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'Echoes of Cry of the Marsh'
by Tom Larson - Morris Sun-Tribune, May 9, 2007.
Reprinted with permission.

Production team photoBob Hartkopf’s 12-minute film, “Cry of the Marsh,” probably stirred anger in many people in West Central Minnesota and beyond when it was produced in the late 1960s. The film, set only to music, chronicled the drainage of Minnesota wetlands similar to a marsh near his boyhood farmstead in Swift County, showing cold, massive machinery dredging up the earth and drawing out the water from an idyllic prairie wetland. It’s where he spent hours of his youth gazing on abundant wildlife, lush plant life and wondrous sunsets. One of its most poignant segments shows a tiny, frightened duckling fleeing over massive wheel tracks imprinted in the dry earth, just ahead of the steel blade breaking the ground behind.

The documentary, released about the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, won several awards as a visual paean to conservation and ecological diversity. Being virtually a silent film, however, left it to viewers to point fingers at the culprits. And many of those viewers trained blame on farmers.

“So many times we want to personalize the whole thing,” Tom Kalahar, a Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District Conservation Planner says in “Echoes of Cry of the Marsh. “ ‘It’s your fault, you’re a farmer so you screwed this up. My water’s dirty, I don’t have any wildlife left.’ Hey, we did that as a society and we’re still doing it to this day. And it all boils down to money.”

“Echoes of Cry of the Marsh” had its debut April 29 on Pioneer Public Television, and it will be shown again on Thursday at 9 p.m. and at noon, May 16, on Pioneer.

This fall, the documentary will be the first produced by UMM’s Media Services Department to be distributed for broadcast nationwide. Media Services officials are trying to arrange a symposium on wetlands in conjunction with the national release, and copies of “Echoes” and Hartopf’s original documentary will be made available to the public.

The film is a collaborative effort among several public and private groups, including the University of Minnesota, Morris, Ducks Unlimited, the Upper Minnesota Watershed district and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Media Services director Roger Boleman produced the documentary and Media Services senior media resources producer Mike Cihak filmed and edited the documentary based on research and a script written by Christopher Butler, UMM English and Sociology lecturer.

The documentary explores the wetlands issue through the life’s work of Hartkopf, who grew up in rural Appleton and was so inspired by the marsh near his home that he became a high school science teacher in Bloomington, his current home.

With his beloved marsh on his mind, Hartkopf in 1959 began to chronicle the drainage of wetlands and the creation of “monotone” ecosystems – corn and beans – that replaced the diverse environments. Draining wetlands devastated wildlife, made areas prone to flooding and led to the tainting of water supplies. The film earned acclaim and viewers, but today Hartkopf’s marsh has yet to be restored.

As he says in “Echoes,” Hartkopf will not give up on his dream, and the film makers made him the personification of an issue that, probably more than at any time in history, weighs heavily on the public consciousness.

Farm policy – past and present – conservation efforts and public health concerns all boil in the mix, and the issues involved are complex, Cihak said.

“It’s not just a simple matter of, ‘Let’s restore it,’ ” he said. “Bob’s story parallels all the issues. He provided the soul for it, gave it a face, gave it emotion. You can see he has emotional ties to his land.”

Wetlands restoration was a chief concern of Rex Johnson, a Conservation Planner in Fergus Falls, and Hartkopf’s “Cry of the Marsh” inspired him. UMM’s team previously produced a 13-part series, “Minnesota: Rivers and Fields,” which offered perspectives on how agriculture and environmental quality can co-exist. The combination on “Echoes” was a natural.

Cihak and Boleman shot more than 14 hours of video over more than two years, and Butler spent more than 18 months rewriting and revising the script. Well-known Minnesota outdoorsman, writer and television personality Ron Schara was enlisted to narrate “Echoes.”

The team took pains to include an array of sources, including Department of Natural Resources representatives, the executive director of the Upper Minnesota Watershed District, and retired Swift County farmer Loren Harste and farmer and Swift County Commissioner Doug Anderson. The documentary offers viewpoints but no preaching.

“We didn’t want to set out to blame this group or blame that group,” Cihak said. “Yeah, that could have been done, but it would have been less credible. There needs to be a balance.”

“We didn’t provide any answers, per se,” Boleman said. “It says, ‘Here it is, folks.’ ”

The documentary’s interviews were filmed on location, and Butler and Cihak traded compliments about the script making filming easier and vice versa.

“It so visually compelling,” Butler said. “Visually, it’s such a nice film, in addition to being such a nice story.”

“It all starts with the script,” Cihak said.

Boleman teased both: “You the man. No, you the man.”

What all involved agree on is that Hartkopf is the man, as the tribute applies to “Echoes” and what the film makers hope it accomplishes. Butler sees the film as a perfect example of university outreach -- a way to teach the community as well as the students on campus -- and personify a polarizing issue.

“Bob’s a very eloquent spokesman,” Butler said. “He talks about his family, but also, at a philosophical level, he talks about consumerism – what we take from the land and what we put back.”

Boleman wants it to touch a nerve with all involved, to provide an understanding that a series of events over many years brought people to this point in time.

“What keeps coming back to me is that we live upstream,” Boleman said. “We’re the people upstream and we affect what happens.”