Chapter 1: Headwaters Chapter 2: Marshes Chapter 4: Frontier Chapter 6: Designing Chapter 10: Valley

Excerpts from
Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed

Published by the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago
Distributed by the University of Chicago Press
To place an order go to University of Chicago Press
The book may also be ordered at a special discounted price through Milwaukee's Riverkeeper



I began to explore the natural world at such a young age that the memory is deeply buried in a crevasse of childhood.  My house stood on a high plateau, above a dark forest canyon carved by an untamed torrent.  Sheer cliffs dropped into its mysterious depths.  Scaling down them led to a world of adventure and discovery.  There were hidden recesses, thickets, and dells.  There were islands over which to claim sovereignty, and deep pools in which to plunge.  A needle-laden pine grove in the shelter of overhanging rock became a secluded sanctuary, a place for contemplation and respite from the exertions of exploration.

Never mind that the plateau was a subdivision cul-de-sac bulldozed flat, or that the “canyon” below could be reached by walking a short distance to where a road sloped down and spanned the burbling creek.  The forty-foot drop was cliff enough; the wooded creek-side was forest enough.  Never mind that the deepest pool reached only to skinny ten-year-old ribs, or that the mighty cascades could be easily waded across.  The cool, soothing rush of flowing water was real enough.  The hoarse cough of frogs concealed in grassy banks was real enough.  The scent of pine on the hill—and skunk cabbage in the muddy hollows—was real enough. 

It was my first wilderness.  And it was more than enough; it was formative.  Research demonstrates that exposure to nature in one's youth is instrumental to developing a conservation ethic.  These early experiences helped shape my understanding of the world. 

This book is a record of exploration and testimony to the discovery of an unfamiliar truth: not only is nature present in the city, but also the city is inseparable from nature.  It is a declaration of what is possible in the context of what is actual.  Its subject is a particular place—the Menomonee River watershed in the Milwaukee metropolitan region of Wisconsin.  Its object is to expose something that can exist in every American town and city, something with universal implications, something intangible, even paradoxical: an urban wilderness.

The concept of wilderness, although it has changed over time, has been and continues to be a powerful influence on the North American psyche.  Historically and metaphorically it assumes mythical proportions.  Despite the real impact that Native Americans had on the land prior to the Europeans' arrival, much of our national character was forged in the crucible of the vast landscape against which we pitted and measured ourselves.  Hewing a homestead out of the wilderness was proof of one’s mettle, and taming it part of our manifest destiny.  That rugged character, oriented toward achievement, has led to great accomplishments, not the least of which is the creation of vital cosmopolitan centers of government, commerce, and culture.  That destiny, however, has also all but eliminated the very wilderness that shaped our character.  It is even tempting to believe that in conquering our fear of it we have outgrown the original measure of our civilization.

Wilderness is traditionally defined as nature untrammeled by humankind.  There is much to be said for preserving what little is left, and fortunately a great many voices have joined the cry championing that cause.  This book offers another perspective, a view of wildness that includes the city.  According to Gary Snyder, “to speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness.”  Snyder insists "it is proper that the range of the [environmental] movement should run from wildlife to urban health.  But there can be no health for humans and cities that bypasses the rest of nature.  A properly radical environmentalist position is in no way anti-human."  Nor is it anti-urban.  We all live within ecosystems defined by watersheds and bioregions, whether we live in the country, surrounded by wildlife, or in the city, surrounded by people.  It is arguably better for the environment as a whole that more people live in cities since concentrated development patterns leave more room for agricultural and natural lands. Unfortunately, for most of us, in cities and suburbs alike, a modern lifestyle has made the ecosystem invisible, the watershed invisible; sometimes even a river is invisible.

This book is an introduction to a river and a watershed.  It is also a celebration of wilderness with both real and symbolic implications for rivers, watersheds, and people throughout America.

