“Only God can make a tree” goes the old poem, and Randy Nelson of rural Madelia would agree. At the same time, Nelson can make something that looks a lot like a tree. He can also make rocks, mountains, plants, ice and snow, and ponds that are so real they’re hard to tell from nature.

Curiously, Nelson’s religious convictions inspire his scientifically created imitations. He creates natural objects knowing they’ll never be quite as perfect as nature creates, and that urges him to do even better the next time.

It’s been a successful combination for this farmer-turned-taxidermist. For years, taxidermy was something he could do in the winter, after the summer farming season. When his hobby became full time, Nelson realized the best, and most profitable, way to develop it as a business was to also create the habitats for wildlife.

Most of the materials were various combinations of chemicals, molded into the shapes, colors and sizes needed to imitate their natural counterparts. Although he had no formal training in chemistry, he found that chemists at the various supply companies would usually tell him all he needed to know to create the desired materials.

From 1985, when he began working with habitats, Nelson has come a long way. He has been involved in projects for the Hyatt Regency, in Puerto Rico; Texas Botanical Gardens, and the San Antonio Zoo; the Opryland Hotel, in Tennessee; the Minnesota Zoological Gardens; and the Delbridge Museum of Natural History in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Some of his most impressive projects of his business, Total Enviro-Design, have been for individuals, including the elaborate display in the home of Richard Childress, NASCAR team owner, and extensive additions to the private museum created by Tom Bolack, former governor of New Mexico. In recent years, Nelson has taken on more private commissions, which he says allow him more creative freedom.

He’s become one of the leading voices in combining taxidermy with habitat creation and wrote most of “The Breakthrough Habitat and Exhibit Manual” used by many in the field. He also has contributed about 40 articles to Breakthrough magazine, the voice of this unique profession, and is a title holder in the masters class of the world competition. He also works as a consultant to others in a variety of projects and is greatly in demand.

Jim Biesinger of the Minnesota Zoo says Nelson is a wonderful artist. “He’s one of the best at molding and creating natural environments. His work for us, which was done about 12 years ago, has lasted well and still looks like new. I really admire his work.”

One of the reasons for his Nelson’s success is he’s found chemical combinations and various techniques that allow for easier handling and at the same time much more realistic appearance. Although the work is very physical, it’s obvious Nelson’s greatest asset is his imagination and inventiveness: He’s continually trying new combinations of materials to achieve the most lifelike results.

One of his most impressive achievements is the creation of an artificial rock that can be used for everything from a small boulder in a pond to a complete mountain wall. Nelson worked originally with the industry’s standard material, fiberglass reinforced concrete, which had to be cut with an ax and put into position with cranes. Massive footings were necessary to support the weight of these structures.

After much trial and error, Nelson came up with Quick-Rock, a 4-by-8 panel weighing 60 pounds, made of lightweight polyurethane, which can be easily cut and rejoined into any number of shapes. The mold he uses for creating the panels is taken from a Kasota Quarry wall, and he can make up to 20 of the panels in a single day.

Although this material has become a major part of his business, and is widely used by others, Nelson has never stopped experimenting with other habitat materials and uses. One of his current projects is a new type of artificial fireplace log to replace the standard unrealistic and easily broken product. His are noticeably heavier, and much more realistic — especially when a fire is going, when they actually take on the glow of a burning log.

And he’s also working with Commercial Silk International to create trees that will line a Minneapolis avenue sometime in the near future. Don’t be surprised if you can’t tell that they’re not real. As Nelson says, “God was the master builder and I am just happy is someone is fooled by one of my copies. The ... apprentice can only hope to emulate the master.”

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