Wednesday, December 22, 2010

New Year resolutions from Urban Wilderness!

2011 New Year's resolutions:

1. go outside more often
2. walk in Milwaukee County Parks
3. work to preserve the Monarch Trail, Milwaukee County Grounds
4. Support the Urban Ecology Center, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, the Park People, and the Hank Aaron State Trail
5. Encourage Milwaukee County to increase support for the Parks
6. Encourage State Legislature to enable the establishment of a Regional Parks District
7. Encourage the federal government to strengthen environmental protections
8. Find and visit natural areas wherever I travel
9. Share my experiences with others
10. Keep blogging

My hope for the new year is that you, my friends, will enjoy the natural world all around as I do and help to preserve it for future generations to enjoy. To quote from my book, Urban Wilderness..., "We can't live on Earth as if renting space in nature; we are nature, wherever we live."

The image on my "card" above is of the Rock River near downtown Rockford, Illinois. I awoke before dawn to find the trees encased in a fine crust of crystaline snow. The temp was below zero, steam rose from the river. It was quite magical, as if, instead of bundling up in a sweater, long johns, boots, parka, Russian hat, and scarf, I had lain in bed and dreamt of a fairy tale landscape full of mist and sugary trees. But it was real and I could enjoy it because of its proximity to the city. As soon as the sun rose, the trees began to thaw. Within an hour they were bare again. Hoorah for the urban wilderness!

And thanks to all who have been following my first year as a blogger. Your encouragement keeps me going. I invite you to leave a comment with your own hopes or resolutions for the new year.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Should Germantown log its Wilderness Park?

OK, the irony should be self-evident: why would you name a park “wilderness” if you plan to cut down its trees? Apparently Germantown is considering just that with its park, aka the Germantown Swamp. Read more at Milwaukee Riverkeeper. That the village decided to name it “Wilderness Park” was one of the significant features that attracted me to it when I was out exploring for my book Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, which was published in 2008. I wrote several stories related to the Wilderness Park and I thought I’d do something unusual for this blog and share an excerpt from the book, below.

I hope you’ll let Germantown know that a swamp is a particularly sensitive ecological system, easily damaged. This one is also designated as a natural area of statewide significance: not a good place to cut timber. The value of lumber pales against the value of such an important, undisturbed ecosystem.

Contact information and other suggestions are provided on the Milwaukee Riverkeeper website.

View of Menomonee River looking towards the Germantown Swamp
from Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed

Wilderness Park, an excerpt from Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed

Acquiescent for a change, the swamp allows me to enter. Summer makes this quite impossible. Then the swamp sucks at my feet and throws up vast clouds of mosquitoes.  But it is autumn now, which brings a comparative calm. The soil is dry; the insects dormant. Brittle leaves, brown and drab, crunch loosely underfoot. An unusually great variety of native trees—silver maple, green ash, basswood, even the beleaguered American elm—crowd together, young and old. In places I must weave in between and around them, as if each were pressing closer for an individual introduction. A squadron of alarmed mourning doves scrambles in abrupt and clamorous unison. The gray wood is suddenly a blur of gray wings as if the trees themselves had erupted and taken flight. In a moment the commotion dies. The trees revert to stiffness.
At eye level a series of spray-painted red spots recedes into the depths of the swamp. Brash scarlet breaks down with distance into burgundy, then a charcoal brown so dark and gray that it seems almost natural. On an overcast day, or at dusk, without the sun as a guide, the featureless uniformity of this swampy forest would present a formidable challenge even to the well-oriented. So it is no surprise that a hunter, hoping to make it home by suppertime, would need this rudimentary trail. 
There are also less subtle paths. A cleared, grassy strip about six feet wide curves in broad arcs through the heart of the swamp. Because the ground is impassably saturated for much of the year, it is most likely for a snowmobile; a secret, private run carved into the wilderness. For, despite the intrusions, this is as close to true wilderness as can be found in the Menomonee River watershed. Officially designated a "natural area of statewide significance," this ecologically precious—and partially protected—wetland is completely surrounded by farms and private land. Currently there is no public access. A "wilderness park" is such a rarity this close to an urban center the size of Milwaukee that it is a treasure nearly beyond comprehension. We are acculturated to seeing the land in polarities, as either "mine" or "theirs," private and forbidden or public and accessible; natural or unnatural. But N. Katherine Hayles points out the paradox of wilderness anywhere in the United States as being "managed land, protected by three-hundred page manuals specifying what can and cannot be done on it." Wilderness is both natural and unnatural, owned and un-ownable. Any plans to provide public access would add to the unfortunate irony, for doing so would unwittingly diminish the very qualities that led officials to name it a "Wilderness Park."
In order to accept the wilderness let us give up all notion of possession and instead allow ourselves to be possessed of its spirit. In the few places where it is still possible, let us relinquish the land to wildlife, for the fox and the owl, and the box turtle and the red-eyed vireo, and the yellow birch and white cedar are its inheritors. Then we will know that we are the beneficiaries of their inheritance, for in granting it we remain free.

