Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011: A year in the Urban Wilderness

Following the time-honored year-end tradition, I offer my personal selections of the best of the Urban Wilderness from the past year. These are the stories of my explorations from month to month. Some are from far-away places, but among my favorites are many from right here in the Milwaukee area, as usual! We have much to be grateful for.

February – Reconsidering Aldo Leopold, from the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Park.

September – Wonderland: Urban parks stimulate more than the imagination, from the Menomonee River.

November – Ecopsychology among the kettles and moraines, near Eagle, WI.

December – Milwaukee’s “Thin Places,” a meditation on the parkway system.

The stories include images, as you have come to expect, and I hope you enjoy them all. It is hard to choose one best, but if I had to today I would pick this one from the KK River. It symbolizes the challenges that exist and the hope that I have for urban wilderness, wherever it is found.

 Thank you for following the Urban Wilderness – I hope to see you out there in 2012. Have a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Season’s Greetings from the Urban Wilderness

Maybe this happened to you, too: Saturday morning, after long anticipation, I was surprised when I woke up to find snow covering the yard and street outside my windows. Suddenly the holiday season felt real. Finally!

I hurried outside, only to find that the “season” was barely an inch deep. It wasn’t enough to visibly affect the “wilderness,” but pent up enthusiasm kept me going, across Hoyt Park and the Menomonee River, into the wide-open spaces of the Milwaukee County Grounds.

 I had an ulterior motive. I’m working on a book of photographs about the fragile beauty that I see on the County Grounds and I’m short on winter scenery. When I got there, though, I found I’d been right: as I topped the detention basin berm I looked out over forty or so acres of very brown cattails. Tiny caps of snow were insufficient to give the marsh a wintry aspect.

Beyond the basin lay the hills of Milwaukee County’s newest (and as yet unnamed) park, also brown in the distance. Only a thin white streak that I recognized as a trail bore any traces of snow. The book would have to wait a little longer. No matter. It was a beautiful day in the urban wilderness and I wasn’t going to waste it.

I was not alone! Both the wide gravel trail that encircles the two basins and the narrower ones threading across the hills are regular routes for dog walkers, but this day they were out in force. The fact that I didn’t have a dog made me a curiosity to many. The people I met would apologize for their dogs, which were either A) ferociously barking at me or B) cheerfully jumping on me with wet paws. Then, when they found out I was a writer, they would tell me about their love and concern for the place.

“Have you seen Charlie the three-legged coyote?” one woman asked me with obvious affection.

While three big Labradors roamed freely through the high grass, a pair of couples shared their fears for the future, when the construction of Innovation Park will obstruct the horizon to the west, as the towers of the Medical Complex already do to the south.

A tall man with a ramrod bearing who wore a camouflage cap and blaze orange vest suggested that the Parks Department establish a bow-hunting season in the new park. “They could sell limited season permits for a TON of money!” he exclaimed. While that wouldn’t make me feel particularly comfortable, I was intrigued that he considered the County Grounds large enough for that. He also expressed uncompromising concern for the welfare of the abundant wildlife on the Grounds.

Back on the basin path a jogger stopped, pulled out her earphones, and asked me what I was taking pictures for. When I said I was making a book, she exclaimed, “I love the County Grounds!” Then she took off again down the path.

As I neared the end of my journey, the bright sun reached its low winter solstice zenith. The meager snow shrank further and the gravel path became muddy. But on Underwood Parkway, near Swan Boulevard, I found the tree.

I’ve never seen who does it, but for several years now someone has decorated one of the parkway evergreens. Last year, as I recall, the ornaments had begun to look faded. But now there were bright new ones shining in the sunlight bringing holiday cheer to the County Grounds.

Though far from natural, there is something about this anonymous gesture that seems more like a gift than an intrusion. Like the wide-open spaces of the County Grounds themselves, which provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle all around. Mayfair Mall is just visible over the tree line to the west, but it seems small and very far away. Out here, where unhampered breezes gently rustle the cattails, I can feel peace on earth and good will to all people.

