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March 2009 cover image of Pedernales Falls State Park

Wildscape Molly

Aided by a knack for gentle arm twisting, Molly Hollar helped build a wildscape that grew into a community.

By Diana Kunde

It was Molly Hollar’s 80th birthday, and about 30 party guests waited expectantly for her to open her present.

The surprise was a $1,000 gift certificate — for rocks: not the sparkly kind, the big boulder kind. They have since become stepping-stones and seating places along a small stream at the four-acre wildscape that bears Hollar’s name in Arlington’s Veterans Park.

Not the usual gift for an 80-year-old woman, but then Molly Hollar is not your usual 80-year-old. Visitors to Veterans Park, on Arlington’s west side, will see her most afternoons and many mornings — sometimes watering newly planted native shrubs and flowers, sometimes directing volunteer crews, always engaging passersby in hopes of spreading the native landscape gospel.

“I used to say that if I were a millionaire, I’d buy some land, create a natural habitat, and invite people over. I feel so fortunate now that we have this,” she said on a recent sunny fall afternoon, sitting under one of the native post oaks that grace the Molly Hollar Wildscape, named for her by the city of Arlington in 2005.

It wasn’t always so. In 1994, the lush butterfly garden at the wildscape entrance was hard-packed clay with a little Bermuda grass.

Environmental activist Julia Burgen had revived the Arlington Conservation Council that year after what she viewed as the disastrous destruction of some native trees. Hollar was a founding member of the reborn nonprofit.

Burgen spotted a public service advertisement in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department was inviting applications for wildscape grants.

“I said, ‘That really rings my bell,’” said Hollar. Soon, she was chairing the task force that would go after the grant. The ACC joined with the Arlington Organic Garden Club to apply for a $3,000 grant and raise matching contributions.

They got the grant — enough to launch a half-acre wildscape in Veterans Park that consisted of a wildflower meadow and a small pond under some trees, with a bench.

“At first we thought we’d made a poor choice,” Hollar said. “The topsoil had been scraped away. When we tried to till it, our roto-tiller bounced off. So we got a bigger one, and it bounced off, too.” Molly Hollar

Fourteen years of compost later, “you can dig it with a trowel.” As we walked through on that October day, I disturbed several monarch butterflies. The butterfly garden in fall is a color portrait of red salvia greggii, yellow zexmenia and blue mistflower and mealy blue sage, among other flowers.

In spring, there’s pink primrose and deep crimson winecup added to the mix, along with coral honeysuckle and prairie rose climbing the rustic wooden arches that beckon visitors.

But this small area was just the beginning. Veterans Park includes post oak woodland, part of the Eastern Cross Timbers that covered this area of North Texas before it became packed with homes and shopping centers.

Hollar and her team applied for, and got, several grants from U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to add a rolling, nearly three-acre patch of woods to the wildscape. The Environmental Protection Agency provided a grant for the riparian (located on the bank of a natural waterway) area that lines the wildscape’s small stream.

Northrop Grumman weighed in with a $100,000 grant in 2000 that provided a pavilion nestled in the woods, educational kiosks and much of the “hardscape” that makes the wildscape accessible and inviting to visitors. The Native Plant Society of Texas and Arlington Parks & Recreation have also given grants over the years.

“When we began, we never envisioned it growing too much,” Hollar said. “We now have all the ecosystems — a small riparian corridor, a mini-prairie, a woodland and a seasonal wetland. We’ve had amazing support.”

When I remarked that she’d been in large part responsible, Hollar’s reply was characteristic: “I’d like to claim that, but it seems that things seem to just drop out of the sky.”

In fact, Hollar has a unique charisma and gentle way that makes things happen, say those who know her.

One is John M. Davis, conservation outreach coordinator for TPWD, who first met Molly in the fall of 1994, shortly after the wildscape’s grant award. He was a newly assigned urban biologist.

