Sunday, September 10, 2017

Edible wild plants: A guided tour at Theresa Marsh


Theresa Marsh State Wildlife Area is not small. From County Highway 28, which cuts across the northern end of it, a vast sea of cattails stretches nearly to the horizon. I’d never heard of it, however, until I went there recently for a hike led by Dianne Robinson, a naturalist with the Wisconsin DNR.

Sandhill cranes

I’ve seen the Wildlife Area before—many times in fact. It is adjacent to Interstate 41, which I’ve driven often on my way to points north. But the small wooden sign identifying the marsh has escaped my notice and the wetland is out of sight from the freeway, beyond a tree line.

Hunters know the area though. That was easy to tell and not only from the numerous signs indicating where they could and couldn’t hunt. I wasn’t there long before a group of hunters came out of the marsh with two canoes and two brace of enormous-looking goose carcasses.

But I wasn’t there to hunt. I joined about a dozen other folks who came to learn about edible wild plants. The “hike” turned out to be a short stroll along the dirt road leading to a gravel parking area next to the marsh. The edible plants we found there were mostly very common ones like dandelions, yarrow, chicory and even cattails. Believe it or not, cattails produce more edible starch per acre than any other green plant! Whoa. Who knew? (Well, the U. S. Army did. There was a plan to use the plant for the war effort during World War II, according to a website called “Eat the Weeds.”)

As you might expect, the edible parts of many wild plants don’t often look like recognizable foods, except for berries and salad-like leafy greens. The most obviously food-like plant we found was wild grape. Although smaller than commercially grown blueberries, let alone grapes, they hang in clusters just as you can imagine.

Clusters of wild grape on the vine
The other thing about edible plants is they tend not to be photogenic, especially when the edible parts are underground as with wild parsnip. We learned that if we were to dig up the root it would look very much like the ones in the grocery store. However, although it has an edible root, wild parsnip is better left untouched. If broken open it oozes a chemical that can cause severe, painful burns when exposed to the sun. The resulting blisters can leave long-lasting scars.

I did manage to get some photographs of a few of the plants, edible or not, as well as of the surrounding landscape. Robinson, our guide, said that her primary purpose in offering the hike was not so much to educate people about the plants as to acquaint us with the marsh. I am following that lead. She told us that, unlike most parks and except for sections designated as refuges, you are free to wander around off trail in wildlife areas such as this one. (I would be cautious about that during hunting season, though! Wear bright colors.)

Robinson with milkweed, the fresh shoots of which are edible. The sap of the plant, however, is toxic. “I would never eat any plant in the wild unless I knew it was safe.” Robinson repeated this advice like a mantra every now and then during the hike. Milkweed, of course, is a well-known food source for monarch butterflies if not humans.

The berries of the hawthorn are edible, if you can safely pick them from among the seriously threatening thorns! And then, after you have braved your way through the thorns to grab a handful of ripe berries you must remember to spit out the seeds. They contain cyanide. Yes. Deadly. (See Robinson’s advice, above.)

The Rock River spills out of Theresa Marsh at the point where we were hiking along the road. Across the wetland surrounding the river we could make out the rooftops of Theresa Station.

The tiny unincorporated hamlet consists of a dozen or so buildings along a dead-end road leading to, yes, a railroad. I assume it once had a station.

Smartweed, which grows in and near the wetter places, blooms from June through September. Not edible but pretty, said Robinson. Eat the Weeds claims it is in fact edible, but so strong and spicy as to not being worth the effort—like eating “a piece of burning paper.”

Robinson holds up a wild cucumber. The name might easily fool you into thinking it is edible. The spiky “cucumber” is a seedpod and is as inedible as it appears! 

Considering our topic, I should note that foraging for certain types of edibles, such as berries, nuts, and mushrooms, is legal on state lands like this. You are not allowed to harvest other parts of plants, including seeds and roots. The official guide is on the DNR website.