For another, very different, take on the same hike in the County Grounds go to Arts Without Borders.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Preserve Our Parks opposes power lines in parkway

Please write to the American Transmission Company (ATC) and the Public Service Commission (PSC) and add your voices to keep power lines out of Underwood Parkway. The more letters they receive the more impact they will have. Contact information is at the bottom of this post.

Below is the text of the letter being sent by Preserve Our Parks (POP) to the ATC and the PSC in opposition to siting of the proposed power line. POP's is a principled position that doesn't recommend either of the two proposed routes from the west. Instead it recognizes the public interest in preserving parklands and open green space. (Full disclosure: I'm on the POP board and drafted the letter for the board's approval.)

I have posted two times before on this topic. To read the earlier posts and learn more about the issues, go to my statement or to public hearing. Informative photos accompany those posts, as usual.

The letter:

RE:          Transmission line routes to new County Grounds Substation

Preserve Our Parks, as its name indicates, is an organization dedicated to the preservation of parks and public green spaces. We would like to make known for the record our position on the proposed routes for the transmission lines that are planned for the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa.
·      We oppose routing power lines, whether overhead or underground, in any part of Underwood Parkway. This would effectively eliminate most of Route B from consideration.
·      If Route A is chosen, then the segment that runs along Highway 45 through the County Grounds, should be underground. Alternatively, Route A could be used until it reaches the County Grounds at which point it could switch to the underground segment of Route B.
·      We believe that the principle of preserving the public’s interest in undisturbed parks and green spaces should be a primary consideration over and above the economics of one route versus another.
Our opposition to Route B is consistent with the position of Milwaukee County Parks Department and many other organizations concerned about parks, wildlife habitats, wetlands, open green space, and the recreational use of the Oak Leaf Trail, all of which would be compromised if a power line were sited within the Parkway. Since no other public parkway in Milwaukee County has been transformed into a power corridor, this also would set a precedent that we believe is not in the public interest.

The Parkway should not be chosen simply because it is the cheapest route since it is inherently less expensive to develop in parklands than in places with established development. Although the specifics of the case dealt with road construction instead of power lines, this principle was established in U.S. Supreme Court case law in CITIZENS TO PRESERVE OVERTON PARK v. VOLPE, 401 U.S. 402 (1971).

The decision about which two of four routes to use for these transmission lines assumes the need for additional power in this area, an assumption we do not necessarily share. We urge the Public Service Commission to look closely at this assumption and to examine other options available. These should include ambitious and creative reconsideration of how power is used by the Milwaukee County Medical Complex as well as requiring any new development at Innovation Park, the Research Park, and elsewhere to meet stringent and sustainable limits on energy usage.

Contact info:

ATC will be accepting comments until mid-January.  Email Mary Carpenter:

The PSC is responsible for the final decision. Therefore a letter to them is critical to provide support for the parkway.

PSC: Reference the Western Milwaukee County Electric Reliability Project, Docket #5-CE-139. Email Mr. Ali Wali:

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Menomonee Valley Power Plant public hearing Monday

The following message is from the Cleaner Valley Coalition. The organization's mission statement is below.

EPA Community Meeting Dec. 12th

EPA Community Meeting on Valley Coal Plant Pollution, Health Concerns and Environmental Justice

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency are participating in a Community Meeting and Forum to discuss environmental justice and health concerns, including We Energies’ Valley coal plant, located in the heart of the downtown Milwaukee. Sponsored by Cleaner Valley Coalition, the community has the opportunity to talk about the plant’s pollution and its health impacts, which primarily affect low-income people of color who live in the Menomonee Valley.

EPA representatives include Susan Hedman, Head of EPA Region 5 in Chicago, and Lisa Garcia, Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice, Washington, D.C. There will be an opportunity to provide personal statements to head EPA officials; written testimony accepted too.

