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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.

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