Sunday, December 30, 2012

Marks and remarks from the Urban Wilderness

As I went out this morning light snow drifted slowly out of a clear blue sky. It was beautiful and mysterious, perhaps a portent on the cusp of a new year. Though if I believed in omens I might choose instead the coyote I spotted in the Menomonee Valley a few days ago. Instead of being sunny, a deep overcast was spitting sleet in spurts. The coyote's fur was sodden and dripping as it loped across the pavement in front of my car. It splashed in the icy roadside ditch, slipped through a chain link fence and on into the narrow field between the vast stadium parking lot and the railroad. The bent grasses amongst which it paused looked as bedraggled as it did. Above, I could see a steady stream of cars speeding by on the freeway. The coyote looked around briefly, then turned and slipped out of sight.

Some indigenous peoples of North America revere the coyote as the Creator. More commonly known as a Trickster, though, coyote may appear the fool or the clever impersonator. As I watched this lone, scrubby coyote disappear into perfect camouflage of its wintry surroundings, one thing is unambiguous - here is the wild incarnate. And, against what odds I can only guess, it lives in the heart of Milwaukee. The coyote may not in itself be the creator of the wild, but wherever it goes it does far more than impersonate what is wild. Coyote embodies the wild. To my way of thinking, that it can do this in the city is a good omen indeed.

In addition to my glimpse of the coyote, I caught many a photograph this year, as you may have come to expect if you are a regular to my blog. Three that I shot just yesterday near the Milwaukee River in Gordon Park accompany this post.

2012 was a year for the record books. Much of the reason was bad news. But as December draws to a close, I am mindful of a more hopeful report I heard this week that claimed this was a watershed year for at least one important reason. Due to several extreme climatic events, including Superstorm Sandy and the worst drought conditions since the Dust Bowl, the general public and the media finally caught up with scientists regarding the real and inarguable effects of global warming.

Here at Urban Wilderness I like to recall high points of the passing year, as do many of us. I feel fortunate to have been able to explore both near and far, to revisit familiar places and to discover new ones. There were a number of surprises along the way, which I recorded in posts throughout the year. Listed below, with brief annotations, is what I consider my best of 2012.

The most significant event of the year was the most personal, the loss of my mother at 87. In August I wrote about her influence on me and my love of nature: In memoriam

Other than that, my favorite moments, in chronological order:

The year began softly, in a January blizzard. My meditation on the day is called A snowy silence

In February I covered one of my most regular beats, the Milwaukee County Grounds with Ronald McDonald House plans expansion. Although the specific request by Ronald McDonald House was settled by the County Board of Supervisors in July (see my update), questions remain about the ultimate fate of one final corner of unprotected land.

Also in February, Historic Milwaukee held a forum called "Remarkable Milwaukee." I weighed in with What's remarkable about Milwaukee?

An illuminating trip to Houston, Texas inspired a trilogy of posts. The first installment is called Waking to a new world. (Links to subsequent installments follow each.)

In March I explored a new (to me) park in the Milwaukee County system : A warm gray day in Grobschmidt Park.

In April I was invited by the Great Waters Group of the Sierra Club to give a keynote address for their annual Earth Day celebration. Here is what I told them: Reflections on Earth Day

A new trail in the Cambridge Woods portion of the Milwaukee River Greenway generated controversy in May: Urban wilderness and accessibility

In June I visited the Chicago Wilderness along the Des Plaines River: The scent of summer

And a trip to Phoenix resulted in a two-part post: It's a desert out there! (A link to part 2 follows this post.)

In July I finally made a long-awaited pilgrimage to visit Aldo Leopold's shack on the Wisconsin River north of Madison: A visit to Sand County

There was wonderful news to report in September: A new branch of the Urban Ecology Center opens in the Menomonee Valley

In October, another two-part post, this time from New York City: The High Line: Good and Bad. (A link to part 2 follows this post.)

In November a short excursion led to a surprising discovery - Starved Rock State Park - two hours southwest of Chicago: Off Season

This was also the year when I finally got around to putting the finishing touches on a book too long in the works: The Milwaukee County Grounds: Island of Hope

Happy New Year from the Urban Wilderness!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Happy New “Cycle”


Well, this morning dawned like any other, which came as no surprise to me. The apocalyptic predictions fizzled like so many previous ones have.

