Wildflower Power Fuels Eco-Warrior


John Smithers likes to describe himself as an "eco-warrior."

"I read Edward Abbey's 'Desert Solitaire' in college and immediately became a disciple," he says. "I think his message--that modern man is destroying the natural environment--is right on."

But unlike Abbey's radical heroes, who roam the Southwest sabotaging bulldozers and burning billboards to save the land from developers, Smithers has chosen a tamer path. He roams the country in a van teaching "wildflower philosophy," and the only thing he shoots is a camera.

"I put people in touch with the environment through art--specifically, wildflower and nature photography," explains Smithers, who leads photo workshops anywhere he can find flowers and a lecture hall. "I've found that the best way to be an eco-warrior is through education."

Although photographing bluebonnets and pink ladies' slippers might not sound as heroic as spiking redwoods, Smithers brings the zest of an EarthFirst! rebel to his environmental mission. Wildflowers and native plants, he says, are being plowed under at a tremendous rate in this country for freeways, subdivisions and shopping centers--and he wants to sound the alarm.

"Wildflowers symbolize 'primary growth,' " he says in an interview from his home in Austin, Tex. "People think of them as weeds--something you pull out of your garden. But they're part of our ecosystem, which means that birds and insects and a whole natural cycle of life depend on them. Once we lose those things, we lose a part of ourselves."

This week, Smithers hits the road in his 1986 mini-van for his annual six-month workshop tour, zigzagging across the country to botanical gardens, nature centers and arboretums from California to Pennsylvania. Living out of his van, which is loaded with cameras, tripods, film, projectors, screens, slides and music tapes, Smithers has been described by one journalist as an "environmental preacher on the circuit." His first stop will be March 26, for a three-day stint at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

It will be Smithers' third engagement at the Huntington. Says gardens director Jim Folsom: "He's a new breed of activist and a palatable breed for people who aren't yet alarmed about the environment.

"There are other people doing photo workshops, but I don't think anybody else uses it as a platform for environmental activism," adds Folsom. "He's incredibly energetic."

The Smithers' workshop approach is total immersion for people who often, in his words, "don't know diddly about photography." Typically, Smithers opens with a three-hour evening lecture, combining four projectors, two screens and music to augment his own nonstop instruction on camera equipment, natural and artificial lighting, backdrops, depth-of-field, exposure and composition.

The next morning at 6:30 his students are down in the grass on their knees or stomachs, crawling through the mud or hacking through the brush shooting nature shots. ("Dress down," he advises.)

Then it's break time. While the students' film is developed and printed, they take a rest. In the early evening they return to the workshop for a critique of their photography, a routine that is repeated on the second day.

"It's intense," he acknowledges, "but by the last critique, you see your progress."

His students agree. "It was nip-and-tuck, doing the shooting and rushing the film through," says Lydia Toth, education coordinator at Shaw Arboretum of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, where Smithers is booked for a return engagement.

"He has an environmental ethic, and that's what he is trying to get across--not only the beauty of wildflowers, but their importance in the world. He weaves in little hints about not stomping on them, not picking them, how to propagate them. . . . He's a character and he's fun."

At 39, Smithers, who retains a boyish, "aw, shucks" conversational manner, has become something of a folk hero to his admirers. Wildflower activism, he explains, is something he just stumbled into, although he grew up in wooded, subtropical Austin and enjoyed roaming the canyons, creeks and forests of central Texas from childhood on.

"When I was 12 years old, I sent off $6.50 with a Hershey's Cocoa label and got me a Kodak Hawkeye camera," he recalls.

That interest eventually led to a master's degree in film in 1980 from the University of Texas, a specialty in multi-image slide-show production and a career as a photographer. By 1982, Smithers was shooting weddings and portraits as a studio photographer in Austin.

In 1982, when the National Wildflower Research Center was formed in Austin by Lady Bird Johnson ("She was ahead of her time in talking about beautification"), he saw the opportunity to wed his double interests. He volunteered for the center's seedling identification program, photographing thistles, sunflowers and daisies in all stages of growth.

"I've always been a naturalist," he says, "but I hadn't concentrated on flowers until then. But you know, flowers stand out in the environment because they are not green. I think God put them there to connect nature to man."

Smithers, who says he can identify about 1,000 of the country's 20,000 species of wildflowers, is rhapsodic about his work: "Wildflowers have texture, form, shape and color--all the qualities of art. And they're very photogenic. The Mexican thistle is one of my favorites--you only find them in West Texas--sort of a rich purple. The California poppy is wonderful to shoot. The hawkweed is unpretentious, like a daisy. But man, the orange is awesome!"

He describes his wildflower workshops as "a beautiful form of therapy."

"Most of the people are amateurs," he says. "I teach them to take their camera off automatic and put it on manual. It's an experience in the natural world."

Although the formal Huntington Gardens actually aren't beds of wildflowers, the same techniques apply, says Folsom. "You are not in a controlled environment. It's a field trip. You can't manipulate the world to suit you, so it's a course about learning to adapt your style to existing circumstances," he says. "The wind is blowing, the light is changing. Smithers is talking about taking pictures that are morphologically (dealing with plant structure) instructive."

And while his students are learning to shoot morphologically correct daisies, they are also becoming environmentalists, says Smithers, who acknowledges that his personal enthusiasm is "definitely catching" in a workshop presentation.

Having learned that creeping around on the ground to shoot a sunflower can give a photographer a new perspective on the Earth, he hopes that his six-month workshop tours are leaving behind a generation of new believers.

"Nature photography has always been popular," he says. "What's new is people's awareness of nature and the importance of wildflowers in it."

Lecture and Workshop

Huntington Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Lecture: March 26, 7 to 10 p.m. Workshop: March 28-29, 6:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Returning at 5 p.m. for critiques of developed film. Lecture only, $20. Lecture and workshop, $175. Information: (818) 405-2160.

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