Coastal Dune Lakes Film to Screen at Tampa’s Britton 8 Theatre

Coastal Dune Lakes Film to Screen at Tampa’s Britton 8 Theatre

Mother Nature’s Ecosystem Masterpiece On Display for One Night ONLY


Nov. 11, 2015: The Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival (TBUFF) will host a public screening of the award-winning documentary “Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast” on Friday, December 4th, from 5:10-6:10 at the Britton 8 Theatre in Tampa. The film will be screened as part of the festival. Afterward, Emmy award-winning filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus and screenwriter Nic Stoltzfus will host a Q&A. Tickets are $6 and can be purchased at the theatre box office.

“Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast” is a feature-length documentary that paints a picture of northwest Florida’s highly unique ecosystem. These lakes are home to a diverse group of endangered species—such as the loggerhead sea turtle, the snowy plover, and the Choctawhatchee beach mouse. Offering locals and visitors a peaceful haven, the lakes have generated an increase in human activity, resulting in positive and negative effects. Mr. Stoltzfus takes you on a sweeping journey from Australia to the United States and shows how these lakes are fragile, unique, and instrumental to the local economy.

The film is currently airing on Public Television throughout the U.S. With a silver and three bronze Telly awards to its credit and three Suncoast Emmy Award nominations, Mr. Stoltzfus has previously screened the film in several other film festivals including the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, the Orlando Film Festival, and the Apalachicola Riverfront Film Festival.

The Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival was founded by award-winning Bay Area filmmakers, actors, critics, artists and cinephiles to highlight independent films. TBUFF showcases independent films of all genres from all over the world—just as long as the films are “indie, interesting, and innovative.”

Contact: TBUFF staff,

UPDATE (11/18/2015): TBUFF is pleased to announce that the coastal dune lakes film has been nominated for a 2015 Buffy Award in the “Best Documentary” category. Awards will be announced Friday, December 5th.



Press Release

Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast Nominated For Music, Photography, and Writing


October 19th, 2015

Pembroke Pines, Florida—The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Suncoast Chapter, announced today the 2015 Suncoast EMMY® Award nominees.

The Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast documentary film was nominated in three categories: Music, Photography, and Writing.

Eric Schrotenboer is the composer for the film. Schrotenboer has written music for more than 100 short films, a feature film, several feature length documentaries, numerous commercials and TV spots, and special effect theaters and museum projects.  He has also written a classical ballet, and a variety of children’s projects. This is his first Emmy nomination.

Elam Stoltzfus is the cinematographer for the film. Stoltzfus has been documenting natural Florida for over 30 years, and this film is his sixth feature-length film on Florida. In 2013, he was awarded an Emmy from the Suncoast Chapter for his work on the film, Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition: Everglades to Okefenokee.

Nic Stoltzfus is the screenwriter for the film. Stoltzfus has written several shorts featured on Florida public television, and his work has been featured in regional film festivals. He also wrote a coffee table book that is a companion to the film. This is his first Emmy nomination.

The 39th annual Suncoast EMMY® Awards will be announced on Saturday, December 5th, at a reception at the Westin Beach Resort in Ft. Lauderdale Beach, Florida.

About The Suncoast Regional Emmies:

The Suncoast Chapter of The National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is a nonprofit Florida corporation dedicated to excellence in television. We offer annual EMMY® Awards called The Suncoast EMMY® Awards to television markets in the entire State of Florida, Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles and New Orleans, Louisiana, Mobile, Alabama, Thomasville, Georgia and Puerto Rico.

About Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast:

Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast is a one hour documentary film that showcases the coastal dune lakes of northwest Florida. Many rare and endangered animals are found along these lakes from sea turtles to beach mice to shorebirds. The film takes you on a journey from Florida to New South Wales, Australia, to reveal to viewers what makes these lakes unique and what humans can do to protect these fragile ecosystems.

2015 Emmy Award Nominees

2015 Emmy Award Nominees

Coastal Dune Lakes Fall 2015 Events

Note: All events Central Time, unless otherwise noted

October 2nd: The Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast documentary will be shown from 6:30-7:30 pm in the St. Andrews State Park Amphitheater as part of the 2015 Walk Into the Wild Event, sponsored by the Friends of St. Andrews State Park. There will be free park admission for participants.

October 3rd: Elam and Nic Stoltzfus will be doing a series of nature walks in St. Andrews State Park with a focus on photography.The tours begin at 8:45, 9:45, and 10:45. You can find more information about Walk Into the Wild and sign up for these walks here.

October 9th: Nic Stoltzfus will give a 30-minute presentation about communicating science to the general public, using the dune lakes film as his example, at the 8th annual Mattie Kelly Environmental Symposium held at the Northwest Florida State College (Niceville Campus) Science Building Auditorium. More information TBA.

October 10th: An excerpt from the Coastal Dune Lakes film, as well as the Apalachicola Riverview short, will be shown as part of the 2015 Apalachicola Riverfront Film Festival. The event is from 6-10 pm Eastern Time. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

October 15th: Nic Stoltzfus will speak at the Emerald Coast Meditation Society on the topic of “Writing as a Meditative Activity.” Included in the presentation will be examples from the coastal dune lakes project. Starts at 6:30 pm at the Christ the King Episcopal Church in South Walton. E-mail Nancy James for more information

October 17th: Book signing at The Hidden Lantern with Elam & Nic Stoltzfus from 10-12 am.

October 17th: Book signing at The Blue Giraffe with Elam & Nic Stoltzfus from 2-4 pm.

October 18th: Book signing at Sundog Books with Elam & Nic Stoltzfus from 12-2 pm.

October 23rd: Lecture and book signing as part of the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City. The lecture “Journeys Across Florida’s Biodiversity” is part of the Biodiversity Conference and will begin at 9:00 am EST at NYU 5 Washington Place. Click here for more information.

October 25th: Coastal Dune Lakes film shown as part of the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City. It is part of Series 13, and will be shown as part of a series from 11-1 pm EST at the Anthology Film Archives. There will also be a Q&A afterwords. Click here for tickets and more information.

October 21st-25th: Coastal Dune Lakes film shown as part of the Orlando Film Festival. The film will be screened at the Cobb Plaza Cinema Café. More information TBA.

October 29th: Coastal Dune Lakes film will be featured as part of a fundraising event at Apalachicola Arsenal, Florida State Hospital, Chattahoochee. Even begins at 6:30 pm EST. Contact Linda Hyatt Kranert for more information.

November 1st: Book and photo featured at Chipola College’s Sunday Afternoon with the Arts. Event from 1-4 at the Chipola Cultural Center. For more information, click here.

