Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kinnickinnic River views

Last week, during the heat wave, the rivers revealed much that had been buried under ice and snow. Here are a few snaps from the section of the KK that is part of the MMSD flood control project, between 6th Street and 16th Street. (The concrete channel is to be removed and the river reconfigured.)

Santa caught in the stream.

View west from 6th Street, with Santa Claus.

No words needed.

One of the houses on the list for demolition.

The slabs of ice struck me as appropriate metaphors for the slabs of concrete that will soon be removed from the KK channel. (In 2008 the KK was designated one of the ten most endangered rivers in the country. Federal funding for mitigation followed, thankfully!)

For more images of the KK River, go to my flickr page.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Reconsidering Aldo Leopold in the Kettle Moraine

One of my favorite passages from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac is from a story called “Great Possessions:” He says, “…at daybreak I am the sole owner of all the acres I can walk over. It is not only boundaries that disappear, but also the thought of being bounded.” How often in my explorations of the urban wilderness I have tried to make those boundaries disappear! Leopold left his home in Madison and made his way to his hobby farm in rural Sand County in order to get that experience. Now and then I too feel the need to leave the city for more unbounded spaces.

Lynn and I stayed in a delightful B&B in Eagle. It was situated on 20 acres that the owners had put into conservation easement. 20 acres sounded like plenty of room to roam in until I’d spent the 15 minutes it took to reach the neighbor’s boundary. Like Leopold I could have walked right through, but I’d be walking across the lawns and roads of an exurban subdivision instead of farms. I drove off to the state park.

The sky was just beginning to pale as I pulled into the Ice Age Trail lot off Highway 67. I considered skipping the required day pass. At this hour no ranger was likely to come by and I didn’t relish taking off my gloves to fill out the form. Besides, I reasoned with myself, my other car has an annual parks sticker. My arguments didn’t overrule my sense of obligation – or perhaps that nagging fear of getting caught. Some of the boundaries we experience are the ones we carry around inside. I used the stubby pencil provided and stuffed $7 into the too-small envelope – why they don’t have an envelope large enough for the bills they are intended to hold?! And, yes, my fingers ended up feeling like icicles. My toes were already cold, too, from standing there.

Even at this early hour on a Saturday, cars went by now and then. The Ice Age Trail led off parallel to the road. There was another obviously well used but unmarked trail heading off away from the road and toward the Scuppernong River. It was a relatively “blank spot on the map,” to use another Leopold expression, and therefore more appealing.

I needed a brisk walk to get blood flowing to my extremities but numerous footprints had frozen into the packed snow making it both uneven and slippery. I also had to dodge dog turds melting their way towards the ground. The dog walkers turned back at the flooded prairie where the trail became a sheet of ice thin enough to fracture with every step. In places I broke through.

Then a creek crossed the trail. Probably no more than a trickle in summer, it was swollen with snowmelt. I unwisely tried to position myself for a shot of it and ended up with icy water in one of my boots. I briefly considered aborting my hike – I still hadn’t warmed up. But also the sun still hadn’t risen and I had taken only that one unlucky photograph. I plunged through the stream and on down the now less travelled path.

By the time I reached the river I was warm, the sun was just breaking over the ridge to the east, and the prairie grasses lit up like fire. I was able to make a few satisfying photographs, but the greatest reward was more ephemeral. I had gone far enough from the road to hear…nothing. No animals rustling the grass; no birds calling; no wind in the trees. Nothing at all, except the ringing in my ears – perhaps the accumulated residue from the urban cacophony I had left behind.

After a while a small plane interrupted the peaceful silence. Its distant transect of the sky reminded me of the one mosquito that gets inside a tent, small but impossible to ignore, knowing what it will do as soon as I fall asleep. I was reminded not to be asleep to my own impact upon the earth. 

The plane was followed by a long line of geese, honking with undecipherable urgency. In “March” Leopold writes, “One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of a March thaw, is spring.” Although we had a thaw last week, it is February yet and I didn’t need this week’s snow to remind me it is not spring. Those geese, contrary to instinct, likely have grown accustomed to surviving through the winter in Wisconsin, surviving off the detritus – or voluntary largesse – of a society that likewise finds itself untethered to the seasons.

I walked back, warmed and thoughtful, observing patterns and discovering curiosities encased in the ice that I’d rushed across before. Where I’d broken through a new sheet of ice had already healed over the wound. It broke more easily in its weakened state. For three hours I had walked over many acres, across the unbounded spaces of the park, and was thankful for the opportunity. Like Leopold I consider land stewardship a moral imperative. In a time of ever dwindling natural areas, it is also that much more important for economic sustainability as well as psychological health. But the ice has gotten very thin. We must tread more lightly than ever.

To see more images from my excursion in the Kettle Moraine, go to my flickr page.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Preposterous Ecological Art?

The concept of Ecological Art means something different than the more inclusive term Environmental Art. The latter is most famously embodied by the "Earthworks" of the latter third of the Twentieth Century. Artists such as Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer created sculptures that went beyond "site specific" to incorporate the land itself into the work of art, often with little regard to the destructive nature of the work. As the movement evolved artists like Andy Goldsworthy became more sensitive to the impact their work had on the land and attempted to leave the environment unharmed.

