The Livingston Inn | Madison, Wisconsin Bed and Breakfast

Madison, Naturally

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Back garden at The Livingston Inn

It’s that time of year when summer is at its fullest. There are plenty of warm days where everyone is outside taking in the lakes, parks, events, concerts, and festivals. It seems every day, and well into the evening, downtown Madison is buzzing with people walking around, finding fun things to do and dining out at so many fantastic restaurants.

Coinciding with all this activity, it’s also the time of year in Madison when the plants, gardens, and trees seem to be at their peak. A neighbor calls this the “full riot of summer” where every plant and flower has shot up, has bloomed, is blooming, needs trimming, or is getting ready to grow more heading into fall. Walking around neighborhoods, parks, or through Olbrich Botanical or Allen Centennial Gardens, there is so much beauty in all the varieties of flowers and plants enjoying the summer.

At this time of year, though, I also often think about what Madison looked like before humans tamed it. What did it look like before trees were planted along streets, grass was seeded, and all types of plants and flowers, not necessarily native to the area, adorned the many manicured flowerbeds and gardens? Thankfully, there is a place right in our city to find that answer. The UW-Madison Arboretum sits on 1,200 acres on the near west side of Madison, and it’s a place where you can see firsthand what Madison may have looked like before an influx of settlers changes its landscape a couple hundred years ago. The Arboretum is a beautiful setting with an ecological restoration of the Upper Midwest prairie along with some traditional horticultural arrangements of labeled plants in garden-like displays.

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Civilian Conservation Corps restoring farmland to prairie

Several well-known figures in Madison’s history had a hand in the making of the Arboretum, including John Nolen, Michael Olbrich, and Aldo Leopold. It’s important to understand the Arboretum is not on acreage untouched for hundreds of years. Instead, as first proposed by Nolen in 1911, it was the vision of early residents to take farmland in Madison and restore an historic ecological community. It was Olbrich who convinced the UW Board of Regents to aid in the land purchase of the first 246 acres acquired in 1932, growing to 500 acres two years later. Following the land purchase, the Depression-era Civilian Conversation Corps provided the supply of workers who turned the farmland into a prairie restoration.

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Aerial view of UW-Madison Arboretum and Visitor Center

Through additional gifts and purchases, the UW-Madison Arboretum has grown to its present 1,200 acres and features an abundance of hiking trails as well as options for bikes, cars, skis, and snowshoes. The trails and roadways will take you through areas restored as if you were in Madison hundreds of years ago. An outing to the Arboretum may involve encountering wild turkeys, turtles and other wildlife, or in addition to the hiking trails, touring three of the gardens where you can discover an impressive variety of woody plants, Viburnum, arborvitae, and other native plants. There’s also an outstanding Visitor Center and plenty of volunteer and educational opportunities.

140922_juniper-knoll_1586SD_web-348x232Today the Arboretum is undoubtedly the gem of Madison. While we love our lakes, plentiful parks, and neighborhood communities, the Arboretum, while large in size, quietly holds its place among us. Many days most residents likely forget it’s there, some not noticing it even when going around its edges on Madison streets and highways. But when we need a refuge from the busy and growing city around us, it’s always waiting there for us, allowing us to take a peaceful walk through it and marvel at the beauty and simplicity of a natural ecosystem.

imagesYou can bike in the Arboretum and on Sundays drive through it from one side to the other, but the best way to enjoy the Arb is on foot. The website has an easy-to-read map noting parking lots for trailheads. An ideal first trip would be to drive to the Visitor Center and make time to hike through at least a couple of the gardens and then venture out onto one of the many hiking trails. If you like to ski or snowshoe, take note of areas you’d like to return to when winter comes to our area (note: some trails are for hiking only).

With summer in full bloom, I strongly encourage you to put a trip to the Arboretum on the top of your list. While the excitement of summertime in the city is all around us right now, including beautiful flowers and plants, the Arboretum is a perfect respite to take a few steps back in time and picture the natural beauty of our area. It’s an opportunity to enjoy it now and enjoy as it always was.

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Ripple Effect

“Wow, look at the lake!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard our kids say this as we travel by Lake Mendota, the largest of Madison’s lakes.  The Livingston Inn has lakefront access to this body of water and we are located only three blocks from the lakeside James Madison Park.  The view of Lake Mendota along Gorham Street as you pass the park is stunning.  Summer or winter, morning or evening, brilliant sunshine or dense clouds, the lake appears to shift its visual appeal with the slightest change in light or temperature.  It’s something that is certainly not lost even on pre-teen and teenage children.

Our appreciation of Madison’s lakes had led me to reinforce my thoughts about water.  I grew up in the semi-arid climate of Denver, Colorado, and so have been keenly aware of water’s value as a natural resource.  I read Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert in my twenties and have never forgotten its lessons about water policy in the western U.S.

More recently, I am glad to see here in Madison that we have become more aware of the issue of the quality and quantity of water.  I really like the work of the Clean Lakes Alliance (CLA).  The organization is dedicated to improving water quality of all lakes in the Yahara Watershed, which includes Lakes Mendota, Monona, Wingra, Waubesa, and Kegonsa.

CLA is also raising awareness of the critical value of water as a global resource.  During World Water Week, March 19 to 23, CLA will partner with water experts and local businesses to remind us we all share the same water.  Each of us can have a positive impact on local water quality and quantity while contributing to the notion to “think globally, act locally”.  During World Water Week, look for local restaurants to request a $1 donation for a glass of tap water to recognize how fortunate we are to have clean water normally available for free in our homes and out at restaurants.

I also read a great excerpt in the March issue of Utne Reader from Cynthia Barnett’s book, Blue Revolution.  Like CLA, Barnett explains how important it is that we begin to recognize water as a valuable global resource and that each of us has a responsibility to conserve water within our communities.  We can make choices daily that together change the future of water conservation.  And I say “choices” and not “sacrifices” because many of the things we can do to conserve water range from fun projects to simply a change of habit.  Rain barrels, rain gardens, and thoughtful use of water on our lawns, gardens, and in our homes can make an impact.

Magical.  That was my daughter’s description this morning as we drove by Lake Mendota as an enchanting mist rolled off it.  I cannot imagine anyone in Madison feeling different than my family about our lakes.  They are beautiful and something we would miss immensely if one day they were suddenly gone.  I am thrilled to see greater efforts dedicated to improving the current state of our lakes and ensuring they hold a special place in our community for many years to come.