I did hear from one person who woke up this morning to the sound of unusual silence and a power outage. That proved to be the result of yesterday’s storm, however and not attributable to ancient – or modern – superstitions.

If you are still blissfully ignorant of the purported “end of the world” that some had predicted would happen yesterday, based on the Mayan Calendar, then good for you for living above or beyond the media chatter! Yesterday was considered to be the end of the 5125-year-long cycle that the ancient Mayan peoples used in what’s called the long count calendar. Presumably, then, the new cycle begins today.

Happy New Cycle!

May the next 5125 years be better than the last. At least by then whoever is around will know how this global warming business turned out.

I was delighted to open my New York Times last Sunday to find that their editors had turned to poetry to commemorate the event (or non-event).

Here’s one short poem from the collection they published that I found particularly trenchant:


The blue jay
Was the last leaf
To fall
When it rocked
From side to side And slowly tumbled
To land on the snow
As a piece of sky
Broken off
The cold blue place
Where winter keeps
The number zero.

Of course today is also the winter solstice. So, if the whole Mayan calendar thing is meaningless, we still have that traditional reason to celebrate a new beginning today. I for one always welcome the return of the sun, gradual though it is. And what a beautiful day it turned out to be! Though the cold was punishing it was quite lovely while I could stand it. I went out to the County Grounds to look around at the new fallen snow and I make this offering to both the new Cycle and the solstice.

I will close with another poetic meditation, this one by Mary Oliver:

In the Storm

Some black ducks
were shrugged up
on the shore.
It was snowing

hard, from the east,
and the sea
was in disorder.
Then some sanderlings,

five inches long
with beaks like wire,
flew in,
snowflakes on their backs,

and settled
in a row
behind the ducks --
whose backs were also

covered with snow --
so close
they were all but touching,
they were all but under

the roof of the duck's tails,
so the wind, pretty much,
blew over them.
They stayed that way, motionless,

for maybe an hour,
then the sanderlings,
each a handful of feathers,
shifted, and were blown away

out over the water
which was still raging.
But, somehow,
they came back

and again the ducks,
like a feathered hedge,
let them
crouch there, and live.

If someone you didn't know
told you this,
as I am telling you this,
would you believe it?

Belief isn't always easy.
But this much I have learned --
if not enough else --
to live with my eyes open.

I know what everyone wants
is a miracle.
This wasn't a miracle.
Unless, of course, kindness --

as now and again
some rare person has suggested --
is a miracle.
As surely it is.

~ Mary Oliver ~

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

First snow

To commemorate the season’s first snow, late as it is, I have a short photo essay shot yesterday, mostly while it was coming down around me. Lovely.

Not feeling particularly insightful today, I humbly offer a selection of haiku that I’ve written over the years on the themes of snow and winter. To me haiku is less about writing and more akin to a spiritual practice. There was a time when I wrote one a day, but I’ve lapsed lately.

Enjoy the snow!

Honey Creek Parkway, West Allis

leaving the road
my footprints
in unbroken snow

Honey Creek Parkway, West Allis

stopping in snowy woods
the stranger suddenly smiles
her dog licks my hand

Menomonee River at Hart Park, Wawatosa

morning mist
off the river
my breath rising

Hoyt Park, Wauwatosa

pulling off snowy boots
near the fire
my tingling toes

Menomonee River at Hart Park, Wauwatosa

on the verge of sleep
snowplow scraping, beeping
scraping, beeping

Honey Creek Parkway, West Allis

in the midst of blowing snow
a purple balloon

Honey Creek Parkway, West Allis

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pedestrian bridge in the Menomonee Valley

I was sorry to have missed the installation yesterday of the first section of the new pedestrian bridge that will connect Mitchell Park (home of the domes) with the Menomonee Valley and the Hank Aaron State Trail. I won't try to repeat what others - who were on the scene yesterday - have written. There are two good stories about it in WUWM news and the Bike Federation's blog.

