Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011: A year in the Urban Wilderness

Following the time-honored year-end tradition, I offer my personal selections of the best of the Urban Wilderness from the past year. These are the stories of my explorations from month to month. Some are from far-away places, but among my favorites are many from right here in the Milwaukee area, as usual! We have much to be grateful for.

February – Reconsidering Aldo Leopold, from the Southern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Park.

September – Wonderland: Urban parks stimulate more than the imagination, from the Menomonee River.

November – Ecopsychology among the kettles and moraines, near Eagle, WI.

December – Milwaukee’s “Thin Places,” a meditation on the parkway system.

The stories include images, as you have come to expect, and I hope you enjoy them all. It is hard to choose one best, but if I had to today I would pick this one from the KK River. It symbolizes the challenges that exist and the hope that I have for urban wilderness, wherever it is found.

 Thank you for following the Urban Wilderness – I hope to see you out there in 2012. Have a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Season’s Greetings from the Urban Wilderness

Maybe this happened to you, too: Saturday morning, after long anticipation, I was surprised when I woke up to find snow covering the yard and street outside my windows. Suddenly the holiday season felt real. Finally!

I hurried outside, only to find that the “season” was barely an inch deep. It wasn’t enough to visibly affect the “wilderness,” but pent up enthusiasm kept me going, across Hoyt Park and the Menomonee River, into the wide-open spaces of the Milwaukee County Grounds.

 I had an ulterior motive. I’m working on a book of photographs about the fragile beauty that I see on the County Grounds and I’m short on winter scenery. When I got there, though, I found I’d been right: as I topped the detention basin berm I looked out over forty or so acres of very brown cattails. Tiny caps of snow were insufficient to give the marsh a wintry aspect.

Beyond the basin lay the hills of Milwaukee County’s newest (and as yet unnamed) park, also brown in the distance. Only a thin white streak that I recognized as a trail bore any traces of snow. The book would have to wait a little longer. No matter. It was a beautiful day in the urban wilderness and I wasn’t going to waste it.

I was not alone! Both the wide gravel trail that encircles the two basins and the narrower ones threading across the hills are regular routes for dog walkers, but this day they were out in force. The fact that I didn’t have a dog made me a curiosity to many. The people I met would apologize for their dogs, which were either A) ferociously barking at me or B) cheerfully jumping on me with wet paws. Then, when they found out I was a writer, they would tell me about their love and concern for the place.

“Have you seen Charlie the three-legged coyote?” one woman asked me with obvious affection.

While three big Labradors roamed freely through the high grass, a pair of couples shared their fears for the future, when the construction of Innovation Park will obstruct the horizon to the west, as the towers of the Medical Complex already do to the south.

A tall man with a ramrod bearing who wore a camouflage cap and blaze orange vest suggested that the Parks Department establish a bow-hunting season in the new park. “They could sell limited season permits for a TON of money!” he exclaimed. While that wouldn’t make me feel particularly comfortable, I was intrigued that he considered the County Grounds large enough for that. He also expressed uncompromising concern for the welfare of the abundant wildlife on the Grounds.

Back on the basin path a jogger stopped, pulled out her earphones, and asked me what I was taking pictures for. When I said I was making a book, she exclaimed, “I love the County Grounds!” Then she took off again down the path.

As I neared the end of my journey, the bright sun reached its low winter solstice zenith. The meager snow shrank further and the gravel path became muddy. But on Underwood Parkway, near Swan Boulevard, I found the tree.

I’ve never seen who does it, but for several years now someone has decorated one of the parkway evergreens. Last year, as I recall, the ornaments had begun to look faded. But now there were bright new ones shining in the sunlight bringing holiday cheer to the County Grounds.

Though far from natural, there is something about this anonymous gesture that seems more like a gift than an intrusion. Like the wide-open spaces of the County Grounds themselves, which provide a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle all around. Mayfair Mall is just visible over the tree line to the west, but it seems small and very far away. Out here, where unhampered breezes gently rustle the cattails, I can feel peace on earth and good will to all people.

For another, very different, take on the same hike in the County Grounds go to Arts Without Borders.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Preserve Our Parks opposes power lines in parkway

Please write to the American Transmission Company (ATC) and the Public Service Commission (PSC) and add your voices to keep power lines out of Underwood Parkway. The more letters they receive the more impact they will have. Contact information is at the bottom of this post.

