On the Record with Randy Caspersen

DeKALBRandy Caspersen doesn’t describe himself as religious, but every time he visits the garden behind Mayfield Congregational Church in Sycamore, he becomes inspired spiritually.

Caspersen said the garden and monarch waystation is “a peaceful place of respite, contemplation and relaxation for all of us.”

Caspersen is an assistant professor of media studies at Northern Illinois University. He filmed the documentary “Plants, Pollinators & Prayers” at the church’s garden during 53 visits over several years.

Caspersen is the director, producer and editor of the documentary, and he was assisted by graduate students from NIU’s Department of Communication.

The documentary was inspired by the decline of monarch butterflies in the Midwestern prairie, and follows a gardener, educator and pastor as they transform the rural church’s backyard into a sanctuary for pollinating animals, an educational garden for the community and a sacred space for spiritual contemplation.

There will be a free screening of “Plants, Pollinators & Prayers” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 19, at the Egyptian Theatre, 135 N. Second St. in DeKalb, followed by a question-and-answer session with Caspersen, as well as special guests from the documentary and NIU.

Although the film has played nationally on the film festival circuit during the past two years of the pandemic, this will be the first in-person screening of the documentary.

Caspersen spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about the documentary and upcoming screening.

Milton: What is your role with the documentary?

Caspersen: I am the director, producer and editor of “Plants, Pollinators & Prayers.” It is an environmental documentary film. It is a short documentary, 40 minutes long. … I filmed over 50 times over multiple years, from 2015 to 2019. Three NIU graduate students helped me film with drone footage, interviewing subjects and capturing extra event footage.

Milton: What was your inspiration for the documentary?

Caspersen: My inspiration began after a Friday night open house in 2015. I was told about the garden and was invited to see the land and planting. I spent all summer visiting and capturing footage. I saw how the garden grew, and I was inspired to tell the story of the struggle to plant a large garden and of the importance of insects, of butterflies and bees.

Milton: Tell me more about the garden.

Caspersen: The garden is located behind the Mayfield Congregational Church in Sycamore. I do not follow any religion and I’m not Christian, I’m agnostic, but I believe in the overall spiritual mission of the garden. The garden began as a small area of land behind the church’s parsonage, which is the house where the pastor lives.

Milton: How did the garden get started?

Caspersen: Gardener Diana Swanson and [University of Illinois Extension] environmental educator Peggy Doty are members of the church, and they made it their mission to create the garden and make it a welcoming space for insects and all people. Then the church’s pastor got on board with that mission to make the project part of the church’s service to the community. The garden design was to plant native plants in order to attract monarch butterflies, birds, bees and other pollinating animals. The garden is also meant to be a peaceful place of respite, contemplation and relaxation for all of us.

Milton: How did the documentary process begin?

Caspersen: I began to film the process of them transforming a patch of grass next to a cornfield into a beautiful garden. The film follows that process. They first had to kill grass to form the garden’s spiral design, it follows them designing the garden, the planting and the weeding, while the church members and community members increasingly join in the process of this land transformation.

Milton: Why did you decide to make a documentary?

Caspersen: I thought the creation of a butterfly waystation was a cool story that was happening locally, and I wanted to be a part of it, similar to how I got involved and filmed the documentary “Go! Penguins,” which came out in 2017. That documentary follows [Children’s Community Theatre’s] Penguin Project and their theater productions over multiple years. How I get involved and become part of what’s happening in the community is by using my camera. My filmmaking is how I get to share stories, like the compelling stories happening around the northern Illinois area, with the world.

Katrina Milton

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.