Monday, October 29, 2012

Cities are avian killing fields

The sleek glassy aesthetic of modern cities has proven to be a fatal kind of urban wilderness for birds, which have a hard time distinguishing between safe open sky and reflective glass. Migratory songbirds unfamiliar with local settings are especially at risk. (Birds that have adapted to urban settings, like pigeons and gulls, rarely crash into buildings.)

Photo credit: Ian Williams for The New York Times

A recent article in the New York Times highlights the problem in Toronto, which is considered "a top contender for the title" of "the world’s most deadly cities for migratory birds."

It is hardly a small problem. The article states that the founder of a Toronto non-profit, the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), which rescues injured birds and cleans up carcasses, "once single-handedly recovered about 500 dead birds in one morning."

Toronto may hold the dubious if unofficial honor of heavyweight champion when it comes to killing birds, but it is hardly unique. The website of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative states, "It is estimated that between 100,000,000 and 1 billion birds are killed annually in North America by collisions with buildings – primarily by collisions with windows.  Of all birds that collide with window glass, more than 50% of these experience head injuries and die outright.  An additional unknown number receive injuries that may lead eventually to death."

If it were common knowledge that we kill nearly a billion birds each year, wouldn't we do something about it?

In Milwaukee, a group called "Wings" (for Wisconsin Night Guardians for Songbirds) does work similar to FLAP in Toronto. Wings is a program of the Wisconsin Humane Society. The program depends on volunteers. Check out their website to see how you can help.

But the only sustainable solution to the problem lies in the buildings themselves. According to the Times article, public policies, new building codes, and retrofitting existing reflective glass windows are just beginning to catch up with this reality.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Canoeing the Kinnickinnic

Over the weekend I participated in a canoe tour of the lower KK River sponsored by the Urban Ecology Center and led by UEC staffer Chad Thomack. We put in at the public boat launch across from the Hoan Bridge.

The canoe trip was partially funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The GLRI is an action plan developed by 11 federal agencies. Its mission is to clean up toxic pollution, combat invasive species, and protect watersheds in the Great Lakes region from polluted runoff.

The GLRI has identified “Areas of Concern” (AOC) throughout the Great Lakes. One of them is the Milwaukee River Estuary, which includes the lower KK River. The AOC designation was given to the estuary because of several pockets of sediments polluted with industrial chemicals from the 1930s through the late 1970s.

It was mostly overcast and gloomy, but unseasonably warm. Our journey began in the inner harbor along Jones Island. Here is a short photo essay of the excursion.

The U.S. Bank building in the distance seems to be dwarfed by the MMSD stack at its Jones Island Treatment Plant.

UWM's Great Lakes Water Institute, foreground, and the "Allen Bradley" clock tower atop Rockwell. 

The flotilla of canoes making its way past the First Street bridge and a railroad bridge.

A section of the river bank between Beecher Street and Lincoln Avenue has been overgrown with non-native and aggressively invasive Phragmites.

Finally, south of Lincoln Avenue, we reach a stretch of the river bordered by parklands with a more natural setting.

There is even an old beaver lodge, now abandoned, that housed an active beaver until recently. To me it is a symbol of hope for the urban wilderness. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The High Line: Good and Bad

It was a glorious fall day, warm with buttery sunlight, as I made my way slowly along the narrow, tree-lined pathway. I was moving slowly for multiple reasons. First, I was enjoying the sunshine as well as my first experience of the High Line. Second, I frequently paused to inspect intriguing details of the park, which include wildflowers and public art, as well as marvelous panoramic views of mid-town Manhattan. Third, I was in a crush of like-minded revelers, an enormous, snaking parade of humanity out to visit one of New York’s newest, most innovative parks.

And fourth, of course, I was stopping periodically to take pictures. Like just about everyone around me. Spirits were high and the mood festive. A polyglot cacophony of human voices surrounded me, ebbing and swirling as people passed in both directions.

Amidst the many languages and inflected exclamations as I was, I might have passed by without noticing the one installation of public art that had no physical presence. But when I stopped to frame a photograph atop the steel grated “flyover” section of the park I heard a calm, measured voice speaking slowly and deliberately. It was oddly out of sync with the clamor. When I started to pay closer attention I heard the names of animals.

“Cheetah, …goose, …elephant, …hen, …lion, …mongoose,” intoned an invisible voice. The narrator paused and pronounced, “Bad animals: …spider, …bat, …shark, …head lice, …cockroaches….” The speaker must have been hidden under the walkway. Upon nearing it an expression of curiosity would appear on people’s faces and they would slow to figure it out, as I did.

I waited for it to cycle to the beginning: “Good animals: …penguin, …turtle, …swan, …house cat….”

A distinctive circular sign on the railing informed us that it was one of the many public art projects along the High Line, a sound installation by Uri Aran called Untitled (Good and Bad). I wondered how Aran decided which animals were to be considered good or bad. In my own opinion, a couple of the “bad” ones—bats and sharks—have gotten bad reputations for various reasons, but prove beneficial upon objective observation. And at least a couple of the “good” animals—geese and raccoons, for example—often are considered pests.

Then there’s the ambiguity of “goodness” itself. Listed among the “good” animals, the qualities of a rhinoceros look very different to a safari hunter, a naturalist, and a poacher intent on cashing in on the horn.

On another level, every kind of animal has its appropriate niche in the interconnected web of life—even head lice, I guess! The artist, according to the description on the High Line website, is trying to “spark dialogue about the arbitrary nature of classification in language.” It certainly spurred an internal dialogue for me, one that continued beyond classifications and even linguistics. 

