Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Milwaukee County Grounds update: the Monarch Trail is aflutter!

Last evening, as I pulled into the Parks Administration building’s parking lot and drove to the back corner, there were over a dozen cars already lined up along the edge closest to the beginning of the Monarch Trail. The word must be out!

I took the short cut across the open field, cleared for UWM’s planned developments there. I walked through the knee-high clover and grasses towards the Eschweiler buildings and the inviting stands of trees around them. The sun had disappeared behind a huge thunderhead that seemed poised to expand across the whole sky and glowed red around its edges. I saw people strolling along the Trail atop the berms adjacent to Swan Blvd.

As I neared the Eschweiler campus I caught up with LuAnn, one of the Monarch Trail regulars, and her niece Kailey. They led me to a small group of Milkweed in front of the main administration building where they’d seen a praying mantis before. Sure enough, there it was. Kailey scooped it up gently and it skittered nervously up her arm. She put it back onto the nearest Milkweed where it quickly scuttled under a leaf and clung there as the plant bobbed in the breeze.

[Click on images to enlarge.]

Barb Agnew, the director of the Monarch Trail saw us and called to come see, quick! She was near the giant sycamore tree that the Monarchs favor. She was excited because there were several clumps of butterflies already roosting in the lower branches of the box elders surrounding the sycamore. There were also six or seven people treading carefully among the tall grasses and raspberry bushes on the well worn paths to see them.

I was surprised and delighted to see my friends Joyce and Darthe with their two furry dogs, who told me that this was their first trip out to the Trail. I told them how lucky they were to come on such an auspicious night. More butterflies fluttered in by the minute now that the sun was down and the light dimming quickly. As each new Monarch flew up to a branch laden with already resting ones, the whole clump would startle, opening their wings briefly before settling back into roosting posture. It was a marvelous sight.

A warm wind blew in from the south and west in gusts cutting the humidity and keeping down the mosquitoes. The perfect evening to view the migration, I thought. Barb looked at me even more excitedly and said “No, no! These are local butterflies. The migration hasn’t reached here yet. This is going to be a very good year!”

As it darkened and we began to leave, Kailey show up again with a second mantis. This one posed like a debutante for the photographers, as you can see.

For my previous post on the recent Monarch Trail sunset/moonrise celebration, click here.

For more pictures of the County Grounds, click here.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Shrugging off growth in Japan

Growth, of course, is one of the fundamental laws of nature. According to currently popular scientific theory, the universe has been expanding—growing—ever since the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. At some point, some scientists further theorize, the universe will slow, stabilize, begin to contract, and eventually collapse in upon itself again. In other words, there are limits to growth as fundamental as the dynamics of physical cosmology.

Biology provides a more immediate and accessible model for growth within a far shorter timeline. We are born, we grow to maturity, we stabilize for a while (if we are fortunate!), we deteriorate (please, not so fast!), and we die. No one argues about this limit to growth.

In my review of Fred Pearce’s book, The Coming Population Crash…,” I commented on his observations about the limits of population growth. I won’t repeat that, except to say that—of course—there are limits to sustainable growth. (Read previous post.)

But, for some reason I have yet to understand, it seems impossible to get people to recognize that there are similar limits to economic growth. The U.S. in particular has long adopted an economic model of free-market capitalism based on growth that it has pretty successfully exported throughout the world. Globalization: this is not news. But what we seldom see in the news, unless you’re paying close attention to non-traditional sources, is stories about the limits to economic growth. (There is a biological analog for endless growth: cancer. The limit of cancer growth, unfortunately, is the death of the host.)

What a relief it was to read an opinion piece in last week’s paper called “Japan and the Ancient Art of Shrugging.” Commenting on the widely reported emergence of China as “the world’s second largest economy,” after the U.S., the author, Norihiro Kato, likens Japans reaction to shrugging it off and—this is the beautiful part—accepting a balanced, relaxed bodily posture. He doesn’t mention Zen, but he could have. It isn’t a universal reaction, he admits, but generally the Japanese have come to regard stability, not growth, as an appropriate model for a sustainable economy. I’m hoping the U.S. reaches maturity before the cancer is irreversible.

