A tiny shorebird inspires N.J. filmmaker and a flock of poets

Documentary filmmaker Jared Flesher films along the shores of South Jersey overlooking the Delaware Bay.

When the lights dim Friday evening at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, and a pen-and-ink drawing of a migratory bird appears on screen, viewers might suppose Jared Flesher’s documentary Birds of May is all about the astonishing migration of the threatened red knot.

This 28-minute film is indeed about these remarkable shorebirds, who pause each May on their 9,500-mile migrations from the tip of South America to the Arctic to feed along the shores of Delaware Bay.

But Birds of May also tells the story of the Cape May County oyster farmers trying to revive their once-thriving industry along beaches where the tiny knots feed. Do the low, metal racks the farmers use to grow oysters out on the mudflats block the movement of the horseshoe crabs on whose eggs the red knots rely? Do the noisy power washers they use at low tide to keep their oysters clean and healthy disturb the knots’ feeding?

“There are a lot of beautiful, beautiful films about nature,” explained Flesher, 34, whose home and studio are in Ringoes, Hunterdon County. “But there’s not so much about the conflict between the needs of humans and the needs of wildlife,” a topic at which he frequently aims his camera.

The film opens with a sunset on a dusky beach topped by an amethyst sky. A small wave washes in from left and dissolves into a lace of foam, followed by another and another.  With no humans or birds in sight, one of the stars of this drama reveals itself to be the stage itself: the bleakly beautiful ecosystem that is Delaware Bay. At issue is whether oyster farmer and bird can prosper together along its edge.

“You hear totally different things from each side,” Flesher said last week. “So as a journalist I was hoping to be able to talk to [farmers and conservationists] and come to a conclusion.” Instead, he came away believing that “more science has to be done” to measure oystering’s impact on the red knot habitat.

And there the matter might have stood, except that a charitable foundation devoted to making New Jersey a better place believes poetry might also have something to contribute to the conversation.

The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation has not only adopted the red knot as a poetic symbol of the modern plight of migrants and refugees; it is sending a few of its affiliated poets to the film’s showing in Princeton.

“It seemed like a natural fit for us,” explained Martin Farawell, director of the foundation’s poetry program, which since 1986 has biannually sponsored the largest poetry festival in North America.

In 2013 the foundation, whose major programs include caring for New Jersey’s environment, had made major financial contributions to the restoration of the Delaware Bay’s beaches following Hurricane Sandy. On visiting those beaches, Farawell said, foundation employees learned of the plight of the red knot’s feeding habitat, which was devastated in the 1990s by commercial fishermen carting away horseshoe crabs by the millions as free bait.

With their egg supplies radically diminished, many of the birds could not complete their journeys to the Arctic, and some who did could not breed. The red knot population dropped by about two-thirds and is still recovering.

So when the National Poetry Coalition -- a loose collection of poetry organizations -- last year elected to make migration and immigration “a common theme for programming” in 2017, the Dodge foundation chose to focus on animal migration, said Farawell, with the red knot as its symbol.

With the foundation’s support, “poets and poetry would also tell this story,” he said.  Poets associated with Dodge will not only read poems about red knots when the film shows for free Friday at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library, but some will also assist in tagging red knots and other threatened shorebirds on the bay this spring “and also write poetry.”

“This comes from our deep feeling that poetry is essential to our daily lives and not something from 100 years ago,” said Meghan Jambor, communications and special events coordinator for the Dodge foundation.

The 11-year-old film festival, which began Monday and will run through Sunday  is sponsored by the Princeton Public Library.

Birds of May will be shown also on April 22 at the new Philadelphia Environmental Film Festival, and can be viewed for free starting May 8 on Flesher’s website, creatureshow.com.