Jessie Dean Story | Texas Wild
A documentary project born of two wildlife biologists seeking change from life at West Texas A&M University, Texas Wild is a PBS wildlife series that documents the varied species of Texas.
Exploring caves, wetlands, great deserts and beyond, Jessie Dean Story is a fearless self-taught photographer and filmmaker, finding her way to funding and the future beyond wildlife biology.
Learn how she lives and works in the field with filming partner, Ray, and mascot dog, Charlie. Interview below!
How did Texas Wild come to be?
Texas Wild came to be when I was first introduced to my partner, Ray, as an undergrad at West Texas A&M University. We were discussing my class schedule and interest in both wildlife and film, and he offered me the opportunity to volunteer in his lab.
I began working on research projects and with him in the field photographing. Just a year prior, he had begun photographing and filming wildlife with the hopes that his media could be used across campus for educational purposes.
The defining moment that landed me a position to work beside him as an equal came one day while out in the field out photographing. He asked me for my opinion on a picture and I returned with a surprising and sarcastic answer. I hinted that even I, who had no prior experience, could do better and that the product didn’t fit his vision.
His retort was for me to put my money where my mouth was and I did. At the time he was filming a minute-long morning segment called “West Texas Wild” on KFDA News Channel 10, a local station in Amarillo. I was given the opportunity to shadow him and watch the production of a segment. From there, I self-taught how to use the camera equipment, editing programs and with his aid, worked on my wildlife knowledge through my studies and project work. I expanded us out of the local news station and into 250K homes through PBS. Recently, we expanded into 62 school districts throughout the Panhandle.
Due to the new found opportunity and the lack of know how that existed between the two of us when it came to production aspects, equipment and more, I started to study in the Department of Communications during my last semester as an undergrad.
It is hard for me to point out the defining moment when Texas Wild came to be. However, I do remember vividly what life was like beforehand. During our first sit down while reviewing my class schedule, I interrupted Ray and asked him to spare me the spiel about my options in wildlife and what lay ahead. I was “at the end of my rope and will figure out the rest when it gets here.” That’s an accurate description of what life was like before Texas Wild. It’s funny, I find myself in a similar position but without the same distress.
Texas Wild is the product of fusing together my polar interests in life and making the unreal tangible.
My time creating Texas Wild has been a crash course in self-taught photography, film, post production aspects, funding, grant writing, social media and public communication to cite a few.
Tell us about your travel companions, Ray and Charlie, and your wilderness family dynamic.
I describe myself as being “creative” and Ray describes himself as being “the absent-minded professor,” together we can make a great team. We are two melon farmers who decided to get together, dream up our wildest ideas and put them to work whether there was a chance of success or not. What was the worst that could happen?
I suggested to Ray one day that he get a dog and it was off to the pound we went. I selected the pen and we each grabbed two pups to play with. We finally decided that the brown, shaggy pup that wasn’t much larger than both of your palms was the one. I named her Charlie and dubbed her the peanut. She was described as being long-haired dachshund and Australian cattle dog, though if it’s true, she is the McNugget of cattle dogs. My reasons for adopting a pound pup was so Ray would always have someone to take care of him and a friend. Ray’s hope of Charlie becoming the mascot of Texas Wild has come true. Recently, we were out and some folks walking past said “hey, there goes Texas Wild.” We were ecstatic and started to chat with them when they interrupted and quickly confessed that they didn’t actually recognize us, only the dog.
What are some of the highlights of your experiences so far? Wildlife, wild places, wild people…
The past four years are hard to believe. It’s funny how this whole journey began, I was just stumbling around in the dark, a technique that has proven beneficial to me though it can be a scary approach to have towards life. Stumbling around in the dark is precisely what led to discovering and filming my first endangered species, the Houston Toad. Since then I have gone on to film four endangered species.
I have traveled the Great Plains, from Texas to Key West where I spent a month (rough life) and have seen Texas time and time again. We spent over a month on the coast and have a three-year tradition of spending Christmas night swimming with alligators.
Since I began Texas Wild, I have had the fortune of standing directly underneath a swirling vortex of 15 million Free-tailed bats, the largest colony in the world. Bats, I must admit, are my favorite experience wildlife wise. Everything about them captivates me, their small stature, their small stature, their ecological impacts, calls, chirping, and constant fluttering. Bats are the wildlife I will miss the most when I embark on a new path. I count myself lucky to have experienced them as often as I have.
Living on the road for the majority of the year can be a bit stressful as a graduate student but it offers an escape from reality and all of its faults. On the road, you don’t have to know what day it is, have future plans and only live in the now. My favorite places are the roadside pullovers I slept in, the bed of our first road vehicle, a Toyota Tacoma which I slept in the back of at Bosque del Apache in the freezing cold of winter, breakfast nooks, nights filled with the calls of insects and our campsite in the open prairie under the lone cottonwood tree.
My favorite people are my travel companions and the folks we’ve met along the way who are living the same lifestyle I am.
Take a photo of your 5 must-have items for life on the road, and explain why you can’t live without each one.
Live simple hat – A Patagonia hat I picked up in Florida a few years back on a scouting trip to Key West has become a valued item. My hat has been stained by the ink of an octopus (note the black spots), traveled six states, lost in Lake Jessup which has 421 alligators/mile of shoreline, worn during my attempted wrangling of a 2.5 ft nurse shark and christened with the venom of a broad-banded copperhead! Last but not least, the hat gives the best advice you could receive. I call it the hat that’s seen it all.