November 14th:  Photography Workshop with Nic Stoltzfus at the Blountstown Public Library from 10-12 pm. Workshop will focus on the the foundations of composition. Contact Amy Alderman for more information. Update: This event has been charged to Saturday, January 16th. Same place and time.

December 4thScreening of the Coastal Dune Lakes: Jewels of Florida’s Emerald Coast film as part of the Tampa Bay Underground Film Festival. The film will be screened from 5:10 to 6:10 with a Q&A afterwards with the filmmakers. For more information, click here.

December 5th: Presentation by Nic Stoltzfus to the Writers of South Walton group at the South Walton County Coastal Branch Library. Stoltzfus will talk about the process of writing the coastal dune lakes book with a Q&A following. Presentation begins at 10:30 am. More information TBA. Update: This event has been changed to Saturday, January 9th. Same place and time.

If you would like to do an event featuring the Coastal Dune Lakes book or documentary, send an e-mail to

Meeting Clyde Butcher

By Joey Dickinson

March 6th, 2015

The first time I ever set foot in a Clyde Butcher gallery was on, or at least very close, to my 18th birthday. It was in the middle of summer, in-between my last year of high school and my first semester as a college student. I had just graduated from Fort Myers High School in the International Baccalaureate program and would soon be on my way to studying media production at Florida State University. If you’re a kid growing up in southwest Florida, or really anywhere in Florida for that matter, it’s difficult to not come across a Clyde Butcher photograph every couple of blinks. I’d examined Clyde’s work in school, my entire family (especially my older sister, Lauren) was familiar and infatuated with his pictures, and I had seen his work hanging in county offices, visitor’s centers, and even tourist pamphlets – but I’d never had the pleasure of strolling through the landscape-laden corridors of either of his galleries. My girlfriend at the time had decided that this deprivation had gone on long enough, and gifted me a birthday trip to Venice, solely to see the gallery. And what a gift it was. I got lost in every frame. I could stare at any one of the images for hours – the depth of each image exposed what I was born into, what I’d spent years of my childhood seeking; the atmosphere of my Floridian psyche. From innumerable family camping trips to Fisheating Creek, I felt like I was canoeing right into his images of densely wooded waterways, careful to watch for alligators. From years of hiking through endless hammocks with Boy Scouts, I could feel the unforgiving heat beating down on me, and feel the saw grass pulling on my pant-legs in his images of saw grass prairies and open cloudscapes. After getting my driver’s license, I had an affinity to go the extra mile to seek out the most isolated beaches around me, and I could hear nothing but the constant backbeat of waves, and I could even smell the saltwater in his images of the coast. I’d been to all of these places – I really recognized them! Perhaps I hadn’t been to the exact coordinates at which the images were taken, but every single scene seemed akin to me, as if each one struck a different chord on the strings of my memories.

Clouds Over Gulf.

Clouds Over Gulf. Image by Joey Dickinson.

While the majority of my high school classes hardly sparked more interest than necessary, I did enjoy analyzing literature for underlying poetic connotations, being able to make videos –more often than not, ridiculous – for the school news, and of course, being able to make friends with those who had similar interests. However, there was, in fact, one single course that I was, and still am, incredibly grateful for – a course that would, in probably more ways than I can even understand, change the course of my life from then on – photography. I had messed around with video cameras since middle school, mostly to make people laugh, and had fooled around with still photography to capture moments, not necessarily images, but I had never had it explained like this before. Photography as an art form – even more importantly – photography as an art form driven by a purpose. My instructor, Mrs. Pam Schwantes, was remarkable not only in her ability to explain visual artistic concepts in a highly-comprehensible manner, but also in the way in which she could open up the eyes of her students to their own artistic capabilities. I began to understand that the same thing I was doing in English class could be applied visually. Nothing has to be accidental, and anything can be emotionally or poetically significant.

Along with an outstanding teacher, this photography class was also significantly different than most others in that we had access to a darkroom, and all of the supplies necessary to use it. Thus began my fascination with the aesthetic of film photography versus digital. It was so much more physical, so much more personal – the analogue route. It was also more complicated, in a sense, and there was many a student, myself being one of them, who would tragically lose an entire roll of film, containing what they were sure were the greatest negatives ever exposed. I came to love the intimate delicacy of this art form, and all of the tiny emotions that developed with it, and for reasons beyond my comprehension or ability to explain, black and white images struck me on an entirely different level than color. The best explanation of this sensation that I’ve found so far is from one of my favorite artists, Cole Thompson: “For me, color records the image, but black and white captures the feelings that lie beneath the surface.”

Old Car Interior. Image by Cole Thompson.

Old Car Interior. Image by Cole Thompson.

And then there’s Clyde. Not only was he using film, but large format film, which took the unique sense of clarity and depth of film that I had taken to and enlarged it immensely, yielding images so massive, you really feel like you’re inside of them. The subject matter was what really drew me in – capturing the many unique, fragile, and not to mention beautiful, faces of Florida – all on a medium that seemed to match the delicacy of the subject itself – black and white. Photographing Florida in black and white? This guy had to be nuts to have even tried it, but it worked more than perfectly. He wasn’t trying to simply document a river, or a saw grass prairie, or the beach, but rather, he was attempting to capture, as Thompson said, “…the feelings that lie beneath the surface.” And he does a magnificent job. Earlier, I explained how each of these images seemed so familiar to me, and fired off different memories deep down inside. However, the thing about Clyde’s images is that a viewer needs not have actually been to these places at all for them to trigger emotions. Large portions of Floridians are too busy, too tired, too uninspired, or simply uninterested to go exploring and find these treasures, clearly visible in their own back yard. On the same note, tourists from out of state most usually stick to the streets and sidewalks of Florida, seeing these places from car windows or visitor’s centers. I remember seeing images of Clyde chest deep in the water of a swamp, hands raised, adjusting his camera to capture an image. Wading in Florida’s notoriously alligator-filled swamp-water is not first on a typical local’s to-do list, let alone any tourist. It seemed that Clyde’s standpoint is, ‘if they won’t go out and see for themselves, I’ll bring it to them.’ But it doesn’t stop there. The images were intended not only for exposing the bare wilderness of Florida, but to inspire people to actually go see it for themselves, and to protect what still remains natural out there. Conservation photography to its highest extent.

Mrs. Schwantes allowed students to photograph whatever inspired them, encouraging us to delve into the field and seek out our favorite themes, motifs, an subjects. I couldn’t begin to list the outstanding artists I studied in my photography class, heck, I filled out two books of research on them; From James Nachtwey, photographing the harsh cruelties of war and imprisonment, to Jerry Uelsmann, exploring the spirit of consciousness in surrealism, everyone had a different mission. From this research, we were to create our own mission statement as students of photography. What I ended up writing down was more geared to my actual photos, but if you were to ask what I wanted to do with photography, I’d say, “I want to make people think.” Out of all of the artists I’d studied, Clyde did this most extensively, in a way I could most instinctively relate to.

