“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn't. And contrary-wise; what it is it wouldn't be, and what it wouldn't be, it would. You see?” –Alice in Wonderland
Believing in an urban wilderness makes about as much sense to most people as the wonderland Alice discovers when she throws caution to the wind and follows the white rabbit down the rabbit hole. However, I am a great believer in that paradoxical experience. We in Milwaukee County are fortunate. The county’s Parkway system provides many marvelous examples of urban wilderness, something that is what it isn’t.
Many stretches of the Menomonee River Parkway near where I live are heavily wooded and lovely to walk through. There is one place, though, that I find almost magical. Every time I go there I feel as though I’ve fallen into something like Alice’s rabbit hole, where what you wouldn’t expect to see, you see.
I leave my car at the end of the parkway drive. The paved off-road Oak Leaf Trail bike path runs north from there, but I am averse to pavement. I head due west, across a short bit of lawn, onto a well-trodden path that leads into what appears to be solid forest. Hardly a secret, dog-walkers and mountain bikers use this entrance to follow the trail, which cuts immediately south along the riverbank where the riparian woodland provides shade.
But I go straight through what is actually a narrow screen of trees at this point. Here is my rabbit hole. I emerge into dazzling sunlight and waist-high grass. Before I can even focus my eyes on it (let along my camera!) a great blue heron lifts off from the nearby limb of a long-dead tree and disappears across the river. The whisper of its large, lanky form skating over the forest canopy kindles my imagination, evokes something primeval. I behold a natural wonderland that envelops my senses.
For perhaps a dozen feet other curious explorers have trampled the grass. But clearly most of them have been stymied, for the trail ends abruptly at the steeply eroded riverbank. A much fainter path leads off into the marsh northwards. I often come prepared with boots, knowing that I may need them to go farther. Today the near drought conditions enable me to proceed in street shoes.
The marsh glows in the late afternoon sun. There is no other person about. It seems impossible. I am in the most densely populated metropolitan area in Wisconsin and my solitude is immense, the wildness is palpable. The scree of a hawk punctuates the feeling.
The wilderness deepens further as I cross the marsh and enter a woodland swamp. Giant black willows lie broken on the forest floor in various states of decomposition. Moss, fungi, and the new sprouts of resurgent willow rise from the decaying mass.
A trio of deer startle at my approach, then bound off in alarm at my intrusion into what is obviously their domain. From the edge of a pond two more herons arise, like wraiths, in silence. My spirit calms. The daily tensions of civilization disappear like deer in the dusky forest, like herons in the sultry blue sky.
That I don’t find conversational caterpillars or animated playing cards doesn’t make this place less wondrous to me.
Alice says, “If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense.” Well, I have a world of my own – we all do. Sense or nonsense, our world never will be more or less than what we imagine it to be. Cities can be the repositories of wilderness, providing opportunities for salvific engagement with nature, wildlife, and open space.
“Alice laughed. ‘There's no use trying,’ she said: ‘one can't believe impossible things.’
‘I daresay you haven't had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’” –Through the Looking Glass