To read additional excerpts or to learn more about Urban Wilderness, go to my website.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

UWM to move forward with County Grounds Purchase

The roofs of the Eschweiler buildings are in serious disrepair.

The saga of the County Grounds continues. Milwaukee County agreed over a year and a half ago to sell 89 acres to the UWM real estate foundation for its Innovation Park and research campus for $13.5 million. I won't repeat the details of the intervening months of setbacks and postponements. Read about it in the article by Tom Daykin in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But, according to the article, UWM is ready to move ahead with a down payment of $5 million.

The story in the paper mentions that the foundation expects to sell the historic Eschweiler buildings to a developer for residential use. This has been the plan since it was presented to the Wauwatosa Common Council for zoning approval last May and therefore isn't anything new. What the story doesn't say is that there is an alternative being promoted by the County Grounds Preservation Coalition, which is a diverse group of environmental and historic preservation organizations (see previous post.) This alternative, which would require either philanthropic donations or a more creative development proposal, is intended to facilitate the preservation of the historic buildings and minimize additional construction around them. The UWM real estate foundation is aware of this alternative and has expressed willingness to work with the Coalition to achieve its goals, which would be a win-win for UWM and the people of Milwaukee County - along with the Monarch butterflies and other wildlife that grace this unique piece of land.

The Eschweiler buildings are in terrible shape and nothing has been done to prevent continued deterioration. Some have accused the county, which still owns the land and buildings, of "demolition by neglect." Whatever is done, measures must be taken quickly to ensure their preservation.

To see more pictures of the buildings, go to my flickr page.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Art and Nature come together in Indianapolis

White River, 100 Acres Art and Nature Park

The other day I was interviewed for 1000 Friends of Wisconsin for a story. One of the questions I was asked was what I thought art can contribute to environmental advocacy. Of course the interviewer knew I had some strong convictions about that topic, since it's one of the things I do with my own art. Well, this isn't an answer to that question, but it relates to the topic of how art and nature can intersect and I hope you find it interesting. I visited Indianapolis last weekend and the art museum there recently opened what they bill as an art and nature park. It's ambition is to be more than a typical sculpture garden. Its unusual mission is to integrate art and nature on 100 acres of urban park land. For the full story - and more pictures - please go to my other blog: ArtsWithoutBorders.

Park of the Laments, by Alfredo Jaar, one of eight current temporary art installations in the park

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A visit to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Indiana

Joe Taft loves his job. It’s a most unusual job: he rescues lions, tigers, and other “wild” cats from neglect, abuse, and destruction – and he provides a home for them for the rest of their lives. I met Joe when I took a tour of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point, Indiana, which he founded in 1991. A volunteer named Larry was giving my friend Charlie and me our personal tour when Joe came shuffling up the narrow, slushy trail between animal enclosures. He greeted us warmly. Then, with a mischievous grin, he turned towards the nearest cage and pressed his face against it. The 600 pound tiger inside, which had been eyeing us with distrust, sauntered over and returned the gesture, furry cheek to bearded one.

When they were done cuddling, Joe pivoted towards the much larger enclosure on the other side. Four enormous tigers padded restlessly about. They all quickly gathered in front of Joe, pressed together like a living many-headed Hindu deity. Joe murmured “who will give me a kiss?” Then he leaned, spread-eagle, against the fence. We stared in astonishment as one of the four leaped up, mimicking the posture. The man and the beast leaned into one another, nearly embracing in a moment of unforgettably tender intimacy.