Leaving Clyde’s Venice gallery, I glanced back at the door to his famous darkroom, undoubtedly containing over-sized enlargers and chemical baths. “I really, really hope I get to go in there one day,” I thought to myself. I left the gallery with an expanded focus. While my subject of focus in my class in high school was along the lines of “what humans have left behind,” I began to bring my camera with me on trips out on the water, or anywhere in nature, and attempted to photograph what I saw in black and white, to capture all of those hidden emotions of each place. Unfortunately, having graduated, I no longer had access to a darkroom, but nevertheless, I would continue utilizing what I had.

Cape San Blas.

Cape San Blas. Image by Joey Dickinson.

Cayo Costa

Cayo Costa. Image by Joey Dickinson.

Fast-forward two years. I’ve just finished my second year at Florida State, my first in the Media Production program, and I’ve somehow managed to land an internship with Elam Stoltzfus – independent documentary producer/director. “I’ve found that production is what I’m best at, and I love Florida, and you combine those two better than anyone else,” I told Elam when we first met. Meeting him was seemingly miraculous – how often does a college student meet someone who does exactly what they’d like to do – let alone get to work with them? I couldn’t help but admire Elam for his expansive repertoire of self-produced work, all about the unique and dynamic environment of Florida. He had a way of combining art and environmentalism in a highly educational way – through film, my medium of choice.    As it turns out, Elam has been close friends with Clyde Butcher for over 25 years, and it was during this summer internship that I would get to meet him – although it would be about 3,000 miles away from where I’d envisioned meeting him. Elam had been documenting Clyde’s work off-and-on for those 25 years, and planned on creating a feature-length film on his life in the near future. For this film, however, Elam wanted to get footage of Clyde in the Redwood Forest, the place where he first began taking photographs of the environment. At the same time, Clyde and his wife, Niki, would be heading to the Redwoods that summer on their 50th wedding anniversary. The timing could not be more perfect, and Elam decided to take me along for assistance, and perhaps someone to talk to on the extensive journey.

Elam and I flew from Panama City to Atlanta, and from there to San Francisco. Throughout the entire duration of the flight, I was mesmerized, and I felt so small, watching the entire country pass slowly beneath me. We landed in San Francisco, passed over the Golden Gate Bridge, and then drove about five hours north to Humboldt County – in the heart of the Redwood Forest. For most of the drive, I was completely silent, in awe of the towering monoliths that Mother Nature had erected around me. As you can imagine, all of this in one day was pretty overwhelming, but once we got to Humboldt, I was more than ecstatic at the thought of meeting Clyde and Niki. We met at a small diner, and I was introduced. Over a home-cooked meal, I kept mostly quiet, letting Elam and his old friends talk. “Can you believe it? This is finally happening!” Elam exclaimed. It was humbling, to say the least, to hear these folks talk. Clyde and Niki had been on the road for a few months by then, and were delighted to be with someone they knew, and let their thoughts spill out to Elam. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world, being able to hear Clyde talk to Elam about so many things I would never have heard him say if I simply met him at an open house. I was surprised at how humorous Clyde was, having taken his work so seriously. Thinking about it now, I shouldn’t have been surprised at the time, but indeed I was, to see how his passion seeps into each and every conversation he’d hold. When it came to environmental politics, present and past, he was excitingly knowledgeable, and could talk forever; I mean it – forever, about camera technology. I especially enjoyed listening to a conversation between he and Peter Portugal, a friend he’d made in college and probably hadn’t seen in over 35 years. Clyde and Peter were both architecture students who couldn’t draw, so they built their own cameras, and photographed architectural models, rather than drawing them. They were way ahead of their time.

A panorama of Joey, Elam, and Clyde in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.

A panorama of Joey, Elam, and Clyde in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.

Clyde, Joey, and Elam  in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.

Clyde, Joey, and Elam in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.

Clyde, a park ranger, Elam, and Joey in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.

Clyde, a park ranger, Elam, and Joey in the Redwood Forest in California. Image by Niki Butcher.

While talking to Clyde was interesting, I particularly enjoyed getting to know his wife. I could talk to Niki about anything that had to do with art for hours on end – she really gets it. She has a deep understanding of artistic quality, as well as a deep understanding of people. As I said, I felt lucky, but I knew it was much more than luck – this experience was an enormous blessing.

I try to draw inspiration from anything and everything, from what I see out the window, to what I hear on the radio, to ancient paintings – and that certainly is easier said than done. However, the one muse that inspires me the most is people. People always surprise me, and always will. I know that this brush with greatness, this opportunity to work with and get to know the Butchers, happened to me for a reason, and I intend to use the experience to create the best work possible upon the production of this documentary – to do this family, and their incredible story, justice. We are currently in the pre-production stages of creating this biographic film, and I am studying as much as I can to gain a clear understanding of Clyde’s life story, his artistic process, and his art itself.

To be a part of the creation of this film is beyond anything I’d ever dreamed of doing. It’s like a dream come true –five years in the making for me, but for Elam and Clyde, it’s a dream come true more than 25 years in the making. I suppose I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, but I’ll be the first to appreciate it, and plan on pouring my heart into this project, as Clyde and Elam have poured theirs into their work for so long. As Elam says, Clyde has been giving and giving for decades, and the time has come to finally give something to him. As an artist, passionate advocate, and educator, Clyde has given the State of Florida something priceless, and I hope you will join us in telling this truly remarkable story.

Birds Taking Flight.

Birds Taking Flight. Image by Joey Dickinson.

A few months ago, Elam sent me to Clyde’s Venice gallery to create an Amendment 1 PSA. Clyde and I being the only people in the gallery, I asked him to show me his darkroom, and he happily gave me a personal tour. Talk about a dream come true….


Postscript: Currently, Joey is editing a series of short videos for a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to do a full-length Public Television documentary on Clyde Butcher. If the fundraising efforts are successful, Joey will edit the entire film. 


PRESS RELEASE: Clyde Butcher Documentary Kickstarter

Clyde Butcher and Elam Stoltzfus while filming "Apalachicola River: An American Treasure" (2006)

Clyde Butcher and Elam Stoltzfus while filming “Apalachicola River: An American Treasure” (2006)

Award-Winning Filmmaker Elam Stoltzfus and Celebrated Wilderness Photographer Clyde Butcher Take a New Approach with Online Campaign to Raise Funds Independently.

