Reporters meet a lot of people. That’s our stock in trade, after all. Yet the number of people a reporter meets that make a really deep impression, who remain fresh in your memory years later, is small.
Lorrie Otto, however, I remember as clearly as if it were 1988 and I had just shaken hands for the first time. This is especially true as recently I had cause to refresh those memories when I spoke to a representative of an organization Lorrie inspired.
To return to 1988: A severe drought gripped much of the United States that year, and I was researching gardens that conserved water and landscapes that were designed to flourish without artificial irrigation. One of the trends that interested me was then a very new one, the creation of backyard prairies and prairie gardens. Prairie, after all, is a type of vegetation that evolved as a result of recurrent drought.
In the heartland, where the summer heat is intense and summer rainfall can be infrequent, trees and other woody plants found it difficult to cope. Grasses and certain wildflowers, however, flourished under those conditions, and broad areas of prairie were a result. In 1988, this type of vegetation was proving to be not only a beautiful and ecologically beneficial treatment for home landscapes, it was proving to be remarkably practical.
I wanted to talk to a leader of the backyard prairie movement, and everyone agreed I needed to meet Lorrie Otto. I’m not sure what I expected to encounter when I flew out to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, her hometown, but it wasn’t her. She looked like any middle-aged suburban matron and she was so low key and matter of fact in a manner that one might never have guessed she was an environmental hero.
In the 1960s, when DDT was being sprayed everywhere to control mosquitoes and other insect pests, Lorrie noticed the insectivorous birds were all dying. Famously, she showed up at one public hearing on the subject with a basket full of dead robins she had collected around her property.
When that got no response, she arranged for an institute’s-worth of environmental scientists and attorneys to come stay in her house while they testified at the Wisconsin state Capitol. Eventually, the testimony convinced the legislators to ban the use of DDT in Wisconsin, and that started a movement that led to a national ban in 1972. The team of scientists and lawyers she had entertained later developed into the Environmental Defense Fund.
Lorrie’s involvement with prairie dated to her childhood as a farmer’s daughter. Along one border of the farm ran a train track, and on that right-of-way, a strip of land that had never been plowed, grew a remnant of the tall grass prairie vegetation that had once covered much of the Midwest. Lorrie never forgot how beautiful it was, and later, to the consternation of her neighbors and her town officials, Lorrie recreated that natural flora in her suburban yard, surrounding her house with a miniature grassland.
She was such a persuasive advocate, however, that she not only converted the neighborhood and the town, she inspired the birth of an organization that calls itself “Wild Ones,” or more officially, “Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes.” From an initial membership of nine people in 1977, the organization has grown to include chapters in 17 states, as well as “PALs,” partners-at-large, throughout the rest of the country.
I took the opportunity recently to interview a former national president of Wild Ones, Montanan Janice Hand. She told me about all the educational programs Wild Ones funds, and the many landscape restorations that members have carried out. There’s a national headquarters, the WILD Center, set on 16 acres of woodland and restored prairie along the Fox River in Neenah, Wisconsin, with one of the last functioning marshes on this waterway complete with habitat for endangered turtles. If you want to hear this interview, you will find it posted at thomaschristophergardens.com.
Lorrie Otto, who died in 2010 at age 91, was, above all, interested in deeds rather than words. Which is why I believe she would approve of a change I made last fall, when I removed 5,500 square feet of lawn behind our Berkshire house and replanted it as a butterfly meadow. I’ll think of Lorrie (and remember never to underestimate suburban matrons) when the grasses grow tall, the flowers bloom, and the robins visit.
Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs both informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art, The Gardens of Wave Hill. His companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org.