Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Are you ready for Aldo Leopold Weekend?

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.

Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free. For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.”

The world has changed since Aldo Leopold wrote these opening lines to “A Sand County Almanac,” which was first published in 1949. Leopold would likely be saddened to see how many more of the wild places he so cherished have been diminished or have disappeared altogether. On the other hand, one can hope that he would be heartened by the tremendous increase in public awareness about the importance of ecology and concern for the natural world, and by ever more urgent efforts to preserve remaining wild lands all over the world.

Aldo Leopold himself, of course, was instrumental in sparking this increase in awareness and concern. For this reason the first weekend in March was officially designated in 2004 as “Aldo Leopold Weekend” here in his home state of Wisconsin.

Leopold spent most of his career in Wisconsin as a writer, forester, scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. In 1935, he bought a farm along the Wisconsin River near Baraboo. The farmland had been exhausted. He and his family set about restoring the land to a more native state, planting thousands of pine trees and reestablishing prairies.

That personal experience with ecological restoration and his meticulous documentation of consequent changes in the flora and fauna on the farm both inspired and informed his writings.

I recently pulled from my shelf a well-worn paperback copy of “A Sand County Almanac,” with its split binding, yellowed pages, and numerous underlined passages. The slim volume didn’t take long to reread. The familiarity of the stories didn’t diminish my delight in the quality of the prose and his ideas are if anything more important today than ever.

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

The implications of that simple observation are as topical as the controversy over routing power lines through Milwaukee County Parkways or the dramatic increase in gas prices over the past two weeks.

Leopold’s most important contribution, arguably, is the idea that we need a “land ethic.” His brief “Almanac” is followed by a series of essays. It is in the concluding essay that Leopold makes his boldest statement and issues his most stirring call to action.

In general terms, ethics refers here to the unwritten rules and mores by which people live in community with one another. Leopold’s inspired notion is to expand our idea of community to include not just people but the natural world: plants, animals, the soil, water. Collectively, he called this “the land." Scientifically it is the biotic community.

The land ethic can be summed up, in Leopold’s words, as follows: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Even in places less well endowed with parks and rivers as Milwaukee County people need to be mindful of nature, of not dirtying the environment that sustains us. If that sounds obvious, perhaps it’s a good reason to celebrate Aldo Leopold Weekend – in remembrance of his influence on our culture.

You might ask, “How can I celebrate Aldo Leopold Weekend?” Well, I’m glad you asked. Here are a few suggestions:

1. You know what I like to do: go outside and enjoy the urban wilderness! Find a local park with natural areas and explore.

2. Visit the library, borrow a copy of “A Sand County Almanac” and read it with pleasure – or buy one that you can read over and over, as I have.

3. Go to the North Shore Library in Glendale at 1:30 pm on Saturday, March 3 to see “Green Fire.” A feature-length documentary about Aldo Leopold, “Green Fire” highlights his extraordinary career and his influence on the modern environmental movement.

4. Don’t forget to check out the Aldo Leopold Foundation website, which has a wealth of information about Leopold and the special weekend ahead. There’s even a Facebook photo contest.

If you’re more ambitious you can plan a trip to visit Leopold’s farm, which is managed by the foundation.

A note on the images that accompany this post: I shot them all last Friday morning right after the big, heavy snowfall. It may not be immediately clear how they represent Leopold’s vision of a healthy biotic community for I’ve deliberately chosen to find the ambiguity, if not the paradox, of urban nature.

But we need even these fragments to connect us to the larger land community. In his essay on the land ethic Leopold himself observed, "The weeds in a city lot convey the same lessons as the redwoods."

For a more typical selection of urban wilderness photos, also from Friday morning, scroll down to my previous post. I am, after all, one of those who cannot live without wild things.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Milwaukee River Greenway in White!

Wasn't it beautiful on Friday! Thick snow like frosting on everything. I managed to get out in it and take a few pictures along the Milwaukee River between Caesar's Pool and the Locust Street Bridge. Here is a selection.

View of the icy river from the pedestrian bridge at Caesar's Pool.

Approaching the North Avenue Bridge along the east bank.

A makeshift shelter next to the North Avenue Bridge.

The downtown skyline obscured by the Urban Wilderness. View from the North Avenue Bridge.

Wisconsin Paperboard stack rises above the East Bank Trail.

View of an even more distant downtown from the Locust Street Bridge. It was a good day in the Urban Wilderness!

Additional photos can be seen on my flickr page.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ronald McDonald House plans expansion

Are we still talking about more development on the County Grounds – and consequent loss of potential parkland? Where will the line be drawn?

If you haven’t been to Ronald McDonald House it’s probably because you haven’t needed its services. Officially called Ronald McDonald House Charities of Eastern Wisconsin, Inc., the organization provides a place to stay as well as outreach programs for families of children who are patients in Children’s Hospital. Perched on a lovely hilltop across Watertown Plank Road from the hospital and surrounded by acres of meadow and woodlands, it is ideally situated for its mission.

