I will admit, and I think my neighbors will agree, that I am terrible at lawn care. More than one person has stopped to offer a remedy for dandelions and creeping Charlie. Although I appreciate their advice and I regret their distress, I have found something unexpected among the weeds: living history.
For about 10 years, I have been tending 2½ acres of land, about half of it wooded, in Hennepin County. The parcel rests squarely in the middle of a well-groomed neighborhood where lush, green expanses of Kentucky bluegrass are not just the norm, but the ideal. Unlike me, my neighbors seem to find traditional lawn care a deeply satisfying, almost artistic pursuit. It's no surprise, then, that my spare approach—little if any herbicide, fertilizer, or grass seed—raises a few eyebrows, and maybe even a little ire.
I understand why my neighbors might be angry. They spend a lot of time and money caring for their lawns, and I imagine they're proud of them. In a way they're beautiful, these living canvases, brushed by lawn mowers into stripes, plaids, and circles. Their yards are beckoning, too. I bet they feel much better underfoot than my scrappy assemblage of plants.
But while my feet tell me one thing, my eyes tell me another. They glimpse a longer story, one that goes back hundreds of years. The plants that have been introduced here, such as chickweed, speedwell, and heal-all, can't tell that story. They are relative newcomers to the landscape. But in pockets that have been forgotten, neglected, or abandoned, longtime residents are coming back. And like people who've been around a while, these plants know a lot about history.
Traces of the Past. Long before this parcel was my home and neighborhood, it was farmland and pasture. Historical aerial photos give me a bird's-eye view as far back as 1937, when the area was a patchwork of farm fields and woodlots. As if to prove that point, occasional lengths of barbed wire fence still rise and grab my feet, pulling me close to hear their stories of cows and horses and rows of corn.
But before there was corn, there was something else, and a mere 80 years of history can't take me to see it. Maps of early settlement vegetation run the timeline back to the mid-1800s, when surveyors working for the General Land Office began marking the section corners of townships. If I had lived then, I might have met Hardin Nowlin, the surveyor who in 1855 lugged his equipment across Minnesota Territory and stopped not far from here to mark the locations where settlers would later make their claims. Although it must have been a grueling job, the rigors of Mr. Nowlin's work don't show in his handwriting. In beautiful script, he recorded the names of the trees he found at his survey points: ironwood, red oak, sugar maple, and "lind," short for linden, the European name for basswood.
Judging from the surveyors' field notes and the maps of original vegetation later prepared from them, this place was in the heart of what was the Big Woods, part of a vast deciduous forest that covered much of the eastern United States. In Minnesota, this forest angled from southeast to northwest in a wide swath that included what is now Hennepin County.
True to its name, the Big Woods was, and in a few remnants still is, a place of giants. Towering sugar maple and basswood dominate, with other large trees, such as red oak, white oak, and elm, also present. Ironwood, a small tree, is common under the canopy, growing slowly to produce dense, strong wood valued for making tool handles and fence posts.
Under the canopy and sub-canopy, the forest floor is a lesson in adaptation. Perhaps the most noticeable plants of the ground layer are those that grow quickly and bloom early in spring, when more light is available. Bloodroot, hepatica, wood anemone, Dutchman's breeches—these and other species make their annual appearance in April or May before ceding their time, and in some cases their very space, to other plants adapted to living in deep or dappled shade. False Solomon's seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Indian pipe, and others then take their turn on the forest floor. If Mr. Nowlin saw these plants, he didn't make note of them. He couldn't have known they would become remnants of our natural and cultural heritage.
A Resurgence of Natives. Fast-forward 150 years, from Hardin Nowlin's time to the present. Larger red oaks, white oaks, and basswood are still here, shading the lawn and the wooded parts of the property. Ironwood stretches out in the understory, along with an unfortunate abundance of buckthorn, an invasive tree that has nearly taken over since its introduction a few decades ago. It is spring and the lawn mower is fired up, ready to tour the yard and cut anything in its path.
I start on the side nearest the neighbors, out of respect for what they see from their back door. Back and forth, I cut swaths through scraggly bluegrass and rye. I swing wide around a tree trunk to avoid an expanding patch of wood anemone and Carex sedges. Ahead, something purple catches my eye. Hepatica! That's another detour. Over there are several clumps of bloodroot. They've already given up their brilliant white petals, and the leaves that cloaked their flowering stems are now unfurling to collect sunlight.
Here and there, edges that have been spared the use of herbicide and the slice of mower blades harbor woodland natives such as Solomon's seal, blue cohosh, bellwort, and, later in the season, Indian pipe. I give them wide berth, effectively expanding their space over the years. As I wind my way around these tiny refuges, the lawn mower becomes a time machine. It takes me back to the Big Woods, on a small scale.
Around back, there's no longer much need for a lawn mower. Grass wouldn't grow under the shade of basswood trees, so hostas, astilbes, and other shade-adapted ornamentals were planted to take its place. Over the years, native plants began filling in. Hepatica, nodding trillium, wood anemone, sweet Cicely, enchanter's nightshade, lady fern, ostrich fern, and pale touch-me-not, among others, have made a strong resurgence. I have the sense that they were lying in wait until given an opportunity to return.
No, this lawn is no work of art, at least not in the same sense as my neighbors' lawns. But if I take the long view, maybe that's not so bad. Managed carefully, this small parcel of land is returning to a community that's been gone for a long time. What a privilege to witness that. I can't wait to see what comes next.