Thursday, November 29, 2012

Urban Rangers

I just came across a website called Urban Ranger. Its mission is "to make a habit of purposeful, sustained walking." While the mission as quoted doesn't refer to cities, this is certainly implied by the name. More than implied, actually, though I doubt anyone who doesn't live in an urban area would be excluded if they wanted "to make a habit of purposeful, sustained walking." The dangers of a sedentary life style are not inherent to city dwellers!

In any case, I like it. Here is an anthem, also from the website:

Song of the Urban Ranger

I am an urban ranger,
I walk, it's what I do.
The city is my wilderness,
Sky scrapers are my trees.
I hang my thoughts on lamp posts,
And park my dreams in metered spots.
I populate the empty lots
With my good ghosts,
And invest the pavement
with diamond recollections.
Exertions are my exercise,
My labors for effect.
I walk to go and go to walk.
I walk to work and work that I might walk.
I walk to dream up orders
For my servile sitting self.
No stagnant sedentary thoughts
Shall rule this life.
But who knows what's for what.
I sure walk a hell of a lot.

I would like to be an urban ranger myself. Although I can claim "purposeful" about my walking, I would do well to work on the "sustained" part of the program.

On one of my recent purposeful walks I discovered a shallow stretch of the Menomonee River where there is an abundance of exposed rock. An unknown number of people, fellow urban rangers perhaps, have piled these rocks into towers that are reminiscent of ancient ruins like Angkor Wat.

In Los Angeles there is a much more well established organization called the LA Urban Rangers, which I also just ran across. They have an impressive series of programs. Check them out. Every city should have a group like this!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Power lines and parklands don't mix

I just returned from the Wauwatosa City Hall where a public hearing is underway regarding the plans to run transmission lines through parts of Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. The new lines would provide power to a planned substation to be built by We Energies next to its existing plant on the County Grounds. (Read more about these plans. Pictures included in earlier post.)

Much of the testimony was from people associated with either St. Theresa or the Milwaukee Montessori School, both of which will be impacted if plans proceed to run overhead power lines along their properties. I agree with their position that power lines should run underground. Since I don’t live next to any of the proposed routes, my concern is more general. However, it is no less passionate. I don't believe that this is merely a local issue.

Here is the gist of my testimony:

Many of us have heard from representatives of the ATC that the Commission will be choosing a power line route solely on an economic basis, that the cheapest route is always chosen. Furthermore, since parklands will always be less expensive to develop than locations with existing development, they will always be sacrificed for this inherent short-term economic advantage.

I hope that the ATC has mischaracterized the Commission’s intentions, that your deliberations will prove more flexible than they have claimed and that your understanding of the economics involved is more nuanced. If the only economic consideration is the narrow one that considers only the cost of constructing a power line, then by default our community will lose its parklands. More than that, every community where these circumstances exist will sacrifice parkland. Sadly, the places this loss will be felt the greatest is where they can least afford it, densely populated urban areas like ours.

There are many ways besides the cost of construction, of course, to measure economic costs – and benefits. In this case the benefits of preserving parkland and the benefits of burying the lines outweigh the narrow, short-term economic considerations. Some of the benefits are less tangible, like quality of life, but others truly are economic, like property valuations and the costs of physical and emotional health. These costs would not be bourn by the ATC but by the larger community. Ultimately, the short-term economic argument makes everyone poorer.

This is not just hearsay. There is legal precedent for the larger, more long-term economic view. In a 1971 ruling the US Supreme Court established in principle that parks should not be developed solely because they would be the cheapest alternative.

The loss of scarce parkland in urban areas is not an insignificant issue. Because of the well-documented benefits the current trend in cities throughout the country is to revitalize open spaces and to increase parklands wherever possible. Wisconsin has a well-earned reputation for its concern for the natural environment. If power lines are allowed to be built in urban parklands, not only will local communities suffer, but our reputation will be tarnished. It not only will be a huge step backwards but one that goes against prevailing wisdom.

I urge the Commission, as so many others are doing, to choose a route other than Underwood Parkway and to bury the lines.  (End of testimony.)

I might have added that, as a ratepayer myself I am willing to pay the extra amount that would be charged to pay for underground transmission lines. I also don’t understand why the ATC (as opposed to the PSC) has been so insistent that the cheapest route be chosen. Their interest, which is to profit from the construction of the line, is served in any case.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving from Urban Wilderness!

I am thankful for, among other things, the opportunities I've had this year to explore and enjoy the outdoors.

A thanksgiving thought from Thoreau:

"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives."

Autumn splendor in Wil-O-Way Woods on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa. Happy Holidays to all!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Off Season

Snapshots and random thoughts from Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

The first surprise is the rugged terrain. Cliffs high enough to dwarf human visitors surround canyons deep enough to confound my expectations, extinguish all sense of being in the Midwest. Most of Illinois is as flat as a state can get. I’ve seen flat: Kansas, the Texas panhandle…. Illinois is pulled as tight as a military bed sheet.

The Illinois River has cut through this sheet, carved deeply into the underlying bedrock, a layer of sedimentary sandstone that dates back 425 million years. The sheer bluffs and dramatically eroded canyons would be pretty spectacular anywhere between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians. In Illinois they are simply stunning.