Did I say Joe loves his job? What he loves, primarily, are these incredible animals.

Lest my story lead to a false impression, I must quickly add that these are dangerous animals. Although bred in captivity, never allowed to roam freely, they live the paradox: a breathing embodiment of urban wilderness. Not domesticated, not wild: theirs is a purgatory on an earth where our species has decided it can make the rules. But if I put my hand on this fence, I would lose fingers.

In the words of Saint Exupéry, Joe and the tigers have “established ties.”  The fox says to the Little Prince, “To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me you will be unique in all the world.” Since we were visitors like every other untamed visitor, Larry had coached us not to stray near the cages or even reach out towards the big cats. As a demonstration, Raja, one of the biggest tigers, lunged viciously against the thin chain link when Larry stepped close to it. (I wish I could reproduce the loud, alarming sound track that goes with the image below!) “Most of the felines here,” he said, “if they were let out, would rough you up pretty badly before letting you go, they way a house cat might toy with a mouse. Raja would eat you.” The volunteers learn each feline by name and personality. We gave Raja as wide a berth as the narrow lane between enclosures allowed.

Most of the tour was calm, but unnerving roars would break out unpredictably to remind us not to get complacent. We learned many things. Lions can tolerate cold but hate snow while tigers don’t mind getting their paws wet. Servals, small lanky cats with large ears, have superb hearing and are among the best hunters, but are themselves prey to lions and leopards. The rescue center feeds its 225 felines about 3,000 pounds of meat a day. Most of this is freely donated by neighboring farmers, who benefit by not having to pay for the disposal of sick or aging livestock.

The most important lessons gleaned from our visit were the many, often shocking, stories of how these cats came to be rescued. I’d read about the lucrative market for illegal wild animals – and animal parts – but had no idea that so many “wild” animals are bred and raised in the US for that market. Truly wild tigers, for example, number somewhat less than 5,000 worldwide. Larry informed us that there are probably 10,000 tigers in the US alone. Some are bred to turn a profit in the circus and entertainment industries. Profitability, however, is tenuous at best and often short in duration. Many large felines are simply killed or allowed to be “hunted” at point blank range for trophy heads and skins.

But, incredibly, the most common problem is people who think that they can own a tiger or cougar or bobcat as a pet! It is much more prevalent than I would have imagined – if I’d ever imagined owning a wild animal with sharp teeth and claws – and unpredictable temper. Apparently they are easy enough to acquire. An internet connection brings buyer and seller together in the back corner of some Wal-Mart parking lot and for $150 or so a tiger cub becomes a “pet.” That’s cheaper than a lot of dogs! But what happens when the cub becomes an enormous and unmanageable menace? Many are confined in small cages, left to suffer in their own filth, and starve to death. The lucky ones are discovered by inquisitive neighbors who then alert understaffed state agencies and, if there’s room, brought to a place like this Center. Here they can live out their unnatural lives if not in freedom at least in peace. Joe and his intrepid staff of volunteers make sure of that.

“You become responsible forever for what you have tamed.” Saint Exupéry

For much more information, pictures, and personal stories about the animals, go to the Exotic Feline Rescue Center website. And if you’re ever in the vicinity – just east of Terre Haute off I-70 – it’s well worth a visit!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Hunting for a place to hike in the Kettle Moraine

What were we thinking?!! Well, we were thinking the way we think: that we had a day to be together; it was a nice sunny day; we like to hike; and we are near the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Ergo, let’s go for a hike in the Kettle Moraine.

We clearly were not thinking about hunting, or hunters, or that this was the first day of hunting season! But, as soon as we left West Bend on Hwy 45 north, it became abundantly clear. Next to every vacant field, it seemed, cars, trucks, SUVs, were parked and out in the fields were little orange people carrying rifles. Now, if you’ve ever hunted none of this is news. In fact, even if you don’t hunt, many of you are probably scratching your heads wondering how naïve Mr. Urban Wilderness could be! (How long have I lived in Wisconsin?) But at that moment our innocent, if naïve, intention to hike in the woods was abruptly called into question and I was reminded why I’d always made it a point not to go out in the country during hunting season. And so, although I certainly knew about hunting, it was a revelation to witness the social phenomenon first hand as it plays out in one of my favorite parks.