Read “Japan and the Ancient Art of Shrugging.”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Moonset over Milwaukee County Grounds

If you caught my previous post you know that the weather didn't quite cooperate, as weather is wont to not do, and the full moon rise didn't materialize. So I went back to see the full moon set. Well, as you can see, it is visible, but the effect is not as dramatic as the moon rise owing to the brightness of the sky. Still, it was nice to be out on the "prairie" early in the morning. Millions of crickets (or whatever hoppy critters they were) hopped in front of me as I waded in the tall grass.

Moon set over the Eschweiler building

One of the Eschweilers at dawn
For more pictures of the still decaying historic Eschweiler buildings, click here.
Moon set over the Monarch Trail

For more pictures of the County Grounds, click here.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Friends of the Monarch Trail rock the County Grounds!

After a promising day of broken sunshine, the clouds piled up and grew ominously dark as over a hundred Friends of the Monarch Trail gathered to celebrate. The large turnout in the face of uncertain weather was testimony in itself to the excitement that the impending annual Monarch migration can generate, as well as the importance of the County Grounds to the public.

There were lively Irish tunes played by Ceol Cairde. “Butterfly Barb” gave an informative tour of the trail that winds along the west edge of the grounds an around the historic Eschweiler buildings to where the Monarchs prefer to roost during their migratory wandering between Canada and Mexico.

Unfortunately, the moon did not make its scheduled appearance. However, just as things dusk began to get really dim, the western sky opened a crack to enable the sun to blaze through and provide the crowd with a satisfying conclusion to the evening, as you can see from the photos I managed to get. And there was a delightful bonus to top it all off: an early platoon of Monarchs showed up to roost. A good omen for this year’s migration!

Thanks to “butterfly” Barb Agnew and her stalwart crew for organizing this wonderful event! To keep up to date on the progress of this year’s migration check the Monarch Trail website regularly. I can testify to the fact that they are easy to miss if you don’t get out there on the right day.

The multicolored sky dwarfs the Eschweiler buildings
on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa

To see more images of the Milwaukee County Grounds, go to my flickr page or my website.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Are the Milwaukee County Grounds the right place for UWM?

Construction of the flood detention basins
on the County Grounds in 2006

There has been a lot of buzz going around lately about UWM’s plans for Innovation Park, the Engineering research campus that’s looking more and more like ordinary business—and residential—development.

I won’t repeat what others have already said so well:
Cheryl Nenn at Milwaukee Riverkeeper
Chris Liebenthal of Milwaukee County First

As regular readers of Urban Wilderness know, I have consistently argued for preservation of the natural character of the County Grounds. I have also consistently affirmed the appropriateness of UWM as the developer of choice if the grounds must be developed, a position many environmentalists embraced a year ago when the county decided to sell the land. In contrast, the general public, as indicated by attendance and participation in public hearings held by the Wauwatosa Common Council, has never given up on the idea of preserving all of the land.

You wouldn’t know that by asking the Common Council. As an active participant myself, I have been discouraged by the total lack of acknowledgement of this by the Common Council. We have even been dismissed by some council members as pushing too hard for more conservation—we who are the ones willing to compromise.

If you live in Wauwatosa, write or call your alderman and find out what he/she has to say.

There is still time for a healthy compromise to be achieved. As I first reported a week ago (read previous post), a coalition of environmental and historic preservation groups has been formed that is devoted to maintaining a presence on the grounds and to ensuring that wildlife habitat is protected and the Eschweiler buildings renovated—as promised by all parties. It is clear that there is strong sentiment for reconsidering UWM’s plans altogether. Whatever comes to pass, it is in the mutual interests of the city, county, and public that these lands remain a beautiful place to visit and experience its unique scenery and wildlife habitat.

For more pictures of the county grounds, go to my county grounds flickr page.
For pictures of the historic but decaying Eschweiler buildings, go to my Eschweiler flickr page.
For more pictures of the construction of the flood detention basins, go to my website.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Thoreau on art and nature: a double post

Eliot Porter's cover for In Wildness...

I’ve been rereading Thoreau because I preparing to give a talk at Unitarian Universalist Church West about him and his relationship to my own Urban Wilderness pursuits. I came across the following quote in one of the seminal books that has inspired me, In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, by Eliot Porter.

"It has come to this, –that the lover of art is one, and the lover of nature another, though true art is but the expression of our love of nature. It is monstrous when one cares but little about trees and much about Corinthian columns, and yet this is exceedingly common."

