Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Urban Wilderness: The year in review

This year's stories from the urban wilderness came from near and far. Some were as close to home as the Menomonee River, which runs near my house, and some as far away as I've ever been: Australia and New Zealand. Some celebrate restoration successes and community efforts, while others reflect on controversial issues.

The first story of the year was a hold-over from 2014 when I was artist in residence in Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley. Ruby and the Tree: Growing with 3 Bridges Park is a lovely metaphor for what's going right in the Valley.

The Menomonee River itself bookends the year. Early on preparations began for the Last stretch of concrete to be removed from the Menomonee River, near Wisconsin Avenue where the river passes by Piggsville. I returned to the Menomonee in December, this time upstream in Hoyt Park where a series of sewer crossings that had been damming the river were being removed: Menomonee River restoration.

In February I left town to visit a favorite haunt not too far away in Illinois: Art, Artifice and Nature at Starved Rock State Park. A very popular park that receives four million visitors a year, the two primary attractions in winter are ice climbing and eagle watching.

In March controversy erupted over a beloved patch of trees on Milwaukee's East Side: Walker targets UWM's Downer Woods. Why?  

Also in March the Mandel Group began construction on their Echelon Apartments at Innovation Park on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa. I began a series of updates showing construction progress. By the end of the year it also became clear that the battle to preserve all four of the historic Eschweiler buildings was lost. Three updates:
Construction update on County Grounds.
The Milwaukee County Grounds: A visual meditation.
Eschweilers come down as Echelons rise.

Just east of Innovation Park, still on the County Grounds, still in March, a long-awaited upgrade to the power plant serving the Regional Medical Complex got underway: Between Park and Power Plant: 10 acres in Tosa.

Across the county, on the lakefront in Cudahy, more controversy played over the better part of the year. I visited Warnimont Park in April and posted this: Milwaukee County parkland threatened by gun club’s plan for shooting range. Good judgment prevailed. By the end of the year the gun club was asked to relocate somewhere outside of the park.

A short excursion in April took me to one of Wisconsin's premier wildlife refuges: Horicon Marsh: A poetic and photographic odyssey. I caught a controlled burn in progress, along with additional shots of burned-over areas. Fascinating! Who knew a marsh would burn?

I spent a lot of time along the Kinnickinnic River this year, thanks to the MMSD. I posted two photo essays about it:
Earth Day: A community cleans up the KK.
The Kinnickinnic River and community development: A makeover

In May and June I followed Greg Septon to five nesting sites around the Milwaukee area as he banded fledgling falcons. One of my favorite stories of the year: Milwaukee's peregrine falcons get a helping hand.

The biggest controversy of the year happened over Independence day weekend. The state legislature, trying to take advantage of the distraction, tried to insert new powers to the Milwaukee County executive regarding O'Donnell Park: O'Donnell power play generates legislative fireworks.

In August I took a hike, not usually a newsworthy event. But this one began at 3:30 a.m. and introduced me to Brew City Safaris, a very worthy effort to get people out for hikes in the city: An urban hike along Milwaukee's Lakefront.

Yet more controversy stirred in September as a group calling itself Citizens Acting for Rail Safety staged a Rally on river to protest oil trains. The trains carrying explosive crude oil pass through downtown Milwaukee, crossing the Menomonee River at the point where it meets the Milwaukee River.

Also in September I finally published a story that had been years stewing in my consciousness:
Could Milwaukee be a "green" destination? I believe Milwaukee deserves to be known as a eco-friendly city, on a par with Portland, OR. I consider this to be one of the most important stories I've ever published.

In October I traveled to Australia and New Zealand. Although I hope there will be more to come (from Australia), I managed to post three stories, all about New Zealand:
Dispatch from New Zealand: Muriwai Beach.
One Tree Hill, Auckland, NZ.
Rangitoto Island: The resilience of nature.

The year ended with a bang, almost literally. On a very stormy December morning I happened to drive along Lincoln Memorial Dr. where I discovered High seas on Milwaukee's lakefront. It became a very popular post.

 Happy New Year from the Urban Wilderness!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

High seas on Milwaukee's lakefront today: photo essay

This is not an everyday occurrence! I was on my way to meet up with some friends and happened to choose a route along the lakefront. Would have missed the incredible surf if I hadn't. Urban Wilderness in one of its wildest manifestations.

The breakwater was definitely an unsafe place to be today.

Some of the swells crested right over the top. Most crashed spectacularly against it, as you can see.

The children have the right idea here, Mom, as a wave crashes behind them, obliterating the breakwater. Mom got drenched. I hope the video was worth it.