We didn’t witness any actual hunting, mind you. At infrequent, irregular intervals we heard shots off in the distance, but never saw any action. What we saw were clusters of vehicles wherever there was a place to pull off the park road. We glimpsed blaze orange glinting through the trees and saw orange action figures wandering in full sight around the edges of fields. Some merely sat, like this one (above) we drove past on our way to one of the few designated “no hunting” zones in the park. An hour or so later, after our hike, he and two others standing nearby didn’t seem to have moved. As I popped out of my car to take the photo, I wondered uneasily what would happen if a deer ran between me and him. I quickly got back in and drove off.

In places the hunters were so thick they put me in mind of the “backwoods humorist” Norman Pettingill, who made innumerable drawings of Northwoods culture, many of which depict the foibles of hunters. In his crazy cartoons hunters fill every available space between trees, blast away indiscriminately, drink incessantly, etc. Coincidentally (?), we saw a display of Pettingill’s work, done over five decades of the Twentieth Century, at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan the same afternoon. Here’s a sample (below) to give a sense of his scabrous humor and graphic style. His depictions made it clear I’m hardly the first to wonder if the woods are more dangerous for the hunters than for the deer. (By the way, nature lovers as well as art lovers will enjoy the Kohler's animal-themed main exhibit, called Animal Magnetism. Check it out.)

We stopped at the Ice Age Trail Visitors Center to inquire about safe places to hike and were rewarded by a friendly ranger who gave us the map – and lent us each an orange vest. Thus fortified, we made our way to Mauthe Lake and the Tamarack Trail where we did enjoy a delightful walk around the lake. Unlike the vast majority of the park, which welcomes hunting, here we had the trail to ourselves, and although it was quite cold, the bright sun made for a lovely stroll.

This curiously sawed stump reminded me of a human variant of the beaver sculpture I found a couple weeks ago (see previous post.)

The interpretive signage in this section identified it as a cedar swamp. The cedars have shallow root systems and therefore fall over easily. In some places there seemed to be more fallen ones than were left standing. The monochromatic late autumnal colors conspired with the apparent devastation to make the landscape seem apocalyptic. To my eye, all of it was beautiful, none of it picturesque.

We saw only three people the whole time. Two looked like puffy blaze orange snowmen, sitting awkwardly at a picnic table in the campground. The third was this lone kayaker making his way up the Milwaukee River, which both feeds and drains Mauthe Lake. We exchanged greetings as he paddled underneath the trail bridge. Then he disappeared silently around the bend.

A great fusillade of shots somewhere beyond the tree line reminded us of the orange army that has invaded the park. My thoughts turn toward their target. For the record, I have no quarrel with those who kill deer – as long as they do it responsibly. (In the tiny, tenth-of-an-acre urban wilderness that is my front yard, the deer are nothing but plant-killing pests. I rarely see them; only their night time rubbings and chewings.) I, however, find the quiet sounds of nature itself more agreeable than the sound of guns. The sigh of wind in the trees and the honking of geese high overhead fill me with peace.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving: a day of reflection; a day of remembrance; a day of togetherness. My offering on this day: this week’s spectacular, stormy sunset on the County Grounds and an old favorite poem by Mary Oliver. And a hearty THANK YOU to all Urban Wilderness supporters!

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

© Mary Oliver

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Visiting the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison

Prairie Oaks

Like autumn itself, the leaves are mostly gone. The wide prairie is a rich tapestry of sienna and ochre, interwoven with strands of white, red, and black. Here and there coarse gray tree trunks rise out of it all as if to emphasize its prairie flatness. Deep in the tall grasses, red berries provide adornment. The day is surprisingly mild, not a presage of winter at all. This close to the solstice the sun rises only in a low arc, but still it shines brightly, casting a golden glow on the browns all around. I bask in its warmth, open my jacket.

Clearing the understory

I am alone on the prairie, although I have to force my imagination to exclude the incessant din of traffic along the beltline in order to feel it. Others have gone before me: there are plenty of fresh footprints and some dog prints on the wide path. In amongst them I spy the twin curves of deer hoofs and something with sharper claws than a dog; probably raccoon. The exercise is more than worth the effort to shut out the noise of “civilization” flitting past, barely visible through the leafless screen of trees ahead. Once again I am transported into the healing balm of urban wilderness.


