I was getting to the finish line, writing the last chapter of Urban and Suburban Meadows, when I began to reflect on how long the movement to preserve natural landscapes, like prairies and meadows, has been around.
In the Beginning
In the latter half of the 19th century, visionaries like John Muir, commonly acknowledged to be the “Father of the National Parks”, advocated to safeguard wilderness areas. He also founded the Sierra Club. Muir wrote extensively about conservation and the natural world. I got to thinking, what would John Muir say about meadows versus lawn? I might have predicted his response but was not expecting this wonderfully descriptive gem!
“One may at first sight compare them with the carefully tended lawns of pleasure-grounds; for they are as free from weeds as they, and as smooth, but here the likeness ends; for these wild lawns, with all their exquisite fineness, have no trace of that painful, licked, snipped, repressed appearance that pleasure-ground lawns are apt to have even when viewed at a distance. And, not to mention the flowers with which they are brightened, their grasses are very much finer both in color and texture, and instead of lying flat and motionless, matted together like a dead green cloth, they respond to the touches of every breeze, rejoicing in pure wildness, blooming and fruiting in the vital light.”
John Muir, The Mountains of California, 1894
John Muir was an early visionary, along with Henry Thoreau. Both articulated a belief that there is a fundamental inter-connection between humankind and nature.
Early 20th Century
Ado Leopold, took up the environmental-conservation mantle in the 1930’s with his work in conservation landscape and in his writings. “The Sand County Almanac is a collection of essays in which he attempted to “weld” the concepts of ecology, esthetics, and ethics. An integrated understanding of these ideas was what Leopold termed the Land Ethic.” Natural landscaping is the manifestation of the Land Ethic. The Land Ethic is summarized in Sand County Almanac:
All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instincts prompt him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him also to co-operate (perhaps in order that there may be a place to compete for).
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land.
In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.”
Bret Rappaport, The John Marshall Law Review Volume 26, Summer 1993, Number 4
Fast forward to the 1960’s.
With environmental awareness primed by the work of the National Wildlife Federation, Rachel Carson and the Environmental Defense Fund, homeowners were planting with native plants, creating natural landscapes. But most municipalities had a cookie cutter landscape mentality that did not include native plants. Strict weed ordinances were enacted to squash the movement. But one, dedicated, Wisconsin naturalist, Lorrie Otto, fought back and won. She worked to educate the town officials about the value of native plants and diversity over non-native, monoculture lawns. Fighting weed ordinances and promoting natural landscapes became her crusade. Using her pocketbook, contacts and fighting spirit, she was instrumental in helping to change many restrictive ordinances. Lorrie was regarded as a key environmental leader, especially in her work to help ban DDT, and in 1979 she helped found Wild Ones – Natural Landscapers, Ltd.
Ah, Wild Ones!
They kept popping up everywhere during my research.
Wild Ones was not established as a garden club, or a typical native plant society of that era. The Wild Ones mission is more akin to the tenets of the Land Ethic. They aren’t out to tame the land and shape it to their needs. They aren’t native plant collectors or cataloguists. “WO are interested in knowing the native plants that grow in the places where they live, AND in planting them in their home landscapes to recreate the ecosystem services that the plant community is capable of providing, cleaning our air and our water. The plants interact with all the life forms that have lived with them for tens of thousands of years in mutually supporting and limiting ways. The birds, the bees, and all the other insects, pollinate the plants and spread their seeds while the plants feed all the life stages of the insects and animals. Beyond our own land, we encourage, by example, our neighbors to add native plants to their flower beds, however small. The goal is to recreate in cities, healthy strips of land, which are home to a maximum diversity of life, both above and below the soil. Eventually they may become wildlife corridors that run through city blocks and parkland, benefiting all of us.” Maryann Whitman, Editor Wild Ones Journal
Wild Ones believe “natural landscaping is…
- more beneficial than toxic to all the creatures (including humans) involved- choosing organic methods over poisonous ones
- more enlightened than trendy – reviving ecosystems rather than planting indiscriminately, for the eyes only
- more joyous than tedious – growing ever-changing plantscapes instead of mow-me-every-week turf grass.