I tried to make up for not being there yesterday by going to see the second section of the three-part bridge installed. Here are a few pictures.

This is the section that was installed yesterday. I liked the idea of having the domes as a backdrop for the scene, so I hiked down to this site from the west end of the new airlines yard park. Initially that seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, today's work took longer than yesterday's. As the sun rose the light changed and made the scene less dramatic. Still, the action was fascinating enough.

Utilizing two cranes, the crew is positioning the second section of the bridge over the railroad tracks.

Bringing the new section in line to make the connection with the existing section.

The two sections now erected are connected, making a single span over the tracks.

The view through the two joined sections towards Mitchell Park.

The third section, to be installed tomorrow, will complete the connection with Mitchell Park, to the right in this picture. Eventually, when it is fully operational, an extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail will run through the new park and cross over this bridge. From that vantage point will be a panoramic view of the Valley and downtown Milwaukee beyond.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the Friends of the Hank Aaron State Trail board of directors.)

Monday, December 3, 2012

Menomonee Valley in fog

The fog and the unseasonably balmy temps drew me outside this morning. I've always treasured days like today, surprise days, like unexpected gifts. Of course, "unseasonably warm" has taken on newly ominous significance in our post-Katrina and now post-Superstorm Sandy circumstances. Not to mention our own record-breaking drought.

Still, I enjoyed being out. I went to one of my usual haunts, the Menomonee Valley, to check on the progress of the Airline Yards Park. (To read about the groundbreaking of Milwaukee's newest park, check out my earlier post.)

Luck was with me. A crew was out spraying what I assume to be fertilizer, or perhaps a seed/fertilizer mix, on the new contoured slopes of the park.

The Menomonee River was lower than I can remember seeing it, except during the height of the drought this past summer! Much is revealed in the shallows of an undernourished urban river.

These last two shots are from the Hank Aaron State Trail, which runs through the Stormwater Park below the 35th Street Viaduct.

I've always loved how fog brings out the colors in the landscape - even the relatively monochromatic one we have in late autumn - or snowless winter.

Although I enjoyed my excursion, I do hope the springlike weather passes and we get some snow.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Urban Rangers

I just came across a website called Urban Ranger. Its mission is "to make a habit of purposeful, sustained walking." While the mission as quoted doesn't refer to cities, this is certainly implied by the name. More than implied, actually, though I doubt anyone who doesn't live in an urban area would be excluded if they wanted "to make a habit of purposeful, sustained walking." The dangers of a sedentary life style are not inherent to city dwellers!

In any case, I like it. Here is an anthem, also from the website:

Song of the Urban Ranger

I am an urban ranger,
I walk, it's what I do.
The city is my wilderness,
Sky scrapers are my trees.
I hang my thoughts on lamp posts,
And park my dreams in metered spots.
I populate the empty lots
With my good ghosts,
And invest the pavement
with diamond recollections.
Exertions are my exercise,
My labors for effect.
I walk to go and go to walk.
I walk to work and work that I might walk.
I walk to dream up orders
For my servile sitting self.
No stagnant sedentary thoughts
Shall rule this life.
But who knows what's for what.
I sure walk a hell of a lot.

I would like to be an urban ranger myself. Although I can claim "purposeful" about my walking, I would do well to work on the "sustained" part of the program.

On one of my recent purposeful walks I discovered a shallow stretch of the Menomonee River where there is an abundance of exposed rock. An unknown number of people, fellow urban rangers perhaps, have piled these rocks into towers that are reminiscent of ancient ruins like Angkor Wat.

In Los Angeles there is a much more well established organization called the LA Urban Rangers, which I also just ran across. They have an impressive series of programs. Check them out. Every city should have a group like this!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Power lines and parklands don't mix

I just returned from the Wauwatosa City Hall where a public hearing is underway regarding the plans to run transmission lines through parts of Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. The new lines would provide power to a planned substation to be built by We Energies next to its existing plant on the County Grounds. (Read more about these plans. Pictures included in earlier post.)

Much of the testimony was from people associated with either St. Theresa or the Milwaukee Montessori School, both of which will be impacted if plans proceed to run overhead power lines along their properties. I agree with their position that power lines should run underground. Since I don’t live next to any of the proposed routes, my concern is more general. However, it is no less passionate. I don't believe that this is merely a local issue.

