Saturday, October 25, 2014

Photo Phenology 3: A photo essay

“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, "What good is it?" If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.1

Silver Maple
For the third time during the course of this year I’ve undertaken a personal, somewhat unscientific version of phenology in the parks of the Menomonee Valley. Phenology is the science of observation, specifically of seasonal variations in the life cycles of plants and animals. The Urban Ecology Center has volunteers who go out into the two parks adjacent to its Menomonee Valley Branch on a monthly basis to photograph in a methodical manner. On my first two phenology excursions I accompanied UEC teams. This time, it being a glorious autumn afternoon, I went more spontaneously, alone. The light was magnificent and kept getting better as the day wore on.

Sumac & Steel
The quote above is from Aldo Leopold who was a habitual and meticulous phenologist as well as one of our country’s most famous ecologists and author of the classic, A Sand County Almanac. The quote is suggestive, I submit, of a current way of thinking about the Menomonee Valley. The history of the Valley could easily suggest that our predecessors tinkered with it in rather unintelligent ways. The original, natural landscape was not just discarded piecemeal but very nearly in its entirety. Now, however, there is a concerted attempt to ameliorate the situation and reintroduce some of what was lost. I believe we have gotten better at intelligent tinkering.

My ramblings took me in a loop around Stormwater Park, adjacent to the 35th Street Viaduct, then briefly into Three Bridges Park. Here is what I saw.

Switchgrass & Ingeteam
Black Oak
Wild Grape
Purple Aster
Silver Maple
If you're paying close attention you will have noticed that silver maple leaves can turn red or yellow. I was skeptical so I checked with Jeff, the wildlife ecologist at the UEC. He assured me that this is true.
Stormwater Park & Viaduct
View from Valley Passage Bridge
Kayakers Posing
Sumac Explosion
Tomatillo in Community Gardens
Community Garden Boxes & Sky
Oak Seedling
City on a Hill
I will end as I began, with a quote from Leopold:

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”2


This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Bearing Witness in the Menomonee Valley

The bend in the Menomonee just downstream from Miller Park is one of my favorite haunts in the Valley. There the river makes one of several ninety-degree turns that remind us, if we attend to them, that the watercourse is not “natural” but as manufactured as the industries that replaced the wild rice marsh from which the river was carved. But that’s history. Today this corner of the river is rare for its seclusion—and for a blessed illusion: paradoxically, it is one of the few stretches of seemingly natural landscape without a glimpse of the surrounding city.
It is a place prized by anglers and I am not surprised to find a suitably costumed one casting repeatedly in the shallow water. I ask what’s biting and he grimaces before grumbling amiably, “Nothing yet.” Then he adds, “But it’s a lovely afternoon and the autumn colors are beautiful.” He continues casting. 
By chance I spot the remains of a hawk, victim of some unknown violent end, splayed across the ground near the river. I might have missed it; so closely do its colors blend with the earth on which it rests. I haven’t come seeking this, but here I am and here it is.

Without clearly understanding why, I record the scene with my camera.

Photography famously excels at representing the material world. Just point and shoot, as they say, with a camera—or a phone—and you have a lasting record that is often far more detailed than what you’ve consciously observed. But my mind is on a branch of Zen Buddhism that encourages a practice known as bearing witness.* Bearing witness is more than observing your surroundings.
I observe the crushed body of the hawk, the pattern on its feathers, the curved talons—their vicious sharpness rendered impotent by death. Noted later, my camera also records matted, muddied entrails; twisted brown leaves scattered all around among surprisingly fresh green shoots; even the grit of the sandy earth.

After shooting the dead body I move on, turn the bend, and 
climb an overgrown slope to the Hank Aaron Trail. There in the middle of the asphalt I find another, smaller carcass: a vole. (Perhaps a mouse, but mice have pointier snouts. Its flattened state makes the attribution tentative. In any case, common prey for a hawk.) This one has not died a natural wild rodent death—most likely it was squashed by a speeding cyclist. Nor did it provide sustenance for a hawk. The flies busily digging in its punctured hide, however, care nothing for how it perished. In nature nothing is wasted. Death begets life.