On my way back to Milwaukee after the tour ended I found another lovely view of the marsh beneath a sky dotted with Georgia O’Keeffe clouds. Widely dispersed clumps of brown-eyed Susans and goldenrod appeared almost to mirror the stippled sky. If you want to go there, Theresa Marsh State Wildlife Area is just off Interstate 41 between Highway D and Highway 28 and only a few miles east of its more famous neighbor, Horicon Marsh.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Summer bouquet: area parks alive with flowers

Black-eyed Susans, Hoyt Park, Wauwatosa
Is it my imagination or are there more flowers this year? When a friend asked me that recently I agreed it seemed to be true. The couple of experts I asked for corroboration differed in their judgments. The point remains mysterious. And yet, I’ve come to believe it. Now and then over the course of the summer I have been startled and amazed at the abundance.

Comfrey, West Bank Trail, Milwaukee River Greenway
I didn’t set out in June to photograph flowers all summer. Flowers are lovely, of course, like flags commemorating nature. But they haven’t especially appealed to me as a subject before. As the summer progressed, however, I noticed them more and more. Everywhere I went the parks—as well as roadsides, yards, and random fields—were resplendent in colorful blossoms. “Earth laughs in flowers,” wrote Emerson, and we smile along with them, enchanted. I began to be more deliberate about finding and photographing them.

Sweet wild clover, Barloga Woods, Oak Creek
And so, as is my custom, I sought out the parks—familiar ones and some I’ve never been to before—with the best floral displays. Here I present to you, dear reader, a summer bouquet gleaned from my wanderings: A photo essay and personal award ceremony for flowers from parks all over the metropolitan region, from the Kettle Moraine to the Lakeshore and many points in between.

Menomonee River Parkway, Wauwatosa

Like Edward Abbey I am drawn especially to wildflowers. "For myself I hold no preferences among flowers, so long as they are wild, free, spontaneous,” said Abbey. But unlike him, I am far from a purist. That quote is followed by this characteristically caustic proclamation: “Bricks to all greenhouses!” As for me, after a month or so of park-hopping to find wildflowers I decided I also needed to visit a few gardens. Thankfully, Milwaukee County has several.

Lobster Claw, The Domes, Mitchell Park, Milwaukee
Photographing flowers in a conservatory is like shooting ducks in a barrel. But I seldom pass up an opportunity to revisit the Domes! Despite the closure in 2014 due to structural instability attendance at the iconic and unique structures has rebounded. I had to jostle among almost 2,200 other visitors the day I went.

Partridge pea, Three Bridges Park, Milwaukee

After a while my task shifted from discovery to selectivity. For this essay I’ve tried to narrow my choices to those places and flowers for which my descriptions ran to superlatives. Hence the awards in a number of logical and quirky categories. Forgive me if I missed your favorite park or summer bloom. I hope you’ll leave a comment and tell me your picks.

An edited version of this story was published at Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to continue reading

You can also click here to see more photos and additional parks at Flickr.

Washington Park, Milwaukee

A kayak’s-eye view of Milwaukee’s inner harbor


A visual tour of one of the region’s most dynamic and hard-to-see places

Milwaukee owes its existence to its harbor. European settlers arriving here discovered an excellent natural harbor at the confluence of three rivers. The name Milwaukee was derived from an Ojibwe word that means “gathering of the waters.” That gathering place of water from the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers is now known as the inner harbor. The fertile estuary that had sustained its previous inhabitants was transformed into an economic engine that drove the region’s development as an industrial powerhouse.

Today the picture has changed again. The Port of Milwaukee is still active, shipping mostly bulk commodities such as salt, grain, cement and steel. However, a shifting economy has left vacant and underutilized land around the inner harbor. Plans to revitalize the area, known as the Harbor District, are underway. Public access being limited, the best way to experience the inner harbor is from the water.

Fortunately, you can rent a kayak right on the inner harbor. The Milwaukee Kayak Company is a little hard to find. There is no sign outside the fenced precinct at 318 South Water Street, which Milwaukee Kayak shares with Jerry’s Dock, a marine salvage, diving charter and boat storage facility. But once you’re there you will be well taken care of by the knowledgeable and attentive staff. I joined a tour organized and guided by Harbor District, Inc., the non-profit tasked with redevelopment of the district.

This story was published at Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to continue reading.

You can also see additional photos of the Harbor District on my website. I am currently serving as artist in residence for the Harbor District, Inc.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Rain doesn't dampen enthusiasm at Monarch Trail event on County Grounds

The Monarch Trail is an 11-acre protected butterfly habitat that circles around the Echelon Apartments on the Innovation Campus of the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa. It is currently awash in a magnificent spread of brown-eyed Susans.

