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Every Day is Earth Day

by Melissa Westemeier

Duck Creek
Living by Duck Creek has become a hot commodity in our area--several developers approached the previous landowners with plans to make subdivisions with up to 52 lots on 32 acres. We've taken that option out of the equation forever.

After receiving unsatisfactory grades in penmanship as a second-grader, Melissa learned to type, earned a Master’s degree from UW-Madison, and became a writer. Today she lives with her husband and three young sons in Northeastern Wisconsin. Monthly invitations to attend home parties inspired her novel Whipped, Not Beaten. Her passions and vices include reading, coffee, baked goods and Wisconsin Public Radio. Melissa’s current projects include a trilogy about a river town in Wisconsin, restoring a native prairie and woodland on her 60-acre homestead, a book about writing success in the 21st Century, and figuring out what to make for dinner tonight.  

Farm House
A five year old pine tree makes its first pinecones.

Some people buy an old house with dilapidated porches and crown molding in need of paint and they tenderly pour their time and money into it, their restorations demonstrated on This Old House and every third show on HGTV. Some folks renovate classic cars, strip and refinish furniture, or collect pieces of history to display in lighted curio cabinets. My husband and I acquired and undertook the restoration of sixty acres in northeast Wisconsin.

At a time most landowners buy property to survey, divide and resell, Doug and I bought an old farm field with the sole intention of saving it. Armed with shovels, a wheelbarrow and two hundred seedlings purchased through the county conservation program, we began our most ambitious task to date.

Small oaks
Five year old red oaks in fall--they really stand out this time of year.

Slogging our way through mud and alfalfa, we spent our first spring planting oak, maple, spruce and birch trees under the watchful eyes of two bald eagles. We built a modest house, carved out garden beds and watered a lawn for our children to play baseball on. The town’s rumor mill churned out the myth that ours was the first house in a huge subdivision planned for this prime real estate located next to our elementary school. Heads down, grins barely hid, we spent the second spring planting another two hundred trees and seeding an acre of native prairie. All we had to show for our efforts so far were thousands of dandelions and mosquitoes, so we said nothing, hoping not to appear too foolish.  Instead, we picked up the garbage in the ditches and fields and told our kids, “every day is Earth Day, we take care of the environment at our house.”

In our third spring we blacktopped our driveway, now shared with our only neighbor, spread another acre of prairie seed and plugged another hundred tree seedlings into the clay. The alfalfa was at long last choked out by goldenrod, asters and bluestem grasses. (Hats’ off to Monsanto, however, that alfalfa is some of the most resistant and tenacious crop ever developed!) Black-eyed Susan bloomed in the prairie next to purple coneflowers and ox-eye sunflowers. Native columbine, honeysuckle and ash trees began to grow where no one planted them. In a field disked by farmers for almost a century, earthworms moved freely, without threat of plow or pesticides. Birds flew in and nested, bluebirds, cardinals, finches and hummingbirds established themselves in what had previously been a “red-winged blackbird only neighborhood.” 

The former alfalfa field, the birch trees, grasses and wildflowers in October
are a testament to natural diversity!

In this lucky third year a woodchuck took up residence by our pumpkin patch, wild pheasants and turkeys raised their young in the dogwoods edging the forest behind our house. The birch trees grew with the exuberance of teenaged boys, filling out and blocking our view of the elementary school. The spruce trees rose to my shoulders, the oaks reached my waist. Our children tried eating the sour elderberries off the bushes we planted and shucked sunflower seeds to fill winter birdfeeders. People in town drove down our paved driveway to discover it ended at our garage and those brave enough to ask learned the truth:  we were the only owners of the property. We intended to share our prime real estate with freeloaders like birds and animals and insects.

Year four brought the whimsical amazement of fireflies, another hundred tree seedlings, more prairie grass and thistle warfare. In our enthusiastic planting, we’d embraced wildflowers and both native and nonnative species as proof that letting the land lie would restore it.  Unfortunately, when left alone the land cannot protect herself against invasive weeds and we had to rush to her rescue with (cringe) Roundup, an herbicide that kills almost anything. With precision and persistence, we sprayed each individual thistle plant, walking back and forth across our field, stopping only to apply a few squirts of poison to thorny leaves before continuing on. 

View from the back door
The view from our back door.

The thistle eradication took two years, but in those two years we added strawberries, raspberries, cherry trees and a bridge across the creek. We cleared dead trees and fallen branches out of the woods, building “rabbitats,” piles of brush and wood where small furry creatures live or hide from predators. Doug cleared trails for cross country skiing and hiking, and we watched with glee when people began using our trails, pointing out the birds and prairie flowers to each other. We ate pears off the trees we planted and cut fresh wildflowers for our table every day.

Everything we’re doing takes years, seven years for a prairie to mature, twenty years for an oak tree to produce its first acorn. At first glance what we’ve accomplished in five years doesn’t look like much, but those who join us in our backyard soon appreciate what has happened: we’ve created an oasis of peace and beauty, a wildlife sanctuary in the middle of urban sprawl. And I think if he can see us, Gaylord Nelson is mighty proud.

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