"Aww," Olivia Nienaber said, as she knelt beside a butterfly lying motionless on the ground in a garden near her home in Scandia, Minn. "Poor little guy."
Nienaber stretched out her hand to the distressed monarch, cooing and coaxing it like a pet. The butterfly climbed ever so gingerly onto her extended digits. Nienaber walked it over to a plant, and the monarch soon unfurled its proboscis into a flower, drawing nectar. Wondrously, the creature revived and began shimmering as it loaded up on fuel for its great migration from Minnesota to Mexico.
A butterfly whisperer, Nienaber is a home-schooled 18-year-old who turned a 4-H project on the effects of climate change into a calling to help pollinators, the creatures responsible for much of our food and flowers and, thus, life on the planet. Over the past year, she has planted more than 400 flowers, shrubs and trees in 16 gardens on her family's 10-acre homestead, attracting a riot of birds, bees and butterflies. Those efforts have brought her recognition and support in her community.
They also have made Nienaber the youngest of six winners in the Star Tribune's annual Beautiful Gardens contest, selected from more than 380 reader nominations. In this year of pandemic and racial justice reckoning, the contest was changed a bit. Readers were invited to nominate gardens that are beautiful in spirit and contribute to the greater good.
If Nienaber identifies with the creatures she nourishes and revives, it's because she and her family have many stories of saving grace.
"I love butterflies because of their metamorphosis," Nienaber said. "They are symbols of change, and change for the better, which is something we need right now."
From the ashes
Some of the gardens she tends have risen from ashes. In May 2018, while they were away at a recital, a fire swept through the family property, incinerating a shed and jumping across the street to scorch 14 acres of cornfield. No one was hurt, but the landscape was scarred.
Rebuilding after the conflagration gave the family an opportunity to honor Nie-naber's growing passion. She transformed what had been a neglected 850-square-foot area of the property into a wildflower garden that attracts swallowtail butterflies, native bumblebees and birds such as finches and orioles.
Her interest grew because of a 4-H effort under the auspices of the Outdoor Wilderness Leadership and Service program. The garden was part of that work.
"When I was planning my service project, I was trying to find something that was meaningful to me that had to do with climate change and global warming," Nienaber said. "The question was, how is this thing affecting early migrating birds? Once we got into birds, it started to transfer over into the pollinators."
Knowledgeable, poised and focused, Nienaber got her gardening interest in part from her mother, Ann Rinkenberger, who grew up in 4-H and found it to be "a great hands-on learning opportunity." She wanted Olivia and her sister, Sophia Nienaber, a student at Bethel University, to have a similar exposure.
"In elementary school, the girls would run around the backyard and spread milkweed seeds," Rinkenberger recalled. "We would raise caterpillars every year. Last year we had over 40 monarchs, plus tiger swallowtails and a lot of moth caterpillars."
Now, her younger daughter is following suit.
"We have plants in every letter of the alphabet," Nienaber said, showing a binder with fauna from asters and blanket flowers to yarrows and Zizia aurea, which attracts the black swallowtail butterfly.
"Except for the letter X," Rinkenberger said.
"Not many pollinators start with that letter," Nienaber responded.
"There was one from the Carolinas, but I'm not sure how it would have fared in Minnesota."
In the summertime, the gardens thrive with bee balm, coneflowers, salvia and lavender, all sending an attractive festival of visual and olfactory cues. Nienaber relishes the aromas and the sounds of the creatures drawn to them, even if that appreciation is hard won.
She has a deep empathy for the vulnerable because she has struggled with some developmental issues, including sensory processing disorder, a cognitive condition where the brain sometimes gets overwhelmed by information coming through the senses.
Nienaber has used that disorder, which has affected her speech, as inspiration. Her success has inspired others, starting at home.
"I'm thrilled with how she's chosen to live her life and her priorities," Rinkenberger said. "When I was that age, I would never have been able to do what she's done — talking in front of city councils, just being able to hold her own and answer questions."
Nor do her efforts end in the wintertime. In the cold months, Nienaber is still tending to 22 birdfeeders on the property, seeds and feed that attract oodles of woodpeckers and chickadees and cardinals.
"We go to Walmart and make our own suet — little bird cupcakes," Rinkenberger said.
The family also takes photographs to document the visitors, which they speak of in reverential tones.
Nienaber's home gardens are an extension of a raft of environmental concerns. Years ago, she helped restore native prairie nearby, attracting pheasants. She has worked with authorities to make six public gardens in northern Washington County into pollinator havens. And she has made her home base a monarch way station certified by the National Wildlife Federation.
"Landscaping for beauty, we do a lot of that as people, but it doesn't serve the wildlife," Nienaber said. "When people plant flowers, they should do it for wildlife, not just beauty."
Now a high school senior, Nienaber hopes to combine her love of the environment with equal passions for art and graphic design when she goes to college. She's not sure what she wants to do, or if she can combine her interests into something more entrepreneurial.
But whatever she does, she hopes it will help to restore and reinvigorate the buzzing, singing, flying creatures that are key to the mosaic of life, even if, for many, they remain in the background.
"I hope to help change that," Nienaber said, "to keep the world in balance."
It's not just the bees and birds and butterflies that are counting on her success. Human lives, too, might just depend on it.