Elam Stoltzfus, Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker, and environmental activist Clyde Butcher, known for his exquisite black and white, large format photographs of the landscape, turn to alternative funding sources for their latest feature film collaboration – a documentary featuring the life of Clyde Butcher. With just 29 days to fund, the process is challenging both the online fundraising template and the collaborators resolve.


Tallahassee, FL (WEB) March 3rd, 2015 – Butcher and Stoltzfus are turning to the Internet to raise funds for their latest feature film project on Clyde Butcher. They will be seeking support for fundraising through the online crowd-funding site,

In line with guidelines, artists have a set number of days to raise all the funds, or the project receives nothing. Stoltzfus’ film has a 29-day fundraising window, from start to finish. If the allotted budget ($179,000 US) isn’t raised before March 31st, all pledges are cancelled and the film will not be funded.

When asked about why Kickstarter was appealing, Elam noted, “This model provides an opportunity for many people to be a part of telling Clyde’s story. We can join together to create a piece of art that reflects both Clyde’s photographic story and his involvement with the environment.”

This is no ordinary project. Clyde Butcher and Elam Stoltzfus have worked with each other for more than 25 years, and Stoltzfus sees Butcher as being his mentor and one of his closest friends. Butcher is fully supportive of this film, stating: “I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else but Elam because he really knows me. And I think that’s very important.” As a feature-length documentary film, it will use interviews of Clyde’s friends and family to tell a universal story of one man’s journey through love, loss, and life. Thematically organized around key moments in Clyde’s life that reflect a wide range of human emotion and experience, the film seeks to reveal a larger more complex portrait of the artist.

Many interviews have already been filmed and will include interviews with Clyde dating back to 1989. Additional footage will be shot on high-definition broadcast-quality equipment. Upon successful funding, Stoltzfus expects to deliver the final cut before the end of the year. To learn more about the film, readers can visit the project’s pitch page here:


About Elam Stoltzfus:
Elam previously directed an award-winning half-hour documentary on Clyde Butcher, Visions of Florida: The Photographic Art of Clyde Butcher, in 1990 that was shown nationwide on Public Television. His directed works include six feature-length nature documentaries on the state of Florida, four of which were shown nationwide on Public Television.

Elam Stoltzfus
Stoltzfus Media

A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part III: Filming for a Kickstarter and a Harmonica/Guitar Duo

By Nic Stoltzfus

Sunday, March 1st

The Sunday of Presidents’ Day weekend, we began the day by filming the intro to the Kickstarter short video. Brief interlude: What is Kickstarter? And what does it have to do with Clyde?

The reason we had traveled to south Florida in the first place was to start filming video for a documentary on Clyde Butcher. For all of my dad’s previous projects he has had corporate sponsors but, this time around, he wanted to try a new model. Clyde has a large fan base that really believe in him and what he does. Maybe there is way to include his fans in making the film? Turns out this is exactly what Kickstarter is for–gather a large group of people together to fund a project. In this case, it is a documentary on the life of Clyde Butcher. We are starting our campaign on March 3rd (just 2 days away!), and this is the first time our company has tried this model. I, for one, am really excited about this because our team not only gets bigger but exponentially so. We become one large group of people working together to form something larger than ourselves. I must confess that to work on this sort of project with a large team has been a dream of mine since I was a kid. I didn’t dream of being a cowboy or a cop. I dreamed of working for Pixar or Nintendo and sitting down at a table and creating a movie or a video game that people would enjoy, remember, and take with them. So, yes, I the idea of a Kickstarter is exciting to me. I want it to work, and I want to write a documentary on Clyde that people will enjoy. (And here is my shameless plug: we really do need your help to make it happen. If you want to support this check back here on Tuesday evening at 8:30 PM EST–we will have the link for the Kickstarter posted and it will be live from March 3rd-31st. Thank you! Now you can go back to enjoying the article.)


Anyway, back to the swamp: The opening shot for the Kickstarter video is my dad standing knee-deep in the Big Cypress Swamp behind Clyde’s Big Cypress Gallery. Joey was running the camera and I was taking pictures of our set-up. It was then that I stopped for a moment to think about it all. The last time I was here doing swamp walks was as a kid. Little did I know that as an adult I would be back filming with my Dad working on a documentary on Clyde Butcher. I thought it was a really cool way to start things off: Here we are, back at the place where my Dad first met Clyde over 25 years ago (before I was even a twinkle in his eye!), and we are creating a documentary on his life story.

A panoramic of Elam Stoltzfus delivering the intro to the Kickstarter short while Joey Dickinson films. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A panoramic of Elam Stoltzfus delivering the intro to the Kickstarter short while Joey Dickinson films. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


Nic on a swamp walk with his dad, Elam.

Nic on a swamp walk with his dad, Elam.


Trying to get a photo of baby gators. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

Trying to get a photo of baby gators. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

A baby gator. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A baby gator. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


After this, Joey and I filmed another swamp walk. When we finished cleaning up, our crew left for Everglades City for a late lunch. We stopped at Camellia Street Grill, found a table outside, and waited for our food to arrive. There was a slight breeze and not a cloud in the sky. It was nice to feel the sun on my face—February in north Florida is still cold and cloudy, and the warmth was a welcome precursor to spring. In a way, though, since south Florida is partly tropical, it is eternal spring. Some people like this. I like a bit of cold weather and cloudy days if only because it makes me appreciate sunshine and warmth even more. Plus, as my momma told me, “too much sunshine leaves you burned.”

Nic and Joey with their swamp walk crew.

Nic and Joey with their swamp walk crew.


Once we finished eating, we picked up a quart of ice cream for the swamp crew, and headed back to the gallery. I read a few more short stories from my Flannery O’Conner book before dark and then headed upstairs to meet up with the rest of the swamp crew. Later that evening, Joey got out his guitar and played for us while John, one of the muck-about guides and employee at Big Cypress National Preserve, played harmonica. It was a really good set and they meshed well together even thought they had only known each other for less than two days. The second song in, Joey sang a modified version of Bob Dylan’s ballad “Motorpsycho Nightmare”; he switched the main character to Clyde and changed the setting to Florida. It was amusing and elicited whistles and loud applause after the duo finished the song.


Later in the evening he played one of my favorite songs, “Laundry Room” by the Avett Brothers. I really like the refrain: “I am a breathing time machine.” Since the song is about the ephemerality of love, I thought those words to be quite poignant. Not only is the song beautifully written, but there are some complex chords in the piece and Joey has continued to practice it and has gotten quite good.


After he finished his set, we went to bed, all of us ready to head back to Blountstown the next day. Before I went to sleep, I lay in bed thinking about all the great things we did over the last few days. It was a great trip, and I couldn’t wait to look through all the photos and video from the last few days.


Joey and John playing up a storm. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

Joey and John playing up a storm. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.


