Friday, May 30, 2014

Bad debt is good business!

The first thing I notice about the nondescript two-story brick building is the sign. Or, to be more precise, the wrong sign. I’m looking for Professional Placement Services (PPS). I check the address again. I’m at the corner of 12th and Mount Vernon and number on the building matches. But I see only “Signarama” in bright red lettering. I wonder how much privacy a collection agency needs.

After confirming that I’m in the correct building the second thing I notice are the locks on the doors. In the main lobby I press the call button, identify myself and hear the familiar click of a lock disengaging. On the second floor I find myself in a glass cage confronted by another locked door and another call button. This time when I push it there is no answer. Immediately beyond the glass cage is a vacant reception desk. I tap on the glass, gingerly. To the concern for privacy add security.

The next thing I notice contradicts everything I’ve been seeing.

Please go to Arts Without Borders for the rest of this story and photos.

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.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Photo Essay: Big Trees (and more) in Milwaukee County Parks

In Memoriam: Richard Barloga, 1941-2014

Not long ago I traveled to California where I visited a couple of Redwood groves. They are deservedly popular (read my earlier post.) But did you know that we have very tall trees right here in Milwaukee County? You can see them without traveling thousands of miles; some of them are but a very short walk in the park.
Eastern cottonwood (Seminary Woods)
 Dan Buckler, Outings Chair of the local Sierra Club group (Great Waters Group), gave a tour Saturday of big trees in several Milwaukee County Parks. He made it clear to the group of about 20 of us that he doesn’t define “big” casually. The Wisconsin DNR keeps a database of exceptionally large trees all over the state. These include “Champion Trees,” which are the single largest example of any particular species that exists in the state, one of which we saw Saturday here in Milwaukee County.

Most of the trees we visited, while not officially Champions, are extremely large in one or more of the dimensions used as calibrations. These may be the diameter and/or circumference of the trunk, the height of the tree, or the width of the crown. In any case they are impressive.

Our tour took us to three County Parks and Seminary Woods, a privately owned but publicly accessible reserve.

We began our journey in Kern Park, along the Milwaukee River where we saw this enormous London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia). (Dan provided the identifications in English and Latin!)

Kern Park is home to several large, beautiful planetrees.

Among other species, some of them native to Wisconsin.

I wandered away from the group and discovered the path leading down to the riverside. I left it for another day, but it was well enough used by others.

Our second stop was South Shore Park, where this venerable European copper beech (Fagus sylvatica) stands right next to the parking lot. I would have been satisfied with its gnarly magnificence. But there was a larger one not far away.

Right on the edge of the park, as you can see. In fact, this one is so close to the road and--significantly--overhead power lines that, as Dan explained, the utility maintenance crews have to been especially careful when pruning, not to damage the tree.

This one is in fact a Champion Tree--the largest European copper beech in Wisconsin--and it has a plaque as proof.

It's coppery red leaves were just budding out.

Someone had the foresight--and curiosity--to look down as well as up. Fortunately. At our feet we found several baby copper beeches.

There were certainly other lovely species in this park too, resplendently decked out in with new foliage.

At Whitnall Park we found this burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) right next to Whitnall Park drive and not far from the golf course. 

Dan explained that even these great trees must occasionally be pruned. Sometimes this is done to protect power lines, as at South Shore Park. Sometimes it is to protect the tree itself. 

Seminary Woods is more like a wild forest than an urban park. Unlike the other places on our tour, there was no lawn separating the trees. Instead what we discovered was a wealth of wildflowers. The trilliums were especially spectacular. 

In fact I found a variety of trillium, called "nodding" for obvious reasons, that I'd never seen before.

We were here to see two especially tall trees. This American beech (Fagus grandifolia) was far too tall to see at one glance--or get in a single picture!

Dan most likely told the group how tall this was, but I had wandered off again and missed it.

That's how I happened upon this lovely patch of skunk cabbage in the hollow.

When I found my way back to the group again they were standing around the most gigantic Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoids) I'd ever laid eyes on. Again I missed the actual height.

