F2014 Commencement Speech by Jessica Plumb

Jessica Plumb is a 2010 graduate of Goddard College's MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program in Port Townsend, Washington.

She is a writer, co-director and producer of the film, Return of the River, which documents the plight of wild salmon and the fight to un-dam the Elwha river in the Olympic Peninsula. The film has received ten international and national awards, including:

  • Best Conservation Story, Best Storytelling, International Wildlife Film Festival;
  • Gold Jury Prize, Social Justice Film Festival;
  • Best International Documentary, Kuala Lumpur Eco Film Festival, Malaysia;
  • Best Eco Film, Wine Country Festival, Sonoma, Calif.;
  • Best Environmental Activism Award, Adventure Film Festival, Boulder ,Colo.;
  • Audience Award and Jury Award, Port Townsend Film Festival;
  • Audience Award and Jury Award, Friday Harbor Film Festival.

It is also a finalist in the writing category and emerging filmmaker category at the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

Return of the River Movie Poster

In September of 2014, Plumb was the invited commencement speaker for the graduates of Goddard's MFAIA program in Port Townsend. Below is the transcript of her speech and the video above:

Greetings everyone, and a very special greeting to the graduates present today. It is a privilege to share this day with you, and I want to thank Goddard for inviting me to take part in your celebration. A little over four years ago, I was sitting right where you are now: completing one journey, preparing to launch the next. In some ways, I am back in that place this fall, having just finished an intense three-year project. When I was invited to share some thoughts with you, I wondered, what can I offer from this relatively short distance? I'm not Laiwan, the campus philosopher - although I've referred to letters from many Goddard advisors in recent years.

For starters, I want to speak directly to the graduates. I honor what you've done, all of the work, internal & external that brought you to this moment. The thinking, creating, the community building. I want to assure you of something: this work will serve you in many ways, even if you don't know them all right now. Whether it's the questions you've considered, the discipline you've developed, or the creative habits you've built to complete a degree, often working independently; commencement is just that, a beginning.

Before I dive into my recent journey, I want to step back four years, and share a shortened version of a story from my graduating presentation here at Goddard, because I didn't know then how it would inform my journey.

It was called "The listening compass."

I learned to navigate when I was young, without GPS or radar; the navigation I learned was the art of 'dead reckoning', which involves a compass, a stopwatch, a chart, and a bit of intuition.

My family commuted on a very small boat across a harbor sprinkled with islands and rocks. By the time I was in high school, I'd made this trip alone often. I knew the bay as well as my hand, but we also memorized a series of compass courses, in case of fog. The ocean on a foggy night is the closest thing I've known to blindness. Water and fog become one, a wall of darkness.

I set out one night like this, as a teenager, relying on our compass, ticking off the minutes to the first buoy, then the next. Just as the second buoy came into view, I felt the heavy thrum of a large propeller behind me. High above, a row of lights emerged from the gloom. I knew immediately what it was: the ferry to Nova Scotia, a huge vessel. It was headed out to sea and I was in its path, on a boat too small to appear on their radar. Heart pounding, I veered wildly off course. The ferry lumbered out into the night, and when quiet fell I realized I was completely lost. Off my course, in total darkness, alone in a tiny boat. I idled the engine, fighting panic, trying to remember what I'd learned. Mostly it was to avoid this situation at all costs. To stay on course. To follow the compass. Always.

Then I remembered what I had to do. Listen, my father had told us. If you are truly lost in the fog, turn everything off and listen. I shut down the engine, and sat in the boat with my eyes closed, drifting, listening. There are three foghorns in the bay, and together they make a familiar chord. One by one I picked out these notes. I listened for gulls and cormorants and kept listening as an outline of land and water slowly formed in my mind. Eventually, from this soundscape, I mapped a compass course, which I followed, until I saw a spotlight piercing the fog. It was my parents, hoping to guide me home.

In a way, that's where I was at the time of my Goddard graduation, emerging from the fog of early motherhood, trying to pick a new course. Out of that listening came a story that set years of work in motion. More recently I was in a sound studio, recording voiceover to complete my first feature film, talking to an actor. "It sounds like this story chose you," the actor observed, "It called you in..." It did, but I was listening for it too. And remembering a question Laiwan posed not so long ago. "What do you want to discover about yourself and the world?"

Well, I wanted to discover lots of things. I was interested in the relationship between people and the land they call home. As a filmmaker & video artist, I wondered how to stay grounded in a sense of place, while working in a placeless digital world. More simply, I was raising a young child, wondering: How to parent in this era, a time of unsustainable human practices?

It was against this backdrop that I went to the Elwha River, and witnessed a dam being breached for the first time in a century. It was a riveting scene: water roared through an opening created by a giant jackhammer and a flock of bulldozers. Each blow against the remaining dam sent clouds of dust into the September sunshine.

It wasn't the first time I'd visited a dam site; I was on the Yangtze River in China as the final pieces of the Three Gorges Dam were being put in place. It was a scene I would never forget, in particular the red lines on buildings in every town on the river, showing the future inundation level. I can still picture the markets in those towns, bustling with life below the red lines - as though the water would never rise.