A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part II: Valentine’s Day in the Swamp

By Nic Stoltzfus

February 28th, 2015


Swamp Crew Valentine's Day cake

Swamp Crew Valentine’s Day cake


Before I begin this post, let me begin with a preface: I am single. And in my mid-twenties.


This is a period of time when relatives begin to turn up the heat on finding a companion. I have discovered that uncles are particularly zealous in this task. In fact, it is usually the first question they ask me. “Sooooo, Nic, how is your LOVE life?” I have taken to finding creative responses for this question. To one uncle I replied, “Well, I was thinking the same thing—how is your love life with Aunt B.?” To another quizzing uncle at a family dinner, I nodded my head at my likewise unmarried cousin a few years younger than me and replied, “The same as your daughter’s love life: I’m happily single and open to options.” The most fervent attempt to find me a mate was one uncle’s crusade in online dating on my behalf. “Nic, I could sign you up for Christian Mingle or EHarmony. They even have a dating site for guys living in rural areas called ‘Farmers Only.’” I was mortified.


With all this being said, when I found out that I was going to be going to the Big Cypress Swamp to film swamp walks on Valentine’s Day, I punched my fists in the air and yelled a heroic, “Heck ya! I got plans for V-Day!” You see, I hadn’t been on a swamp walk since I was a kid. I grew up with a swamp behind the house in north Florida, and I am endlessly fascinated by all the bugs and critters hiding in those murky waters. A date with the swamp was just the thing.


The night before V-Day Dad, Joey, and I drove to the Big Cypress Swamp Gallery from Miami after filming one of Clyde’s new galleries opening in Coconut Grove.


On Valentine’s Day, I woke up early and spent the morning drinking coffee with my Dad, Clyde Butcher, and his wife, Niki. They soon left and went out to get ready for the swamp walks. After everyone left, I got my laptop and plopped down on the big sofa upstairs in the cabin overlooking the swamp. It was quiet. Peaceful. All I could hear was the whirring of overhead fans and the muted ticking of a bird-shaped clock on the wall. I looked out through the large glass panels and witnessed the brilliant and bright-white morning light slashing through cypress limbs and filtering downward, slowed by fern fronds and bromeliad leaves. The sunbeams reached the black surface of swamp water and reflected upward on the cypress trunks and knees, the soft strands of light rippling on the rough bark like a glittering harp.


I took another sip of coffee and thought about what Niki told me this morning. She said that there was a man who was giving a presentation on ecology and, at the beginning, he handed everyone a blue marble. At the end of the presentation he asked everyone to get out their blue marbles and hold it in their right hand with their thumb and forefinger. “Look at it closely. Observe every crack and crevice.” The audience did so. The presenter then put up a slide showing Earth. He said, “You are holding the world in your hands. You have the power to change this planet. Now go out and share what you have learned today.”


If the Earth is a marble, what am I? I am but an atom on its surface—tiny, small, fragile. I thought on this a moment, took another gulp of coffee and closed my laptop, ready to meet up with my group for a swamp walk.


I walked to the gallery and snapped a few photos of people meeting Clyde. A family of tourists from China chatted with Clyde for a bit. An Austrian man gave Clyde a calendar of his photos of birds in the Everglades. A little boy with glasses hid shyly behind his mother as she said, “We came all the way from Miami; my son wanted to meet you today.” They got behind the desk to get a photo with him and the boy hopped onto Clyde’s lap. With a smile covering his face, he waved goodbye to Clyde as they left the gallery. After about half an hour of watching Clyde chat with visitors, I went outside and mingled with some of the gallery workers while I waited for the 1:00 swamp walk. Finally, the tour guide, Trish, assembled everyone on the walk and we started off. There were about 15 of us in the group with Trish leading the train of people and me as the caboose; I wanted to make sure I got plenty of good pictures of people schlepping about the swamp!


A family meeting Clyde Butcher at the Big Cypress Gallery.

A family meeting Clyde Butcher at the Big Cypress Gallery.

Joey and Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Joey and Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Elam filming Clyde. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

To keep me company at the back was a young couple from Tampa. The boyfriend informed me that the evening before they had waltzed away the night at a Valentine’s Day soiree held in a ballroom overlooking the Tampa skyline. Today his girlfriend traded a sparkly evening gown for bug spray and old sneakers and he thought it was pretty cool that she was the one who planned the whole thing. “She’s a keeper,” he said to me with a twinkle in his eyes. About a third of the way through a tour guide from another group, Dylann, joined up with us. She knew much about swamp plants and taught us the names for different ones as we walked. There were bladder-wort, cocoplum, wax myrtle, cardinal bromeliads, resurrection ferns…All these different species living together, breathing together, forming one giant system. Cypress trees growing out of the porous coral with a myriad of other plants living on their trunks and limbs. Flora like alveoli in our respiratory tracts transmogrifying carbon dioxide to oxygen. Perhaps this is what it feels like to live in a lung?


A couple enjoying the swamp walk. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A couple enjoying the swamp walk. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


We finished our walk, sprayed the mud off our muck-soaked sneakers and changed into dry clothes. I said goodbye to the tour group and worked on a few images before supper.


On my way upstairs for supper, I felt my phone buzz and looked at a message from my sister. It was a Valentine’s Day E-card: R4 is red, R2 is blue, if I was the force, I’d be with you! I smiled and went inside.


A Valentine's Day E-Card from Laura

A Valentine’s Day E-Card from Laura


By the time I arrived, all the other volunteers were getting their plates and queuing by the food. Jackie had a large spread set out for us: barbecue, baked beans, rolls, green beans, and even a carrot cake that read “Happy Valentine’s Day to the Swamp Crew.” One of the volunteers handed me a piece of homemade chocolate quinoa cake she had baked. I was a little skeptical at first (quinoa? In a cake? In a chocolate cake? How can you ruin my chocolate with something that sounds that healthy?!), but I have tasted it and have come back with good news: it was the best chocolate cake I have ever eaten in my life, and I was soon recalcitrant for judging the chocolate-quinoa pairing. Yes, quinoa, you can be friends with chocolate. Please go on a date in my mouth anytime you desire.


Although words cannot do such feels justice, I will attempt a paean to this holy pairing:


Excerpt from “An Ode to a Chocolate-Quinoa Cake


O chocolate-quinioa cake! O Cool fudginess!

Be still my sugar-crazed heart! You have

Melted my heart of all other passions.

Unlike the lava cakes they sell at Applebees,

You are not cloying

Nor overly saccharine.

Your taste is like the full-bodied taste of Guinness

Enjoyed after a long day.

Deliciousness is truth, deliciousness beauty,” – Earth is

The only planet with chocolate. That is all ye need to know.


