Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bearing Witness in the Menomonee Valley

The bend in the Menomonee just downstream from Miller Park is one of my favorite haunts in the Valley. There the river makes one of several ninety-degree turns that remind us, if we attend to them, that the watercourse is not “natural” but as manufactured as the industries that replaced the wild rice marsh from which the river was carved. But that’s history. Today this corner of the river is rare for its seclusion—and for a blessed illusion: paradoxically, it is one of the few stretches of seemingly natural landscape without a glimpse of the surrounding city.
It is a place prized by anglers and I am not surprised to find a suitably costumed one casting repeatedly in the shallow water. I ask what’s biting and he grimaces before grumbling amiably, “Nothing yet.” Then he adds, “But it’s a lovely afternoon and the autumn colors are beautiful.” He continues casting. 
By chance I spot the remains of a hawk, victim of some unknown violent end, splayed across the ground near the river. I might have missed it; so closely do its colors blend with the earth on which it rests. I haven’t come seeking this, but here I am and here it is.

Without clearly understanding why, I record the scene with my camera.

Photography famously excels at representing the material world. Just point and shoot, as they say, with a camera—or a phone—and you have a lasting record that is often far more detailed than what you’ve consciously observed. But my mind is on a branch of Zen Buddhism that encourages a practice known as bearing witness.* Bearing witness is more than observing your surroundings.
I observe the crushed body of the hawk, the pattern on its feathers, the curved talons—their vicious sharpness rendered impotent by death. Noted later, my camera also records matted, muddied entrails; twisted brown leaves scattered all around among surprisingly fresh green shoots; even the grit of the sandy earth.

After shooting the dead body I move on, turn the bend, and 
climb an overgrown slope to the Hank Aaron Trail. There in the middle of the asphalt I find another, smaller carcass: a vole. (Perhaps a mouse, but mice have pointier snouts. Its flattened state makes the attribution tentative. In any case, common prey for a hawk.) This one has not died a natural wild rodent death—most likely it was squashed by a speeding cyclist. Nor did it provide sustenance for a hawk. The flies busily digging in its punctured hide, however, care nothing for how it perished. In nature nothing is wasted. Death begets life.

I have not come looking for hawks or voles. I’m not seeking memento mori. I did have a purpose in mind when I chose to walk this bend in the river today but once I arrived I let that purpose subside. Buddhism teaches us to let go of attachments. It is a practice I deliberately bring to my photography, if not always to the rest of my life. Had I stuck to my purpose I might have noticed neither hawk nor vole. Letting go of my purpose and being present in the moment allows me the freedom to discover things I am not seeking.

But the idea of bearing witness goes deeper. You are not merely present in the moment and open to experience, though these are the necessary conditions that make bearing witness possible. Bearing witness is an act of social engagement, not only being aware of the life—and death—around you but embodying it. Allow yourself to embody the experience of the other—that which is outside yourself—and you may become one with it: hawk, vole, predator and prey, river, trail, Menomonee Valley, city, Earth. Words, ideas, experiences.
Occasionally photographs.

Bearing witness isn’t about the photographs. It isn’t about the words. It isn’t about death either, unless it is death to which you attend.

Ultimately—ideally—bearing witness is about the dissolution of self, becoming one with all life, with the universe. By embodying the universe you assume responsibility for it. Not because of a moral obligation—too intellectual—but because you experience the other as yourself, inseparable. If you embody the other then the other is you and you will naturally care for it as you do yourself.

The Menomonee Valley represents an unusual kind of oneness, the planned reintegration of nature within an urban fabric. The inseparability of natural and built environments is being made manifest here. I come to the Valley to be present, to bear witness, to try with due humility to embody this universe.

In Zen practice bearing witness commonly addresses injustice and inequality, promotes peace and reconciliation. But we must also bear witness to progress and hope. Like the hawk and the vole, here in the Valley it is easy to find dead carcasses of abandoned factories in various states of decay. But I haven’t come seeking death.

I have come seeking renewal. The Valley provides that in abundance.

*Glassman, Bernie. Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace. 1998. Bell Tower, New York.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.  

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Milwaukee Magazine: Menomonee Valley a good reason to love Milwaukee!

