Interview: Greg French, Author
Marshall Cutchin: Greg French is one of Australia’s best-known fishing authors. He spends most of his time in Australia and New Zealand but he’s fished extensively in South America, North America, the British Isles, Iceland, Eastern Europe and Mongolia.
French has spent most of his life in nature based employment. First as a wilderness guide, then as a park ranger in Tasmania’s Wild Rivers National Park, then as a hatchery officer at the historic Salmon Ponds.
He’s written numerous books, including a comprehensive guide, “Trout Waters of Tasmania.” He’s also written, “The Last Wild Trout” and “Frog Call,” a work of literary non-fiction. French also co-wrote, with Nick Reygaert, the acclaimed documentary film “Hatch.”
This year Patagonia published Greg’s latest book, “The Imperiled Cutthroat: Tracing the Fate of Yellowstone’s Native Trout.” Greg joins us today from his home in Molesworth, Australia.
Hi Greg. Welcome.
Greg French: Hello Marshall. Thanks for having me on this interview.
Cutchin: Our pleasure. As I have mentioned to you, I absolutely thought “The Imperiled Cutthroat” was one of the most important books that I’ve read in recent years. Not only because I think it addresses conservation issues as a whole but also because it focuses on a species of fish that seem so very American and so very special to fly fishers in general.
The one thing that I think really stuck out for me, if I could only pick one thing, was that it seems to be that you ask questions, and questions seem to be incredibly important to you and they’re not just about the popular thinking in conservation but about your own assumptions and attitudes.
French: I come from a family that is absolutely riddled with autism. I’m talking serious, disabling autism – and perhaps some of those traits I have inherited. I remember when I was a very small child – I’m thinking maybe three, maybe four – playing dice games. Everyone around me looking at the dice from a distance could be absolutely certain in their own mind that a dice was a cube shape. For me, I could never be certain of that because, for a start, there’s three facets that you can’t see, and quite apart from that, the top surface of a dice could in fact be kite-shaped if it was tilted at just the right angle. So for me, to look at a dice and to accept that it’s a cube, I had to pick it up and rotate it. Anyone who knows anything about autism knows that rotating a thing is a big obsession, but it’s a way of making sense of the universe.
My family wasn’t religious. I come from a Catholic family but we only went to church on Christmas and Easter. Nonetheless, as a child, I understood that there was a God. By the time I was in primary school – I would have been six or seven years old – I was starting to have serious doubts about how a God could be a benevolent God on our planet, and then we had visiting nuns come around. Most of the people in my school were Protestant. I didn’t even know what Protestant was. Hell, I didn’t even know what a Catholic was. But these nuns ushered us all out into the hallway and started preaching to us. I had questions that I needed to ask. I can’t tell you how much I needed these questions answered. One of them was, “If God sends nonbelievers to hell, then why did he put people in countries where there was no possible way of knowing about God?” One of the nuns said to me, “It’s okay, we’ve got missionaries there,” and I said, “Well, you don’t have missionaries everywhere and you certainly didn’t have missionaries there forever.
There was a time when there were no missionaries in the Amazon, for example, and there were people there, so why did God put children there so he could send them to hell?”
She tut-tutted and changed the subject, and I realized then that she didn’t know the answers. Worse, I realized that she had never asked those questions of herself, and I can’t tell you how shattering that was: The idea that the adults around me hadn’t asked the questions that I was asking myself all the time. Suddenly I was alone in the world. It was very scary for a seven year old.
Cutchin: Yeah, I imagine it was and I can easily see how that lesson could apply to questions about how well we take care of the world around us because we do seem to settle quickly and conveniently on answers that seem workable, or that fit into our experience. That leads me to another question which is in a couple of passages in “The Imperiled Cutthroat”. You ask about, or you talk about, how data tends to fit the experience of the researcher, which I just think is just a fascinating point. In other words, we tend to find the problems we look for and miss the ones that we have no experience with and I think specifically you’re talking about the research that supported the multi-million dollar netting of lake trout in Yellowstone Lake.
Do you think that looking for the data that supports our experiences is the rule rather than exception?
French: I think that we’re probably biologically programmed to do that. Again, by the time I was seven, I understood that common sense is often wrong. The Earth is not flat. Heavy objects do not fall to Earth faster than light ones. It wasn’t too long after that that I understood a lot about quantum physics and had to accept that the shortest distances between two points is not necessarily a straight line. Those things seem so obvious, and it takes a very high level of lateral thinking to ask questions that can actually get to the point.