Ecological Art is generally understood to go even further. There generally are two ways this is done. Some Eco-Artists use art to repair or restore damaged environments, as exemplified by Betsy Damon, who recently gave a talk at UWM about her remarkable work with Keepers of the Waters. Others create work that draws attention to ecological principles or deals with issues related to environmental relationships, sustainability, and the like without affecting them directly. A talk entitled "Preposterous Propositions" at MIAD last night by Linda Weintraub emphasized this last type of approach.
Read my full (and skeptical) review at my other blog: Arts Without Borders.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Gov. Walker: don’t cut Knowles-Nelson Stewardship funds!

Open letter to Governor Walker and the Wisconsin state legislature:

I am writing to urge you not to eliminate funding for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program – not this year, not any year.

There are few state programs with the overwhelming bipartisan support that the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program enjoys. The reasons for this are clear: the program preserves our environment, creates and protects jobs, and provides opportunities for recreation.  That’s win-win-win. The public knows it and most politicians have agreed up to now.

Since 1990 this program has protected over 600,000 acres natural land and wildlife habitat. Wisconsin has a well-deserved reputation, not only for its natural landscapes, but also for its advocacy for ecological sustainability. Has Wisconsin saved enough of its natural environment that it can rest on its laurels? No. Stewardship means managing and caring for. Stewardship of natural lands and resources is a never completed process and funding for it must be maintained.

Yes, the state faces a severe budget crisis. Hard choices must be made – some already have been made that are unpopular. But the natural environment sustains all else – life itself as well as all economic activities – and must not be sacrificed. Maintaining a healthy environment isn’t an expense, it’s an investment that generates returns that are both measurable and priceless.

Please contact the governor and your state legislators. Contact info below.

For more information about the governor's position, click here.
Gathering Waters Conservancy posts regular updates on this issue. Click here to go to their website.

Governor Walker's office contact info:
Office of Governor Scott Walker
115 East Capitol
Madison, WI 53702
Phone(608) 266-1212
To find out who your state legislators are, go to

Friday, February 4, 2011

A River Doesn’t Run Through It

 After two days in Albuquerque, where I enjoyed the urban wilderness along the Rio Grande (see previous post), I eagerly went north to Santa Fe. Although the Santa Fe brand has become a sort of theme park – I don’t know of another city outside of Orlando that has codified and enforced such strict building codes to achieve total aesthetic harmony – it’s still enchanting and full of great art. I enjoyed all that but also wanted to explore the Santa Fe River and discover the state of urban wilderness there. The only part of the river I’d seen on prior trips was where it trickles at the bottom of a narrow, walled trench near the historic downtown Plaza.

I began my exploration upstream, east of the city center, where the map in my guidebook showed a welcoming, large patch of green nestled against the rising mountain slopes. The sign over the entrance to the parking lot identified it as the Santa Fe Canyon Preserve. The map on a pedestal at the trail head, however, revealed a crazy quilt patchwork of connected parklands administered by five different private and public entities: city, county, federal, Nature Conservancy, and Audubon Society. Can one hope that there is unified approach to habitat protection and not turf wars between agencies? I don’t know, but, sadly, I could clearly see construction going on in a donut hole in the midst of all the protected land.

The trail led me along a small pond and wetland backed up behind the low straight line of a manmade dam. This was notable because it wasn’t long before I came to a much more natural looking stick-built dam, curving in irregular arcs, obviously made by beavers. The edges of the wetland were a devastation of gnawed stumps. Slipping on the ice could’ve been very painful! While quietly maneuvering to set up my tripod for a photo I heard the scraping sound of teeth gouging into wood but I never caught a glimpse of a beaver.

As I continued along the trail I discovered a whole series of beaver dams, one after another in quick succession. There was obviously an active family of beavers at work, following instincts that closely parallel our own desire to control our physical environment. I hiked a loop trail around the wetland, wishing I had time to explore farther up towards the headwaters of the river but glad to have seen evidence of wildlife.

Next I went downstream from the Plaza. I was sorry to see that, unlike in Albuquerque, there was no long riparian parkland indicated on the map. I was even more disappointed when I reached it to find that there was no water in the river; not even a trickle. I hopped down into the sandy riverbed and walked in the direction that should have been upstream, had there been a stream. The river was intermittently walled with a variety of materials to protect the private property that backed up to it. Some wall sections had caved in and serious erosion in other places showed that there was good reason to fear the force of water, when it rains hard enough to fill the arroyo. Footprints showed that others had used the riverbed as a place to walk. Debris showed that some had used it as a dump.

I walked quite a ways but little changed and I never found where the water disappeared.

In Wilderness Reader Edward Abbey said “…There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock. …There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” I like Santa Fe for many reasons, but who can find peace sitting by the river when it is drained of its water? The bigger problem, I think, is how so many people can live out their busy lives not noticing that it’s gone. This problem is far from unique to Santa Fe or the desert southwest.

As I walked back “downstream” my feet sank in the loose, dry sand.

To see additional photos of New Mexico, go to my flickr page.
This is the second installment in a series about New Mexico. To read the first, about Albuquerque, click here.