Saturday, March 31, 2012

Houston, Texas: Waking to a new world.

I awake in the dark, momentarily disoriented. The room smells inexplicably clean and there is a mechanical hum coming from an unknown source. Remembering that I’d arrived at the hotel in Houston the day before, I rise and go to the window. Darkness. Being unfamiliar with the Texas climate, I wonder if it should be dark at 7:30 a.m.

Suddenly rain spatters the thick, black glass of the inoperable window. I hear only a soft, almost distant percussion, as if far more than a pane of glass separates me from the world outside and whatever storms there are. The air-conditioning clicks on again, seemingly louder.

I dress, grab my umbrella and go in search of breakfast. The elevator delivers me to the cheerfully lit, wood-paneled lobby twelve floors down. As I descend an escalator towards the basement I briefly glimpse furious gray gusts of rain through the plate glass windows. No one is visible outside.

There are people underground. A long queue stretches away from a tiny coffee shop next to the escalator. Others hurry by on their way, presumably, to a workplace. An expansive but low-ceilinged food court is softly lit in cool shades of white. Fast food vendors, most of which are closed, surround it, white steel grills drawn down over glass counters.

Exiting the nearly empty food court, I head into the West Dallas Tunnel.

Houston’s subterranean tunnel system extends approximately seven miles in a labyrinthine network of pedestrian passageways, ramps, shops and food courts. It has little relationship to the street grid above and bears absolutely no resemblance to the natural world. A hurricane might be crashing through the city and, unless there was a power outage, no one down here would even notice.

That seems to be the point. It’s raining hard outside but everyone I pass is as dry as I am, dressed in power suits without outerwear or raingear. My unopened umbrella dangles from my arm.

In Houston, though, people are driven underground more often by the heat. Even in the brutal Houston summer, the climate-controlled tunnels allow them to remain comfortably suited and sweatered on their way between air-conditioned cars and air-conditioned offices. To what end, I wonder, does the march of civilization lead?

The West Dallas tunnel becomes the South Louisiana tunnel. The names vaguely correspond with street locations on the surface of the earth but nothing is straight or direct for more than the equivalent of a block down here.

Underfoot beige tile gives way to pale granite. The walls narrow into a sterile white corridor. I am reminded of a movie by George Lucas – THX 1138 – that is set in an underground city in some dystopian future. But this is not the future. It is all too present. Echoing the movie’s title character, my instinct is to escape.

I pass a block-long mural of the surface of the moon. I’m certain it is meant to be uplifting, but the irony is stunning. Who designs these places and then decides that the airless and barren lunar landscape is what we should see as we walk through them?
Just when I begin to despair of finding anything green or growing, I come upon a diminutive plastic jungle tucked in a corner, bracketed with brushed steel and ceramic tile. Green but not growing, it is scarcely more soothing than the moonscape. Is this meant to nurture our need for a connection with nature? Instead it puts me in mind of natural history museum dioramas that depict extinct species.

Every few hundred yards I stop to check the map posted on the wall or propped on a floor stanchion. If it didn’t say “you are here” in different places each time I would have no idea how far I’d gone or in which direction. North, south, east, west are equally meaningless. Distances are exaggerated by twists and turns.

I pass through the Tunnel Loop and wander down the East McKinney Tunnel before I discover that I’ve overshot my destination. I should have turned at the connector leading to the Lamar Tunnel, which runs parallel to the McKinney. The determined crowd surges around me. I am lost in a sky-less maze of polished steel fittings and white surfaces washed with invisible light sources. Urban wilderness is taking on new meaning.

King Minos of ancient Crete is supposed to have commissioned the world’s most famous labyrinth, which was guarded by the bull-headed Minotaur. Maybe that is an unfounded myth. In any case, all that remains of the powerful king and the Cretan civilization are the ruins of his palace at Knossos. Feeling not at all like Theseus, who penetrated the labyrinth and killed the monster, my hesitation and disorientation give me a moment to reflect on this modern-day labyrinth.

