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.


  1. Home just got thinner by your blog invoking those familiar and unfamiliar spots from my rambles with such superb photography and commentary.
    Jim G

  2. Such a nice presentation of the thinner places at just the right time of year to appreciate them most, the Winter Soltice. The times, they are a thinnin'.

  3. Nice reflections on the overlaps between nature and the city. A positive way to frame something I admit I does not always put me in a positive frame on mine.

    Nice sense of the 'thinness' both as a border between developed areas and parkland, and as places where we can see another world, in a sense...

    In particular, I liked the discussion and depiction of flow on the tree bark.