Monday, July 23, 2012

Milwaukee County Grounds: Island of Hope

Imagine parkland large enough to lose yourself in; a park with diverse topography, plants and animals; imagine a variety of public and private interests who collaborate on park stewardship. Now imagine that this park is in the middle of the most densely populated region in Wisconsin. Welcome to the Milwaukee County Grounds. 

My newest book, called The Milwaukee County Grounds: Island of Hope, explores the grounds and highlights ongoing issues in an effort to preserve and enhance this remarkable place. The book features a Foreword by Nancy Aten, award-winning principle of Landscapes of Place, LLC., as well as my photographs. It celebrates the land in all of its diversity and provides a vision for its future. 

The Milwaukee County Grounds: Island of Hope is meant to inspire appreciation for the importance of the grounds and to raise awareness about issues of preservation, ecological integrity, and biodiversity. Intact, this natural corridor will be an amenity and irreplaceable asset for nearby businesses, the adjacent Regional Medical Complex, and whole community. The County Grounds is a place of natural beauty that facilitates emotional, physical, and spiritual health and well-being. 

During the late twentieth century city and suburban residents alike became increasingly disconnected from the natural world. However, since the turn of the century there has been a resurgence of interest in urban parks and natural areas. Residents and city planners all over the country have turned vacant land and blighted brownfields into vibrant parklands.

Cities vie for the titles of livability and sustainability. The County Grounds is finally being recognized as this kind of irreplaceable asset. It is a uniquely accessible landscape endowed with remarkable biodiversity as well as the marvelous annual migration of butterflies.

Tune in to Lake Effect on WUWM 89.7 on Wednesday, July 25 at 10:00 a.m. I gave Susan Bence a tour of the County Grounds recently and she interviewed me while we walked around. Update: if you missed the broadcast, you can download the podcast and listen to the interview by clicking here.

The timing of the Lake Effect interview is intended to promote more than the book. There is a public forum also on July 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Wauwatosa Civic Center. The topic is whether or not the historic Eschweiler buildings on the County Grounds should be preserved or torn down. I hope you’ll join me there. For more information about the forum go to Wauwatosa Patch

The Milwaukee County Grounds: Island of Hope can be previewed in its entirety – or purchased – at A selection of the photos from the book may be viewed on my website.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Ronald McDonald house given OK to expand

As reported in an article in yesterday's Journal Sentinel, the Milwaukee County Board's Committee on Economic and Community Development unanimously approved the sale of 3.5 acres of County Ground land to Ronald McDonald House for their planned expansion.

This is considerably less than the 11 acres Ronald McDonald House originally sought.

The more important question of the disposition of the rest of the 30 acre parcel surrounding Ronald McDonald House, which includes some of the most beautiful natural features on the County Grounds, is not addressed in the article. That parcel is still zoned for economic development. My earlier post provides details of the issues involved and a proposal for adding the land to the County Grounds Park for the benefit of all.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Urban Wilderness story at

A couple weeks ago, out of the blue, I got a call from Will Doig at Will writes a blog called Dream City for My recent post about Cambridge Woods caught his search engine's eye. He wrote a very good story about urban parks and natural areas. It's called Is that a Forest Downtown?

Is that a forest downtown?
courtesy Wheelock
It's gratifying to see my own name, and a quote or two, in the article. But it means more to me that there is a growing awareness of the importance of urban wild places. Will says that there is "a renewed appreciation for wild space in cities — not just “green space,” but actual swamps, forests, wetlands and streams." Yes! 

Will quotes Ken Leinbach, director of the Urban Ecology Center, too. It's nice to be in such good company!

I've long contended that Milwaukee is overdue for the kind of attention that Portland, OR regularly receives for the quality of its urban green spaces. So, check it out: Is that a Forest Downtown?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

How do birds fly through foliage?

There is a hedge next to my backyard patio. I have often sat on the patio and marveled as the finches, sparrows, and other birds flit in and out of it, despite what seems to me to be an impenetrable thicket of branches and foliage. How is this possible?

Well, my friend Nancy must have been reading my thoughts yesterday as once again I saw this happening. She sent me this link, which uses slow motion to clearly show how a goshawk, a much larger bird than the ones around my house, flies through very narrow openings.

Northern Goshawk - image courtesy

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Phoenix: it’s a desert out here!

Although I feel as though I have escaped the city for a moment, I am in fact still in Phoenix when attacked by a baby bird no longer than my finger.

I was sauntering down a rock-strewn slope towards South Mountain Park. A larger bird that I took to be its mother darted out from under the low bush where they both had been hiding. Her attempt to draw me away from the nest would’ve succeeded had she also taught the fledgling to hold still. But, squawking a tiny cry, it bolted in another direction.