This instance brings me to remembrance of an old acquaintance with the UW Arboretum in Madison. I’ve been invited to give a reading to the Friends of the Arboretum, a most welcome opportunity. I arrive early, to prepare myself. I stay late to delay my return to that very same highway on my way home. Along the way I make some photographic offerings to share.

Wetland thicket

For more images from the Arboretum, go to my flickr page.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Urban Wilderness on NPR

Here's the updated scoop on The Story, with a link to their website where you can listen to it and a brief explanation to help you find my segment. I want to thank everyone who has called or emailed with congratulations and I want to thank Dick Gordon and the production staff at The Story for the opportunity to share my story with them and with you.

Listen to the archived interview by clicking here.

The program is an hour long and begins with a story about foreclosure. My segment, which lasts about 10 minutes, is in the second half. On the bottom of the intro page there is slider bar to activate the program. If you slide the slider a little past halfway you will find the "Clean Water: The Menomonee" segment.

Intro from (now edited) original post:
I was interviewed last week by Dick Gordon, host of The Story, which is produced by American Public Media. It aired Thursday, Nov. 18. We talked about the Urban Wilderness Project. A particular focus of the interview was one story from Urban Wilderness about the Superfund clean up on the Little Menomonee River, which inspired my series of photographs featuring the orange construction fences in the landscape - selections of which are on view in the gallery at the Lynden Sculpture Garden. See Inside/Outside for more on that.

For much more information about any of these projects, check out my website.

Superfund site on Little Menomonee River

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hiking the Urban Wilderness on Menomonee River in Wauwatosa

Yesterday I led a group of about 25 members of the "Outduurs" club from Unitarian Universalist Church West on the riparian trails along both sides of the Menomonee River between Capitol Dr. and Hampton Ave. Pictured below is part of the group. For the full story and photos I took along the route, see previous post.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Menomonee River wilderness in Wauwatosa

I love to walk in the woods beside the constantly changing river. The flowing water and the scent of moldering leaves soothe and invigorate. I recently revisited one of my favorite stretches of the Menomonee River, between Capitol Dr. and Hampton Ave. This is no ordinary stretch of urban river and a hike in the woods along either side is far from your typical walk in the park. It was this stretch, as much as any other, that helped me to refine my understanding of urban wilderness when I began my project several years ago. A leisurely two hours allowed me to complete a loop up one side and back the other while shooting a few pictures along the way. (The pictures slow me down. This hike could be done in half the time.)

I welcomed the invitation from an outdoors group at Unitarian Universalist Church West to lead a hike for them as it provided the impetus to see this special mile of river again. Although these relatively wild riparian paths were among my most frequent destinations during the six years of my urban wilderness book project, it has been at least two years since my last visit. I was eager to see what changes the intervening time had wrought. Change can happen very quickly indeed in urban wild lands.

Erosion. Rivers flow and inevitably erode the land, an eternal and natural phenomenon. But too much erosion too fast can quickly destabilize the banks and diminish the absorptive qualities of the floodplain. The river seems to flow in a deeper channel than before, one lined with the exposed roots of trees nearly everywhere along the banks. Many magnificent trees have fallen into and across the river. In several place they are heaved up into gargantuan logjams. It gives me pause to think of the force of water that can move whole trees this way.

Some things don’t change: pollutants still plague the quality of the water.

The always distinct characters of the two sides of the river have become reversed. I’d always found the west to be the wilder side, but now an officially marked and well worn mountain bike path makes that side the easier to navigate. The east side, away from the paved Oak Leaf Trail, is the place where I found a former riparian path to be disused, overgrown, entangled, wild.

On a beautiful, unseasonably mild day I met more people than I was accustomed to seeing: a young woman walking with her two enormous white Labradors; an elderly couple sauntering with walking sticks; two teens in black garb sporting metallic facial piercings; even a fashionably dressed woman who told me she was visiting from out of town. One free spirit sat in lotus position on a spit of land where two channels converge, deep in meditation.

As I had in years past, I saw clear evidence of recent beaver activity, on both sides of the river. The most surprising discovery, right along the paved trail near Hampton, was what I can only describe as a “beaver sculpture.” I’ve never seen a beaver chew like this before. Here are a few “gallery shots” of the “work.”

