Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Reflections on an dark day

November is a month of gathering darkness. Even on sunny days dusk arrives quickly, prematurely, it always seems to me, like a shroud drawn over a youthful corpse. I cannot help thinking: Too soon! The day dies too early. I am not yet prepared for the dark.

I know I have no reason for despair. I have seen too many winters turn into springs not to be assured of another. And yet. 

I walk a dim forest trail. Even in bright light the somber colors lend the landscape the nostalgic aura of an old sepia toned photograph. Everything seems an intimation of death. The leaves are down, already trampled and brown. The bare branches left overhead are raised as if in supplication.

Decay is everywhere apparent. The soft and crumbling heartwood of a once mighty tree is exposed. Worm trails are etched on trunks stripped of bark. Fungi and other agents of decomposition are lords of the forest.

The stripped landscape reveals nearly as many trees broken, bent, or lying in tangled piles as remain standing. The riparian land along the Menomonee River Parkway seems truly wild. A walk in the forest in November inspires introspection.

All living things return eventually to the earth of their origins. Nothing is wasted. There is no real death, only the ceaseless cycle of regeneration. Nothing that occurs naturally in the environment, that is.

In defiance of the natural order of things, I find indestructible plastics, bottles of every shape and size, snack food packages, cast-away toys, a gigantic tire. What is the death of foliage compared to the undying detritus of our consumer culture where things are designed to be wasted?

Black Friday approaches. In this gathering darkness I search for reassurances that spring will come.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Art and environmental remediation

In 1969 Patricia Johanson, inspired by close observations of the natural world, made simple pencil drawings of animals and plants in sketchbooks and on loose-leaf pages. Copious notes written in casual long hand surrounded the drawings. Johanson had a vision for designing artworks that were not merely representations of nature – what is more common than that? Nor was her idea to reflect on or abstract those sources.

Johanson, in tune with the Zeitgeist that led to the first Earth Day in 1970, wanted nothing less than to heal the earth using art.

She has been doing just that for decades now, often on a monumental scale.

This past Wednesday, the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, WI hosted Johanson for a talk entitled Science, Art, & Infrastructure. The event was sponsored by the Design Coalition Institute in partnership with UW-Marathon, UW-Madison, and UW-Extension.

Beginning with the humble ideas sketched so long ago, Johanson, who subsequently received a degree in architecture, went on to describe several of her major completed projects.

The Dallas Museum of Art is situated picturesquely on Fair Park Lagoon. Water quality in the lagoon, however, had been so badly degraded over the years that it was biologically dead. Johanson’s solution was a sculptural design based on plant forms that simultaneously buttressed eroding banks and created a series of microhabitats. Unlike most public sculpture projects, the obvious concrete structures are only the most visible tip of the iceberg. Native aquatic plants and animals introduced into the newly rehabilitated environment are as important, if not more so.

Not coincidentally, the sculpture doubles as a playground and outdoor classroom for people young and old who visit the newly invigorated site.

archival photo
courtesy Anthracite Heritage Museum

Scranton, Pennsylvania provided Johanson with one of the most daunting challenges: a landscape utterly ravaged by coal mining. She outlined the historical background, which includes human suffering along with environmental devastation. The many levels of now abandoned underground mines have become a defacto reservoir into which all surface waters, former streams, etc. have disappeared.

Her designs are sensitive to this history as well as current conditions, the needs of the local community, and the intention to help ameliorate environmental problems.

This aerial view of the water treatment facility under construction in Petaluma, California gives a sense of the enormous scale of some of her artistic accomplishments.

Aside from sheer wonder, delight, and appreciation for Johanson’s work, there were four main points that struck me:

This is work that requires enormous amounts of research and cooperation for it to be successful. No amount of self-reflection in the studio can produce such far-reaching and practical results.

Johanson reiterated several times the need for community involvement. She was not there, in whatever the location, to impose an aesthetic concept on the land. She listened to the public and the local stakeholders and her designs respect their needs as well as her own creative imagination.

The third point is sadder, I think. Her presentation as well as her work reminded me of Betsy Damon, who had given a talk at UWM a while ago. Afterwards, I asked Johanson about Damon. Unsurprisingly, they are friends. She went on to say that there were only a few like-minded artists doing these kinds of projects that combine imaginative artistic design with actual restoration and bio-remediation – and they are, like her, all getting along in years.