As we drive in, nothing moves. The parking lot is vast and completely vacant. Brown and yellow leaves lie scattered on the pavement. The place seems deserted. Perfect!

Far out over the wide river, seemingly out of the open sky, a sycamore leaf wafts gently downward.

Pelicans huddle on the water like bundles of white laundry, deceptively small with distance. Another surprise: American White Pelicans, I learn, rival the California condor for longest wingspan in North America. With a flurry of black-tipped wings they leap-frog downstream.

In the Visitor’s Center I reach for one of the stack of trail maps. The uniformed woman behind the reception counter says, “you can take one of those but you won’t need it.” Pointing to the mural sized, highly detailed map on the wall nearby, she explains: “we have trail maps like this at trail crossings, so you’ll always know where you are.”

One of the things I seek in nature is an aura of mystery and the chance to explore. I keep it to myself.

Though her matter-of-fact tone fell short of boastful, she was not exaggerating. Two by four foot iterations of the green and blue map are securely framed and mounted at every trail intersection without fail, sometimes within sight of one another, even in the remotest parts of the park. An hour and a half from Chicago remote is a nuanced concept.

According to legend, in the 1760’s a band of Ottawa and Potawatomi laid siege to the butte that gives the park its name. A band of Illiniwek had sought refuge there. Instead of protection the rock brought starvation. So the story goes.

Today the tall chimney of rock is a maze of boardwalks and wooden railings reminiscent of the French colonial stockade reproduced in a diorama in the Visitor’s Center. Despite expansive views of the river and lake far below, I feel hemmed in. 

Mountaineer and author Jack Turner: “We treat the natural world according to our experience of it. Without aura, wildness, magic, spirit, holiness, the sacred, and soul, we treat flora, fauna, art, and landscape as resources and amusement.”

Starved Rock, like most parks, exists for the spectacle it provides, for its entertainment value. There may be wild places here, but innumerable signs make clear they are strictly off limits. It is equally evident that the public does not universally respect the posted rules.

Is a visit to the park the beginning of an appreciation for nature or a diversion?

Gratefully we walk in solitude. It is the off-season. Last year over 2.4 million people visited Starved Rock State Park, starved for something, whether a taste of nature or a diversion.

The afternoon is so warm we leave our jackets behind. We are surrounded by autumnal shades of brown and tan, as if this place were caught in amber, marvelously preserved.  A stand of pines relieves the monochrome. In contrast to the popular Starved Rock trail, which is paved with concrete, we stroll along the bluff trail on sandy soil and pungent pine needles.

Mysteriously, a boardwalk appears. The bluff is high. We are neither in a wetland nor crossing one of the many ravines. Reaching its end, a staircase dispels the notion of accessibility.

When nature became a place other than and distinct from where people lived, we no longer felt part of it. The false dichotomy that resulted has led to all kinds of environmental mischief. Roderick Frazier Nash says, “The dawn of civilization created powerful biases. We had settled down, developed an ecological superiority complex, and bet our evolutionary future on the idea of controlling nature.”

I step off onto the earth again.

Canyons are the creation of water. At certain times of the year the park is blessed with many waterfalls, one of its primary attractions. We have come off-season. The only waterfalls we see grace the postcards in the gift shop.  No matter. Just as I prefer the feel of the earth beneath my feet, so too do I prefer a dry solitude.

The silence in a box canyon lends poignancy and power to a single birdcall.

To see more photos from Starved Rock, go to my flickr page

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The High Line: Auguries of Innocence

I approached the High Line along West 30th Street, currently its northern terminus. Unknowingly, what I came to first was the old, unrestored elevated railway. Rusted, topped with crumbling concrete, and defaced with graffiti, it rose above construction barricades and cyclone fencing. This wide end of the rail yard spur completely covered the intersection of 30th Street and 10th Avenue, like a crude, industrial porte-cochère for the entrance to the park beyond. When the light turned green, a blur of taxis, trucks, and busses zoomed through.

Passing underneath, I emerged from its shadows into the open air. I thought of Frank Lloyd Wright, who characteristically designed low-ceilinged foyers to increase the drama of entering his more spacious interior. Ahead I could see, though barely, the thin line of green vegetation rising from the greenish-black painted steel structure I recognized as the High Line itself. To my right, atop the rust-stained gray concrete of the old rail line a scraggly fringe of autumn brown grasses and weeds fluttered gently.

The sky above 30th Street narrowed, wedged between the two sections of the line, the old and the new. The street felt considerably narrower still, however, due to the construction fencing along both sides. In defiance of the Great Recession Chelsea is experiencing a construction boom and it’s indisputably due to the success and popularity of the High Line.

As I approached the sleek, shiny steel staircase that would lead me upwards, I found myself suddenly amongst a small throng of people all converging on the same point. No matter. I was thrilled to be there. We ascended patiently, like passengers embarking on an airplane or patrons at an amusement park queuing for a ride. When I reached the level of the park, 30 feet above the street, an elevator door opened next to me and disgorged more “passengers.”