It is the perfect quote for a crossover post for my two blogs. If you’ve been following one and not the other (which is exceedingly common, as far as I can tell) I now invite you to go to the introductory page on my website that explains why I have two blogs:
My blogs.

My talk is called “Faint-hearted crusader: finding Thoreau in the city.” If you’re so inclined, I also invite you to come to church and find out what I have to say about that. For more information about the service, and directions to the church, go to UUCW.

To learn more about the Urban Wilderness Project (and see lots more pictures), go to my website.

From Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Monarch Trail Summer Moon Picnic on the Milwaukee County Grounds

Here’s an event you don’t want to miss! How often do you get to see the sunset and moon rise simultaneously? Here’s your chance to see the natural phenomenon, see the county grounds before the bulldozers move in, and hear some great music. Thanks to Monarch Trail.org for the following information:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Join the Monarch Trail Friends for a picnic and watch the sunset and moonrise over the County Grounds.

Great Irish Music provided by: Ceol Cairde.

For more information: http://www.ceolcairde.com/

Where: The Monarch Trail - Milwaukee County Grounds, 9480 W Watertown Plank Rd. Wauwatosa, Wisconsin

When: 6:00 – 8 pm, (simultaneous sunset/moonrise: 7:15 pm)

What: There will be a guided tour at 6:15 pm

Why: Due to development plans, this may be one of the last opportunities to see the moonrise and sunset in this vast open space.

Bring: Pack a picnic or snacks, and skeeto repellant

2010 will be a much better year than 2009 was to view the Monarch migration. This pre-migration event will provide information for people who would like to come out in September to see where they gather and where they roost at night.

Rain Date: We will hold a Migration launch on September 11th, same time, same place. The moon will not be attending that evening!

Keep up to date on future trail events and migration information at the Monarch Trail website.

Thanks to Dick Hansen for providing this wonderful shot of the Monarch migration.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Chancellor Santiago resigns from UWM: what does it mean for the County Grounds?

Carlos Santiago has resigned as UWM Chancellor. Possibly this will have no effect on the plans for development of Innovation Park on the County Grounds, but who knows? The plans have been laid for quite a while but they have an uncertain momentum.

However, the departure of Santiago is creating some buzz. For a thorough analysis, check out Milwaukee County First.

Followers of Urban Wilderness know I’ve posted about the county grounds many times before. Here are two pertinent ones:

Milwaukee County Grounds Coalition for Environmental and Historic Preservation, and
Should UWM be more like Madison?

Urban Wilderness goes to Rockport, Massachusetts

I’ve been out of town again and therefore not keeping up on my blog. (Being away from the computer for a week is very relaxing. I recommend it for reducing stress in your life. It works for me at least.) But I’m back.

I spent the week on the beach in Massachusetts. (Yeah, nice.) You might think that that is far enough away from an urban wilderness, but you’d be wrong! Although the town of Rockport, where I stayed, is not urban, the issues of balancing development with conservation and being able to experience the natural environment without disturbance are hard to escape wherever one travels. Urban wilderness refers not only to the wonderful opportunities provided by urban parks, but to the far less wonderful propensity for people to bring urban problems into the wilderness. Exhibit A: Gatlinburg, Tennessee, gateway to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. (I didn’t take this shot.)

Exhibit B is my own experience last week. I did take the two shots below. The first is sunrise from Long Beach in Gloucester. (The sunrises were great! I shot several while I was there.) Nothing like the ocean to provide a perspective on the smallness of …well, just about everything else, right?

The trouble is, everyone wants a piece of that view. So, after I took that sunrise shot I turned around 180ยบ and made the next shot. Urban wilderness is about the paradox. It’s hard to find a stretch of coastline in Massachusetts that doesn’t have a house or hotel on it. We love to view the wilderness but all too often instead of backpacking into it, we plop ourselves down in front of it. If possible, we try to own it. (I’m reminded of a song by Neil Young: “Love is a rose but you better not pick it. It only grows when it's on the vine. A handful of thorns and you'll know you've missed it. You lose your love when you say the word ‘mine’.”)

So, I’m just catching up on local news. Did you see the story about the carp found in Lake Calumet, near Chicago? Read it here. Another example of the urban wilderness. Just as you can’t expect nature to cooperate with human expectations or desires (flooding in Pakistan is the latest disaster), you can’t expect humans to keep from meddling with nature. Did someone take the carp out of the Illinois River, where it never belonged, and put it in Lake Calumet, where it doesn’t belong? Probably. What did we expect?

