Stayin’ alive 

Opening day Art Shanty Projects
Opening day Art Shanty Projects revelers lined up to take in the Pollinator Shanty on Lake Harriet on Jan. 19. Photo by Jim Walsh 

January may be the winter of our discontent in Minnesota, but on the middle of frozen Lake Harriet, Art Shanty Projects revelers are getting a reminder of spring — and an education.

Located on Lake Harriet weekends through Feb. 9, the Pollinator Shanty is nestled between two like-minded environmental shacks: the Seedbank greenhouse and the Flora Sauna greenhouse. The sum effect of ducking in from the cold and into the humid air is not unlike a mini-climate-change conference, and it’s somehow fitting that some of the most urgent real-talk about the environment and the future of the planet is taking place in the dead of winter.

One of the warmest and coziest of all the art shanties, the inside of the Pollinator Shanty seeks to replicate Mexico’s Oyamel Fir Forest, with paintings of resting butterflies in the winter flanked by a display about the forest’s nature reserve, which has been attacked by illegal logging.

“We’re trying to get people’s attention, and the bright colors on a frozen white lake when we all wish we were somewhere warmer is a really good way to do it,” said Suzanne Trapp, community outreach manager for the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, the Pollinator Shanty’s partner. “What we’re trying to let people know about is how imperiled our pollinators are, including the monarch butterfly population that travels from Canada and Minnesota down to Mexico.

“That population has been in decline, and there’s a lot of things we can do to help mitigate that situation. The monarch shanty is a fun way to tell people the story about the monarch migration and some of the things we can do to make that migration easier, and that includes planting native plants in habitat. Most people know about the milkweed when they’re in their breeding cycle, but the adults also are nectar feeders and the more native plant habitat they encounter along their journey, the stronger they stay and the more likely they’ll make it there and future generations will make it back.”

This year the monarch theme was expanded to include all pollinators, whose numbers are in decline, and the shanty gets people thinking about how humans impact the planet, the plants they put in their yards and homes, and how much fruits and vegetables rely on the whole of the ecosystem.  

“The birth of the migrating monarch shanty was two years ago, and it was a hit with long lines the whole time,” said lead artist and organizer Terry McDaniel. “I’m a bee keeper and I’ve raised monarchs, and we just thought this was a good way to get information out about not using pesticides and insects and pollination. I painted a couple bees on it, and that’s how I came up with my costume: I’m Queen Bee.”

“I walked into Minnesota Wildlife Refuge and I saw someone painting on [the shanty], and that’s how I got involved,” said volunteer Amy Zagar. “I’ve gone to the Art Shantys over the years and I’ve always wanted to get involved with it, and this year I stumbled into it. I think any time of year it’s important to talk about how important pollinators are and what we can do as residents. Also, in winter we’re missing our warmer climates and beautiful flowers and summer in general, so it’s just a beautiful experience to remind us that summer’s coming.”

Along with a dose of greenhouse warmth in the dead of winter, visitors to the Pollinator Shanty receive a postcard with pictures of Minnesota’s native pollinators and their favorite plants, which are also painted on the outside of the shanty. Throw in a twice-a-day flash mob (to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive,” natch) and winged people riding little pollinator bikes, and you’ve got a fun and whimsical climate emergency commentary.

“We made 42 wing costumes, and people love the flash mob and the dancing. It’s a very big community-building thing,” said McDaniel. “At the end of the flash mob, we all go to the middle and pollinate this yellow flower that we put on the snow, so everyone’s going in and out and pollinating the flower. It was so much fun to see people acting like insects and having fun. We all need insects, and insects are desperate for food.”

“There’s a variety of insects you can pretend to be as you pedal along the frozen Lake Harriet,” Trapp said.

This is one way to deal with the climate crisis. The news of the world can be overwhelming, but a visit to the Pollinator Shanty sheds light and reinforces the idea that one person, gardener, homeowner, or plant lover can contribute to bettering the world.

“That is so accurate,” said Trapp. “It can be as simple as the patio pot. It doesn’t have to be acres and acres of habitat. As those butterflies and pollinators are going through their life cycle, they’ve just got to go from one flower to the next to the next to the next. So this idea that only big chunks of habitat matter is really no longer true. 

“Everybody can have a really big impact by just changing a little bit of the way they garden, being OK with their grass having more than just the color green; encouraging some of the native plants in their lawns and allowing some of what we consider weeds to flower and provide nectar to some of our earliest pollinators. It’s really something we can all do.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at [email protected].