Monday, September 19, 2016

Monarchs return in force to the Monarch Trail


I stand chest deep in flaming goldenrod and brilliant white boneset—riveted by the sight of a dozen or so monarch butterflies on a single clump of boneset. When a breeze tosses the flowers the butterflies all rise, swirl around my head. But even more marvelous, as the breeze plays over the field of wildflowers, dozens—maybe hundreds—more monarchs suddenly appear, dipping, twirling and swerving all about.

Then, just beyond this amazing and beautiful dance of delicate wildlife, a stream of rush hour traffic rumbles down Swan Boulevard.

I continue my walk along the Monarch Trail, which circles around the recently completed Echelon Apartment complex at the north end of Innovation Park on the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa. On the west side the trail runs along the top of a long, narrow berm crowned by dying poplars. Here, next to Interstate 41, the growl of traffic is incessant. But butterflies all over the hillside are oblivious to that.

It is monarch migration season. These fluttering, fragile and remarkably resilient insects are pausing here on their incredible journey from summer habitats in Canada to their winter retreat on a mountain in central Mexico. The Monarch Trail and a friends group to maintain it were established in 2005 when it was feared that construction of Innovation Park might destroy the rare and sensitive monarch roosting sites.

That fear appeared to be justified. As expected, construction during the past several years created enough disturbance that the numbers of monarchs stopping here during the annual migration dropped precipitously. Despite this, the trail was diligently maintained and the disturbed habitat reseeded with hundreds of native, wildlife-friendly plants. The biggest concern remained: Would the dislodged monarchs ever return?

Seeing the numbers rebound is what makes this year’s migration so exciting!

The migration occurs over several days and is not completely predictable. I missed a big night on Thursday. Barb, the director of the Friends, counted around 400 roosting that day alone. While not quite as many as were seen prior to 2005, when as many as a thousand could be counted on a single night on a single sycamore, she says there haven’t been this many since 2010. The full moon rising as they settled in for the night was a bonus.

I canceled my Friday evening plans so as not to miss them all. I delight in watching them forage on the flowers and fly about, frustrated only by the impossibility of conveying the magic of it all in a single still photo. (I did try to capture a sense of what I was seeing in a short video, which you can see on YouTube.)

The “urban wilderness” to which I so frequently refer has always been a metaphor. In my urban explorations am drawn most often to places where the urban is at least somewhat backgrounded by nature, where my imagination can restore the sense of a wilderness if not the substance. It is a worthwhile endeavor, I think, to love nature in this way, in a city. But here on the Monarch Trail a stark truth is revealed. Wildlife doesn’t need to imagine a wilderness. It just needs the right conditions on the ground.

Here, sandwiched between three-story apartment blocks and a busy freeway, is nature sufficient to nourish these monarchs. Today’s enchanting dance of the butterflies was far from inevitable, though. It took substantial commitments of time and resources to save this place. Developers were convinced to sacrifice a portion of their territory, scientists engineered a restoration plan and volunteers put in thousands of hours. A few of them have come to witness the fruit of their labor.

The work remains unfinished. The habitat, revitalized as it has been, remains vulnerable. The many partners who have helped make this day possible must continue their vigilance and commitment. And, sadly, new threats continue to dog unprotected vestiges of the County Grounds that if lost will adversely affect not only the monarchs, but many other species that might find this place wild enough to flourish.

The celebrities of this story are the monarchs, of course. But this story isn’t about butterflies as much as it is about us.

In fact, whether we accept it or not, the fate of butterflies is inextricably tied to our own. It is about the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of experiences we want our children and grandchildren to have.

A few lines from a poem by Rumi comes to mind:

What will our children do in the morning
if they do not see us

The Monarch Trail has proven that there are many people who want butterflies to be part of their world. Three weeks ago hundreds of people from all over the Milwaukee area attended an annual celebration hosted by the Friends of the Trail to mark the beginning of the migration season (see previous post.)

As dusk draws the flowers into shade, one by one the butterflies begin to gather. They flutter toward the trees and cluster together, clinging to leaves and bare branches. A small crowd of people stand below, craning their necks to watch. Now and then the butterflies startle, quivering their wings in unison, open and shut, open and shut. After a while they are still. Then they vanish in deepening darkness.

A cloudbank obscures the moonrise. But the sunset made up for it.

I return before dawn on Saturday. A few clusters of monarchs remain where I’d seen them the night before. But many already are letting go, floating away on the breeze, like autumn leaves. The moon is still full. As I watch it set beyond the trees I breathe an inaudible bon voyage to the monarchs setting off for Mexico.