The unusually severe conditions were caused by gusty winds out of the ENE ahead of what's being billed (mostly likely hyperbolized) as a "winter storm goliath." Don't take my word for it. None other than the Weather Channel has the story.

I didn't believe my eyes when I first caught a glimpse of this guy far off, parasailing out in front of Bradford Beach. Crazy. I did see him make it back safely to the beach, though.

View from North Point towards downtown, with the Allen Bradley clock tower faintly visible in the dim light.

The waves roll in towards shore, eerily echoing the shape of the Hoan Bridge in the distance. I shot a couple videos on my new iPhone but uploading them to blogspot took too long. I posted one of them to my Facebook page if you're interested.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

New Menomonee Valley book now available

A Year in the Valley:
Witnessing Menomonee Valley Revitalization

As followers of this blog know, I served as the 2014 Menomonee Valley Artist in Residence. During that time I created two small books. One, entitled Gestures, is a photo essay that explores the visual vocabulary of the Valley in intimate detail. It is a slim, meditative volume.

The second, also slim, serves as a portfolio of images from the year. Titled simply 2014 Menomonee Valley Artist in Residence, it’s basically a sampling of highlights from a year of photographing in the Valley.

However, my newest book, entitled A Year in the Valley: Witnessing Menomonee Valley Revitalization, is a comprehensive compilation of the work done during the residency period (January through December, 2014). In addition to an expansive selection of images, this book includes the text of most of the essays, stories and profiles that I wrote during the year. These were originally published on my blogs.

A Year in the Valley also represents in book form what I’ve posted on the website created specifically for the Menomonee Valley project. 

Project goals included documenting physical transformation in the Menomonee Valley, promoting public awareness of this nationally renowned redevelopment model, fostering connections amongst the diverse communities who work and recreate in the Valley, and highlighting the importance of art and culture in carrying out future developments as well as developing a sense of place.

The history of the Menomonee Valley is one of continual transformation. The original environment, a fertile wild rice marsh, was completely filled as the Valley became Milwaukee’s industrial powerhouse. By the late twentieth century most of the industries had moved out, leaving a legacy of blight and pollution. The last 15 years have seen a concerted effort by the city, business interests and environmental advocates to revitalize the Valley. Visionary plans are underway that combine economic and community development with environmental restoration. Businesses have returned, the river has been rehabilitated and new parks have been created, along with new opportunities for arts, culture and recreation.

This project and this book captures a 12-month slice of the ongoing story of the transformation of the Menomonee Valley.

The 2014 Artist in Residency was sponsored my Menomonee Valley Partners and Zimmerman Architectural Studios.

To go to the Menomonee Valley AiR website, click here.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Rangitoto Island: The resilience of nature

by Eddee Daniel

This story from my trip to New Zealand was first published by the Center for Humans & Nature on Dec. 7, 2015. 

The low, wide mass of the volcanic island rises with uncanny symmetry from the choppy gray-green waters of Hauraki Gulf, its profile of olive-toned foliage unbroken by any hint of human presence. To my willing imagination it evokes archetypal cinematic jungle islands—hints of Moreau, King Kong, Jurassic Park—and I am eager to reach it and explore.

I had only two days in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city and, as is my habit, I wanted to experience as authentic an urban wilderness as possible. I’d turned to local sources for advice about potential locations. Rangitoto Island was the singular, universal recommendation.

I had no inkling I would discover a place so primordial that it would challenge my deep-rooted notions of wilderness.

The gleaming towers of Auckland’s skyline quickly diminish behind us, along with several enormous container ships, innumerable sailboats and other pleasure craft. Our ferry leaves Waitematā Harbor—and civilization—behind. The catamaran’s twin bows slice smoothly through the heavier surf of the gulf. After a short cruise, a dozen or so passengers are delivered to the island’s ferry terminal, a bare concrete wharf.

As we prepare to disembark, a crackling mechanical voice ominously blares from the loudspeakers: “The last return ferry will leave promptly at 3:30. If you miss it you will have a very long, cold night on Rangitoto Island.” As if to drive home the warning, brisk gusts of salty spray strafe the wharf as we approach the shore. I button up my jacket.

We are greeted by the sharply beaked carving of a kaka (parrot), flanked by stylized visages of Tangaroa, the god of the sea, and Tāne Mahuta, god of the forest. In 2014 the Conservation Ministry commissioned this waharoa, or traditional gateway, dedicated to Peretu, the spiritual ancestor of Rangitoto. Beyond welcoming visitors to the island, the waharoa recognizes Maori cultural heritage and symbolizes a pact of co-governance of the island sanctuary. (Imagine the U. S. National Park Service agreeing to co-govern Great Smoky National Park with the Cherokee Nation.)