Below is the text of the letter being sent by Preserve Our Parks (POP) to the ATC and the PSC in opposition to siting of the proposed power line. POP's is a principled position that doesn't recommend either of the two proposed routes from the west. Instead it recognizes the public interest in preserving parklands and open green space. (Full disclosure: I'm on the POP board and drafted the letter for the board's approval.)

I have posted two times before on this topic. To read the earlier posts and learn more about the issues, go to my statement or to public hearing. Informative photos accompany those posts, as usual.

The letter:

RE:          Transmission line routes to new County Grounds Substation

Preserve Our Parks, as its name indicates, is an organization dedicated to the preservation of parks and public green spaces. We would like to make known for the record our position on the proposed routes for the transmission lines that are planned for the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa.
·      We oppose routing power lines, whether overhead or underground, in any part of Underwood Parkway. This would effectively eliminate most of Route B from consideration.
·      If Route A is chosen, then the segment that runs along Highway 45 through the County Grounds, should be underground. Alternatively, Route A could be used until it reaches the County Grounds at which point it could switch to the underground segment of Route B.
·      We believe that the principle of preserving the public’s interest in undisturbed parks and green spaces should be a primary consideration over and above the economics of one route versus another.
Our opposition to Route B is consistent with the position of Milwaukee County Parks Department and many other organizations concerned about parks, wildlife habitats, wetlands, open green space, and the recreational use of the Oak Leaf Trail, all of which would be compromised if a power line were sited within the Parkway. Since no other public parkway in Milwaukee County has been transformed into a power corridor, this also would set a precedent that we believe is not in the public interest.

The Parkway should not be chosen simply because it is the cheapest route since it is inherently less expensive to develop in parklands than in places with established development. Although the specifics of the case dealt with road construction instead of power lines, this principle was established in U.S. Supreme Court case law in CITIZENS TO PRESERVE OVERTON PARK v. VOLPE, 401 U.S. 402 (1971).

The decision about which two of four routes to use for these transmission lines assumes the need for additional power in this area, an assumption we do not necessarily share. We urge the Public Service Commission to look closely at this assumption and to examine other options available. These should include ambitious and creative reconsideration of how power is used by the Milwaukee County Medical Complex as well as requiring any new development at Innovation Park, the Research Park, and elsewhere to meet stringent and sustainable limits on energy usage.

Contact info:

ATC will be accepting comments until mid-January.  Email Mary Carpenter:

The PSC is responsible for the final decision. Therefore a letter to them is critical to provide support for the parkway.

PSC: Reference the Western Milwaukee County Electric Reliability Project, Docket #5-CE-139. Email Mr. Ali Wali:

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Menomonee Valley Power Plant public hearing Monday

The following message is from the Cleaner Valley Coalition. The organization's mission statement is below.

EPA Community Meeting Dec. 12th

EPA Community Meeting on Valley Coal Plant Pollution, Health Concerns and Environmental Justice

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency are participating in a Community Meeting and Forum to discuss environmental justice and health concerns, including We Energies’ Valley coal plant, located in the heart of the downtown Milwaukee. Sponsored by Cleaner Valley Coalition, the community has the opportunity to talk about the plant’s pollution and its health impacts, which primarily affect low-income people of color who live in the Menomonee Valley.

EPA representatives include Susan Hedman, Head of EPA Region 5 in Chicago, and Lisa Garcia, Associate Assistant Administrator for Environmental Justice, Washington, D.C. There will be an opportunity to provide personal statements to head EPA officials; written testimony accepted too.

The Valley coal plant is one of the dirtiest plants in the state, yet sits in Wisconsin’s most populated city. The community has grown deeply concerned over the increase in cases of asthma and respiratory illnesses in children in Milwaukee, particularly within the African-American, Latino and lower-income communities.

When: Monday, Dec. 12, 6:00 p.m.

Where: Ascension Lutheran Church,1236 S.Layton Blvd. Parking in rear.
What: Community members giving testimony, EPA officials
Contact: Dianne Dagelen,

Cleaner Valley Coalition is a coalition of health advocacy groups, civil rights organization, grassroots organizations and local service providers and individuals concerned about the health of our families. Together, we are working to improve air quality for all Milwaukee residents by cleaning up We Energies’ coal plant in the Menomonee Valley. The window of opportunity to clean up We Energies’ Valley Plant is here. Ultimately, we call on We Energies to be a responsible neighbor and clean up the plant for the health of Milwaukee and our children’s future.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Milwaukee’s Thin Places

On a gloomy, December day, when “the sky won’t snow and the sun won’t shine,” it’s tempting to stay curled up somewhere warm, inside, by a fire. Or to busy myself with the million things I have to do before the holidays. It’s easy to find excuses not to take a walk in the woods when it’s cold, wet, and dreary.