*To read the entire poem by Rumi, which is lovely, click here.

To see more photos of the County Grounds go to my Flickr album.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Help keep Milwaukee’s outstanding park system intact!

Ravine Bridge, Lake Park
Parks make cities livable. Great parks are a vital part of great cities. These statements have a long history of support and are rarely disputed. I would say “never disputed” except that there is an attempt afoot right here in Milwaukee to diminish the quality of our exceptional park system. It is being perpetrated by the county administration, the very agency that we depend upon for sustaining that system. 

In August the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a story about a survey that was mailed to “4,000 randomly selected households requesting information on participation in recreational programs and use of facilities, as well as opinions on possibly closing parks….” [emphasis added.]

Below is a list of public hearings as well as contact information so that you can provide input to the county on this vital issue.

The survey itself and the perceived need for it by the county administration raise too many questions for me to cover adequately in a brief blog post. Gerry Broderick, retired chair of the Milwaukee County Board’s Parks, Energy and Environment Committee and current board member of Preserve Our Parks, has written a thorough analysis of the survey and the threat it poses. He also offers alternatives that would make the process more transparent and democratic.

Here are excerpts:

“Our enviable parks system is in grave danger of being dismantled by Milwaukee County’s administration. A seven-page survey mailed to 4,000 randomly selected households proposes actions to “reduce the size of the Milwaukee County park system to match current available funding.” It asks which parts of the well-crafted parks network could be abandoned…
“Those proposed extreme tactics were tucked amid benign questions about parks usage. I believe this survey pits park users against each other and is based on flawed premises and misrepresentations…
“With no prior discourse about specific funding methods, respondents are asked to “vote” for how to fund the parks, whether through parking meters in lakefront parks, a wheel tax, higher user fees, more partnerships with businesses and sponsors, or a sales tax. The latter was approved through a referendum in 2008 but never enacted by the state Legislature. That section’s sketchy introduction includes inaccurate and misleading statements about deferred maintenance and the county’s budgetary restrictions…
“I believe this survey is an effort to gather data to justify privatization, sale and abandonment of our public parks and facilities. Milwaukee County’s parks belong to all of us, and citizens should rightfully demand an inclusive public conversation about their future. Parks are not “businesses” and must not be cavalierly spun off or sold like divisions of a corporation. Parks all have a purpose — the greater good — regardless of how much revenue they generate.”

Followers of Urban Wilderness already know that I agree with Broderick wholeheartedly. I submit that we must change the conversation. We shouldn’t be talking about park closures and reducing expenditures on the park system. Instead we should be exploring ways to restore sustainable funding sources, revitalize the system and even expanding it.

Here is how you can help.

First, a series of public workshops are being offered starting tomorrow at locations around the county:

Sept. 13, Kosciuszko Park Community Center, 2201 S. 7th St.
Sept. 14, Lake Park Marcia Coles Community Room, 3133 E. Newberry Blvd. (lower level)
Sept. 15, Wilson Park Pavilion, 1601 W. Howard Ave.
Sept. 20, Brown Deer Park Golf Clubhouse, 7625 N. Range Line Road
Sept. 21, Gordon Park Pavilion, 2828 N. Humboldt Blvd.
Sept. 22, Dineen Park Pavilion, 6601 W. Vienna St.
Sept. 27, Sheridan Park Pavilion, 4800 S. Lake Drive
Oct. 4, McCarty Park Pavilion, 2567 S. 79 St.
Oct. 5, Center Street Park Community Room, 6420 W. Clarke St.  

All workshops begin at 6:30 p.m. with a presentation, followed by interactive workshops from 7-8 p.m. For more information, click here.

Second, contact the Parks Department directly:
  • email: Contact Parks with Purpose
  • call: (414) 257-PARK (7275)
  • write: Parks with Purpose–Milwaukee County Parks, 9480 Watertown Plan Road, Wauwatosa, WI 53226

Third, contact your Milwaukee County Supervisor. To find out who your supervisor is and for contact info click here.

If you wish to peruse the survey itself, click here. (Note: it is not available for the general public to fill out.)

I don’t believe that any of our iconic parks, such as Lake (pictured at the top) or Greenfield (above), are in danger of being lost—although there was a serious attempt just last year to sell off O’Donnell Park recently, so who knows?! My worry is about some of the less-well-known natural areas, such as the Root River Parkway in Franklin.

The Oak Leaf Trail runs through parts of the Root River Parkway (above), but large areas are both completely undeveloped and essentially inaccessible to the majority of the public that is unlikely to bushwhack their way into it like I do (below).

