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Madson's forest.

It isn't where you live that counts--it's what you do with your own personal habitat.

The place isn't really what I had in mind when I started a career in wildlife. My vision was a cabin in the whispering pines, a brook trout stream out back, a field of penstemon and larkspur for the dogs, and a snowy peak to fill the picture window. In a pinch, I'd have settled for a prairie farmhouse with a creek or a marsh and a weed patch for cottontails.

Reality is a 75 x 150-foot lot in the bluegrass desert. When we moved in, the yard had one blue spruce strategically located in the southwest corner of the lot to cut off any winter sunshine, and a row of Pfitzer junipers along the foundation of the house to make sure no light penetrated through the basement windows. And bluegrass, a mat of Kentucky bluegrass looking understandably peaked in a land where the year's rainfall barely measures up to a damp spring back East.

What with kids and dogs and ancient automobiles, we haven't had an unlimited landscaping budget, but we started nibbling around the edges of the bluegrass as time and cash allowed -- a ponderosa pine for Mother's Day, a new perennial patch to celebrate spring, a green ash from the school's plant-a-tree-for-Earth-Day program. And Dad's Bird Trickle, a micro-version of Yellowstone Falls intended to water the local house finches and provide some white noise to drown out the sound of distant traffic.

Bit by bit, we've put our own stamp on this pathetic postage stamp of real estate. Last year, one of the neighborhood fathers approached me with a covert smile and expressed mock concern about the safety of his children whose route to school leads over my stretch of sidewalk.

"Can't tell what critters might be lurking in here," he said, nodding to the aspens and buffalo berry. "You know what the kids call this place, don't you? Madson's Forest." He smiled again. "I wouldn't want to have any second-graders eaten on their way through here."

I promised to warn him before I stocked grizzlies or wolves, and he went away with a great show of relief.

I doubt that my trees are going to make a significant difference in global warming or the preservation of endangered species, but they have made a difference in my own personal habitat. Come late afternoon, it's shady on the front stoop, and when Mom and I are sitting there, we've got a screen of aspen and the scent of pine to contemplate instead of the sights and smells of the street. No matter where the kids start a game of hide-and-seek, it ends up in Madson's Forest, the only place in the neighborhood with adequate kid cover.

From the aesthetic point of view, I like the yard a lot better this way, and the practical advantages are clear--there's less grass to mow, we use less water, and in the last winter or two, the trees have given us some measure of protection from the northwest wind.

I could offer all these as my reasons for making the change, but the heart of the matter is much simpler. I've struck up a relationship with this postage-stamp corner of surburbia. After cultivating several flower and vegetable beds, I've learned something about the soil here with its bands of light and dark clay, the legacy of the dry creek bed down the street. I've followed the return of ladybird beetles and butterflies to the yard with great interest, and as these welcome bugs have made their appearance, I've spent a lot more time wondering about the side effects of "pest" control on my lot. In the quest for native seeds for the garden, I've spent a lot more time looking at roadsides and empty lots, and struck up an acquaintance with several wildflowers that were new to me.

It's a matter of connection. I always knew that, but I feel a little differently now than I ever did before. The search for a land ethic is as big as the planet we occupy . . . and as small as a suburban yard.
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Author:Madson, Chris
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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