The Friends of the Monarch Trail held their annual migration season kickoff celebration yesterday. Despite periods of light rain a good crowd enjoyed displays about monarch and other butterflies, the remarkable story of the 3000 mile migration, and the significance of the County Grounds as a roosting site. For the first time the event was held in the courtyard of the Echelon Apartment complex, in front of the recently renovated Eschweiler-designed historic Administration building. In a sign of the growing popularity of the event the Milwaukee County Parks Department provided a traveling beer tent and Cousins dispatched a food truck.

Ceole Cairde, the Irish ensemble, were on hand to provide musical accompaniment, as usual. A new feature this year was the McDonald family troupe of fife, drum and Irish dancers (above).

As if on cue, in the midst of all the merriment wild monarch butterflies quietly began to flutter into the courtyard and roost on the tree closest to the action (below). This bit of serendipity caused a sensation. Barb Agnew, the director of the Friends of the Monarch Trail considers it the precursor to what is likely to be an excellent season for butterfly watching. For updates on trail activities go to the Friends of the Monarch Trail website.

To see more photos of the Milwaukee County Grounds and Monarch Trail go to my Flickr album.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Greater and Greener: City Parks Alliance Conference in Saint Paul

How does Milwaukee compare to the top-ranked Twin Cities?

The sun rose above the tree line as I drove down the deserted park road and along a large, perfectly calm lake matted around its edges with floating vegetation. It was lovely and peaceful, with a familiar solitude that reminded me of our own Milwaukee River Greenway, a similar natural refuge surrounded by an invisible city. Then I heard a low, guttural rumbling, which grew suddenly into an earsplitting roar as a jet appeared over the tree line opposite the dawn as if rising to meet the sun.

This was not unexpected. I had arrived in Saint Paul the day before the City Parks Alliance biannual national conference was to begin there. I immediately opened a map on my phone to look for a likely green spot and latched onto Fort Snelling State Park. Nestled below the flight path of Minneapolis—Saint Paul International Airport, it clearly lay in the river bottom at the confluence of the region’s two major waterways, the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers.

Looking for remote sections of the park, I drove to a dead end in the shadow of the freeway bridge I’d driven over to get there. Along the way I saw exactly one fisherman. From the boat ramp at the end of the road another was setting off down the river. I stepped into the woods. How often, I thought, have I had this experience in Milwaukee parks? Being essentially alone in the most densely populated part of a state. Footprints in the sandy riverbank, however, proved to be an omen for an imminent surprise.

Long story short, within an hour I found myself on a wide, hard-packed earth trail around Pike Island being passed on both sides by joggers and dog-walkers. Although the island, accessible by a single footbridge, appeared to be the most remote part of the park, it was proving to be far more popular than I had imagined. By nine o’clock the now numerous fishermen were joined by a diverse army of people out enjoying the paths and beaches that circled the island. Welcome to Saint Paul, I thought. What a fitting introduction to a conference about city parks.

This essay was published by Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to continue reading.

Pleasant Valley: Milwaukee’s secret park

A once-bustling lake resort has returned to nature along the undammed Milwaukee River Greenway

An inviting but unmarked gravel path leads you downward toward the river. Descending into the forest canopy, dense foliage closes in around you. With each step the light grows dimmer, the sultry air cooler. At the end of the gravel a muddy trail parallels the riverbank. It vanishes in both directions into the dark forest. Standing here now, you would never guess that this once was the site of a popular resort that drew thousands of people on a warm summer weekend like this one.

Even the name might surprise you, if you were to consider a name at all. There are no signs identifying Pleasant Valley Park. There isn’t even much of a valley; just an overgrown ravine crossed by a mysterious and apparently purposeless pedestrian causeway. (It's an aqueduct, but I like the notion that you can't tell when you see it.) What there is—in abundance—is a wide variety of plant life of all shapes and sizes. On a hot day after a storm, it is more like a steamy and vaguely forbidding jungle than one of Milwaukee’s premier attractions.

