Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Nothing Kills A River Like Concrete: Exhibit invitation

Concrete River: 
Memorial and Promise on the Kinnickinnic River

Photography by Eddee Daniel
Collaborative shrine and installation with Melanie Ariens

Alfons Gallery
1501 S. Layton Blvd., Milwaukee, WI

Opening reception: May 22, 1 - 3 pm. 
Artist's remarks: 2 pm.

I hope you'll join me and Melanie for this event. This will not be an ordinary photo exhibit. We plan an installation that will make the gallery feel like the concrete channel.

Exhibit runs through July 31

Gallery hours:
Wed, Thu, Fri, Sun 12 - 3 pm
and by appointment.

For more information: Alfons Gallery website.

Artist's Statement:

Nothing kills a river like concrete. How we treat rivers is suggestive of how we relate to the natural world in general.

Historically, rivers have been central to the growth of human civilization. This was as true at the founding of Milwaukee as it was in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates. Somehow, though, in the late twentieth century, our modern society lost sight of this vital truth. Milwaukee’s three rivers suffered many abuses, including habitat loss, pollution and dams.

But there’s nothing like pouring concrete into it, essentially transforming it into a drainage ditch, to signal the destruction of a river. Sections of other rivers and creeks in the Milwaukee River watershed were subject to this debasement, but the Kinnickinnic River suffered the most.

In the 1960s the KK, as it is still affectionately known, was straightened and lined with concrete in order to mitigate flooding problems in the surrounding neighborhood. Although at the time this dramatic action did provide some relief from the risk of flooding, it also compromised the river in significant ways. The concrete channel destroyed aquatic and riparian habitats, degraded water quality, and increased the risk of drowning during high water flows. Ironically, today even the original intent of the channelization has become outdated and ineffective for flood control.

Fortunately, for the river and for the community, attitudes have once again shifted. Caring for and revitalizing rivers has captured the public imagination. On the KK the current solution is a project to remove the concrete channel and restore the river to a more natural condition. When I was invited by the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to document the project area I jumped at the opportunity. It’s exactly the kind of subject to which I am drawn.
The KK River Project, officially known as the Kinnickinnic River Corridor Neighborhood Plan, is a joint endeavor by the MMSD and the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center. The project area is located between 6th Street and 27th Street. (An earlier phase of the project, completed in 2012, removed the concrete channel downstream from 6th St.) The 50-ft. wide concrete channel is to be removed and a 200 ft.-wide rock-lined river channel created. This has necessitated the acquisition and deconstruction of 83 homes in order to accommodate the wider river. Although most of those houses had already been removed, I witnessed and documented the deconstruction of several of the few remaining.

Because the project is in its early phases, most of the images in this exhibit depict the river’s current state as a concrete channel. Furthermore, the installation itself is intended to reinforce the claustrophobic and treacherous conditions that exist. In order to represent the more hopeful future of the KK, I have invited environmental artist Melanie Ariens to collaborate with me on a water shrine to signify the restored vitality that is envisioned in the KK River Project.

See more of my KK River photos in my Flickr album

Monday, April 18, 2016

Millennium Reserve: visiting Chicagoland's ambitious urban wilderness project

Did you know that the land surrounding the southern edge of Lake Michigan was once one of the most important ecosystems on the continent? I learned that last week at a public hearing I attended in Park Forest, IL. The subject was the Millennium Reserve initiative, which is a huge and ambitious undertaking that will involve--among other things--trying to bring back some of the ecological resilience and biodiversity of that region.

The wetlands of this area are located at the precise point where the eastern forest, central prairie and great lakes ecosystems meet, making it unique and irreplaceable. Of course, it's also where Chicago and Gary, IN created an industrial powerhouse that obliterated much of the natural environment. But, in the current post-industrial climate, there is encouraging new interest in saving what's left and restoring what's possible of this remarkable native system.

