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.

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