“My boss at the time had put me in charge of our extensive slide collection. I had just organized it when he came to me and said that Molly Hollar would be coming in and taking whatever slides she wanted. I privately thought, well, we’ll see about that.”

“Within about five minutes, I let her take whatever she wanted,” he said. “Molly can give you the gentlest armlock I’ve ever felt.”

Wildscape volunteer Rosalie Rogers described Hollar this way: “I had a grandmother who had a marvelous way of making each of her grandchildren feel like the very favorite. Molly has a special capacity to make everyone feel — if not her favorite — very special and valued.”

Others mention her hard work example. The divorced mother of six children, Hollar has 10 grandchildren and “two greats.” For the last 14 years, in addition to her family, the wildscape and related environmental pursuits like the Texas Master Naturalist program have consumed her life.

“She’s so dedicated. She basically lives here. I think she’s a great lady,” said Josephine Keeney, an active volunteer who heads the wildscape’s greenhouse project as well as supervising its butterfly garden.

“When we ran out of grants, we began to propagate our own plants. We started on my back porch with a mini-greenhouse we made for less than $100,” Hollar said. Later the Arlington Parks Department offered greenhouse space at Randol Mill Park, and the wildscape’s volunteers began propagating literally thousands of native plants. Many are sold at fall and spring plant sales.

The plant sales educate about the beauty and environmental benefits of native plants, which require much less water than typical landscaping and provide food for native butterflies and birds. And they raise money for the wildscape — about $5,000 last fall, Keeney said.

What’s left gets planted in the wildscape, and Hollar estimated that will be about 1,000 plants and small trees during the fall and winter of 2008-09. Volunteers last October were planting in the wildscape’s newest land area, dubbed “the erosion area.”

Dotted with trees, the roughly one-acre area is at the foot of a slope. Arlington Parks personnel planted deep-rooted inland sea oats and Canada wild rye at the advice of noted native landscape architect Rosa Finsley, a friend and advisor to the wildscape. Volunteers under Molly’s direction are filling in areas along the paths with eye-catching native plants.

“This is a good alternative to St. Augustine (a water-thirsty, popular lawn grass),” said Hollar, gesturing at a carpet of frogfruit and golden groundsel, both native groundcovers. Yet another new area in the wildscape showcases native plants with extremely low water needs, even for natives.

Ultimately, the value of a wildscape lies not just in the peace and beauty it provides — but also in its educational impact. Besides casual park visitors, the Molly Hollar Wildscape has played host to Boy Scout troops, school and community groups and garden clubs. An annual Walk on the Wildside day for participating elementary schools introduces children to butterfly cocoons, bird nests and ecological concepts.

This summer, Hollar said, wildscape volunteers will assist in a parks department summer camp inspired by the No Child Left Inside movement and now funded in partnership with TPWD. The program seeks to reacquaint today’s housebound children with the outdoors.

“I think the impact of the wildscape is huge,” said John Dycus, a retired Star-Telegram journalist who serves with Hollar on the ACC board. “It’s a living model for what so many areas around the country can be — should be, arguably.”

Davis of TPWD notes that you can’t look at acreage when measuring the impact of a wildscape. “The real purpose is to cultivate responsible humans, and so the impact of that four acres goes well beyond four acres of habitat.”

“I can comfortably say that of all the wildscape projects I’ve been part of, this is the most successful — its growth in size, its awards and subsequent grants, and the number of people who have dedicated a part of their lives to it. It’s a success in all those terms.”

And how, ultimately, do you measure the impact of an individual? For volunteer Rosalie Rogers, Hollar’s impact has been on “both my yard and on me, personally. Molly even thanks telemarketers for doing their job! I have let that kind of attitude inspire me and shape some of my behavior.”

One recent Tuesday morning, Hollar and the wildscape’s volunteer program were influencing tiny, three-year-old Celeste Lopez, who was helping her mother, Stacey Lopez, plant and looking for roly-poly bugs. “I love to dig. I love flowers,” said Celeste.

This Halloween, said her mother, Celeste was a butterfly.

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