Now, when I was looking at the data for Yellowstone Lake, there was an assumption in all the literature that I read – every last bit of it, and I read a lot – that the lake trout were introduced to Yellowstone Lake from neighboring Lewis Lake around about 1989. That seemed to be a universally accepted truth. But when you read the paper that is the basis of that conclusion, you realize that it wasn’t one of two fish that were put in the lake: It was a lot of fish, and they were adults. Someone had to somehow get these fish from maybe 20 to 40 feet below the lake surface, because they don’t run up rivers to spawn or anything, and then transfer them 40 miles by road. It would have been an industrial-scale operation. And it was done without anybody noticing?
The simple question to ask is, ‘How did they do it?’ The extraordinary thing to me was that nobody had asked that question. I mean, to me, it just seemed to be the first question to ask. It doesn’t disprove the theory, but it makes the theory highly implausible.
I don’t know if Americans are all that familiar with Douglas Adams, a great English writer. He wrote “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” books and other great works including the Dirk Gently books, and in one of the books the protagonist is hypnotized into jumping off a bridge into a dangerous and freezing river. and when he’s rescued from the water, he offers a bunch of perfectly rational reasons for why he jumped off the bridge in the first place. They seem obvious, but none of them has anything to do with the fact that he was hypnotized.
It’s so easy to justify the ludicrous if you’re uncertain of the facts. We do it all the time. My love of wild animals, plants and places is innate. It’s comes from as far back as I can remember, and with the autistic memory that I have, my memory goes a long, long, long way back. Like other people, I use all the available data to justify my love of the natural world and to justify why we should preserve it. I say that looking after biodiversity is essential to human survival. I talk about relationships between the environment and social fabric. I claim that wild places have a right to exist for their own sakes, etc., etc., etc. And all that’s true, but in the end, if you could take away all those reasons, I would still love wild animals and places just the same. And I would still argue that they shouldn’t be taken away from us.
One of things that I’ve done over the years is to say, “Here is a point, and here are the things I used to justify this point. If I discard those justifications, if I pare back, pare back, and pare back and I still haven’t got to the point where I can discard my original idea … ultimately, I get to a little kernel of truth, and that kernel of truth is the thing that is really important. It ends up being the thing that – if we’re ever going to make a difference – we have learn how to explain and emphasize to other people.
I say nowadays that the most important reason to look after wild places is simply that they are really, really important to the human spirit. There are some people who think they are not, but wild places are so important to so many of the rest of us that that alone makes it vital that we look after them.
It’s a bit like religion. Not everybody is a Christian, not everybody is a Muslim, not everybody is Hindu, not everybody is Pagan. But for each of the people that have each of those beliefs, it is essential to their spirit and sense of place. To their wellbeing. We need to look after and not denigrate any of those spiritual systems because from them arise special “wellsprings of understanding”. They’re always worth looking after even if they are not necessarily representative of your personal spirituality.
Cutchin: In the preface to your book “Frog Call” – which is really just an enchanting piece of writing, and I highly recommend it for anyone who hasn’t come across it before – you write something really interesting about places and names and secrecy, too. You say, “For people who spend their lives in the bush, routes and destinations are not too omnipotent to be mentioned by name. They are living places full of history, lifeblood, and rhythm. Songlines by which a very special culture, spirituality and future are to be traced. What, then, are we to make of the management plans, government and censorship? To what possible enchantment could bushmen and women possibly aspire if their singing were forcibly oppressed, and what future awaits things that are no longer to be sung about?”
Was your point there that there are no longer places that shouldn’t be named because of where we find ourselves today, that the greater need is to actually call attention to them?
Greg French: I think so. I think for your audience I should just go back a little bit and explain a little bit about songlines. In Australia, we have the oldest continuous human culture in the world, outside of Africa. Aboriginal people have been in Australia for well over 50,000 years. To put that in context, in North America maybe 14,000 years. In Madagascar, 2,000 years. In New Zealand, 1,000 years. It’s an old, old culture and the Australian climate is very unlike the continental climate in North America, which is remarkably stable.
Australia is more than averagely affected by El Nino and La Nina events, so we don’t have annual weather cycles. Rather, we have unpredictable weather cycles that last for years at a time. And because so much of Australia is arid, learning how to cross the land is absolutely vital for survival.