The Valley coal plant is one of the dirtiest plants in the state, yet sits in Wisconsin’s most populated city. The community has grown deeply concerned over the increase in cases of asthma and respiratory illnesses in children in Milwaukee, particularly within the African-American, Latino and lower-income communities.

When: Monday, Dec. 12, 6:00 p.m.

Where: Ascension Lutheran Church,1236 S.Layton Blvd. Parking in rear.
What: Community members giving testimony, EPA officials
Contact: Dianne Dagelen,

Cleaner Valley Coalition is a coalition of health advocacy groups, civil rights organization, grassroots organizations and local service providers and individuals concerned about the health of our families. Together, we are working to improve air quality for all Milwaukee residents by cleaning up We Energies’ coal plant in the Menomonee Valley. The window of opportunity to clean up We Energies’ Valley Plant is here. Ultimately, we call on We Energies to be a responsible neighbor and clean up the plant for the health of Milwaukee and our children’s future.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Milwaukee’s Thin Places

On a gloomy, December day, when “the sky won’t snow and the sun won’t shine,” it’s tempting to stay curled up somewhere warm, inside, by a fire. Or to busy myself with the million things I have to do before the holidays. It’s easy to find excuses not to take a walk in the woods when it’s cold, wet, and dreary.

But those are often the days when I need it most, when the ordinary world is wearisome and business becomes busyness. I bundle up and go.

I’m rarely sorry once I get outside and I am immediately glad I made the effort. On the muddy path along the Menomonee River I feel youthful and content, like Christopher Robin, who didn’t mind what kind of weather there was “as long as he was out in it.”

The turgid river, swollen with rain, flows like a living, burgeoning being, like a colossal, dark glistening snake, slithering through the landscape, swallowing whole all it encounters. All along the quickening river, the rain-darkened trees stand, brooding. Behind the trees, a rank of houses obliterates the illusion of wilderness. 

In summer the screen of trees suffices to hide most traces of the city through which our fluid snake writhes. Now, with the onset of winter the curtain is frayed; the fragile thinness of the parkway is revealed. As if in confirmation of this truth, a train suddenly rushes by close behind me with an emphatic roar.

Caught in this thin place between railroad and houses my attention becomes more focused. I begin to feel nature. The rough bark on the great black willow seems to flow down its huge trunk as if in harmony with the river. 

In a world gone mostly gray there remain a few persistent spots of green. Black berries hang in the air, bejeweled by the rain. 

The furry carcass of a raccoon, likewise bejeweled, glitters as if in triumphal declaration of transcendence. 

Intricate patterns of fungi and lichen brighten a decaying log nearby. Wild places, no matter how squeezed by civilization, reveal the natural order; the cycle of life, death, and regeneration is everywhere apparent.

The ancient Celts believed that there were Thin Places in the landscape; spiritual places where the veil between this world and The Other could be perceived by anyone attuned to the ephemeral signs. Some were marked with dolmens, the mysterious standing stones that are among the earliest known structures on earth.

Today, most people live in cities instead of in the countryside and it is easy to feel like we are outside the natural order, even somehow exempt from it. Warm, secure, and insulated from inclement weather, we have developed an unconscious – and false – sense that we are separate from nature. But, fortunately, there are “thin places” in our community – the parks and parkways – where we go to remember our connection to the land, to reinvigorate our relationship with nature, which is never truly broken.

The still green lawn of vacant Hanson golf course runs right down to the riverbank, in dramatic contrast with the brown fringes of taller grass and the few trees that line the two banks. The narrowness of the parkway corridor, so apparent in the starkness of winter, is no accident. The architects of Milwaukee County’s park system, which largely follows its rivers, understood the importance of connectivity as well as the “edge effect” of long, thin natural corridors.

In Greenways for America, author Charles Little observes, “The edge effect is almost magical. For most people, the great utility of preserved open space…is not measured by its area but by its edge: that is, what you see when walking or riding down a street alongside it…. From the edge, a wooded park that might be a mile across looks the same as one that is two hundred feet in width. Clearly, therefore, a long, thin greenway can provide a great deal more apparent open space per acre than a consolidated parcel of land.”

