“UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
– Theodor Seuss Geisel, The Lorax
The matrix of the universe is on a collision course. Dreamers have become tillers of an impoverished soil. The fading sounds of nature whisper in the winds to a deaf, dystopian society filled with apathy. The rapid rate at which humanity consumes without thought, violates innocence, and pushes biodiversity to the limit of catastrophe has forged a path towards extinction. The radio dials of insects and animal populations are stuck, jammed by climate change and habitat loss through agricultural deforestation. Corporate conglomerates are consuming almost all of our available freshwater resources and putting our planet, civilization and ecosystems at risk for the sake of greed. There is an urgent need to awaken our minds, before our time is up.
Creative expression through narrative storytelling is a powerful platform for fighting oppression and breaking through indifference. Few artists are willing to go against the grain and use their compositions to interrogate the darkest parts of human nature. Attempts are made to silence social activism and only a handful of artists take a stand in voice and visual commentary.
The fear of rejection from galleries and collectors is undeniable. I have dealt with it firsthand and I know artists who fear losing their income if they shock the public or upset the viewer with a composition whose subject matter challenges the norm. Even my fellow educators fear that schools will fire them or create consequences for participating in marches and taking a public stance on issues of social or environmental justice. They make ‘safer’ paintings and sculptures that conform, such as simple portrait or landscape work. While these pieces are valuable and relevant in their own right, they fit a genre separate from that of activism artwork, which initiates a dialogue of change.
I have been showing my work professionally for over 25 years in galleries and museums. As an illustrator, film concept artist and gallery artist, I have seen my art featured in over 100 novels, numerous magazines and movies. I am also a teacher and adjunct professor on the high school and collegiate level. I teach drawing, painting, printmaking and filmmaking. I take time to lecture at universities and schools, as well as for community outreach programs. My lectures explain how I use painting as a visual language to tell stories. Specifically, I explain how my painting is activism, addressing climate change and educating the public on urban regenerative agriculture and the importance of native plants. Currently, my wife and I are tearing down the idea of suburban manicured lawns by removing grass from our front and back yard and replacing it entirely with native plants. I am trying to improve the pollinator density and diversity in my area and educate my community at the same time.
Living in the Midwest has given me a front row seat to the decimation of our land, water and topsoil. I have always had a strong connection to the environment and the natural world around me. Humans, plants, and pollinators are deeply entwined. I realized from an early age that our fates are dependent on each other, and that is why I have turned to action and activism, using my narrative voice to sound the alarm.
As a storyteller, teacher, parent and steward of our planet, I feel a responsibility to preserve our natural world for the generations to come. I try to live an examined life. Everything I experience is filtered through empathy and then onto the canvas. I use discernment and imagination and give a voice to the voiceless in our world. I have become a grassroots activist out of necessity, since time is running out for the species of insects I love and want to save from extinction. My most recent art exhibition was titled “Urgency 2 Extinction” and addressed the central conflict between empathy and apathy. Are you a consumer or conservationist? Are you a taker or a giver?
I decided that I can affect change in my life and the world around me. I use my artwork as visual narrative activism. I also lecture about and advocate for a new form of suburban biodiversity to save and restore pollinator habitats in my own community. My ultimate mission in life is to save our pollinators, especially the bumble bee (bombus) (my personal favorite) and monarch.
1) ACTIVISM IN MY ART
A majority of my work explores climate change, wars, revolution, poverty, and endangered species. It takes an anti-establishment perspective. I began using my artwork in the late 80’s and early 90’s to confront issues of universal concern. My deep commitment to human rights, social justice and biodiversity has never swayed. I find strength in civil disobedience.
In 1986, at the age of 16, I went to the Civic Auditorium in Omaha, Nebraska to see a man who brought a message of peace, atonement and human dignity for all through his political activism. His name was Elie Wiesel. He had just won the Nobel Peace Prize and was on a small tour. I listened to this man, who was so humble that he didn’t even want his award. I remember how sad his voice was, and yet also how uplifting. His words would inspire me for the rest of my life. He spoke about teen suicide, and against violence, repression, and racism. He said that it was up to us to be the change we want and need in this world, and that no one would help us.
