The answer was right in front of me, but it took a while to come into focus. My mother passed away 12 years ago, on August 27, 2010. The anniversary of her death was coming again, and I was looking for a way to honor her. Or to connect with her, you might say. Her wishes were that her remains be scattered in the St. Croix River, almost 6 hours away from here. And we honored those wishes. But since then, I have struggled to come up with a place to go when I'm missing her.
Over the years I have tried a few different things. More than once, when opportunity presented, I made the drive to the St. Croix and stood on the bridge we scattered her ashes from. I talked to her, took pictures. Cried. I've driven through the little town she lived in during the last decade or so of her life. Considered finding a church and a memorial service. Taken walks in nature, of course. Some years I just sat down with a photo book we made for her 70th birthday and paged through memory lane.
Something struck me as we walked the flower farm. There were sunflowers in all stages of life. Barely a bud, ready to bloom, mid-bloom flower heads, wide open blooms bursting in all their glory, blooms missing a few petals, some missing seeds that have already been feeding the birds, drooping flowers, faded blooms in every fashion, some laying finished on the ground. All of these stages with their own beauty. Their own stories. Their own past, present, and future.
Had I not taken just a few minutes from my day to absorb a little nature, I would have missed all of these little joys. It's amazing how just a bit of fresh air and greenery, some sunshine, and signs of life can improve our day. Help to temper the stress and worry that comes with being human on this planet of ours. It was a good reminder to me, to appreciate what's out there, on my doorstep, and at The Park Next Door.
Thinking back, to nearly a lifetime ago. I was just a kid growing up in St. Paul. During the summers, on weekends mostly, our family would make the drive to Amery, Wisconsin, where my grandparents had a cabin on a lake. It seemed like it was a world away, though it was only about an hours drive.
I loved being there. Among the big pine trees, the wildflowers, waking in the cool of the early mornings to the sound of American Robins singing. My uncle would rake the bottom of the lake along the shore and boat dock so we could wade in and swim. Once in the water there I rarely wanted to come out. The water was clear enough we could stand in it and watch perch swimming quickly past our feet.
I used to fish from the dock, watching the bobber go under water, thrilling to the bend in my fishing rod, reeling it in. Most often it was sunfish, sometimes perch. Sometimes we kept it for eating (though I'm not a fish eater), most often I wrestled up enough courage to hold the fish in my hand to release it from the hook and put it back in the lake. On the drive home I would close my eyes and see that bobber dancing on the surface of the water, then lunge under. I haven't fished in decades, but I can still recall the thrill of it. The peace it can bring, too.
In the evenings the fireflies lit up, dancing among the trees and the wild grasses and flowers that lined the dirt road to the cabin. The air was clear, as was the sky. Stars appeared after dark in numbers I could never imagine seeing from our home in the city. Like magic.
Once back home, evidence of our trip to the woods, to the cabin and the surrounding wilderness, was evident. There crusting over the grill of the family car, and gunked in bits on the windshield were the remains of thousands of bugs.
Moths, mosquitoes, flies, beetles. All met their demise in collision with wind, speed, and heavy moving machinery. It took a little elbow grease and a lot of soap and water to clean them off, but it was a small price to pay for weekends away.
I'm not going to get in to the politics of climate change, clean energy arguments, and all that. Clearly climate change is hard at work, and we need to act. But how to enact a difference in our day to day lives can seem an overwhelming prospect. I'm looking to conservationists and gardeners for inspiration. To the idea of preserving existing, and building new, prairies, and forests. Restoring wetlands, woodlands, and wildflower fields. And to the idea of adding native plants and trees to our existing gardens, no matter how small, in an effort to increase the food and shelter sources for our birds, bees, butterflies, and everything in-between.
In the state of Wisconsin alone we have an abundance of conservancy organizations that have taken up the task of preserving our existing wilderness, and restoring it as well. Gardening organizations and clubs offer information on how to add natural habitat to even the smallest of yards. They provide details on what plants, shrubs, and trees can benefit the wildlife and ecosystems they need to survive, maybe even thrive again.
Community gardens have sprung up in cities and towns, rural and urban. Planting fruits and vegetables for personal sustenance, and to benefit the community at large; insects, animals, and humans alike.
I have a real soft spot for natural areas in Wisconsin that have been built or restored by their owners with a goal of providing wildlife habitat and natural recreation space, along with a plan for preserving the spaces for generations to come. Their passions leave a legacy that will survive long after they have gone. These visionaries come from all walks of life. They create legacies large and small, but all improve the world we live in.
If you're curious about some of these special legacy preserves, check out the new Special Feature Page: LEGACIES OF NATURE, which highlights 18 of these amazing spaces.
They will leave you hopeful, and may inspire you to join or support these types of projects as well.
The nature trail itself has been a community based labor of love and green space since it began in 2009. In the decade plus since its beginnings, the trail has evolved into a splendid natural habitat that includes native prairie, a boardwalk and deck area, a woodland trail, an outdoor classroom area, and multiple seating areas and benches meant for peaceful nature viewing. Wildlife visitors here include deer, birds, rabbits, butterflies, wild turkeys, bees, cicadas, grasshoppers, field mice, and more.
All photos by Kimberly Mackowski / The Park Next Door
I love this part of summer. Everything is broadcasting in technicolor. Gardens blooming, prairies adorned with wildflowers and butterflies, sunflower fields tall and abundant with cheer. From the simplest container of summer flowers to fields of Coneflowers and Milkweed, and everything in-between. If you live in the Midwest, you know to savor these days. You'll want to remember them in the depths of January, trust me.
There are brilliant displays of summer blooms to be found at local cutting flower and sunflower farms. For a list of these, check out our newest feature, Sunflower Season. I recently visited a couple of them and I'm sharing some highlights below.
If you're in the mood for a short road trip, check out these beautiful spaces in the Two River/Manitowoc area. You'll find a blossoming new Arboretum and Bird Sanctuary, a formal garden along Lake Michigan with a mid-century modern vibe, and a bit of ancient adventure along the Niagara Escarpment of caves and ledges and nature trails. Happy travels, my friends!
A nature lover, bird watcher, wildlife fan, amateur photographer, humane gardener, traveler, and singer of songs. I've been keeping closer to home these days, and truly discovering the beauty that lies in TheParkNextDoor.