In Aboriginal Australia, songlines are the paths taken by the creators in the dreaming. They’re memorized, and they’re passed on from one generation to another in song, dance and rock art. The understanding is really simple: If you don’t sing the words that explain where you are and where you’re going – and what you know and what you love – other people will lose their way. And, as I said, in the harsh Australian landscape, if you don’t know where to go, and when, you die.
The duality of words and music is often undervalued or ignored, which leads us to the rather silly controversy about whether Bob Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize for literature. Of course he deserved an award that big, just as Homer would have deserved such an award.
I once heard a radio interview with an Australian singer/songwriter, Megan Washington. She’s just got an angelic voice, and she’s a great, great writer. In this interview, she had a stutter that I never suspected existed. She explained that the only way she can describe with clarity and beauty what is in the heart is to sing. Singing releases her spirit and frees her from all her anxieties. If you spout nothing but facts, people really can’t hear what you’re saying, and that’s why I tried in both the “Imperiled Cutthroat” and ” Frog Call” – and even in “The Last Wild Trout” – to write lyrical prose that people can really get caught up in. Hopefully, they’ll absorb all the conservation stuff by osmosis, if you like.
I know from living here in Tasmania that the places that we refuse to talk about end up being places that have no advocacy. When reading “The Last Wild Trout” or “Frog Call” the reader will come to understand how much we have lost simply because places were not sung about. I’ve tried my damnedest to sing about everything important that remains.
Cutchin: Interesting. I want to go back to Dr. Robert Behnke for a minute, whom I know you spent some time with here in Fort Collins, which happens to be where MidCurrent is located. I think he is widely considered to be the most highly influential scientist when it came to wild trout genetics and species protection, at least in the United States.
You mentioned in your book that he believed that, in fact, angling regulation wasn’t really an answer to species depletion or threats to species preservation. He really was focused on habitat protection, wasn’t he, and correct identification of the species?
French: Very, very, very definitely. It’s really interesting with Bob Behnke’s work because one of the things that really interested me about the cutthroat trout in America, before leaving Tasmania, was that the regulations that were introduced in Yellowstone National Park – and proved so successful, enabling the whole catch and release revolution – involved prioritizing the preservation of the environment over minor regulations and hatchery stocking.
This type of management was in fact first developed and researched here in Tasmania. A well respected fisherman – Derisley Hobbs from New Zealand –wrote a book, in 1948 I think, talking about how the rampant distribution of hatchery fish in New Zealand had no practical value whatsoever. Worse, he suspected that it was probably deleterious.
On the basis of Hobbs’s work, the CSIRO here in Tasmania – Australia’s leading scientific research organization – employed a scientist, Dr Aubery Nicholls, to check out whether or not those ideas would hold true in Tasmania. And they did. And on the back of that, Tasmania’s fishery management system ended up being completely revamped. A new Inland Fisheries Commission was set up, and Derisely Hobbs was actually employed as the head. He ended up exercising incredible diplomacy and political mastery to push through the idea of managing wild fisheries simply by looking after the environment. He was so successful that his ideas were immediately picked up in North America by a fellow by the name of Needham.
Bob Benhke was drafted into the military and forced to spend time in Korea and Japan, where he became enamored with Asiatic trouts. He wondered what their relationships to the North American trouts were.
When Behnke came back after the war, he was surprised to find that the government would actually pay his way through university, and he ended up studying fish and working with Needham in the eastern Sierras at Sagehen Creek, where he replicated the work that was done in Tasmania. And as a result of his work, the whole idea of catch and release was eventually trialed in Yellowstone National Park, where the fishery had collapsed. It had gone from an estimated population in the lake alone of some 3.5 to 4 million catchables in the early 1900s to perhaps as little as 75,000 in the 1960s.
But one of the main reasons catch and release was very successful in Yellowstone is simply because cutthroat trout are so damn catchable.
Here in Tasmania, where I live, we have wild brown trout. I do a bit of guiding as well as writing, and we can generally take beginners out and get them to catch some wild brown trout on most days, but there’s no doubt that to be very, very good at catching brown trout, you have to refine your skills over a lifetime. Through experience, you can become way, way, way better than the average trout fisher.
Now, to put it into perspective, cutthroat trout can be 35 to 70 times easier to catch than a brown trout. Another way of putting that is: If you had a 100-meter stretch of stream and it contained 70 brown trout and one cutthroat trout, you’d be just as likely to catch the cutthroat trout as you would a brown trout.