In the early 90’s, I was in a punk industrial band that pushed for social justice in the inner cities. I toured through the Midwest and created visual graphics for each show that brought awareness to issues I did not see anybody talking about. Inspired by Elie Wiesel, I participated in marches for those who were marginalized. I continue to advocate and attend social justice marches, but now with my children. I want them to understand and take a stand on matters that are important to them and our natural world.
A majority of my early art works centered on birth, love and death. It was a way for me to understand the impermanence of life on this planet. In my narratives, I used the ancient Greek archetype of pathos (a quality that evokes pity), melancholy and sadness, as a wake-up call. In the mid 90’s I moved to the East Coast and lived in Baltimore, Maryland during graduate school. My work and activism changed, and I spoke through my paintings about the inequality, racism, and injustice that I witnessed on the streets.
One of my paintings, “Welcome to America,” made the front page of the Washington Post on July 14, 1994. It was the first time that I realized the power of art. My artwork and the issues I was raising reached a wider audience and served a higher purpose by raising awareness. In the late 90’s, when I moved back to the Midwest, I started noticing deeper changes that resulted from pesticide overuse in “big ag,” and pollinator habitat loss that was not only happening in farm fields but also in the well-to-do suburbs and exurbs of cities. “McMansions” and mass-produced cookie-cutter homes signaled not only wealth but the death of biodiversity. These superficial 3000 square foot homes were placed on acre lots with chemically manicured lawns that replaced wild native grasses that once provided foraging and nesting habitats for pollinators. Trees and native plants were removed. Hedgerows of native flowers, hazelnuts and berries that stopped erosion and supported pollinators and predatory insects were removed, or, worse replaced with invasive, exotic plants.
It was around 2000 -2005 that my artwork started to shift again. At that time, I would often take my children to the botanical gardens, and I was studying the diversity of plants and insects. On one visit, I was in a huge pollinator section with a variety of butterflies and all of sudden they began landing on only my son and daughter. It was a magical moment because I noticed that they were not landing on the adults. I had an idea for a painting that I called “Birth of Spring,” with butterflies kissing the innocents of youth. The glow depicted in the painting was the love and empathy that came from our natural world.
Around this same time, my art started to bring awareness to the monarch population that was (and still is) in an historic decline. I decided that I would paint a new series of butterfly pieces. One of the paintings was of a butterfly that was tied to a brick. I called the piece “A luminous, fluttering melody tethered to a dystopian dream.” The idea was that no matter how bad the apathy in our world becomes, dreamers are still willing to fight and overcome obstacles (like the brick) no matter how daunting they may seem. The monarch represents the mysteries of the soul: love, death and rebirth. It is a symbol of transition and hope. In my work I portrayed the monarch as having the ability to lead us out of the darkness, confinement and restraints of oppression and into the light.
From 1996 to 2010, my art and activism started to get more organized. I realized that I was getting better at portraying and talking about the issues that I was passionate about. I began to put all my efforts into my narrative storytelling. I read any books or articles that I could find on biomimicry and biodiversity, and found that I was able to break free of the restraints and socialized submission that local and mainstream politics had been placing on me.
Large corporations corral us by manipulating the dialogue between being a good citizen and a consumer. They dominate our sources for water, food, education, living, health and wellness. They manipulate prices and make education, homes, and organic food unaffordable for anyone of low socio-economic status. I would attribute my rise and awareness of these issues to Tom Mangelsen and Jane Goodall. I worked for Tom Mangelsen, a Nebraska native and one of the most renowned American nature and wildlife photographers, for almost 20 years. He is an activist and has traveled the world, observing and photographing Earth’s last great wild places.
