Sunday, March 11, 2012

A warm gray day in Grobschmidt Park

Wednesday, March 7.

It is beyond unseasonably warm. Stepping outside elicits the peculiar feeling of dislocation that happens when I travel to some completely other – tropically warm – place during Wisconsin’s usually interminable winters. I love stepping off the plane and taking that first deep breath. Immediately I know I’m not home any more.

Today I feel it without going anywhere! Just outdoors.

Grobschmidt Park
I can’t go back inside! I decide to explore a county park that is new to me. From the Parks Department map I pick Grobschmidt, a neat green rectangle just off College Ave. on the northern edge of Franklin.

I know I am getting close when subdivision signs begin to read “Homes on the Park,” “Parkwood Village” and “Parkwater Apartments.” The urge to name what we’ve built after the things we’ve destroyed seems irresistible. We set aside remnants so that residents of the ‘homes on the park’ can look out picture windows and imagine what they don’t even realize is lost.

A line from T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, drifts up from my subconscious: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

Grobschmidt has no lot. I pull up and park along S. 35th St., which provides public access.

The view from the road is of a fairly large lake populated with a boisterous crowd of floating waterfowl. The lake is surrounded by what seems like level land and a featureless gray tree line. But you can’t experience wilderness – or nature in general – from a road. And I’ve learned to suspect first impressions as shallow, despite their potential for lasting influence.

Besides, if anything it has gotten even warmer. I leave my jacket in the car.

trail through buckthorn
The heavily overcast sky threatens rain but I am not deterred. A muddy trail parallels the lakeside. A clamor of ducks and geese punctuates the gray land, gray water, gray sky. Before long I veer off into the woods on an even muddier, narrower – and grayer – track. Soon it becomes a tunnel through a particularly dense thicket of buckthorn.

The world is gray, wood and sky alike, but my mood is buoyant, elevated by the balmy temperature. I ponder the essence of grayness and relish its endless permutations. The hawthorn is dark, twisted and spiky. The loose bark of the mighty hickory is chalky with a hint of cyan. A brace of nearly white brambles dances before a rigid backdrop of charcoal trees.

A close observer of nature is never threatened with tedium. Even so, the occasional colorful spray of red osier dogwood is reason for exultation.

The earth, so recently blanketed, is everywhere soggy from sudden snowmelt. Muddy deer tracks bearing fresh hoof prints crisscross the trail. They are so numerous I have to wonder why I don’t see a single deer. (A veritable herd of them sauntered across my patio just yesterday! I guess they’ve all decamped for Wauwatosa to see if my tulips have sprouted yet.)

In seventh grade I was made to read The Waste Land by a no doubt well-meaning and ambitious English teacher. Wasted on me then (pun intended), decades passed before I could return to it with appreciation. In its famous opening lines Eliot says, “April is the cruelest month, breeding  / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”

Eliot didn’t live in Wisconsin. If April is the cruelest month here it is because winter has not yet loosed its grip and the lilacs are waiting for the certainty of May. But I’ve long considered March to be the crueler month. Its mercurial moods dash confidence in the coming of spring. The land remains dead.

The “forgetful snow” is gone. The marsh is broken, matted with bent reeds. “The nymphs are departed.” And – normally in March – it is still too damn cold.

But not today, a miraculously mild day in Grobschmidt Park!

Warm wind passes through the gray trees, rattles dead leaves still clinging to trees. Barren branches clatter like dry bones. (As I write these words, a day later, it is indeed cold again. There is even a dusting of new snow. March!)

My first impression of barren flatness is long forgotten by the time I reach the far end of the park and glimpse a roof over the crest of a distant hilltop. I slip down into lowland forest, skirt open marsh, cross a dormant, still icy, sedge meadow, and head uphill again to upland forest. Brian Russart, the Milwaukee County Park system’s natural areas coordinator, considers Grobschmidt a microcosm, exemplary of habitat diversity. Even now, all hued in gray, I can see why.

My circuit of the park nearly complete, I reach a section that does look like a wasteland. A wide swath has been slashed. The few spindly trees that were spared emphasize the apparent devastation all around. One scraggly hawthorn holds up a tiny, dried out nest as if in supplication. Memory and desire, stirring.

“What are the roots that 
clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish?”
But, no, this is not The Waste Land. I am not alarmed. The county has a habitat improvement plan that includes a three-year cycle of mowing to maintain the prairie-like grassland. Hell, I’d like to see it burn! That would be even healthier for biodiversity.

I’d also like to see the Parks Department budget grow enough to control the buckthorn in the woodlands. Fragments, yes, but our parks must be shored up against our ruins.


  1. This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite parks! There is very little development for visitors, basically just a packed gravel path going around "Mud Lake", one park bench by the water (good luck finding it), and one zig zaggy dirt trail going through the hardwood forest to the west ... but the park isn't for people, it's for the wildlife. Not too long ago there were still beaver here, but muskrats are still around. During spring bird migration this year I have seen Double Crested Commorants, blue beaked Ruddy Ducks, fanciful Crested Merganzers, and a host of other waterfowl passing through to their summer homes well up north. There is the small lake, a large and small marsh, a hardwood forest, and two large prairie-like fields ... and it's just 1 block from the nearest bus stop, a half mile from Walmart, and a stone's throw off the freeway. What else could you ask for?

  2. I've been hiking through Grobschmidt Park for a least 25 years. This place is a little known gem. You can't find a better place to go birding. I have seen more then 70 different kinds of birds there. My son did his eagle project in this park. The best part is most of the time you won't see other people, a great place to be alone.