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Butterfly Ball screens short films on monarch butterfly endangerment as kickoff to Wild and Scenic Film Festival 

On Sept. 14, the Central Coast State Parks Association welcomed another year of the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, an annual fundraiser dedicated to inspiring environmental activism and a love of nature with film screenings across America.

But this year, the opening night in San Luis Obispo marked a first: the Butterfly Ball, an evening dedicated to the Western monarch butterfly.

click to enlarge BUTTERFLY BALL SLO Brew Rock hosted the Wild & Scenic Film Festival's first annual Butterfly Ball, which highlighted the threats to monarch butterfly populations. - PHOTO BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photo By Malea Martin
  • BUTTERFLY BALL SLO Brew Rock hosted the Wild & Scenic Film Festival's first annual Butterfly Ball, which highlighted the threats to monarch butterfly populations.

Here in SLO County, the monarch Butterfly Grove in Pismo Beach is open from late October to February for spectacular butterfly viewing. In recent years, though, butterfly numbers have seen rapid decline due to drought-caused eucalyptus death. As a creature of migration, monarchs rely on these trees to rest and mate during the winter season.

Luckily, the Pismo grove has made significant strides in maintaining the trees in the face of the drought.

"For the last several years, that site has had the most monarchs in the entire state," said biologist and monarch expert Jessica Griffiths during a presentation between the evening's screenings.

Both short films focused on the plants that monarchs depend on for survival.

Aiden's Butterflies follows the story of Aiden Wang, a fifth grader passionate about monarch butterfly activism. Just under 15 minutes, the short film highlights a young boy's affinity for the orange-winged creature whose numbers are dwindling every year with habitats constantly under threat.

Wang started growing milkweed as well as harboring and releasing monarchs when he was just 6 years old. Milkweed, like our local eucalyptus groves, is vital to the butterflies' survival: Monarch caterpillars eat the herbaceous plant, and once those caterpillars become butterflies, they lay their eggs on it. Due to environmental shifts, many of which are human caused, milkweed plants are in decline—and so too are the delicate creatures that survive in symbiosis.

Produced by Lindsey Kayman and directed by Brad Mays, Aiden's Butteflies shows that environmental activism bears no age minimum. It's accessible—free to the public on Vimeo.

Between films, ball goers dined on a burrata and locally sourced fig salad, tender steak and roasted chicken main course options, and a chocolate mousse dessert served in an espresso cup. The event, held in SLO Brew Rock's event space, was catered by SLO Brew Gatherings. The tables were decorated with centerpieces featuring butterflies cut from book pages, and a live band took the stage later in the evening for some classic jams.

click to enlarge ENJOYING THE EVENING Butterfly Ball goers enjoy some pre-screening appetizers as the sun goes down. - PHOTO BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photo By Malea Martin
  • ENJOYING THE EVENING Butterfly Ball goers enjoy some pre-screening appetizers as the sun goes down.

Monarchs & Milkweed, the second short film shot in a lush Yosemite Valley milkweed field, stars Park Ranger Erik Westerlund as he takes the audience on a "microcosmic safari." The film is available free to the public on YouTube.

"This is going to be invisible to most people, other than this little pink pom-pom," Westerlund says at the beginning of the film, referring to the colorful flowers of the milkweed plant. "They probably don't give it a second thought, but take a little extra time and you're going to see that those little pink pom-poms are a world unto themselves."

With stunning up-close footage, the film showcases the plethora of bugs and birds that subsist off the milkweed plant. And, of course, there's the monarch.

"In terms of relationship to the plant, it is absolutely key to have these available to monarchs," ecologist Jeff Holmquist says onscreen. "No milkweed, no monarchs. It's that simple."

Elizabeth Barrett, known locally as the Reluctant Therapist on her Tuesday afternoon KCBX radio show, was the master of ceremonies for the evening. A mental health professional, Barrett addressed in her remarks what she calls "climate depression." She noted that more and more, she has witnessed "an increase in anxiety and depression that people feel around climate change and the world situation."

"What we see as the prescription or the remedy for this climate anxiety or depression is actually coming together, having a meal together, talking to strangers about life, introducing yourself to the person next to you and saying, 'What is it you care about?'" she said.

In this spirit, the Wild & Scenic Film Festival continued through Sept. 22, featuring a wide variety of nature and environmentally centered films. The festival sprawled across SLO County, with screenings at the Clark Center Studio Theatre in Arroyo Grande, the South Bay Community Center in Los Osos, the Fremont Theatre in Downtown SLO, and the Morro Bay Natural History Museum. Though the festival has now come to a close for SLO County, donations to Central Coast State Parks Association can be made through its website any time of the year.

At the Butterfly Ball, Barrett commended the audience for coming together to watch the films and fundraise for local environmental causes.

"This is an environmental issue that's not only important locally, but also important globally," Barrett said of the Western monarch butterfly crisis. "It doesn't take hundreds of thousands of people moving forward to make change. It's small groups of people, or individuals standing up and having something to say." Δ

Arts Writer Malea Martin is learning how to save the butterflies. Send arts story tips to mmartin@newtimesslo.org.

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