A force of nature: Marietta will miss Marilyn

Editor’s note:?This is the first of three parts.

We periodically encounter forces that alter landscapes and human lives. They are formidable, pulling the world in their wake, with an aftermath felt over generations. We call these “forces of nature”.

Marilyn Ortt was a Force of Nature – a force that made our city, county and world a better place. We mourn her recent passing.

While many people felt her influence, the breadth of Marilyn’s accomplishments is not easily grasped. While this tribute, to be run in three parts, cannot do full justice to her legacy, possibly in hearing more of it, others will be inspired by what a single, dedicated individual can achieve.

I apologize ahead for any inaccuracies and failure to recognize the significant contributions of other people to programs and projects that will be described. Nevertheless, those of us who were involved know that little might have been accomplished without Marilyn’s presence.

Forces of nature are irrepressible, and as we all know, when Marilyn embraced an objective, every available resource was employed and little could waver her resolve. Marilyn did not seem to respond in the normal way to impediments – to the disappointments and frustrations that cause most of us to buckle- it seemed that these only served to strengthen her resolve.

Coming down Muskingum Dr past the hospital, you know when you’ve entered Marietta. A distinct ambiance greets you, a character that would not exist but for Marilyn’s tireless efforts on the City Tree Commission. Serving on the Tree Commission for over three decades, Marilyn introduced modern urban forestry practices and standards, greatly expanded diversity of the urban forest, and made our Commission respected throughout the state.

At some point in their lives, all large urban forest trees need to be inspected, and Marilyn was always there to do it. She knew the distinctive qualities and growth habits of different species, and by memory the maintenance history of many individual trees. While there are sciences for doing both, predicting a tree’s future condition can be as reliable as forecasting next week’s weather. Marilyn had to make hundreds of tough decisions, to prune or remove large city trees, always considering a tight budget, knowing full well who gets blamed when the weather forecast doesn’t pan out.

The dividends of Marilyn’s tireless efforts will appreciate over time. Our big trees seem always to have been here, but they wouldn’t be had Marilyn not helped select and plant thousands of trees in Marietta and along the entranceways. These trees replaced thousands that have been lost – today’s saplings becoming the monuments of our urban forest. Try envisioning Marietta without these trees. And because of the healthier urban forest, during severe wind storms Marietta has generally suffered less tree damage than surrounding areas.

Next time you drive to Belpre on Route 7, notice just west of the Solvay overpass about120 trees extending for over a mile along the top of the hillside – an arboreal remediation of an otherwise austere industrial zone. Marilyn played a key role in planting of these trees as a Community 20/20 project in 2001.

Marilyn endeavored to help us recognize the importance of our city trees by organizing Arbor Day Ceremonies. Every year, even if only a few individuals were present, a proclamation was read and an Arbor Day tree was planted.

In 2000 the City Arboretum in Sacra Via Park was established and Marilyn was recognized on the plaque for her contributions to the community. For years, Marilyn helped make the arboretum a show case for the diversity of native, flowering and sometimes unusual trees.

Indeed, Marilyn was an expert on our area’s native trees and plants, and there were few locations in Washington County upon which Marilyn had not laid foot or eye. She was employed from 1983-1995 (and under contract afterward) by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Natural Areas and Preserves, serving as a Plant Community Ecologist and Field Botanist for the Ohio Natural Heritage Program. Her field surveys traversed much of Washington County recording plant communities and rare and endangered species.

Her knowledge was widely recognized throughout the region, and Marilyn was asked to serve on the boards of many organizations. These included The Nature Conservancy, Rural Action Forest Advisory, Ohio Invasives Plant Council, and the Ohio Biological Survey, from which she received the Naturalist Award (one of the OBS’s two top honors) in 2013.

Marilyn worked assiduously to protect natural ecosystems, and anyone who knew Marilyn knew of her relentless battle against invasive plants, such as garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, and multiflora rose, as well as other invasive species. What would seem futile to many was not to Marilyn. She wrote extensively about invasive plants while recruiting a battalion of volunteers to forestall their spread. I’m sure the troops, drilled with her ‘spot and pull’ reflexes, will maintain the vanguard of eradication in forests, fields and along the local riverbanks.

Part Two of this tribute in next week’s column will explore Marilyn’s love and protection of local watersheds and natural areas, and her founding of an annual Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day.

Steven R. Spilatro lives in Marietta