Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What a difference a day makes!


Yesterday’s high of 61° melted what little ice remained on the river. That on top of the rainfall made the Menomonee River bulge. The ground thawed as well. As evening fell, a thick ground fog rose over muddy soccer fields here at Hoyt Park as well as over the river. I became confused when I first stepped outside. My body, like muscle memory, reacted with relief and joy at the spring-like warmth. Even so, it felt wrong mentally, for I knew it couldn't be spring. Groundhog Day is still three days away!

Today, of course, we had snow. Twenty-four hours later it is 26° and still falling towards a projected low of 11°. The river is even higher; the soccer fields a featureless sheet of white.

High water, erratic temperatures and extreme weather events have become the new normal in this time of climate change. Just ask those who are still rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. And those of us who believed in global warming all along feel no satisfaction in saying, “I told you so” to all those who didn’t. (At least I don’t.)

We thought we had dominion over nature. We fought--and, sadly, continue to fight--the wilderness into submission, making casualties of innumerable species, but we cannot conquer the wild. It returns with a vengeance.

What a difference a day makes. The trees that were mown down in one day in order to pave the way for progress at Innovation Park (see previous post) will not grow back in a day, or a year, or in our lifetimes. The climate will not go back to normal in our lifetimes either. We can bulldoze the landscape but when we strip nature we leave ourselves naked.

Try as we do, we cannot fence out the wild. The more we suppress it the greater its fury.

We must learn to live again with nature, to feel one with nature. Plant new trees, yes. But we must be very cautious about the ones that remain. They are more than symbolic of our willingness to compromise our earthly nest; they embody our spirit.

So—while there still is snowgo for a run in it with your mouth wide open.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

County Grounds tree cutting update

“Everyone likes trees. Some like them vertical; some like them horizontal.” ~ Anonymous

Delivered with droll humor over the phone, that was one of the multitude of responses I have received since I posted my previous story about the tree removal on the County Grounds. Many of the replies have been far more strident. What is most clear from the outpouring of grief and anger over this incident is that a great many people, both near and far, care very deeply about the fate of the County Grounds.

Here is a more typical response, from Gail, a Wauwatosa resident: “I am so heart broken – as I know so many other people are too. Please keep all of us, who have fought long and hard for this plot of land, in your thoughts as we go through the long painful process of mourning during the construction process….  To some of us this is where we go for spiritual uplifts….”

I am grateful, not only for the attention that this issue has received, but especially for the concern expressed by so many. I think that it is important to note that the concern goes beyond tree-hugging to encompass larger issues of land use, appropriate development for this unique site, and transparency as development proceeds.

As County Supervisor James “Luigi” Schmitt put it, “After it’s done, it’s done.” If there is a silver lining in this for those of us who reacted with shock and dismay it is that, while many trees have come down, the development of Innovation Park is far from done. This is the beginning. Still on the agenda is the upcoming and highly controversial decision about preserving vs. demolishing the Eschweiler buildings.

Accounts in the media also have evolved as concern has widened. Several of you sent me the link to the Fox 6 News spot (about the cold that the contractors had to endure to cut down those trees) that was posted on Monday, adding comments like “unbelievable.” You will be happy to learn that I was interviewed last night by a news team from CBS 58. The far more reflective piece they produced, which aired at 10 pm last night, is posted online.

Its president, David Gilbert, represented the position of the UWM Real Estate Foundation, which is responsible for the development. No one who has followed this issue closely will be surprised by the rationale he expressed. Yes, the DOT forced some of the choices. Yes, there has been a commitment to preserve an 11-acre habitat for wildlife. And yes, I definitely favor planting native tree species to replace those that were, as a story in WauwatosaNOW put it, “mown down.” 

A few of those trees were diseased; some of them were considered “weed trees.” But, while new trees can and should be planted, the hundred-year-old ones of any species (some were venerable and hardy) will not be “replaced” in our lifetimes.

One more significant clarification should be made: while the Friends of the Monarch Trail, among others, are grateful for the commitments made to preserve the 11-acre habitat zone, those 11 acres were not identified in isolation. The agreement by Milwaukee County at the time of the sale of the land to the Real Estate Foundation and adopted by the City of Wauwatosa included a Habitat Restoration Landscape Plan for the Northeast Quadrant. This plan contains guidelines for the entire Northeast Quadrant of the County Grounds, including Innovation Park. Among its goals is to provide a consistent character throughout the Northeast Quadrant and to utilize existing topography and natural resource features. (Emphasis mine.)

As County Supervisor Deanna Alexander put it to me in an email, “It was my understanding that some land would be cleared for development, but that most of the aesthetics of the area would be preserved….”

Notwithstanding my own photographs, this issue isn’t primarily about trees. It is about how we envision our community and whether or not we choose to integrate what we build with the natural environment. The County Grounds has been called the “most valuable real estate in Milwaukee County.” Why? Not because of its potential for development, but because of the location and its existing natural features, including magnificent views. The past few days have proved that many in our community envision something truly innovative on the County Grounds: development that is valued because it respects the natural features and the interests of the public.

The plan that made the UWM Real Estate Foundation, with its relationship to the university itself, the steward of the development zone was a compromise. I am among those who saw this as preferable to IKEA and a swath of condominiums, which were options being considered. I won’t say that the Real Estate Foundation has broken its promises, but it is obvious that skepticism has been generated.