What's floating in the Menomonee River now?

It's after Halloween: do you know where YOUR pumpkins went?

These collected in the shallows of the channel next to Doyne Park in Milwaukee. The next big rain will wash them to Lake Michigan, I expect.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

County Grounds: invasive teasel infests the Monarch Trail

Followers of Urban Wilderness will be familiar with the Milwaukee County Grounds from my many previous posts. Among many other virtues, it hosts the Monarch Trail, which is a uniquely valuable stop over point for the migrating butterflies. The habitat that supports this migration has been curtailed severely by the developments that have been taking place and has been reduced to a vestige. Still, this year’s migration was one of the more spectacular ones in recent years and many people visited the trail and the grounds and enjoyed the marvelous sight of massed butterflies.

Development isn’t the only threat to the habitat. Invasive species posed another serious threat. Teasel, pictured here, is especially rampant on and around the Monarch Trail. A small, dedicated group of Friends of the Monarch Trail have been pulling teasel in an effort to keep ahead of the onslaught but it is an uphill battle.

Next Wednesday horticulturist Carrie Hennessy and a crew from Johnson’s Nursery have graciously offered to remove teasel pro bono from portions of the site. They can use your help.

When: Wednesday, November 17th
Rain Date: Thursday, November 18th

Time: 9:00 am until ?

Where: Milwaukee County Parks Department
9480 Watertown Plank Road, Wauwatosa, WI 53226

Please get out and help if you can. Make sure to dress for the weather – in layers in case you get overheated. Bring sturdy gloves and a good set of loppers. Come for an hour or stay the whole day!

If you have questions, contact Carrie Hennessy at (262) 252-4988 or

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hank Aaron State Trail ribbon cutting today

The sun was bright and the weather balmy today as eager supporters of the Hank Aaron State Trail (HAST) assembled on Pierce Street at 37th to celebrate the opening of the new Valley Passage, a new bridge over the Menomonee River, and a new length of the HAST. I’d call it a three run homer for Hank! Mayor Barrett headlined an all-star cast of dignitaries and celebrities who universally extolled the virtues of a Trail that is now within a fifteen minute bike ride of over 400,000 people in the Milwaukee area.

 People stream down the elegant S-curve of the Valley Passage towards the river.

The Valley Passage and bridge reopens a route from the near south side Silver City neighborhood into the Menomonee Valley, thus providing access to the Valley with its still expanding industries and recreational opportunities. Simultaneously, a new leg of the HAST now reaches from the Valley out to 94th Street along a former rail line. Plans to continue it out to join the Oak Leaf Trail near the county line will make it possible to ride a bicycle from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River.

 Officials and celebrities join in the ribbon cutting at the new bridge.

But wait, there’s more! Another runner rounds third and hits the bag for a fourth run: Ken Leinbach, director of the Urban Ecology Center (UEC) was on hand to officially announce the center’s partnership with the State Trail. The UEC’s third satellite center will be housed in a former bar building right next to the Valley Passage and bring children from south side schools into newly restored riverside parklands. Have I mentioned lately how important the work of the UEC is to Milwaukee’s urban wilderness? I cannot speak more highly of their programs. I hope someday there are satellite centers within a fifteen minute bike ride from everywhere in Milwaukee County.

This doesn’t look like much more than piles of dirt today, but this was once a rail yard and will soon be beautifully restored parkland that evokes Wisconsin’s glacial heritage. The HAST will provide access and the UEC will bring schoolchildren to explore the river and native wildlife there.

Many people were thanked at the ceremony today, including State DNR and Milwaukee officials, politicians, and businesses, among others, who contributed time, energy, materials, and funds to make all of this possible. However, the most important thanks go to trail manager Melissa Cook, the staff of Menomonee Valley Partners, and the Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail, many of whom are gathered here for their first ride across the new bridge.

Oh, and stay tuned. Here's artist Chad Brady putting final touches on the first section of a new mural that will cover the entire concrete retaining walls of the Valley Passage. The other sections will be finished next spring.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Metamorphosis (in memoriam)

The flowers began arriving soon after Lynn’s mother died, overnight delivery to our door. Some went to Lynn’s office. One especially lavish arrangement seemed a vast mountain of white, with bulbous hydrangeas, white roses, white carnations, and hundreds of daises. It would have made Lynn’s mother cringe. Lee was an austere, no-nonsense private woman. Her will stipulated that there be no formal funeral. She didn’t want to be fussed over.