Lucky for them I am not a coyote. The desert is an uncompromising place.

My eye follows the mother bird, as intended, but I glimpse the fledgling with peripheral vision. When I look back, I discover an apparently lifeless body, one wing outstretched, motionless, as it should have remained from the start. Its ruddy coloration and coarse texture resemble exactly the stones all around my feet. A marvel of adaptive camouflage. I might have stepped on it completely unaware of its all too fragile existence.

I approach, ever so cautiously. Without warning I cross an unseen border, the limit of little creature’s restraint. It leaps up. But instead of running away, it raises its partially fledged wings and lunges towards me, mouth agape, squealing furiously. When I don’t retreat, it lunges again, repeatedly, as mightily as its miniscule presence can muster.

If a fearsome giant approached me, would I have that kind of courage? Would I recognize the limits of my restraint?

South Mountain Park is either “touted as” or “reputed to be” the largest city park in either the country or the world, depending on which of two trail guide books I refer to. Whichever it is, at over 16,000 acres this one park alone is larger than the entire Milwaukee County Parks system.

I look across a shallow valley towards the park. Just below, across the highway, is “Ponderosa Stables” where you can hire a guide and take trail rides. Beyond that I can see a flat space with picnic shelters. The backdrop for the scene is the closest of no fewer than three mountain ranges within this single urban park. Transmission towers line the ridge top like an upright comb with missing teeth. In a park this size, I guess, one must expect a gradual transition from urban to wilderness.

I came by bus from downtown Phoenix to hike in the wilderness. The guidebooks map out any number of trails inside the park, but no one, it seems, is expected to walk to the park. The bus line terminates about a half mile short of the last subdivision and it is there that the sidewalk ends. I am left to fend for myself on the narrow highway shoulder, to cut through Ponderosa and traverse a shallow arroyo.

When I finally arrive at the park proper the flat space I’d noticed earlier turns out to be the largest parking lot I’ve ever seen. And not a car in sight. Cue the chorus of Joni Mitchell's song. (See previous post.)

Although early morning, it is already hot. Yesterday afternoon, I was told, the thermometer reached 117° - a “personal best!” An estimated three million people visit South Mountain Park annually. Clearly they choose a more hospitable time of year for it. The desert can be an uncompromising place.

The Akimel O'odham, or “river people,” were living in the Phoenix valley along the Salt and Gila rivers long before the recording of history. In their creation story the first person, Juh-wert-a-Mah-kai, or “The Doctor of the Earth,” created the Earth out of sweat he rubbed from his breast. How fitting for a desert people to revere the life-giving moisture of their own bodies! As the sun rises towards a punishing zenith, I feel the sweat pouring from my own breast.

What kind of world will we create in our air-conditioned glass towers, riding in air-conditioned cars along on the ribbons of concrete that thread through Phoenix today?

Signage under a conveniently sited park ramada explains that the Hohokam Indians, ancestors to the O’odham, created these petroglyphs 1,000 to 1,500 years ago. It goes on to speculate, “The connection of this artwork to Hohokam life is unclear, but may have a relationship to the spiritual beliefs of these indigenous people.” Our dominant cultural paradigm being scientific, we seem to be comforted by explanations and theories. Why can’t we be satisfied to see this as pure creative impulse, a response to intensely felt relationships with the natural world? Is it because those relationships have been broken, air-conditioned?

My encounter with the unidentified samurai fledgling is repeated with a somewhat less aggressive infant Ash-throated Flycatcher. Both parents flit from tree to tree, chirping excitedly to draw me towards them. A bird on the ground is at a distinct disadvantage. It is no wonder that ground nesting birds on islands like Hawai’i that never before experienced native predators have suffered disproportionately when non-native animals, like pigs and rats, were introduced.

I give this little bird a wider berth so that the whole avian family can breathe easier again.

The saguaro stands rigidly erect, like a comical stick figure with asymmetrical arms upraised as if in greeting. It’s lopsided “smile,” curiously congruent with one of its arms, no doubt is a haven for some other family of birds that lives high above ground. Native species of woodpeckers, finches, martins, and flickers commonly excavate cavities deep enough to hide their young from view of predators – and humans that aren’t so giant next to a mature saguaro.

Saguaros can grow to 70’ tall and live to a ripe old age of 150 – if not abducted by unethical landscapers (Arizona law forbids harming or destroying a saguaro) or toppled by a humble jackrabbit – which, among other animals, can girdle the bottom of the column (as seen in the photo above left.)

