A few years ago, Amy Martin shed her skin as a local musician and went back to her roots as a radio journalist. It's not a bad time to make that kind of shift, considering the rise of podcasts and the recent frenzy around nonfiction storytelling like "S-Town." Martin started by making radio stories focused on the intersection of environment and people for NPR's "All Things Considered," Montana Public Radio and National Native News. Last year, she was selected for a Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she's been working on her own podcast project, "Threshold." The first season, released last month, is an in-depth, eight-episode look at bison through the lens of people with whom they share landscapes. Martin, who headed to the Arctic for a new story last week, took some time to talk with the Indy about bison and the challenges of environmental storytelling.
How did you choose to tackle this particularly big, complex topic of bison?
I didn't know anything about bison until I arrived in Montana. And when I did learn about them, I think I probably followed the trajectory a lot of people do: You hear about the bison drama at Yellowstone, you get emotionally hooked, follow it closely for a year or two, and then it starts feeling like you're hearing the same damn thing over and over. I'm not exactly proud of this, but I sort of quit paying attention. I would hear a story about bison and kind of fit it into the narrative that had been presented to me. I couldn't absorb it deeply anymore. There are so many issues like that, and especially environmental issues, where you know it's important, you know you should care. I was trying to figure out how to tell some of those really big, complicated environmental stories with some kind of energy and momentum in the storytelling that makes you want to stay with it instead of feeling like it's beating you down.
How do you think journalism has failed in telling the bison story?
You hear some of the same news stories year after year because they're often told within a very short framework. I think that does lead to reductionist thinking, and kind of makes it so you're not experiencing it as something fresh. It's the nature of the format. The story always got pared down to: Here's somebody from Buffalo Field Campaign, here's the most radical anti-bison rancher we can find. They hate each other. End of story. When really there's more people involved and more nuance there.
You begin the podcast with you in a field describing the bison you see in front of you. How did you decide to start there?
For a while, I was writing and cutting bites without knowing what was the beginning. I knew how important it was, because it's not only the first moments of a show, it's the first moments of a brand new show, and if people don't like it in the first three minutes, they're not going to listen. I had so many ideas, like it shouldn't start in Yellowstone because the bison story is bigger than Yellowstone, and I didn't want it to start with me because I didn't want to be too much of a character, but then when it came down to it, it starts in Yellowstone with me.
That seems like the simplest way to access the bigger story.
Yeah, we kept wondering what it would be like to have never been to Montana or seen a bison or maybe even know they still exist. How do we put you in a moment? So I whittled it down to letting the listener hear it through my ears and see it through my eyes.
How did you divide the episodes?
I had scenes written in shorthand on little pieces of scrap paper and ideas of things I knew I needed to explain, like, what is brucellosis? I was constantly rearranging them on my coffee table into what sort of facts needed to be paired with what scenes. The excruciating part was realizing that I had so many fascinating things and characters that weren't going to make it into the story.
There were at least a couple moments during the season where you let your viewpoint and emotion come through. How did you decide to let those moments happen?
The default mode was for that not to happen. I really didn't want to be much of a character, but just enough to serve a purpose—so the listener has somebody to navigate with. Sometimes it was like, OK, the fact that this thing someone said totally cracked me up, am I going to laugh on the tape? I felt like there were moments that if I let them go by without truly any reaction whatsoever, that would have felt fakey to me. Like, you just talked about people who were shooting bison for fun from trains en masse and you state it without having any kind of emotional response to that? The truth is I don't know if I did it right. We were debating stuff like that as a team up until the last moment.
What's your philosophy for how to tell a good environmental story?
One of my philosophies behind it is that I really don't want to use the word "environmental" if I possibly can help it. That is one of the things I feel strongly about. The moment we start using that word, we've already divided the world into human problems and environmental problems, and that's a false dichotomy. It's a poison that's in our language and our thinking that has a lot to do with the environmental problems we have, and it has a whole lot to do with our inability to think about them productively together as a society. That being said, it is about environmental questions.
Another thing I'm really committed to is getting out in the field. If you're telling a story about a watershed or a creature or a person dealing with an environmental justice issue and you're not there, your story is not going to be as good.
What was the experience like for you, getting out in the field?
I think you can kind of know theoretically that, oh, a lot of ranchers are opposed to bison and a lot of conservationists are for them, but if you're not out there looking at a bison through the eyes of those different communities, your own biases and expectations are going to filter in more than you realize. I had that as an instinct, and it was so borne out with multiple trips to Yellowstone and Native American reservations. I was changed by the in-person experiences. But being committed to telling stories on the ground—it's almost the most expensive way to do reporting. For a tiny little nonprofit startup with no backing, it's totally dumb. I've had multiple people say, "You're doing this the hardest possible way you could." But why do it otherwise? I don't want to sit in some office somewhere talking to people on the phone. That's not the way to tell a story about our interactions with the natural world.
What's the next big thing for you?
I figured, you know, after spending 18 months running around Montana researching and interviewing people on bison, I would do something really small and modest. [She laughs.] The goal is to spend the whole summer in the Arctic reporting from all eight Arctic countries, embedding in communities and spending several weeks with anyone who will let me. I want to tell some of the big important stories through the eyes of the people who are living there. This whole mission I'm on to not divide the world into human vs. environment—I don't think you can divide it there. From what I can tell, you can't tell a human story there without also talking about ice and polar bears and deforestation and all the other stuff. But we'll see. I'll be learning as I go.