Coincidentally, one of the flower arrangements, a simple basket of purple mums in pots that could be planted—very pragmatic; Lee would have approved—had been ordered from Barb and Dick’s Wildflowers. That is how Barb of Barb and Dick’s learned of Lynn’s loss. We’ve come to know Barb well through our many forays onto the Milwaukee County Grounds where she tends the Monarch Trail as lovingly as she does her flower arrangements.

Shortly after receiving the mums I found a small basket left on our porch. Instead of flowers this one contained only a few hazelnut twigs, twisted and bare. Hanging from the topmost twig were three bright green pupas with tiny golden dots. They looked fake: too perfect, as if made of plastic. Lynn thought at first they were a decorative memorial. When I told her they were the genuine article and soon would become Monarch butterflies she was as enthralled as I was. It was the perfect condolence gift.

Though a bit reclusive, Lee lived an active life. She and Steve, her husband, had traveled extensively. Three years ago they had recently returned to their home in Tucson from an annual trip to Switzerland when she was struck down without warning with the stroke-like symptoms of acute encephalitis. She was rushed to the hospital where she lay unconscious, shrouded in the cocoon of the medical establishment. The prognosis was dire. A mosquito-bourn disease, viral encephalitis can lie dormant for decades, but when it attacks the brain stem it is usually fatal.

Our friend Barb had collected tiny monarch eggs, no larger than mustard seeds, from our favorite urban wilderness, the County Grounds. She gathers them regularly from areas that are soon to be mowed. After hatching Barb nurtures the caterpillars, feeding them the milkweed they prefer. We did not witness these stages. Nor did we see the spinning of the chrysalis when the caterpillar folded, then bound itself, instinctively preparing for the unfathomable metamorphosis to come.

No one saw encephalitis coming. But, against the odds, Lee did survive. The miracle of modern medicine kept her alive, in a coma. The doctors didn’t ask if Lee believed in miracles. When the breathing tube had to be removed and the irrevocable decision made whether or not to put her on a ventilator for life support, Steve, knowing her wishes, said no. She survived without it. For a brief period, it seemed like a miracle indeed. She recovered enough to walk with assistance and to fly to Wisconsin to live near family. But she was often confused and didn’t always recognize the people who knew her well. It wasn’t long after that when she began a long, slow decline….

We set the basket with the three pupas on a counter near a window. The sun glinted on the shiny green casing. Tiny gold spots twinkled like miniature brass buttons. We watched for the slightest change. After about a week one of them began to fade. The next day it was black instead of green. It was happening. In another day, the shell had become transparent. We could see all folded up inside the orange and black patterns that would become wings. When the pupa was opaque it was impossible to imagine a butterfly inside such a tiny package; but now we could see it curled up inside, like a magic pill. We could see it but it still didn’t seem real.

For three years Lee lived in a wheelchair and was cared for by Steve. Before the onset of the disease she’d been sharp, confident, sometimes cantankerous and often cynical. Now she was cheerful and pleasant. She smiled easily at visitors with an uncharacteristic twinkle in her eyes. But though she could hear the slightest whispers, her soft, almost demure replies sometimes made little sense. She spoke in non-sequiturs. She was physically present, but no longer the same wife, mother, person that the family grew up with. Gradually she became weaker. When she died the grief was tempered with an unnamable feeling, something between relief and compassion. In a way she had died three years ago. The intervening time was a period of waiting and transformation. A life-long atheist, her death would not lead to heaven or hell; it was a final stage; it was release, letting go.

The morning we saw the first butterfly hanging, immobile from the topmost twig seemed like another miracle. It loomed, enormous beside the breached, whitened shell of its chrysalis. Its wings hung limply, damp. I coaxed it onto my finger and took it outside, placed on a milkweed leaf. It quickly scuttled underneath to hang upside down, waiting for its wings to stiffen enough for flight. I never saw it fly. When I looked again, it was gone. The next day we had another butterfly, another miracle. How marvelous! How natural; to think this happens every day somewhere is to understand that life – all life – is a cycle of transformations. The final stage makes way for new life.