The locks on the river should have been closed long ago. The ill-conceived connection between the Great Lakes Basin and the Mississippi watershed finally must be closed permanently. Chicago’s been given a pass far too long.

To read more about my excursion to Rockport, and see more photos, check out my other blog post: Arts Without Borders.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Milwaukee County Grounds Coalition for Environmental and Historic Preservation

The Monarch Trail and the Eschweiler Campus

If you’ve been following the Urban Wilderness for long, you probably know that things have been happening that will affect the fate of the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa. In 2009, Milwaukee County voted to sell 89 acres to UWM for its proposed Innovation Park. That deal is still pending and has been delayed while UWM pursues funding. The City of Wauwatosa rezoned the 89 acre parcel for business development last May to accommodate UWM and is currently considering the creation of a Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) district to (literally) help pave the way for it. The $12 million of taxpayer money being asked for to create the TIF is a stretch and controversial, but likely to pass the Common Council anyway. (See The Political Environment’s comment on this.)

There is a public hearing on the matter on Monday, Aug. 9 at 7 p.m. at the Wauwatosa City Hall, 7725 W. North Avenue. I would be there except I’ll be out of town. I hope you, dear reader, will go.

Meanwhile, under the indefatigable and effervescent leadership of Barbara Agnew, a Coalition of Environmental and Preservation groups has been forming to preserve the ecological and historical significance of the Milwaukee County Grounds. Barb has long had a presence on the grounds as the founder of The Monarch Trail. (Click here for a calendar of butterfly events coming soon!)

The mission of the new Coalition is to preserve and maintain the ecological integrity of a uniquely significant wildlife habitat and to renovate and maintain the character of the historic Eschweiler buildings located there. This effort has the backing of significant local environmental organizations, such as the Urban Ecology Center and Milwaukee Riverkeeper, and some high profile regional ones, including the Aldo Leopold Foundation. The effort recently got a major boost when Barb and I met with several leaders of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Wisconsin Trust for Historic Preservation. They are as excited as we are about the prospects for a mutually beneficial collaboration amongst conservation and historic preservation groups that this situation provides.

Despite recent concessions, the County Grounds continue to be open and inviting. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources plans to create a forestry education center on the north side of Swan Blvd. and Milwaukee County has just established its newest county park on 55 acres north of Swan. UWM’s plan for Innovation Park includes a conservation plan for the Monarch butterfly habitat. It is the presence of the historic known by the name of their architect, Alexander C. Eschweiler, that makes this site uniquely suited for a collaboration of the type that is now coming together.

It is exhilarating to see the breadth of interest that is coalescing around this remarkable landscape. Wauwatosa is lucky to have such a place. Milwaukee County is lucky to have such a place. Wisconsin is lucky to have such a place. Together we can maintain its unique character so that our grandchildren can be as lucky as we are.

For more about the County Grounds, go to my website or to my flickr page. (They’re different, so you can go to both!)

When I went out last weekend to visit I discovered this new graffiti on the bricked up front door of the main building in the Eschweiler campus, which has been deteriorating for years. Some call it "demolition by neglect." Perhaps the artist sees new life for the historic structure.

To get a better idea of the condition these buildings are in, see more images on my flickr page.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Coming Population Crash

When was the last time you heard good news about world population? Have you ever? If you are anywhere near my age (which I’ll let you guess at), you have spent most of your life with the understanding that the human population was, sooner or later, going to overwhelm the earth’s resources with catastrophic consequences. For many, like me, the alarm was sounded quite loudly in 1968 by Paul Ehrlich, who wrote the bestselling book, The Population Bomb. I also became aware of a new movement that intended to deal with this dire threat called Zero Population Growth, which I took to heart. I believed in its central tenet: that we as individuals needed to limit our children to the replacement level of two per couple.

And then…, well, life went on.

I went to college; I got a job; I got married; I had my two children; and, although I never forgot the idea, it dawned on me at some point in the last 30 years that I wasn’t hearing anything anymore about population. Environmental crises came and went, like the hole in the ozone layer. Some came and stayed, like global warming. Species of animals continued to expire at accelerating rates. And I kept wondering why population wasn’t part of the conversation anymore. Was it just me?