There is a well maintained cemetery in the middle of Seminary Woods. But that's another story.

I want to thank Dan Buckler, our intrepid tour leader. Dan is a forester who just moved to the Milwaukee area to work with the DNR in the Parks and Recreation Bureau.

In Dan’s own words, “I have been in love with the woods my entire life, and I have studied trees formally in school and informally in my spare time. Like many people I believe in the sentiment that "The groves were God's first temples" (that is, a forest can be a place of awe and reverence). That is what usually draws people into the woods in the first place. But then you start asking questions about how why a tree is shaped this way or that, how old can this tree become, what's the evolutionary advantage of this bark, and suddenly you discover the whole scientific world around you. All of these things make me want to keep going into the woods, learning more, and hopefully be able to share that knowledge with others.”

In closing, I want to dedicate this post to Richard Barloga, who was an indefatigable advocate for preservation in the Milwaukee region and beyond. I attended a memorial service for Richard after the tour. I was late getting there but I figured Richard would not only understand but applaud my appreciation for the places, the trees and the wildflowers I visited in his honor. In particular, I thought of Richard as I knelt before the Jack-in-the-Pulpit to photograph it. It seemed a fitting prayer.

I went back to Seminary Woods on Sunday because there hadn’t been time during our Saturday tour to check up on the owls I knew to be nesting there. I saw the mother owl perched high in a cottonwood overlooking the dead tree that held the nest. She flew off as I approached the dead tree, no doubt an attempt to draw me away from it.

I did have to back away from the tree to be able to see the two owlets peering intently at me from their perch inside the broken top of it, about 25-30 feet above the ground. New life in the forest. Richard would approve.

(To read Richard's obituary click here.)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Biking to work in the Menomonee Valley

“Do you know each other?” I asked after taking this shot of Bernadette and Jim on the Hank Aaron State Trail. No, they assured me cheerfully. She was traveling west to her job at Melk Music in West Allis. He was on his way downtown to MATC where he taught mechanical design. The chance encounter came about because they’d both stopped for coffee and a bite of pastry at the commuter station set up next to the Trail for Bike to Work Week.

I’d been asking people who were biking to work if they would mind being part of my effort to document the weeklong event. While only a single person shyly declined my request, Bernadette and Jim were the two strangers who symbolized for me the remarkable collegiality amongst the cyclists. For two hours each morning the station buzzed with lively chatter about workplaces, distances traveled, cycling, and of course the (generally bad) weather.

There were regulars, like Kevin (above), who said that he rides 26 miles round trip at least four days a week. And others like Joel (below) who told me that he was “just getting back into” riding to work. In fact, the timing of the annual Bike to Work Week is meant to inspire people to drag their bicycles out of the garage, where they’ve been stored for the (brutal) winter.

In Wisconsin Bike to Work Week was May 12-16. To commemorate the event and cheer on the cycling commuters, volunteers from the Urban Ecology Center and Layton Boulevard West Neighbors set up the refreshment station on the Hank Aaron State Trail next to the Valley Passage that links Pierce and Canal Streets. Coffee, hot chocolate, and fresh pastries were donated by Colectivo Coffee.
This is a strategic location for more than one reason. The Hank Aaron Trail is already a popular commuter route. The Valley Passage is not only centrally located in the Menomonee Valley, the heart of the Milwaukee region, but it is also a cycling crossroads that leads outward in every direction.

 Cyclists came into the Valley from as far away as Bayside, Oak Creek, and Brookfield. After stopping for a rest many of them headed back out to destinations equally distant. Some grabbed a hot beverage or a donut; some just paused to chat with the volunteers who were on hand to provide refreshments and morning cheer.

Not everyone came from far away; some had set out from the adjacent Silver City neighborhood. At least two stopped within sight of their destination at the Derse Company just across the river on Canal Street. Susan (above) was one of them. Many, having embarked from their homes in the western suburbs—West Allis, Wauwatosa, Brookfield—were on their way downtown. But nearly as many—this came as a surprise to me—had come from the East Side, Whitefish Bay, Shorewood, or Bay View on their way to jobs in West Allis, Wauwatosa and Brookfield.

