Jim Pfitzer found his voice at an early age and has never stopped
In this age of climate change, we are facing the intersection of human progress and wildness. Chattanooga’s own storyteller, playwright, and actor Jim Pfitzer is addressing this issue with a monumental one-man production. “Aldo Leopold—A Standard of Change” is about how one man struggled with that intersection and changed his thinking as a result.
From a young age, Jim was very sad and deeply troubled by the world he saw around him. “I have very distinct, clear memories of being in the back of my parent’s station wagon, looking out at power lines, neon lights, and asphalt, and being deeply troubled, feeling like the world should be something different than that,” he says. “There should be woods out there! I felt like we had lost touch with the world around us, but I didn’t have the words for it, didn’t fully understand it.”
Years later, a friend gave Jim a copy of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. When he read it, it was as if an old uncle had put his arm around him and said “All that sadness you’ve been feeling is justified, it is right—but all is not lost—let’s go on a journey together.” Jim found Leopold’s writing to be so poetic, so perfect, that he didn’t know what to do with it.
Jim began his storytelling career back in the early ‘90s. At the time he was wandering around, living in an old Volkswagen bus out west. He took a volunteer job in Phoenix at a wildlife rehabilitation center, and began going to schools and events, showing injured birds of prey. He realized that he wanted to get an important message about conservation across; to do something more than just show the birds and repeat facts.
He remembered going dove hunting when he was 17 years old and accidentally shooting a Kestrel. He thought that telling the story in school would be something real that the children could relate to. Through his story, they would be able to see the bird dying and hear about the consequences. He told the story at the next class he went to, and the kids and teacher were deeply moved. They loved it, they didn’t want him to leave, and they wanted more stories.
Almost overnight, Jim was getting paid to tell stories about conservation. He immediately realized that at some point he needed to use the work of Leopold. He knew it was true as people were moved to tears when he first performed the essay “Thinking Like a Mountain”.
He contacted the Aldo Leopold foundation, and drove to Wisconsin to thoroughly study the author. They opened up the Leopold archives, and he began writing. He spent a night in Leopold’s shack, a chicken coop where the author lived and wrote.
He was inspired when he heard the sound of Sandhill Cranes outside the shack—in 1947, Leopold did a survey, and estimated fewer than 100 of them were left. Jim was reminded of a passage in the Almanac: “Out of some far recess of the sky, a twinkling of little bells falls softly upon the listening land. Then comes a baying of some sweet-throated hound, soon the clamor of the responding pack, then a far clear blast of hunting horns out of the sky into the fog, high horns, low horns, silence, then finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness.”
As he reread the passage, Jim watched two hundred cranes turn into two thousand, evidence of the great conservation work inspired by Aldo Leopold. He decided that the story must be presented in first person.
After spending months writing, Jim sent the script to Trish Wileman, who agreed to direct the play. She created and directed all of the action, and Jim designed the set, a reproduction of Leopold’s shack. The play debuted at the Chattanooga Theater Center, and has since been performed all over North America. “Everything on the land has intrinsic value. I had to do Leopold, I had to share his story,” Jim explains
Hear Jim do a reading from his next project, about the American Chestnut Blight, on Tuesday, Aug. 30th from 7 to 8 p.m. at Star Line Books, 1467 Market St.