Young artists are not uninterested in the environment, she said, but they tend to want to draw attention to places or frame issues rather than dealing directly with healing the earth.

There were many young people, university students no doubt, in the audience. My hope is that some of them heard her message and found her example inspiring enough to turn that around.

Finally, as I did when I heard Damon speak, I couldn’t help wishing there is a way that one of these artists could be brought to Milwaukee to do their creative and restorative work. The Menomonee Valley would be the perfect location.

Project descriptions and more images can be found on Johanson's website.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ecopsychology among kettles and moraines

Sunday afternoon; fourteen gather in the parking area of the Scuppernong trailhead, Kettle Moraine State Forest, for “A walk in the woods with Philip Chard.” Straight rows of tall pines divide rectangular patches of asphalt cut into the forest. On this preternaturally warm, windy November day the lot is unusually full. Grateful, I leave my jacket in the car.

Philip Chard is a psychotherapist and naturalist – two vocations that merge in the relatively new field of ecopsychology, which unites mental health and spiritual wellbeing with environmental health and ecological principles. Among other things, he leads groups like ours…. 

After a very brief orientation, we head off along the wide, well-groomed Scuppernong Trail. Markers establish a one-way loop for cross-country skiing. Contrarily, we pass the “do not enter” sign.

More straight tree lines make the trail feel like a high corridor – or the nave of a gothic church. Is an architectonic forest 40 miles from Milwaukee more natural than an urban park?

As if reading my mind, Chard urges us to leave the beaten trail now and then – respectfully – in order to enrich our experience. Be mindful, attend to details. Allow yourself to be drawn to nature, to anything that attracts your attention. Among the regular rows of trees, I am attracted to irregularity. A thicket of purple brambles stands out against the gray-brown landscape. I’m not tempted to step off the trail into them.

A hundred years ago, he says, most people worked outdoors; now the reverse is true.

In contrast with clocks, calendars, and the daily grind, nature puts us in touch with “deep time:” geologic time, planetary time, celestial time. We climb a steep ridge – the trail following the line of a moraine – and observe the abrupt drop into a deep kettle, a depression formed 10,000 years ago at the edge of the Wisconsin ice sheet.

Time, like traffic, moves more slowly on a forest path than it does on city streets.

Each kettle we pass was once a mammoth chunk of glacial ice, calved from the receding glacier and then buried in terminal debris.

We go off-trail into a pine grove. A dense evergreen canopy hides the sky. The glen is dark and close. A carpet of needles softens our steps. Involuntarily, we hush, as if entering a chapel. I hear someone sigh with enchantment. Maybe me.

The sky is surprisingly bright when we reemerge onto the trail. The tops of the trees toss in the wind.

“The wind is the breath of the world.” We have reached a peak of sorts; a crest on the moraine with a view towards the setting sun. The flat expanse of Scuppernong Prairie stretches out before us – the largest wet prairie east of the Mississippi River.

Facing into the stiff breeze, Chard spreads his arms wide…: inhales deeply. Exhales deeply.

“Open yourselves to the wind,” he says. “Release your breath into the breath of the earth” for a spiritual cleansing. We inhale. Exhale.

Theodore Roszak coined ecopsychology in 1992. It was dismissed as ‘new age’ fluff at first, says Chard, but has achieved credibility. Although our brains are constantly bombarded with culturally conditioned information, we still think as our prehistoric ancestors did. Civilization and culture are the creations of humanity, but we became human in nature, not in civilization.

On impulse, one of our group climbs the sagging limb of a gnarled oak. “That was on my bucket list,” she says as she slides into upraised hands that gently set her back on the ground.

Nearing solstice, the afternoon darkens early. Clouds scud by on strong winds. Bright sun blinks through broken overcast.

The planet has received its 7 billionth human.

The Western black rhino was declared extinct this week. Other subspecies to follow.

The total number of rhinos left in the wild is smaller than the human population of Waukesha County, in which we are hiking.

“If ever you need strength…,” Chard says; then pauses. Unbidden, like the wind, the thought flies through my mind: who doesn’t? Pointing to the brown oak leaves clinging to twisted branches overhead, he continues more emphatically,  “If you need tenacity just come out here in January. You will find many of them still here, still clinging.”

