10 percent of the time it’s scary, says NPR’s Brian Mann
By Gwendolyn Craig
Brian Mann left his home near the west shore of Lake Champlain in Essex County at the beginning of April to cover the war in Ukraine for National Public Radio.
The former Adirondacks reporter for North Country Public Radio joined the national nonprofit about two years ago. Mann is a familiar voice in the North Country, known for his dogged reporting and audio postcards of hikes across the Adirondacks, broadcasted to listeners over about two decades. Since his transition to the national stage, the 56-year-old has continued broadcasting his love of the Adirondack Park on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter. “Found this place today,” Mann will often write as a caption to a mountaintop vista or a bubbling stream.
Even in war-torn Ukraine, the Blue Line snapshots have continued.
On April 10, Mann wrote that he would post a photo a day of the Adirondacks while on assignment in a country nearly 5,000 miles from home. Over time the photos weren’t just to help with the homesickness. They became reminders of hope “in a place where artillery is drumming, sirens are sounding louder than church bells.”
The Adirondacks photos are in stark contrast to some Mann has collected while on assignment, like one of a Russian missile launcher Ukrainian soldiers destroyed on the coast of the Black Sea.
But even while wearing an armored vest and helmet and working near battle lines, Mann has stumbled upon moments of beauty in Ukraine and has shared them with listeners.
Mann spoke about his experience to the Adirondack Explorer on Wednesday from Vinnytsia after a stint in Odessa. He was on his way to Iviv and expected to return home to Westport in mid-May.
The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: You had tweeted out that you’re going to post a photo a day from the Adirondacks. Why did you decide to do that?
Mann: I am incredibly rooted in the Adirondacks after a quarter century. It’s a big part of my life to hike and climb and paddle, which I do really most days when I’m home. It’s a big part of the rhythm of my life to be in the park. And so through a series of accidents, I’ve actually been away a lot this last half year. It’s a way for me to stay connected to a part of the world that is essential to my happiness and my sense of self. I know that seems kind of nutty that a place would be that important to someone, but it really is for me. We live in times that are very hard–the COVID pandemic, and this war I’m covering, and even the Beijing Olympics was really heavy and there was a lot going on there that was not really happy. I got on this trip, I just decided I really wanted to have, every day, some kind of reminder, and I wanted to share some kind of reminder of just how special that place is. I have this lovely little social media community around those photographs, people who enjoy them.
Q: Since being in Ukraine, has the meaning of posting pictures of the Adirondacks changed over the time you have been there?
Mann: Absolutely. There have been some really dark days over here. I’ve covered natural disasters a lot. Even covering the COVID pandemic, which was pretty hard at times, it’s different when you’re in a situation where people are trying to harm each other. It definitely became more of a need and less of a casual thing. Every day, I’ll look through my old reel of photographs. It looks like I just posted one photograph, but what I’ve done is in fact looked through 150 photos just thinking about those places and remembering what it was like to walk there. I love the fact that when I’m in a place where people are doing ugly, horrible things, I do love the fact that the park is a human-created, good place. It’s not just accidental that it’s there. The park isn’t wilderness in a true sense. It’s a place where human beings decided, let’s make something really amazingly good happen here and heal this landscape and let’s try to have communities in this landscape. Humans have the capacity to, yes, blow up each other, but they also have the capacity to spend decades and more than a century healing a landscape. Remember the Adirondacks have had wars. Some of the valleys and places around where we live, people have killed each other and people have waged battles. Now, it’s really peaceful and it’s really healing so that feels very good to me.
Q: It does seem like even though there’s so much horror around you in Ukraine, you are finding some moments of natural beauty. Could you tell me a little bit about that and where you’re finding them? What is the importance of sharing that, too, in addition to what you’re reporting?
Mann: I tend to be a very happy person naturally. I’m always looking for things that make me feel good about the world. Ukraine is stunningly beautiful. The other thing that really began to feel important to me, and I wasn’t aware of this at first, but I started to realize in what people were writing back to me on social media and in emails and in private posts, is that people didn’t realize that Ukraine is a really big country with a lot of beauty and a lot of places where people are living their normal lives. They’re tending their gardens, and they’re out in parks, and they’re walking on the seashore. I started to realize it’s important to tell people back home there’s something worth fighting for here. You think war, it must be everywhere, but people are just living their normal lives, and they’re going out to hike in the woods, or they’re having dinner in a cool café by the seaside.
