Monday, March 31, 2014

Photo Phenology

Phenology refers to the observation of seasonal plant and animal life cycles. Aldo Leopold was a habitual phenologist. Substantial portions of his classic book, A Sand County Almanac, are devoted to such observations. Photography, of course, can serve the phenologist well with its ability to record the visible world with indiscriminate accuracy—as long as you know where to point the camera!

The Menomonee Valley Branch of the Urban Ecology Center has undertaken a long-term project that it calls Photo Phenology. The idea was inspired by the proximity of the Center to newly rehabilitated parklands in the Menomonee Valley. Stormwater Park, 3 Bridges Park, and the Hank Aaron State Trail are all a short walk from their back door. 

tracks in the mud
Once a month, on the fourth Saturday, a team equipped with UEC point-and-shoot cameras goes out on a regular route to record the changes that are happening with the seasons. Last Saturday I accompanied UEC staff members Lainet and Michael on their rounds. They explained that certain vantage places are repeated each time to establish consistent points of reference. They capture several views of the river and the broad landscape. They also keep their eyes open for small details and ephemeral changes, such as animal tracks, blossoming flowers, etc.

We chose Stormwater Park, an undulating strip of swales and ponds under the 35th Street Viaduct that functions as a passive runoff treatment area for the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center. Because this was the first outing since the snow melted away (finally!), we observed a greater than usual accumulation of trash. Another UEC program called Volunteer Park Rangers is devoted to clean up and maintenance of the parks.

Here are some of the things we saw on our phenological excursion. Leopold, indefatigable phenologist as he was, knew its limitations as well. He cautions us not to read too much into surface appearances: “It is fortunate, perhaps, that no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them.”



invasive teasel

Stormwater Park



layered landscape


Valley Passage
out in front

This post is one in a series that relates to my Menomonee Valley Artist in Residency. For more information about the residency and links to previous posts and photographs, go to MV AiR.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A reflection upon visiting Muir Woods

Outside the entrance to Muir Woods National Monument, just north of San Francisco near the California coast, John Muir is quoted: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than one seeks.”

The same quote is repeated on a sign at the beginning of a section of the park known as Cathedral Grove. The rest of the sign reads as follows:

Cathedral Grove was set aside as a quiet refuge to protect its natural soundscape in an increasingly noisy world.

The soundscape is vital to animals for hunting and foraging, courtship and mating, nurturing young, and avoiding predators.

By walking quietly, we experience the natural sounds of a living, ancient forest. We hope you enjoy the beauty of Muir Woods through both sight and sound.

At both ends of the grove signposts announce your arrival in this specially set aside section of the park and add: “Enter quietly.”

I did enjoy the beauty of the woods, but I had to wonder: if the soundscape is vital to animals for all those good reasons, why limit the request for silence to this one grove? And why single out this particular grove with the name "Cathedral Grove," as if only part of the forest is sacred?

I noticed that people did tend to hush as they passed by the signs. At least for a while. On this glorious first warm day of spring—and a Sunday to boot, I shared the redwoods with what seemed to be thousands of other people. A sign, no doubt, of the value we place on these natural wonders. But I didn’t hear too many animals while I was there. I also had to wonder what Muir would have said were he present to witness what has been done in his name.

Here’s another quote from Muir that I did not read anywhere in Muir Woods National Monument:

“Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed—chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones. ... It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods—trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries ... God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools—only Uncle Sam can do that.”

I wonder.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Construction Season: Reframing the Menomonee Valley.

It snowed again overnight. Just east of the 35th Street Viaduct in the Menomonee Valley there is a vacant lot below the curve in Canal Street. This morning the surface of the lot looked as if a sheet had been spread over it with military precision. Or perhaps not so much a sheet as another of those blank canvases that has made the Valley what it is today. Welcome to the new American landscape.

This canvas was primed and ready to paint.

By mid-day a team of caterpillar shovels and bulldozers had clanked their way back and forth across this canvas like so many gargantuan paintbrushes. The brilliant white snow now framed a dark rectangle of exposed earth, like a somberly hued Rothko abstraction. The plans for the site, however, like so much that is happening in the Valley, are far from abstract. They also exemplify the hopeful new attitude that, if it prevails against the winds of pessimism brought on by multiple contemporary crises, has the power to alter human destiny.

That’s a lot to ask of a small, local company that packages tea.

The rest of this story and additional photos are posted on my other blog: Arts Without Borders