Cultivating the Wild: William Bartram’s Travels, a collaboration among director Eric Breitenbach, director of photography Scott Auerbach, and writer Dorinda G. Dallmeyer, is a film that contains both despair and hope, telling environmental truths while remaining relentlessly beautiful. Illustrations and excerpts from the writing of Bartram, the eighteenth-century naturalist and artist who explored the American Southeast and wrote extensively about the region’s natural history, ground the film and provide its locale, but they also serve as a vehicle for a larger conversation that ranges across the breadth of contemporary environmental issues that transcend boundaries to include the entire planet. The film opens and we hear a house wren, a song sparrow, running water—then Mary Cuchetti’s ethereal score rises above a botanical sequence evocative of a spring morning. After an hour of truly remarkable cinematography, the closing scene reprises ornithologist Drew Lanham holding a museum specimen skin of a Bachman’s warbler, a bird thought to be extinct due to habitat destruction. Earlier in the film he recounted seeing video of a living Bachman’s that was singing and hearing no song in return. “The Golden Rule extends to nature,” he muses. “Until we understand that, I think we’re on the wrong path.” These two components, the stunning landscape and the urgent message, are effectively braided into the observations and language of William Bartram.
Cultivating the Wild follows six environmental advocates—the narration calls them “modern-day Bartrams”—whose stories illustrate and enunciate the film’s themes from diverse perspectives. They deserve to be named here because of their commitment to protecting the environment and their sharing of William Bartram’s reverence for the more-than-human world. Three are past Georgia Review collaborators—Philip Juras, a plein air painter, contributed an extraordinary depiction of rocky shoals spider lilies to the 2018 environmental writing issue; author Janisse Ray’s “The Lonely Ruralist” in the Fall 2019 issue is a fitting companion to her contributions to the film; and Drew Lanham, the aforementioned ornithologist and professor of wildlife biology at Clemson University, was a featured speaker at the Review’s 2018 Earth Day event.
Wayne Hartley is a ranger at Florida’s Blue Springs State Park who monitors the park’s manatee population. Living historian Jim Sawgrass, who is of Mvskoke descent, presents on Southeastern Native American Indian tribes. Finally, James Holland represents the quintessential grassroots environmentalist, as the Altamaha Riverkeeper emeritus. The stories these activists tell highlight threats to the land, which feel more sinister against the backdrop of the filmmaking’s striking beauty. The camera seems to have come along on a hike. It pans the horizon slowly to take in the terrain and tilts to check for raptors. It stops still to observe a butterfly’s flight close up or to watch the wind in the grass. Only during the necessary exceptions—such as when Janisse Ray talks about consumerism or James Holland points out river pollutants—do jarring scenes and rapid cuts overtake the generous and leisurely tour of the Southeastern landscape.
Cultivating the Wild is much more than a regional film, however. The message is global—even though the palmetto palms, manatees, and longleaf pines tip the locale, and the accents of some of the speakers, such as narrator Bailey White, clearly self-identify with the Southeast. Lost habitat, degraded landscapes, runaway and unregulated commerce, colonization of indigenous people—these are human problems. And this is a very human film. James Holland speaks for us all, standing in a cypress swamp and overwhelmed by the magnificence of the giant trees: “I feel so good in here. Even on a bad day I feel good. I hate to leave.” The film provides plenty of the kind of beauty that can turn a wild place into a balm. But it also asks that we realize the reality of our century. Each of the “modern-day Bartrams” is an earnest and passionate exemplar of answering the film’s call: “Bartram’s legacy should heighten our commitment to saving what remains of the long-gone world he describes.”
The film’s writer, Dorinda G. Dallmeyer, is an award-winning author, photographer, and radio producer with a focus on Southern environmental history. She was formerly director of UGA’s Environmental Ethics Certificate Program and associate director of the Dean Rusk International Law Center. We spoke by email in November.
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Doug Carlson (DC): You write that Bartram “combined the mind of a scientist with the heart of a poet.” And you’ve interviewed individuals whose lives bear out the truth that these two supposed opposites can cohabit. Was this a theme you and Eric Breitenbach had going in, or did it gradually emerge during the film’s making?
Dorinda Dallmeyer (DD): I don’t know if Eric had that idea before he crossed paths with me, but he surely knew it once we met. Based on my life working as a scientist and observing the scientists that I have been around, most are not people who love just numbers. They do what they do because they love the plants they’re working with, the animals, the ecosystem—there’s a lot of love tied up in that pursuit of knowledge. It may not come through in the scientific literature, because journal editors won’t let you do that. But Bartram had the luxury of being able to write it the way he saw it in the Travels.
DC: How did you arrive at your title? I’m especially interested in your choice of “wild.”