MP3 – Since I was a kid, I hauled around a CD player and at least six CDs to listen to at all times. Whether it was for school or home, I always had my earplugs jammed in my ears and adulthood has been no different. I take at least two MP3 players around with me and listen to it whenever I have the chance. My favorite band is Nine Inch Nails (Trent Reznor is the closest thing I have to an idol), I also listen to Gary Numan, David Bowie, Foster the People, The Pixies, Placebo and well, you get the idea.
Under Armour Tights – I wear tights because they hug your body, not impede it. I took a recommendation from a friend who wears them when sky diving and switched to Under Armour tights. They are surprisingly rough, not too hot or cool and come in my all-time favorite color, black. When wet they dry faster than jeans and do not get weighed down from the moisture.
Books! – As the door mouse says “feed your head” (Jefferson Airplane, White Rabbit). Books are perfect for doing such. I always take some personal favorites along with me, a few are Goosebumps and John Irving who is one of my favorite authors recommended to me by my mother. I am guilty of being a huge Sci-fi fan and so Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep suite me well. Of course it no secret that I love Longmire as much as I do hockey (you cannot even begin to fathom how much love that is) and enjoy reading books that force you to grapple with a deeper existentialistic viewpoints. I always like to mix in some new blood and recently that is Coyote American, by Dan Flores, who I had the opportunity to spend some time with last year hiking through some slot canyons. Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Frank Herbert, H.G. Wells and Harlan Ellison (a top five favorite is Vic and Blood) are all loved by me.
Boots – I am a boot girl when in the field. They allow room to carry all the things your tights cannot-memory cards, batteries, keys, cellphone and chapstick. Boots that are my favorite out of the field become my go-to field boots. I always have my best, favorite boots to take into battle which quickly become destroyed in the field. My current boots are Kenneth Cole and the right boot was pierced two days after purchase when I impaled my leg on a piece of rebar.
You mentioned finding funding and dodging disapproving colleagues as challenges you’re facing – tell us about those and other obstacles to executing your vision.
As far as disapproving naysayers, there aren’t many of them left. I believe that as Texas Wild took shape and evolved, doubt vanished.
Funding is an ongoing endeavor. We both have found funding for gear and travel, however we have not been as prosperous to lock in funding for operational cost or salary. Before we found funding, we covered personal cost out of pocket. Ray with his salary and me with the funds meant for graduate school I had saved up during high school and undergraduate. Just before we locked in our first funding, I had walked up to Ray and announced, “The Crusades have run out of funding sir!” Meaning that what little I had saved up was gone and it was up to him now. Luckily, we managed to secure a grant that covered travel and camping fees.
We still cover our personal costs, such as food, out of pocket. I was allotted an assistanceship that covers my tuition cost that kicked in when I entered my first semester of grad school.
We have worked the past four years as volunteers to our own dreams, call us artists if you will, starving for our art. I wouldn’t trade a check for the experiences I have had doing this.
We have worked the past four years
as volunteers to our own dreams…
I wouldn’t trade a check for the experiences I have had doing this.
The biggest obstacle is time. Full time honor student, lead researcher on a three year fire-ecology project, makeshift filmmaker, fundraiser, social media make-it-up-as-I-go specialist, equipment connoisseur, avid walker/ hiker, fanatical Longmire fan and die hard hockey fan doesn’t leave much time to accomplish everything I would like. But hey, that’s life eh?
You were awarded the Dan A. Klepper Memorial Scholarship from the Texas Outdoor Writer’s Association in large part for your use of social media with Texas Wild. What role has social media played in this scientific venture?
To be honest, I would say that it’s everything. As the “man behind the curtain” I have just begun to tap into the benefits social media harbors. Currently, my Instagram (texas.wild) surpasses my university in followers, though my Facebook game (TexasWildProductions) could use some attention. I believe social media has been critical in spreading awareness in what we do and gaining a fan ship. Our media has been shared by Texas Nature Conservancy, TPWD, conservations groups as far as Australia and has aired on The Daytripper who reached out to us via Instagram. Currently we are working on a segment for Bat Conservational International.
My favorite aspect of social media is the feedback it has provided us from wildlife lovers within the state and beyond. Social media has become the window through which people have vocalized their support and enjoyment of Texas and the variety of wildlife she harbors. Hearing so many people share their feelings towards wildlife and the things we are doing give us confidence both in ourselves and in others. Remember, we made this up and continue to every step of the way. Being someone who loves the outdoors, you often feel as though you are not in the majority. Reaching out and meeting new folks, gives you a new outlook on life. Likewise, I have become aware of and a big supporter of others who travel and photograph, always tuning in to see what they are doing next and thinking how I want to be just like them.
What’s next? (For your work and life – it’s OK not to know the answer)
In the near future, my goal is to produce as much as possible. As far as the part of my life that involves making money or whatever you’re supposed to do, I operate on Plan C. Plan C is a beautiful thing: it leaves open options A and B. My approach to life is to just wing it, really. Now, this is probably not the best approach, but one that has served me well. I keep an eye on certain experiences and goals I want to achieve, but those are often far and opposing. To an extent, we are all just bumping around in the dark; the only difference is the size of the darkness.
Plan C is the same as it was four plus years ago when I first crossed paths with Ray: to finish college and bounce around the Peace Corps. Who knows where I’ll actually end up by the end of the year or in ten years. Fortune has smiled on me and although I’m a bit of a stress case, I don’t sweat the big stuff in life like career path, love life, family of my own or a future place of residency.
I have lived with an excess of material and likewise the opposite, out of a bag and the back of a truck. I find myself capable and content with either. I wish to continue to feed my head, carry a camera in my hand, and produce products and travel. There isn’t much I fear, which comes in handy.