The Millennium Reserve is located in the Calumet region of Cook County, IL. Last week I spent two days touring some of the parks and natural areas that already have been established. Here is what I saw, one photo from each of the parks I visited.

Thorn Creek Trail, Glenwood
Glenwood Woods, Glenwood
Sauk Trail Woods, Chicago Heights
Osprey, Powderhorn Marsh & Prairie
Egger's Grove, City of Chicago
Controlled burn, Big Marsh, Chicago
Jurgenson Woods, Lansing
Indian Ridge Marsh, Chicago
Wampum Lake, Lansing
Brownell Woods, Thornton
William Powers State Rec. Area, City of Chicago
This is my second visit to the Millennium Reserve and second photo essay. To see the previous one, click here.

More images in my Flickr album.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

It Takes One: A feature by The Cultural Landscape Foundation

I've had the honor to be featured on The Cultural Landscape Foundation's website. I recently went to Houston to attend a TCLF conference called "Leading with Landscape: The Transformation of Houston." In getting to know a few of the TCLF members there I shared a little about my work and what's going on in Milwaukee. They were interested enough to interview me for their feature, "It Takes One." I'm reprinting it below. If you want to read the original on their website, click here.

It Takes One: Eddee Daniel

I am a photographer and writer specializing in urban ecologies and cultural landscapes. My practice is multidimensional. I tell stories about particular places. I also examine how we perceive and construct understandings of nature in the contexts of culture and the built environment. I have long characterized my work with the paradoxical term ‘Urban Wilderness,’ which symbolizes the complexity of my subject matter as well as its inherent tensions.

I have degrees in art education with an emphasis on photography. After more than 30 years of teaching art, photography, and architecture in secondary- and higher-educational settings, for the past six years I have pursued my current practice full time. I also have a long record of environmental advocacy, having served on the boards of several local non-profit organizations. I love all of the arts. Currently, I am collaborating with two choreographers, who are incorporating my imagery into environmental-themed dance programs. My interest in cultural landscapes is less a conscious choice than a thoroughly ingrained personal temperament.

Menomonee River reconstruction, Milwaukee, WI
How do you define a cultural landscape?
A cultural landscape is a place, whether natural, built, or otherwise designed, that has felt the impact of the human imprint. These places may be interpreted broadly or very particularly. Today, at the beginning of what some are calling the Anthropocene Epoch—when human influence has begun to affect ecology on a planetary scale—an argument can be made that all landscapes have a cultural aspect. For the purposes of my artistic practice, I generally choose to examine landscapes where the human and natural elements are inextricably interconnected: Either there has been a deliberate effort to modify a place or the features of a place have motivated humans to adapt to it. To me, cultural landscapes are places that live in the imagination as well as exist as earthy terrain: They have stories worth telling.

What is the Urban Wilderness Project?
The Urban Wilderness Project began as a voyage of discovery as well as a means to advocate for conservation and restoration of natural habitats within my local urban and suburban setting. It was also about how to perceive a watershed while living in a city. I set out to explore and document the existing conditions within the Menomonee River watershed, which begins in an exurban area of farms and encroaching suburbs and runs through the heart of industrial Milwaukee. I spent six years exploring the physical features of the region and, in particular, its rivers and riparian parks. The project dealt with issues of land use, flood management, economic development, recreational opportunities, pollution, wildlife diversity, and habitat restoration. The outcome was a book entitled Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, published by the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago.

Beyond that specific project, I have used the term ‘Urban Wilderness’ more generally to symbolize the complexity of my experiences as well as my creative responses to the tensions and themes symbolized by this idea. The term, which for me is rich with hope as well as contradiction, has provided the conceptual underpinning for various bodies of work I have undertaken in the past 20 years. Although these bodies of work are loosely unified by the overarching ‘Urban Wilderness’ concept, they vary in focus and style from documentary realism to abstract formalism. Throughout, I try to emphasize an experience of the world that is relational and conditional rather than singular and fixed.