The high catchability of cutthroats leads to very quick overharvest. In the Yellowstone River downstream at the lake, it was worked out that, after the introduction of catch and release, each fish was being caught 9.7 times every year on average. If brown trout were in that same river, maybe no brown trout would be caught more than once or twice in a year, and a lot of them wouldn’t be caught at all.
One other thing with Bob Behnke, too. He noted that the only “minor” regulation that has been proven to work is the setting of realistic bag limits. Apart from that, it’s all about looking after environment. There are some beautiful stories about the environment, I think, in both “The Imperiled Cutthroat” and in “The Last Wild Trout”. Not mine: They’re stories I’ve picked up whilst I was traveling.
Behnke was highly influenced by a monograph written by a fellow by the name of Ricker. What Ricker had worked out was that there is … Let’s use the example of rainbow trout and steelhead. People had for a long, long time understood that steelhead were different to rainbow trout.
They always understood that there was a little bit of interbreeding, but that it was very, very minor. Subsequent studies have proven that in a lot of cases, the degree of isolation between those populations is very, very close to 100%. That had been fairly well understood for a long time, but what Ricker suggested and Behnke went on to prove, was that the degree of hereditary behavioral difference is much, much, much greater than an ability to run to sea or not. There are hereditary traits that enable a steelhead to run to sea in its first year, or second year, or third year. Or to stay at sea for one year or for one-and-a-half years. Or to come back in the fall, or the spring, or the winter, or the summer. Or to use a particular spawning stream. Or to feed on a particular food. Or to tolerate a certain water type. It turns out that all these things are hereditary and again, in a lot of cases, the isolation between the various populations borders on 100%.
It’s never quite 100% – which is why we can consider them to be the same species – but it is so close that it has huge ramifications once you take those populations out of a river system.
Basically, river-resident fish will not give rise to sea-run populations. Certainly ancient stocks of river-resident rainbow trout – or brown trout, or any other fish – will not give rise to sea-run populations. And a lot of other traits are the same, so what Behnke realized very quickly was that when we’re putting hatchery fish in rivers, we are breaking down all that genetic diversity and ending up with – through interbreeding and behavioral disruption – a single generic type of trout which can sort-of utilize maybe 20% of the river reasonably well, perhaps, but is really bad at using all the micro-habitats that comprise the other 80% of the river. Which is why when you remove dams, when you clean up waterways after a population has been severely impacted, it is still frustratingly difficult to get that original biota back, to get stocks back in anywhere near the same volume as used to be there.
Cutchin: There seems to be a growing belief, if you will, or body of evidence that even among what was considered one species of fish spread over large geographic areas that there is some genetic differentiation that occurs on a very local level between populations of fish.
French: It’s extraordinary. In Europe, particularly with brown trout, but also with some populations of Arctic char. The most celebrated example, I guess, is in northern Ireland. Lough Melvin has three types of brown trout in it. There’s a sonaghen, which is an extraordinary fish that runs to the ocean, spends a bit of time in the ocean, less than a year, then comes back to the lake and lives out the rest of its life schooling in open water. They typically weigh from a pound and a half to two pounds, though there are some bigger fish. They’ll rise through 20 feet of water to take a dry fly, an extraordinary thing to witness. They spiral their way up from the bottom to do it.
Then there’s a fish that lives on the lakeshore and it feeds almost exclusively on snails. It’ll eat some insects as well. It’s called a gillaroo and it’s got blood-red sides. It also has a gizzard: It’s physiologically adapted to feed on snails.
Then there is what is called a ferox trout. The ferox trout lives deep down in the lake and it’s piscivorous: it feeds on other fish, including the local population of Arctic char, which because Ireland is relatively warm, are not very big at all. They’re more like baitfish.
Now, here’s what’s really extraordinary about the three Melvin trouts. There was a time when the scientific community said, “Look, they’re all brown trout. They’re all exactly the same fish and the differences between the populations are there simply because of the habitat that they happen to be living in.” It turns out that the old timers – who knew very well that the fish were different – were absolutely right. We now know these fish have not interbred at all since the last glaciation, more than 10,000 years ago. It also turns out to be true that that level of diversity amongst trout used to exist in almost every major lake throughout Europe. And it is also true that the fish in Lough Melvin, as different as they are – and despite the fact that they don’t interbreed at all – are more closely related to each other than they are to brown trout in neighboring river systems.