Here is the gist of my testimony:

Many of us have heard from representatives of the ATC that the Commission will be choosing a power line route solely on an economic basis, that the cheapest route is always chosen. Furthermore, since parklands will always be less expensive to develop than locations with existing development, they will always be sacrificed for this inherent short-term economic advantage.

I hope that the ATC has mischaracterized the Commission’s intentions, that your deliberations will prove more flexible than they have claimed and that your understanding of the economics involved is more nuanced. If the only economic consideration is the narrow one that considers only the cost of constructing a power line, then by default our community will lose its parklands. More than that, every community where these circumstances exist will sacrifice parkland. Sadly, the places this loss will be felt the greatest is where they can least afford it, densely populated urban areas like ours.

There are many ways besides the cost of construction, of course, to measure economic costs – and benefits. In this case the benefits of preserving parkland and the benefits of burying the lines outweigh the narrow, short-term economic considerations. Some of the benefits are less tangible, like quality of life, but others truly are economic, like property valuations and the costs of physical and emotional health. These costs would not be bourn by the ATC but by the larger community. Ultimately, the short-term economic argument makes everyone poorer.

This is not just hearsay. There is legal precedent for the larger, more long-term economic view. In a 1971 ruling the US Supreme Court established in principle that parks should not be developed solely because they would be the cheapest alternative.

The loss of scarce parkland in urban areas is not an insignificant issue. Because of the well-documented benefits the current trend in cities throughout the country is to revitalize open spaces and to increase parklands wherever possible. Wisconsin has a well-earned reputation for its concern for the natural environment. If power lines are allowed to be built in urban parklands, not only will local communities suffer, but our reputation will be tarnished. It not only will be a huge step backwards but one that goes against prevailing wisdom.

I urge the Commission, as so many others are doing, to choose a route other than Underwood Parkway and to bury the lines.  (End of testimony.)

I might have added that, as a ratepayer myself I am willing to pay the extra amount that would be charged to pay for underground transmission lines. I also don’t understand why the ATC (as opposed to the PSC) has been so insistent that the cheapest route be chosen. Their interest, which is to profit from the construction of the line, is served in any case.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving from Urban Wilderness!

I am thankful for, among other things, the opportunities I've had this year to explore and enjoy the outdoors.

A thanksgiving thought from Thoreau:

"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives."

Autumn splendor in Wil-O-Way Woods on the County Grounds in Wauwatosa. Happy Holidays to all!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Off Season

Snapshots and random thoughts from Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

The first surprise is the rugged terrain. Cliffs high enough to dwarf human visitors surround canyons deep enough to confound my expectations, extinguish all sense of being in the Midwest. Most of Illinois is as flat as a state can get. I’ve seen flat: Kansas, the Texas panhandle…. Illinois is pulled as tight as a military bed sheet.

The Illinois River has cut through this sheet, carved deeply into the underlying bedrock, a layer of sedimentary sandstone that dates back 425 million years. The sheer bluffs and dramatically eroded canyons would be pretty spectacular anywhere between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians. In Illinois they are simply stunning.

As we drive in, nothing moves. The parking lot is vast and completely vacant. Brown and yellow leaves lie scattered on the pavement. The place seems deserted. Perfect!

Far out over the wide river, seemingly out of the open sky, a sycamore leaf wafts gently downward.

Pelicans huddle on the water like bundles of white laundry, deceptively small with distance. Another surprise: American White Pelicans, I learn, rival the California condor for longest wingspan in North America. With a flurry of black-tipped wings they leap-frog downstream.

In the Visitor’s Center I reach for one of the stack of trail maps. The uniformed woman behind the reception counter says, “you can take one of those but you won’t need it.” Pointing to the mural sized, highly detailed map on the wall nearby, she explains: “we have trail maps like this at trail crossings, so you’ll always know where you are.”

One of the things I seek in nature is an aura of mystery and the chance to explore. I keep it to myself.