St. Louis Art Museum, Forest Park, St. Louis
How do you choose your projects?
In a world that seems to have become an endless series of ecological catastrophes, I have made a determined effort to choose projects that tell a more hopeful story. I admire the efforts of others to raise awareness about a wide variety of important and pressing environmental concerns; that is essential. However, I seek places where I see positive transformation either underway or being planned. In 2014, I served as the inaugural artist-in-residence in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, a blighted post-industrial landscape that is in the midst of economic and environmental revitalization. In 2015, I worked with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District to document its Kinnickinnic River Project, which will eventually remove several miles of concrete channel and recreate a more naturalized river.

Is your work primarily documentary, or does it strive to do something else?
My work can be difficult to categorize. Much of what I do is documentary. My writing can be described as creative non-fiction. My photography veers between straightforward documentary and the fine art formalism that was the basis of my artistic education. I am unquestionably an advocate for many things: the creation and enjoyment of urban parklands, sustainable development, river revitalization, instilling a love of nature in children, just and equitable access to nature, etc. My artistic work often reflects this. Sometimes it is more abstract or symbolic, like the long-running personal project I call Synecdoche: the fragment that represents the whole. Uncharacteristically, but importantly, that project is not devoted to a specific place. Instead, it suggests a more universal experience of nature as fragmentary and that what remains must stand in for what has been lost.

I would like to think that I observe the world with a childlike sense of wonder. Occasionally I believe I achieve that valuable goal. But in truth, there is nearly always a defining conceptual basis to the work I do, whether symbolic, as in Synecdoche, or pragmatic, as in the restoration of a damaged river.

Curtain Wall, from Synecdoche: the fragment that represents the whole
What are the advantages and disadvantages of the medium of photography in capturing the essence of a place?
Photography has nearly universal appeal due to its accessibility and democratic character. People generally believe what they see and photography can lend credence to the subject it represents. That can be an asset for a documentary project. It enables viewers to visualize a place and helps drive a narrative. However, to turn the old saw on its head, a photograph often requires a thousand words to put it into context. Without contextual support, a single image can easily be misunderstood. To remedy this potential pitfall, I rarely depend upon a single image and I include written narratives to support my theses.

Alienation from nature is a frequent theme in your work. Are parks and maintained natural areas a true remedy to such alienation?
While I am sensitive to the issue of alienation from nature, I don’t consider that a starting point. It is my fundamental belief that the human/nature divide is a false one. If I have a starting point for my practice it is the idea of the interdependency of all life and the interconnection between nature and the built environment symbolized by the theme of 'Urban Wilderness.' Having said that, in an increasingly urbanized world we do have to deal with alienation from traditional experiences of nature. I believe that urban parks and natural areas are indeed a vital component in combatting what author Richard Louv refers to as “nature deficit disorder.” In my experience, the well-documented health and spiritual benefits of exposure to the natural world accrue to time spent in urban natural areas as readily as elsewhere.

Urban Wilderness, from the Urban Wilderness Project
What message would you like to give our readers that may inspire them to make a difference?
Like most people who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, a huge percentage of my youth was spent outdoors and unsupervised. That kind of upbringing is so rare today that children fortunate enough (from my perspective) to have that experience are dubbed “free-range kids.” If children are not provided with daily opportunities to run free in nature, the consequences will not only affect their own development, potentially leading to an increase in physical disabilities, decreased mental acuity and spiritual poverty, it will also create a society that no longer values nature enough to protect what remains.

As more and more of the global population lives in urban settings, sensitively designed public parks and natural areas become increasingly vital to everyone’s future. We cannot reset the clock to 1955, but we can create a future that enables people of all ages to see and touch nature within their own communities.

