Two Pennsylvania GuysJun 01, 2021 11:32AM ● By David O'Reilly
Gale Largey insists he knows “nothing” about filmmaking. “Some people want to say I’m the Ken Burns of Wellsboro,” he says with a laugh. “But I never had a film course. This project was a seat-of-the-pants effort with a lot of help from my friends.” The rushing waters of Pine Creek make it a challenge to catch every word the retired Mansfield University sociology prof is saying. But those boisterous kayakers and solemn fly casters below his rustic, stone-floored cabin make a fitting background. His latest documentary film—ninety minutes long and four years in the making—is a tribute to the pioneering woodsman and visionary conservationist George Washington Sears, better known as Nessmuk.
Born in 1821, “Nessmuk almost certainly fished right out here,” says Gale, gesturing from a slender, fenced deck that juts fifty feet above the gorge. Stacked on his picnic table are a half-dozen vinyl-jacketed CDs; each contains one of the acclaimed documentaries he began making in 1997 about the worthy men and women of upstate Pennsylvania.
Here’s one about the dam collapse that devastated Austin, Potter County, in 1911. Another visits the Catholic nuns who taught Gale in St. Mary’s, Elk County. People of Honor tells of the local men and women who served “in battle and on the home front” during World War II. Another celebrates William B. Wilson, a coal miner and labor organizer from Arnot, Tioga County, who became the nation’s first secretary of labor. “A man of tremendous integrity, dealing with the social problems of his day,” says Gale.
Is it any wonder he’s now shining a spotlight on Nessmuk, who lies buried in Wellsboro Cemetery? Gale passes the grave daily on his morning walks.
“What I admire is his freedom-minded thinking,” he explains. A widely published poet in his day, Sears also “spent years in the woods, and as a kid I spent time in the woods, so I can relate.” While he prefers Sears’ 1887 book of poetry, Forest Runes, because it “reveals more of Sears,” he shows off a first edition of Woodcraft, the first American book on forest camping. Sears published it in 1884—about when loggers built this cabin—“and it’s never been out of print.”
Sears “was a hunter, but also an early environmentalist, or naturalist, concerned about the destruction of habitats, deforestation, the invasion of non-native species, the purity and free flow of water,” says Gale. “He was also a strong critic of social injustice. He cared like I do about the laboring class, and he wanted poor people in the cities to have opportunities to enjoy nature.”
He hopes the film, titled Nessmuk: In Defense of Nature in the Pennsylvania Woods, will help “reestablish” Sears.
“Once I started looking into him,” Gale says, “I got to like him more and more.”
Gale Largey’s documentary will be shown at the Deane Center for the Performing Arts on Monday, June 14, at 7 p.m. and at the Arcadia Theatre on Saturday, June 19, at noon (before the Laurel Festival parade).