Wednesday, December 22, 2010

New Year resolutions from Urban Wilderness!

2011 New Year's resolutions:

1. go outside more often
2. walk in Milwaukee County Parks
3. work to preserve the Monarch Trail, Milwaukee County Grounds
4. Support the Urban Ecology Center, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the Park People, and the Hank Aaron State Trail
5. Encourage Milwaukee County to increase support for the Parks
6. Encourage State Legislature to enable the establishment of a Regional Parks District
7. Encourage the federal government to strengthen environmental protections
8. Find and visit natural areas wherever I travel
9. Share my experiences with others
10. Keep blogging

My hope for the new year is that you, my friends, will enjoy the natural world all around as I do and help to preserve it for future generations to enjoy. To quote from my book, Urban Wilderness..., "We can't live on Earth as if renting space in nature; we are nature, wherever we live."

The image on my "card" above is of the Rock River near downtown Rockford, Illinois. I awoke before dawn to find the trees encased in a fine crust of crystaline snow. The temp was below zero, steam rose from the river. It was quite magical, as if, instead of bundling up in a sweater, long johns, boots, parka, Russian hat, and scarf, I had lain in bed and dreamt of a fairy tale landscape full of mist and sugary trees. But it was real and I could enjoy it because of its proximity to the city. As soon as the sun rose, the trees began to thaw. Within an hour they were bare again. Hoorah for the urban wilderness!

And thanks to all who have been following my first year as a blogger. Your encouragement keeps me going. I invite you to leave a comment with your own hopes or resolutions for the new year.

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.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

UWM to move forward with County Grounds Purchase

The roofs of the Eschweiler buildings are in serious disrepair.

The saga of the County Grounds continues. Milwaukee County agreed over a year and a half ago to sell 89 acres to the UWM real estate foundation for its Innovation Park and research campus for $13.5 million. I won't repeat the details of the intervening months of setbacks and postponements. Read about it in the article by Tom Daykin in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But, according to the article, UWM is ready to move ahead with a down payment of $5 million.

The story in the paper mentions that the foundation expects to sell the historic Eschweiler buildings to a developer for residential use. This has been the plan since it was presented to the Wauwatosa Common Council for zoning approval last May and therefore isn't anything new. What the story doesn't say is that there is an alternative being promoted by the County Grounds Preservation Coalition, which is a diverse group of environmental and historic preservation organizations (see previous post.) This alternative, which would require either philanthropic donations or a more creative development proposal, is intended to facilitate the preservation of the historic buildings and minimize additional construction around them. The UWM real estate foundation is aware of this alternative and has expressed willingness to work with the Coalition to achieve its goals, which would be a win-win for UWM and the people of Milwaukee County - along with the Monarch butterflies and other wildlife that grace this unique piece of land.

The Eschweiler buildings are in terrible shape and nothing has been done to prevent continued deterioration. Some have accused the county, which still owns the land and buildings, of "demolition by neglect." Whatever is done, measures must be taken quickly to ensure their preservation.

To see more pictures of the buildings, go to my flickr page.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Art and Nature come together in Indianapolis

White River, 100 Acres Art and Nature Park

The other day I was interviewed for 1000 Friends of Wisconsin for a story. One of the questions I was asked was what I thought art can contribute to environmental advocacy. Of course the interviewer knew I had some strong convictions about that topic, since it's one of the things I do with my own art. Well, this isn't an answer to that question, but it relates to the topic of how art and nature can intersect and I hope you find it interesting. I visited Indianapolis last weekend and the art museum there recently opened what they bill as an art and nature park. It's ambition is to be more than a typical sculpture garden. Its unusual mission is to integrate art and nature on 100 acres of urban park land. For the full story - and more pictures - please go to my other blog: ArtsWithoutBorders.