DD: That was Eric’s suggestion from the start, and I had no reason to object. For me, it draws on Bartram’s life from birth to death as part of a family devoted to propagating all the “exotic” plants of eastern North America that were so in demand by European botanists and plant-fanciers. It draws on his exuberant love and reverence for the wild places he encounters and how his experiences in the South nurtured him in mind and heart for the rest of his life. It also speaks to us—how we in the twenty-first century need to cultivate our own path of love, reverence, and joy along with our commitment to reimagine what Southern landscapes truly mean.
DC: What was the genesis of the film? And would you tell us how the various stages of the its development went?
DD: Co-producer Eric Breitenbach first contacted me in the fall of 2015. Since taking a professorshipat the Southeast Center for Photographic Studies at Daytona State College in Florida in the 1980s, he had used Bartram as a personal guide to learn about his adopted state. Many of Eric’s films have had an historic focus, so Bartram was always there on his to-do list. When he read the anthology which I edited, Bartram’s Living Legacy: the Travels and the Nature of the South [Mercer University Press 2010; 2d ed. 2019], he found the collaborator he was looking for. He called me and we arranged to meet here in Athens in December 2015.
Beyond creating a three-minute, 8mm version of The Tale of Two Cities in a high school English class and taking a cinematography course one summer at UGA, I had never done a “real” film. Naturally, I said yes. Eric then convinced his longtime friend and professional videographer Scott Auerbach to serve as director of photography, so off we went.
My contributions to the cast of “modern-day Bartrams”—Janisse Ray, Drew Lanham, Philip Juras, and James Holland—were people I had collaborated with on a variety of projects in the past. While coming from diverse backgrounds, all had a deep appreciation for Bartram. The same was true for Eric’s choices, Jim Sawgrass and Wayne Hartley. And an encounter that Eric had with Bailey White on a southbound train trip led to them remaining in touch and visiting with each other over the intervening years. What a joy it was for me when she agreed to narrate the film!
We received gracious financial underwriting from the Wormsloe Foundation, the Bobolink Foundation, and over one hundred supporters through a Kickstarter campaign to get the project rolling. In a sense we were following in Bartram’s path financially, because he certainly depended on a variety of mentors and friends to get him where he wanted to go. Also there were so many people interested in Bartram that we were able to do our location filming with in-kind contributions of food, boats, expertise, rooms, and the opportunity to be in beautiful, compelling landscapes that meant as much to him nearly 250 years ago as they do to us today.
With the exception of animation, scoring, and narration, everything else was done in the field. As you can imagine, shooting on location was challenging. In some cases, it was waiting for the appropriate season, for example, when the shoals spider lilies would be in bloom in May on the Broad River or when the manatees congregate in the winter at Blue Spring.
You only conduct prescribed burns when rainfall and soil moisture are just right. Of course, filming at the coast was a constant reminder of the adage that “time and tide wait for no man.”
We went through several editing stages, with Eric taking the lead and trying out preliminary cuts with local audiences as well as with Scott and me. We just kept working at it. I had a wonderful day in March 2019 with Bailey White at the Tallahassee studios of NPR affiliate WFSU, where I got to sit in on her session recording the narration. It was such a thrill to hear her read the words that I had written with her and William Bartram in mind.
Finally, Eric, Scott, and I rendezvoused at Scott’s house in Atlanta for a four-day, marathon editing session in August 2019. Scott has an entire room set aside for his editing equipment, and it was amazing to watch him at work. I sat still for so long I couldn’t walk right for several days thereafter, but it was worth the effort.
DC: Were there locations you wanted to include but couldn’t?
DD: Given how far and wide Bartram traveled over nearly four years, there was no way that we could cover all that ground in 56 minutes, 40 seconds. Also, we didn’t set out to make a biographical film of Bartram so much as to focus on how we can go forward in reclaiming and restoring the Southern landscape.
That being said, there is one place I regret we couldn’t include: Cherokee country in the North Carolina Blue Ridge. In Travels, Bartram records very detailed observations about the Cherokee there, and he wanted to see more. And throughout the book, Bartram is writing in the first person, so it’s natural for the reader to see him as one soul in the middle of the wilderness.
For me, the epitome of his aloneness is when he decides to make his way westward in hopes of visiting the Cherokee’s “Overhill Towns” in westernmost North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Complicating matters for Bartram at that moment is the great upheaval between the English and Cherokee. He is ascending the Nantahala Mountains on his horse, by himself—for once, completely alone. It’s rocky and shifting footing beneath his horse’s hooves; the higher they climb and the farther away he gets from familiar territory, the more evident it is how strongly he feels he needs to turn back. He writes of the foreboding that overwhelms him, the problems he may face from both humans and the elements. As much as he wants to see beyond the Cherokee mountains, he has to turn back.
DC: Were there other people you wish you could have featured?
