Saturday, December 18, 2010

Should Germantown log its Wilderness Park?

OK, the irony should be self-evident: why would you name a park “wilderness” if you plan to cut down its trees? Apparently Germantown is considering just that with its park, aka the Germantown Swamp. Read more at Milwaukee Riverkeeper. That the village decided to name it “Wilderness Park” was one of the significant features that attracted me to it when I was out exploring for my book Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, which was published in 2008. I wrote several stories related to the Wilderness Park and I thought I’d do something unusual for this blog and share an excerpt from the book, below.

I hope you’ll let Germantown know that a swamp is a particularly sensitive ecological system, easily damaged. This one is also designated as a natural area of statewide significance: not a good place to cut timber. The value of lumber pales against the value of such an important, undisturbed ecosystem.

Contact information and other suggestions are provided on the Milwaukee Riverkeeper website.

View of Menomonee River looking towards the Germantown Swamp
from Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed

Wilderness Park, an excerpt from Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed

Acquiescent for a change, the swamp allows me to enter. Summer makes this quite impossible. Then the swamp sucks at my feet and throws up vast clouds of mosquitoes.  But it is autumn now, which brings a comparative calm. The soil is dry; the insects dormant. Brittle leaves, brown and drab, crunch loosely underfoot. An unusually great variety of native trees—silver maple, green ash, basswood, even the beleaguered American elm—crowd together, young and old. In places I must weave in between and around them, as if each were pressing closer for an individual introduction. A squadron of alarmed mourning doves scrambles in abrupt and clamorous unison. The gray wood is suddenly a blur of gray wings as if the trees themselves had erupted and taken flight. In a moment the commotion dies. The trees revert to stiffness.
At eye level a series of spray-painted red spots recedes into the depths of the swamp. Brash scarlet breaks down with distance into burgundy, then a charcoal brown so dark and gray that it seems almost natural. On an overcast day, or at dusk, without the sun as a guide, the featureless uniformity of this swampy forest would present a formidable challenge even to the well-oriented. So it is no surprise that a hunter, hoping to make it home by suppertime, would need this rudimentary trail. 
There are also less subtle paths. A cleared, grassy strip about six feet wide curves in broad arcs through the heart of the swamp. Because the ground is impassably saturated for much of the year, it is most likely for a snowmobile; a secret, private run carved into the wilderness. For, despite the intrusions, this is as close to true wilderness as can be found in the Menomonee River watershed. Officially designated a "natural area of statewide significance," this ecologically precious—and partially protected—wetland is completely surrounded by farms and private land. Currently there is no public access. A "wilderness park" is such a rarity this close to an urban center the size of Milwaukee that it is a treasure nearly beyond comprehension. We are acculturated to seeing the land in polarities, as either "mine" or "theirs," private and forbidden or public and accessible; natural or unnatural. But N. Katherine Hayles points out the paradox of wilderness anywhere in the United States as being "managed land, protected by three-hundred page manuals specifying what can and cannot be done on it." Wilderness is both natural and unnatural, owned and un-ownable. Any plans to provide public access would add to the unfortunate irony, for doing so would unwittingly diminish the very qualities that led officials to name it a "Wilderness Park."
In order to accept the wilderness let us give up all notion of possession and instead allow ourselves to be possessed of its spirit. In the few places where it is still possible, let us relinquish the land to wildlife, for the fox and the owl, and the box turtle and the red-eyed vireo, and the yellow birch and white cedar are its inheritors. Then we will know that we are the beneficiaries of their inheritance, for in granting it we remain free.

To read additional excerpts or to learn more about Urban Wilderness, go to my website.

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