Though her matter-of-fact tone fell short of boastful, she was not exaggerating. Two by four foot iterations of the green and blue map are securely framed and mounted at every trail intersection without fail, sometimes within sight of one another, even in the remotest parts of the park. An hour and a half from Chicago remote is a nuanced concept.

According to legend, in the 1760’s a band of Ottawa and Potawatomi laid siege to the butte that gives the park its name. A band of Illiniwek had sought refuge there. Instead of protection the rock brought starvation. So the story goes.

Today the tall chimney of rock is a maze of boardwalks and wooden railings reminiscent of the French colonial stockade reproduced in a diorama in the Visitor’s Center. Despite expansive views of the river and lake far below, I feel hemmed in. 

Mountaineer and author Jack Turner: “We treat the natural world according to our experience of it. Without aura, wildness, magic, spirit, holiness, the sacred, and soul, we treat flora, fauna, art, and landscape as resources and amusement.”

Starved Rock, like most parks, exists for the spectacle it provides, for its entertainment value. There may be wild places here, but innumerable signs make clear they are strictly off limits. It is equally evident that the public does not universally respect the posted rules.

Is a visit to the park the beginning of an appreciation for nature or a diversion?

Gratefully we walk in solitude. It is the off-season. Last year over 2.4 million people visited Starved Rock State Park, starved for something, whether a taste of nature or a diversion.

The afternoon is so warm we leave our jackets behind. We are surrounded by autumnal shades of brown and tan, as if this place were caught in amber, marvelously preserved.  A stand of pines relieves the monochrome. In contrast to the popular Starved Rock trail, which is paved with concrete, we stroll along the bluff trail on sandy soil and pungent pine needles.

Mysteriously, a boardwalk appears. The bluff is high. We are neither in a wetland nor crossing one of the many ravines. Reaching its end, a staircase dispels the notion of accessibility.

When nature became a place other than and distinct from where people lived, we no longer felt part of it. The false dichotomy that resulted has led to all kinds of environmental mischief. Roderick Frazier Nash says, “The dawn of civilization created powerful biases. We had settled down, developed an ecological superiority complex, and bet our evolutionary future on the idea of controlling nature.”

I step off onto the earth again.

Canyons are the creation of water. At certain times of the year the park is blessed with many waterfalls, one of its primary attractions. We have come off-season. The only waterfalls we see grace the postcards in the gift shop.  No matter. Just as I prefer the feel of the earth beneath my feet, so too do I prefer a dry solitude.

The silence in a box canyon lends poignancy and power to a single birdcall.

To see more photos from Starved Rock, go to my flickr page

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The High Line: Auguries of Innocence

I approached the High Line along West 30th Street, currently its northern terminus. Unknowingly, what I came to first was the old, unrestored elevated railway. Rusted, topped with crumbling concrete, and defaced with graffiti, it rose above construction barricades and cyclone fencing. This wide end of the rail yard spur completely covered the intersection of 30th Street and 10th Avenue, like a crude, industrial porte-cochère for the entrance to the park beyond. When the light turned green, a blur of taxis, trucks, and busses zoomed through.

Passing underneath, I emerged from its shadows into the open air. I thought of Frank Lloyd Wright, who characteristically designed low-ceilinged foyers to increase the drama of entering his more spacious interior. Ahead I could see, though barely, the thin line of green vegetation rising from the greenish-black painted steel structure I recognized as the High Line itself. To my right, atop the rust-stained gray concrete of the old rail line a scraggly fringe of autumn brown grasses and weeds fluttered gently.

The sky above 30th Street narrowed, wedged between the two sections of the line, the old and the new. The street felt considerably narrower still, however, due to the construction fencing along both sides. In defiance of the Great Recession Chelsea is experiencing a construction boom and it’s indisputably due to the success and popularity of the High Line.

As I approached the sleek, shiny steel staircase that would lead me upwards, I found myself suddenly amongst a small throng of people all converging on the same point. No matter. I was thrilled to be there. We ascended patiently, like passengers embarking on an airplane or patrons at an amusement park queuing for a ride. When I reached the level of the park, 30 feet above the street, an elevator door opened next to me and disgorged more “passengers.”

