Monday, May 5, 2014

Taking a chance on 3 Bridges Park: An urban wilderness encounter

As familiar as I am with Three Bridges Park I can still be surprised. This time it was neither something recently added to the unfinished landscape nor a flower newly sprouted, our recalcitrant spring being slow to unfold. No, I was surprised and delighted by a new perspective, a way of seeing what has been there all along.

The day was overcast but mild for a change. An unusual number of people were enjoying the park. An intermittent parade of individuals, couples and families cycled or strolled along the trail. Walking west from Mitchell Park the land rolled on ahead towards the 35th St. Viaduct; the hills still brown and bare, only a hint of green softening their edges.

I imagined how beautiful it will be when the grasses and trees mature.

Just across the fenced park boundary a string of rail cars sat idle on the tracks. I briefly registered a frieze of colorful graffiti, then scanned the debris-strewn slope beyond. The tangle of twisted trees and brush was just beginning to bud. In summer it was a lush screen of vibrant greenery. Now the feral shrubbery hid none of the degradation exacted upon it by years of abuse and neglect. I turned away.

A lull in the pedestrian traffic had left the trail momentarily vacant save for a lone woman ahead of me. Tall and stately, she was dressed all in white. She walked slowly and with hesitation, or so it seemed.

Approaching from behind I heard her speak, as if to herself. “I don’t know where I am,” she said softly. I stepped up beside her and slowed to match her stride. Although unsure she had been addressing me, I asked, “What are you looking for?”

She glanced around anxiously as if trying to locate a known landmark. Then, stopping to take me in, she suddenly became effusive. “This is my first time on this trail,” she said with a mixture of pride, trepidation and excitement. Then, indecisively, she added, “I think I’d better turn back.”

I described the extent of the trail ahead, the proximity of the Valley Passage and Urban Ecology Center, trying to orient her. She grew calm. We walked on.

“It feels…” she searched for a word, settled on “…eerie.” Her voice trailed off briefly. Then, “Because I’m alone.” After another, more pensive pause she added, “But in a nice way.” This, I thought, was a feeling I knew well.

Then came the surprise. She gestured towards the same trash-strewn, graffiti-marred slope with its snarl of unmanaged trees and declared, “I’m not used to the trees.” She explained herself: “I normally walk on the lakefront; there is grass all around.”

I was thunderstruck. We were standing on the asphalt path of the Hank Aaron State Trail with its wide gravel shoulders. The narrow park, still bare soil as I so recently observed, was bounded on either side by the railroad and industrial buildings. Yet she spoke of trees as if stranded in an unmarked, thickly wooded forest.

Hers was a feeling that I could easily comprehend—how often I have experienced it in my urban wilderness explorations—but which was nearly impossible for me to transfer onto present circumstances. Along with the tracks and the river, two viaducts framed the view. Even the stadium was visible in the distance. But for her it was unfamiliar terrain; she felt lost.

Her voice interrupted my brief reverie, repeating, “This is my first time being here.” And, “I love the trains!” She expanded on this theme: “I can hear them from my house.” She lived nearby, right across from Mitchell Park. “My lady friend told me about this park and suggested I give it a try,” she said.

“I’m glad I did,” she offered. “I retired a year ago and I’m adventuring more.” I could have given her a big hug right then and there. Being too reserved to embrace a complete stranger I verbally applauded her determination. We chatted a while longer. I learned that she belongs to a group of “River Elders” and is a singer. “I won a ‘golden idol’ for seniors,” she told me proudly, “for singing ‘Fever’ by Peggy Lee.”

I was still trying to grasp her perspective on parks and trees when she threw me for another loop. Gesturing across the tracks again at the unkempt slope of barren trees, she said hesitantly, “They’re kind of…” and after a pause: “…styled.”

Glancing back and forth between the laboriously manufactured, smoothly manicured hills of the park and the trashy, tangled embankment abutting the railroad, I tried to reconcile her comment with my own perceptions. I concluded that she meant “styled” the way a hairdresser or fashion designer might have; another way to say “landscaped” or “designed.”

I felt chastened by her ingenuous perception, her intuitive appreciation for the novel environment. I looked again at that strip of wild, abandoned land. It had, in fact, been altered, if not exactly designed, when the railroad was carved into the bluff a hundred years ago.

We walked together a little farther before she decided she’d had enough adventuring for the day. Turning back, she said reflectively, “It’s different. But I’m glad I came. I wanted to take a chance.”

“Fever” had lodged in my neural pathways, repeating the refrain,  “If you live and learn/Fever till you sizzle/Oh what a lovely way to burn.” You may be retired, I thought, but your passion is evident. I hope I never lose that sense of adventure.

As we parted she assured me, “I’ll be coming back.”

So will I, so will I.

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.

1 comment:

  1. Eddee, your observations, photos, blogs and sharings have enriched and delighted many. I am one of many. Thank you for really seeing.