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My port of entry to Madison was a frozen field of tallgrass, an echelon of dark pines and a patch of oak woods. As my brother and I drove into town along the south Beltline, searching for the Seminole Highway exit, I looked around and marveled: Hey, this is all right.... There's a forest in the middle of the city!
I didn't know at the time that I was seeing the UW Arboretum. I didn't know those tawny grasses were the Curtis Prairie, the world's first prairie restoration project. I didn't know those were the Leopold Pines, planted in the 1930s. I didn't know the highway had been punched through the Arboretum in the early 1950s. I didn't know my new place was just beyond those oaks.
And I didn't anticipate how the Arboretum, which next month will celebrate its 75th anniversary, would change my own trajectory.
It was January 1981, and I had come to Madison to begin graduate school. I'd arranged to watch the house of a retired UW professor, Madeleine Doran, in the Nakoma neighborhood. She was heading to Southern California for the winter.
My brother brought me and my scanty store of worldly possessions up from Chicago. We met Prof. Doran, an eminent medievalist and Renaissance literature scholar, at her home on Wanda Place. She oriented me to her house and its routines, and I drove her to the airport (in her jet black 1965 Dodge Dart!).
Over the next 12 weeks, my daily migration to campus carried me back and forth through the Arboretum. Newly liberated from the big city, I reveled in exploring the Arboretum's woodlands and wetlands and prairies.
I could not get enough of it: the ice going out on Lake Wingra, the red wings returning to Gardner Marsh, the bluebells bursting out along Arboretum Drive, the lilacs perfuming half of Wisconsin from the Longenecker Gardens. I visited on official class business that semester as well, surveying the oaks of Noe Woods, identifying the spring ephemerals in Gallistel Woods, learning my grasses and forbs in Greene Prairie.
Madeleine Doran was also an accomplished poet and essayist. She returned to Madison in April, and I prepared to move on to my next base camp. As a parting gift she gave me a copy of her 1974 collection of poems, Time's Foot. It includes a meditation, "Wanda Place." "This was an oak wood," it starts, until:
A builder came
And swept away the wildness, choked the trees
Under leveling clay; pinned all down
With a suburban lawn behind the house.
So I am told.
...Now the place is mine and I look out
On weedy grass, the twenty crippled trees,
Then the poet notices the spring beauties, jack-in-the-pulpit and trillium holding on tenaciously under her trees, cousins to the nearby oaks of Noe Woods. And she asks:
Can I reverse time's arrow?
By art unmake art? Trade dandelions
I did not know it then, but with those sharp questions Prof. Doran defined the continuing promise and paradox of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum.
On June 17, 1934, in the Nelson barn on what was then the southern outskirts of Madison, 150 academic, conservation and civic leaders gathered to dedicate the university's new arboretum.
Among the speakers that morning was John Nolen, author of the visionary 1911 plan for Madison. In it, Nolen urged that "a good-sized arboretum" be established to help protect and enhance the city's landscape.
The idea languished until the mid-1920s, when Realtor Paul Stark proposed an 800-acre arboretum on lands around Lake Wingra. Attorney Michael Olbrich, a UW regent and head of the Madison Parks Foundation, saw Stark's proposal - and raised him 1,200 acres. Olbrich pushed his fellow regents and Madison's power brokers to create, under the UW's auspices, an arboretum where residents could reclaim "something of the grace and beauty which nature intended all to share." The plan was approved in 1927, but progress stalled after Olbrich committed suicide in 1929.
Col. Joseph W. Jackson, a potent force in shaping the city's development, took up the task of wheel-greasing, made more difficult by the nation's economic depression. It wasn't until July 1932, after much shuttling among university and city officials, funders and landowners, that Jackson arranged the first land acquisition: the 245-acre Nelson farm on the southwest shore of Lake Wingra. The following spring the university acquired an adjacent farm (a parcel that included Noe Woods), bringing the total to almost 500 acres.
At the dedication in 1934, the 65-year-old Nolen praised the university for establishing a place "to repair the physical, biological and esthetic wastes" that Americans had produced since "our stern Puritan forebears landed at Plymouth and began to subdue nature to their needs for liberty."
The guests also heard from Yellow Thunder, grandson and namesake of the great Ho-Chunk chief. Appearing in full tribal regalia, Yellow Thunder described leaving his home near Wausau years before "to mingle with civilization."
On his subsequent return, Yellow Thunder was stunned by what he saw: "The beauty of my wilderness home was gone. Nothing remained but burnt over land. I am glad to see the 'white Indian' reviving the natural instinct. ...Civilization must be a constructive, conserving, benevolent thing. Too often it has become barbaric and a great destructive force."
The words of Nolen and Yellow Thunder hinted at the daring aim of the Arboretum. Its mission had changed dramatically over the previous year, even as the nation's economic and ecological reality changed around it.
Though it would include specimens of trees and shrubs, this was not meant to be a traditional arboretum. It would offer Olbrich's "grace and beauty." It would serve the civic-minded goals of Nolen and Jackson. But it would do what its most prominent advocate and spokesman, Aldo Leopold, described as "something new and different."
