Left Justified: Don’t miss documentary’s Sept. 27 debut

It’s not too often we get to see a local filmmaker’s product, but the local Sierra Club, the BlackHawk Group, is pleased to announce a debut video showing of Aldo Leopold And the Wild Prairie Orchids, a 45-minute documentary by Rockfordian Charles Johannsen just completed on May 12. The premiere will be at 7:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 27, at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford, 4848 Turner St.

This is a documentary about the life of environmentalist Professor Aldo Leopold, who attempted for years to protect a piece of virgin prairie along the Crawfish River, near Lake Mills, Wis. He wrote a beautiful little essay titled “Exit Orchis” about the prairie at Faville Grove, centering the essay on the rare Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid.

The loss of prairie to farming has been going on for years, and Leopold is the first person to really try and preserve it. He prevailed upon a wealthy family to purchase a 60-acre piece of prairie, which they subsequently deeded to the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. The Faville Prairie became state Natural Area No. 3.

Professor Leopold was among those who first attempted restoration of native ecosystems, both at the arboretum prairie and at the Leopold shack.

Today, there is extensive prairie restoration occurring contiguous to the Faville Prairie, as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Madison Audubon Society work to ensure the survival of this prairie community.

The film is the story of Professor Leopold at Faville Grove and the beginning of prairie preservation. The video also touches upon the beginnings of prairie plantings at the UW arboretum, and the Leopold family project at “the shack.”

Video content includes: interviews with three of Aldo Leopold’s children, one of his graduate students, and others who knew him; the narrator reading the essay “Exit Orchis”; botanical footage of the Faville Prairie; images from the entire blooming season; archival photos and other pertinent images (including the pollination of the prairie fringed orchid); and interviews with botanists and those involved in ecological restoration.

The filmmaker Charles Johannsen resides in Rockford with his family, but he was born in Watertown, Wis., about 10 miles from the Faville Prairie, but was unaware of its existence (or prairies, generally, for many years). He grew up working in his family’s greenhouse business, learning about flowers, vegetables, tropical plants, trees and shrubs. He started making 16-mm films with friends at age 18, and has made more than 30 short personal films and videos. As an adult, he worked alternately in horticulture and film/video. This project joined the two avocations: a documentary about plants.

Ten years ago, an old Watertown friend, Jill Bedford, a steward at the Nature Conservancy’s Snapper Prairie near Lake Mills, approached him about this project. She referred him to some 1930s conservationists around Lake Mills with an interesting story to tell. “You should make a film about them,” she told him.

Johannsen wrote a few grant proposals but without success. In January 1996, he decided to start videotaping, anyway. He shot video for two years, then tried to get some funding. A not-for-profit in Wisconsin (Rock River Coalition) agreed to be fiscal agent for the project, enabling him to write grant requests in their name, but no grants came through.

Finally, in 2000, Johannsen decided to just keep recording video, regardless of funding. All expenses came out of his own pocket. During the growing season of 2001, he drove up to the prairie every week or two to document the progression of blooms. Whenever he heard of someone who may have had information about Aldo Leopold and/or the Faville Prairie, he interviewed them. About 10 interviews never made it into the finished video, so he has some interesting material for a different project.

The video limped along. He had to make a living, so could only work on the video sporadically. Also, there was too much material, and he wasn’t sure how to organize it. In January 2004, he decided to finish the project. It took five months, editing in the basement and showing the drafts to various people for advice. He thanks his wife, Jamie, for her patience and tolerance, as well as for recording the narration.

This program is free and open to the public, but the video will be available for purchase at $25 for VHS. It may also be ordered from Johannsen Video Production, johannsen889@aol.com. For more information, call me, for I am the conservation chair of BlackHawk Sierra Club, at (815) 964-7111.

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

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