There is horrible, horrible stuff going on, but even in some of those villages, like that photograph where I’m talking to that elderly woman. There was a scene I described in one of my stories where we pulled up in this car, and we’re moving very fast because we’re in one of those areas where artilleries are firing so we can’t say in any one place too long, and we pull up and there are these two little old ladies in a place where all the trees are blossoming. It’s springtime. It’s a beautiful day. These two elderly women are there sharing a jar of pickles on a bench. And it just was so lovely and they were so generous and happy. Were they scared? Yes. Were they angry about the Russians? Yes. But they were also just on a beautiful, radiant spring day, sitting there sharing a jar of pickles. And they were happy to see us. They loved that we stopped by to say hello. It was very cool. It was just wonderful. And as we drove away I thought that’s important for people to hear about. These people are living their lives as best they can in the shadow of this. I love finding those moments.
Q: Could you tell me what it is like reporting from there and what your average day is like? What is it like covering war?
Mann: This is my first time ever to do something like this. I’ve covered a lot of disasters, mass shootings and other things. There were some things that prepared me for aspects of this and other parts that feel very different to me. Fortunately I’ve been surrounded by other journalists, who are much more experienced, and I have a good security advisor, an ex-military guy, who is really good at keeping me out of trouble. It’s unique to be at a place where you have somebody at your elbow all the time, who you literally just have to obey. If they put your hand on the back of your body armor and say, ‘move this direction,’ you don’t get to ask questions; you don’t debate; you don’t wait a minute. Most of the time we’re in places where the biggest risk are the cruise missile strikes and so there are lots of air raid sirens and that’s unnerving and it’s unsettling and it’s sort of sad, but it doesn’t feel immediately dangerous all the time. The only time I’ve felt the need to be super cautious is when we moved forward into the area close to the Russian lines, which you do in short bursts. You do that for a day, and then you retreat back for a couple of days. I don’t want it to seem like I’m in a trench. That’s not at all what it’s like. And so we’ll go forward into the more dangerous areas, do a bunch of interviews, talk to soldiers, talk to villagers, and then jump back in the car and kind of race back away from where the active fighting is, and that’s where I’ll work on my stories.
It’s kind of odd sometimes how it goes from being very adrenalized and very scary and then all of a sudden, you’re back to doing what you always do as a reporter, trying to tell the story. If you asked me how to carve it up, I’d say 10% of the time is scary and intense and 90% of it feels more or less like a normal workday, and sometimes like a really cool workday because I’ve been based in Odessa, which is just a stunning, beautiful, rich city. It’s been hit by missiles quite a few times while I’ve been there but none of them hit close to me. There have been a few explosions near our hotel, but basically what keeps happening, there are anti-aircraft missiles hitting drones that are overhead, Russian drones. So it’s noisy and kind of scary, but it hasn’t been dangerous for me.
Q: Going back to your pickles story, do you think sharing these moments of beauty and humanity during war, do you think social media and the online immediacy of journalism is having an impact on the way war is playing out?
Mann: I think it’s very dramatic how much of a social media conflict this has been. I think it drives the audience in the United States, and the Ukrainians are actually very skilled themselves at social media. I think one of the things that people expect generally these days is for the Russians to be very good at creating the narrative. They are famous for creating waves of propaganda and waves of misinformation and disinformation and kind of shape how people think about things. People have gotten a much clearer and legitimately more sympathetic idea of what the Ukrainians are about and what they’re up against, and without social media I don’t think that would have happened. There are a lot of people in the United States who have ties. This has kind of surprised me, although I’ve covered Ukrainian communities in New York before.
Social media has definitely been a powerful part of this war so far. I was just interviewing an Air Force officer and he insisted before I leave that I follow the Ukrainian Air Force on Twitter. For him that was a big deal. He wanted that message to be getting out and he wanted us to be seeing it.
Q: We all kind of have an idea of what we want to be when we grow up. Was this ever in your ideas of what you’d be doing?
Mann: The short answer is that when I was young I did always want to be a foreign correspondent, and I did have silly ideas about being a war correspondent. Then I had this very long, beautiful career in the Adirondacks. It was plenty, and it was joyous. All of a sudden in my 50s, I get to reinvent myself. The biggest miracle of my whole professional career was getting to be the Adirondack reporter for North Country Public Radio. But to get this second gift from the professional world, to get to go do this at my age, is really remarkable. Obviously I wish there wasn’t a war. I’m not happy there is this horrible thing to cover, but the idea that here is something like this, an important story that needs to be told and the fact that people at NPR have trusted me to come help with this, it feels like an enormous privilege and it does feel like the kind of thing you’d only ever dream would happen in your career.
Q: Thank you for your time, and I hope you stay safe. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you?
Mann: I’m really homesick in the happiest way. I’m thinking about my garden. The boat is out and ready to go on top of the car. I’m eager to see people out on the trails again soon. This is an exciting and challenging thing to do, but there is definitely a part of my compass that has always been pointed in that direction and I’m happy to really be moving that way.