Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Urban Wilderness: The year in review

County Grounds tree cutting
The past year saw dispatches from Urban Wildernesses as far flung as London, England and the U. S. Southwest, along with coverage of a wide variety of stories much closer to home. Locally, 2013 was year of contrasts, of gains and losses in terms of urban wilderness. The year began with a bang; literally a crashing of trees and the whine of buzz saws at the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa. My January post, Slaughter on the Milwaukee County Grounds: Innovation What?, struck a nerve and blasted all records, both prior and subsequent, for Urban Wilderness readership.
Other bad news included the proposed mine in the Bad River watershed of the Penokee Hills in northern Wisconsin, the precedent-setting decision by the WI Public Service Commission to allow power lines to be built in Milwaukee County’s Underwood Parkway, a decision by the WI DNR to expand hunting in the state, and a developer’s popular proposal to build a residential tower on Milwaukee’s lakefront in violation of Wisconsin’s Public Trust Doctrine. (The final outcomes of the mine and the lakefront development are still pending.)

3 Bridges Park opens
On the positive side of the ledger, Milwaukee created two fabulous new parks for its citizens to enjoy—3 Bridges Park in the Menomonee Valley and the Rotary Centennial Arboretum along the Milwaukee River.

I posted twice about 3 Bridges Park: 3 Bridges Park opens in Menomonee Valley and Photos of the opening.

Rotary Centennial Arboretum
And three times to share images of the arboretum as it developed during the year:

Also, people from all over the region continue to turn out in great numbers to help Milwaukee Riverkeeper clean up the rivers on Earth Day and the Menomonee River is finally going to be rid of the last remaining stretch of concrete channel.

Beyond all that it was another very good year for Urban Wilderness adventures. Here are a few of my favorite chronicles in chronological order:

January: An update on the tree-cutting episode at the Milwaukee County Grounds.

Starved Rock State Park, IL
In February I returned for a second look at Starved Rock State Park, not far from Chicago in Illinois: The Abstract Wild.

In March I returned to the Mke County Grounds for An Easter reflection.

Hampstead Heath, London
In May I reported on my April trip to London’s Hampstead Heath: Nature, Art and Artifice.

June found me in the Southwest where I posted from Abiquiu, NM—Desert monastery knows how to do seclusion—and southern Colorado—Colorful Colorado: a tale of tent caterpillars and pine beetles.

Millennium Reserve, Chicago, IL
In July I discovered Chicago’s Millennium Reserve, which at 140,000 acres will become the nation’s largest urban wilderness when its post-industrial landscape is fully rehabilitated: Chicago’s Millennium Reserve: A photo essay.

In August I finally made a long awaited pilgrimage to one of the most famous of all urban wildernesses: Postcards from Walden Pond.

North Park, Lincolnshire, IL
September found me off the beaten track—slightly—next to Interstate 94 outside Chicago: North Park, Lincolnshire, IL: We all live in awatershed.

In October I was fortunate enough to be able to return to New Mexico from where I filed this account of a visit to one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s favorite sources of inspiration: The White Place.

County Grounds
December was dark, as always, which led me to post twin stories about the winter solstice.

I closed the year in the place where it began, with a photo essay from the Milwaukee County Grounds, which has become a white place of a very different sort.

Happy New Year from the Urban Wilderness!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Into white: A photographic circuit of the Milwaukee County Grounds

A recent snowfall drew me outside and, not wanting to drive in it, I went for a long walk in one of my favorite haunts, the County Grounds. I was amazed, not by the beauty of the landscape, which long experience has continually reaffirmed, but by how many people there were out there also enjoying it. More often than not, upon seeing me with my camera and tripod, I would hear the question repeated nearly verbatim: "Have you gotten any good pictures?" They are always well-intentioned but the implications seemed to be that it would be hard to miss and that I would be an incompetent fool not to have done so. I always smile and say something noncommittal like "I believe I might have."