Tom and I became great friends. I was his print manager and helped him coordinate, planning and exhibiting his work. I would travel with him to openings and help him as his assistant wherever he needed me. Some of the exhibitions that I am most proud of were the museum shows that brought awareness to our natural world. The first was Vital Signs: Images of
Biodiversity, which opened at the San Diego Natural History Museum in 1997. Vital Signs stressed the importance of maintaining a balanced and diverse ecosystem. I helped plan other groundbreaking exhibitions at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska and the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming.
In 2004, Tom introduced me to his friend Jane Goodall at a Mangelsen gallery opening. This would be another life changing moment. Jane is a force of grace and positivity. She is humble and giving. She is not only the face of the conservation movement and the world’s most renowned primatologist-turned-activist, but she is also the greatest steward and caretaker of our planet. It was at that event that she told me if I wanted to do something to help our planet, then I should start a Roots and Shoots program for my children and the school community.
Roots and Shoots was founded by Jane Goodall in 1991, and the mission is to empower young people to affect positive change in their communities. I came home and discussed it with my wife, Jacqui, and she was all in. Jacqui is a real force for saving our planet, a true champion of every plant, animal and living organism. She started the first Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots program in Omaha, and helped empower and educate youth about sustainability and saving our natural world. She educated our group, taught the children about recycling, composting, reusing, and how to affect change in their homes and communities.
I learned a great deal from her. Our group adventures included volunteering, picking up trash, helping in the community, and planting native plants and wildflowers. Jacqui taught about the garden and why growing your own, organic food with no pesticides is so important. She has a deep connection with nature and the youth, and has become a master vegan gardener. After hearing about Jacqui’s work, in 2008, Jane Goodall talked to our Roots and Shoots group during a trip to Omaha, giving her advice and acting as a major inspiration to the children.
2) SUBURBAN BIODIVERSITY
I decided to take the same approach of conservation and activism and apply it to our home and living space. I found that you can’t understand what climate change is doing until you study the biodiversity in your own backyard.
Understanding our natural world has always been important to me. The variety of life on Earth is incredible. What I started to notice, as I peeled back the layers of deception in suburban living environments, was the lack of natural diversity and native plants. I felt like I had to start investigating what was happening around me and in my own yard. I needed to understand my own neighborhood ecosystem, entomology and taxonomy before I could take action. You can’t begin to comprehend the significance of any conservation effort without knowing what you’re protecting.
I knew something had changed after the time when I grew up. Every lawn in the suburbs was manicured with a fake façade of green grass and concrete. Summer smells were now clogged with pesticides. I could hear sprinklers running all night, watering lawns. I also noticed that the bees were gone, as well as the butterflies.
My love for bees is where this all began. It started as a young boy, when I liked to catch bumble bees. I would study their patterns, colors, stripes and then let them go while playing outside with the neighborhood kids and my siblings. I used a small net and a mason jar with holes poked in the top so I wouldn’t harm these amazing insects. Later on, I moved into studying bees and butterflies.
I have followed the monarch migration intensely for the past 5 years, watching and photographing them from egg, larva, and chrysalis to butterfly. I upload my data and photographs to a website called “Journey North” which tracks migrations of a variety of species through the seasons12. The information is cataloged through the Arboretum with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is a citizen-driven science project that brings backyard biologists and environmentalists together to capture real time data about the species we love and want to save.
As I started to investigate more, I found what was driving native bees to near-extinction. It was the lifeless, manicured lawns of thousands of superficial homes, made possible through the use of excess turf-care. These lawns rely on chemicals like parathion, diazinon and neonicotinoid, and on invasive exotic plants and turf lawns, which then drain through rain and sprinkler water waste into creeks and storm drainage, contaminating drinking water and the healthy ecosystem. A 2003 EPA report detected high levels of carbaryl, chlorpyrifos, and malathion in typical urban watersheds.
