Each of the story tellers in Jared Flesher’s new documentary “Sourlands” speaks from his unique experience.
Biologists Mike Van Clef and Hannah Suthers show us a forest that has lost many of its native plants. Suthers searches in vain for an ash seedling. Public defense attorney Matt Katzenbach shows how his solar panels save energy and money. Young farmer Aubrey Yarbrough recounts challenges she faced working the land in record breaking heat. Engineer Savraj Singh Dhanjal shows us a device he designed that can save individuals money on energy costs. Chuck and Bru Katzenbach of Sweet Sourland Farms talk about their energy efficient home and farm, and keeping up with soaring property taxes. In the end, these are all stories about sustainability and dedication.
If you missed the “Sourlands” world premiere at Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater, you still have a chance see the film –– for free –– at the Princeton Public Library, Wednesday, July 11, at 7 p.m.
Flesher knew he wanted be a writer when he was about 12 years old growing up in Raritan Township. His father Mark, a union carpenter, and his mother Donna, a stay-at-home mom, supported his writing ambitions in whatever way they could, including sending him to a writing summer camp.
He became co-editor of his high school newspaper and earned a degree in journalism from the University of Richmond. Flesher spent his early career years reporting for the Christian Science Monitor in Boston and the Courier News in Bridgewater. At the Courier News, he was expected to write two or three stories a day, including interviews and research.
“Being a daily newspaper reporter is one of the toughest jobs there is,” Flesher says.
But Flesher found the rewards of being a writer outweighed the challenges because he was always meeting new people and learning new things.
Writer and director-producer Flesher knows a bit about sustainability and dedication firsthand. One of his stories, “His energy bill is $0.00,” published in 2007, centered on Mike Strizki, who lives in the nation’s first solar-hydrogen house in East Amwell. The story became popular, and Flesher received comments from several readers, including one from Romania.
After this success, Flesher knew he wanted to focus on environmental sustainability. In January, 2008, Flesher, who believes in practicing what he preaches, announced on a newly created blog, Farmbedded, that he had signed up for a three-month internship living and working on Howell Living History Farm outside of Lambertville. The internship would start in late February.
“As a farm intern, I envision myself shoveling a lot of manure, but my hope and expectation is that I’ll also learn many things about all the different aspects of running a farm and growing food,” Flesher wrote.
“The primary purpose is to preserve and practice the animal-powered farming techniques of the late-19th century. So they farm here like it’s 1890. I’ve already met the oxen and they are as big as SUVs.”
Flesher embraced his internship role, shoveled his share of manure, learned how to farm the land, and made new friends. After completing his three-month commitment, Flesher stayed through late December before moving to a small apartment in Hopewell, where he lives now.
His experiences at Howell Farm provided fodder for his first documentary: “The Farmer and the Horse,” released in August, 2010.
Speaking about the film on Grist.org, Flesher said, “they are pursuing an extreme of sustainability that goes well beyond ‘organic.’ They are trying to become horse farmers: not farmers who raise horses that trot on trails and run around racetracks, but farmers who don’t need tractors — or oil — because they drive huge draft horses powered by hay.”
When Flesher decided to make his next film, he knew the location and subject would be the Sourlands.
“All the big issues I’m interested in telling stories about, including global warming, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, and massive species extinction, are all represented in and around this one last forest in Central Jersey called the Sourlands.”
Flesher had recently read “The Pine Barrens,” written by Princeton author John McPhee in the late 1960s, which tells the story of the forest, its history, and the people who live there. Like the Pine Barrens, the Sourlands are a place of natural beauty providing refuge for people and wildlife that are in need of protection. “As a New Jerseyan, I thought, why don’t I turn my camera on the Sourlands?” Flesher said.
As described on the Sourland Planning Council website, www.sourland.org, the 90-square-mile Sourland region includes parts of Hunterdon, Mercer, and Somerset counties, seven municipalities, and four major watersheds. The Sourland ridge comprises a band of unbroken woodlands nearly 20 miles long and approximately 62 square miles in area.
“Directly between New York and Philly, and all those people, there is a forest that has survived the bulldozers of development,” says the narrator of “Sourlands.”
After a few phone calls, Flesher teamed up with a co-producer, Christian Schuller, an independent filmmaker who created the documentary “Growtown Motown,” a story about urban gardening in Morristown. Chris George, a friend from high school who had worked with Flesher on his first film, joined the team as a graphic designer and marketing strategist.
As a filmmaker Flesher draws inspiration from fellow documentarian Errol Morris.
“I think Errol Morris is one of the best documentary filmmakers we have. In particular, a film he made a while ago titled ‘Vernon, Florida’ was another inspiration for “Sourlands.” So when Errol published a book last year titled ‘Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography,’ I scooped it up as soon as I could find it. It’s one of the oddest books I’ve ever read, but in a good way. It’s part investigative journalism, and part philosophical treatise. It explores a very complex question: What about an image captured by a camera is real? And what’s fake? As a filmmaker, it stretched my brain a bit.”
To help fund the documentary Flesher used Kickstarter.com. The website allows an artist to solicit financial backers by describing his project, setting a goal, and offering rewards to people who make pledges. If someone wants to make a donation, he clicks the “Back This Project” button on the project page, selects a reward, and completes the Amazon checkout process. If the project creator reaches his pledge goal within his defined deadline, the backer’s credit card is charged, and the project creator fulfills the promised reward.
Flesher rewarded pledges of $20 with a DVD of Sourlands. For higher amounts, the backer could have his name listed on the film credit roll.
“Crowd funding is something that film makers often use these days. It’s a different way of fundraising,” Flesher said.
Flesher tells the Sourlands story in chapters: the farmers, the forest, and energy. All of these perspectives have at least one thing in common, the fight for sustainability. In Flesher’s words, “These stories, told from one notable green spot on a map, are universal and urgent.”
“Sourlands,” Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Wednesday, July 11, 7 p.m. Free. A special summer event of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Post-screening Q&A with director Jared Flesher, native plant expert Jared Rosenbaum, and Wattvision CEO Savraj Singh. 609-924-9529 or www.princetonlibrary.org. www.sourlands.com.
Dinner and a Movie, Eno Terra, 4484 Route 27, Kingston. Wednesday, July 18, 6 to 8 p.m. $55 includes dinner. Eno Terra’s chef prepares a special meal using ingredients from several of the central New Jersey farms featured in “Sourlands,” including maple syrup from Sweet Sourland Farms in Hopewell and vegetables from Chickadee Creek Farm in Pennington. A special 25-minute version of “Sourlands” that highlights the local farmers who grow our food follows . Director Jared Flesher and special-guest farmers will be available for Q&A. For reservations call 609-497-1777.