TV to protect our fragile world
From fly fishing in the hemlock-shaded tributaries of the Savage River in Garrett County, to exploring the marshes and woodlands of Dorchester County that Harriet Tubman traversed to lead slaves north, Mike English is an intrepid explorer of Maryland’s natural environment.
His Maryland Public Television (MPT) show, “Outdoors Maryland,” has given viewers more than 700 vivid slices of the state’s environmental treasures since it started airing in 1987. English, who lives in Columbia, began his role as the show’s executive producer 26 years ago. The Emmy award-winning show’s 30th season began in November.
“I like to tell stories about people, and showing people what’s going on out there. That’s where it’s at for me,” English said. He helped write, direct, edit and come up with ideas for hundreds of the segments.
The weekly half-hour program is usually composed of three “mini-docs,” or vignettes, about Maryland’s people, animals, islands, waterways and other natural resources, many of which are fighting for survival.
Aired on Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. on MPT, the show offers a break from 24/7 cable news shows, police procedurals and banal sitcoms. English is also the creator and executive producer of MPT’’s “Maryland Farm and Harvest” series, a weekly show now in its fifth season.
A concern for the future
Nature and environmental documentaries are growing in popularity, English said. They are being screened at festivals all over the country, including at the annual Environmental Film Festival held each year in the Washington area.
Universities have also inaugurated courses in environmental documentary making. English is an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., where he teaches at their Center for Environmental Filmmaking. According to a statement, the Center “was founded on the belief that powerful films, images and stories can play a key role in fostering conservation and bringing about change.”
Moviegoers first started taking such documentaries box-office serious in 2006, when former Vice President Al Gore’s climate change film, An Inconvenient Truth, grossed $24 million in the U.S.
Older viewers may remember such pioneer environmental TV filmmakers as Marlin Perkins, whose “Wild Kingdom” series ran from 1963 to 1982, and Jacques-Yves Cousteau, whose “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” premiered in 1966.
While those programs mostly concentrated on the outdoor adventures of wild animals and sea creatures, most of today’s environmental documentaries accent a concern for the future survival of the planet and its human and animal denizens.
English started his career writing for several publications about farming in Maryland, as well as hearings held by congressional agriculture committees, and efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay.
He said this background in journalism has instilled in him the desire to always give a “balanced perspective” on whatever issues are being tackled in the documentaries he produces.
“We listen to both sides,” he said, “and try to present a balanced view. I’m working for public television viewers. They are highly sophisticated viewers, and I try to give them what, at times, are many sides to a complex environmental issue so that they can reason out intelligent conclusions.”
For example, a recent episode presented the complexities of protecting the Puritan tiger beetle, an endangered species concentrated in Southern Maryland along the Chesapeake Bay.
The beetle particularly breeds within the eroding of Calvert, Cecil and Kent counties. That erosion has put houses there at risk, and homeowners want to shore up the cliffs to save their family homes.
But the beetles are federally protected, and any construction could hasten the tiger beetle’s extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers the beetle a key part of the area’s ecosystem. Protecting its cliff habitat means protecting such waterside birds as kingfishers and bank swallows, as well as many insect species.
Protecting the Chesapeake
A more well-known example of conflicting interests is presented by the Chesapeake Bay itself. It’s the nation’s largest estuary. That, English said, “makes it one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the country.”
Algae in the water feeds on phosphorous and nitrogen, much of which comes from sewage treatment plants, factories, farms and lawn run-off. The algae consume the oxygen that the fish, crabs and other underwater species need in order to survive.
While nitrogen and phosphorus have always been a part of the Bay’s ecosystem, they have increased to excessive levels over the last few decades.
English has explored the competing interests not only in “Outdoors Maryland” but also during “Chesapeake Bay Week,” a special week of MPT programming each April.
Though English works to give a well-rounded account of the issues, he most definitely has views of his own: “If we don’t continue to pull out all the stops trying to save the Bay, what we have now will not be there for long,” he said.
English said he once adorned his car with the bumper sticker: “Nature Bats Last.” That is to say, nature is the “home team” and has the last word on how the Earth will, or will not, survive.
“That’s what I believe, and it guides my interest in the natural world,” English said.
“There’s a lot we know, but a lot we don’t know, too,” he added. “And so we have to tread carefully, erring on the side of caution so that we don’t do damage to things we don’t understand — like many of the world’s hidden intricacies.”
Many episodes of “Outdoors Maryland” can be viewed online at http://video.mpt.tv/show/outdoors-maryland.