None of this prelude prepared me for the carnival atmosphere I encountered as I stepped into the constant river of people making their way along the narrow pathway atop the High Line. I eased into its flow, carried along on a current of humanity. At first a few spindly trees clung to the edges, rising a bit higher than the human river. These soon gave way to clumps of waist-high ornamental grasses intermixed with yellow and blue flowers. Marvelous as it all seemed, my first impression was less like a walk in a park than one along the boardwalk at Coney Island on a hot summer day.

It was October 2012. The High Line, that unique and influential park, had already been open for three years. Not only was it not new, it had become a sensation, a rock star of urban parks. It had been likened to a flying carpet, to “a suspended green valley in Manhattan’s Alps,” and to Alice’s Wonderland. Cities all over the country, including Milwaukee, were trying to figure out how to emulate its success.

However, on that warm Indian summer afternoon, I was blissfully ignorant of most of this. I had read a brief news report about the High Line when it opened in 2009 and immediately found myself enchanted by the very concept of it. But there had never been a good opportunity to go to it, living in the Midwest as I do.

When the opportunity finally did present itself, I did nothing to prepare for the experience. My mother had died and I was going to NY for the memorial service. (Once again I have her to thank – see my previous post). I tacked on four days to spend in Chelsea and to walk the High Line.

I had done no further reading about it. I didn’t go online and look at the High Line website. I saw none of the now famous pictures that Joel Sternfeld and others had taken of the High Line’s picturesque wildness. I didn’t avoid these things out of some principled belief in the purity of unmediated experience. I didn’t deliberately avoid doing what most people now do out of cultural habit and expectation. That it just never occurred to me to do these things seems in retrospect to have been providential.

I characteristically eschew guided experiences. When I travel I avoid tour groups. I rarely choose to pick up audio guides at museums. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson I want an experience that is my own, not one shaped by prior knowledge. This is merely my natural inclination, though, rather than a philosophical conclusion about the importance of unmediated experiences.

And so I came to be on the High Line with fresh eyes, unprejudiced with anyone else’s expectations – exaltations or disappointments. I came to face the paradox.

There were crowds, yes. But there was no unruliness to them. It was curiously peaceful. The more I walked amongst them, the farther behind I left my impression of Coney Island tumult, of being passengers on an amusement park ride. In its place came the feeling of participating in a pilgrimage, amongst strangers who were nevertheless companions on the road to some sacred shrine.

What were we seeking? There was a semblance of nature, neither a formal garden nor anything like a wilderness. The city surrounded us, but at a distinct remove. The High Line was unquestionably real and yet ambiguous, abstract. We were collectively engaged in imagining… something! Something each of the thousands of visitors brought within themselves, to engage with the world as they found it in this place, like the grain of sand in Blake’s famous line. And to feel the passion of what follows:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

I did spend four days in Chelsea and walked the High Line at least once on each of them. The longer I was there the more telling became the parallels with Blake’s epic poem, Auguries of Innocence, most of which is far less well known than that first stanza and which concludes with this:

God appears, and God is light,
To those poor souls who dwell in night;
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.

To be continued.

This is the second of a series from the High Line. To read my first, click here.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Geoengineering: Is it possible to stop?

image credit: Jacob Escobedo

In a recent article in the New York Times entitled "Geoengineering: Testing the Waters" author Naomi Klein warns of possible dangers and unintended consequences of this practice, which is gaining momentum. Klein cites a "growing number of would-be geoengineers who advocate high-risk, large-scale technical interventions that would fundamentally change the oceans and skies in order to reduce the effects of global warming." She also tells the story of a "rogue geoengineer" who took it upon himself to dump "120 tons of iron dust off the hull of a rented fishing boat" into the ocean off British Columbia. "The plan was to create an algae bloom that would sequester carbon and thereby combat climate change."

Only the most extremely ideological now question the significance of global warming and the consensus among scientists is that humankind is contributing to it. In light of this it is tempting to think that we also can come up with a technological solution, which is what geoengineering is all about.

As Klein puts it, "Geoengineering offers the tantalizing promise of a climate change fix that would allow us to continue our resource-exhausting way of life, indefinitely. And then there is the fear. Every week seems to bring more terrifying climate news, from reports of ice sheets melting ahead of schedule to oceans acidifying far faster than expected." Something must be done about it!