The small crowd quickly disperses. I walk along the shore path, marveling at swirls of lava that reach straight into the clear water. Though encrusted at the tide line with shells and seaweed, the exposed rock appears perfectly fresh, as if its molten flow may have solidified moments ago. Rangitoto is in fact the newest among 48 volcanoes that make up the Auckland volcanic field, having emerged from the sea a mere 6,000 years ago—though it hasn’t erupted for the last 550 years. *

Mangroves have gained a foothold along sections of the rocky coast. After a brief detour on a boardwalk through a mangrove thicket, I head uphill on the aptly named Summit Trail. Said summit is visible at what appears to be a great distance. Cumulous clouds boil over it. The feeling of entering a primeval jungle returns as impenetrable tangles of tree limbs and brush crowd the narrow path.

Periodically, the dense forest opens onto barren and forbidding fields of loose volcanic scoria. Blackened, basaltic lava, unstable and abrasive, is strewn everywhere in jagged chunks, like clinkers spewed from a fiery forge. A few tentative steps out onto it—seeking a vantage point for a photo—cures me of the impulse. That anything at all can grow from such a desolate wasteland seems miraculous. Then I plunge into the next patch of jungle.

Technically, this isn’t a jungle, since I’m not in the tropics. I am surrounded, however, by a profusion of, to me, alien and vaguely threatening trees and shrubbery. Locals likely would find it comfortingly familiar. Rangitoto, which receives over 100,000 visitors a year, is cherished as a “pest-free” wildlife sanctuary where native species can flourish.

Numerous conspicuous traps indicate both the fragility of the “pest-free” designation and the vigilance required to maintain it.

The island is home to the world’s largest forest of pohutukawa trees, an iconic New Zealand species whose tufts of crimson blossoms have lent it the nickname “Antipodean holly.” Although it is spring here in the Antipodes, sadly, I won’t be seeing any of the unusual flowers, which bloom later in the season. Its abundance on Rangitoto can be attributed to the pristine quality of the island and to the pohutukawa’s ability to survive in exactly these rocky, otherwise inhospitable conditions.

The trail steepens. The clouds part; sun blazes onto black, burnt earth. I remove my jacket, slow my pace, guzzle water from bottle that suddenly seems too small. The summit, though closer, appears far higher than before.

I catch myself reconsidering “urban wilderness,” the trope I’ve so carefully honed over the years. Here on Rangitoto I am betrayed by my casually generous interpretation. When our species was young there was no wilderness. The world was simply where we lived, where we learned to survive. Later, when we settled in cities, wilderness became something “other”—and fearsome. Here I find that wilderness: a rupture in the civilized world. This place would be wholly uninviting, possibly lethal, had not convict labor a century ago pummeled lava into a manageable path for day-trippers like me.

Rangitoto was born in violence.

A Maori story tells of the tupua, children of the fire gods Auahitūroa and Mahuika, who quarreled and cursed Mahuika. As punishment Mahuika enlisted Mataoho, the god of earthquakes and volcanoes, who destroyed their mountain home and raised Rangitoto from the sea.

When mist surrounds the island, it is said to be the tears of the tupua weeping over their lost home.

And what about us? We have cast away the old gods, consigned them to quaint totems. We believe in science: volcanology and plate tectonics. We believe—or willfully choose not to believe—in global warming. Are we faring better than children who quarrel and curse their mother?

As I climb the ever-steeper but now deeply forested trail I imagine the tupua wandering the brutal terrain before anything had sprouted from the sulphurous ground. Just below the summit a boardwalk has been built overlooking the dormant crater. The canopy in the completely forested bowl looks lush and benign.

This is how the Earth renews itself. Like the volcano, the Earth was born in violence. Whether our species is responsible for climate change or not, ultimately it is we, not the Earth at large, that will suffer the consequences.

Wooden steps lead me to the summit where another raised boardwalk provides panoramic views of the entire island, surrounding gulf and distant mainland. From here the thickly forested island looks like a hoop skirt splayed out upon the surface of the water, decorated in radiating patterns of green forest canopy and black fingers of exposed lava. Again I am struck by the complete absence of any noticeable trappings of civilization—no roads, rooftops, power lines, towers; nothing that suggests we humans have been here at all.