But as I walk in the midst of its somber December beauty, the magic of the long parkway corridor goes much deeper than the prosaic benefits outlined in bureaucratic land-use plans (important though they are!) For me, this truly is a Thin Place, not just a narrow one. I may not perceive the Other World in a supernatural sense, but in the hustle and bustle of urban life, perceiving the natural world can in itself have a similarly transporting, extraordinary effect. 

I feel fortunate to live near “thin places” through which flow the Milwaukee, Menomonee, Kinnickinnic, and Root Rivers – as well as their tributary creeks, so many enshrined in the parkway system.

Walking along the river can reignite the sense of wonder that children instinctively possess but which is all too easy to lose in the busyness of maturity. Pooh says to Christopher Robin, “Sometimes, if you stand on… a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”

I lean over and watch the Menomonee River slip quickly away beneath me.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Urban Wilderness: Staten Island, NY

The photographs throughout this post are from Staten Island’s Greenbelt system of parks and trails. Some of them illustrate passages directly from my story, but others are meant as a complementary photo essay.

Having a few hours before I needed to return my rental car at Newark Airport, I thought I might explore a bit of the Meadowlands, which are nearby. However, the spaghetti of freeways on the map was more than a little intimidating. Trying to navigate them in the car seemed a fool’s errand. I opted for Staten Island.

Although I grew up in New York and have visited “the city” many times since I moved to Wisconsin, I’d never been to Staten Island before. Someone said, “Why go there? It’s just another suburb.” In fact, on a map it looks much more like part of New Jersey than New York.

Why go there? I’d read about Fresh Kills, once the world’s largest landfill. An ambitious project now underway means to transform it into parkland. Its 2,200 acres make it three times larger than Central Park. It sounded like an appropriate urban wilderness adventure to me.

After the twelve-lane expanse of New Jersey Turnpike, the drive across the tunnel-like Goethals Bridge was a white-knuckle adventure in itself. A large steel paneled truck rattled along mere inches away from my side mirror. As we sloped down out of the cattle trough onto Staten Island, the road widened again. Wetlands stretched off on both sides, seasonally sear and brown, but a welcome contrast to the seemingly endless port terminals, refineries, industries, and highways of New Jersey.

Fresh Kills was easy to find. The West Side Expressway slices it like thanksgiving turkey. Barren mounds rise on either side like skinned breasts laid on a platter; man-made mountains that dwarf the houses, hotels, businesses, shopping centers, and power plants around its edges.

Cypress knees
As parkland it seemed completely unsatisfying; a pregnant wasteland that leaves me wondering how a landfill can be called “former,” as if the noxious contents will ever disappear. Maybe it will be more convincing in thirty years, when the “state-of-the-art ecological restoration techniques” have had a chance to mature.

Cypress and goose pond at Willowbrook Park
I circled it, looking fruitlessly for a way in. I didn’t need the numerous “no trespassing” signs to convince me to find a more inviting place for my urban adventure.

Fortunately, Staten Island offers many other opportunities to scratch my itch for exploration.

I chanced upon Willowbrook Park, despite narrow street access and low visibility signage. I found there a lovely pond surrounded by a paved path full of people strolling amid aggressive geese; cypress trees and a slew of their attendant knees along the water’s edge; and a park office with a map of The Greenbelt. Score! That led me to a larger, more alluring natural area.

I parked at the Greenbelt Nature Center, ignored the irony of the bench on its small lawn that bore a plaque reading “THE ADVENTURE BEGINS HERE!” (Am I supposed to sit?), and plunged gratefully into the forest. A more compelling sign on the nature trail proclaimed that this area will remain “forever wild.” I set out hopefully in search of its promise.

