Jim Pfitzer discusses his new one-man play: "Aldo Leopold--A Standard of Change."
Interview with Jim Pfitzer
October 17, 2012
Mr. Madison: Today is October 17th, 2012. We’re at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. I’m Mark Madison, the historian here and today we have Jim Pfitzer who is an actor, a storyteller, and much, much more and he has come to NCTC to put on his most recent play, Aldo Leopold – A Standard of Change. Jim, welcome to NCTC.
Mr. Pfitzer: Thank you. It��s good to be here, Mark.
Mr. Madison: Tell us a little bit about how you came to create this play?
Mr. Pfitzer: Well, if you go all the way back, in my teens somebody game me a copy of A Sand County Almanac, and I think I can honestly say that it changed my life. It resonated with me more deeply than anything I had ever read and read it over and over again. When I started telling stories professionally in my twenties, I knew then that at some point I needed to do something with Aldo Leopold. I just didn’t know what and then almost two years ago I got a call from someone at Tennessee Wild which is a wonderful group down in East Tennessee working to promote wilderness in East Tennessee, trying to get the Tennessee Wilderness Act passed and getting people outdoors in the wilderness areas. They asked me if I would host and recite, actually they didn’t ask me to recite, they asked me if I would host a fundraiser and read from my favorite naturalist or conservationists, and I said, you know, I hate reading in public. How about if I recite something from Aldo Leopold? And they said, great! What do you want to recite? And I said how about Thinking Like A Mountain? I hung up the phone and said, oh, my God. What have I gotten myself into? I have to memorize a thousand word essay now, but I did. It went over really well, and I said, okay, from this I will build a play.
Mr. Madison: Aldo Leopold is a tricky person to build a play around. How did you go about constructing a plot for this play?
Mr. Pfitzer: I spent a year writing, reading and writing, and reading and writing. I wrote hundreds of pages and threw them all out. I didn’t know where I was going with it. I knew Thinking Like A Mountain was in there, but other than that I didn’t know and then on one of my research trips to Wisconsin I was going through the archives and I came across a bunch of letters between Aldo Leopold and Albert Hochbaum where Hochbaum was challenging Leopold to get down off his pedestal, show the world that he’s an ordinary fellow and that he has blood on his hand because what Hochbaum said was, and I’m paraphrasing here, he said you have completely changed your song from the guy who’s putting a bounty on wolves to the guy who’s saying we need to reintroduce wolves. If you’re going to do that and you want people to follow you, you need to tell your story. You need to show people that you haven’t always thought this way and this is why you changed your tune.
So when I saw that, I said wow, this is stuff people don’t know about this incredible essay so I took that information and then I spent a couple of nights in the shack and I had several experiences in the shack which basically wrote the rest of the play.
Mr. Madison: What’s the format of the play?
Mr. Pfitzer: Well, it’s one scene about an hour long set today. I come on stage as Aldo Leopold walking onto his property for the first time since he died 64 years ago, almost 65 years ago now, and so he sees the shack. That sparks memories. He looks at the trees that are towering over his head that were a
little more than ten feet tall when he passed away in 1948 and memories just start flooding back and so that’s how I put it together. It’s essentially a ghost story if you will.
Mr. Madison: And we’re doing this shortly before Halloween so our timing’s pretty good.
Mr. Pfitzer: Yes.
Mr. Madison: Have you found audiences remember Aldo Leopold or are you introducing him to them for the first time?
Mr. Pfitzer: It depends on where I am. I debuted it and I’ve done seven shows, eight shows now in Tennessee which is my home stomping grounds and I find that in an audience of a hundred people there might be ten or 12 who know who is he so I’m introducing a lot of people to him there. I went to a community college last week up in Minnesota and up there it was probably more like 40 or 50 percent of the people knew him because they’re right next door to Wisconsin, so it just depends on where I go, but I have had people say to me or ask me the question, “What’s an Aldo Leopold?”
Mr. Madison: It is an interesting name.
Mr. Pfitzer. It is and if you’ve never heard of him, you know -- but I have two target audiences. For the Leopold fan you’re going to learn about Leopold. One of my goals for that audience is to take him off his pedestal a little bit and introduce him as a human being, as a man. I think that often times we take our idols whether it’s John Muir or Leopold or Thoreau or whomever and we try to put them up on this pedestal and suddenly Thoreau didn’t do a little exercise. He spent his life living in a cabin by a lake and people forget about the fact that he spent the night in jail for refusing to pay taxes to a state who would allow slavery.
I don’t want Leopold to be that guy for whom his important things, the land ethic, and his ideas about keeping every cog and wheel when you’re tinkering intelligently – I don’t want those things to be lost because he’s the guy who had a shack by a river. So for that audience, I’m trying to bring him back home a little bit, ratchet him down a notch or two, make him a man. That also shows us the potential for ourselves because he’s an ordinary guy like us or the folks who don���t know Leopold, my goal is to give them just enough that they’ll want to know more and I’m very fortunate that I have a great partnership with the Leopold Foundation so that I can make his books available below their cover price at every show so those people who don’t know him and are inspired can take a book home with them.