What this means is that there is a perfectly plausible argument that, until recently, there were thousands of species of brown trout in Europe. That’s if you use the biological definition of species in which different populations are considered to be separate species if they do not interbreed. These days, though, a lot of people attach more weight to evolutionary relationships and they have trouble with stating that the Melvin trouts are different species simply because the evolution has happened in very recent times and could be reversed so easily. When hatchery fish were put in many European lakes, they interbred with all the local types of trout and you ended up with a single generic fish.
People go to Lough Melvin simply to taste a biological diversity that used to be widespread. It’s an extraordinary thing to witness. And the idea that that has disappeared since the hatchery era, less than 150 years ago, over most of Europe, is extraordinarily sad.
In Iceland – and, again, these stories are well described in the “The Last Wild Trout” – in Iceland, there’s another lake, Thingvallavatn. It’s the biggest lake in Iceland and it lies on the major tourist circuit, the Golden Circle. It’s a clearwater lake, and it has four species of Arctic char. Well, maybe one species, maybe four species. But in any case the four types do not interbreed. They’re very much like the fish in Lough Melvin. The reason I’m bringing it up is one of those fish is extraordinarily beautiful. The bottom of Thingvallavatn is a basaltic lava flow, and it’s full of fissures. The smaller variety of char rarely grows more than, say, eight inches long and they flit around the basalt fissures like wrasse in coral gardens. Again, it’s one of those fish that would just completely disappear if you started putting hatchery fish in the lake.
Cutchin: That brings me to another question, and it certainly has to do with the issue of separating species from their natal habitat, which of course is what happens, as in the western United States, where we put up these massive dams that have separated salmon populations that had at one time free run of the river. Of course, one of our answers to that has been to introduce hatchery fish as if it were some sort of a remedy to the problems of survivability and protection. Hydropower dams have not, until recently, been considered a threat to wildlife. Certainly, the Native Americans in the United States recognize them as a threat because they were directly, physically impacted by the creation of these giant reservoirs but up until recently, hydro-power was just considered this green, fish-friendly, enviro-friendly alternative but we’re beginning to believe that’s not true.
The same way that we once looked at hatcheries and said, “Hey, what could be wrong with a hatchery?”
French: Oh, yeah. Before we move on, one other problem with hatcheries, of course, is the amplification of disease. That’s discussed in my books as well.
Hydro dams are really interesting. I don’t know what your audience’s vision of Australia is, but mainland Australia is very, very big: an island continent. Most of it is desert. In the southeast of Australia there are temperate forests and beautiful mountain streams. We also have some skiing in winter, but it’s a very small part of Australia. Not surprisingly, it’s close to the main habitation centers of Sydney and Melbourne. A little bit north of Sydney, it’s tropical and there’s rainforests. There some more tall forests in the southwest, in Western Australia.
My state, Tasmania, is south of mainland Australia and it is much wetter than most of the country. We have no deserts here. One half of the state is essentially rainforest. There is a central plateau featuring highland moors. A lot of the rest of it is dry sclerophyll eucalyptus forest, and there’s lot of rural and farmland as well. Some 40% of our state is reserved in World Heritage National Parks.
Getting back to hydro-power: In the early 1900s Tasmania was one of the very first places to produce baseload hydroelectric power in the world. Our first dam was on Great Lake, which is in our central plateau and it’s a big lake. I’m guessing here but it might be maybe 15 miles long, and in the widest part, maybe 5 or 6 miles wide. It used to be very shallow in its natural state: Six feet average, 20 feet at its deepest. It had lots and lots of weed in it and it was very productive biologically. Brown trout were put in there in 1870 and for the next 40 years, the fish in that lake averaged around about 10 pounds, with plenty up to 20, and anglers use to take big bags. A lot of it was sight fishing. You know, Polaroids weren’t invented back then, but people could actually still see these fish.
There’s some great, great stories about the fishing in Great Lake, and I’ve told some in “Frog Call” actually.
The first dam was built on the outflow of Great Lake, and construction began in 1910. Once the dam raised the level of the lake, the brown trout fishery went into decline. Rainbow trout were introduced there as well, and basically the nature of the fishery changed completely. It has never been the same since.
