The Urban Wilderness

The term wilderness conjures up ideas of remote or confronting areas, separate from mankind. What does it mean to bring the concept of wilderness back into our daily lives?

by Marty Kraft

  Editor's note: I first met Marty in 1992 at a conference for Earth Day organizers. We kept in touch over the years and I continue to find his ideas and projects an inspiration on how to make a difference in building a better world, starting in your own neighborhood. One of our Earth Day themes over the years has been the consistent "Think Globally, Act Locally," but also the warmer, "Bring Earth Day Home." Marty is one of the best examples on how to do that and his ideas can work anywhere a person decides to make those connections.
  he Urban Wilderness is an expression of my love for nature and my respect for her wisdom. It comes from a deep place inside that is beyond thought or words. It is an allowing of nature to demonstrate her balance, peace, order and wonder to us city dwellers who are disconnected from her.


It's just a lot in Kansas City


The Urban Wilderness is a corner lot at 57th and Charlotte Streets in an older urban neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. It is a rectangle approximately 50 by 150 feet on a rectangular block. It is surrounded by lots sporting conventional lawns. The neighbors are nice people. Some really like the yard and a few don't. Most are tolerant. I like it here.

The Urban Wilderness started its development in 1975 after I moved back into our family's home upon the death of my father. The larger trees and some shrubs were planted after 1954 when we bought our home. In '54, all the streets were arched over by huge elm trees. There were three in our yard. Orioles nested in their outer hanging branches.


Dutch elm disease teaches the value of diversity


During the fifties, I learned an important lesson from nature about diversity. Following an architectural fashion of the time, the city had planted the blocks around my house all in elm trees. When the Dutch elm's disease epidemic struck, it swept from tree to tree. Almost all the trees died. Had they followed the example of nature and planted a wide variety of trees as you would find in a forest, this would not have happened. The disease could not have spread so fast. More elms would have escaped and other trees would not have been affected.

The change in the neighborhood was dramatic, especially in the summer. Before, the streets were shaded and cool. Birds were abundant. After the Dutch elm disease swept through, our streets were as hot and bleak as new suburbs. I felt a deep and prolonged sense of loss. The city budget for tree replacement was overwhelmed but citizens were asked not to plant trees. Someday they would get to it and plant each block with the same species of tree, again. My father and I waited a few years. Seeing no new trees, we planted some and let other volunteers grow. After some 40 years, many of the streets are shady again.

In the fifties this land was a lawn. Although my father loved nature, he cut grass, was at war with weeds and trimmed bushes into "acceptable" shapes. I remember returning home from school to find a quince bush trimmed into a ball. I had been watching it grow for months, enjoying it more and more as it reverted back into its natural shape. I was shocked and disappointed. This was the same man who, at other times on our walks in natural areas, would tell me that he felt closer to God in nature than he did in church. He was a devout Catholic.

After returning to live here, I continued to cut grass and "keep the yard up." But as if some seed had been planted, there slowly grew in me an urban Thoreau. Thousands of insects would die when I cut the grass. Why should I kill them? What length does the grass want to be? Who thought up the lawn in the first place? Why was it so important to people?

The idea grew more from my heart than my mind

Slowly, organically and out of my gut and heart instead of my mind the Urban Wilderness developed. My mind questioned, "what will the neighbors think?" "What will they do to me?" Fortunately, it also asked other questions. "Wouldn't kids love it and learn from it?" "Wouldn't it be cooler in the summer?" "Wouldn't it say to people that the wilderness is important and we had better stop destroying it?" Wouldn't it feed peoples' souls?" My gut, heart and mind all agreed that a natural yard was indeed a good thing.

Progress was slow. My mind was well trained by society and kept having second thoughts. I would let the lawn get long and then all of a sudden, out of embarrassment, I would grab the mower and buzz it all down with fear and anger.

In the back yard, I let a small area under an oak and a walnut tree grow. I had read in a book, Findhorn Garden, how out of respect for nature they had let her do what ever she wished in certain area. This original area has only been stepped into about a dozen times in twenty years. It looks and feels great.