Trees are more completely evolved than humans, he says: wiser.

Is a chance meeting of friends like the random collisions of subatomic particles? It is a busy day in the forest. We pass many like-minded strangers. But, twice, we greet friends, hiking the same path. Perhaps friendship exerts a gravitational pull that makes encounters more likely. Still…

Life must be full of near misses.

The sun sets in subtle hues through a screen of tree trunks, beyond the far ridgeline. In the gathering twilight, Chard tells us we might have the good fortune to see the gloaming. “OK, I’ll bite,” someone says: “What’s the gloaming?”

The gloaming, he replies, is the moment sometime after dusk when day is indistinguishable from night. “Sounds mystical,” someone whispers. Like a portal between existential realms. The path under our feet is dim and a mist seems to have enveloped the trees all around us. We look up to see a still bright sky through the crevice in the canopy that mirrors the path. Not yet.

A bat rises from the leaf litter at our approach. It is indistinguishable from the leaves, as if a piece of the ground has lifted and fluttered off. The gloaming of the earth.

We still ourselves in the near dark. The susurration of the wind rushing through the treetops sounds like distant surf, like the breathing of the ocean. Here on the ground all is calm, quiet.

In the dark, we hear, your peripheral vision is clearer than your focal point. In my peripheral vision the corridor of the trail contracts, the line of individual trees merges into a wall; the people around me become phantoms. My eye is drawn, moth-like, to the broken hole of the sky, the still-dimming light overhead. Breathing.

In the peaceful, preternaturally warm November evening, we await the gloaming, when we are indistinguishable from the forest.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wauwatosa residents speak out against power lines in parkways

“Everyone wants a power line underground and somewhere else,” spokesman Peter Holtz intoned as he began Monday night’s presentation by the American Transmission Company (ATC). He also quickly and readily acknowledged the oppositional mood of the crowd of about 100; most were there to “say NO to route B.”

As reported in Wauwatosa Patch, ATC has proposed four transmission line routes to bring power into a new substation being planned by We Energies. The substation will be located next to an existing power plant on the Milwaukee County Grounds. Route B would access an existing line at 119th St. and run east through Underwood Parkway.

Two of the four proposed transmission routes are said to be required in order to provide secure redundancy for the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, although that was a point of contention questioned by several in the audience.

Overhead routes are preferred because they are less expensive, according to Holtz. When pressed for specifics he said that the parkway option would cost $8 million. The longest underground option, along 92nd St., would cost $20 million.

There was some grumbling about comparing apples to oranges, since the distances are unequal and most of the options likely would include a combination of overhead and underground construction. This includes Route B, which would dive underground in two potential alternatives after its passage along Underwood Creek Parkway.

The crowd applauded when it was observed that this is a one-time expense and the cost would be spread out over the 50- to 70-year life of the system. The higher cost of the underground options was deemed worth it to preserve the environmental and recreational value of the parkway.
There was no dissent as speaker after speaker reiterated that the parkway should be considered inviolable. Long-time resident John Novotny described moving “from the city” to the neighborhood because of the “bucolic” character of the parkway, which has “intrinsic value” that would be diminished by power lines.

In a passionate plea for preservation, Willie Gonwa went further: “We are not talking about just one mile of parkway. Eighty-six miles of parks and bike trails create a unified loop around Milwaukee County. This project would break the green necklace that was designed by Charles Whitnall in 1906. Nowhere else have the parkways been converted into power line corridors.”

In an apparent attempt to mollify the restive crowd, Holtz pointed to a slight change in the proposed route. Between 119th St. and 115th St. the route originally was sited north of the railroad tracks. Reacting to DNR objections that this would degrade one of the very few wooded wetlands left in Milwaukee County and therefore not be permitted, the ATC added a new alternative south of the tracks and the creek.

Holtz said, “We will advocate for siting in the wetland,” where it would be somewhat less visible from the parkway road. An apparent contradiction was noted by several people who decried the destruction of sensitive wetlands for the aesthetic benefit of avoiding one section of the parkway. (The power lines would continue east from 115th St. next to the Oak Leaf Trail in either case.)

Holtz maintained repeatedly that the PSC would not make its decision based on “aesthetic grounds.”