I am honored to be included in a nice little story about the Menomonee Valley in the October issue of Milwaukee Magazine. The sprawling article is titled "Reasons to love Milwaukee." In all there are 56 reasons listed. The revitalization of the Menomonee Valley and I made reason number 43. Here is what it says:

"Over the past 15 years, the Menomonee Valley has gone from neglected dumping ground to the most expansive public-private partnership in Milwaukee. Reclaimed as a business park, entertainment spot and recreation area after decades of industrial decay, the Valley is an example of balance between the natural and built environments. It's anchored by some of Milwaukee’s most popular destinations – Harley-Davidson Museum and Potawatomi Hotel & Casino – and is now home to new and renewed companies, from Rishi Tea to Palermo’s Pizza to Charter Wire. And it's never been more accessible. Traversing Canal Street, a 6-mile extension of the Hank Aaron State Bicycle Trail mimics the curves of the Menomonee River, which is an emerging water route for canoes and kayaks. Cars, bikes and boats pass the Falk manufacturing plant, Twisted Fisherman restaurant, Marquette University’s sports complex and the Global Water Center. But the Valley’s crown jewel is Three Bridges Park. Christened in July of 2013, the park connects the South Side to 24 acres of open prairie, riverbanks, and trails. Early this year, Valley partners even commissioned local photographer Eddee Daniel as 2014 artist-in-residence to record and share images of the Valley’s changing forms."

I thank the editors of Milwaukee Magazine for including me and especially for recognizing the value of the Menomonee Valley revitalization efforts. I also want to thank photographer Adam Morris for two fine portraits of me. The one in the print edition of the magazine is different from this one, which is in the online version. Both were taken in Three Bridges Park.

Courtesy Adam Morris, Milwaukee Magazine

Sunday, September 21, 2014

International Day of Peace: A visual meditation

September 21 was established as an official International Day of Peace in 1981 by the U.N. and, although a cursory glance at the media suggests otherwise, historical analysis has shown that violence in human culture is at an all time low globally. In honor of this day I offer a brief visual mediation from near and far.

The images, in order, are from Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, NM (2013); Arequipa, Peru (2009); 3 Bridges Park, Milwaukee, WI (2013); Masaya, Nicaragua (2006); Lake Michigan at Cedar Grove, WI (2012); Lanterns for Peace, Milwaukee, WI (2014).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Underwood Parkway: Wildlife graces construction zones

It seems as though there is construction going on everywhere this summer - including in some of our parklands. Underwood Parkway, between 115th St. and Bluemound in Wauwatosa, is one of my regular routes. I've passed by its labyrinthine arrangement of construction fences many times since construction began on new power lines last June. (See my previous post about that unfortunate project.)

Yesterday as I drove along the parkway I spotted two adolescent fawns. One was between two lines of fencing, browsing on the grass. The other was standing directly in front of the closest rank of construction fences, as if the bright orange pattern was a studio backdrop. I wish! Fortunately, I had my camera with me. Unfortunately, it was in the trunk of the car. By the time I pulled over, got the camera out and lined up a shot the deer had jumped over the fence to join its sibling.

I took a few shots. As I was doing so, leaning casually against my car in order to minimize the chance of startling them (they looked up at me periodically to see what I might be doing), a large doe wandered into the scene.

After taking a few more shots I continued on with my errand. On my way back I slowed to see if I would spot the deer again. Lo and behold, not deer this time, but no fewer than seven wild turkeys were strolling along the lawn near the fencing. Three of them were youngsters (or females?), judging by size and coloration. But the other four were the largest wild turkeys I've ever seen!

They were predictably camera shy (maybe thinking about Thanksgiving as autumn arrives!) They scurried off into the riparian woods when I started trying to get close for a good photo.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Happy Anniversary! The Wilderness Act turns 50 today.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law on September 3, 1964. Today there are 758 designated wilderness areas in the United States and Puerto Rico.

Happy anniversary, from the (undesignated) Urban Wilderness!

The photo is of the Fox River near Muckwanago from a recent canoe trip.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Public hearing on fate of Estabrook Dam tomorrow

Courtesy: Milwaukee Riverkeeper
I am forwarding the following from Milwaukee Riverkeeper. Please consider attending the public hearing (details below) or sending a message to your county supervisor (contact info below).

Help Us Remove the Deadbeat Estabrook Dam!

Quick Facts about Estabrook Dam:

1) Milwaukee County built the Estabrook Dam in 1937 to elevate water levels for recreation (following some blasting of bedrock to alleviate flooding). Milwaukee County failed to maintain and repair the Dam per State Dam Safety regulations over the years. In 2009, the gates were ordered permanently open by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) due to hazardous conditions.  