Leopold joined the UW faculty in 1933, his appointment having been secured by Madison's town-and-gown leaders. He was already a nationally recognized conservationist, having just published the first text on wildlife management. Now one of his tasks was to oversee research at what was officially designated the University of Wisconsin Arboretum and Wild Life Refuge.
"Perhaps we should not call the place an arboretum at all," he mused at the dedication. "Our idea...is to reconstruct, primarily for the use of the university, a sample of original Wisconsin - a sample of what Dane County looked like when our ancestors arrived here in the 1840s...what [our state] was like before we took it away from the Indians."
Why seek to rebuild lost environments - the oak savannas and sphagnum bogs, rice beds and pine forests and tallgrass prairies? Why look to the land's past? "Why," as Leopold put it, "dig up these ecological graves?"
Because, he answered, the university needed "a reconstructed sample of old Wisconsin, to serve as a benchmark, a starting point, in the long and laborious job of building a permanent and mutually beneficial relationship between civilized men and a civilized landscape."
Leopold's words that day served as something of a constitutional charter, not only for the Arboretum, but for the science of restoration ecology and the practice of ecological restoration. The vision offered in a barn on the edge of Madison in 1934 now provides the foundation for efforts to repair damaged ecosystems around the world, from coral reefs and boreal bogs to tropical forests and arid rangelands. The gathered dignitaries dedicated not only a place, but an audacious idea: that time's arrow could be, if not reversed, then at least in some manner redirected.
As it happened, my daily walks through the Arboretum, in 1981, changed my own direction. I would spend much of the next seven years immersed in writing a biography of Leopold, seeking to understand more fully his influential efforts to create a more "permanent and mutually beneficial relationship" between people and land.
In the spring of 1934, the nation was mired in economic and environmental crisis. Wisconsin's landscape was an ecological mess. In just a few generations, the state's northern forests had been largely cleared, most of its prairies and savannas converted, its wildlife populations driven down and evicted, half its wetlands ditched and drained, its waters loaded with pollution and sediment, its soils widely depleted and eroded.
Forest and agricultural communities in Wisconsin and the nation were facing economic transition even before the Depression tightened the screws. By 1934 the epic Dust Bowl storms were lifting topsoil off the high plains, adding another gritty layer of reality to daily life. In view of what Leopold called "this process of wreckage," the idea of land restoration was not only timely, but necessary.
The Arboretum was the shovel-ready project of its day. Within a year, workers - first from the Wisconsin Emergency Relief Administration, then from the federal government's new Civilian Conservation Corps - were encamped onsite. The CCC crews began a task that had no precedent or field manual: the purposeful restoration of prairie plants and communities that entire governments, economies, industries and trade networks had worked devotedly and effectively to plow under. It was a radical act: the trading of dandelions for ladyslippers.
The CCC camp, which remained open through the start of World War II, was the only one of its kind lodged on a university campus. Under the guidance of botanists Norman Fassett, John T. Curtis and the late John Thomson, the CCCers and students experimented with new techniques to propagate and nurture prairie vegetation.
Curtis Prairie, where the work started, remains the Arboretum's flagship restoration project. And the work begun there has inspired others elsewhere to trade purple loosestrife for cord grass, Russian olive for wild indigo, common carp for bass and bluegill, salt cedar for cottonwood, dams for salmon, sugarcane for Everglades.
Over its 75 years, the UW Arboretum has grown to include 1,200 acres, embracing a variety of forest, savanna, prairie and wetland communities; several ponds and springs and much of the southern shore of Lake Wingra; native effigy mounds and 20 miles of walking trails and boardwalks.
It is woven into Madison's social as well as ecological landscape in a way its scientific founders hardly anticipated, as the adopted home of Madison's hikers, joggers, cyclists, cross-country skiers, bird-watchers, photographers and wedding planners. (I learned this lesson the hard way that first winter, when I unwittingly hiked on the ski tracks along Curtis Prairie, a mortal Madison sin for which I was ferociously rebuked.)
But the Arboretum remains first and foremost a place for education and research. Generations of UW students have continued to use the Arboretum as an outdoor laboratory and classroom.
The visitor center is the Arboretum's administrative home and a key hub in a global network of restoration scientists and practitioners. The successors of Leopold and Fassett and Curtis pursue studies at the Arboretum and beyond, attempting to reweave the fabric of natural communities at one end, even as human activities unravel them ever more rapidly and extensively at the other.
This is the paradox within which ecological restoration works, and the Arboretum exists.
Beginning in the 1930s, restorationists sought to trade derelict farms and denuded forests and dredged wetlands for whole, working communities of plants and animals. In the process, they opened themselves up to difficult and fundamental questions.
First of all: Could it even be done? The Arboretum's founders understood the difficulty of reassembling entire collections of plants and animals, seeing it as the work not of seasons, but generations. They knew it wasn't possible to bring back all the Arboretum landscape's native species - elk and wolf, for example.