Forest Park, St. Louis, MO
Stay tuned for a blog post about Houston and my experiences there.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Forest Park, St. Louis: more urban than wilderness, but lovely

I stopped in St. Louis on my way to a conference in Houston. Spent the afternoon in Forest Park. Weighing in at over 1300 acres, it's larger than New York's Central Park, with which it has more than a passing resemblance. Like Central Park, it contains a zoo and the city's premier art museum. Also two golf courses--currently rather worse for wear due to dry conditions. I'm guessing they don't water much. First time I've seen golfers on brown fairways.

I did manage to find a couple wildish areas to wander about in. A photo essay:

Cypress "knees"
Birch grove reflected in St. Louis Art Museum windows
Trailhead, JFK Memorial Forest (seriously)

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Nature in the New World: the 'American Vision' at Milwaukee Art Museum

An edited version of this review first appeared at Milwaukee Magazine on March 3, 2016.

Imagine wilderness that stretches out before you in every direction, apparently endlessly. Imagine a new nation, boldly wrenched from the tired conventions of its European origins—a nation of pioneers, adventurers and visionaries. What kind of art works would these circumstances inspire? The answer is currently on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum in the newly opened exhibit, Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School.

View from the Highlands of West Point, John Ferguson Weir, 1862
Yes! Go first to Nature and learn to paint landscape, and when you have learnt to imitate her, you may then study the pictures of great artists with benefit. Why should not the American landscape painter, in accordance with the principle of self-government, boldly originate a high and independent style, based on his native resources?” ~ Asher B. Durand

This quote, by one of the founders of the Hudson River School, is among many that greet viewers on the walls of the museum gallery. Make no mistake: Nature is not merely the subject of the artists of this period but also muse and often-deified raison d'être.

For the American Romantic artist of the early nineteenth century, Nature was abundant, exuberant and unfathomable. They not only painted it, they reveled in it. The artists of this time and place went to unprecedented lengths to document the landscape, becoming adventurers themselves as well as visionaries.

In some respects the ideals of the Romantics, which included writers and philosophers as well as artists, can seem quaint in contemporary circumstances. In 2016, a time of climate change, dwindling habitats and the extinction of species, when science and popular culture alike are as prone to question the nature of nature as to extoll its virtues, when it seems that no landscape remains unsullied, what shall we make of the artists of the Hudson River School? Are these paintings of a vanishing American landscape mere historical curiosity or do they still have something to say to us today?

Milwaukee Art Museum curator Brandon Ruud
with Donner Lake from the Summit by Albert Bierstadt, 1873

The paintings of this period, from the 1820s through much of the century, are indisputably of historical importance. In the words of curator Brandon Ruud, who led a tour of the exhibit, this was the first homegrown artist movement in the still-young republic—no small achievement from artists who up to that time invariably and literally went to Europe for inspiration as well as training. But more than that, the artists helped create a national identity based on their vision. It was the subject itself—a wild landscape of seemingly boundless abundance that distinguished the New World from its European roots—that leant the movement its originality, along with a true-believer’s faith in its importance.

Study from Nature, Stratton Notch, Vermont, Asher B. Durand, 1853
The idea of “imitating” nature, encouraged by Durand, one of the founders of the movement, is anathema to many contemporary artists. And yet nature, in all its ambiguity and challenge, and even the notion of landscape, which bears its own cultural baggage, has acquired new potency today. We are all faced with exigencies of nature—now more often referred to as “the environment”—that civilization has long sought to control if not ignore.

It also should be noted that, despite Durand’s advice, painters didn’t so much imitate nature as use it as a platform from which to leap. Great liberties often were taken with the physical places in the landscape that inspired them. This is seldom evident when viewing the actual paintings, which, for all the imbued drama, are executed in a convincingly naturalistic style and with an eye to intimately rendered detail.

I recently picked up a volume of essays by Paul Shepard on this very topic. Shepard, a twentieth century philosopher and ecologist, did more than write extensively about the Hudson River School. He went to great lengths to demonstrate how different are the paintings from the very specific places they purportedly depict, making a series of photographs from the precise vantage points of particular paintings. The artists freely interposed imagined foreground elements on recognizable scenes and the topography itself is often exaggerated in terms of contour and scale.

