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.