So Mtn Pk, left - Botanical Garden, right
Yesterday, at the Desert Botanical Gardens, I saw clusters of plump, unblemished saguaro and other cacti. Here in the “real” desert I see quite a few saguaros, although much more widely dispersed. None is plump or unscarred. Most are completely or partially girdled. It’s a wonder that any of them survive to reach great heights.

What good are the spines on a cactus if they don’t keep a rabbit from chewing on it?

From the slopes of the mountain the towers of downtown Phoenix are distant and small. The rest of the city is vast, flat, and gray with haze. And yet, this too is Phoenix: a mountain range that rises out of the plain of the city like an island. A sea of subdivisions laps at its shoreline, but it is wild enough to be a danger to the careless.

It is the kind of place to which I am habitually drawn. I humbly claim kinship to Thoreau, who said, “I love to see anything that implies a simpler mode of life and a greater nearness to the earth.” And yet, I am uneasy. Perhaps it is the heat. Despite the marked trail, the boot prints in the dust, and the occasional, alien sound of tire treads on pavement out of sight below, I feel extraordinarily solitary; not simply alone but out of place, non-native, like a pig or a rat. Sweat pours down. I want to create a new world, but I don’t know how.

The desert is an unforgiving place.

It is also a place of remarkable adaptation. A small round cactus grows straight out of a rock. How is this possible?

Water: in the desert it’s a matter of life and death. When it rains cacti swell and bloom; flash floods ravage arroyos. I find a cache of discarded empty plastic bottles in backcountry brush. Plastics don’t biodegrade like most materials, but some plastics will decompose in sunlight. Which sounds like a good solution to the casual indifference of this litter, considering the intensity of sunlight, until you learn that it decomposes into toxic component chemicals.

In a crevice unshaded from the relentless sun I find a half-gallon bottle, still three quarters full of water. A ragged shirt is tied to its handle like a flag of truce. It speaks of desperation and begs a story. The surrounding rocks are mute. Phoenix is not on the border, which makes it unlikely that I have stumbled upon the tragic remnants of a migrant’s effort to cross over from Mexico. It is a sobering omen nevertheless.

Some borders must be crossed; some we never even see. How do we know the limits of our restraint?

Like Thoreau, I sometimes feel like “I live a sort of border life, on the confines of a world, into which I make occasional and transient forays only, and my patriotism and allegiance to the state into whose territories I seem to retreat are those of a [stealthy marauder].”

It is still mid-morning but the blistering heat is taking its toll. My enthusiasm dulled, walking on the barren earth over sharp, penetrating rocks has begun to feel perilous. How can migrants possibly survive conditions like this day after day without food or fresh water? They must be akin to the saguaro, resilient, tenacious. Sometimes their fate is a solitary death. Which is the more uncompromising, I wonder, the desert or our immigration policies?

O’odham tradition says that the first creatures made by “The Doctor of the Earth” were the ants and the buzzard.

I drink water and seek shade.

I find the shelter of a large rock outcrop and slip into it like a pool of water. The refreshingly cool breeze that washes over me comes as a surprise. I’d gotten used to downtown Phoenix where it is hot even in the shade and the wind is like that from an open furnace. Cities are islands, too – of trapped heat.

I sit bathed in silence. I hear no cars, no planes, no voices. It is the kind of pure, natural silence during which the occasional chirrup of an unseen bird is like a drop of water in the desert.

A gunshot breaks my reverie, far off, over the ridge towards the Ponderosa. Then another and then a whole fusillade before it trails off again into silence. Later, as I find myself drifting into a blissful peace I hear the faint beep of my cell phone indicating a dying battery. Another intimation, not of death perhaps, but of the distance traveled, the disconnection from “the state into whose territories I seem to retreat.” I feel my allegiances taking a tighter grip.

After a while I hear, very soft and high, coming over the knife-edge of the ridge, the sound of the breeze. It takes some time to calm myself, to settle myself, to ignore the ringing in my ears, and to hear the mountain breathing.

I decide finally that this is why I’ve made the effort; why I took the long bus ride, why I walked the distance in the heat and the dust. In the end, this is why I came to Phoenix: to sit in the shadow of the mountain and listen to the wind.

Thus rejuvenated, I step out into the light for my return, across the border, off one island and back onto the other. With my quest for urban wilderness satisfied, I turn again to Thoreau: “So we saunter toward the Holy Land; till one day the sun shall shine more brightly than ever he has done, shall perchance shine into our minds and hearts, and light up our whole lives with a great awakening light….”

Back to Phoenix, though in truth I’ve never left.