Park of the Laments, by Alfredo Jaar, one of eight current temporary art installations in the park

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A visit to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Indiana

Joe Taft loves his job. It’s a most unusual job: he rescues lions, tigers, and other “wild” cats from neglect, abuse, and destruction – and he provides a home for them for the rest of their lives. I met Joe when I took a tour of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana, which he founded in 1991. A volunteer named Larry was giving my friend Charlie and me our personal tour when Joe came shuffling up the narrow, slushy trail between animal enclosures. He greeted us warmly. Then, with a mischievous grin, he turned towards the nearest cage and pressed his face against it. The 600 pound tiger inside, which had been eyeing us with distrust, sauntered over and returned the gesture, furry cheek to bearded one.

When they were done cuddling, Joe pivoted towards the much larger enclosure on the other side. Four enormous tigers padded restlessly about. They all quickly gathered in front of Joe, pressed together like a living many-headed Hindu deity. Joe murmured “who will give me a kiss?” Then he leaned, spread-eagle, against the fence. We stared in astonishment as one of the four leaped up, mimicking the posture. The man and the beast leaned into one another, nearly embracing in a moment of unforgettably tender intimacy.

Did I say Joe loves his job? What he loves, primarily, are these incredible animals.

Lest my story lead to a false impression, I must quickly add that these are dangerous animals. Although bred in captivity, never allowed to roam freely, they live the paradox: a breathing embodiment of urban wilderness. Not domesticated, not wild: theirs is a purgatory on an earth where our species has decided it can make the rules. But if I put my hand on this fence, I would lose fingers.

In the words of Saint Exupéry, Joe and the tigers have “established ties.”  The fox says to the Little Prince, “To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me you will be unique in all the world.” Since we were visitors like every other untamed visitor, Larry had coached us not to stray near the cages or even reach out towards the big cats. As a demonstration, Raja, one of the biggest tigers, lunged viciously against the thin chain link when Larry stepped close to it. (I wish I could reproduce the loud, alarming sound track that goes with the image below!) “Most of the felines here,” he said, “if they were let out, would rough you up pretty badly before letting you go, they way a house cat might toy with a mouse. Raja would eat you.” The volunteers learn each feline by name and personality. We gave Raja as wide a berth as the narrow lane between enclosures allowed.

Most of the tour was calm, but unnerving roars would break out unpredictably to remind us not to get complacent. We learned many things. Lions can tolerate cold but hate snow while tigers don’t mind getting their paws wet. Servals, small lanky cats with large ears, have superb hearing and are among the best hunters, but are themselves prey to lions and leopards. The rescue center feeds its 225 felines about 3,000 pounds of meat a day. Most of this is freely donated by neighboring farmers, who benefit by not having to pay for the disposal of sick or aging livestock.

The most important lessons gleaned from our visit were the many, often shocking, stories of how these cats came to be rescued. I’d read about the lucrative market for illegal wild animals – and animal parts – but had no idea that so many “wild” animals are bred and raised in the US for that market. Truly wild tigers, for example, number somewhat less than 5,000 worldwide. Larry informed us that there are probably 10,000 tigers in the US alone. Some are bred to turn a profit in the circus and entertainment industries. Profitability, however, is tenuous at best and often short in duration. Many large felines are simply killed or allowed to be “hunted” at point blank range for trophy heads and skins.

But, incredibly, the most common problem is people who think that they can own a tiger or cougar or bobcat as a pet! It is much more prevalent than I would have imagined – if I’d ever imagined owning a wild animal with sharp teeth and claws – and unpredictable temper. Apparently they are easy enough to acquire. An internet connection brings buyer and seller together in the back corner of some Wal-Mart parking lot and for $150 or so a tiger cub becomes a “pet.” That’s cheaper than a lot of dogs! But what happens when the cub becomes an enormous and unmanageable menace? Many are confined in small cages, left to suffer in their own filth, and starve to death. The lucky ones are discovered by inquisitive neighbors who then alert understaffed state agencies and, if there’s room, brought to a place like this Center. Here they can live out their unnatural lives if not in freedom at least in peace. Joe and his intrepid staff of volunteers make sure of that.

“You become responsible forever for what you have tamed.” Saint Exupéry

For much more information, pictures, and personal stories about the animals, go to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center website. And if you’re ever in the vicinity – just east of Terre Haute off I-70 – it’s well worth a visit!