The crew sat around chatting late into the night and I had a realization: Valentine’s Day needn’t be just for dates. It is about love—and love can be found in many different ways. Love can be found in a hot cup of coffee, or in a chat with old friends. Love can be found in nature, love can be found in the corniness of lampooned poem. These moments are just as real, and just as life-sustaining. There are many avenues to love. So, there is no reason for single people to fret on Valentine’s Day. Love really is all around you—you just have to look for it.


A group of volunteers at the Big Cypress Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A group of volunteers at the Big Cypress Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.


Tomorrow’s blog: A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part III: A Harmonica/Guitar Duo





A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part I: Getting to Miami and the Coconut Grove Gallery Opening

By Nic Stoltzfus

February 27th, 2015


The Thursday before President’s Day weekend Dad, Joey, and I left Blountstown driving to south Florida to meet with Clyde Butcher and film some events for him. A new gallery in Coconut Grove in Miami was opening to the public on Friday and then the Big Cypress Gallery was hosting swamp walks Saturday and Sunday. We are currently working on a documentary on Clyde Butcher and these were key events that we want to include in the film.


On our way south we spent the night with Joey’s grandparents, Richard and Donna, in the small town of Citra near Ocala. We met them for dinner at Blue Highway Pizza in Micanopy. We all love pizza and Blue Highway also has some of the best wings this side of the Apalachicola River. Joey’s grandparents ordered a small pepperoni pizza and we ordered Joey’s favorite, buffalo chicken pizza; between the three of us, we finished off the whole pie. After supper we went back to Joey’s grandparents’ house in the backwoods of Ocala. We chatted for a while, drank hot chocolate, and ate delicious homemade cookies courtesy of Donna. I went to bed early in anticipation of the long drive to Miami.

Eating Blue Highway Pizza! Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

Eating Blue Highway Pizza! Image by Elam Stoltzfus.


On Friday morning we had bagels and hot coffee for breakfast. We said our goodbyes to Richard and Donna and began the drive to Miami. About halfway in, we stopped at the Canoe Creek Service Plaza right outside of Yeehaw Junction on the Florida Turnpike. It was interesting watching all the people at the plaza walking all over the place namby pamby; Tourists wore t-shirts featuring sports teams from Detroit, Ontario, New York, Boston.


We finished our lunch and began driving towards Coconut Grove. It took us about an hour to get through the traffic in Coconut Grove as vendors set up for the Presidents’ Day weekend art show, but, despite the heavy traffic, we found a parking spot.


Dad and Joey were both videoing the event, and I took pictures with my Nikon D800. I had my zoom lens on the camera and captured some great close-up shots of people looking at Clyde’s art in the gallery. I was impressed with the gallery. The white walls and honey-colored wood floors create a modern-style minimalism that is filled with Clyde’s chaotic and rugged images. The contrast is alluring and attractive to the eye.

The front of the Clyde Butcher gallery. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

The front of the Clyde Butcher gallery. Image by Elam Stoltzfus.

The front of the Clyde Butcher Coconut Grove Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

The front of the Clyde Butcher Coconut Grove Gallery. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A visitor viewing one of Clyde's photos. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

A visitor viewing one of Clyde’s photos. Image by Nic Stoltzfus.

Soon after dark we left, headed towards the Big Cypress Swamp gallery for the Presidents’ Day weekend swamp walks. Clyde’s daughter, Jackie, caught a ride back with us because she had to wake up early the following day to drive back to Coconut Grove for the art show.


On our way out of Miami we stopped at the last Publix before civilization ends and turns to swampland. Joey and I ran inside to get supplies for the weekend. We arrived at the Big Cypress Gallery soon after 9. Jackie said goodnight and went upstairs to the cabin the gallery rents out to guests. Joey, Dad, and I were staying downstairs in the “Man Cave”, a room with a full sized bed and a bunk bed we would call home for the next three nights. After reading a few short stories by Flannery O’Conner, I was about to go to sleep when I heard a knock on the door and a hullo. Clyde came to our room, pulled up a chair, and chatted with us. He told us several stories, including things I had never heard before. I learned that he and Niki wanted to move to Florida from California, not because of the photography, but because of the sailing. He said his vision of Florida was all dolphins—based on the movie “Flipper.” He talked about growing up, his family, and the future. Dad, Joey, and I all listened, fascinated by these bed-time stories. After a spell, he yawned, put the chair back, and headed to his camper to go to bed. Dad clicked off the light and I soon fell asleep.


Stick around for tomorrow’s blog, A Weekend with Clyde Butcher, Part II: Valentine’s Day in the Swamp

Clyde Butcher OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Swamp

By Elam Stoltzfus

February 26th, 2015

This is the first image of Elam with Clyde. Taken in 1989 while Elam was working on Visions of Florida

This is the first image of Elam with Clyde. Taken in 1989 while Elam was working on Visions of Florida

In 1989 I was part of a film production working on a documentary on fine art photographer, Clyde Butcher. The documentary featured him as an artist who told stories about Florida’s natural beauty through his iconic large format black and white photos. The program was titled “Visions of Florida: the Photographic Art of Clyde Butcher” and was produced for Silk Purse Productions with WFSU Public Television and later went on to play on PBS stations nationwide.

One of the first “on location” film assignments was traveling down the north fork of the Loxahatchee River, a National Wild and Scenic River known for its mythical cypress trees and canopies. Our crew met Clyde and his wife Niki at the local county park for a canoeing expedition. The couple paddled around the first bend and Clyde spotted a swamp lily. He dipped his paddle in the water to stop the canoe. Once stopped, he jumped out of the canoe, landing deep in the mucky banks of the river. He pulled his camera and tripod out of the canoe. The water lapped at his beard as he schlepped towards the lily. Eyes wide, I thought to myself, “What is this guy trying to do? Isn’t he concerned about his camera getting wet and dirty?” Clyde struggle to place the camera and tripod in the flowing waters of the river. Niki kept the canoe close by and assisted Clyde with accessories and camera support. A wordless rhythm flowed between the two of them, a process repeated so often it was intuitive. Click. With the scene burned into the film negative, Clyde turned around to look at me, swamp sludge painted on his bearded cheeks and smiling ear to muddy ear. A regular swamp Santa Claus, I thought. “Wow, this must be a cool experience to bring about a smile, of all things, after enduring the sticky Loxahatchee muck. I need to get closer, but does he expect me to join him in the sludge with my shining new broadcast video camera? Oh no.”