In the front yard, sometime around 1977, I decided to grow an edible landscape. I planted strawberries, asparagus, two kinds of apple, a peach and a cherry tree. In the parkway I planted a dwarf pear for all to share. Someone broke the pear off and after it came back someone hit it with a car. It's gone now. I got a few strawberries and a couple spears of asparagus. In years of apple seasons I have gotten only a couple bites of apple that the squirrels didn't get. The cherry tree fed us the most with several cobblers.


Moving toward old growth forest

  Through this attempt, I decided that I am an old growth forest kind of guy. Maybe I could help nature reach her climax vegetation for this area. Old growth forest, forests that have been let alone for hundreds of years, have a special magic to them. There is a peace and balance that I feel among the mosses and the ferns and the big thick bark. The forest floor with its thick soft humus beckons to me. This calm inspiration is precious beyond words. Walt Whitman wondered why he always had such lofty thoughts while walking under a certain old tree. I think that upon entering such a forest we humans can become part of a conversation of harmony that the plants have perfected over the years. We know that in an old growth forest the plants are all connected by a network of fungus mycelia. Perhaps some communication is actually taking place that science will someday discover.


The peace of nature can be felt


Although the oldest Urban Wilderness forest trees only stretch back some 43 years, we can already observe the peace. Ten years ago, a neighbor said in defense of the Urban Wilderness, "I find it a pleasure to look at the yard, to just gaze. Like I say, I live right across the street and I sit in my yard and gaze over into Marty's yard and it's just really a peaceful feeling, the greenery and the nature, just the whole aspect of it. I get a pleasant feeling." Another neighbor, a girl, age eight says, "I think Marty's yard is neat. It's really peaceful in the spring." People who come to my door often comment on the stress they lose just walking up the walk.

Shortly after the edible landscape idea began to fade, around 1978-79, it came to my attention that some yellowish brown limestone rocks were being unearthed at a construction site. I had always wanted a rock wall and here was my chance. The rocks were beautiful and I was excited. I rented a dump truck and a small high loader and on one Saturday I had five dump truck loads of rocks dumped in my yard. Three years later, and after several encounters with the city codes people, the wall was finished. It was so much more difficult than I expected. I thought the rocks would tell me where they wanted to go. If they did, I either didn't know the language or wasn't listening. I had to struggle with each rock, taking all my spare time to complete it. It looks great now, though, and this year chipmunks have finally moved in.

The "mountain" (about 3 ft. high) came later. Another wish I had was to have a mountain, stream and lake. A friend up the street was building a swimming pool. I asked if I could have a truck load of dirt. As the truck backed in, over the sidewalk leading to my porch, the concrete crumbled under the weight. So in addition to a mound of dirt that became a natural looking fountain and pool, the front walk became a sawdust path. The path is a constant source of pleasure and lends a lot to the ambiance. The fountain needed more research and now leaks. It looks pretty but will cost money to get it going. I hope to run it using solar panels.

There are a couple of logs on the ground, running parallel to the sidewalk, for passers by to observe the decaying process. We are in the process of putting in various shade-loving native wildflowers in various locations. The parkway between the sidewalk and the street requires attention at this time. The parkway belongs to the city but the property owner must maintain it. Several large trees are now in this strip of land. Between these trees, plants often grow higher than the city law allows. Between the large trees we are planting understory trees that do not grow as tall. They will shade the areas underneath inhibiting plant growth. Some of the wild flowers will be experimented with in these areas.

I hope you enjoyed reading about the Urban Wilderness and gain greater understanding of nature.

  Article author and Urban Wilderness steward Marty Kraft has had a lifelong love of nature. He has been involved in environmental education since 1964 when he became a high school biology teacher. Most of his work has been in public education programs including education for teachers. In 1987, Marty cofounded the Heartland All Species Project. Through All Species, he organized eight city-wide Earth Day celebrations for the Kansas City area and has written study guides for teachers to go with several of them. Marty served on the Missouri Governors Task For Environmental Education 1993-94. He now serves on the Education Task Force for Kansas City's Environmental Management Commission. He is currently working to integrate environmental understanding into neighborhood life.

Visit the Heartland All Species Project on the web at To get involved on your own block see Earth Day on Your Block

 Copyright (c) 1996 Heartland All Species Project. Reprinted by permission.