Documentary by NIU professor to be screened at the Egyptian Theatre


Randy Caspersen

Drone shot of the butterfly waystation spiral at Mayfield Congregational Church, 28405 East Church Road (Courtesy of Randy Caspersen)

By Madelaine Vikse, Editor-in-Chief

DeKALB – An NIU professor is bringing attention to the decline of monarch butterflies in the Midwest with his documentary “Plants, Pollinators & Prayers.” 

The documentary will be shown 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Egyptian Theatre, 135 North 2nd St. It is free to attend and there will be a Q&A afterwards, according to the theater’s website.

Randy Caspersen is a filmmaker and communications professor at NIU. He filmed “Plants, Pollinators & Prayers” at a butterfly garden at Mayfield Congregational Church, 28405 East Church Road in Sycamore, Illinois.

Planting seeds of inspiration

The documentary was Caspersen’s idea after one of his friends told him she was starting a butterfly garden, known now as the Mayfield Monarch Waystation.

“I was at a friend’s, sort of an open house, during summer (in 2015) and she ends up being the gardener in the project,” Caspersen said. “She was talking about how she was starting this butterfly garden behind the church she goes to.” 

The last project Caspersen worked on was “Go Penguins!,” a local documentary about a group of local students, made up of young adults and children with disabilities who put on a yearly musical. The documentary was also screened at the Egyptian Theatre, back in 2017. 

“I was finishing up another project… and knew I needed to start something else,” Caspersen said. “I said, ‘Can I come see the garden? Can I come and I’ll bring my camera? Maybe I’ll do a quick little five-minute piece about it,’ you know, just an informational piece.”

The butterfly garden is located behind the church, right next to a cornfield. Caspersen said he went a few times and decided to follow it for a few years, mostly in the summer. He ended up going and filming the garden for five years.

“What’s great about covering that amount of time is you really get to see the space turn into a garden… I worked on it for about five seasons, or five years I should say, and I would go there increasingly more every year,” Caspersen said.

Key figures in “Plants, Pollinators & Prayers”

The three central people featured in the film are Diana Swanson, Martha Brunell and Peggy Doty.

Diana Swanson was an English professor at NIU and is the lead gardener in the documentary. A majority of the documentary is through her point of view, Caspersen said.

Martha Brunell is a pastor at the church who was involved with the project. In the documentary, she discusses the spirituality of butterflies and got her congregation involved in the garden. 

Peggy Doty, got her master’s of education from NIU and is an environmental educator. 

“She (Doty) was raising butterflies in her yard at the time and releasing them at the garden for the church members, for community members as sort of a symbol of hope,” Caspersen said.

Caspersen said that he filmed from 2015 to 2019 and finished the documentary in 2020. The screening at the Egyptian Theatre will be the first public in-person screening. The documentary was previously scheduled to be screened in 2020, but was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to create a habitat for monarchs

The main plant people can plant to help create a habitat for monarch butterflies is milkweed. Another option is coneflowers, as they are easy to grow, Caspersen said.

“The decline of monarch butterflies has been catastrophic,” Swanson said. “Their population in the Midwest is down by about 90% compared to 20 years ago. Major causes of this decline are habitat loss and pesticides.”

“Monarch larvae only eat milkweed plants of the genera Asclepias and Ampelamus. If there is no milkweed, there will be no monarchs. Female monarchs usually lay their eggs only on milkweed plants,” according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Tuesday’s Screening and future projects

The documentary is about 40 minutes and is not currently available online, so those interested in viewing “Plants, Pollinators & Prayers” should attend the free screening Tuesday, Caspersen said. 

After the screening, Caspersen, Swanson, Doty and Brunell will be available for the Q&A afterwards.

Swanson said she hopes that the documentary inspires people to create their own butterfly habitats.

Those interested in visiting the Mayfield Monarch Waystation can call the Mayfield Congregational Church at 815-895-5548 to schedule a visit.

Upcoming projects that Caspersen is working on include a personal autobiographical documentary about his maternal grandmother and a short-narrative fiction film.

“It (the documentary) made me care about what I planted and when I got a garden space of my own it influences every single decision I make about everything I put into the ground,” Caspersen said.