Now, due to the success of its worthy cause, the organization wants to nearly triple the size of its facility and is ready to pursue that plan.

The bucolic setting is hardly a coincidence and provides much more than proximity to the hospital. Natural surroundings are often preferred by hospitals, hospices, and convalescent homes because they promote healing and provide a welcome respite to patients and visitors alike.

In fact, if you walk through the woods and down into the ravine behind Ronald McDonald House you will find the remains of stone stairways, overgrown sidewalks, and a crumbling foundation or two. Some of the county’s most needy patients once strolled these pathways behind the County Asylum. The entire Medical Complex owes its very existence to the exurban terrain that Milwaukee County began purchasing for it in 1852.

Ronald McDonald House is truly privileged to be surrounded by such beauty on the County Grounds. What a perfect match between such undeniably important humanitarian services and nature!

What will happen to this symbiotic relationship when—once again—the County Grounds are faced with further development pressures?

As I write this, still ringing in my ears are the words of the Wauwatosa mayoral candidates who spoke Monday evening at a forum sponsored by Patch. All three insisted that no more of the County Grounds should be developed. Alderman Donegan said, “I don’t think the people of Wauwatosa will tolerate further development of the County Grounds.” John Pokrandt was even more categorical. “The remainder of the land absolutely must be protected,” he said.

I understand his passion. I share it.

Monday afternoon, the same day as the forum, representatives of Ronald McDonald House met with members of the County Board and County Executive’s office to present their request for an expansion. Their existing facility rests on four acres and they are requesting an additional seven acres stretching out towards the meadow and the wood.

They can do this because throughout the more than 10 years of controversy about saving open green space approximately 30 acres on the southeast corner of the County Grounds has never been part of the discussion. It is still zoned by the City of Wauwatosa for economic development.

The staff and the board of Ronald McDonald House are sensitive to their situation. Last week I met with Linda Kohler, President of RMH, Bob Monday, Chair of the Board, and Ann Phillips, Head Gardener. Because they understand the value that the citizens of Milwaukee County place on this land they also care about how the community will react to their request.

They plan to meet with environmental organizations and other concerned citizens to discuss how best to satisfy everyone’s concerns.

County Executive Abele’s office is expected to introduce to the County Board a resolution to proceed with negotiations soon. The public will have an opportunity to testify at a meeting of the Economic and Community Development Committee on March 5, 2012. The meeting will be in room 201B, County Courthouse, at 9 am (this is subject to change.)

Open space advocates—and mayoral candidates—may reasonably shudder at the prospect of yet another compromise and loss of open land on the County Grounds. But County Supervisor Lynn DeBruin says, “It seems like a win-win can be reached.”

I agree. If the expansion plans are shifted to concentrate development only along Watertown Plank Road and if—this is the crucial point—the northern portion of the site is truly protected from further development with conservancy zoning, then it will be a win-win-win, as I see it.

Ronald McDonald House will be able to expand to meet its needs. The general public, including the literally hundreds of dog-walkers who regularly enjoy this site, will retain one of the jewels of the County Grounds in perpetuity.

The third win? Children’s Hospital, along with the entire Medical Complex, will benefit not only from the expansion of services at Ronald McDonald House, but also from that symbiotic relationship with nature that is so restorative.

It could seem as though the cards are stacked against conservation, since the current zoning envisioned development for medical use. However, a lot has occurred on the County Grounds since that parcel was zoned. The Medical Complex has continued to grow, choosing increased density instead of sprawl that would encroach on the valuable amenity across the way.

The public has spoken out repeatedly on the need for preservation—and along the way has learned to love the land by getting out and walking on it.

Wauwatosa has debated the types and scope of development on the Innovation Park site and the city already has rezoned parts of the grounds, including what is now Milwaukee County’s newest park.

The mayoral candidates are only the latest in a series of civic leaders who have come to recognize the importance of our parks and open space to sustainability and the quality of life in our community.

The time is right for rezoning this last piece of the County Grounds puzzle. What we have here really is akin to New York City’s Central Park. It’s value as parkland far exceeds any other use to which it may be put. And this 20-acre corner truly is one of the most significant natural gems on the entire grounds. 

I recommend that you visit Ronald McDonald House and ask for a tour. Its magnificent great room is the hub of a network of excellent programs. The need for more space will quickly become apparent. When you finish that tour, take a walk out back. Stroll beneath the grand old oaks and maples. Listen for the owls; watch for the hawks. Discover for yourself the reminders of its storied past.

What a perfect match! Let’s pursue the win-win-win solution and complete the puzzle that will make the County Grounds a matchless asset to the region – as parkland.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Owl vs. Falcon

Photos by Rick Remington

A story about a snowy owl attacked by a peregrine falcon in Chicago was posted in North American Birding by Greg Neise. This is a great read and a wonderful set of pictures. Check it out.

Although I haven't seen it myself, Milwaukee Riverkeeper's Cheryl Nenn tells me that we have a snowy owl on our own lakefront in Milwaukee.

