Thursday, July 20, 2017

Photo Essay: An enchanting walk in the County Grounds

Showy tick trefoil in bloom on the County Grounds
Dawn is my favorite time of day. I was thinking this as I rolled over in bed one recent morning, right about dawn. My joints were stiff and my eyes reluctant to open, though my heart raced and I was no longer sleepy. There was a time when I would have popped out of bed in the morning, jumped on my bike and raced along the Menomonee River Parkway. Or walked in the woods. First thing in the morning I’d get my nature fix. Then I was ready to face the day, relaxed and clear headed.

Instead, now I propped up a pillow, stretched creaky limbs, and reached for the book I’d been reading by Florence Williams, “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.” Seriously. The irony dawned on me when, after a couple of pages, I read, “The more I made myself get outside, the better I slept and felt.” I got out of bed then. Although I’d missed the sunrise, I decided to get a dose of nature after all. A half-hour walk would wake me up good and proper.

My next decision was to leave my camera behind. For once, I thought, I would go out free of the obligation and effort that the camera requires and attend to my surroundings more purely. Williams devotes many chapters in her book to the healing effects of nature and walking in nature in particular. I didn’t need her book to convince me of a truth I’d felt all my life. But of late I had come to wonder if the work of photography—for, whatever its virtues, the act of photographing is work—might interfere with and to some extent diminish those healing effects.

On my way out the door I impulsively grabbed my cell phone.

In other words, I cheated. Snug in my pocket, the phone doesn’t feel like a camera and whipping it out now and then to shoot a picture doesn’t feel like working. Besides, I reasoned, ordinarily when I go out walking I never pull it from my pocket. But this turned out to be no ordinary morning.

Daisy fleabane, Hoyt Park
Walking across Hoyt Park’s iconic footbridge over the Menomonee River—something I’ve done innumerable times—was suddenly, inexplicably like falling down a rabbit hole. But instead of Alice in a place growing curiouser and curiouser, I felt like a rabbit sans top hat and pocket watch. At the end of the bridge was a slope that had been denuded a year ago during the reconstruction of the historic structure. Now it was a field of wildflowers that, at rabbit’s-eye level, was an enchanting wonderland.

Bergamot, aka bee balm, County Grounds
The magic didn’t wear off after one patch of flowers either, as my photo essay should testify. I consider myself very fortunate to live near Hoyt Park and the Milwaukee County Grounds. But, as Williams is quick to point out, nature is as close as the nearest tree and you can get your nature fix on far less territory than I covered that morning. In fact, Milwaukee County is well enough endowed with parks so diverse in size and character that you can choose a quick hit in a neighborhood pocket park or something more akin to the urban wilderness I prefer.

Dry pepperweed bracts, County Grounds
In her book Williams describes joining a study that posed a “30x30 nature challenge,” which is 30 minutes of walking for 30 days in a row. “One of the most interesting findings,” she reported, “was that we seemed to like being in nature so much, we doubled our weekly green time by the end of the month.” My own half-hour nature fix that day turned into an hour and a half.

Happier, healthier and more creative? Well, my fix left me happier at least, and definitely invigorated. Perhaps that’s healthier. As for creativity, sometimes all it takes is a rabbit’s-eye view to make the world new again. Try your own nature challenge. I bet you’ll feel better, too.

Black mustard in bloom, County Grounds
Foxtail barley bunchgrass, County Grounds
Wild Mint, Hoyt Park
Red maple, County Grounds
Chicory and sweet clover, County Grounds
Milkweed and Swan Blvd., County Grounds
Bottlebrush grass, Hoyt Park
Highbush cranberry reaching through the Hoyt Park Pool fence.
Morning light over the east detention basin, County Grounds

See more photos of the County Grounds on Flickr.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Riverside Park’s arboretum offers an enchanting array of wild herbs

Eager with anticipation, our group climbs to the hilltop and crowds into the small clearing around a circle of stones. Kyle Denton, our guide, plucks up the stalk of a large, broad-leafed plant near his feet. I recognize it immediately as the nemesis in my yard, ragweed. Each spring I spend an inordinate amount of time pulling sprouts in a futile effort to eradicate it. I am startled and amused that he chose this of all plants to begin with.