I have not come looking for hawks or voles. I’m not seeking memento mori. I did have a purpose in mind when I chose to walk this bend in the river today but once I arrived I let that purpose subside. Buddhism teaches us to let go of attachments. It is a practice I deliberately bring to my photography, if not always to the rest of my life. Had I stuck to my purpose I might have noticed neither hawk nor vole. Letting go of my purpose and being present in the moment allows me the freedom to discover things I am not seeking.

But the idea of bearing witness goes deeper. You are not merely present in the moment and open to experience, though these are the necessary conditions that make bearing witness possible. Bearing witness is an act of social engagement, not only being aware of the life—and death—around you but embodying it. Allow yourself to embody the experience of the other—that which is outside yourself—and you may become one with it: hawk, vole, predator and prey, river, trail, Menomonee Valley, city, Earth. Words, ideas, experiences.
Occasionally photographs.

Bearing witness isn’t about the photographs. It isn’t about the words. It isn’t about death either, unless it is death to which you attend.

Ultimately—ideally—bearing witness is about the dissolution of self, becoming one with all life, with the universe. By embodying the universe you assume responsibility for it. Not because of a moral obligation—too intellectual—but because you experience the other as yourself, inseparable. If you embody the other then the other is you and you will naturally care for it as you do yourself.

The Menomonee Valley represents an unusual kind of oneness, the planned reintegration of nature within an urban fabric. The inseparability of natural and built environments is being made manifest here. I come to the Valley to be present, to bear witness, to try with due humility to embody this universe.

In Zen practice bearing witness commonly addresses injustice and inequality, promotes peace and reconciliation. But we must also bear witness to progress and hope. Like the hawk and the vole, here in the Valley it is easy to find dead carcasses of abandoned factories in various states of decay. But I haven’t come seeking death.

I have come seeking renewal. The Valley provides that in abundance.

*Glassman, Bernie. Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace. 1998. Bell Tower, New York.

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.  

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Milwaukee Magazine: Menomonee Valley a good reason to love Milwaukee!

I am honored to be included in a nice little story about the Menomonee Valley in the October issue of Milwaukee Magazine. The sprawling article is titled "Reasons to love Milwaukee." In all there are 56 reasons listed. The revitalization of the Menomonee Valley and I made reason number 43. Here is what it says:

"Over the past 15 years, the Menomonee Valley has gone from neglected dumping ground to the most expansive public-private partnership in Milwaukee. Reclaimed as a business park, entertainment spot and recreation area after decades of industrial decay, the Valley is an example of balance between the natural and built environments. It's anchored by some of Milwaukee’s most popular destinations – Harley-Davidson Museum and Potawatomi Hotel & Casino – and is now home to new and renewed companies, from Rishi Tea to Palermo’s Pizza to Charter Wire. And it's never been more accessible. Traversing Canal Street, a 6-mile extension of the Hank Aaron State Bicycle Trail mimics the curves of the Menomonee River, which is an emerging water route for canoes and kayaks. Cars, bikes and boats pass the Falk manufacturing plant, Twisted Fisherman restaurant, Marquette University’s sports complex and the Global Water Center. But the Valley’s crown jewel is Three Bridges Park. Christened in July of 2013, the park connects the South Side to 24 acres of open prairie, riverbanks, and trails. Early this year, Valley partners even commissioned local photographer Eddee Daniel as 2014 artist-in-residence to record and share images of the Valley’s changing forms."

I thank the editors of Milwaukee Magazine for including me and especially for recognizing the value of the Menomonee Valley revitalization efforts. I also want to thank photographer Adam Morris for two fine portraits of me. The one in the print edition of the magazine is different from this one, which is in the online version. Both were taken in Three Bridges Park.

Courtesy Adam Morris, Milwaukee Magazine