The story of the dam, it’s interesting. It was proposed by private enterprise. The government was full of people who didn’t believe that electricity was a real thing. When reading Hansard, which are our records of parliamentary debate, it’s extraordinary the level of ignorance that was in our parliament at that time.
Eventually, the government allowed the company to go ahead, but because they didn’t believe it was ever going to work, they put in a sunset clause about how much time the company had to complete this thing, six or eight years.
Things were going swimmingly, and then the First World War broke out and suddenly there was no labor to complete the job. Despite that, the job was about to be finished within weeks of the sunset clause stipulation. By this time, everybody knew it was a “go-er” and the government simply commandeered the entire project for itself and from that, our Hydro-Electric Commission was born. It was born in political bastardry and it just got bigger and bigger and more powerful and more belligerent. It became so addicted to dam building that it stopped even connecting it to power demands or economics.
In the 1960s here in Tasmania, we had, in the middle of our Southwest Wilderness, the most amazing lake: Lake Pedder. Google it up.
Lake Pedder featured beautiful pink-sanded beaches in the middle of the wilderness. It was in a National Park, and the Hydro-Electric Commission flooded it – virtually the whole national park in fact – to produce 16 megawatts of power. Sixteen megawatts of power! We can supply that with a handful of solar panels these days.
The lake itself had had brown trout in it – they’d been there since 1905 – but, because it was isolated above a waterfall, virtually everything else that lived in the lake – all the native things – were unique to that area. There were cigar-shaped fish called galaxias. There were two varieties: the swamp galaxias and the Pedder galaxias. Numerous unique invertebrates were found there too.
Once the dam was put in, the Hydro diverted another river system into the new impoundment and the invading species ended up causing extinctions, most famously of the Pedder galaxias.
That is the legacy, I guess, of ill-conceived dams. Interestingly, before Galaxias pedderensis became extinct, the trout loved them. They fed on them like nothing on Earth, and we had 20-pound brown trout in Lake Pedder for a while. But once the competition with similar species, particularly the common galaxias (Galaxias brevipinnis) got to the point where the pedderensis population crashed, the trout fishery collapsed as well.
The thing about that particular dam and that particular environmental battle was that it gave birth to Australia’s environmental movement. The next big dam was to be built in the Wild Rivers National Park, where I ended up working, and it became a national political issue. New federal laws were enacted to override state laws, and they were eventually taken all the way to our High Court. The project was stopped nonetheless, and the Gordon and Franklin rivers are now preserved in a World Heritage National Park, but it was a huge battle. The legacy of those environmental battles is with us to this very day. The Green movement, is very, very powerful here in my state of Tasmania, and increasingly powerful in our federal legislature as well.
Governments fell on the basis of those poor dam decisions. Interestingly, I worked in the Wild Rivers National Park in the aftermath of the High Court decision that preserved those rivers, and the schisms between the so-called “rednecks” and the “greenies” was … Can you Marshall … can you hear that dog in the background?
Cutching: Yeah, but that’s fine. Adds a little color to the conversation.
French: Okay, the schisms and hatreds that were beat up in the media, and by politicians, were barely noticeable when I was there. I had no trouble at all mixing with both groups of people, and a great many of those so-called rednecks remain my very best friends. I mean, I suspect that a lot of those people, if they were in America, would be Donald Trump voters. But that doesn’t stop them from being my friends. Those hatreds, when you play divisive politics, they can be exacerbated very, very easily but when you actually live with these people and you talk with them and interact with them, you find that what you have in common is always much greater than what you have as differences. And I think that’s the answer to political problems in the environmental movement globally… You did send to me, Marshall, that link from the Center for Biological Diversity, an article by Kieran …
Cutchin: Kieran Suckling.
French: Suckling, yep. Written after the Trump victory. Your audience should read that too. It’s great. It talks about looking for cohesion and making the environment accessible to everybody. You and I’ve discussed this, too, and we’re reading from the same page, obviously, but the idea of engaging more blue-collar workers with our national parks and, in America, more Hispanics, more African-Americans, more women, even. It’s actually not a hard thing to do, but it’s a job that – if we care about these places – we have to do quickly. And quite apart from that, it’s just nice that as many people as possible learn to appreciate what we get out of these wild places. Because if you spend a lot of time doing the sort of stuff that we do, and you’re heavily engaged, then basically you’re happier and you’re enthusiastic, and if you’re happy and enthusiastic, you’re not angry, and if you’re not angry, you don’t vote in frustration: you vote in a more considered way. Again, that is a global truth.
