Fly Fishing, Moviemaking, and Thinking Ecologically

A coyote standing on its hind legs, captured by a new wildlife camera installed by the National Park Service near Silver Lake. | National Park Service

A coyote standing on its hind legs, captured by a new wildlife camera installed by the National Park Service near Silver Lake. | National Park Service

This writing originally appeared as part of a research proposal to join the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS) at UCLA. 

For as long as I can remember I’ve been playing with nature. My first short story chronicled the winter when my Labrador retriever, Finnegan, made friends with a coyote who would visit us every morning on our frosted front lawn in the Santa Monica Mountains. The story was eight pages long with my own illustrations, laminated and bound with ribbon to present to my first grade teacher. Two years later I “opened” my own pet store out of my Mom’s garage, which featured at least three types of native reptile species: the Western Fence Lizard (also known as the Bluebelly), the Southern Alligator Lizard (this particular specimen only had three legs), and the Blue-Tailed Skink (the hardest to find, and thus, my greatest prize). I would often catch these lizards by tying a slipknot at the end of a piece foxtail grass, and gently slipping the loop, as if blowing in the wind, over their heads to noose them. There was the obsessive bird watching habit and the many bird books with scribbles in the margins, and then fly-fishing, too, wherein I quickly learned to tie my own patterns with bits of fur cut off the backs of various roadkill.

Looking back, I can’t help but marvel at the ways in which this early obsession with catching things has shaped the way I think, how these outings in nature primed my sensitivity for pattern recognition, change and enumeration. It seems more obvious to me now what I could merely intuit as a strange child, addicted to finding birds in the muddy scopes of binoculars: perhaps a thought streaking through consciousness is more like a White-Crowned Sparrow hopping through the bush of the mind than we could ever imagine, and thinking ecologically is just, well, thinking thinking. Perhaps it’s this recursion that makes every outing in nature so pleasurable. I’m only now beginning to feel my way through this impression, but what I’m reaching for seems most obvious when I think back through my long-held passion for fly-fishing, and how this sport or art or maybe even we can call it a science, is still relatable today to my work as a filmmaker.

Fly-fishing is undoubtedly a type of ecological thinking, and to succeed, one must learn the morphology of hundreds of aquatic insects, where, at each stage in their life cycle they can be found in the river system, and how this metamorphosis is synced to the seasonal weather patterns. One learns that if an Osprey lands on a branch within eyesight of the river, you better reel up and move downstream because nothing quite kills the appetite of a trout like the feeling of becoming the next meal itself. But what I now believe attracted me most fervently to the river with rod and reel in hand is something more peculiar and uncanny, no less part and parcel of nature than it is of our own consciousness. Most simply rendered, fly-fishing is a system of gazes that lays bare the essential tension between life and the imitation of life, a tension I’ve also found at the core of much good filmmaking. Just as the fly must be presented to the trout with a fine performance, naturally floating, never dead and sinking, so too must the director coax their actors to buoy themselves in the life of a character. And just as it’s necessary in fly-fishing to stalk the trout without disturbing their habits, so too must the documentary cinematographer comport themselves to a crowded room, always aware of the ebb and flow of energies in search of a glimmer of authenticity, an act of life caught unawares.

In thinking through this comparison, I’m beginning to see how both fly-fishing and filmmaking are excellent methodological tools for thinking ecologically. If rod and reel and fly are the discrete elements of the fly-fishing tool kit, and catching a trout is its ultimate aim, then it follows that the trial and error and hypothesizing along the way toward this goal does serious work towards building a robust understanding of the riverine habitat. If the camera and editing software and the subjects of a film are the discrete elements of the filmmaking toolkit, and an automatic world projection is the aim of the production, then the trial and error and performances invited along the way constitute a praxis that similarly draws a body of knowledge from a given environment. What is more, with filmmaking especially, there is an expressionistic element as well, and the oftentimes-unconscious decision making process might be made an asset in the service of pointing toward lines of thinking that would otherwise remain unseen to the naked eye in present time.

For an example of how this might work, I’ll end by turning to a short film I made this past fall in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles, a film which only in hindsight allowed me to see how various ecological questions coalesce in a given corner of the city, in this case, its oldest burial ground. Following a tip from my Uncle, I decided to visit Evergreen Cemetery one afternoon to film the coyotes he told me lived under the shade trees and amongst the tombstones there. If anything, this would make for a striking image, I thought. Indeed, I found them there like he said, and over the course of various afternoons, I returned to Evergreen to film these wild dogs, slowly gaining their favor with my presence and managing to get better and better shots each and every visit. It was a lesson in habituation, the way wild animals will acclimate to human presence, for better or for worse, in the liminal spaces where their two worlds collide. I also found many bird kills on these grounds, scattered feathers strewn about the dead grasses, which led me to believe that urban coyotes are still deft predators who pursue wild prey, too, even if they also take the occasional house pet or leftover foodstuffs from toppled trashcans. This is no data set, obviously, but it’s an observation that could certainly prove helpful for evidencing an urban food chain.

The following week I found non-native parakeets sitting with Mourning Doves atop the leafless trees, a strange symbol of how both native and invasive species share similar ecological niches, and an image which invited thoughts about immigration and nativism that are all too relevant to the current political climate of Boyle Heights, the city’s oldest barrio and seemingly the only proven bastion against gentrification in the nation. Lastly, and again with the help of my Uncle, I found the tombstone of William J. Seymour, a renowned Pentecostal preacher best known for starting the fervent Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in the early 20th Century. Pushing this lead a bit further, and in a gesture intended to uncover the hidden strains of connection between this “queer” theology of the past and the rituals of the queer spirit today, I invited a good friend and trans-activist to model canine-inspired clothing and read a poem on this very same hallowed ground, thus thinking the ways trans identity might teach us something extraordinary about extending moral agency to the natural world through a type of animist performance of gender.

As I waded through this process, shooting and editing and reading, all at once, I managed to weave, thread by thread, a tapestry that is a certain kind of non-linear representation of the aesthetics, history and affective landscape of this cemetery space, and I now look to this tapestry as a map, a cosmology even, that could lead me to new questions I will later explore by more scholarly means. Much how the notepad of an anthropologist serves as the wellspring from which anthropological principles are drawn into complex theory, I’d like to further develop my filmmaking practice at the IoES as a methodical tool for scholarship, a tool kit that in my mind is already finely tuned for ecological thinking.

Chase Niesner