The insecticide mixtures “required” by common lawn care are outrageous! These cancer-causing chemicals were detected in every major city’s urban watershed8. It is no wonder that almost 50% of all Midwestern native bees have disappeared. 9 In the Heartland, where I live, bees are dying at a fast rate, and people turn a blind eye. My orchard bees, metallic green bees, furrow bees, carpenter bees, tickle bees, blueberry bees and squash bees are going extinct from lawn and farm chemicals used to create well-groomed suburban yards, many in my own neighborhood. To put it in perspective: If a honeybee’s range of flight is between 4 to 6 miles, and 1 mile in the suburbs equals on average 8 city blocks, bees can travel 40 city blocks or more. This area is roughly equal to 32,166 acres. So, I can plant all the native plants I want, but if bees fly even a fraction of their range, they leave my yard and meet their demise on a chemical-sprayed lawn 10.
I see at least 2 or 3 lawn-care trucks in my suburban neighborhood on a weekly basis in the summer and fall months. The previously mentioned EPA study stated that among providers of professional lawn care services, the chemical applicator companies were by far the most likely to perform tasks involving the application of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer applications.
Eighty-one percent of suburban families hiring these companies had them apply herbicides and fertilizers, and 57 percent reported that they applied insecticides. Among landscape maintenance companies, 60 percent applied fertilizer, 42 percent applied herbicides, and 32 percent applied insecticides. Among other paid service providers (gardeners and neighborhood teenagers), only 7 percent applied fertilizers and insecticides, and none applied herbicides 8. The facts show that the average Suburban household is heavily influenced by neighbors with pristine lawns and the professional chemical applicators and maintenance companies who go door to door convincing households that it is necessary to apply insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. All of these unnecessary activities cause severe long-lasting environmental damage to our ecosystems.
So, what is driving this trend in our neighborhoods? Simply Greed. Greed was and still is the engine driving our agriculture, inner cities and local governments. The economic crime of capitalism is gutting education, driving big ag, cruelty towards animals, displacing people through economic oppression, and ultimately killing the biodiversity of entire neighborhoods let alone the planet.
The 2011 and 2016 report by the FAO Intergovernmental Science-Policy platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Service was another wake-up call, but few listened. The report gave clear concise scientific data showing that four species of Bumble bees (Bombus) that were once in relative abundance have declined by up to 96% over the last 20 years1. “A number of features of current intensive agricultural practices threaten pollinators and pollination,”1.
Nebraska where I currently live is the land of corn and Big Ag. Corn covers more American farmland than any other crop and yet only 1 percent of our corn is edible. The other 99 percent is called field corn (dent corn) which is used mostly for ethanol, polymers, high fructose corn syrup, and animal feed 6. The worst part of this inedible crop that takes up over 90 million acres of land is the pesticides that are used. The USDA Pesticide Use in the U.S. Agriculture report from May 2014 states that “Pesticide use has changed considerably over the past five decades.
Rapid growth characterized the first 20 years, ending in 1981. The total quantity of pesticides applied to the 21 crops analyzed grew from 196 million pounds of pesticide active ingredients in 1960 to 632 million pounds in 1981” 3.
report gives insight into the hypocrisy of the Federal Government, USDA, Big Ag and the great swindle on the American people. Huge subsidies and financial aid packages are given to farmers who use pesticides, devastate pollinator habitats and pollute our drinking water 2. In 2019, over $19 Billion was given out to farmers in the Midwest. Government-subsidized crop insurance covered losses for Nebraska farmers from flooding. What about the toxic run off from the farm fields during the flooding that went into our rivers and drinking water? Other payments were unprecedented as well. The U.S. Department of Agriculture simply sent checks to compensate farmers for the low prices resulting from the trade war with China.
The message is clear for those of us who are watching. Devastate the native bee habitats by cutting the forested areas, hedgerows and native grasses around your acreage, exurb, suburbs and inner-city parks. Make sure you remove all rocks, downed logs or trees so mycelial habitats with healthy breakdowns don’t exist.