Cutchin: Yeah, I’m right there with you. It’s easy to allow these false distinctions to separate us and create divisions that didn’t exist before and, for some reason, we’ve allowed them to dominate the conversation.
French: I think in “The Last Wild Trout”… What I’ve done in that book is I have actually picked what I think are the 20 best remaining wild trout fisheries in the world and I have given a whole bunch of welcoming anecdotes about all those places. I should point out, if you’re going to actually nominate the 20 best of something, you’re going to have to be pretty damn certain about what you’re talking about, so I do give a definition of what I think qualifies a place as having entitlement as one of the best. But more to the point, what I really want to say is that having traveled all over the world, it’s very, very easy for people, when they’re frustrated, when they’re feeling left behind, to want to pick someone to blame. We’re biologically programmed, maybe, to pick out the stranger and blame him. Somebody who looks a bit different from us. Somebody who doesn’t live in our community.
But when you travel – and in “The Last Wild Trout” we’re talking about Mongolia, Japan, Iceland, South America, places with very, very different cultures – nobody can actually spend real time talking and living with these people and believe at the end of it that they are any different, essentially, to the rest of us. They simply become your friends. And once they’ve become your friends, it’s no longer an option just to say, “It’s their fault,” because let’s face it, it’s never your friend’s fault.
One of the great things, I guess, about outdoor pursuits like fly fishing – and particularly if you combine them with travel – is that it really does broaden your horizons, and broadening your horizons really does make you more tolerant. You tend to look for solutions rather than lay blame. You tend to vote because you think there’s a solution to something rather than to vote out of anger. And that is absolutely vital. The single biggest issue in conservation, I think, is how to engage people, because ultimately all our wild places, all our fisheries, all our ski fields, all our mountains, all our rivers, lakes, moors, alpine meadows, you name it, they rely on politics for protection. And without them, we simply lose part of our spiritual selves. We become less human.
Cutchin: Do you think … and in this country, at least, looking back 40-50 years, I’m not sure that we made a distinction between the conservationist and the environmentalist. I think people, getting back to your point about having dialogue between people of different backgrounds, of different orientations, different ideas. I know that when I was growing up, as a fly fisher, I didn’t make a distinction between being a conservationist or environmentalist. I thought they were the same thing, in fact. One might just be an extension of the other, but we seem to have created these camps and we have environmentalists who have a hard time talking to conservationists and conservationists who refuse to talk to environmentalists. Is there a real difference between what those individuals want, or do you think that’s a false dichotomy?
French: I’ve got to say I don’t like labels. I don’t like them for a lot of reasons, and one of them, of course, comes from all that autism that’s in my family. When you give a person the name autism, or the label autism, people feel a certain way about them. There’s as much difference in autistic people as there is with people who are less autistic. Really, it’s like most things, it’s a spectrum. We’re much better off, rather than giving labels, to actually to try to understand the self as a whole.
I don’t like to describe myself as an environmentalist or a conservationist because words carry baggage. People see what they want to see in labels. Really, what does feminism stand for? The American Flag? God? There’s as many different answers to those questions as there are people on the planet. I really want people to work hard at understanding exactly what I stand for and exactly what they stand for. And there’s lots of contradictions.
In England, for example, a lot of my friends rile against fox hunting. Fox hunting is considered to be a blood sport. In England, it’s done with dogs, and the dogs tear the foxes to bits. But it is not an environmental issue. Hunting foxes is perfectly sustainable so, really, it’s an animal rights issue. And my friends who work there advocating for the end of fox hunting do indeed argue it in terms of animal rights.
We have foxes in Australia. They were introduced from England, and they are devastating to our wildlife. Again, most animals in Australia are marsupials. Here in Tasmania alone, we’ve got five different types of kangaroo and some of them are very small. On the mainland, there’s wallabies and kangaroos and bandicoots, you name it. All these things just get eaten to extinction by foxes. We have one of the most regrettable rates of mammalian extinction in the world, and the fox is largely to blame for it.
Here, fox eradication is seen as an ecological imperative.
The same people who argue against fox hunting on animal rights grounds in England encourage the rampant slaughter of foxes here. Now, I’m not saying that it is wrong to control foxes, I’m just saying that there is an inherent contradiction there. The way foxes are slaughtered in Australia is inhumane. They’re poisoned, they’re steel-trapped. It’s pretty nasty stuff. They’re shot by amateur shooters too, so we have animals running around wounded. Think about that.