The responses to what happened over the weekend have ranged from anguish to incredulity and raised many questions. I can’t answer them all. Here is one that I can answer: Jim Toth, in a comment on the blog, asked, “What will become of the "harvested" wood? There is probably hundreds of feet of furniture-grade lumber in those old trunks. Is it all destined for the chipper?”

Again, thank you to all for your concern, and in particular to several of the County Supervisors who took the time to reply. I encourage you once again to contact the following and to let them know about your concern. Venting is healthy; communication is healing.

The Wauwatosa Common Council 
The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors
The UWM Real Estate Foundation, President David H. Gilbert:
The City of Wauwatosa:
Mayor Kathleen Ehley: 
Paulette Enders, Development Director:  
William C. Porter, Director of Public Works:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Slaughter on the Milwaukee County Grounds: Innovation What?

"The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope." ~ Wendell Berry

It is a cold day on the Milwaukee County Grounds. An icy front pushed through last night. My fingers are numb only minutes after leaving the car. But the tingling in the tips of my fingers, toes and ears is bearable compared to the numbness that afflicts my mind and soul as I behold the chilling operation that is underway.

I thought I was prepared for this. I’ve known something like this was coming for a long time now. There are some things – skydiving, the birth of a first child, going into battle – for which no amount of preparation can account. Is the cutting of a few old trees comparable? No, but the shock of seeing a stately and beloved grove of trees, some over a hundred years old, unceremoniously slaughtered is real. No, I am not prepared.

I take refuge behind my camera. Peering through its viewfinder distances me enough to record the event. My mind reverts to acquired routines: scout for points of view, frame compositions, wait for the action, … shoot. Shoot again. And again.

The action proceeds non-stop, so efficiently that it takes only two workers to level the entire grove before noon. The mechanical efficiency of the operation contributes to my shock. One worker operates the tree cutting machine and the other watches. He watches me. If they didn’t need someone to keep curious spectators away from danger, one worker could do the job.

They needn’t fear for my safety; I don’t want to be close to this.

The hydraulic arm of the tree-cutting machine is tipped with an entirely utilitarian and perfectly hideous combination of claws and spinning blade. The tractor clanks towards the next target. I expect it to jerk like a cinematic robot, but the arm rises smoothly, eases towards the trunk. There is a momentary hesitation; then it pushes straight into the gray bark. With a bright spray of chips the claws clamp onto the suddenly severed trunk and lift the entire tree, still upright, through the air. Like raising a toast!

The tree is released a good fifteen feet off the ground. It tilts slowly and falls. With a great crunch of breaking limbs and a splattering of branches, it collapses onto the earth. Then the machine pivots, moves on and does it again.

I am equal parts appalled and riveted.

The machine approaches a maple tree too large to topple in one swipe. It progresses methodically from limb to limb, lopping and tossing them aside as easily as my infant granddaughter tosses a toy in order to reach for another one.

The next tree, as the blade bites into it, explodes. Branches fly off in every direction and, though I have kept my distance, I am showered with a barrage of wood chips. I turn aside, protecting my eyes and lens from the cloud of dust that follows. When I turn back a flurry of dark, burnt umber oak leaves wafts in the updraft. Through the dissipating dust the machine’s operator sees me, then smiles and waves.

Burning questions bubble up, insistently. “Why?” doesn’t begin to express the inquisition the situation requires. In simple terms, I know the answer: The land has been purchased for its potential as real estate. It is intended to become a campus, a research facility, a business incubator, a privileged residential address. It will mean jobs, taxes, economic development. In the narrowly constrained rationalization that accepts the myth of progress a grove of trees cannot compete with all that.

But the real reason is even simpler: trees, along with uneven, natural contours, increase development costs. The cheapest way to maximize the utility of the land is to clear it and flatten it. This is supposed to be called Innovation Park. Where is the promise implied in the name?

The rotating steel blade catches the sun, gleaming. It spins relentlessly. As it snaps off another hundred-year-old trunk I can’t help feeling that conventional thinking bested innovation on this round.

Why, it must be asked, all of the trees? It is a failure of imagination to suggest that any of the intended uses of the property are inconsistent with the retention of strategically situated, mature, beautiful trees. That the people who one day will work and live in this place would not have benefitted by their healing presence.

Why is the bottom line always so bereft of what is truly valuable?

When will we begin to learn that value accrues to the ineluctable, spiritual qualities of nature as much as to material, economic considerations? When will we understand that by stripping the land of nature we leave ourselves naked?

I look away from my camera, tearing my eyes from the terrible and compelling activity I’ve been shooting with such intensity. I am confronted with a ravaged landscape. A rabbit scurries out of a woodpile, away from the uproar, disappears into another. The Milwaukee County Parks Administration building sits beyond, newly exposed in the bright, wintry light. Atop its pole the flag snaps in the wind. Land of the free….

When there is only one tree left, the spotter walks over to me and tells me he is leaving, perfunctorily warns me not to get too close. He understands that I will not. Then he, like the rabbit, vanishes.

The last oak stands, its lacy tangle of branches stark and black against the sky.

Then there is only sky.

Note: If, like me, you are saddened and disappointed by this and want to know what you can do, please contact the following with your questions and comments:
The Wauwatosa Common Council 
The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors
The UWM Real Estate Foundation, President David H. Gilbert: -->
The City of Wauwatosa:
Mayor Kathleen Ehley: 
Paulette Enders, Development Director:  
William C. Porter, Director of Public Works:

To read another perspective on this topic, click on WauwatosaNOW.