Spiritual Mentor of Wild Ones

Lorrie Otto, Prairie Queen

By Carol Chew, Mandy Ploch, and Bret Rappaport

"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, but rather borrow it from our descendants."

Lorrie Otto's words aptly summarize her life and legacy. In the last decade, the natural landscaping movement took root and spread from coast to coast. Lorrie Otto planted the seeds of the movement.

Lorrie was born Mary Lorraine Stoeber in 1919 near Madison, Wisconsin. Her love of nature traces back to long, hot summers traipsing behind her father as he guided the horse-drawn plow, soil squishing between her toes, studying unearthed grubs and worms. The farm stretched over three hills, which her father had terraced by hand. Years later, while piloting a plane, Lorrie saw the family farm from the air after a rainstorm. It was still lush, while adjacent hillsides lay bare with alluvial fans of brown mud stretching from their bases. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin, married Owen Otto, a psychiatrist, and moved to a north Milwaukee suburb, a block from Lake Michigan.

Her suburban area was blessed with a 20-acre ravine, called Fairy Chasm, in which children played and nature reigned. But in the late 1950s, plans were made to sell the chasm and to build in it. Lorrie turned naturalist, crusader, and teacher. It took a decade, but in 1969, The Nature Conservancy took title to the 20 acres.

In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common practice to spray for mosquitoes on a weekly basis with DDT. After each run, Lorrie found birds strewn about, twitching, soon to die. She became a founding board member of the Wisconsin Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the Citizens Natural Resources Association (CNRA)and led the assault on DDT. In 1970, Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw it. Wisconsin's Senator Gaylord Nelson, initiator of Earth Day, carried the battle along to Washington, D.C., and by 1972, DDT had been banned nationally.

Lorrie views the typical suburban monoculture of lawn as "immoral" but she believes the vast expanse of land occupied by suburban development could, instead, be considered an environmental opportunity: "If suburbia were landscaped with meadows, prairies, thickets, or forests, or combinations of these, then the water would sparkle, fish would be good to eat again, birds would sing and human spirits would soar." She started by turning her own one-acre property back to nature. The Ottos moved to a landscape of lawn, a tulip bed, and sixty-four Norway spruces. To the consternation of the neighbors, they cut down the non-native spruces and planted asters, goldenrod, and ferns. By the first Earth Day, 1970, it looked as if the house had been dropped onto a prairie.

However, town officials saw only weeds. A village worker was sent out and got to the fern garden with a mower before he was stopped. Lorrie muses, "In the areas where we could put our learning and teaching into practice schoolyards, churches, hospitals, roadsides and, most obvious of all, our own yards we neaten and bleaken, consistently and relentlessly destroying habitat for almost all life. It's as if we took off our heads, hung them up, and left them at the nature center." Since winning the battle with her own town, she has helped others to view natural landscaping as a public good rather than as a health hazard.

In 1979, while listening to Lorrie speak, Ginny Lindow got a "wild" idea. She started an organization to promote the use of native plants to landscape city and suburban yards. Lorrie helped form Wild Ones and has guided it since.

Lorrie Otto continues to serve the community by teaching, lecturing, acting as witness and advisor in legal matters, and communicating through TV, radio and publications. She has planted the seeds of natural landscaping in the hearts of thousands. These, in turn, have left a legacy to future generations by returning their own patches of the biosphere to nature.

More Wild Ones People