Nurturing the Wild

Design with Nature Conference: Sat., Feb. 29 in St. Paul

“What is that over there?”
“It’s the wild,” said the mole. “Don’t fear it.”

“Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid.”

– Charlie Mackesy, The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse

A friend gave us a new book for Christmas and you should absolutely buy it for yourself. There are gorgeous illustrations and it is one of those rare children’s books that you realize is actually for adults.

Illustration by Charlie Mackesy

Two days after my son and I read The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse together, it suddenly occurred to me that it was possible to walk across the river from Minnesota to Wisconsin. We borrowed my husband’s truck, so as not to get stuck at the bottom of a snowy hill, and headed north past Marine on St. Croix with two pairs of snowshoes, a dog in a parka, and some snacks. The snow on the river was perfectly flat and glittered in the sun as if someone above had poured a giant bottle of glitter onto the earth. When we got to the other side of the river, we sat on a fallen tree for a while to gaze at the view and howl to the wolves. The scene looked exactly like Mackesy’s illustration of the wild. It was beautiful and perfect, and we had it all to ourselves.IMG_1190

In 1977, nine people attended a natural landscaping workshop offered by the Schlitz Audubon Center of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and like Charlie and I, fell in love with the wild. The group of friends became so intensely interested in the concept of landscaping with native plants, that they created a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public and inspiring people to bring the wild into their own backyards. Since then, Wild Ones has grown into a national organization with chapters in 17 states. Minnesota is home to seven Wild Ones chapters, including the St. Croix Oak Savanna, Twin Cities, and Big River Big Woods chapters in our area.

In addition to organizing monthly speakers’ series, special events, and guided hikes for the public, Wild Ones also sponsors an annual Design with Nature conference. This year’s theme – Where have all the Fireflies Gone? – explores some of the ways that gardeners can nurture, strengthen and sustain the complex and fragile web of life in our own small corners of the world.


Key note speakers at the conference will include Neil Diboll, a pioneer in the native plant industry, who has operated Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin for 30 years. Diboll will talk about creating low maintenance, sustainable, native gardens that provide enjoyment for gardeners as well as habitat for birds, butterflies, pollinators, and other creatures. Thelma Heidel-Baker, an entomologist, environmental educator, and organic farmer will talk about beneficial insects, including pollinators, predators, decomposers, and herbivores, and the important role that insects play in maintaining healthy soils. Alan Branhagen, Director of Operations at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, will offer guidance “for people who want to live in an aesthetic that captures the spirit of our place in the Upper Midwest and not the ubiquitous traditional landscape of anywhere U.S.A. … a place they can celebrate the wonder of the wild, where the local flora and fauna flourish — filled with bird and insect songs, busy bees and other bugs.”

The 2020 Wild Ones Design with Nature conference will be held at University of St. Thomas on Sat., Feb. 29, 9am-4pm. To learn more and register, go to The cost is $60/70 (members/nonmembers) before January 29, or $75/85 before February 15.IMG_1180

On an island in the frozen St. Croix River, a snow covered tree waits patiently for you to come, rest, and enjoy the view. Go out in the wild, I say, and bring some back for your home.