Monday, January 6, 2014

Considering Thoreau in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley

The news for the past few days has been dominated by dire predictions of breaking records for cold. Today’s Journal Sentinel calls the predicted temperatures “life-threatening.” I’m certainly not going to go out photographing in the Menomonee Valley until things improve a bit. It’s a good day to stay indoors, with a fire preferably, and to reflect on warmer times and places.

In 2008 my book, Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, was published. The watershed it examines is my own, the Menomonee River. One of its chapters is about the Menomonee Valley. The book is a series of experiential short stories, accompanied by photographs, about my exploration of the watershed. One of my favorite stories in the whole book is from the chapter on the Industrial Valley. The photograph that relates best to this story, which was featured on the title page, is also one of my favorites. Perhaps that's not a coincidence!

Faint-Hearted Crusader

At the bottom of the bluff, near the river's edge, it is possible to imagine being in a distant wilderness rather than in a narrow corridor between landfills and brownfields in the industrial core of a major city. It is especially invigorating to touch the wild spirit of the river that lies at its heart, feeling the vitality of it, tried but unbroken.
In warm weather, the wear on this trail indicates regular traffic. But snow cover makes clear how rarely used it is in winter. Two, maybe three, people and one dog have preceded me this week. The infrequency of human visitation likely explains the enormous number of ducks and geese taking advantage of this refuge between the stadium and the 27th Street viaduct. Away from the edge of the bluff, out of sight of the waterfowl below, their constant murmur can be heard like a softly chanted litany. When my form appears at the rim it is as if a shot had been fired. Pandemonium ensues and the entire congregation rises. Within a minute, they are gone. All is silent but for the trickling of the current and the low rumble of a single truck high and far away on the viaduct.
In his essay Walking, Thoreau claims to "speak a word for Nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness." I wish to speak for relative freedom and wildness. They are virtues that can coexist within society and culture while providing a contrast made poignant by the intimacy of their juxtaposition. Thoreau wants to "regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society," but it need not be an either-or proposition. Rather we must reconcile our social and natural selves as intertwining facets of a single whole. Indeed, until we can see them as one and the same, society ignores nature at its peril.
Thoreau chastises all who are "faint-hearted crusaders" unwilling to commit to true walking. This would require, he says, leaving family and friends, settling all one's affairs, and setting out without thought of returning. That is a journey Thoreau himself made only briefly and symbolically. I, too, am content to retrace my footprints in the snow, back to my parked car, my family, and the life I've made in a city graced by a measure of wildness.

From Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, 2008, Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago.

To read additional excerpts, click here.

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