This is not a diatribe against cities. I believe in cities. Today we must turn Thoreau’s famous dictum on its head: In cities is the preservation of the world. I mentally genuflect to Thoreau and ask absolution for this heretical pronouncement. But the fact of the matter is, the preservation of wilderness now depends on making cities both livable and an attractive alternative to sprawl. That means bringing nature back into cities from which it has been abolished. Sustainable cities, like humans, need open space in which to breathe.

Neither is this an indictment of Houston, which may or may not deserve indictment. I have not explored it sufficiently to pass judgment. But how are we to survive if our cities lead us to mole-like lives in caverns and tunnels, unable to see the sun or smell the changing seasons?

Backtracking, I come finally to a two-story rotunda that is open to a street-level lobby above. I take the escalator, stepping briskly to speed my ascent. A soft glow of daylight gradually mingles with the unearthly shine of tunnel illumination.

I push open the heavy glass door and step out onto Main Street hoping to see trees or a planter with flowers in it. This view across the street is not reassuring.

The environments we create for our cities more and more have come to define the world we live in. A world in which nature is reduced to a twisted topiary in a concrete urn is not the world I want to wake up in tomorrow.

This is the first installment of a trilogy from Houston’s urban wilderness. To read the next, click on Buffalo Bayou, Part 1. If you want a taste of the cultural side of Houston, go to my Arts Without Borders blog.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Riverside Park was burned on Wednesday!

I learned after the fact that the Urban Ecology Center (with help from the Milwaukee Fire Dept. and others) had conducted a controlled burn in parts of Riverside Park. I wish I could have been there to witness the event. As is explained on the UEC website, burning is important for long term sustainability of certain habitats and native species. (Before we humans interfered it happened naturally, of course.)

Although I missed the burn itself, I had to go check out the aftermath and take a few photos.

The burn is kept at ground level and even during natural burns established trees and hardy native shrubs seldom suffer for it.

Before long (especially with the early spring we're having this year) new shoots will sprout up amongst the ashes. Native species withstand the effects of burning better than exotics.

While I was there I met a nice young volunteer who explained why many of the trees in the park have blue bags hanging from them. These are sugar maple trees that the UEC taps for maple syrup, which they process themselves right at the center.

But if you want to see that you better head out there soon. They will be having a pancake breakfast on Saturday, March 24.

We're all invited. (Go to the UEC website for more info.)

While you're in Riverside Park to see the burn and the maples being tapped, make sure you wander on down along the Milwaukee River to see how other strategies are being used to control invasive species.

Large swaths of the flood plain have been covered in black plastic sheeting. No, it's not an elaborate environmental sculpture project, a la Christo. It's to control reed canary grass.

There's always something constructive going on around the Urban Ecology Center.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A warm gray day in Grobschmidt Park

Wednesday, March 7.

It is beyond unseasonably warm. Stepping outside elicits the peculiar feeling of dislocation that happens when I travel to some completely other – tropically warm – place during Wisconsin’s usually interminable winters. I love stepping off the plane and taking that first deep breath. Immediately I know I’m not home any more.

Today I feel it without going anywhere! Just outdoors.

Grobschmidt Park
I can’t go back inside! I decide to explore a county park that is new to me. From the Parks Department map I pick Grobschmidt, a neat green rectangle just off College Ave. on the northern edge of Franklin.

I know I am getting close when subdivision signs begin to read “Homes on the Park,” “Parkwood Village” and “Parkwater Apartments.” The urge to name what we’ve built after the things we’ve destroyed seems irresistible. We set aside remnants so that residents of the ‘homes on the park’ can look out picture windows and imagine what they don’t even realize is lost.

A line from T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, drifts up from my subconscious: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

Grobschmidt has no lot. I pull up and park along S. 35th St., which provides public access.