DD: As I mentioned before, the people who wound up featured in the film were people we knew could tell a story of past, present, and future. Early in the production phase, we filmed a series of interviews with Bartram scholars, each one lasting an hour or so. For the most part, those ended up on the dreaded cutting room floor. However, you can watch highlights from those interviews in a promotional short film that Eric put together as part of the Kickstarter campaign. And some of their thoughts certainly made their way into the narration.
DC: There’s tremendous variety in the visual presentation. You have aerial views, still and live shots, computer-generated images. To someone who didn’t have to assemble it all, it looks like great fun. How did your production go: did your team rely mostly on email, or did you have in-person sessions?
DD: Email and phone were how we kept up over the miles. We could share footage and edits via the web so we truly were able to collaborate given how far apart we were spread.
One of the interesting things for me was watching the whole process of filming with a drone. In addition to Scott, over the course of the production we had four or five people using drones for us. For me, one of the most stunning drone segments shows Drew Lanham walking along the Altamaha River casting such a long shadow and leaving his footprints in the sand. As soon as Cameron Kirschner retrieved the drone, he and I were able to see what a powerful shot that was as we stood in one of the most inaccessible places I’ve ever been in Georgia—the lee of a sand dune at the mouth of the Altamaha River.
DC: Can you share some behind-the-scenes information about making Cultivating the Wild?
DD: As it turned out, we spent just as much time on the film, from start to finish, as Bartram spent in the South from the summer of 1773 until his return to Philadelphia in January 1777. We didn’t plan for it to take that long, but I like the resulting symmetry.
One of the most challenging sequences to film was that of James Holland with the big cypress at the Altamaha.
Not only were we dealing with the tides, which affect the river as far as thirty miles inland; there was rainfall coming downstream from all over the Altamaha’s huge watershed, which literally washed out our plans to film there time and again. But Eric had seen so many images of that cypress and the scene around it that he was determined to get it on film. Finally, despite Eric’s car at one point being mired to its axles in the sand, he got the memorable footage with James that you see toward the end of the film.
Even with meticulous planning, you have to leave yourself open to serendipity. When we went to the UGA Museum of Natural History with Drew, no one knew that looking at bird specimens in the collection would yield his beautiful reverie that anchors the film with Bartram’s prayer for mercy.
DC: With the film completed, what was the next step? And now what lies ahead?
DD: Appropriately enough, the film premiered at the biennial Bartram Trail Conference in October 2019 in Montgomery, Alabama, at a beautiful theater in their State Archives and Museum. In late January 2020, we had the Florida premiere at Eric’s campus to a very receptive standing-room-only crowd. It was a highlight for me to finally get to meet Jim Sawgrass and his family there. We had planned a full range of theatrical releases to follow, but the COVID-19 pandemic shut that down.
Instead, we went straight to broadcast. We approached a number of potential PBS collaborators and were pleased when South Carolina Educational Television agreed to handle outreach for the film. SCETV is a regional powerhouse with a national reputation for quality work. Additionally, the Nature Conservancy chapters in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida stepped up with funding to help underwrite the film’s distribution costs.
The pandemic essentially shut down film production along with everything else. We were fortunate that our film was finished when it was. I’ve spent much of the last six months working with SCETV on the promotional materials. On November 7, the film was distributed nationwide via satellite uplink to PBS stations across America, including places as far away as Alaska, to media markets as large as New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and to statewide networks across the country. I like to think that this film has taken William Bartram to so many places that he never got to see for himself.
The National Educational Television Association (NETA) is providing the satellite uplink for the film. In addition to public television stations, they can alert educational institutions across the country at all levels who are members. There’s a tremendous opportunity via NETA for the film to be seen by a wide variety of audiences.
Additionally, as soon as the film airs on SCETV in mid-November, it will be available free of charge for public access worldwide via the SCETV website twenty-four hours a day for the next three years. Of course, we still intend to go forward with theatrical showings of the film as soon as it makes sense from a public health standpoint. We get such a charge from the crowd’s reaction watching it in real time and the opportunity to hear their comments and answer questions.
DC: Suppose someone watching the film decides that traveling to some of these locations would be a good idea. Is there a good source of practical information for people wanting to explore segments of the Bartram’s trail?
DD: Your search for a one-stop shopping center for travel ideas needs to go no farther than the Bartram Trail Conference website (click on the link “The Bartram Trail” for detailed state-by-state guides). Also on the website is a link to all the markers commemorating Bartram’s path through the South.
Similar to the process that created the Lewis and Clark National Trail, the BTC has launched a multi-year effort to have the National Park Service designate Bartram’s path as a National Historic Corridor in time for the 250th anniversary of his journey through the South. Each state is working on this and on its portion of the trail, and we welcome anyone who wants to join us by becoming a member.
Click here to watch Cultivating the Wild.