The following day the last butterfly clung to the underside of the branch; another white chrysalis flung open beside it. No less marvelous than the others. I took it out in the bright autumn sun to watch it fly away.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Autumn colors along Milwaukee River Greenway

Cambridge Woods and Hubbard Park

How far do you have to go to visit a beautiful scene like this? No farther than the Milwaukee River Greenway, between North Avenue and Silver Spring. The weather has taken a turn - it's too early for winter (please!) but it is cooler. So here's a taste of autumn from a few of my recent travels in Milwaukee's urban wilderness. And a shout out to Ann Brummitt and the Milwaukee River Greenway Coalition, which helps to protect this greenway, as  well as Sue Black and the Milwaukee County Parks Department, may they receive more funding.

The river edge at Kern Park

Don't forget to go to the polls next Tuesday and vote for candidates who will support the parks and the environment. Those candidates, for whatever reason, are mostly democrats. But don't take my word for it - check it out at the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters website.

Click here for more information about the Milwaukee River Greenway.

Click here to see more pictures from the vicinity.

Riverside Park from the Locust Street bridge

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Full Moon Party on the Milwaukee County Grounds

Where can you hear great music and also see a simultaneous sunset/moonrise? Only one place: the County Grounds this Saturday.

Sounds on the Grounds
featuring the drumming group Fanka Foli

October 23, 4-7 pm
Moonrise at 5:58 - Sunset at 6:00

It's the last party of the fall season sponsored by the Friends of the Monarch Trail. There will be sandwiches, caramel apples, and cider for sale. The last full moon party was a blast. Even though the full moon declined to show due to cloud cover, the many people who came enjoyed the music and a sensational sunset.

Park in the County Parks administration parking lot at 9480 W. Watertown Plank Rd. If it should rain, the party will move indoors to Barb & Dick's Flowers on Watertown Plank at 124th St.
For more information go to Monarch Trail.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Seven Bridges Trail at Grant Park: short and sweet – until…

I had the morning off Friday so I decided to seek one of my favorite urban wilderness experiences. I don’t often get to Grant Park, which is in South Milwaukee. The seven bridges trail, with its fabled chalet style bridge, was even more delightful than I remembered. It’s just off the first parking lot into the park from the north side and an easy walk downhill through the ravine to the shore of Lake Michigan. The colors were spectacular and the weather unbelievable – how many days in a row now?!!

And at the end of the trail comes the best part – the beach. Here is the place where, more than any other I know of in Milwaukee County, you can go and not only see no sign of the city (I’ve written many times of the many places where I go for that experience) but also not even hear any sound of civilization. A welcome antidote to traffic and everyday busyness.

I dawdled in the warm sunshine. I listened to the surf – crashing, uncommonly ocean-like. I shot some pictures. I took my time getting back to the car through the peaceful wood atop the bluff. When I reached the covered entry bridge once again, my idyll was rudely disrupted by a very uncivil form of civilization.

Two short, heavy-set middle-aged women walking three small poodly dogs on short leashes went across the bridge ahead of me. I stopped to make a final shot (above). Suddenly I heard the dogs begin to yap excitedly; then one of the women screamed at someone I couldn’t see, “put your f – ing dogs on a leash!” A man replied, bellowing equally loudly, “don’t you f – ing tell me what to do with my dogs.” He then bellowed at his dogs, “get back here!” Being unleashed, they were running wildly about. “Keep your f – ing dogs away from ours!” the women shouted – and they had some lungs on them. Then the man’s rejoinder: “Shut the f – up!” The ravine echoed with their epithets.

A large black Labrador bounded across the bridge towards me, followed closely and eagerly by an even larger brown hound. The man appeared, bellowing alternately at the dogs and the women, who were still descending audibly into the ravine. He also was heavy-set, though younger. He wore loose sweat pants, a Packer sweat shirt, and a baseball cap. When he came abreast of me I said softly, “it’s a beautiful day; try to chill a bit.” He calmed immediately and growled sheepishly, “I’m trying.”

I would’ve told him that he should leash his dogs, but I didn’t want him bellowing at me.

On my way back I noticed this tree in the middle of a lawn at the St. Francis Seminary. Sometimes I feel like a lone and twisted tree losing its leaves in a tidily mowed lawn.