We humans have been tinkering with our environment since we learned to harness fire and divert streams for irrigation. It seems unlikely that we will stop anytime soon.

But the dangers are real that the effects of geoengineering will be more harmful than beneficial and that our future may look like any one of a number of post-apocalyptic visions have suggested. As I write this the northeast of the U.S. is still cleaning up after "Superstorm Sandy." This past year has been one for the record books, with many extreme weather events. Is this the new normal?

Klein suggests that even if geoengineering achieves a measure of success it may be at the expense of our relationship to nature, that potentially more intense "volcanic" sunsets, for example, might elicit less awe and more vague unease. "In the age of geoengineering, we might find ourselves confronting the end of miracles, too."

This is not from hurricane Sandy, but an "ordinary" storm over Lake Michigan about a year ago. Wondrous, yes. But perhaps a bit disquieting, too.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Cities are avian killing fields

The sleek glassy aesthetic of modern cities has proven to be a fatal kind of urban wilderness for birds, which have a hard time distinguishing between safe open sky and reflective glass. Migratory songbirds unfamiliar with local settings are especially at risk. (Birds that have adapted to urban settings, like pigeons and gulls, rarely crash into buildings.)

Photo credit: Ian Williams for The New York Times

A recent article in the New York Times highlights the problem in Toronto, which is considered "a top contender for the title" of "the world’s most deadly cities for migratory birds."

It is hardly a small problem. The article states that the founder of a Toronto non-profit, the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP), which rescues injured birds and cleans up carcasses, "once single-handedly recovered about 500 dead birds in one morning."

Toronto may hold the dubious if unofficial honor of heavyweight champion when it comes to killing birds, but it is hardly unique. The website of the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative states, "It is estimated that between 100,000,000 and 1 billion birds are killed annually in North America by collisions with buildings – primarily by collisions with windows.  Of all birds that collide with window glass, more than 50% of these experience head injuries and die outright.  An additional unknown number receive injuries that may lead eventually to death."

If it were common knowledge that we kill nearly a billion birds each year, wouldn't we do something about it?

In Milwaukee, a group called "Wings" (for Wisconsin Night Guardians for Songbirds) does work similar to FLAP in Toronto. Wings is a program of the Wisconsin Humane Society. The program depends on volunteers. Check out their website to see how you can help.

But the only sustainable solution to the problem lies in the buildings themselves. According to the Times article, public policies, new building codes, and retrofitting existing reflective glass windows are just beginning to catch up with this reality.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Canoeing the Kinnickinnic

Over the weekend I participated in a canoe tour of the lower KK River sponsored by the Urban Ecology Center and led by UEC staffer Chad Thomack. We put in at the public boat launch across from the Hoan Bridge.

The canoe trip was partially funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The GLRI is an action plan developed by 11 federal agencies. Its mission is to clean up toxic pollution, combat invasive species, and protect watersheds in the Great Lakes region from polluted runoff.

The GLRI has identified “Areas of Concern” (AOC) throughout the Great Lakes. One of them is the Milwaukee River Estuary, which includes the lower KK River. The AOC designation was given to the estuary because of several pockets of sediments polluted with industrial chemicals from the 1930s through the late 1970s.

It was mostly overcast and gloomy, but unseasonably warm. Our journey began in the inner harbor along Jones Island. Here is a short photo essay of the excursion.

The U.S. Bank building in the distance seems to be dwarfed by the MMSD stack at its Jones Island Treatment Plant.

UWM's Great Lakes Water Institute, foreground, and the "Allen Bradley" clock tower atop Rockwell. 

The flotilla of canoes making its way past the First Street bridge and a railroad bridge.

A section of the river bank between Beecher Street and Lincoln Avenue has been overgrown with non-native and aggressively invasive Phragmites.

Finally, south of Lincoln Avenue, we reach a stretch of the river bordered by parklands with a more natural setting.

There is even an old beaver lodge, now abandoned, that housed an active beaver until recently. To me it is a symbol of hope for the urban wilderness.