Lorrie Otto

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

Lorrie Otto often used the words of Chief Seattle, a member of the Duwamish Tribe of the Puget Sound Indians in Washington:  “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, but rather borrow it from our descendants.”  These words aptly summarize Lorrie’s 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.

Reprinted from the JulyAugust 2003 Wild Ones Journal.

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.

Lorrie Otto on whose ecological principles Wild Ones was started in 1977 passed away Saturday, May 29, 2010 at the home of her daughter, Tricia. As Lorrie wished and explained to us in her article in the Jan Feb issue of the Journal, she was buried simply in a green and natural cemetery. Wild Ones will be honoring her life in various ways as part of our history.

Obituary in the Seattle Times for Lorrie.

Read on to find out more about Lorrie Otto and to see a list of her awards and publications, and some of the many other articles written about her.

Articles which appeared in the Wild Ones Journal include:

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 Otto’s Great Parking Adventure.

Rotor Rage.

Children’s Natural Architecture.

The Prairie Gets a Reprieve.

From Rain Barrels to Rain Gardens.

Lorrie received many awards for her work toward healing the Earth Lorrie Otto Awards

A voracious writer, Lorrie wrote many pieces about conservation Books, Publications, etc. by Lorrie Otto

Following are a brief example of the many articles written about Lorrie and her campaign to get people to use native plants and natural landscaping to help health the Earth.

CNRA, DDT, and Me In the 1960’s, 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.

Rainy Day Gardens by Maryalice Koehne.

Lorrie Otto has been featured in Change magazine.

The theme for the 2009 on 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.

Inductee Lorrie Otto’s page on the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame website.

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.

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