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Influential Islander: Jim Nollman

This interview with Jim Nollman of San Juan Island is the third in Janet Thomas' series about Influential Islanders. 

What brought you to San Juan Island? How long have you lived here?

Katy and I bought our property in 1985, two months after our daughter Claire was born. Having neither experience nor confidence to build, we had spent the previous year looking at finished houses but found nothing that fulfilled our growing interest in passive and active solar. At some point we realized we’d have to learn how to build the house we were dreaming. When a real estate agent showed us an undeveloped parcel with a sweeping south face on bedrock, we immediately bought it. The construction was partially funded by a federal grant for passive solar design left over from the Jimmy Carter Administration.

Where did you grow up and what were the influences in your childhood that led you towards becoming a musician, composer, philosopher, writer and environmentalist?

I recall at age 7, my older sister introducing me to rock and roll, and me singing along with Little Richard and Chuck Berry for hours on end. I never imagined becoming anything else but a musician. I grew up in a Boston suburb, graduated college near Boston and in my early twenties moved to the Bay Area to participate in that vibrant art community. As far as my artist’s mindset, it’s impossible to pinpoint its origin. However, I did grow up in a family with decent intellectual values and was always encouraged to think for myself.

Environmentally speaking, do you have hope for the future of our earthly home?

Hope is the best salve despite the fact that change remains the elusive constant we cannot escape. I cannot wrap my mind and heart around a term like “our earthly home” so long as it signifies the future of humanity. I have always promoted a species view of planet Earth. Our own cherished countries and cultures will continue slipping away so long as our actions are based only on satisfying human desires. But our earthly home will endure no matter what happens to us or the millions of other species we destroy on the heels of a climate that cannot accommodate either them or us. More immediately, I intuit that my granddaughter will not long enjoy the same life style we know today.

How has San Juan Island changed since you moved here? What are future changes you would like to see?

I have a blurry recollection of the good old days when this community revolved around fishing, ranching, and real estate, plus a small and vibrant art community. I also recall in the late 1980’s, reading the prophetic writing of Waldron island's South Burn, who made the case that the development of tourism would increase our property taxes but benefit just a few of us. It would also severely compromise the more nuanced idea that Friday Harbor is “our” town. I’d say both of those ideas have come to pass, although some will disagree. I’m encouraged right now because I am meeting lots of courageous young people who are moving to the island despite the astonishing barrier of an over-inflated economy. These young people seem on a tear to make island culture more self-sufficient by developing a diverse array of small businesses to provide local food, local tools, local services and wares. That goal is very different than tourism which is based on bringing outside money in. It is also different than the second home culture of people who pay their taxes, but don’t meld.

As such a creative person, what inspires you?

The vast diversity of nature. My idea of the creative process is like that game of whispering a long sentence to the adjacent person within a large circle of people and discovering it has become very different when it works its way back to the beginning. It seems relevant to add that in my formative art years, I was a conceptual artist, influenced by John Cage, Robert Smithson, and that ilk. Some may recall my early performance piece from 1973, wiring up a piano with 12 microphones, surrounding the piano with speakers in an assemblage copied from Stonehenge, and burning the piano to the ground while playing a Yogic breathing exercise on a Shakuhachi flute. As you might expect, my creative process is modest in its private form and explosively splashy in its public form. During the forty years of a career developing the form now called nature art, my creative process emerges by first deconstructing some cultural presumption about the human relation with nature. I then reconstruct the elements of this presumption to build something that’s fun for me to do.

How have audiences responded to your nature art?

Some audiences, especially in Europe and Japan, have been wildly enthusiastic. Other audiences focus too much on the element they know best and judge the finished conglomerate only in terms of that one part. For example, most people who know me are aware I spent many years developing improvised music to communicate with free-swimming whales and dolphins. Some whale biologists miss the point by dwelling on how well I have served the scientific method. They sometimes conclude that what I did was bad science. But I wasn’t doing science at all. When they claim my so-called hypothesis was not replicable, I counter with the words of Miles David that he never played the same note twice. But here is an important part often overlooked in these kind of artist interviews. When an artist puts his/her work out to the world, he or she needs to treat it as a gift. And as a gift, every person who experiences the art, gets to criticize it or even reinvent it as something more palatable. It’s not good for any artist’s health to be worrying how an audience will and will not interpret a piece, especially a piece that intentionally makes hay with our culture’s most basic presumptions.