To see many more photos of our glorious park system go to my Flickr album.

Full disclosure: I am a board member of Preserve Our Parks.  

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Water communion

I am blessed. Last night, after a week of occasionally heavy downpours, I walked from my house to the Milwaukee County Grounds where I was treated to one of the more spectacular sunsets I have had the pleasure to witness. Brilliantly lit by the setting sun, a thunderhead moved off to the north, still visibly drenching the earth below it. The sun on the horizon in the west lit up the underside of the thunderstorm and created an intense perpendicular rainbow, like a scene from Close Encounters. (The image, shot with my iPhone, doesn't do it justice!)

Caught up in the spectacle, I didn't stop at the time to think further about the thunderstorm or the role that rain plays in the water cycle. But the theme of the service at church this morning brought that image into sharper focus, metaphorically speaking. I am a member of Unitarian Universalist Church West (UUCW) and it was our annual "Water Communion" service, which signals the start of the church year.

Smallmouth bass, Riveredge Nature Center, Mke River, 5/16
The Water Communion is a ritual that symbolizes not only the importance of water to all of life but also the spiritual community of the congregation. Congregants are encouraged to bring water to church that comes from a place we have visited over the summer or that represents a meaningful event that happened. During the ritual people pour their offering into a common bowl, mingling the waters.

The litany that accompanied the ritual included this: "We bring water water of sunrise and new beginnings..., water of harvest and sunset; the sweat of a job well done; the tears of endings..., water of quiet and peace...." We paused in meditation, to reflect on our water, its source and its meanings in our personal lives. As I reflected on this I was struck, not for the first time, by how much my life is blessed. I have been privileged with experiences relating to waters both near and far. 

Kayaking the Menomonee River, 5/16
Here I offer a selection of images and brief reflections. (The links embedded in the text will take you to previous blog posts.) I fulfilled a long-time goal in May of kayaking the Menomonee River. In the process I found it to be surprisingly wild even given my already high expectations. The smallmouth bass (above) was caught by naturalists at Riveredge Nature Center as part of World Fish Migration Day.

It's true that I saw many scenes involving Lake Michigan that were quite similar to this one. But in June I had the great fortune to spend the solstice in Finland. This sunset occurred at approx. 11:45 pm. over the Gulf of Finland. I was on a cruise-ship-size ferry on my way from Helsinki to...

St. Petersburg, Russia. The highlight of my two days there was the Hermitage, seen here from across the Neva River.

The UUCW house band played Joni Mitchell's The Circle Game for the Water Communion. I hadn't heard it in years:

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

"A community is a network of relationships and the places where those relationships interact."

Water and more specifically the Kinnickinnic River was the theme of my most important art exhibit of the year. Concrete River: Memorial and Promise on the Kinnickinnic, a collaboration with Melanie Ariens, opened at the Alfons Gallery in May and ran through July. Collaboration continued when the dance duo of Andrea and Daniel Burkholder, pictured here, performed a site-specific dance created especially to harmonize with the exhibit.

And while the Concrete River exhibit showcased the planned rehabilitation of the KK River, it was gratifying to see the last stretch of concrete channel finally disappear from the Menomonee River this summer (near the stadium, visible in the distance).

The limestone ledges and cliffs of the Niagara escarpment along Green Bay framed a week at The Clearing, a self-styled "Folk School" where I attended a writer's workshop in July. Along with few (well, more than a few) photos, I returned with a water-related haiku:

sitting on stone
scent of cedar
clear horizon

August was a busy month and water was a constant theme. On August 7 the Milwaukee Water Commons staged its annual We Are Water celebration on Bradford Beach.

"People want more community these days because contemporary life in mainstream America can be pretty discouraging. We're bombarded every day by messages that promote individualistic behavior--and the more disconnected we feel the more...we consume." To me these words from the Water Communion service extend beyond the human community to include all life.

Because we are an activist denomination, the Water Communion included a call to action. One of this summer's actions was the second annual "Convergence at the Confluence" rally to promote oil train safety. It took place at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee Rivers on August 14.

"In community we lend our strength and support to one another--in community we can do things we could never do alone!"

August 25 marked the centennial anniversary of the founding of the National Park Service. I marked the occasion by visiting the closest National Park to Milwaukee, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. There, along with some of those Lake Michigan horizons, I discovered a wealth of other habitats, including this wetland called the Great Marsh (although the discerning eye will note that it is in fact a swamp!) (It's the trees.)

