Ecological art

Ecological art

By Rod Myers, Naturalist

If conditions are right, a camera can capture reality as well as the human eye—unless the eye belongs to an artist.

One pair of famous artistic eyes belong to Terry Redlin, a painter from South Dakota. Redlin captures the outdoors with a unique style, painting landscapes most often bathed in the yellows and oranges of sunset or sunrise. His low suns usually light a winter or late fall scene in early to mid-20th century Midwest rural America.

Redlin started his career painting game wildlife, but later incorporated humans, buildings, livestock, horse-drawn wagons, and

occasionally a truck or automobile. Many of his works depict game wildlife encroaching a farm house, barn or small town property.

However, his later works contain more small-town folk than wildlife. Redlin’s art has been popular with Midwesterners for

years. In fact, his paintings, prints, calendars and books still sell at a brisk pace.

With his romantic, realistic style, Redlin more than others may have captured the visual ideal of Midwest America’s small towns and their wild surroundings of days gone by. And he, more than any other painter, may have captured the alteration of the Midwest’s plant landscape. His works continually show a lackluster ground cover, a ground cover typical of dullish drab European and Eurasian grasses. If Redlin had painted native prairies in his works, the brilliance would knock you down. It’s the colors and textures that tell you his ground cover is not native. He’s made it difficult to

identify plant species in his paintings; nonetheless, I consider him a plant historian of sorts. Why didn’t Redlin paint native plants in landscapes? Because they are virtually absent.

Americans readily accept his rural ideals, and they’ve made him wealthy, meaning most Midwesterners are content with their

plant-altered landscape, but let’s face it, that’s all they’ve ever known. You could go to the abode of most rural-loving people and hang on the wall a painting or print of pheasants in a cornfield without objections. I guess you could use the theory that the landscape is so boring, you need the pizazz of Chinese Ring-necked pheasants to liven it up.

When the Europeans settled the Midwest, they brought disturbance-loving plants with them from the old country. The non-native plants outcompeted the natives because they had no natural enemies. Then, after John Deere patented the self-cleaning plow in 1837, the prairies were really doomed.

There were prairie remnants left in the mid-20th century, but there was only a fraction of what was here before white settlers arrived. Thanks to visionary conservationists such as Aldo Leopold, who recognized the value of original prairie, and thus helped achieve permanent preservation for many prairie remnants while advocating prairie restorations. Leopold taught at the University of Wisconsin, and one of his students, Doug Wade, who lived in the Oregon, Ill. area, became a champion for prairie preservation and restoration in the northern Illinois region. Wade personally scoured northern Illinois looking for virgin prairie remnants and tried his diplomacy at getting the remnant owners to protect and manage them.

Over the last three decades, prairie preservation and restoration has turned into a strong movement, but there are some who feel the alteration of our landscape during and after white settlement should be left alone. They contend that we are seed-dispersing species like many other seed-dispersing species; therefore, what the Europeans did is acceptable and normal.

Terry Redlin’s work has done a remarkable job of showing alteration, especially his paintings of non-crop fields and small-town edges where you would expect to find surviving prairie. My hope is that in 2103, an artist will find wealth and fame by painting a reverse alteration of the Midwest plantscape. This artist will have spent 50 years painting ecological plant restoration in the Midwest, not only in rural areas and small towns, but in cities of all sizes. By 2103, urban sprawl may have sown the seeds for mass native plant restorations. Picture a Midwest so covered with Puri-type development that lawns are mandated to be partially planted in untrimmed native plants, creating large ecosystems made up of thousands of ecologically sound micro ecosystems, i.e., lawns.

All this is done in the name of preventing a total Midwest ecological collapse. Imagine some employee from the city finding bluegrass in your yard beyond the legal limit. Then, a week later, employees from the city’s prairie department knock at your door. You answer the door to find each city employee with a canister of Roundup to use on your illegal extra bluegrass.

I hope someday prairie chicken art will replace Ring-necked pheasant art in Midwest living rooms. I’ve just painted you a picture; show it to your friends.

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