The context of the piece, situated as it is at the center of the High Line, led to a larger question in my mind: Can nature be considered “good” and “bad?” Or, more fundamentally, what is nature? The High Line is one of the most unnatural places ever to have been conceived as parkland. Yet one of the amazing things about it, I think, is that it was inspired by nature; by what was perceived by some as wilderness taking over an abandoned elevated railroad.

Are there “good” and “bad” parks? The masses voting with their feet have clearly proclaimed the High Line “good.” I concur. By contrast, some parks, considered unsafe, are shunned by the general public. However, those parks are more likely to be refuges for wildlife. This also seems like a good thing to me. Good animals? Bad animals?

During the past week I spent four days walking and photographing the High Line. Time well spent, I believe. The park is a remarkable accomplishment. But, although it was inspired by the kind of urban wilderness to which I am usually attracted, it can no longer be called one. The website says that the landscape design is “reminiscent of the quiet contemplative nature of the self-seeded landscape and wild plantings that once grew on the unused High Line.” Emphasis mine.

What role should an urban park have in bringing the experience of nature to the citizens of any city? Followers of Urban Wilderness know that I am fully committed to urban parks that enable connections with nature. There has to be room for a variety of experiences and a spectrum of natural features, from formal gardens to outright unmanaged “wildernesses.” New York happens to be large enough to accommodate both. The High Line is a hybrid, exquisitely designed and carefully controlled.

Public art is a significant feature of the High Line’s program, but I submit that the High Line itself is a work of art that will always transcend the installations on and around it. The High Line elevates questions about the intermingled roles of art and nature to a unique level. Pun intended.

This is the first of what I expect will be at least a few meditations on my experiences this week on the High Line. And a lot more pictures. I hope you’ll stay tuned. (Episode 2: Auguries of Innocence.)

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Clean Water Act at 40

The early 70’s were a heady time for nature-lovers. The first Earth Day was in 1970. I remember that early energy of what became known as the “environmental movement.” We had marched for Civil Rights; we had protested the Vietnam War. Now we were going to save the earth. And do you know what? A lot of good came from that energy. The Clean Water Act is one of the highlights.

October 18 marks the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Clean Water Act. Last night at Discovery World, Milwaukee Riverkeeper hosted an anniversary party to celebrate the enormous positive impact that this legislation has had. As a former Milwaukee Riverkeeper board member I’ve been to many of their annual fall “River Bashes” and this was the most well attended one that I can recall.

Todd Ambs, director of the national River Network, was the guest speaker. His talk focused on both the progress that has been made since the 1972 passage of the act and on the many challenges that we still face. You can read his “40 thoughts for 40 years” on the River Network website. 

We are at a critical moment and the “environmental movement,” despite its indisputable success, has been vilified by a surprisingly large segment of an increasingly polarized populace. (In 1972 a bipartisan Congress overrode Nixon’s presidential veto to pass the Clean Water Act.) Ambs commented on the perceived negativity of the environmental movement, using the Civil Rights Movement as an example. He said that when Dr. Martin Luther King made his most famous speech in 1963 he didn’t call it “I have a complaint.” We in the environmental community often have been guilty of predicting gloom and doom. But it doesn’t take long to become either despondent or antagonistic in the face of unrelenting bad news. We can’t afford to emphasize problems without simultaneously celebrating successes. We must hold up our dreams for the earth instead of our complaints.

Ambs quoted Carl Sagan: “Anything else you're interested in is not going to happen if you can't breathe the air and drink the water. Don't sit this one out. Do something. You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.”

One of the literal sparks that ignited the Earth Day movement and motivated Congress to pass the Clean Water Act was the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, OH in 1969. In fact, it had caught fire many times over many preceding decades. As Ambs pointed out, rivers no longer catch fire in the U.S., thanks largely to the Clean Water Act. He didn’t go on to add that now, unfortunately, tap water has begun to catch fire instead due to groundwater contamination by the oil shale fracking industry. (If this is news, check out the sobering movie, Gasland.) There is still work to be done.

My dream is for my children and grandchildren -- and their compatriots in other parts of the world -- to have safe and secure drinking water, fishable and swimmable rivers and lakes, and an unabashed love of nature, even if they live in densely populated cities as so many must. 

Taking care of our planetary home also will benefit everyone's bottom line. Another Ambs quote, from former WI governor Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day: “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”

For more information on the Clean Water Act and the 40th anniversary, go to the Office ofManagement and Budget website or to an article in the Huffington Post.

Happy birthday, Clean Water Act, and congratulations, Milwaukee Riverkeeper!

A recent outing of the Milwaukee Riverkeeper boat on the Milwaukee River, which is much cleaner today than it was in 1972.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Autumn: Cedar Creek Park

A view of Cedar Creek running through Cedar Creek Park in Cedarburg.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Engineering Life?

Is this a whole new interpretation of urban wilderness? Bio-engineers are experimenting with life forms, even with the creation of life. Is this the salvation of humanity or something much darker? Where will it end?

The story is fascinating, even entertaining, despite its creepiness and moral dubiousness, when told by Radio Lab:

"In a world where biology and engineering intersect, how do you decide what's "natural"?

Biotechnology is making it easier and easier to create new forms of life, but what are the consequences when humans play with life? We travel back to the first billion years of life on Earth, take a look at how modern engineers tinker with living things, and meet a woman who could have been two people."

DNA Double HelixDownload the podcast:
(So-Called) Life.
It's worth a listen.