I think it’s important, again, for a protagonist to think about what he really wants. To pare back, to get to the core of it. And simple terms like conservationist or environmentalist, they hide what lies at the core.
I think it’s very, very important to be able to articulate what is important to yourself and to be able to do it in a respectful and reasoned manner. When people ask me – and they do it fairly often – a question like, “Why do you delight in inflicting pain on fish?” I can answer them because I’ve thought about it. The answer is coherent too. People might not like my answer, but invariably they think long and hard about what I’ve had to say, and invariably they at very least understand that I’m not a barbarian.
Wade Davis, in his wonderful book “The Wayfinders,” which I highly recommend to your audience, he talks about indigenous ways of looking at the world. He does this wonderful thing where he talks about Polynesians and their ability to navigate all over Polynesia and find their way back home to these little dots in the middle of the Pacific, long, long before western society invented the chronometer.
Without a timepiece, western sailors could not track themselves across longitude, so basically if you sailed, you had to stick close to the coastline.
Polynesians could do it easily. Davis explains how they did that in his book, and it’s fascinating, but his bottom line is that you mustn’t denigrate other cultures, other ways of looking at things, and other languages.
Some things cannot be understood in English. Some things you have to be able speak and understand at a very spiritual level: Mastering local language is often essential to be able to understand what’s being said. I’ll give you some examples maybe that your audience can understand:
English is very bad at explaining mathematics, so we don’t use English to explain mathematics. We invented a completely different set of notation. Music is not very well explained with English either, so we have musical notation for that.
If you want to find your way around the Pacific, you really need to be able to speak Polynesian languages. Wade makes the point that to desecrate these, what he calls “wellsprings of understanding,” is to actually desecrate humanity’s understanding and of the world in which we live, and that losing tribal knowledge has very real ramifications for what we’re able to perceive in the world. I would say, too, that doing what I do as a fly fisherman enables me to see the world in a completely different way to people who don’t fly fish. And I’m hoping that when people read “The Imperiled Cutthroat,” or “The Last Wild Trout,” they’ll get a feeling for that.
I have given examples in those two books where a conclusion drawn by somebody who comes from a different background is very different to the conclusion drawn by a person like me who lives and breathes fly fishing. So even if you don’t have much respect for what I do, then at least you should understand that it’s very spiritual and that it enables ways of looking at the world, and problem solving, that would be otherwise impossible.
A couple of examples people could look for if they read the books: Why do landlocked Chinook salmon (they’re called quinnat in New Zealand) move at 2 miles an hour in open water down the middle of the lake in semi-curved trajectories? I can tell you, none of the researchers that were looking at that activity could work out what the fish were doing, but every fly fisher that fishes in the style that we do here in the Antipodes knows exactly what they are doing straight away.
Again, when it comes to Yellowstone, some of the things that seem to be big deep mysteries to the researchers looking at the problems are not mysterious to people who come from different backgrounds and have a different relationship with the natural world.
I think it’s important for the scientific community and the angling community that there is more dialogue because neither group has a monopoly on wisdom. It is equally true that anglers who don’t have a scientific background, don’t have that scientific training, they miss different things. We need all these ways of looking at the world, and we need to share our knowledge. Above all, we need to learn to respect one another.
Cutchin: Well, Greg, your cosmopolitan perspective and your inquisitiveness are incredibly refreshing and I would love to listen to more and perhaps we’ll be able to continue the conversation again at another time. Meanwhile, tell us where we can find your books.
French: Yeah. “The Imperiled Cutthroat” is published by Patagonia and is widely available in America. That’s easy. “The Last Wild Trout,” that’s published here in Australia by a smaller, independent publishing firm, Affirm Press. It’s available on the Affirm website, and it’s also available on the FlyLife website. You can just type in “last wild trout” and those sites will probably pop up. It’s not available on Amazon though.
“Frog Call,” which is one of the most popular things I’ve ever written, that’s out of print, unfortunately. We’re in negotiations now to have it reprinted but that probably won’t happen for some time. But again, hop onto Google. You should be able to find secondhand copies pretty easily if you’re interested.
Cutchin: And let’s hope that it does get back into print soon because it really is a wonderful read.
Greg, thank you for your time and we surely appreciate all your thoughts and your thoughtful answers to our questions today.
French: Thank you very much.