September got off to a watery start when I decided to explore the Root River sections of the Oak Leaf Trail for the first time. Here you see it in high water, a condition that will be far more common when the Waukesha water diversion project is implemented and that community's wastewater will be dumped into the Root River.

Another quote from the Water Communion: "The water we have gathered comes from the world's far corners and our own kitchen sinks. It is as salty as tears, as cool as a deep spring, as turbulent as a rushing river, as calm as a deep blue lake."

My most recent water-related adventure was just yesterday, when I led a stalwart group of Sierra Club members on a guided hike along the Menomonee River. In the rain. I was concerned that no one would show up. It being the Sierra Club, however, they knew what to wear and we all enjoyed the wet. An Englishman named Alfred Wainwright is credited with a saying I am fond of recalling in these situations: "There is no such thing as bad weather, just unsuitable clothing."

One of the hymns we sang for the Water Communion included this line: "When our heart is in a holy place we are blessed with love and amazing grace." I saved what I consider my most amazing photo for last. It is an undoctored image of the sun rising out of Lake Michigan.

I am blessed. The best week of the summer was not my voyage to the foreign shores of Finland but, as I said, right here on our own Great Lake. I spent a very relaxing week staring at that horizon. I saw the sun rise each day. Each day it was different and new. It looked like this only once. My heart was in a holy place that day. (And my camera was on a tripod!)

But one last water story. My favorite.

Until she started school for the first time last week I took care of my granddaughter once a week, as I've done for the past 4 years. The best day of my week was when Lynncita came to play with me. On hot days in the summer we liked to walk to Hoyt Park Pool. Even in cold weather when all we have is the sink, she enjoys playing with water. This summer she invented a new game. I would fill the watering can with water from the hose and then she would pour the water into pails. Then she lifted the pails and dropped them to watch the water splash. There is nothing like a 4-year-old to make you feel young again!

One warm day she was doing her pail splashing thing over and over, continually asking me for more water. Then suddenly, with no warning or hint of her intentions, instead of dropping the lifted pail she turned it upside down over her head. I watched as she sputtered and wiped her eyes, wondering what would come after. She erupted with the most gleeful chortling laugh.

And then she did it again. And again...

I did not get a still photo of it. But you can see it on YouTube.

I promise it will make you smile.

I do feel blessed.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

National Park Service turns 100: My tribute from the Dunes

This story was first published by the Center for Humans & Nature on 9/6/16.

Where are all the people? I had to wonder. Here I am, I thought, an hour from the Chicago Loop. It is the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service. I’m in a national park in the midst of the third largest metropolitan region in the country. The lake is so calm the horizon appears solid as a polished granite countertop. Soft sand sifts between my toes. And I have it all to myself.

I am amazed and saddened in equal measures by this observation. It is the first of many contradictions I would sense in this extraordinary place.

I came to honor “America’s best idea.”1 The National Park Service was officially created on August 25, 1916. Excitement about the centennial has been building all year. My current experience notwithstanding, visits to national parks all over the country have seen a surge due to all the attention. A capstone commemorative event is to be held today, August 25, 2016, at Yellowstone, the nation’s first park.

I couldn’t easily get to Wyoming so I mark the occasion by visiting a much more local national park. While there are two national parks in Wisconsin, they are in the far northwest corner of the state.2 The closest to Milwaukee, where I live, is here at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, some 150 miles away. I set out in the early hours of the morning to try to catch the sunrise—and also to avoid rush hour in Chicago.

I’d planned the trip on impulse, booked a hotel near the park for a night. But I didn’t think to check the weather before I left. I make it to the beach on time, but the sky isn’t in a celebratory mood. A bank of clouds rolls in and I find myself walking in the rain. No matter. The foliage glistens and the color is so intense I feel like I’m bathing in viridian. The light drizzle seldom breaks through the forest canopy.

Yes, there are forests at the Dunes. Although the predominant feature of the park is the eponymous shore of Lake Michigan, with beaches and sandy dunes that reach as high as 126 feet, the terrain behind the beachfront is surprisingly varied. Park literature touts its forests, marshes, ponds, bogs, rivers, oak savannas, and even remnant patches of prairie.

The idea that so many distinct habitats can be found in such close proximity might sound like the overactive imagining of a national lakeshore marketing team. Until you take a close look at a large map. The fat thumb of Lake Michigan pokes straight into one of the most complex ecosystems on the continent. The Great Lakes watershed at the southern edge of the northern boreal forest intersects at this point with two other major continental ecosystems, the eastern temperate deciduous forest and the vast prairies of the Great Plains. I am a bit dumbfounded when I read that the Indiana Dunes “has the third highest plant diversity of any national park.”3

Diversity is clearly evident, beyond varieties of vegetation, as I drive between Gary and Michigan City on the roughly 25-mile stretch of Route 12 known as the “Dunes Parkway.” Heavily used commuter and freight rail lines parallel the road. Small communities and large factories interrupt the woodlands, wetlands, and prairies. The eastern tip of the park is punctuated by the cooling tower of a coal-fired power plant that looms over Mount Baldy, the tallest dune.