The significance of this prime Trail intersection is not lost on cycling professionals. It is no coincidence that several bike related businesses share the WI Bike Fed building just off the Valley Passage on Pierce Street. (I profiled one of them previously: see Fyxation.) Dave Schlabowske, director of WI Bike Fed has this to say about the week:

"The Wisconsin Bike Fed has been promoting Bike to Work Week for about 25 years now. Over that time, the number of people who bike to work has increased more than 60% statewide, and even more in cities that have added lots of bike lanes, bike racks and trails, like Milwaukee and Madison which have seen increases of 300% and 200% respectively. To encourage people to try riding bicycles for transportation, we coordinate commuter stations at various places in cities and towns around Wisconsin."

While most of the people who stopped were indeed commuters, getting to work was not everyone’s goal. Until he retired, Bob had been biking to his job at Johnson Controls since the 1080s. “I’m the original bike to work guy,” he claimed proudly. His T-shirt confesses his current destinations.

Jeff, below, was another retiree, from the Kenosha Chrysler plant. Comfortably recumbent, he was about halfway around a 50-mile loop from his home in Oak Creek.

Many visitors to our station were of a more serious bent, however. John, clearly garbed for speed, told us he’d retired from the racing circuit two years ago. He was on the final leg of a 25-mile commute to his job in the Third Ward.

Cycling wasn’t providing quite enough exercise for Jim, who I caught up with at the Menomonee River observation deck. He was doing calisthenics as part of his regimen. I’ll gladly grant him the morning commute prize, having ridden to Greenfield Park in West Allis from his home in Whitefish Bay before turning around to get to his job with the Zilber Group downtown.

It rained twice during the week. In those circumstances the station was moved under the shelter of the Valley Passage Bridge. Participation slowed on those days but stalwarts continued to stop by and they seemed particularly grateful for a cup of hot chocolate or coffee.

Friday was the best day of Bike to Work Week. That was the day when bacon was added to the menu! Veterans looked forward to Friday all week and newbies were invariably thrilled.

For my part I enjoyed the camaraderie with commuters and volunteers alike. Glenna, the director of the Valley branch of the Urban Ecology Center (below, with Dan of LBWN) offered the following reflection:

“My favorite part about Bike to Work Week is that the commuter stations create a small but meaningful opportunity for cyclists to build community. Folks that ride the trail often see each other every day but don't really get a chance to pause and just talk to each other, and it's fun to help create the space for them to do that. In fact, a few years ago at a Bike to Work Week station I met a couple who told me that they had first met each other at that station—and now they're married!”

The volunteers kept a running tally of cyclists, with separate columns for those who stopped and those who rode on by. When I left on Friday the totals stood at 118 and 110 respectively. The daily totals made it clear that the weather affected participation. Thursday, with freezing rain, was the low point. The coming week is supposed to be far more pleasant. Maybe I’ll see you out on the trail!

For many more photos from Bike to Work Week go to my flickr album.

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.

Monday, May 12, 2014

A spring morning at the Urban Ecology Center

Randy Powers is the proprietor of Prairie Future Seed Company, which specializes in the propagation, proliferation, and care for native species. Saturday morning he was out in front of the Urban Ecology Center selling flowers.

Potted Queen of the Prairie seedlings

Jeff Veglahn, the Urban Ecology Center's Land Steward, helps out with the sale.

Wild Iris

A group of girls representing three scout troops from Whitefish Bay and Mukwonago went on a birding expedition along the Menomonee River, led by UEC staff.

Observation Deck

Pausing on the eroded riverbank to view a family of Canada geese swimming to the opposite shore.

Adaptable species, the Canada goose.
View from the Hank Aaron State Trail

Oaks are late bloomers. Sandbar willows form a bright green backdrop for this oak, yet to bud out. If you turn 180 degrees from this point overlooking the river and look across Canal Street you see this:

Life in the urban wilderness.

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.