Mr. Madison: That leads to the next question. Leopold is actually very quote worthy.
Mr. Pfitzer: Sure.
Mr. Madison: How did you choose which essays or which writings of his to incorporate into the play?
Mr. Pfitzer: Three of them were gimmy’s. Thinking Like A Mountain is how it all began for me. I sort of put that in the middle and started working my way out. Two of my experiences that I had at the shack pretty much handed me a couple of other essays; Escudillo being one of them about the last grizzly bear that was killed in Arizona, and a Marshland Elegy. The Marshland Elegy especially was really handed to me from that experience when I walked out of the shack and just before sunset and I heard crane. I walked down to the river and there were 200 cranes sitting on a sandbar. That’s twice as many cranes as Leopold estimated were in all of Wisconsin back in the 30s and 40s.
The fourth essay that I touch on is the Land Ethic. I originally left it out of the play which is ironic because Leopold originally didn’t include it in his book. I ran every version of the script. I wore out the people at the Foundation. I kept sending them scripts and they kept sending me feedback and they felt very strongly that the Land Ethic needed to be in there and they were right. I don’t quote extensively from it, but I give the audience an idea of what the Land Ethic is all about and, you know, that might be the most important thing he gave us. One could argue. He gave us so many things, but …
Mr. Madison: Doing Leopold without the Land Ethic would be like doing Gone With The Wind without _____. People would miss it and then probably ask you …
Mr. Pfitzer: That’s an interesting analogy. Let’s just go with it.
Mr. Madison: Tell us a little bit about what you did before you became Aldo Leopold?
Mr. Pfitzer: Well, I’ve been making my living as a storyteller for about 15 years now -- full time for five, well, no, for almost 7 years full time; part time before that. Leading up to that, I basically spent my twenties living out of a Volkswagon bus. I grew my hair to my waist. I grew a big beard. I went to Grateful Dead shows and along the way I was a rafting guide on the Snake River. I ran a hostel in Redwood National Park.
I worked with Birds of Prey in a big program in Arizona, not realizing that what I was doing was building stories and, in fact, it was my experience in Arizona that led to me being a storyteller when I went into a school with a bunch of birds of prey. When I was loading my bus back up and I was putting this little kestrel in his box to put in the bus, it just dawned on me that you know when I was 17 years old I went dove hunting and I accidentally shot a kestrel. One of the biggest moments of my life. You can imagine how that affected me and the officer who wrote me up, made me stand in the office and watch that bird die.
Well, it dawned on me that, you know, I’m giving these kids all these great facts and information, but if I told them that story I might make a bigger difference so I wrote the story and it wasn’t long before schools were starting to call me instead of the wildlife rehab center saying would you come and tell your stories.
Mr. Madison: That’s fascinating and actually we’ve been doing the Conservation Lecture Series for fifteen years. We’ve had about 150 people out here and you’re our first storyteller to come out here and from that background, what do you think of Leopold?
Mr. Pfitzer: Well, both fortunately and unfortunately we don’t have any recordings of him speaking. He did a lot of radio shows. I say both fortunately and unfortunately, the Foundation and Leopold scholars would give anything to have a recording of his voice. As a man who plays Leopold on stage, I really don’t want anybody to know what he actually sounded like, but he’s a master storyteller. I mean I honestly --when you read something like Thinking Like A Mountain or Escudillo or even Odyssey I think that while he’s very different, I would put him right up there with Mark Twain as a storyteller.
Mr. Madison: Jim, if people wanted to catch your one man play, where could they find out more about it?
Mr. Pfitzer: They can go to astandardofchange.com, all one word, astandardofchange.com that will take them directly to my website and if you forget that Google Aldo Leopold one man play, Jim. Nobody else is going to come up.
Mr. Madison: Last question. It’s an obvious one. Where did the title come from?
Mr. Pfitzer: Well, the title came right out of the script. The first four shows that I did I was just calling it An Evening With Aldo Leopold. I knew that was a lousy title, but I didn’t have anything else. Again, Thinking Like A Mountain is right at the center of the play and that really outlines a huge change that he made in his life based on his experience and Albert Hochbaum, his graduate student and later dear friend of his, who challenged him to write that essay in one of his letters told him that Aldo Leopold was more of a standard than a person. He said much, much more than that, but I thought okay, he really did set a standard for us and so I started questioning well, what is that standard? And there’s several, you know, there’s certainly his ethical standard, but I think that that standard of change – I don’t know. It really shows us who he is. He wasn’t afraid to say I was wrong. More than anybody I�������ve ever read in terms of conservationists recognized that if we don’t change our ways as we recognize that we’re wrong, we’re in a lot of trouble.
Mr. Madison: Jim, thank you very much. We’ve been speaking with Jim Pfitzer who is going to perform his one man play called Aldo Leopold a Standard of Change here at the National Conservation Training Center this evening and hopefully around the country over the next year or so. So thanks again, Jim and thank you all.
Mr. Pfitzer: Thank you, Mark.
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