographic Society and the only one with little interest in fish. My love of the ocean emanates from my interest in and curiosity about the people who live and depend on the edge of the sea. How many people on the planet? 7.3 billion? More than half – about 4 billion people – live within a stone’s throw of the ocean. Which means there are a lot of man-and-the-sea stories out there to be told. Bottom line: Fish can’t tell me stories.
Tell me about your current project where you focus on pollution in our waters.
For the past year-and-a-half my filming team and I have been working on a project closer to home called The Hudson, A River at Risk. The project was sparked by my writing regarding environmental issues on water bodies on all seven continents and for long time wanting to take a close-up look at what’s going on in my own backyard.
So far, the series of short videos has looked at the bomb trains carrying crude oil from Albany down the Hudson River, the leaky nuclear plant at Indian Point, the construction and teardown of the Tappan Zee Bridge, the plethora of fights over pipelines carrying natural gas and oil crisscrossing the Hudson Valley and river and more.
The most disturbing local story? The fact that the Hudson River is still home to hundreds of thousands of pounds of PCBs. I somewhat naively thought that when, in 2009, General Electric had been forced to clean up the country’s largest Superfund site in the Hudson River that the problem was in the past. Only to learn that when G.E. pulled its clean-up operation out last December, after six years and $2 billion, they left behind … the country’s largest Superfund site … largely due to government (the EPA and the Cuomo Administration) not demanding it stay and finish the job.
I spend a lot of time on the river, in small boats. It is an incredible recreational resource, its beauty constantly changing. And over the past four to five decades the river and valley have benefited from the incredible work of some of the savviest environmentalists in the country. Yet, knowing what I know today, I’m torn by the combination of the Hudson’s incredible beauty still masking some incredible pollution.
After the Spill, your 2015 documentary, is now available on Netflix. What were the lessons the locals taught you during the making of it?
I’ve made two films in Louisiana, a place I truly, truly love. The new film shows that while Katrina was awful and the BP spill a disaster, those aren’t the worst things facing the coast of Louisiana: It’s that it’s disappearing, and fast.
What are you working on now and why is it important?
I like to think all the films are important, in their own ways! We continue to fight the expansion of fracking across the country, which began with our Dear Governor Cuomo film in 2012 and morphed into my “Dear” series: Dear Governor Brown, Dear Governor Hickenlooper and Dear President Obama. Just this week I’ve sent a film crew off to Indonesia and Thailand to start shooting a film about fishing slaves, which I think will get a lot of attention and educate a lot of people when it comes out next summer.
What keeps you up at night?
These words: “I, Donald J. Trump, solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States …”
What’s currently on your ‘Must Watch’ documentary list?
Most documentaries bum me out, so I tend to stay away. I have yet to see my friend Dawn Porter’s Trapped, nor Roxbury's-own Roger Ross William’s Life Animated. I did see Ivy Meerpol’s Indian Point, which I thought was great.
Your source for viewing great documentary films?
The Internet has proved a godsend for documentaries, which used to disappear into the ether after a few film festival screenings....
After all your experience dealing with environmental issues through your work, do you still have faith in the future?
Humans are slow to change and usually only do so when forced. When it comes to protecting the environment, I worry we only do a better job at preserving – moving to alternative energy sources, conserving, buying smaller cars, houses and lives – after some kind of disaster, economic or natural. I do not believe that technology will save us. Only we will save us.