But those are often the days when I need it most, when the ordinary world is wearisome and business becomes busyness. I bundle up and go.

I’m rarely sorry once I get outside and I am immediately glad I made the effort. On the muddy path along the Menomonee River I feel youthful and content, like Christopher Robin, who didn’t mind what kind of weather there was “as long as he was out in it.”

The turgid river, swollen with rain, flows like a living, burgeoning being, like a colossal, dark glistening snake, slithering through the landscape, swallowing whole all it encounters. All along the quickening river, the rain-darkened trees stand, brooding. Behind the trees, a rank of houses obliterates the illusion of wilderness. 

In summer the screen of trees suffices to hide most traces of the city through which our fluid snake writhes. Now, with the onset of winter the curtain is frayed; the fragile thinness of the parkway is revealed. As if in confirmation of this truth, a train suddenly rushes by close behind me with an emphatic roar.

Caught in this thin place between railroad and houses my attention becomes more focused. I begin to feel nature. The rough bark on the great black willow seems to flow down its huge trunk as if in harmony with the river. 

In a world gone mostly gray there remain a few persistent spots of green. Black berries hang in the air, bejeweled by the rain. 

The furry carcass of a raccoon, likewise bejeweled, glitters as if in triumphal declaration of transcendence. 

Intricate patterns of fungi and lichen brighten a decaying log nearby. Wild places, no matter how squeezed by civilization, reveal the natural order; the cycle of life, death, and regeneration is everywhere apparent.

The ancient Celts believed that there were Thin Places in the landscape; spiritual places where the veil between this world and The Other could be perceived by anyone attuned to the ephemeral signs. Some were marked with dolmens, the mysterious standing stones that are among the earliest known structures on earth.

Today, most people live in cities instead of in the countryside and it is easy to feel like we are outside the natural order, even somehow exempt from it. Warm, secure, and insulated from inclement weather, we have developed an unconscious – and false – sense that we are separate from nature. But, fortunately, there are “thin places” in our community – the parks and parkways – where we go to remember our connection to the land, to reinvigorate our relationship with nature, which is never truly broken.

The still green lawn of vacant Hanson golf course runs right down to the riverbank, in dramatic contrast with the brown fringes of taller grass and the few trees that line the two banks. The narrowness of the parkway corridor, so apparent in the starkness of winter, is no accident. The architects of Milwaukee County’s park system, which largely follows its rivers, understood the importance of connectivity as well as the “edge effect” of long, thin natural corridors.

In Greenways for America, author Charles Little observes, “The edge effect is almost magical. For most people, the great utility of preserved open space…is not measured by its area but by its edge: that is, what you see when walking or riding down a street alongside it…. From the edge, a wooded park that might be a mile across looks the same as one that is two hundred feet in width. Clearly, therefore, a long, thin greenway can provide a great deal more apparent open space per acre than a consolidated parcel of land.”

But as I walk in the midst of its somber December beauty, the magic of the long parkway corridor goes much deeper than the prosaic benefits outlined in bureaucratic land-use plans (important though they are!) For me, this truly is a Thin Place, not just a narrow one. I may not perceive the Other World in a supernatural sense, but in the hustle and bustle of urban life, perceiving the natural world can in itself have a similarly transporting, extraordinary effect. 

I feel fortunate to live near “thin places” through which flow the Milwaukee, Menomonee, Kinnickinnic, and Root Rivers – as well as their tributary creeks, so many enshrined in the parkway system.

Walking along the river can reignite the sense of wonder that children instinctively possess but which is all too easy to lose in the busyness of maturity. Pooh says to Christopher Robin, “Sometimes, if you stand on… a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”

I lean over and watch the Menomonee River slip quickly away beneath me.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Urban Wilderness: Staten Island, NY

The photographs throughout this post are from Staten Island’s Greenbelt system of parks and trails. Some of them illustrate passages directly from my story, but others are meant as a complementary photo essay.