Clyde and Niki climbed back into the canoe and we meandered further down the river. We rounded another bend that opened up into a beautiful scene. In the background was a majestic cabbage palm. In the foreground cypress knees jutted out of the still water. Again, Clyde jumped out of his canoe eager to capture another image. This time I knew I needed to put my camera into action and document this effort of photography. As Clyde was setting up his camera, I gingerly stepped out of the canoe and brought my camera with me to stand next to him. As I waded in the muck, I felt as if I had been baptized and saw the world around me anew: this is how you see Florida! What I experienced within the deep swamp that day was an immersion of life, the touch of beauty, and nature at its best. As I accomplished my task of capturing video of Clyde and the surrounding area, I too was smiling with satisfaction and a sense of connection to the natural world.

Thank you Clyde for introducing me to the swamps of Florida on that special day in 1989. I have been smiling and hopping off boats ever since.

Link to the Kickstarter page

Clyde and Elam in 2013 standing in the Suwannee River.

Clyde and Elam in 2013 standing in the Suwannee River.

Since then, Clyde has been featured in many of my film productions including six that were featured in Public Television stations nationwide—Living Waters: the Aquatic Preserves of Florida, Apalachicola River: an American Treasure, Big Cypress: the Western Everglades, Kissimmee Basin: the Northern Everglades, and Emmy award-winning Florida Wildlife Corridor: Everglades to Okefenokee.

After 25 years of friendship, I am honored to say that I have the chance to tell Clyde’s story through a feature-length documentary on Clyde. This is something we both have wanted to do over the past few years, but now it is happening. We will be using never-before-seen photos, video, and interviews to tell the story of his life and Clyde became who he is today.

We are raising funds for the film starting next week using Kickstarter, an online fundraising site. This crowd-funding model is completely new to our production company, but I am excited about the opportunity for a group of people to come together and bring this creative project to life.
Link to the Kickstarter page

Clarksdale Film Festival 2015

Written February 5th, 2015

By Joey Dickinson


Delta Cinema

Delta Cinema



Backside of the Quapaw Canoe Company; loading Grasshopper (the canoe) into storage.

Backside of the Quapaw Canoe Company; loading Grasshopper (the canoe) into storage.

Last Thursday, I made my way from Blountstown to Clarksdale, Mississippi, by way of the beautiful, hilly backroads of Alabama. I passed through seemingly endless farm country only seeing gas stations every 50 miles or so. I arrived in Clarksdale around 4 pm and Mark River greeted me and helped put my bags inside the Quapaw youth hostel, where I’d be staying for the weekend. River and I sat down, both of us glad to be inside a warm building instead of outside in the cold. River told me that this part of the year is their slowest, and that the canoe company rarely does trips on the Mississippi River in the first two months of the year due to near-freezing water and harsh winds. He explained to me that, although they aren’t busy with customers, they are busy working on something else: Rivergator. The whole crew at the Quapaw Canoe Company has working diligently this winter on compiling a mile-by-mile paddler’s guide to the Lower Mississippi River. This is truly an incredible feat and is sure to be a remarkable publication for anyone interested in the great outdoors, but especially those interested in paddling.

That night, River and I got supper at the Stone Pony, a local pizza place only a block away from the Canoe Company. I ate a delicious pizza partly because of its name “Jo-Jo.”(Meat lovers’ pizza.) It was great to relax, enjoy the taste of the town, and especially to catch up with my big brother River, but I still had one thing on my mind: the film festival! My film was going to be shown tomorrow evening. Although I’d been to a handful of film festivals from Apalachicola to North Carolina, from my previous experience in Clarksdale, I knew that there was no point in developing expectations, because the town is chockfull of surprises.

Friday morning I woke up and walked downstairs to the morning pow-wow and saw John Ruskey and Braxton Barden—it was almost a year ago that Nic and I came to Clarksdale to make the documentary. It was great to see all of them again and it felt good to be back with my friends in my home away from home. After the pow-wow, two graduates of the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program, Markevious “Dinky” and Woody, met us at in John’s office to pick up supplies for tabling at the film festival. Ruskey made sure they took along a handful of his watercolor posters depicting the Mississippi River. After they gathered the material, all of us walked over to the movie theater where the film festival was being held. I was in awe: not only was this an old building, it was an antique movie theatre! Complete with a huge downstairs theater with a renovated sound system and a high-grade projector, the theater also had a staircase leading up to an upstairs theater, where a smaller projector was set up to play films created more on the amateur side. I sat down with River and Braxton and started watching films on the big screen. The first film we watched was created by Bianca Zaharescu, the program director for Spring Initiative. As I learned from watching the film, the Spring Initiative is an after-school program in Clarksdale program focused on exposing students to a wide range of skills with a focus on outside-the-classroom learning. While Nic and I were filming with the Quapaws last spring, we heard about this program numerous times. I knew that the Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program was connected to the Spring Initative, and Bianca’s film filled in the gaps as to how the two programs are intertwined. Her film was heartfelt and, at times, comedic and exposed the way in which the Quapaw Canoe Company introduces Spring students to the outdoors and teaches them how to overcome fear of the river. If you’re raised in the Mississippi Delta, you’re instructed to stay as far away from the river as possible, but the Quapaws are helping to prove otherwise.

(You can watch Bianca’s film, Canoeing into Confidence: A Film about Overcoming Fear, here)

Quapaw table set up in theatre lobby.

Quapaw table set up in theatre lobby.

After her film came to an end, I introduced myself to Bianca to tell her what I’d learned from her film, and to compliment her on capturing such a great story. She told me that she probably wouldn’t be able to make it to the screening of my film, The Mighty Quapaws, as Spring had a field trip of sorts later that day. I thanked her and went and watched a few more films before 4:30, when my documentary was scheduled to play. Not long before the film started, to my surprise, I saw Bianca with a few other adults and 40 kids shuffling into the room—their field trip had transformed into attending the Clarksdale Film Festival! I was delighted to have such a big, enthusiastic crowd, but I started to worry that there wouldn’t be enough room in the upstairs theater to fit this many people! Luckily, everyone had a seat, and River introduced me to everyone. I delivered a short statement about how the film came to be, what I set out to do, and what the end-product consisted of. The film played and the kids, surprisingly enough, quietly watched the entire film. I watched them as they took in the documentary: they seemed intrigued by the story, and many of them knew the students on screen. I looked around the room and thought to myself: this is pretty special. I was proud to have come full circle – I developed an idea, turned it into something material, dedicated it to the Mighty Quapaw Students, and, finally, showed it to a large group of Clarksdalians in their very own local theater. My only hope, as had been from the beginning, was that the film did justice to the incredible story, as well as the incredible people involved.  This seemed like a good start.

River in the stairway of the theatre.

River in the stairway of the theatre.