Except, of course, here I am. On a boardwalk built for my recreation and comfort at the crown of this wondrous, immaculate, and hostile landscape. And there, across the sun-dappled waters of the gulf, are the skyscrapers and sprawling environs of Auckland. Sunlight streaming through intermittent clouds briefly spotlights the sparkling white city before it falls again into shadow.

Rangitoto…and Kilauea, Cotopaxi, Mount St. Helens, Pinatubo, Krakatoa and Eyjafjallajokull. And, of course, Vesuvius. No argument is more convincing. Though it might take thousands of years, the Earth will heal. I swallow the last of my water and take a final turn to admire the 360° view of Rangitoto, a serene, pest-free sanctuary.

How would it shape our awareness, I wonder, if every city had a volcano on its doorstep? Taking leave of the summit I descend the steps; I plunge back into the misty pohutukawa forest.

*Sources vary regarding the date of first eruption. Some give 6,000 years while others drop a 0, making it only 600. There seems to be no dispute, however, that the last eruption was no later than 550 years ago.

To see more photos from New Zealand, go to Eddee’s flickr album.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Menomonee River restoration: a photo essay

by Eddee Daniel

I'd been told over a year ago that a series of five "fish barriers" --aka dams of various sorts and sizes--were going to be removed this year. I've been looking forward to it ever since. With the year rapidly drawing to a close, the work is finally underway. I didn't notice what was happening until I happened to see this big excavator in the river last week. By then most of the work had been done. But I have some before and after photos of the sites to share.

I caught up with the project as the fourth of these impediments to fish passage was being cleaned up. This one had been an abandoned sanitary sewer. Broken pieces of the pipe can be seen (above) piled up in the park for removal.

For decades, while the disused pipe was in the river, it created a short dam with a pool sufficiently deep to attract local kids. This shot (above) was taken a couple of summers ago. Unfortunately, the damming effect was also enough to inhibit the passage of fish and plans to remove all 5 have been in the works for quite a while. As a former board member of Milwaukee Riverkeeper and a nearby resident, I've long anticipated the restoration of the Menomonee.

Today the dam, the pipes and the pool are all gone. Sadly, the tree from which the kids strung their rope swing was also removed to facilitate the project.

In fact a whole swath of trees were removed in order to reach the river. This site is near the intersection of Charles Hart Parkway with the Menomonee River Parkway.

The sewer that went across the river continued on through the woods on the south side. There were at least three--what do we call them now? Manholes was how they used to be described. Anyway, there were three sticking up in the middle of the woods for no good reason. In order to remove them, though, another great swath of trees had to be obliterated. Now what was a narrow mountain biking trail looks like a broad logging road.

Upstream, just east of the Hoyt Park pedestrian suspension bridge was another low dam, seen here in a shot from two winters ago. The bridge is visible in the background.

Today the site looks like this. White limestone has been strewn to create a more natural flow that fish can navigate easily. The MMSD, which is responsible for the project, informs me that the sewer line in this spot is still in place, just covered with the stones. In time it will actually look natural, too!

If you've ever visit Hoyt Pool or the playground next to it and walked down to the river you probably saw this. At some point in its history it was safe to walk across, presumably. It clearly was a walkway, with stairs leading down to in on both sides of the river. The fact that it looks completely dry in this photo from last year was due to extremely low water during a drought. During normal flow levels there was always a waterfall going over the top.

Here is essentially the same view today.

Here is another before and after comparison. Before is above, after removal is below.

Don't ask me why they didn't remove the stairs. Seems like a safety hazard to me. But the fish can swim upstream now.

Just west, still near the playground where my two children played and now I take my granddaughter, was this prodigious dam-like sewer crossing. Again I shot it in 2014 during the drought. I'd never seen it dry before.

Here's the view of it from the north bank.

Now it's gone.

And behold! There are actual rapids where before there was a pool.

Removal of the fifth and final dam is still underway as I write this. It is the largest one. In low water conditions I could easily walk across in my sandals without getting my pants wet. This photo was taken from the south bank just a couple weeks ago after a heavy rain.

This is the same viewpoint last week as workers place fabric over limestone fill in order to stablize the badly eroded bank.

The concrete, which I've heard once carried a bridge of some sort, is wide enough for this front end loader to drive across. It's carrying a clay and topsoil mixture that will cover up the rock and the fabric lining.

Here's the same scene viewed from the north bank a couple days later. The shovel is tamping down the earth on top of the fill.

Rain has halted the project for the moment. But before too long this last Hoyt Park fish barrier will have been removed. Then the Menomonee River will be that much closer to being swimmable and fishable, one of the goals of Milwaukee Riverkeeper. In this case, at least it will be more swimmable by the fish.