Better yet if you want to be a corporate farmer then till and plow the topsoil off until it is dead, replace it with field corn, soybeans and any other GMO or Monsanto (BayerTM) seed. Now add water by draining the Nebraska Ogallala Aquifer, local river or your favorite tributary. Next spray with RoundupTM weed killer and neonicotinoid pesticides. Next make sure that you do not rotate your crops and that you have plenty of run off that feeds back into the rivers and drinking water so that it is not your problem and is now your neighbor’s and those in the community down river. Voila, you are a subsidized Midwest farmer.
The results of my research show that tons of pesticides and habitat reduction are killing pollinators and native bees which have nowhere to go except extinct. Everyone thinks we are the bread belt of the country, but we are actually the dead belt of biodiversity. Watching Big Ag and companies like Monsanto (Bayer) manipulate the public dialogue when they push their farmer herbicides like glyphosate which targets undesired weeds as well as a microbiome found in the intestines of most bees. Their chemicals sprayed over thousands of acres of land reduces the gut bacteria in bees leaving them vulnerable to pathogens and premature death. They have to be stopped. Local, state and national government officials turn a blind eye as they make back door deals that keep their campaigns of federal subsidies and greed going. It is mind blowing if you are tuned in to the frequency.
This is where I step in as an activist and ask where is the funding for the urban inner-city farmer and suburban farmers who restore pollinator habitats and those families who produce more food on less than an acre of land promoting regenerative-ecological agriculture that sustains a balanced biodiversity for animals, pollinators and humans? I feel that you have to lead by example. If you talk the talk, then walk the walk. I decided enough is enough!
3) SAVING OUR POLLINATORS
As a teacher, I work to inspire and educate my students in both art, science and biomimicry. I have been a life-long learner and seek out breadth and depth on issue from fellow painters, scientist, urban farmers, and empirical thinkers. The book that really changed a lot of my views on farming, agriculture and pollinators was “Silent Spring-1962” by Rachel Carson. Carson documented the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. She was willing to take on Big Agriculture and their disinformation campaigns. Her work would ultimately lead to our national pesticide policies and the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Silent Spring was a wake-up call for those who are tuned into the frequency.
I have dedicated a series of drawings to Rachel Carson sounding the alarm with images of strong women and pollinators surrounding them, as they become the voice for anyone listening to the global warning sounded about climate change. In my latest art exhibition, I made a couple of pieces dedicated to Silent Spring called “Sound the Alarm, this is a Global Warning”. The drawing shows a woman with her head tilted back and a colony of bees flying out of her scream. The warning is sent on the wings of our pollinators in hopes of waking those who want and are willing to take action.
Our society needs to wake up, it has put economic gains in front of conservation for far too long and a dark havoc is forming and reaching a point that cannot be overturned. Species of insects are being wiped out and colonies of bees decimated by habitat loss, chemicals, pesticides, climate change and disease. There are over 16,000 known species of bees, and most people only know the honeybee. In North America there are 4000 species of bees that are solitary, stingless and burrow in hollow stems or the ground. Areas of my yard are now dedicated to milkweed, hedgerows, and a wide variety of native wildflowers and grasses that the pollinators love 4.
Designing and installing a native pollinator habitat takes time but is worth the effort. My wife and I have now planted over 20 varieties of wildflowers, native grasses balanced by hedgerows of native nuts, berries, and wildflowers. As I have gotten older, I have become fully aware of my surroundings and making sure that the biodiversity in my area contains the natural areas that are unkempt. I have dead stumps, rocks logs, sticks, and all the native plants that the bees, beetles, ants and other species can burrow under, in, or behind. Rocks that warm insects in the spring and the summer and the birds to hide behind as they hunt for their young. It does make a difference. My native squash bees and a small variety of bumble and carpenter bees are flourishing in my yard. I love observing them from morning until night. They work so hard and some of my bumble bees fall asleep holding on to the plants as the sun sets.