What role does discipline play in your life?

Discipline is fundamental to success. I’ve been writing a novel about the Japanese dolphin drive fisheries for the past 3 years, and I regard it as my job to sit down and write for 2 hours at least 5 afternoons a week even though I haven’t shown it to anyone else, let alone a publisher. Nor do I have an agent to peddle it. Now it’s in its final draft, and finally establishing the critical vibrancy of flow, that will attract an agent and a publisher. if any agent is reading this, I’ll be ready in the fall.

Can you remember your first experience of art transforming your perception? Does creating art transform your own perception?

In college, in 1969, I created the music for a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream by making recordings of people rubbing glass milk bottles together bending slabs of plate steel and playing with springs. Then I designed an array of speakers across the ceiling and around the back wall of an arena theater so navigating a panning knob during the dream sequences caused the music to sweep over the stage and the audience. I learned something basic about the power of music when the mood it created turned disorienting to the point of dizziness. And another example. I was 26 in 1973, when I was commissioned by the Pacifica Radio Network to create a radio piece for Thanksgiving dinner. So, I traveled to a turkey farm, and recorded myself singing 50 verses of “Froggy Went a Courting”, making my voice louder at “ah ha” prompting 300 turkeys to gobble on cue. NPR still plays it on Thanksgiving Day every so often. The piece itself is now in the Smithsonian. Those tom turkeys radically changed my perception of a hit record, they also secured my rather unique career as a musician specializing in animal communication.

(Left) Finch knowing itself          (Right) Raven knowing itself

As an intellectual explorer of the nature of reality, how does your emotional experience of nature inform your life?

I am a deep lover of the reality of nature. I swoon to see Western Tanagers visit my feeder. I regard the Great Horned Owl who often hangs out on the fir tree next to our deck as a revered guest and a feathered shaman. I regard my book from 2002, The Beluga Cafe, as my prayer to safeguard the spirit of wilderness. I may have been the first person to jump in the water with a pod of orcas while bowing a floating instrument called a Waterphone. This occurred on national TV while I was a cast member of ABC’s Those Amazing Animals and hosting “the animal interview of the week”. Yes, it was over the top. No, I never did it again. And yet, it presented me the opportunity to speak to a notable chunk of the nation’s children, asking them to stop calling these animals by the extremely unfair name of “killer whale” and start calling them orcas.

Language is limited by its language. A long time ago, an art teacher of mine said, "It is the silence that speaks, that illuminates each thought, each word, each action." It immediately invaded my consciousness and stayed there. What role does silence play in your life and in your creativity?

To work successfully at communicating with a whale, a musician one must first understand that skillfully mimicking the animals’ own phrasing is a bogus strategy. Better to give it up entirely, and instead learn to revel in counterintuitive timing and phrasing, and sometimes unbearable stretches of silence. Every so often, the slightest hint of a synchronized rhythm emerges as the basis of a potential correspondence. Those few musicians who persevere at this work for longer than an hour, longer than a week until, like me, they visit the same pod at the same remote anchorage every summer for over a decade, end up celebrating through their patience, a once radical paradigm that insists animals are sentient beings amenable to aesthetic interaction. Most people do not feel such a personal motivation. Most musicians find the sonic rewards too few and far between, and the intellectual rewards too unmusical.

Can you share some of the most moving and inspiring times you have had with the orca whales?

Oh my. Every day was something special. I’m going to have to defer to the cliché of asking folks to read my book, The Charged Border, where whales and humans meet which is in the local Library and still for sale on Amazon. I will add one thing. My now defunct nonprofit, Interspecies Com released two CDs of musical interactions with orcas way back in the 1980s. But the best interactions — documented with far better underwater recording equipment — occurred much later, between 2001-2004. In 2003, I motored with a collaborator up to the waters off Port Hardy to spend an unprecedented full week among at least 300 lag dolphins, two orca pods, stellar sea lions, and maybe six humpbacks all of whom were feeding on a gigantic school of eulachons. We simply floated every day in the middle of the channel. Every so often, I would plug in my underwater sound system to play music which always attracted the dolphins and orcas right up to the boat. My partner focused on video. Just last year I started negotiating with the Smithsonian to publish the best of this unreleased music. They eventually pulled out, only because I am no longer working in the public forum. I simply couldn’t provide what they needed, either a philanthropic underwriter or a commitment to get back to touring. So, the best recordings with orcas still remain unreleased.