After the film, there was a wine reception in the lobby of the theater, complete with live blues, headlined by Watermelon Slim, my favorite of all the local Clarksdale performers. We watched his performance and then made our way back to Quapaw HQ, ready to go to sleep after a long and satisfying day. The next day, Saturday, River and I watched more films that were part of the festival. Highlights include a restored 1917 silent version of Tom Sawyer, which was especially fun to watch in such an old venue, Life of Riley, a film about the life story of B.B King and his influence on modern blues directed by Jon Brewer, and Cheesehead Blues: The Adventures of a Dutchman in the Delta, a film about local Clarksdale resident Theo Dasbach from the Netherlands. The evening headliner was a film titled, Take me to the River directed by Martin Shore. This film was about inter-generational and inter-racial influence on music in Memphis. In spite of a history of discrimination and segregation, musicians of all races and ages came together, understanding that they all had the same goals – to create timeless music, as well as long lasting examples for artists to come. From Bobby Blue Bland to Snoop Dogg, from Charlie Musselwhite (who was in attendance at the film’s screening) to Lil P-Nut, this film celebrated older, established musicians instructing and guiding a younger generation of artists, while also touching upon the way in which younger musicians are paying tribute and respect to those older artists who influenced and inspired them. I thought that this main event served as a highly poetic closing to the film festival due to the parallels between the themes in this film and those in “The Mighty Quapaws.” Not only the concept of an older generation that is willing to pass on what they know to younger people, but also the story of younger people who are willing to learn from those who paved the way for them. From a wider perspective, it’s about people who appreciate something special when they see it and put their heart and soul into sustaining it. And of course, on top of it all, there’s music. To me, music always has and always will be the overriding theme in anything related to Clarksdale. It all starts with the music.

That night we made our way to Bluesberry Café to watch Watermelon Slim play again. To my delight, he was playing guitar this time, something I’ve heard him do on CDs, but had yet to see in person. I was surprised to see Watermelon playing the guitar face-up, or table-top style, with a slide. This was the first time I saw anyone play this way, and I was pretty honored to watch Watermelon Slim play using this technique. It was like watching something 70 years in the past. Slim is my favorite for many reasons. First off, he’s the best harmonica player I’ve ever seen. He can hit notes that aren’t supposed exist, and he can hold them for as long as he wishes. This skill is accompanied by a haunting, toothless, truck-driver, Vietnam-veteran voice that makes your skin stand up when howling into the juke-joint air. And to top it off, as I’d just discovered, his unique guitar playing. His ability to keep a rhythm while singing and even playing harmonica was impeccable, and every song he played carried every word he delivered deep into my soul.

Watermelon Slim performing in the Clarksdale Theatre lobby.

Watermelon Slim performing in the Clarksdale Theatre lobby.

The next day it was cold and rainy, but I told River that I wanted to go out and see the Mississippi anyway, and he agreed to take me to see it. You can’t go all the way to the Mississippi Delta and not see the big river. Way out by in the Delta, amongst miles and miles of what were now leveled cotton fields, there’s no cell reception and barely any radio signal. Quiet. Eerie. After a while, I plugged in my phone to play an album I’d kept on there for as long as I can remember, Robert Johnson- The Complete Recordings (recorded in 1937). As I heard Mr. Johnson wail, “Come on back to Friar’s Point mama, barrelhouse all night long…” we came to Friar’s Point, a small community consisting of both shacks and mansions, a strange amalgam. The shacks came from families, most likely sharecroppers, whose families had lived in the Delta for hundreds of years. The million-dollar mansions were erected by modern Mississippi money-makers. Old South, New South, South remade. We finally made our way to the water’s edge. Although the air was icy cold and pelting freezing rain, I left the car and overlooked the mighty river from a ledge about 20 feet above it’s surface. It’s hard to stop staring at such a large, mysterious, powerful entity, but what really kept my eyes glued was that, if you look hard enough, the river doesn’t even look like it’s flowing one way or the other. As a whole, you can definitely tell which way it’s going, of course. However, if you focus on just a small spot on the surface, particularly toward the shore, the water is not so much flowing as it is swirling. It’s mesmerizing. Like a whirlpool of memories collected from as far as Saint Anthony Falls in Minneapolis to the man-made lakes of St. Louis, this is where it all comes shooting down like an unstoppable army commissioned by Mother Nature herself, en route to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s quite a lot to take in if you’re a Florida boy such as myself, more accustomed to the humble rivers found close by such as the Peace or Caloosahatchee.

The next morning, after enjoying a wonderful helping of raft potatoes made by John Ruskey, I drove south towards home. I thought about my time there, and in particular this question: Why did John Ruskey decide upon Clarksdale as the place to live and build his company? Of all the cities on the river—why Clarksdale? Well, I might be wrong, but the closest answer I could come up with is this: As John Ruskey describes it in Rivergator, it’s a place of opposites – of overwhelming beauty and insurmountable power. “It’s the one place where everything makes sense,” he says. However, these contradictions actually compliment each other, rendering a perfect place for new beginnings inspired and fueled by ideas and lessons from the past. First off, the Mississippi Delta is a place with a long, colorful history. Not all of this history is pretty, but it is history nonetheless, and when so many roots are planted in one place, things tend to continue growing, even if it’s below the surface, or even in the air. This is where the blues was born, where oppression and tribulation was transposed into haunting rhythms and soul-piercing words. I believe that this is why Clarksdale is still one of the only places in the world where you can see and hear authentic blues, from artists old and new. Just the same, John Ruskey took what he learned from playing the blues from a seasoned blues legend, and turned it into something new. On the same note, Clarksdale lies in the heart of the Delta, the land-child of the Mother Mississippi – the greatest river system in North America, something which, in spite of its overwhelming power and majesty, is still being misused and overlooked. This river, and in turn the land surrounding it, has been changing drastically for centuries, and yet, is still consistent in its ways and its gifts.


Delta sunset on Moon Lake.

Delta sunset on Moon Lake.

This land, and this water, of complimentary contradictions called out to John Ruskey, along with all those who follow him, not only to learn from its existing conditions and from stories of long ago in order to preserve and protect it, but also to find new ways to study, explore, and advocate it, along with its overwhelming awe. This part of the United States is like a different country altogether, full of the most interesting people you could ever imagine meeting, and they all have their own reasons for staying there. Luckily, people like the Quapaws see it as their home, and will always be fighting to improve and restore it.




“On the first day,

there was darkness

and it was split asunder

and the juices spilled forth

and a pure sound was issued,

and it hovered over the water,

forever pure,

powerful, untransmutable,

and you saw, it was good,

ah, and yes, yes it was.

I will look

to the shining on the side of the river,

it flows in pieces,

straight from the North,

I will look

through the willows,

above the branches on the beaches,

for the sound

that forever flows

through it all”


  • Lyrics from “The Flowing” by John Ruskey