One particularly enthusiastic fellow, after the inevitable question, added "There are some good ones over there," pointing up the hill where I was headed. As if photographs were simply out there like ripe apples waiting to be picked from the trees. And, indeed, I believe I did get a few good ones, at least good enough to share. Enjoy!

Approaching the east detention basin from Hoyt Park.

Revelers sledding on the steeply sloped berm of the east basin.

Two roads diverged in a wood and I..., I took the one without tire tracks making troughs in the deep snow.

Dog walkers on one of the popular trails through the woods behind Ronald McDonald House.

The endangered oak savanna.

The Grove. This copse is behind the We Energies power plant and was the inspiration for the winter solstice story I wrote for Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed.

Port-a-potty. This is also behind the power plant, at the edge of a parking lot between the copse and the plant.

UWM's Accelerator building on the Innovation Park campus, enclosed but still under construction.

An icy tree in front of the ABB building, also under construction at Innovation Park. One of the many newly planted trees along Discovery Parkway.

The Eschweiler complex, visible through the steel pilings that are being driven along Watertown Plank Road to support the new interchange under construction there.

A view towards the We Energies power plant and the Milwaukee Regional Medical Complex from the recently re-landscaped County Grounds park.

Children's Hospital is just visible through the windrow of oaks along Swan Boulevard next to the east detention basin.

I hope I was able to pick a few good apples, though some were probably not what my fellow travelers that day had in mind. Thoreau said, "The perception of beauty is a moral test." This is ever true in the urban wilderness and all the more reason to keep the little of it we have left to us.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Winter solstice ceremony on Milwaukee’s lakefront

“We are all connected.” ~ John Clifford, Lakota Elder, Congregation of the Great Spirit
On this the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the sun never did rise.
Even the city, its towers enveloped in mist, seemed ephemeral.
We had come to Milwaukee’s lakefront to bear witness to the solstice, to honor the earth and its peoples, and to offer up special prayers for life-sustaining water. The ceremony was led by members of the Congregation of the Great Spirit, who engage in the ancient rituals four times a year, at the solstices and equinoxes. Out of respect for the sacred rites and offerings, I willingly complied with their request to refrain from photographing during the ceremony itself. (I shot all the accompanying photos either before or after the ceremony.)

We gathered under a great tree near the site of the old coast guard station, which had been used by the Indian community from 1971 to 1983. John Clifford, a Lakota Elder, began by explaining the importance of the site as well as the importance of the tree as a symbol of the unity of earth and sky.

Clifford lit an aromatic offering of tobacco and sage. We gathered at the tree. The first offering was to the “spider spirits,” black, white, gray, and gentle, which protect this sacred site. We then faced each of the cardinal directions in turn. Tiny bundles of tobacco were placed at the base of the tree. Prayers were spoken. The four cardinal directions are associated with colors, with the elements of earth, air, fire, and water. They also represent the four ages of humankind, new life, youth, adulthood, and the elders.
The solemnity of the ritual was maintained despite the intrusions of daily life: the sound of traffic on Lincoln Memorial Drive, dogs crunching through the frozen snow as they chased each other, joggers coming down off the pedestrian bridge/ramp. There was one brief perturbation of the mood when a colorful truck parked nearby with loudspeakers blaring “Jingle Bells” sung—barked that is—by dogs.
I discovered later that this was a business that offers sled dog rides in the park.

The emphasis was on water in in keeping with a Global Day of Prayer for Water organized by Milwaukee Riverkeeper and the Congregation of the Great Spirit. The most important message I heard during the ceremony was when Clifford invoked “all of my relatives.” By that he meant the earth and all people because, he said, “We are all connected.”

A free spirit? an omen? a kite caught in a tree. Everything is connected. I'm sure of it.

This is one of a pair of posts in honor of the Winter Solstice. The other is a reprise of my solstice story from Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed.