The trail, which was wide and clear enough to follow without assistance, was emblazoned with rectangular swatches of colorful paint. Apparently that wasn’t enough for someone; everywhere I went there also were vibrant pink and orange ribbons dangling from branches overhead. As I progressed along several trails with differently hued markers, I came to places where some over-achieving trail manager (or adolescent volunteer?) had spray-painted the ground itself, along with an occasional rock, wooden bench, and even dead leaves. No getting lost in this urban forest!

Photomontage of trail markings

Spray paint aside, the forest was indeed pretty wild. Leafless trees poked up from heaps of logs and downed branches that were shrouded in vines, brambles, and creepers, like thick cobwebs, making the place appear disheveled, faded with neglect, like Miss Havisham’s dining room in Great Expectations.

The trail dropped into hollows, some too muddy to cross, requiring me to backtrack and choose an alternate route – red or yellow this time? It wound around stagnant pools, like dark, cloudy crystal balls, mirroring the broken sky. In one a giant timber dipped into the still water, as if a gargantuan witch had long ago abandoned labors over a murky cauldron.

An unmarked (but easy to follow!) spur trail led to “ruins,” as identified on the trail map. My expectations of discovering a romantically decaying colonial mansion were dashed, though, by what proved to be the remains of a small corner made of rough stone with a set of concrete steps leading up to…a snarl of small trees. A ring of blackened charcoal, along with beer cans in a cave-like basement window well, indicated regular and irreverent visitation.
However, despite all the manifestations of humanity, my hike was quite solitary and peaceful. By the time I returned to my rental car I had spent long enough in the wilds of Staten Island to quiet my restless spirit and to brave a return trip over the Goethals Bridge and the short stretch of turnpike to the airport.

Ribbons hanging from branches to mark the trail.
The Meadowlands, as well as a rehabilitated Fresh Kills, remain on my bucket list for future explorations.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reflections on an dark day

November is a month of gathering darkness. Even on sunny days dusk arrives quickly, prematurely, it always seems to me, like a shroud drawn over a youthful corpse. I cannot help thinking: Too soon! The day dies too early. I am not yet prepared for the dark.

I know I have no reason for despair. I have seen too many winters turn into springs not to be assured of another. And yet. 

I walk a dim forest trail. Even in bright light the somber colors lend the landscape the nostalgic aura of an old sepia toned photograph. Everything seems an intimation of death. The leaves are down, already trampled and brown. The bare branches left overhead are raised as if in supplication.

Decay is everywhere apparent. The soft and crumbling heartwood of a once mighty tree is exposed. Worm trails are etched on trunks stripped of bark. Fungi and other agents of decomposition are lords of the forest.

The stripped landscape reveals nearly as many trees broken, bent, or lying in tangled piles as remain standing. The riparian land along the Menomonee River Parkway seems truly wild. A walk in the forest in November inspires introspection.

All living things return eventually to the earth of their origins. Nothing is wasted. There is no real death, only the ceaseless cycle of regeneration. Nothing that occurs naturally in the environment, that is.

In defiance of the natural order of things, I find indestructible plastics, bottles of every shape and size, snack food packages, cast-away toys, a gigantic tire. What is the death of foliage compared to the undying detritus of our consumer culture where things are designed to be wasted?

Black Friday approaches. In this gathering darkness I search for reassurances that spring will come.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Art and environmental remediation

In 1969 Patricia Johanson, inspired by close observations of the natural world, made simple pencil drawings of animals and plants in sketchbooks and on loose-leaf pages. Copious notes written in casual long hand surrounded the drawings. Johanson had a vision for designing artworks that were not merely representations of nature – what is more common than that? Nor was her idea to reflect on or abstract those sources.

Johanson, in tune with the Zeitgeist that led to the first Earth Day in 1970, wanted nothing less than to heal the earth using art.

She has been doing just that for decades now, often on a monumental scale.

This past Wednesday, the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, WI hosted Johanson for a talk entitled Science, Art, & Infrastructure. The event was sponsored by the Design Coalition Institute in partnership with UW-Marathon, UW-Madison, and UW-Extension.