None of this prelude prepared me for the carnival atmosphere I encountered as I stepped into the constant river of people making their way along the narrow pathway atop the High Line. I eased into its flow, carried along on a current of humanity. At first a few spindly trees clung to the edges, rising a bit higher than the human river. These soon gave way to clumps of waist-high ornamental grasses intermixed with yellow and blue flowers. Marvelous as it all seemed, my first impression was less like a walk in a park than one along the boardwalk at Coney Island on a hot summer day.

It was October 2012. The High Line, that unique and influential park, had already been open for three years. Not only was it not new, it had become a sensation, a rock star of urban parks. It had been likened to a flying carpet, to “a suspended green valley in Manhattan’s Alps,” and to Alice’s Wonderland. Cities all over the country, including Milwaukee, were trying to figure out how to emulate its success.

However, on that warm Indian summer afternoon, I was blissfully ignorant of most of this. I had read a brief news report about the High Line when it opened in 2009 and immediately found myself enchanted by the very concept of it. But there had never been a good opportunity to go to it, living in the Midwest as I do.

When the opportunity finally did present itself, I did nothing to prepare for the experience. My mother had died and I was going to NY for the memorial service. (Once again I have her to thank – see my previous post). I tacked on four days to spend in Chelsea and to walk the High Line.

I had done no further reading about it. I didn’t go online and look at the High Line website. I saw none of the now famous pictures that Joel Sternfeld and others had taken of the High Line’s picturesque wildness. I didn’t avoid these things out of some principled belief in the purity of unmediated experience. I didn’t deliberately avoid doing what most people now do out of cultural habit and expectation. That it just never occurred to me to do these things seems in retrospect to have been providential.

I characteristically eschew guided experiences. When I travel I avoid tour groups. I rarely choose to pick up audio guides at museums. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson I want an experience that is my own, not one shaped by prior knowledge. This is merely my natural inclination, though, rather than a philosophical conclusion about the importance of unmediated experiences.

And so I came to be on the High Line with fresh eyes, unprejudiced with anyone else’s expectations – exaltations or disappointments. I came to face the paradox.

There were crowds, yes. But there was no unruliness to them. It was curiously peaceful. The more I walked amongst them, the farther behind I left my impression of Coney Island tumult, of being passengers on an amusement park ride. In its place came the feeling of participating in a pilgrimage, amongst strangers who were nevertheless companions on the road to some sacred shrine.

What were we seeking? There was a semblance of nature, neither a formal garden nor anything like a wilderness. The city surrounded us, but at a distinct remove. The High Line was unquestionably real and yet ambiguous, abstract. We were collectively engaged in imagining… something! Something each of the thousands of visitors brought within themselves, to engage with the world as they found it in this place, like the grain of sand in Blake’s famous line. And to feel the passion of what follows:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

I did spend four days in Chelsea and walked the High Line at least once on each of them. The longer I was there the more telling became the parallels with Blake’s epic poem, Auguries of Innocence, most of which is far less well known than that first stanza and which concludes with this:

God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

To be continued.

This is the second of a series from the High Line. To read my first, click here.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Geoengineering: Is it possible to stop?

image credit: Jacob Escobedo

In a recent article in the New York Times entitled "Geoengineering: Testing the Waters" author Naomi Klein warns of possible dangers and unintended consequences of this practice, which is gaining momentum. Klein cites a "growing number of would-be geoengineers who advocate high-risk, large-scale technical interventions that would fundamentally change the oceans and skies in order to reduce the effects of global warming." She also tells the story of a "rogue geoengineer" who took it upon himself to dump "120 tons of iron dust off the hull of a rented fishing boat" into the ocean off British Columbia. "The plan was to create an algae bloom that would sequester carbon and thereby combat climate change."

Only the most extremely ideological now question the significance of global warming and the consensus among scientists is that humankind is contributing to it. In light of this it is tempting to think that we also can come up with a technological solution, which is what geoengineering is all about.

As Klein puts it, "Geoengineering offers the tantalizing promise of a climate change fix that would allow us to continue our resource-exhausting way of life, indefinitely. And then there is the fear. Every week seems to bring more terrifying climate news, from reports of ice sheets melting ahead of schedule to oceans acidifying far faster than expected." Something must be done about it!

We humans have been tinkering with our environment since we learned to harness fire and divert streams for irrigation. It seems unlikely that we will stop anytime soon.

But the dangers are real that the effects of geoengineering will be more harmful than beneficial and that our future may look like any one of a number of post-apocalyptic visions have suggested. As I write this the northeast of the U.S. is still cleaning up after "Superstorm Sandy." This past year has been one for the record books, with many extreme weather events. Is this the new normal?

Klein suggests that even if geoengineering achieves a measure of success it may be at the expense of our relationship to nature, that potentially more intense "volcanic" sunsets, for example, might elicit less awe and more vague unease. "In the age of geoengineering, we might find ourselves confronting the end of miracles, too."

This is not from hurricane Sandy, but an "ordinary" storm over Lake Michigan about a year ago. Wondrous, yes. But perhaps a bit disquieting, too.