Winter Solstice: a true story

This is one of the stories from Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, which was published in 2008 by the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago. I offer it again on the shortest day of 2013. The story, written ten years ago, describes a County Grounds that has undergone profound changes since then. And yet, the grove of trees at the heart of the story remains intact, for the time being. May it ever be so.

Late afternoon sun glows weakly through a thin skein of clouds.  On this darkest of days, it has never been far from the horizon. We leave behind a house and neighborhood as yet unlit, from which all color has been drained.  
So begins my family's annual pilgrimage, a private solstice tradition connected to 4,000 years of ritual observances rife with the symbolism of renewal. At the winter solstice (literally "to stand still," referring to the celestial moment when the sun stops receding from the equator) ancient peoples often referred to the "unconquered sun" because its descent into darkness is arrested. Ritual helped explain this event and drive off the "monsters of Chaos" that might prevent the sun's return, with catastrophic consequences. Prior to the construction of elaborate structures for the marking of the solstices, such as Stonehenge in England, these rituals often took place at sacred natural sites, on hilltops or in groves of trees.
Traffic on the Menomonee River Parkway is thin; its fittingly subdued sounds fade as we pass through the empty park. Across the railroad tracks, in the County Grounds, urban slowly yields to wilderness. Turned but snow-free fields still bear meager, dryly rattling cornstalks, hollowed skins of squash, and carefully bundled staking sticks. Our footsteps fall on progressively softer earth; the concrete street gives way to asphalt sidewalk, then tire-tracked dirt road to earthen trail; then finally to grass as we step off the path entirely.  No paths can take us from where we live to where we want to be today. 
Formerly waist-high grasses lie in arrhythmic whorls. Rigid stalks of sturdier plants—goldenrod, teasel, and milkweed—stand like punctuation marks in an undecipherable text. Ahead stands the grove we seek, in its already shadowed hollow, as the sun burns softly on the horizon.  Across the open meadow the wind is biting, but dies when we reach the dell. Pushing cattails gently aside, I test the ice atop the tiny rill. There is an open rift where water runs, black and silent, but the ice holds and we step across into the heart of the grove. A galaxy of animal prints—rabbits, raccoons, and many birds—swirls around its center of gravity.
 Among the smaller maples and ash is a tremendous, old black willow, with so many trunks that they go uncounted. They radiate from its open center like ancient standing stones. Several have fallen and resprouted. One scarred limb lies horizontally across the middle, its bark completely abraded off by countless climbing shoes. It assumes the roles of megalith and altar.

Out of the wind, it is suddenly warm, despite the icy ground. To dispel the gathering gloom, we light candles along the broken limb. Overhead the crown of the tree glows brightly. It is the moment of solstice—the standing-still sun. Our vigil combines solemnity with celebration; it also recognizes continuity between ancient archetypes and contemporary concerns. We honor the spirit of this place, the animals that share its shelter, the larger landscape all around, and the life-sustaining Earth; we uphold the unity of Creator and Creation; and we do all of this with a particular awe: we are here, minutes from home, in the center of metropolitan Milwaukee, and yet in quiet solitude, in the urban wilderness. 
When we emerge again to the open field, the golden horizon has cooled to magenta and a fierce winter wind flies in our faces. But the "monsters of Chaos" have been contained again; the darkest night will soon be gone; the land will persist and—beyond superstition—the belief is rekindled, that we as a people will learn to live in harmony with nature. The unconquered sun will be brighter tomorrow. 
This is one of a pair of posts in honor of the Winter Solstice. Click here for "Winter solstice ceremony on Milwaukee’s lakefront."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Christmas trees and geese at Harley Davidson Museum

I was out in the Menomonee Valley again when it snowed yesterday. Did you know that you can buy your Christmas tree at the Harley Davidson Museum? I didn't know that. The big black cubic building was what drew my attention. It was quite striking in the snowy landscape. It's blackness was softened by the snow, as you can see in the photo above.

