Fertile Ground

March 24, 2009

I spent much of the weekend uncovering my front yard. Discovering the first signs of life, it was easy to let my imagination and ambition soar beyond what I am actually skilled enough to accomplish as a gardener.

First signs of life photo by Jessica Becker

First signs of life photo by Jessica Becker

My goal for this growing year is to add more edible and native plants to the small, shady space in front of our downtown home. Surprisingly, at least to me, there are some that fit the bill. I’m happy to have the UW-Arboretum as both a resource (the annual native plant sale!) and inspiration for working toward this goal.

Arboretum photo by Jessica Becker

Arboretum photo by Jessica Becker

When you visit the Arboretum today, it’s hard to believe that just 75 years ago, the land was mostly derelict farmland. It took vision and hard work (and still does) on the part of many people who believed that human relations with the land should be mutually beneficial. From these efforts, and the underpinning philosophy, we get the slow food, permaculture, and ecology movements that have encouraged me to try growing food instead of a grassy lawn.

One of these visionaries was Aldo Leopold, then a professor at UW-Madison. After helping to found the Arboretum, he went on to work on his own parcel of land, near Baraboo, and to compose “The Land Ethic” (published as part of The Sand County Almanac after Leopold’s death). The Arboretum is celebrating its anniversary all year, and the Aldo Leopold Foundation is working on a film, called Greenfire, that celebrates Leopold’s influence on the American environmental movement.

Curt Meine, who narrates the film and is a nationally known conservation biologist, has been working with the Wisconsin Humanities Council over the past years as we’ve been exploring the state’s rich legacy in conservation. Curt has asked aloud: Is there something in the water in Wisconsin? Why do so many national figures in the movement have their roots in, and take their inspiration from, Wisconsin’s landscape?

Greenfire will be shown in four communities in the spring of 2010 as part of the WHC’s Making it Home film festivals. These festivals are being coordinated in connection with the Gaylord Nelson Institute’s Tales from Planet Earth environmental film festival. The UW-Madison institute’s namesake, Senator Nelson, is another person we are proud to call homegrown. His legacy, Earth Day, is right around the corner (April 22).

Learning about what plants are native to my region, which ones will handle the regular August drought, survive under a blanket of snow, and even produce colorful and tasty berries next spring, is connecting me intimately with my home landscape. At the same time, I’m making the land a reflection of my interests and efforts. It feels very organic. Oh yeah, Wisconsin is a big player in that movement, too.