Denton tears off a leaf, crushes it with his fingers and holds it to his nose. He passes the stalk around so that everyone can do the same. Then he puts the leaf in his mouth and visibly mashes it with his teeth. Ragweed is both edible and medicinal, he tells us. Once cultivated as a crop by indigenous peoples, it is highly nutritious and an excellent source of protein. Sadly, he goes on, now it is known primarily as a leading cause of hay fever. Its chief medicinal use, he adds wryly, is to treat allergic reactions to…ragweed.

Kyle Denton calls himself an herbalist and forager, activities that may not suggest a contemporary urban lifestyle. Remarkably, however, the places he chooses to forage are in the City of Milwaukee. He shares his knowledge and love of plants in a variety of educational settings but his favorite classrooms, he told me in an email, are “the trails and wilds of this town.” I was already hooked when he then invited me to join one of his regular “herb walks.” 

This story was published at Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to continue reading.

Monday, July 3, 2017

A tour of Paradise ... Springs

You can take a tour of paradise. It won't even take very long. Paradise Springs, that is. Part of the sprawling archipelago of public lands known as the Kettle Moraine State Park, Southern Unit, it's located just outside of Eagle, WI. The short loop--a bit over a half mile--is well-used, if my visit there on a weekday afternoon was any indication.

The ruins of a spring house, once copper-domed but now roofless, make it easy to find the grand attraction.

The pure, clear--and cold--water that still pours through the spring house at 500 gallons per minute was once bottled on site with the label "Lullaby Baby Drinking Water."

The long history of the site's mostly private ownership includes such well-known pillars of Milwaukee industry as Petit and Pabst.

Paradise Springs, although it may not quite live up to its romantic name, is lovely. In addition to the eponymous springs I found numerous wildflowers--this one is motherwort--and a working bubbler!

You can learn more about Paradise Springs from the WDNR

Friday, June 30, 2017

Photo essay: Beulah Bog State Natural Area

This 78-acre preserve near East Troy is mostly a series of kettle depressions that contain the bog. A short, hilly upland trail leads to a boardwalk in the largest kettle. The boardwalk winds through lovely tamaracks and terminates at the only open water.

 I was unaware of Beulah Bog until recently when my friend Kimberly Mackowski told me about it and then showed me how to get there. Kimberly has a website and blog called The Park Next Door. You can see her photos of Beulah Bog by clicking here.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

“Treasures of OZ” celebrates nature in Ozaukee County

Queen's Lady's Slippers, Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area
One of the highlights on a daylong tour of Ozaukee County parks was this patch of Queen’s Lady’s Slipper blossoms. The rare orchid, also known as “Showy” Lady’s Slipper for obvious reasons, has disappeared from much of its former range because its preferred soggy habitat has also largely disappeared. But there it was, almost within arm’s length, next to the narrow boardwalk that allowed me to walk into Cedarburg Bog—prime orchid habitat.

Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area

Like the flower, the opportunity to enter the boardwalk at the Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area between Saukville and West Bend is also rare. Operated for research and educational purposes as a U.W.—Milwaukee Field Station, access is usually restricted. But as one of the “Treasures’ of OZ” the bog is part of an annual celebration of parks, preserves and natural areas in Ozaukee County.

Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area
I was delighted. Although I’d been to the research station before I’d never been out into the actual bog. The boardwalk led through thickets and across a large pond covered in lily pads fringed with cattails. The trail continued on over a couple of islands of solid ground before the boardwalk resumed and plunged into the heart of the bog. Several species of native Wisconsin orchids more diminutive than the Lady’s Slippers appeared here and there.

Pitcher Plant, Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area
Most exotic to me, however, were the pitcher plants, which grew out of the waterlogged earth in abundance. The carnivorous plants were in bloom, which was new to me. The blossoms, past prime, had lost their drooping petals, leaving behind a flower head that resembled an alien satellite dish. Brightly colored blossoms of many species speckled a landscape dominated by tangled knots of stunted tamaracks. The boardwalk and the special event made it possible to visit an otherwise impenetrable wilderness.