It wasn't until I drove in to park near the building that I noticed the orange fencing, which at first I took as part of the Harley Davidson color scheme. That seems to be a coincidence, though.

Out in front of the small, fenced tree lot the open field had attracted a huge flock of geese.

Now and then more geese landed singly or in small wedges. Most of them stayed hunkered down into the snow until I disturbed them by approaching too close.

I did catch a few flying over the museum from across the canal. I wrote a haiku to capture the contrast:

wintry stillness
a wedge of silent geese
a full-throttled roar

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Common Ground sponsors tour of MMSD

 The photos are mine, but the text that follows was written by Pete Overholt, who organized the tour we took on behalf of Common Ground.
 “Did you know the deep tunnel has close to 30 miles of water storage capacity?  Did you know leaky laterals – the pipes that connect our homes to the sewage treatment system - are a significant problem during large rain events?  Did you know you may be eligible for a mini-grant to help pay for installation of a rain garden on your property?  Did you know one of the major tools for water treatment is microbes … that “gobble up” contaminants?  Did you know that Milorganite is short for “Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen”? 
A bus-load of Unitarian Universalists learned all this and a lot more during a tour of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) Jones Island wastewater treatment plant on Saturday, 12/7.  Clouds of vapor rising from settling ponds set against crisp blue sky provided a dramatic backdrop for the event, and our guides did a great job of fielding a steady stream of questions. Our group followed the process from trash filtering to settling, through the microbial buffet and chemical cleansing, to final discharge of clean water to Lake Michigan.
The operation was impressive, but there is always room for improvement.  While sewer overflows are a much smaller problem than they were in the past (thanks to deep tunnel storage capacity), they still occur, and urbanization continues to add impervious surface, increasing the volume of water that must be handled.  Individually, we can all have an impact; if it’s raining hard, shorten your shower, and save laundry for another day!  Collectively, MMSD gave us a picture of sanitation and storm water handling in our community.”
Common Ground is a nonpartisan organization in Southeastern Wisconsin dedicated to identifying pressing social problems facing our community and bringing about creative solutions. To learn more about Common Ground, go to their website.
The interior shots are all of the drying facility that makes Milorganite, which is used as fertilizer.
The Jones Island stack is 300 feet tall, which is also how deep the deep tunnels are.

Full disclosure: I attended the tour as a member of Unitarian Universalist Church West.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Snowscapes in the Menomonee Valley

A flock of geese descending towards a small patch of open water on the Menomonee River at the Valley Passage Bridge crossing. I went out during the snowfall on Sunday and caught this. It was beautiful and haunting.

And the Industrial Park across Canal Street from the river was also haunting in its own way. It will come as no surprise to followers of this blog that one of the things I love about the Menomonee Valley is this juxtaposition of urban and wilderness!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mysterious Menomonee River stalagmite formations in Hoyt Park

Friends of mine were out walking along the Menomonee River in Hoyt Park yesterday when they discovered a mysteriously tall ice formation. Knowing that I would be interested, they stopped by to alert me of the phenomenon. It did sound intriguing but I was unprepared by their description of it for just what a curiosity I'd find. Along the downstream edge where the water flows over a weir numerous formations resembling stalagmites have formed. The tallest, as the photo below shows, is about as tall as I am. Water could be seen bubbling up from the center of several of the smaller formations, which explains how they grew. I am quite baffled as to how one could have gotten so tall.

While I was out I was delighted to see that there were quite a few hardy souls braving the unseasonably frigid temperatures to enjoy the wild side of Hoyt Park. Hikers, joggers and even a few bikers were out on the trail on the south side of the river.

I may go out again today to see what the snow fall has done to the ice. It is certain to draw out a few skiers.

The weir in the photo, by the way is one of several still left in the Menomonee River. I hope that someday before too long it can go the way of the concrete channel that is currently being removed downstream near Miller Brewing. See my last post for more on that.