That’s what it was for about 80 years beginning in the late 1840s. On the shore of the lake impounded by the North Avenue dam, the resort included a pier, bandshell, restaurant, rentable cottages, extensive landscaping and a grand beer garden. Torn down a century ago, no sign of it remains save a concrete curb along parts of the gravel path. Referring to the resort, a Milwaukee Journal article dated June 8, 1928 quoted a real estate broker as saying, “Few of the younger generation in the city realize that there is a spot in the heart of the city that has such beauty.”

What an intriguing statement that is after nearly 90 years! Who today knows anything about Pleasant Valley Park? And yet many of those who do—including significant numbers of the current younger generation—recognize the beauty that is here, hidden in plain sight. 

This story was published at Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to continue reading

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Photo Essay: An enchanting walk in the County Grounds

Showy tick trefoil in bloom on the County Grounds
Dawn is my favorite time of day. I was thinking this as I rolled over in bed one recent morning, right about dawn. My joints were stiff and my eyes reluctant to open, though my heart raced and I was no longer sleepy. There was a time when I would have popped out of bed in the morning, jumped on my bike and raced along the Menomonee River Parkway. Or walked in the woods. First thing in the morning I’d get my nature fix. Then I was ready to face the day, relaxed and clear headed.

Instead, now I propped up a pillow, stretched creaky limbs, and reached for the book I’d been reading by Florence Williams, “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.” Seriously. The irony dawned on me when, after a couple of pages, I read, “The more I made myself get outside, the better I slept and felt.” I got out of bed then. Although I’d missed the sunrise, I decided to get a dose of nature after all. A half-hour walk would wake me up good and proper.

My next decision was to leave my camera behind. For once, I thought, I would go out free of the obligation and effort that the camera requires and attend to my surroundings more purely. Williams devotes many chapters in her book to the healing effects of nature and walking in nature in particular. I didn’t need her book to convince me of a truth I’d felt all my life. But of late I had come to wonder if the work of photography—for, whatever its virtues, the act of photographing is work—might interfere with and to some extent diminish those healing effects.

On my way out the door I impulsively grabbed my cell phone.

In other words, I cheated. Snug in my pocket, the phone doesn’t feel like a camera and whipping it out now and then to shoot a picture doesn’t feel like working. Besides, I reasoned, ordinarily when I go out walking I never pull it from my pocket. But this turned out to be no ordinary morning.

Daisy fleabane, Hoyt Park
Walking across Hoyt Park’s iconic footbridge over the Menomonee River—something I’ve done innumerable times—was suddenly, inexplicably like falling down a rabbit hole. But instead of Alice in a place growing curiouser and curiouser, I felt like a rabbit sans top hat and pocket watch. At the end of the bridge was a slope that had been denuded a year ago during the reconstruction of the historic structure. Now it was a field of wildflowers that, at rabbit’s-eye level, was an enchanting wonderland.

Bergamot, aka bee balm, County Grounds
The magic didn’t wear off after one patch of flowers either, as my photo essay should testify. I consider myself very fortunate to live near Hoyt Park and the Milwaukee County Grounds. But, as Williams is quick to point out, nature is as close as the nearest tree and you can get your nature fix on far less territory than I covered that morning. In fact, Milwaukee County is well enough endowed with parks so diverse in size and character that you can choose a quick hit in a neighborhood pocket park or something more akin to the urban wilderness I prefer.

Dry pepperweed bracts, County Grounds
In her book Williams describes joining a study that posed a “30x30 nature challenge,” which is 30 minutes of walking for 30 days in a row. “One of the most interesting findings,” she reported, “was that we seemed to like being in nature so much, we doubled our weekly green time by the end of the month.” My own half-hour nature fix that day turned into an hour and a half.

Happier, healthier and more creative? Well, my fix left me happier at least, and definitely invigorated. Perhaps that’s healthier. As for creativity, sometimes all it takes is a rabbit’s-eye view to make the world new again. Try your own nature challenge. I bet you’ll feel better, too.

Black mustard in bloom, County Grounds
Foxtail barley bunchgrass, County Grounds
Wild Mint, Hoyt Park
Red maple, County Grounds
Chicory and sweet clover, County Grounds
Milkweed and Swan Blvd., County Grounds
Bottlebrush grass, Hoyt Park
Highbush cranberry reaching through the Hoyt Park Pool fence.
Morning light over the east detention basin, County Grounds

See more photos of the County Grounds on Flickr.