North Bay photographers’ new book captures diversity of native flowers, encourages conservation
It was just another shoot for nature photographer Rob Badger as he headed down to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve back in 1992. But when he arrived at the state reserve in northern Los Angeles County, he was gobsmacked by the extravagance of its wildflowers — which is saying something for a veteran shooter accustomed to training his lenses on the earth’s wonders.
The reserve was experiencing a super bloom, when above-average rainfall in areas of desert and chaparral germinate seeds that may have been lying dormant for years in the soil. The result is a riot of wildflowers.
That night, Badger called his life partner, fellow photographer Nita Winter, and gushed about the spectacle he had just witnessed.
“I told her that I had never seen such an expanse of these glowing California poppies, going off into the distance in waves. The wind was blowing them so you could see these waves of color,” he recalled. “It was an amazing sight.”
Badger was so bewitched that he scurried home to Marin County to fetch Nita and bring her back to the poppy reserve to share the wildflower show while it was still blazing. With wildflowers, the bloom can vanish quickly with sudden heat or drying wind.
The handful of days they spent capturing the vision on film ignited a quest to learn more. In the last 28 years they have traveled up and down the state with their camera equipment, documenting native wildflowers in their many forms on public lands, including at Santa Rosa’s Pepperwood Preserve. They’ve documented more than 400 different wildflowers.
Several years ago they collected some of their best photos into a traveling art exhibit. They now have compiled them into a 12-by-12 inch coffee-table book, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change.” Copublished with The California Native Plant Society, the 264-page book pairs 190 photos with essays from 16 notable environmental writers, activists and scientists to show the perilous impact of climate change on California’s spectacularly diverse wildflower populations.
It is a visual tour of the state’s biodiverse wildflower habitats, illustrated with everything from delicate close-ups showing the natural artistry of flower forms to colorful panoramas of super blooms. But it also serves as a call to action. Wildflowers are threatened by climate change, development and other environmental forces, including the hoards of people who flock to see the wildflowers, particular during super blooms.
The pair have received numerous awards for their work, including the 2020 Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, conferred by The Sierra Club.
A diverse climate
California is particularly fertile ground for wildflowers. The golden poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is the official state flower. California’s nickname, the Golden State, was inspired not only by the gold rush of 1849 and the Golden Gate strait, but by the golden poppies that brighten the landscape every summer.
Because of its size and vast diversity of climate and geography, from mountains and deserts to ocean and forests, California has more native plant species than any state in the union. Many of them are found nowhere else on earth, said Dan Gluesenkamp, executive director of the California Native Plant Society, in the book’s introduction. Scientists, he added, say it is one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots.
Because of their captivating charm, the state’s wildflowers can serve as ambassadors of the natural world and call attention to environmental threats of all kinds.
“The whole concept (of the book) was to use images of wildflowers to attract attention (and) have people fall in love with them in a way that would educate and inspire action,” Winter said.
“Rob and I had both been using our photography for advocacy purposes,” she added.
In the tradition of Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, Winter had focused on telling stories of the Bay Area’s diverse communities, beginning with “Children of the Tenderloin” in the 1980s. But with a degree in biology, she was drawn to nature’s diversity as well.
Badger has excelled as an environmental photographer, creating evocative images for the National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and The Trust for Public Land. In 1998 he was one of three American photographers chosen to document the vast and little-known nature preserves in European Russia and Siberia.
People have come to love the super blooms, so much so that they overrun parks like Anza-Borrego and Joshua Tree. These blooms used to be very rare events but now happen once a decade or even more frequently, due to climate change. And those hard rainy seasons have a downside, inviting invasive and other nonnative species that can quickly overtake a wildflower habitat, Badger said.