Where have you traveled in the world and what peoples and places have inspired you the most?

My ventures with animals seemed to develop as an unpredictable succession of invitations to various whale hotspots around the world. I’d work at one place for three or four years, and then one year the invitations would stop coming, and inevitably, a new invitation would soon arrive in my mailbox. I spent the latter part of the 1970s directing a project for Greenpeace to stop the dolphin drive fishery at Iki Island in Japan. Very depressing work, and certainly not for me in the long term. I worked with the same two orcas of A pod for 12 years up in Johnstone Strait BC, wiring up a cabin cruiser as an underwater recording studio and anchoring in the same tiny cove for a month at a time. We used to mail out an invitation to the hundreds of people who read my newsletter, basically saying, “If anyone has something important to say to the orcas, let me know what it is, and maybe you can join our expedition.” Always, if the whales were interested in our sounds, they would have to come to us. No chasing them. I also spent several years working with beluga whales all across the Arctic from the Bering Strait to the Beaufort Sea, to Lancaster Sound, Baffin island, over to the Russian White Sea for three summers, and finally to Hudson Bay for a film. By that time, I had lost interest in playing an instrument, so I convinced another musician to join me in sticking her face in the water to gurgle bubbles. The belugas came right up to the canoe and started stroking our noses and ears with their lips. No kidding. It’s somewhere on YouTube if you want to see it. I worked with sperm whales in the Azores, with pilot whales in the Canary Islands. I spent five years on a second round of visiting Japan, working closely with a Tokyo group trying to introduce whale and dolphin watching to change consciousness away from commercial whaling. I would assemble a sound system on the harpoon mount of a former whaling ship that had been converted to whale watching. The director hired a famous Japanese soap opera actress to join me, and we’d play into the water while a second ship, sometimes with fifty or more news reporters, would film us for Japanese news.

Didn’t you also work as a whale consultant for the US Navy?

In 2004, I was asked to join a US Navy program seeking a solution to Navy sonar killing whales. The program lasted seven years and ended up costing 8 figures. I basically served as the whale ombudsman of a team that otherwise consisted of acoustic and electronic engineers, Navy brass, Navy civilian personnel, and a few notable whale biologists from Scripps and Woods Hole. The program actually got its start when I met a Navy program manager while performing an underwater concert in Kodiak Alaska. Yes, the audience swam in an Olympic size pool, and the music was transmitted underwater. The Navy guy knew of the public relations disaster of their sonar problem, and got interested when I told him that I believed the deaths were not caused by the sonar rupturing sinuses, but by the deep diving whales stampeding to the surface and dying of the bends. And if that were the case, it could be solved for free in five minutes, by simply turning up the volume dial slowly at the start of every sonar test. They never did try it, telling me they could never turn up the dial slowly because the sonar exercises were meant to emulate warfare. Make of that explanation what you will. Instead the program invented lots of new and expensive sensing technologies to better surveil the ocean depths. Be aware that this is a rather glib description of what was a very long process.

Would you be willing to share about your family and the ways in which music, nature and creativity have their impact?

When my two daughters were growing up, our family rarely needed to take a vacation because I was getting invited to all these wonderful b oats in exotic locales to do my whale work. For years I bargained with sponsors, saying that if they wanted me, they’d also have to invite one of my kids, or my wife, or all of them. My family does not dispute the lasting value of so many adventures.

What advice do you have for us regarding the loneliness and isolation perpetrated by these COVID times?

Ah yes, what my friend Shann describes as the strange beauty of quarantine. How many effects of Covid have we not considered yet? What does the virus look like to a fierce advocate against climate change? Personally, all the islanders I know seem to concur that we are living in the best possible place. I worry no less for the urban single mothers, renters who wait tables in a restaurant and cannot afford health care or day care.

Links to further information:


Interview with Derrick Jensen:



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