In contrast to 1916, when parks often were carved from a seemingly limitless landscape, in 2016 many of them have become protected islands engulfed by oceans of development and private enterprise. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore is an extreme example of this phenomenon. It is an archipelago of disconnected public lands of varying size intermingled so inextricably with private properties, both residential and heavy industrial, that it’s hard to predict when you’re going to see a house in the woods or a steel mill around the bend.

In fact, it was a steel company that enabled the creation of the park in the first place. By the early twentieth century, much of the shore lands—including Gary, Indiana, and the south side of Chicago—had already been developed for industrial use. On one of my hikes overlooking the lake, I stop to read one of the many helpful interpretive signs. Most explain natural features or historical changes in the evolving landscape. This one reveals the compromise that is at the heart of the park, that established its intimate relationship with its urban, industrial surroundings.

There had long been efforts to preserve some of this unique and important ecosystem. But it was the desire of the steel industry for a new port that finally made it possible. In exchange for permission to develop a port, Congress passed legislation in 1966 that established the first 56 acres of park. Since then it has grown to 15,000 acres.

The clouds break up and drift away near evening, leaving behind clear, crisp air and a vivid sun setting over the pale, miniature Chicago skyline. I find myself, for once, among a crowd on a short stretch of beach in the newest addition to the park. Dunes studded with spiky grass rise abruptly from the strand. Young poplars stand beyond, where the undulating dunes resemble those in other parts of the park. There is no clue, except for another interpretive sign, that this lovely place has been reclaimed from an industrial landfill.

No clue, that is, until I glance across the Burns Waterway and see the immense wall of a U.S. Steel plant, which stretches away to a distant vanishing point. The elaborate and well-used Riverwalk [ED1] has been erected beside the newly vegetated slope of the reclaimed parkland. Along its entire length, the implacable wall glares ferociously in the brilliant light of the setting sun.

One of the central paradoxes of this place is endemic to the entire national park system. The signs are unavoidable—intentionally so. I’ve seen them nearly everywhere in the park but they are particularly prevalent here at the Portage Lakefront beach where their message is reinforced with ropes and fences. They read either “Keep off Dunes” or “Area Closed” due to “Emergency Conditions.” The emergency usually is the damage done by the very people for whom the park exists, the public.

The inadequacy of these warnings is easy to see. Innumerable footprints brazenly pock the sand behind the signs. The National Park Service has been charged with a nearly impossible and self-contradictory mission: “The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”4

Trying to untangle “unimpaired” from “enjoyment” is kind of like walking in a swamp without expecting to get wet. Balancing preservation of natural habitats (not to mention wilderness) with the needs and desires of the visiting public has been a conundrum for at least a hundred years.5 The issue is particularly stark here at the Dunes. People come here to enjoy the sand. They want to climb dunes. But sand is notoriously unstable and the dunes are among the most fragile of ecosystems. And so the struggle continues, as it must.

The wind has shifted. An onshore breeze kicks up light surf. The horizon has softened. Someone is swimming about 50 yards from shore. Only his head is visible above the surface. So small.

The sun sets without fanfare. The opalescent sky dims moment by moment. Faintly at first, lights become visible. Some of them are stars.

As a national park the Dunes are marvelous, strange, challenging, and, perfectly suited to this place: full of odd juxtapositions, ironies, and contradictions  You can’t ignore human impact here. The visibility and odor of nearby industry won’t allow you to pretend, as you can in some parks, that humans aren’t mixed up in the damage, restoration, and preservation of what remains.

The writer Wallace Stegner put it this way, "National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." I believe it. That’s why I came. Happy birthday, National Park Service. Here’s to the next 100 years.

To see more images from the Dunes go to my Flickr album.

1. Wallace Stegner quoted in Stegner, Wallace and Richard W. Etulain, Conversations with Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature (University of Utah Press, 1983).
2. St. Croix National Scenic River and Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.
3. Explore the Millennium Reserve and Greater Calumet Region: A Natural and Cultural Guide to the Region from Bronzeville to the Indiana Dunes, second edition, p. 13.
5. Yellowstone, the first national park, was established in 1872.