While Brian Ellis chatted on the phone, he watched the prairie he had planted outside his home.
Grasses blew in the breeze, the soil radiated warmth from the sun and birds were nesting within view.
He hopes that when people come to his one-man storytelling production about John James Audubon that they will want to go home and make a difference in the environment by planting a native plot of their own.
“I start with asking the audience if they love birds, and by the end of the show, they can’t help but love birds, and if you love birds like I do, you’ll provide a place for them, not only bird feeders but by planting native plants and trees,” Ellis said.
Ellis’ Audubon show is the center point of this year’s Earth Day Celebration, put on by the Dickinson County Nature Center and the Pearson Lakes Art Center 6 p.m. Friday, April 21, at the art center in Okoboji.
Ellis’ storytelling career began quite early, telling tall tales with his friends while playing. By age 17, he had turned it into a job, telling stories around the campfire while working as a staff naturalist at a summer camp.
“Storytelling is a great way to teach anything,” he said.
After college, the Illinois State Museum contacted Ellis and asked him to portray Audubon to go along with an exhibit of Audubon’s original prints that would be on display. That show grew when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered him a grant to do programs in 40 schools.
Audubon is the perfect environmentalist to expose the public to because he was a prolific writer, birder, artist and explorer.
“The most amazing thing is he was a total gonzo wildman,” Ellis said. “He would head off into the wilderness for weeks on end with almost nothing — his dog, his paints and his gun.”
To prepare his program, Ellis studied Audubon’s writings and has also led birding treks in many of the places Audubon traveled.
“When I talk about canoeing a certain river or hiking a certain mountain, I’ve actually canoed that river or hiked that mountain,” Ellis said, and audiences have said they aren’t sure where Audubon ends and Ellis begins.
Audubon also loved storytelling. He would travel in Europe, putting up temporary art exhibits in wealthy homes and would tell the wild tales of his travels, and it is this scene that Ellis re-creates in his program, even wearing buckskins similar to what Audubon wore.
“Everyone is enchanted with this character. I’ve done this program for preschoolers and Ph.D. ornithologists, and there’s something for everyone,” Ellis said. “What I really love is when grandparents bring their grandkids and they both have something to talk about on the way home.”
Celebrate Earth Day by learning about a grandfather of the early environmental movement, a conservationist accredited by greats such as Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Theodore Roosevelt.
Come to the Pearson Lakes Art Center 6 p.m. April 21 for the free public program for all ages, co-sponsored by the Dickinson County Conservation Board. You can learn more about this program and other conservation board offerings under the environmental education tab or by calling 712-336-6352. You can also keep up with the latest on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.