Thursday, July 20, 2017

Photo Essay: An enchanting walk in the County Grounds

Showy tick trefoil in bloom on the County Grounds
Dawn is my favorite time of day. I was thinking this as I rolled over in bed one recent morning, right about dawn. My joints were stiff and my eyes reluctant to open, though my heart raced and I was no longer sleepy. There was a time when I would have popped out of bed in the morning, jumped on my bike and raced along the Menomonee River Parkway. Or walked in the woods. First thing in the morning I’d get my nature fix. Then I was ready to face the day, relaxed and clear headed.

Instead, now I propped up a pillow, stretched creaky limbs, and reached for the book I’d been reading by Florence Williams, “The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.” Seriously. The irony dawned on me when, after a couple of pages, I read, “The more I made myself get outside, the better I slept and felt.” I got out of bed then. Although I’d missed the sunrise, I decided to get a dose of nature after all. A half-hour walk would wake me up good and proper.

My next decision was to leave my camera behind. For once, I thought, I would go out free of the obligation and effort that the camera requires and attend to my surroundings more purely. Williams devotes many chapters in her book to the healing effects of nature and walking in nature in particular. I didn’t need her book to convince me of a truth I’d felt all my life. But of late I had come to wonder if the work of photography—for, whatever its virtues, the act of photographing is work—might interfere with and to some extent diminish those healing effects.

On my way out the door I impulsively grabbed my cell phone.

In other words, I cheated. Snug in my pocket, the phone doesn’t feel like a camera and whipping it out now and then to shoot a picture doesn’t feel like working. Besides, I reasoned, ordinarily when I go out walking I never pull it from my pocket. But this turned out to be no ordinary morning.

Daisy fleabane, Hoyt Park
Walking across Hoyt Park’s iconic footbridge over the Menomonee River—something I’ve done innumerable times—was suddenly, inexplicably like falling down a rabbit hole. But instead of Alice in a place growing curiouser and curiouser, I felt like a rabbit sans top hat and pocket watch. At the end of the bridge was a slope that had been denuded a year ago during the reconstruction of the historic structure. Now it was a field of wildflowers that, at rabbit’s-eye level, was an enchanting wonderland.

Bergamot, aka bee balm, County Grounds
The magic didn’t wear off after one patch of flowers either, as my photo essay should testify. I consider myself very fortunate to live near Hoyt Park and the Milwaukee County Grounds. But, as Williams is quick to point out, nature is as close as the nearest tree and you can get your nature fix on far less territory than I covered that morning. In fact, Milwaukee County is well enough endowed with parks so diverse in size and character that you can choose a quick hit in a neighborhood pocket park or something more akin to the urban wilderness I prefer.

Dry pepperweed bracts, County Grounds
In her book Williams describes joining a study that posed a “30x30 nature challenge,” which is 30 minutes of walking for 30 days in a row. “One of the most interesting findings,” she reported, “was that we seemed to like being in nature so much, we doubled our weekly green time by the end of the month.” My own half-hour nature fix that day turned into an hour and a half.

Happier, healthier and more creative? Well, my fix left me happier at least, and definitely invigorated. Perhaps that’s healthier. As for creativity, sometimes all it takes is a rabbit’s-eye view to make the world new again. Try your own nature challenge. I bet you’ll feel better, too.

Black mustard in bloom, County Grounds
Foxtail barley bunchgrass, County Grounds
Wild Mint, Hoyt Park
Red maple, County Grounds
Chicory and sweet clover, County Grounds
Milkweed and Swan Blvd., County Grounds
Bottlebrush grass, Hoyt Park
Highbush cranberry reaching through the Hoyt Park Pool fence.
Morning light over the east detention basin, County Grounds

See more photos of the County Grounds on Flickr.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Riverside Park’s arboretum offers an enchanting array of wild herbs

Eager with anticipation, our group climbs to the hilltop and crowds into the small clearing around a circle of stones. Kyle Denton, our guide, plucks up the stalk of a large, broad-leafed plant near his feet. I recognize it immediately as the nemesis in my yard, ragweed. Each spring I spend an inordinate amount of time pulling sprouts in a futile effort to eradicate it. I am startled and amused that he chose this of all plants to begin with.

Denton tears off a leaf, crushes it with his fingers and holds it to his nose. He passes the stalk around so that everyone can do the same. Then he puts the leaf in his mouth and visibly mashes it with his teeth. Ragweed is both edible and medicinal, he tells us. Once cultivated as a crop by indigenous peoples, it is highly nutritious and an excellent source of protein. Sadly, he goes on, now it is known primarily as a leading cause of hay fever. Its chief medicinal use, he adds wryly, is to treat allergic reactions to…ragweed.

Kyle Denton calls himself an herbalist and forager, activities that may not suggest a contemporary urban lifestyle. Remarkably, however, the places he chooses to forage are in the City of Milwaukee. He shares his knowledge and love of plants in a variety of educational settings but his favorite classrooms, he told me in an email, are “the trails and wilds of this town.” I was already hooked when he then invited me to join one of his regular “herb walks.” 

This story was published at Milwaukee Magazine. Click here to continue reading.

Monday, July 3, 2017

A tour of Paradise ... Springs

You can take a tour of paradise. It won't even take very long. Paradise Springs, that is. Part of the sprawling archipelago of public lands known as the Kettle Moraine State Park, Southern Unit, it's located just outside of Eagle, WI. The short loop--a bit over a half mile--is well-used, if my visit there on a weekday afternoon was any indication.

The ruins of a spring house, once copper-domed but now roofless, make it easy to find the grand attraction.

The pure, clear--and cold--water that still pours through the spring house at 500 gallons per minute was once bottled on site with the label "Lullaby Baby Drinking Water."

The long history of the site's mostly private ownership includes such well-known pillars of Milwaukee industry as Petit and Pabst.

Paradise Springs, although it may not quite live up to its romantic name, is lovely. In addition to the eponymous springs I found numerous wildflowers--this one is motherwort--and a working bubbler!

You can learn more about Paradise Springs from the WDNR