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly, Ehlers County Park

More than a clever marketing phrase, “Treasures of OZ” was billed as an Eco-tour and Science Expo. The “expo” parts of the tour featured a wide variety of interesting activities involving wildlife, science displays, food vendors, music and a raffle. But clearly the real treasures of OZ are the natural havens themselves.

Milwaukee River, Ehlers County Park
In addition to Cedarburg Bog this year’s tour included two county parks, a popular state park, and two preserves managed by the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust. Being familiar with them already, I skipped Harrington Beach State Park and Spirit Lake Nature Preserve. (Coincidentally, I included Spirit Lake in my recent story about five “hidden gems” of Milwaukee area parks.)

Ehlers County Park
Ehlers County Park is a narrow strip of riparian land along the Milwaukee River two miles north of Saukville on Highway W. It boasts a prairie awash in wildflowers as well as 2,200 feet of shoreline. Scientists with the Ozaukee County Fish Passage Program and Milwaukee Riverkeeper were on hand for the tour to demonstrate the diversity of fish and macro-invertebrates in the Milwaukee River.

Kelly Ostrenga, with Milwaukee Riverkeeper, holds a rusty crayfish, an example of a macro-invertebrate.

Tendick Nature County Park
As I would learn belatedly, Tendick Nature County Park has two segments. Since I foolishly neglected to consult either the Treasures of OZ website or a map, I turned in at the first segment I reached as I drove north on Highway O from Saukville.

Tendick Nature County Park
Surprised to find no one there, I nevertheless enjoyed the prairie and magnificent clouds before heading back south without discovering the second, larger and more popular segment. Sometimes you find what you’re looking for…

Tendick Nature County Park
…but if you remain alert you will discover what is all around you.

Snapping Turtle, Forest Beach Migratory Preserve

My final stop of the day was Forest Beach Migratory Preserve, the epicenter of the Eco-tour and Science Expo. Randy Hetzel, a genial and loquacious naturalist with a traveling wildlife collection, thrilled a rapt crowd with a menagerie that included snakes, frogs and turtles. Having experienced their ferocity in the wild, I was particularly amazed to see how casually he and his teenage daughter handled a huge snapping turtle.

Buckeye Butterfly, Forest Beach Migratory Preserve
Forest Beach is home to the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory. Its mission is to study bird and bat populations and promote their conservation throughout the Western Great Lakes region. After stopping indoors briefly to inspect the exhibits, I headed out to explore the trails. I didn’t notice many birds—migration season has passed—and it was too early in the day for bats. What I did see in astonishing abundance were a wide variety of butterflies.

Forest Beach Migratory Preserve
I had heard that the 116-acre preserve had once been a golf course. As I wandered through the wildflowers with butterflies fluttering all around me it was hard to imagine fairways and greens. The thunderstorms that had been predicted never materialized but a turbulent sky rose over a landscape that remained serene and entrancing. We humans have little in common with orchids but like those delicate and sensitive flowers we require a certain measure of nature in our lives. I know I do. And I feel fortunate to live near enough to enjoy these treasured places.

Monarch Butterfly
You can see more photos and additional treasures of Ozaukee County on Flickr.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Seymour Simon Preserve: Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness

On a Sunday afternoon recently I drove down from Milwaukee to pick up my wife at O’Hare. Her flight was due to arrive in the late afternoon when traffic tends to pile up as travelers return to Chicago from their weekend in Wisconsin. I’ve been in this position before. I like to avoid potential backups on the Interstate by going early and taking the time to stroll in one of the Forest Preserves along the Des Plaines River near the airport.

I happened upon a sign for the Seymour Simon Preserve and pulled into the nearly full parking lot next to a large open field. Large groups of people were using the shelters provided there. I found the Des Plaines River Trail and headed south along the river. Maybe it was the heat—somewhere between 80 and 90, depending on whether you were in shade or sun—but the trail was uncharacteristically busy that day. So was the river itself. I saw canoers and kayakers going upstream and down.

Here is a short photo essay from my stroll that afternoon. As you will see, wildlife is represented, but most of my encounters were of the human variety.