2) Recent studies of the Dam have shown that it increases flooding upstream, poses a liability for Milwaukee County, and will lead to increased flood insurance costs for upstream residents.

3) The ecological health created by a free flowing river offers greater long term value than maintaining the present impoundment behind the Dam. Dam removal will: a.) allow fish to swim to upstream spawning habitats and restore the natural and wild aspect of the Milwaukee River; b.) reduce flooding upstream of the Dam; c.) improve water quality upstream of the Dam; and d.) improve recreational opportunities such as fishing and paddling.

4) Over $8 million has been spent upstream to improve access for fish to spawning habitat via dam removal and construction of fish passage structures.  The removal of the Estabrook Dam would expand the benefits of those projects.

5) County consultants estimate it will cost 3 times as much to repair than remove the Dam if maintenance costs of $2.6 million are included for the next 20 years (the estimated life expectancy of the Dam). These costs do not include the administrative costs associated with state and federal permitting required for the Estabrook Dam.

How You Can Help!

1) Attend the County’s Public Information Meeting on the draft Environmental Assessment:

Wednesday, September 3, 2014, 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM
Nicolet HS (Cafeteria)

2) Contact your County Supervisor and the County Executive and tell them that Estabrook Dam should be removed (contact info on back). The County Board Parks, Energy and Environment Committee will vote on a "preferred alternative" for the Dam at their meeting on Tuesday, September 9th. The full Milwaukee County Board will vote on their preferred alternative on Thursday, September 18th.  Public comments on the draft EA will be accepted by the County through September 17th at surveymonkey.com/s/EstabrookDamComments.

3) Attend the County Parks, Energy, and Environment Meeting on Tuesday September 9th. The Agenda is posted one week in advance, but this meeting typically begins at 9 AM at the Milwaukee County Courthouse, Room 301-B.

4) The WDNR and Bureau of Land Management (who owns some of the land the dam sits on) have both indicated that they will hold a public hearing to fulfill state and federal permitting requirements pertaining to dam operations and construction. We will publish information as it becomes available. 

5) To receive more information, please email: christina@milwaukeeriverkeeper.org and keep up-to-date on our facebook page, or our website at: http://milwaukeeriverkeeper.org/content/estabrook-dam-removal.  

To find your supervisor go to:
http://cts.vresp.com/c/?PreserveOurParks/9e7fec6aa7/3865a739aa/42340b9b41 and click on “Find Your District or Supervisor.”
Then click on the photo of the supervisor to get to contact information.

(Full disclosure: I was formerly on the board of Milwaukee Riverkeeper.)

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Kayaking the Menomonee with Milwaukee Riverkeeper

This week Milwaukee Riverkeeper hosted the second in a series of three kayaking expeditions. Each has been meant to explore one of Milwaukee's three rivers. The first, in July, headed up the Milwaukee River. This time it was the Menomonee. The third will tour the Kinnickinnic River on September 30. (For information or to register, click here.) 

Jennifer Bolger Breceda, Milwaukee Riverkeeper's new Executive Director joined us for the tour guided by Cheryl Nenn, who is the official riverkeeper. Thanks go out to the Milwaukee Kayak Company for supplying the kayaks and supporting Riverkeeper.

I went along to document the event and to provide a water's-eye view of the Menomonee Valley.  Here is my photo essay.

We put in off the Milwaukee Kayak Co. slip at 318 S. Water St., near the rustic (and rusty) railroad swivel bridge in the Milwaukee River.

It was a beautiful evening and we were passed by several cruise lines before we reached the Menomonee River.

Two of our expedition beneath the railroad bridge at the confluence of the Menomonee with the Milwaukee.

The 2nd St. Bridge follows immediately after the RR bridge.

Instead of proceeding up the Menomonee proper, we turned the corner into the Menomonee Canal and past the Harley Davidson Museum.

The Global Water Center from the water.

Paddling past the Reed Street Yards.

The newly opened Hank Aaron State Trail ramp provides access from the Sixth Street Bridge down to the Reed Street Yards segment of the trail.

Brandon is one of the Milwaukee Kayak Co. staff.

Beth is the owner of Milwaukee Kayak Co.

Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, provided a running commentary as we paddled.

Jennifer Bolger Breceda, Executive Director of Milwaukee Riverkeeper as we entered the Burnham Canal.

There are a few additional photos of the event in my Menomonee Valley flickr album.

(Full disclosure: I was formerly on the board of Milwaukee Riverkeeper.)

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.