Niagara Falls, Louisa Davis Minot, 1818
In an example from the exhibit, Louisa Davis Minot dramatized the pristine power of Niagara Falls in part by omitting the burgeoning commercial establishments that even then threatened to diminish the purity of the experience.

The artists did this because the landscape was more than a subject. It was a symbol that represented ideals embodied in the new republic—a land of irrepressible freedom and limitless opportunity. It was also a land of unimaginable natural wonders, which dazzled audiences who flocked to see the canvases.

Even today the relevance of the Hudson River School goes beyond historical importance. In a very real sense our lasting perception of nature and especially of wilderness was a creation of the Romantic idealists. Before that time the landscape was set decoration and wilderness a place to be feared and conquered. Emerson, Thoreau and Muir were among the first to recognize the interdependence of humans and the natural world (not counting indigenous cultures that never lost sight of it.) But it was the artists like Durand, Cole and Bierstadt who made of their ideas a palpable, visible reality. And while Modernism has come and gone, their vision of nature lingers in the popular imagination.

Durand inquired, with grand rhetoric characteristic of the period, “Why should not the American landscape painter, in accordance with the principle of self-government, boldly originate a high and independent style, based on his native resources?” He was echoing the temper of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s own exhortation in his transcendentalist masterpiece, Nature, to “enjoy an original relation to the universe.”

Both are saying that people—artists in Durand’s case—ought to get outdoors and experience nature for themselves, in all its visceral power and glory. This idea stood in revolutionary opposition to common practice wherein a “grand tour” of Europe and the work of Classical and neo-Classical predecessors dictated the tenor and style of painting.

Castle of Ostia Seen from the Pine Forest of Castel Fusano William Stanley Hazeltine, 1881

The exhibit wisely includes a section of paintings clearly derivative of European antecedents in order to drive home this point. The neo-Classical elements—Greek or Roman ruins in the landscape, for example—and contemplative moods contrast with the wilder character of more typical Hudson River School compositions.

By the end of the Romantic period, Impressionism and subsequent Modernist movements began to assert dominance within the artistic establishment. The world—and the increasingly exploited and despoiled landscape—had changed sufficiently that continued efforts by painters of the Romantic style might be criticized as wishful thinking. However, along with contemporaries like Thoreau and Muir, they expressed a real need to protect dwindling wild places that prefigured an embryonic conservation movement.

View of the Yosemite Valley, in California, Thomas Hill, 1865
It is in this impulse, to protect and save nature as well as to marvel at it, that the Hudson River School retains its cogency today. We are in a similar age, when the 50-year-old environmental movement has expanded and matured, when there is growing global realization that for too long the Modernist ideals of progress and technology have obscured our interdependency with the natural world.

The Consummation of Empire, from The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole, 1836
The exhibit reaches a crescendo in the final gallery, which is devoted entirely to the suite of five paintings by Thomas Cole entitled “The Course of Empire.” Although I’d seen them before, they lose none of their emotional or intellectual power with repeated viewing. The sequence depicts the rise and fall of a civilization supposed to be mythical, but clearly recognizable in its Classical architectural and stylistic detail. The scenes proceed from an untamed wilderness through imperialistic excess and on to destruction and desolation.

According to Ruud, the paintings (from the 1830s) were Cole’s deliberate attempt to warn and admonish the leaders of the new nation not to succumb to historical precedent, to protect the extraordinary landscape that made America exceptional. There was no lack of hubris in Andrew Jackson’s land of manifest destiny. The substance may have shifted but a similar tone can be heard today on the presidential campaign trail.