In the last graduation speech, JuPong spoke about the anthropocene: the age of human influence on the planet, and invited you all to disrupt the narratives that underlie this age. Well, for the past three years I've been trying to do just that.

It's rare to encounter an environmental story infused with hope and human possibility. The Elwha River's story offered both. In a nutshell: two dams were built on the Elwha River a hundred years ago, on land claimed at the tail end of the homestead act. At the time they were the primary source of electricity for the Olympic Peninsula, including Fort Worden, but over time they became increasingly obsolete, generating power for one remaining paper mill. The dams were built without fish passage, breaking one of the first environmental laws written in Washington State, designed to protect migrating fish. Over the course of a century, the dams decimated a legendary salmon run, transformed an ecosystem and the way of life of people who depended most closely on it, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

Up to this point, this is very familiar narrative, a microcosm of the larger story of westward expansion in the United States, and more broadly of conflicts around the globe in which ecological, economic and cultural needs collide, often with devastating consequences for a place & people who know it best.

And then - the Elwha's narrative changed. Not quickly: it took decades. But somehow, an idea that had been lampooned as crazy went from being crazy talk to celebrated reality. What did I want to know about the world? I wanted to know how this change happened. I committed myself to exploring that question. Three years later I wish I had one simple answer. I went through hundreds of hours of footage, including over 70 interviews, trying to understand how history changed course on the Elwha River.

The resulting film is woven from diverse voices, a chorus. The limits of the medium were always on my mind; I knew I would never fully understand the experience of those who were brave enough to share stories. I listened for missing voices, attempting to map the soundscape. In this story, a river's tribe was the first to feel the consequences of a dwindling resource. But ultimately we are a human tribe, all tied to ecosystems that sustain us. The film follows a small, divided community, moving toward that shared vision. There's no simple secret; it's hard work, done by people willing to listen, willing to surprise themselves, and willing to change their minds. As one interview subject described, at some point the divisions were no longer around issue; it came down to people's feelings about change. Fear or tolerance. And unlikely alliances emerged.

A theme ran through this century-long story, a tension between being silenced and having voice. It is a story of human disenfranchisement, to be sure, but the voices silenced were not only the voices of people. As the film came together, one missing voice kept appearing in my head, a voice for the land & the river itself. I've kept a wonderful book by my desk ever since I wrote my portfolio, "The Spell of the Sensuous" by David Abrams. I return to this book for a reminder of the limits of human language. Abrams writes of the many languages that surround us beyond human speech, the rustling of leaves, the call of the owl. Abrams observes that the distance between human language & the animate landscape was once much closer, and still is, in many oral traditions.

To switch to film language, the "instigating incident" in this film is the building of a dam. At this moment a river literally falls silent, drowning itself beneath a growing reservoir. I didn't feel qualified to speak for the voice of the river that kept whispering, sometimes raging in my ears - I was unsure how to integrate it, in fact I talked myself out of it for a long time. Ultimately I took a risk and gave the river a voice in the film, despite feeling that personification was fraught with peril. It was a missing voice, and it remains a missing voice in so many human conversations.

It's one thing to fall in love with a story, and another to turn it into a film, a collective act of artmaking that takes money, diverse talents & lots of time. One reason I was drawn to film is it simply can't be done alone: not a feature, at any rate. But about two years into the project, I began to wonder if completing it, especially as a rural filmmaker, was an even crazier idea than taking down two working dams. I found myself deep in a valley of doubt. (anyone been there??) I sat down to listen, and considered two ways to frame the job of finishing what I'd set in motion. I could look at it as an act of insanity, to continue a grueling journey without any expectation of a paycheck, or knowing if I'd find the finish line. Or, I could look at it as an act of love: for the story, the people in it, and the place I call home. I decided to view the film as an act of love, and a path began to unfold, despite plenty of rocks along the way.

I'm sure you know some of them. Rejection, part of an artist's job description. The letters that start, "Thank you for your submission. Final decisions were extremely difficult to make..." Some rejections hurt more than others; we got a few that knocked the wind right out of us. Sometimes I didn't know how I was going to get up and get back to work. But in the end, I did, and so will you, when it happens. You are surrounded by fellow travelers. More simply, when you know the questions you want to answer, a wall of these letters won't stop you.

I've been witness to something exceptional; cement ramparts reduced to rubble, along with some assumptions they symbolized. I've seen salmon returning to a watershed where they went missing for a century. As the reservoirs drained, revealing lost history, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe rediscovered a place believed to be the tribe's creation site, inundated for over a hundred years. A sacred site that survived in stories only, never seen by the living, now visible and tangible. (Though not in the film, by choice, and out of respect.)

I believe that we need fabulous, crazy ideas to change & challenge the status quo, to "manifest greater futures" as described in the residency theme. As artists we're in a unique position to bring these ideas forward for consideration. I hope you'll share your crazy ideas, whatever they are - because your crazy idea might end up being celebrated, when you least expect it. More important, it could show the rest of us that change is not only possible, but inevitable. And I can't wait to hear what form it takes.

Thank you!

-Jessica Plumb (MFAIA '10), September 21, 2014