Having a few hours before I needed to return my rental car at Newark Airport, I thought I might explore a bit of the Meadowlands, which are nearby. However, the spaghetti of freeways on the map was more than a little intimidating. Trying to navigate them in the car seemed a fool’s errand. I opted for Staten Island.

Although I grew up in New York and have visited “the city” many times since I moved to Wisconsin, I’d never been to Staten Island before. Someone said, “Why go there? It’s just another suburb.” In fact, on a map it looks much more like part of New Jersey than New York.

Why go there? I’d read about Fresh Kills, once the world’s largest landfill. An ambitious project now underway means to transform it into parkland. Its 2,200 acres make it three times larger than Central Park. It sounded like an appropriate urban wilderness adventure to me.

After the twelve-lane expanse of New Jersey Turnpike, the drive across the tunnel-like Goethals Bridge was a white-knuckle adventure in itself. A large steel paneled truck rattled along mere inches away from my side mirror. As we sloped down out of the cattle trough onto Staten Island, the road widened again. Wetlands stretched off on both sides, seasonally sear and brown, but a welcome contrast to the seemingly endless port terminals, refineries, industries, and highways of New Jersey.

Fresh Kills was easy to find. The West Side Expressway slices it like thanksgiving turkey. Barren mounds rise on either side like skinned breasts laid on a platter; man-made mountains that dwarf the houses, hotels, businesses, shopping centers, and power plants around its edges.

Cypress knees
As parkland it seemed completely unsatisfying; a pregnant wasteland that leaves me wondering how a landfill can be called “former,” as if the noxious contents will ever disappear. Maybe it will be more convincing in thirty years, when the “state-of-the-art ecological restoration techniques” have had a chance to mature.

Cypress and goose pond at Willowbrook Park
I circled it, looking fruitlessly for a way in. I didn’t need the numerous “no trespassing” signs to convince me to find a more inviting place for my urban adventure.

Fortunately, Staten Island offers many other opportunities to scratch my itch for exploration.

I chanced upon Willowbrook Park, despite narrow street access and low visibility signage. I found there a lovely pond surrounded by a paved path full of people strolling amid aggressive geese; cypress trees and a slew of their attendant knees along the water’s edge; and a park office with a map of The Greenbelt. Score! That led me to a larger, more alluring natural area.

I parked at the Greenbelt Nature Center, ignored the irony of the bench on its small lawn that bore a plaque reading “THE ADVENTURE BEGINS HERE!” (Am I supposed to sit?), and plunged gratefully into the forest. A more compelling sign on the nature trail proclaimed that this area will remain “forever wild.” I set out hopefully in search of its promise.

The trail, which was wide and clear enough to follow without assistance, was emblazoned with rectangular swatches of colorful paint. Apparently that wasn’t enough for someone; everywhere I went there also were vibrant pink and orange ribbons dangling from branches overhead. As I progressed along several trails with differently hued markers, I came to places where some over-achieving trail manager (or adolescent volunteer?) had spray-painted the ground itself, along with an occasional rock, wooden bench, and even dead leaves. No getting lost in this urban forest!

Photomontage of trail markings

Spray paint aside, the forest was indeed pretty wild. Leafless trees poked up from heaps of logs and downed branches that were shrouded in vines, brambles, and creepers, like thick cobwebs, making the place appear disheveled, faded with neglect, like Miss Havisham’s dining room in Great Expectations.

The trail dropped into hollows, some too muddy to cross, requiring me to backtrack and choose an alternate route – red or yellow this time? It wound around stagnant pools, like dark, cloudy crystal balls, mirroring the broken sky. In one a giant timber dipped into the still water, as if a gargantuan witch had long ago abandoned labors over a murky cauldron.

An unmarked (but easy to follow!) spur trail led to “ruins,” as identified on the trail map. My expectations of discovering a romantically decaying colonial mansion were dashed, though, by what proved to be the remains of a small corner made of rough stone with a set of concrete steps leading up to…a snarl of small trees. A ring of blackened charcoal, along with beer cans in a cave-like basement window well, indicated regular and irreverent visitation.
However, despite all the manifestations of humanity, my hike was quite solitary and peaceful. By the time I returned to my rental car I had spent long enough in the wilds of Staten Island to quiet my restless spirit and to brave a return trip over the Goethals Bridge and the short stretch of turnpike to the airport.

Ribbons hanging from branches to mark the trail.
The Meadowlands, as well as a rehabilitated Fresh Kills, remain on my bucket list for future explorations.