Beginning with the humble ideas sketched so long ago, Johanson, who subsequently received a degree in architecture, went on to describe several of her major completed projects.

The Dallas Museum of Art is situated picturesquely on Fair Park Lagoon. Water quality in the lagoon, however, had been so badly degraded over the years that it was biologically dead. Johanson’s solution was a sculptural design based on plant forms that simultaneously buttressed eroding banks and created a series of microhabitats. Unlike most public sculpture projects, the obvious concrete structures are only the most visible tip of the iceberg. Native aquatic plants and animals introduced into the newly rehabilitated environment are as important, if not more so.

Not coincidentally, the sculpture doubles as a playground and outdoor classroom for people young and old who visit the newly invigorated site.

archival photo
courtesy Anthracite Heritage Museum

Scranton, Pennsylvania provided Johanson with one of the most daunting challenges: a landscape utterly ravaged by coal mining. She outlined the historical background, which includes human suffering along with environmental devastation. The many levels of now abandoned underground mines have become a defacto reservoir into which all surface waters, former streams, etc. have disappeared.

Her designs are sensitive to this history as well as current conditions, the needs of the local community, and the intention to help ameliorate environmental problems.

This aerial view of the water treatment facility under construction in Petaluma, California gives a sense of the enormous scale of some of her artistic accomplishments.

Aside from sheer wonder, delight, and appreciation for Johanson’s work, there were four main points that struck me:

This is work that requires enormous amounts of research and cooperation for it to be successful. No amount of self-reflection in the studio can produce such far-reaching and practical results.

Johanson reiterated several times the need for community involvement. She was not there, in whatever the location, to impose an aesthetic concept on the land. She listened to the public and the local stakeholders and her designs respect their needs as well as her own creative imagination.

The third point is sadder, I think. Her presentation as well as her work reminded me of Betsy Damon, who had given a talk at UWM a while ago. Afterwards, I asked Johanson about Damon. Unsurprisingly, they are friends. She went on to say that there were only a few like-minded artists doing these kinds of projects that combine imaginative artistic design with actual restoration and bio-remediation – and they are, like her, all getting along in years.

Young artists are not uninterested in the environment, she said, but they tend to want to draw attention to places or frame issues rather than dealing directly with healing the earth.

There were many young people, university students no doubt, in the audience. My hope is that some of them heard her message and found her example inspiring enough to turn that around.

Finally, as I did when I heard Damon speak, I couldn’t help wishing there is a way that one of these artists could be brought to Milwaukee to do their creative and restorative work. The Menomonee Valley would be the perfect location.

Project descriptions and more images can be found on Johanson's website.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ecopsychology among kettles and moraines

Sunday afternoon; fourteen gather in the parking area of the Scuppernong trailhead, Kettle Moraine State Forest, for “A walk in the woods with Philip Chard.” Straight rows of tall pines divide rectangular patches of asphalt cut into the forest. On this preternaturally warm, windy November day the lot is unusually full. Grateful, I leave my jacket in the car.

Philip Chard is a psychotherapist and naturalist – two vocations that merge in the relatively new field of ecopsychology, which unites mental health and spiritual wellbeing with environmental health and ecological principles. Among other things, he leads groups like ours…. 

After a very brief orientation, we head off along the wide, well-groomed Scuppernong Trail. Markers establish a one-way loop for cross-country skiing. Contrarily, we pass the “do not enter” sign.

More straight tree lines make the trail feel like a high corridor – or the nave of a gothic church. Is an architectonic forest 40 miles from Milwaukee more natural than an urban park?

As if reading my mind, Chard urges us to leave the beaten trail now and then – respectfully – in order to enrich our experience. Be mindful, attend to details. Allow yourself to be drawn to nature, to anything that attracts your attention. Among the regular rows of trees, I am attracted to irregularity. A thicket of purple brambles stands out against the gray-brown landscape. I’m not tempted to step off the trail into them.

A hundred years ago, he says, most people worked outdoors; now the reverse is true.