Destruction, from The Course of Empire, Thomas Cole, 1836
A visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School may be just the antidote. I recommend it. It runs through May 8, 2016.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Flying Squirrels in the Milwaukee County Grounds

  A rare, up-close look at an elusive urban critter.

An edited version of this story was first posted at Milwaukee Magazine on February 9, 2016.

A small, gray face peered inquisitively out of the nest at me with eyes large enough to qualify for an animated feature film. Cute. But I was in no position to appreciate it. I was a dozen or more feet in the air, on a ladder. My fancy DSLR camera hung uselessly from my neck. I couldn’t lean back far enough to focus on the little creature. As I fumbled in my coat pocket for my iPhone another of the furry occupants suddenly appeared, this one poised to flee through the nest’s circular opening.

That’s when things got really interesting!

Wil-O-Way Woods, where this was happening, is a 45-acre remnant hardwood forest in Wauwatosa. It is surrounded by what is commonly known as the Milwaukee County Grounds and managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The DNR is partnering with a private non-profit organization to create what will be called a Forest Exploration Center. These unusual little flying squirrels are just one of the reasons this rare urban forest is worth exploring.

We had parked our cars in the Wil-O-Way Underwood parking lot. Through the leafless trees it was easy to spot the closest nest box. We entered the woods on a well-packed trail then quickly forged a new path through the snow to reach the tree with the box. Our squadron of five was comprised mostly of wildlife enthusiasts. Gary Casper, the biologist in charge of monitoring the squirrels, led our group.

Casper scampered up the ladder and opened the front of the box. He announced what he found inside: a few acorn fragments and debris that indicated the box had been used. No nest had been built in it and it was otherwise vacant. One of the volunteers dutifully recorded Casper’s findings and we moved on through the forest.

We crossed a ski trail and fresh snowshoe tracks. In many places holes had been scrabbled in the snow by animals looking for sustenance or nesting materials. Scat the size and color of roasted coffee beans confirmed the unsurprising presence of deer. Even small urban forests like this one have a variety of users, human and non-human. Managing such a forest can involve juggling diverse interests and constituencies. With its many interconnected segments administered by different agencies, the County Grounds presents particularly complex management issues.

For example, when I asked who it was that hired him, Casper replied, “It’s complicated.” Casper himself works for the UWM Field Station. The flying squirrel project, which includes surveying and monitoring a variety of other species as well, is part of a wildlife assessment for the Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern. It is administered through the Great Lakes Office of the DNR—which, in a quirk of bureaucratic irony, is separate from the DNR office that oversees Wil-O-Way—and funded by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Area along Swan Blvd. that recently was cleared; brush piles will also be removed.

We trudged between trunks of oak, hickory, maple and ash, some too large to reach around. Flying squirrels require a mature forest to survive, which speaks well of the quality of this isolated urban woodland. But many of the other species that grace Wil-O-Way Woods travel freely between the various parcels making up the County Grounds. Unfortunately, according to Casper, this parcel is small enough to suffer from “edge effect,” meaning predators will penetrate the woods from adjacent areas.

Wil-O-Way Woods is contiguous with the MMSD’s 90-acre flood control basins. Swan Boulevard is all that separates the DNR parcel from the 55-acre County Grounds Park, administered by Milwaukee County Parks Dept., and 69-acre Innovation Park, the new multi-use property being developed by the UWM Real Estate Foundation.

--> Area along Swan Blvd. that recently was cleared; native trees are to be planted.

While Innovation Park eventually will be mostly built out, it also includes 11 acres of protected wildlife habitat popularized as the Monarch Trail. Innovation Park’s accelerator building was where I had met Gary Casper that very morning. We were there for a meeting prompted by a forestry management decision to clear a broad swath of brush and timber along Swan Boulevard. The discussion veered from clear-cutting to integrated management of the County Grounds puzzle.

Up the ladder again, Casper tells us that there are telltale signs of rodent activity on top of the second box. Again there is no nest, only scraps of food and bits of scat on the inside. Our recorder jots notes and we proceed onward.