Yet no one foresaw how difficult the job would become as suburbs engulfed Arboretum lands, development changed the landscape's hydrology and invasive species multiplied. Much less did they confront the prospect of climate change.
Fifteen years after the Arboretum dedication, Leopold challenged the economic and ethical norms that led to such changes. In his classic A Sand County Almanac, he argued for a land ethic that expanded the idea of community to include "soils, waters, fauna and flora, as well as people."
Since then, the notion of forests, prairies and wetlands as stable, coherent natural communities has been continually modified. Ecologists now adhere to a more fluid concept of ecosystems in flux, with species and relationships responding constantly to internal and external forces of change. This begs the further question: What target point ought one seek in bending time's arrow?
Restoration is a much more complex undertaking than John Nolen and Yellow Thunder and Aldo Leopold imagined in 1934. They could not have anticipated such questions, because until the Arboretum was created, restoration did not yet exist as a scientific field, as a conservation practice, as a policy goal, or as a generator of cultural conversations.
And that was the very point.
Seen in the broad arc of conservation history, the ideas and actions undertaken at the Arboretum were revolutionary, and remain so. Its founders explicitly rejected as dangerous what Leopold called modern society's "iron-heel attitude" toward the land - that it exists to serve human purposes and needs to be bent to our will.
But they also implicitly rejected the notion that people could or should simply disappear from the land - or at least keep hands off it. They envisioned a new path through these diametric positions - one that people could mindfully walk. They saw restoration as a way to build more respectful, imaginative and durable relationships within the ever-evolving community of life.
We don't know what questions conservationists will be asking after 75 more years of restoration research, practice and debate. How will challenges like climate change, invasive species and population growth frame their work? What additional goals and needs will they address? What opportunities will they seize?
In 1934 the Arboretum was on the far edge of an expanding Madison. Now it's in the middle of the city. We can wonder what sort of landscape Madison will present in 2084. Where will our knowledge, our imaginations and our ethics lead us? How far, in what direction, and with what wisdom will we be able to guide time's arrow?
Curt Meine is the author of several books, including Correction Lines: Essays on Land, Leopold and Conservation. He is director for conservation biology and history with the Center for Humans and Nature and a senior fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo.
An Arboretum timeline
1911: John Nolen proposes expanding Vilas Park to the south shore of Lake Wingra and developing a UW arboretum around University Bay.
1927: UW regent Michael Olbrich gains approval for a plan to develop an arboretum south of Lake Wingra.
1929: Olbrich dies. Arboretum planning slows until Joseph Jackson revives the idea in 1931.
1932: The 245-acre Nelson farm is acquired as the first Arboretum lands.
1933: Aldo Leopold joins the UW faculty as the nation's first professor of game management.
1934: Total Arboretum acreage reaches 500. The Arboretum is formally dedicated on June 17.
1935: A Civilian Conservation Corps camp is established, remains open until November 1941. Prairie restoration experiments begin on the site of the Curtis Prairie. The first lilacs are planted in the Longenecker Gardens.
1936: Gardner Marsh lands are acquired.
1940: Ho-nee-um Pond is dedicated.
1941: John T. Curtis experiments with prescribed burning of prairies.
1940-42: Acquisition of the Grady Tract and other lands brings total Arboretum acreage to 1,100 acres.
1948: Curtis publishes the first fire-study results. Leopold dies while fighting a brush fire on his Sauk County farm.
1945-51: Henry Greene initiates restoration of Greene Prairie.
1950-55: Beltline highway is constructed, dividing the Arboretum property.
1962: Friends of the Arboretum is formed.
1963: John T. Curtis dies, and Curtis Prairie is named in his honor.
1977: The McKay Center opens to accommodate increasing public visitation.
1981: The Arboretum begins publishing Restoration & Management Notes (now Ecological Restoration), the oldest journal devoted to this subject.
1982-83: Restoration of prairie and savanna sites along Monroe Street begins.
1985: The Center for Restoration Ecology is established at the Arboretum.
1988: The Society for Ecological Restoration International is founded.
1990: Friends of the Arboretum holds its first Native Plant Sale, now an annual tradition.
1993: Volunteer Steward Program begins to facilitate greater public involvement in Arboretum work.
1998: Dr. Joy Zedler is named first Aldo Leopold Professor in Restoration Ecology and serves as Arboretum director of research.
2001: An expanded Arboretum Visitor Center opens.
On Sunday, June 21, the UW Arboretum will fete its 75th anniversary with a day of special events. These include a naturalist-led walk, "Exploring Wetlands," from 8:30-10:30 a.m.; meet at the Visitor Center. Free birthday cake and punch will be served at the Visitor Center 12:30-2 p.m., with a historical presentation at 12:30 p.m. And Joseph Ingoldsby will talk about his environmental art, now on display at the Arboretum's Steinhauer Trust Gallery, 2-3 p.m. For more information, see