It is time for change. We need to let go of suburban lawn expectations and the flawed western perspective of planting non-native plants and turf grasses which waste excessive water to maintain. These naive suburban ‘beauty standards’ often turn to fertilizers further pushing away natural life. As a community we need to switch our thinking and plant the right native plants on our suburban lawns. It is time to move forward and embrace our native habitat and bring back balanced biodiversity. Now this can be done several ways as I have mentioned but there is another route that a few of us activists have started to use that we can take direct action. It is called Guerrilla gardening.
The idea of Guerrilla gardening was started in 1973 by Liz Christy in New York City. It is the act of gardening and planting native plants on sites that we may not have full legal rights to cultivate. The idea is to take our neighborhood greenspaces back from corporations or local government that are indifferent and don’t want to listen to the community. If no one is listening, then it is up to us to plant and cultivate to save our natural world as well as produce food for those in low socioeconomic positions. Liz petitioned the city to make vacant lots into usable urban city gardens for food and pollinators. Today we pull from her example and harvest our seeds from native grasses and pollinators and put them everywhere and anywhere we can find green space. For instance, abandoned city lots, street easements, curb strips, berms, road verge, sidewalk medians, city park edges, public spaces, eroded creeks, highway and parkway strips. It is an act of saving our planet. Any pollinator is thankful for this small oasis within the concrete habitats that they now find themselves in. I can tell you that the bees and butterflies are not fazed by city life, as long as there are plots and patches of flowers that they can visit.
So, you ask what can you do in your own backyard? These are options that will help make a huge impact in your area:
- PLANT FOR POLLINATORS
- ELIMINATE THE IMPACT OF PESTICIDES
- REACH OUT TO OTHERS – INFORM AND INSPIRE
- SUPPORT LOCAL BEES AND BEEKEEPERS
- CONSERVE ALL OF OUR RESOURCES; USE LESS AND REDUCE YOUR IMPACT
- SUPPORT THE WORK OF GROUPS PROMOTING SCIENCE BASED, PRACTICAL EFFORTS FOR POLLINATOR
In 2020, the world is at a tipping point with climate change. Our natural world has been compromised by politicians and corporate greed. Everything has been affected. The planet is still warming at an alarming rate, wiping out important pollinator populations and causing massive biodiversity loss. With so much at risk and on the verge of extinction, we need to come together as good citizens, environmentalist and activist to make the change we seek. I am always inspired by the words of Yvon Chouniard founder of Patagonia.
“The problem is a failure of imagination. Uncurious people do not lead examined lives: they cannot see causes that lie deeper than the surface. They often believe in blind faith, and most frightening thing about blind faith is that it in turn leads to an inability, even an unwillingness, to accept facts.”
The fact is, if we are going to save the world we love, protect its biodiversity, and humankind, we need to come together in solidarity and fight. There is no longer room for indifference and standing on the sidelines. Even though our society will deny the reality of climate change, I have found common ground in our communities efforts to initiate change, especially those concerning pollinators. It seems everyone is willing to rally around bees and butterflies, which is a universal symbol in art and the cycle of life. It is time for all of us to find common ground as we move forward and embrace unkempt lawns, being stewards of our urban greenspaces and managing our native plants/gardens is critical. Sharing the wildness of your back yard garden that produces healthy organic food with your neighbors and children can change hearts and hunger. We now share and trade garden delights from our harvest around the table.
As our understanding, appreciation and engagement with growing our own food and nurturing native plants grows, so does our connection to our mycelial families. We can be the voice of change. These small steps are integral to bringing about larger efforts such as limiting companies that exacerbate environmental degradation. Environmental activism can come in many forms. Ask yourself what role you could play. Maybe you are a writer and could send an editorial to your local newspaper discussing climate change; or maybe you are a photographer and could take photos of biodiversity and animal struggles with climate change. Perhaps, you are an art activist like me that could use visual narratives for change. We are the keepers of the soil and need to fight for a better and brighter tomorrow.
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- Charles, D. (2019, December 31). Farmers Got Billions From Taxpayers In 2019, And Hardly Anyone Objected. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/12/31/790261705/farmers-got-billions-from-taxp ayers-in-2019-and-hardly-anyone-objected
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