The neighborhood has allies. Holtz reported that Parks Director Sue Black and the Milwaukee County Parks have issued a statement opposing Route B. Cheryl Nenn, Milwaukee Riverkeeper, and Jim Goulee, director of The Park People, were on hand to express opposition. Also, County Supervisor James “Luigi” Schmitt, who is running for re-election, was present and stated that his preference would be to “stay out of the parkway.”

ATC officials repeatedly deferred some of the most heated questions, about the need for additional power and the decision-making criteria, to We Energies and the Public Service Commission (PSC). That response angered some members of the audience since no one from either was present to provide answers. Holtz countered by encouraging continued involvement in the review process.

Concerned residents can attend future public meetings, review the project application on the PSC website, and ask questions of the PSC, We Energies and the DNR. Most importantly, Holtz concluded, comments can be submitted directly to the PSC, which is responsible for the final decision. The PSC contact is Scott Cullen, email: scott.cullen@psc.state.wi.us.

The public hearing was requested by a fledgling neighborhood association whose membership has been ignited by this issue. Observing the standing-room-only crowd, Kit Hansen, chair of Preserve Underwood Parkway, said that the outpouring of unified feeling about an issue was a first for the neighborhood.

Although almost everyone who spoke was from the Underwood Parkway neighborhood, a few representatives attended from the Walnut Street neighborhood, which is where one of the other proposed transmission routes is sited. They were understandably concerned about the impact underground power lines would have on their property.

Afterwards, Hansen expressed gratitude for the civility and focus of the proceedings.  The two neighborhoods could have been pitted against each other, obscuring the larger issue of environmental impacts to public parkland. That didn’t happen.

The sentiment in the room was summed up in a succinct, heart-felt statement by Jan Baldus: “This is wrong. Please don’t do this!”

This story originally appeared in Wauwatosa Patch and you can read my earlier blog post about this issue - with pictures - by clicking here.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Open letter to County Board regarding the budget

The following is a letter I sent to the board of supervisors of Milwaukee County. I urge you to send a letter of your own. To access the list of supervisors click on County Board.

Dear Board of Supervisors,

I spoke at the public hearing Monday evening at the Washington Park Senior Center. However, in the allotted two minutes I was unable to complete my statement.

Here are the essential points I’d like to make:

·      The Parks budget should be reinstated in full.

·      Separate, dedicated revenue sources should be sought for both Parks and Transit.

·      One possible source for dedicated Parks funding can be the half-percent sales tax that was passed in a referendum in 2008 but never implemented.

·      With due speed, an independent regional Parks District should be created that would be responsible for Parks budgeting and the Parks budget removed from the county budget.

·      Transit is critical to the poor, to students, and everyone who uses it to go to their jobs. We must have convenient, affordable mass transit.

·      People need health care and equality of services.

·      The county budget should not make poor people suffer.

·      One possible source for money to balance the budget without sacrificing services that benefit the poor or support county workers is a progressive tax increase.

·      Funding the Parks benefits everyone, including the poor. Decreasing Parks funding hurts the poor disproportionately since wealthy communities have proven that they can support their neighborhood parks, pools, etc.

·      Estabrook dam should be removed. Trying to repair it would waste money that should go to other priorities.

The last point is tangential to the others, but telling. Supervisor Lipscomb has a responsibility to his constituents, but the few property owners who would benefit by having a lake in their backyards should not drive the rest of the supervisors to do the wrong thing.

It was clear from Chairman Holloway’s opening remarks and throughout the public hearing that the overwhelming majority of people who attended were those who will suffer if the proposed budget is passed with its severe cuts to services. The people who would complain – and we know they would – if their taxes were raised were mostly not present. Why? Clearly they take for granted that they have nothing to worry about.

I’d like to conclude with a short personal observation. I have a new son-in-law from Nicaragua. He is continually amazed by the quality of services that we have where I live in Wauwatosa, including things we all take for granted, like garbage collection and leaf removal. (He has yet to experience snow plowing.) His observation is that we enjoy visible benefits because we pay taxes.  That is not his experience in Nicaragua.

Someone suggested on Monday evening that the county board try getting around to work and their other daily activities entirely on the MCTS. That would be instructive. I’ve long thought that federal as well as local government officials, along with the anti-tax faction of the general public, would get similar personal perspectives if they spent two weeks or more living in a low-tax place like Nicaragua.

Our taxes should provide services for the common good, especially for the neediest people.