The view from the road is of a fairly large lake populated with a boisterous crowd of floating waterfowl. The lake is surrounded by what seems like level land and a featureless gray tree line. But you can’t experience wilderness – or nature in general – from a road. And I’ve learned to suspect first impressions as shallow, despite their potential for lasting influence.

Besides, if anything it has gotten even warmer. I leave my jacket in the car.

trail through buckthorn
The heavily overcast sky threatens rain but I am not deterred. A muddy trail parallels the lakeside. A clamor of ducks and geese punctuates the gray land, gray water, gray sky. Before long I veer off into the woods on an even muddier, narrower – and grayer – track. Soon it becomes a tunnel through a particularly dense thicket of buckthorn.

The world is gray, wood and sky alike, but my mood is buoyant, elevated by the balmy temperature. I ponder the essence of grayness and relish its endless permutations. The hawthorn is dark, twisted and spiky. The loose bark of the mighty hickory is chalky with a hint of cyan. A brace of nearly white brambles dances before a rigid backdrop of charcoal trees.

A close observer of nature is never threatened with tedium. Even so, the occasional colorful spray of red osier dogwood is reason for exultation.

The earth, so recently blanketed, is everywhere soggy from sudden snowmelt. Muddy deer tracks bearing fresh hoof prints crisscross the trail. They are so numerous I have to wonder why I don’t see a single deer. (A veritable herd of them sauntered across my patio just yesterday! I guess they’ve all decamped for Wauwatosa to see if my tulips have sprouted yet.)

In seventh grade I was made to read The Waste Land by a no doubt well-meaning and ambitious English teacher. Wasted on me then (pun intended), decades passed before I could return to it with appreciation. In its famous opening lines Eliot says, “April is the cruelest month, breeding  / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”

Eliot didn’t live in Wisconsin. If April is the cruelest month here it is because winter has not yet loosed its grip and the lilacs are waiting for the certainty of May. But I’ve long considered March to be the crueler month. Its mercurial moods dash confidence in the coming of spring. The land remains dead.

The “forgetful snow” is gone. The marsh is broken, matted with bent reeds. “The nymphs are departed.” And – normally in March – it is still too damn cold.

But not today, a miraculously mild day in Grobschmidt Park!

Warm wind passes through the gray trees, rattles dead leaves still clinging to trees. Barren branches clatter like dry bones. (As I write these words, a day later, it is indeed cold again. There is even a dusting of new snow. March!)

My first impression of barren flatness is long forgotten by the time I reach the far end of the park and glimpse a roof over the crest of a distant hilltop. I slip down into lowland forest, skirt open marsh, cross a dormant, still icy, sedge meadow, and head uphill again to upland forest. Brian Russart, the Milwaukee County Park system’s natural areas coordinator, considers Grobschmidt a microcosm, exemplary of habitat diversity. Even now, all hued in gray, I can see why.

My circuit of the park nearly complete, I reach a section that does look like a wasteland. A wide swath has been slashed. The few spindly trees that were spared emphasize the apparent devastation all around. One scraggly hawthorn holds up a tiny, dried out nest as if in supplication. Memory and desire, stirring.

“What are the roots that 
clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?”
But, no, this is not The Waste Land. I am not alarmed. The county has a habitat improvement plan that includes a three-year cycle of mowing to maintain the prairie-like grassland. Hell, I’d like to see it burn! That would be even healthier for biodiversity.

I’d also like to see the Parks Department budget grow enough to control the buckthorn in the woodlands. Fragments, yes, but our parks must be shored up against our ruins.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Celebrating Leopold Weekend in Riverside Park

I did celebrate Aldo Leopold Weekend by taking a hike in Riverside Park. I managed a few photos to commemorate the day.

The Urban Ecology Center, a most appropriate place to pay homage to Leopold.

A view of Gordon Park from Riverside Park.

The Milwaukee River and the urban wilderness through which it runs.

For more photos, check out my Milwaukee River Greenway set on flickr.