In contrast with clocks, calendars, and the daily grind, nature puts us in touch with “deep time:” geologic time, planetary time, celestial time. We climb a steep ridge – the trail following the line of a moraine – and observe the abrupt drop into a deep kettle, a depression formed 10,000 years ago at the edge of the Wisconsin ice sheet.

Time, like traffic, moves more slowly on a forest path than it does on city streets.

Each kettle we pass was once a mammoth chunk of glacial ice, calved from the receding glacier and then buried in terminal debris.

We go off-trail into a pine grove. A dense evergreen canopy hides the sky. The glen is dark and close. A carpet of needles softens our steps. Involuntarily, we hush, as if entering a chapel. I hear someone sigh with enchantment. Maybe me.

The sky is surprisingly bright when we reemerge onto the trail. The tops of the trees toss in the wind.

“The wind is the breath of the world.” We have reached a peak of sorts; a crest on the moraine with a view towards the setting sun. The flat expanse of Scuppernong Prairie stretches out before us – the largest wet prairie east of the Mississippi River.

Facing into the stiff breeze, Chard spreads his arms wide…: inhales deeply. Exhales deeply.

“Open yourselves to the wind,” he says. “Release your breath into the breath of the earth” for a spiritual cleansing. We inhale. Exhale.

Theodore Roszak coined ecopsychology in 1992. It was dismissed as ‘new age’ fluff at first, says Chard, but has achieved credibility. Although our brains are constantly bombarded with culturally conditioned information, we still think as our prehistoric ancestors did. Civilization and culture are the creations of humanity, but we became human in nature, not in civilization.

On impulse, one of our group climbs the sagging limb of a gnarled oak. “That was on my bucket list,” she says as she slides into upraised hands that gently set her back on the ground.

Nearing solstice, the afternoon darkens early. Clouds scud by on strong winds. Bright sun blinks through broken overcast.

The planet has received its 7 billionth human.

The Western black rhino was declared extinct this week. Other subspecies to follow.

The total number of rhinos left in the wild is smaller than the human population of Waukesha County, in which we are hiking.

“If ever you need strength…,” Chard says; then pauses. Unbidden, like the wind, the thought flies through my mind: who doesn’t? Pointing to the brown oak leaves clinging to twisted branches overhead, he continues more emphatically,  “If you need tenacity just come out here in January. You will find many of them still here, still clinging.”

Trees are more completely evolved than humans, he says: wiser.

Is a chance meeting of friends like the random collisions of subatomic particles? It is a busy day in the forest. We pass many like-minded strangers. But, twice, we greet friends, hiking the same path. Perhaps friendship exerts a gravitational pull that makes encounters more likely. Still…

Life must be full of near misses.

The sun sets in subtle hues through a screen of tree trunks, beyond the far ridgeline. In the gathering twilight, Chard tells us we might have the good fortune to see the gloaming. “OK, I’ll bite,” someone says: “What’s the gloaming?”

The gloaming, he replies, is the moment sometime after dusk when day is indistinguishable from night. “Sounds mystical,” someone whispers. Like a portal between existential realms. The path under our feet is dim and a mist seems to have enveloped the trees all around us. We look up to see a still bright sky through the crevice in the canopy that mirrors the path. Not yet.

A bat rises from the leaf litter at our approach. It is indistinguishable from the leaves, as if a piece of the ground has lifted and fluttered off. The gloaming of the earth.

We still ourselves in the near dark. The susurration of the wind rushing through the treetops sounds like distant surf, like the breathing of the ocean. Here on the ground all is calm, quiet.

In the dark, we hear, your peripheral vision is clearer than your focal point. In my peripheral vision the corridor of the trail contracts, the line of individual trees merges into a wall; the people around me become phantoms. My eye is drawn, moth-like, to the broken hole of the sky, the still-dimming light overhead. Breathing.

In the peaceful, preternaturally warm November evening, we await the gloaming, when we are indistinguishable from the forest.