- more alive, attracting a diversity of life that have fewer and fewer natural places to call home”
What’s so different about this thinking? Today, lots of environmental/native plant society groups adhere to these concepts. Here’s where the praise comes in. Wild Ones has steadfastly maintained this mission for over thirty years.
Wild Ones has grown from the original nine members to over 3000, a national non-profit organization with 53 chapters in 12 states. They take their wildness seriously. Instead of fighting city hall they have become part of city hall. Wild Ones are locally active on city councils, park commissions, sustainability committees and planning boards, bringing the Wild Ones’ environmental philosophy to the decision making process.
Chapters are continuing Lorrie Otto’s battle to change weed ordinances. Recently Appleton, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Ohio and Minneapolis, Minnesota residents benefited from Wild Ones tenacious efforts, working with their cities to define beneficial native plants versus noxious weeds and were able to amend the weed laws. Wild Ones website offers help to change ordinances in your municipality.
Mid-west chapters are searching for prairie remnants and working with owners of the land to preserve endangered species by providing trained volunteers to help manage the restoration. If restoration is not in the owners’ plans, then the volunteers ask for permission to do plant rescues and seed harvesting, so the ancient genetic material is not lost to bulldozers.
Where Wild Ones Chapters exist, they organize native plant rescue digs in old field remnants savannas, woodlands and wetland sites where development is planned. Rescued plants find safe haven in gardens of Wild Ones or public sites such as schools. Here are some Wild One gardens to consider.
In addition to leading by example, planting their own wildlife habitats, Wild Ones seek opportunities in the community to promote natural landscapes and stewardship. They take on restoration projects such as The Restoration of Sooty Acres by the Cincinnati chapter. This is a multiyear undertaking to remove invasive plants and return the Cornelius Hauck mansion grounds (part of the Civic Garden Center and Cincinnati Park) to wildflower gardens and a showcase to highlight native plants. The chapter is working on partnering with master gardeners, garden clubs, university students and corporate volunteers to accomplish the restoration.
The Lorrie Otto Seeds for Education Grant Programaims to involve our future stewards, children, in hands on learning and understanding of the natural world. Small grants are given for stewardship projects that range from out-door classrooms, rain gardens, bird sanctuaries, and pollinator gardens to wetland meadow restorations.
A chance meeting between two strangers, one of whom was a dedicated Wild One, resulted in an outdoor classroom for Hugger Elementary School in Oakland MI. It helped that the other person was an environmentally involved parent at Hugger. Parents and school had the full attention of local Wild Ones who helped get the principal, teacher and maintenance staff to buy into planting a natural habitat at the school and provided grant money to help build an outdoor classroom. Wild Ones assisted with contacts at native plant nurseries and with technical support on design, site prep and planting. Students are benefiting by maintaining the planting and seeing the connection between humans, plants and pollinators and learning about the important role they can play in ecological stewardship.
Definition of a Super Swamper: Graduate of Blossom Home Preschool who continues to care for The Buhr Park Children’s Wet Meadow Project.
Twelve years ago preschoolers from Blossom Home Preschool in Ann Arbor MI, with encouragement and energy from teacher Jeannine Palm, embarked on an environmental odyssey to restore the adjacent acres of Buhr Park to a controlled wetland. It was obvious to students and teachers that a low area of the park was constantly flooded and should be restored to a wetland ecosystem. With help from the Lorrie Otto SFE grants, native plant expertise and volunteers from Wild Ones, the original wetland restoration has been expanded threefold. Today, one of the first Super Swampers sits on the Washtenaw County Council. Wild Ones in action!
Wild Ones education tools include school programs, talks, seminars, classes and the Wild Ones handbook, Landscaping with Native Plants. The handbook is a wonderful resource guide that goes beyond the how, where and why to plant natives to advice on getting neighbors to buy-into more bio-diverse, sustainable landscapes. The handbook is also a key component on the EPA Greenacres web page, available free.
For Wild Ones, it’s all about advocating, educating and preserving and restoring natural landscapes. If you want to become a Wild One member or form a chapter in your community, start by visiting Wild Ones.
Wild Ones, living the Land Ethic, teaching the Land Ethic and loving it!
Great thanks to Maryann Whitman and other Wild Ones who contributed to this blog!
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