Wild Ones   Wild People: Lorrie Otto  
Lorrie Otto - Prairie Queen
She's the inspiration for Wild Ones, widely acknowledged as the heart and soul of the natural landscaping movement.

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 twenty-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 twenty 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) [see Links, below] 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.


Read some articles by and about Lorrie Otto and see a list of her awards, publications, etc.

On Being a Purist.
What you plant or don't plant makes the difference between listening to beautiful music or listening to an out-of-tune piano.

Lorrie's Birthday.
Every year on Lorrie's birthday, September 9th, we honor her by remembering her favorite program – the Seeds for Education (SFE) Grant Program. Click here to send a birthday card to Lorrie and a donation to her favorite program.

Memorial Service for Lorrie Otto

Come celebrate Lorrie's life with those who loved her and were inspired to make a difference.

Sunday, August 22, 2010 from 2-4PM
Schlitz Audubon Nature Center 1111 East Brown Deer Road, Milwaukee

Readings, videos, photos, music and refreshments will be provided by friends and family.

Contact Dorothy Boyer with questions.

Lorrie Otto on whose ecological principles Wild Ones was started in 1977 passed away Saturday, May 29 at the home of her daughter, Tricia.

As Lorrie wished and explained to us in her article in the JanFeb issue of the Journal, she was buried simply in a green and natural cemetery. Wild Ones will be honoring her life in various ways in the months to come as well.

To share your thoughts, memories and best wishes for Lorrie.

If you wish to donate a gift in Lorrie's name, she'd be most pleased if it was given to the Seeds For Education Grant Program which bears her name. You can make a donation in honor of her birthday September 9th as we have done during many past years.

Obituaries Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Seattle Times and The Bellingham Herald for Lorrie.

Lorrie Otto's Great Parking Adventure.

Rotor Rage.

Children's Natural Architecture.

The Prairie Gets a Reprieve.

From Rain Barrels to Rain Gardens.

Lorrie Otto Awards

Books, Publications, etc. by Lorrie Otto

CNRA, DDT & ME IN THE 1960s, Citizens Natural Resources Association, the Environmental Defense Fund and Lorrie Otto were traveling separate but similar paths in their efforts to stop the use of DDT to control mosquitoes, Dutch elm disease and other pests. When the three came together in 1968, an alliance was formed that led to the DDT hearings in Madison, the banning of DDT in Wisconsin, similar legislation in other states, and ultimately national legislation outlawing DDT.

Godmother of Natural Landscaping by Bret Rapapport.

Rainy Day Gardens by Maryalice Koehne.

Lorrie Otto has been featured in Change magazine.

The theme for the 2009 National Women’s History Month nominations was "Women Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet" and encouraged the recognition of the important work of women in the on-going green movement, including Lorrie Otto. For more information on National Women’s History Month.

Go to inductee Lorrie Otto's page on the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame web site. Go to the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame home page.

A Garden Chat With Lorrie Otto Article & Interview by Doreen Howard. Photos by Ney Tait Fraser.

Wild About Nature interview. From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, long-time Bayside gardener Lorrie Otto is pulling up her roots and moving to the state of Washington.

A Fight for the Robins radio interview. Listen as Lorrie Otto is interviewed by Dick Gordon.


Seattle Times story about Lorrie's ties to the State of Washington, DDT and the EDF.




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Updated: Jul 22, 2010.
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