Well, along comes Fred Pearce, who has written a new book called The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet’s Surprising Future. It’s the best, and most optimistic, book about the environment that I’ve read in a very long time. According to Pearce, who makes a very compelling case indeed, a lot of people around the globe took Ehrlich’s warning very seriously indeed, including our own government. While China’s infamous and draconian one child policy has gotten plenty of press, I hadn’t known how successfully the world had downshifted from its twentieth century population surge until I read this book. And I’ve been paying attention.

It turns out that population control policies and programs that lacked the publicity of China’s were instituted all over the world. Pearce pegs the current fertility rate at 2.6 per woman, which is down about half from 1968 levels. And in many places in the world, especially Europe, the rate is much lower—below replacement levels. But one of the most interesting stories in a book full of interesting stories is the one about why this is happening. It’s not because of any government policies or non-profit organization’s programs. It’s about free choice. Women—individuals—have turned the tide.

We are not out of the woods. Pearce predicts that human numbers will continue to grow until approximately 2040 and peak a bit over 8 billion before starting to decline. The situation is, of course, much more complex than these simple statistics, since in some parts of the world population, in terms of new births, is already declining while in others it continues to climb. The obvious solution to this—migration—is already causing political discomfort, not only in the U.S. but many other places. That’s a chapter that deserves an entire book of its own.

Although on balance I think this book is excellent and important, I do have two bones to pick. His thesis and analysis are both entirely anthropocentric. All of his fascinating stories are about the human population, its past, present, and probably future. He ignores the still dwindling numbers of other species and the effect that our species is having on others while all this demographic upheaval is taking place. This may be a deliberate oversight, due to a desire for brevity.

My other concern is more significant, I think, because it may undermine his optimism: he ignores, unwisely in my opinion, the dominant economic paradigm of our global culture, which is market capitalism based on growth. How can the world economy continue to grow if the population begins to decline? I am personally skeptical about this model. I don’t think an economy based on growth is any more sustainable than population growth. Endless growth requires resource exploitation and avoids the consequential environmental costs whenever possible. I would like to see Pearce include an economic argument that justifies his optimism about the future decline in population.

But I quibble. Read the book! I’ve left out his delightful conclusion about why it’s a good thing that world population will soon be made up of proportionately more old people than young ones for the first time in the history of the world.

You can buy the book from its publisher, Beacon Press, by clicking here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The "perfect lawn" is now an urban prairie

Thanks to Joan Weintraub who championed replanting lawns with native plants in last Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in her article, Urban prairies are yards away from usual lawns. It's a good, brief article.

Purple coneflowers grace my own native yard

Since the dominant culture in cities and suburbs remains the standard mown lawn, it is good to be reminded that lawns are artificial, a remnant of our history as a colony of the British Empire. Independence can be slow in coming sometimes. Planting a yard with native species is not a new concept, however. Weintraub mentions the always laudable efforts of the Urban Ecology Center. But she missed an opportunity to raise awareness about the Wild Ones, a non-profit organization with the specific mission of promoting native landscaping.

This is an issue dear to my heart, as you can imagine. Planting a quarter-acre city lot with native species is a relatively small thing as urban wilderness goes, but it's both symbolic and a way to make the issue very personal. One need only look out the window to be reminded that nature lives in cities too. I would have an urban prairie in my yard except for the fact that my tiny yard came with a gigantic maple tree that I didn't want to cut. So, when I bit the bullet and had my yard landscaped with native plants two years ago, it couldn't become a prairie. It became a woodland. In fact, visitors have a hard time seeing our house from the street!

In her article, Weintraub identifies a section of Riverside Park, which is adjacent to the Urban Ecology Center, as her favorite urban prairie. That's cool. She lives nearby; everyone should have a park nearby for the enjoyment of the urban wilderness. My own favorite urban prairie will come as no surprise to followers of Urban Wilderness: it is Milwaukee County's newest park - a 55-acre part of the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa. The land, which has been fallow and controversial for a long time, was rezoned as parkland in May, making official what has been open prairie-like, park-like land. The image below is from this past weekend, on a lovely foggy morning.

For more images of the county grounds go to my flickr page and my website.

To read a previous post about UWM's imminent purchase of part of the county grounds, click here.