This is part 2 of a two-part installment from my Phoenix experience. To read part 1, click here: Phoenix Botanical Garden: Art vs. Nature.
On Arts Without Borders I also wrote about the Phoenix Art Museum: cool in the heat.
To read about why I went to Phoenix in the heat of summer read: The wilderness of immigration detention.

Phoenix Botanical Garden: Art vs. Nature

“They took all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum
And they charged all the people a dollar and a half just to see 'em”
 – Joni Mitchell, 1970

Well, Joni, here at the Desert Botanical Garden they are cacti and today they’re charging all the people $18 to see ‘em. “Don’t it always seem to go….”

Newer versions of Mitchell’s iconic song have updated that detail in the lyrics, as high as $25 and “an arm and a leg,” as far as I know. But whatever the price, when people are paying that much to see plants, whether trees or cacti, they don’t want to be disappointed, do they? They expect to see something better than they would see if left to their own devices in natural parkland.

“The people” want to see beautiful examples of each species, perfectly formed. In attractive groupings. Nothing broken, rotten, mildewed, or shriveled with the heat. This is Phoenix, where it has been over 100° since May 29. So, the gardeners here have put little black mesh blankets over some of the plants to protect them from the harsh sun. Yes! The delicate ones, I presume.

Botanical gardens are to nature what fine art ceramics are to dinnerware. You won’t see these plants this way out in the wild just as you won’t see a Voulkos plate in your kitchen cupboard. The cacti here in the garden are not natural features of the landscape; they are works of art.

I like art, of course. I also appreciate a beautiful garden. But let’s not confuse it with nature.

At the Desert Botanical Gardens that relationship is explicitly symbolized at the entrance where internationally renowned glass artist, Dale Chihuly, has installed Desert Towers. The spiky forms of the sculpture mimic tree fronds, agave leaves, and cactus spines. Because it harmonizes so well in gardens, Chihuly’s popular (some say populist) work graces many a Botanical Garden.

Back to cacti. I find the cactus covers very curious. It’s obvious enough that they are sun shields. What is not obvious is why a cactus needs to be protected from the sun. They do grow in the desert in the sun, do they not? And why would one cactus need a sun shield while another of the same species doesn’t?

I ask a friendly gardener.

She says that some plants are more sensitive to the sun than others and that some “are just not planted in the right place.” She went on to explain that some plants need morning sun and others afternoon sun. In nature they would grow in places where the topography or adjacent plants would provide shade at the proper times. If they sprouted in the “wrong places” they would wither and possibly die.

Darwin would understand.

What she suggests by inference is that the gardens’ designers laid out the plantings with aesthetics as a priority rather than a regard for appropriate natural conditions. Like I said, this is art, not nature.

Aesthetic considerations go further than landscaping and flower arranging. Some of the sunshades are meant to prevent a perfectly natural consequence of being out in the hot sun: shriveling. The vertical ribs on a cactus act like a bellows, expanding to absorb water when it is available, contracting during dry conditions. The gardener tells me that while shriveling is natural it’s “not as pretty.”

So I guess if I’m paying $18 I don’t want to see a naturally shriveled cactus but an unnaturally plump one. Just add water and sunscreen.

What are the implications of this desire for perfection? (Which, after all, reflects many of the values of our advertising and consumption driven culture of ideal body types and bloated serving sizes.) Will people who visit the gardens be disappointed when “real” nature doesn’t measure up to these standards? What a tragedy it would be if this experience were to diminish enjoyment of actual nature or reduce its perceived value.

Educational signage around the grounds describes the natural environments appropriate for each of the varieties, as you would expect. Natural history museums do likewise for ancient environments. At what point does one become the other? Cue Joni: “you don't know what you've got ‘til it's gone….”

My hope is that people will come away from this encounter with extraordinary, artistic nature inspired to explore more of the ordinary natural world for themselves. I’m quite certain that the good folks who work here feel the same way, too.

The strangest paradox of this veiled garden, it seems to me, is the relativity of aesthetic judgment. The cacti are covered with black fabric in order to maintain an artificially aesthetic biological standard. But which is uglier, naturally shriveled cacti or undeniably unnatural black shrouds? Whose aesthetic experience are they preserving? Certainly not mine or that of the few other brave souls who have ventured out into the heat today.

It feels as though I am walking, not through a gallery of beautiful plants, but a funeral parlor for nature.

Of course, I love it! What a metaphor! I don’t know about the other visitors today, but I’m getting my $18 worth.

This is part 1 of a two-part installment from my Phoenix experience. To read part 2, click here: Phoenix: it’s a desert out here!
On Arts Without Borders I also wrote about the Phoenix Art Museum: cool in the heat.
To read about why I went to Phoenix in the heat of summer read: The wilderness of immigration detention.