At the third box we hit pay dirt. Disturbing the nest as little as possible, Casper counted five squirrels curled up in a furry ball. Chewed leaf litter and shredded wood made up the bulk of the nesting materials but something that looked like blue yarn was threaded throughout the mix.

Buoyed by our discovery, we wove through the trees, moving from box to box and repeating the procedure. Though nearly all bore signs of activity, most were vacant. Casper explained that the squirrels typically congregate in winter to benefit from their combined body heat. Come spring they usually spread out and raise their young in separate nests.

In addition to flying squirrels, the UWM study includes bats, dragonflies, various birds, and the animal Casper told me excites him most: a rare species of terrestrial crayfish that depends on scarce ephemeral wetlands. The purpose of the three-year study is to survey and monitor the target species; rank each one’s status as impaired or stable populations; and to recommend restoration projects that would improve habitats where they would be most effective.

Tree clearing took place on DNR propoerty, across Swan Blvd. from Innovation Park
where the Echelon Apartments are under construction.

An integrated, collaborative management plan on the County Grounds could greatly enhance efforts by all parties to ameliorate existing impairments and restore healthy habitats. Neil O’Reilly, an instructor in UWM’s Conservation and Environmental Studies Program, provided a cogent example: a forester concerned with sustainable timber management might choose to keep or cull a very different selection of trees than a wildlife specialist would. Birds, bats, flying squirrels and many other animals often inhabit very particular niches in the fabric of the forest. That these naturally wary animals are easily missed by the untrained eye is made abundantly clear by our foray through the woods.

At box number nine (out of ten) we were again rewarded with an inhabited nest. This time things became far more exciting when the squirrels, which are nocturnal, were startled awake and began to move about. It may have been my fault. Casper had agreed to let me climb the ladder and try to get photographs. I was fumbling with my iPhone, trying to get it to focus on the squirrel heading for the exit hole.

I have to admit I should have anticipated what it did next. They’re called flying squirrels for a reason, after all! But I’d never seen one before. I wasn’t ready when, instead of scurrying up the tree trunk like any other squirrel, it leaped straight out. Spreading wide its fore and hind legs, the membrane of skin connecting them stretched taut and it floated about ten feet to a nearby tree trunk. Those watching on the ground gasped with exclamations of delight.

Trying not to lose my balance on the ladder, I managed to catch a glimpse of about half the enchanting flight. I didn’t even feel the tiny claws poking through the denim of my jeans until someone called out, “There’s one on your leg!” In the commotion surrounding the first squirrel’s flight a second one had slipped out the front of the open nest box and onto my clothes. I quickly closed the box.

I felt little prickles descending my leg. Then it was gone; I didn’t see where. “They’re very tame,” Casper said with a grin as I stepped off the ladder.

The wildlife assessment is in its third and final year. Casper told me that while this species is fairly common statewide, the Wil-O-Way flying squirrels would be classified as an isolated population. This kind of mature upland hardwood forest is very uncommon in an urban setting. He concludes that preserving the Wil-O-Way habitat “may be a locally significant conservation priority.”

One of the squirrels primary predators
I have tramped through Wil-O-Way Woods countless times and over the years I’ve been lucky enough to spot many kinds of wildlife. Deer, of course, but also coyotes, ground hogs, skunks, snakes, hawks, owls and innumerable smaller birds. Squirrels too—they’re so ever-present I scarcely notice them. But I will be eternally grateful to Gary Casper for this marvelous gift: enabling me to see flying squirrels. Due to their nocturnal behavior I’d never have known they were here.

Now I won’t be able to walk through these woods again without remembering the phantom prickling of my skin and feeling the unseen presence of flying squirrels.

A healthy forest would be thinned of invasive species; 
but deadfall would be left to provide wildlife habitat.

To see more of my photos from the Milwaukee County Grounds, go to my Flickr album.