Among the many great shots by Remington, my favorite is this one of the owl doing a backflip to defend itself from the falcon.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why we love zoos

"Why we love zoos" appeared as an opinion piece in last Sunday's NY Times. Read it here.

Personally, I nearly always feel conflicted when I visit the zoo. I often do enjoy going to a good zoo, like ours here in Milwaukee County, but I never escape without feeling some guilt at the conditions under which zoos keep "wild" animals. Worse, I've been to a number of really bad zoos at one time or another.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What’s remarkable about Milwaukee?

Monday evening the preservation group Historic Milwaukee Inc. held an annual event called “Remarkable Milwaukee.” The main purpose was to honor a Milwaukee organization, business, or corporation that “exemplifies Milwaukee’s spirit, has a strong history in our community, and has made important contributions to our city’s heritage.” This year the honoree was the Pabst Theater Foundation, along with its director and founder. Congratulations! Well deserved.

The Pabst Theater set the scene for the evening with an onstage “experiment in civic dialogue” in the form of a “conversation” called “Envisioning the Seen.” A panel of community leaders shared their ideas about what is good about the city and what could make it better. I noticed, however, that what the panelists envisioned for Milwaukee seemed almost entirely focused on its downtown. Was this emphasis by design or simply inherent to the mission of Historic Milwaukee? I don’t know but as the conversation progressed I found myself envisioning with a larger perspective.

One of the themes of the conversation was connectivity and I think it could have been emphasized more. The panel seemed largely unified in its vision of Milwaukee, but a second, and I suggest related, theme that emerged from the small degree of discord was inclusivity. I’ll come back to these themes.

The conversation began dynamically with statements that championed downtown Milwaukee – in contrast to the suburbs, which were painted with a broad negative brush. How unfortunate to hear again the divisiveness that has characterized our larger community for so long and that easily could have turned off someone like me, who came in from a suburb to participate. But I was glad I stuck it out. A shift in tone was exemplified by restaurateur Joe Bartolotta who encouraged everyone to “put a positive spin” on our community.

Jill Morin, an author, consultant, and activist, went further, insisting, “We are our own worst enemy.” We know this a great community. People who come here tend to stay. But we’re not yet good at attracting people in the first place, she said.

Former Mayor John Norquist expressed a particularly telling insight: “The parts are greater than the whole.” Though referring to Wisconsin Avenue, he could have been describing the whole fragmented region.

It was Reginald Baylor, the sole African-American on the panel, who urged inclusivity. That concept, I’d like to add, extends in many directions and is central to any vibrant community. I would argue that inclusivity means reaching out to the much-disparaged suburbs as well as to traditionally disenfranchised groups within Milwaukee. All of the parts need to be considered – and invited to the table – before the whole of the Milwaukee region becomes greater than the sum of our parts.

After all, quipped Norquist, “if it weren’t for Milwaukee, Wisconsin would be Iowa.”

Where inclusivity is crucial connectivity follows closely behind. Historian John Gurda’s attempt to steer the conversation in this direction resulted only in a brief, heady consensus (amongst panelists and audience alike) that effective mass transit is sorely needed. Amen – and good luck!

One vital form of connectivity that should not be overlooked is Milwaukee’s magnificent park system. To be truly inclusive, in addition to wrapping an arm around the suburbs instead of keeping them at bay, we need to acknowledge the incredible wealth of nature that we have in our midst. There was a lot of talk about the Grand Avenue Mall, infrastructure like roads and bridges, the resurgence of downtown, and arts organizations – all concerns that I applaud. But there wasn’t a single mention of the lakefront, Milwaukee’s premier public space.

Of course these observations do not diminish the Remarkable Milwaukee ideas discussed by the panel and the good work being done by Historic Milwaukee, which I support. Closest to my own perspective was Sarah Daleiden, who suggested that we need “new ways of walking in the city” and cited the Beerline Trail – which connects the burgeoning residential developments along Commerce Street with the remarkable Milwaukee River Greenway – as one opportunity to “get off the grid.”

Milwaukee River Greenway
As a booster of our metropolitan area’s virtues, I won’t take a back seat to anyone. I love what’s happening downtown, and I love the arts. But along with all that, I envision a day when we can’t have a discussion about Milwaukee’s future without mentioning its parks, open spaces, and natural areas. This is truly one of the most remarkable urban areas in the country. If we believed in ourselves we could become as well known for our natural environment as for “the Calatrava” or any other part. I believe we could compete for attention with cities like Portland, OR.

The panelists were asked, what one thing would you recommend be done to improve the city? Real estate attorney Bruce Block replied, create “more and greater public spaces.” Yes! We have one of the largest and best (and most remarkable) in my neighborhood of Wauwatosa: the Milwaukee County Grounds.

Inclusivity means bringing together all of the parts. Let’s celebrate the Pabst, the Art Museum, the marsupial bridge, and all of our excellent and catalytic structures. But wait! There’s more. Among the best things about a vibrant city are places where there are no buildings.

Architect Grace La asserted, “Healthy cities are measured by beauty.” I couldn’t agree more.

Milwaukee County Grounds