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Of Water and Stones

excerpt from Chapter 1: Headwaters

Moses Fieldhouse died at age 43 in 1852.  These bare facts are available from the grimy but still legible inscription on his headstone, which is otherwise very white, polished with time to a pearly softness.  The stone, its edges worn and rounded, remains upright in Union Cemetery, on Town Line Road, founded that same year.  There are other stones from that era; some have fallen flat, a few broken in two.  They are made of nearly translucent marble.  Age-blackened incisions seem to float upon their surfaces as if residual life glows from within.  Newer stones, their corners sharp and their engravings crisp, have been added amongst the elder ones.  Past and present mingle, the ancient dead neither forgotten nor separate.  Uniform gray granite lends unintended uncertainty to the clarity of newly cut stones.  By contrast the older ones, in stark black and white, have slowly come to resemble the earth out of which they were carved.  The grass is neatly clipped around new and old alike, even those that rest on the ground.  Bouquets of cut flowers adorn several.  Reverent care is evident.

Political boundaries divide the land with a surveyor's imposed geometry.  Such boundaries seldom conform to visible natural contours, let alone the invisible line of a watershed.  True to form, Town Line Road draws a ruler-straight line where the land draws curves.  But here, where Union Cemetery graces the top of a prominent knoll, road and boundary briefly coincide with the western reach of the Menomonee River watershed.  Looking out from the top, it is possible to envision water running off in both directions, towards Lake Michigan on the east, and the far longer, more convoluted route towards the Mississippi River on the west.  The image of a raindrop making its way to the Gulf of Mexico from this hilltop may be harder to evoke, but is no more impossible than my knowing the name, over 150 years after his death, of a man related only by common humanity. 

These enduring stones have power to establish connections where none were apparent, across time and space, between what is known and what is unknowable.  Ocean-seeking water also establishes connections; connections that define watersheds, within ecosystems that may go unnoticed but which nevertheless are inescapable.

Down the hill from the cemetery, a short way past the last house, across the road from a white-fenced horse farm, is cool, damp woodland.  Covering the ground knee-deep is a choppy sea of horsetail.  The stiff, bristle-like stalks resemble their namesake, but ironically the plant is poisonous to horses.  Upward gesturing prongs are perfectly suited to trap the tufts of cottonwood seed that fall all around; the ground seems covered in frothy foam.  Sunlight streaming through a broken canopy makes the forest floor glow white and gold.

A narrow pond of brackish brown water is speckled with floating cottonwood fluff.  Puckish, the pond is larger than it first appears.  It curves behind a screen of sandbar willows that line its verge.  Wild irises grow here and there amongst the willows.  Though smaller and less flashy than their cultivated cousins, their casual presence in the wetland is unabashedly sensational.  Three widespread, arrow-like petals thrust dramatically outwards, yellow centers burning through white, ending in triangular purple tips that flash with complementary brilliance.


Soberly colored by contrast, the dragonflies are equally captivating.  A strikingly patterned insect darts back and forth, so quickly, with jerky shifts of direction, dips, bends, and lifts, that its position in space is hard to pinpoint, like an entomological representation of an atomic particle.  When it lands it remains as rigid as a museum replica of a biplane, which it superficially resembles.  The richly veined wings, such a dark brown as to appear nearly black, and the white abdomen make it hard to spot in the tangle of dead willow stalks on which it rests.  Before I can fully focus, it is gone, as if I'd imagined it.

Unlike cemeteries, which are ethnographic as well as topographic statements about our relationship to eternal questions, the watershed's hidden ponds and fragmentary woods bear no markers proclaiming their importance to ecological integrity.  We must be the bearers of this truth within ourselves.  My relationship to this unidentified woodland and its ordinary pond, which few may ever see, is more profound than it is to Moses Fieldhouse and the others buried up on the hill.  Perhaps one day we shall come to the wood and the water, as we do to the cemetery, to pay our respects.  In nature, as in cemeteries, visitation stirs remembrance, cements relationships. 

Reverence is appropriate.  The flowers are already here. 

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excerpt from Chapter 2: Marshes and Swamps


The mother redwing tries to flit away unnoticed.  Too late.  Instead she signals the whereabouts of her nest.  I approach cautiously so as not to break its grip on the brittle brown cattails that support it about waist high.  The mother chirps insistently from the top of the nearest alder.  The interior of the nest is dark, shaded by the tops of the cattails, which shield it like steepled fingers.  As I peer inside the mother ceases chirping.

At first all I can make out is a jumbled pile of featherless sacs.  Stretched taut over clearly visible internal organs are membranes of skin so thin and translucent that it seems they must burst open any second, spilling tender life so newly in the world.  The tightly massed brood pulses gently like a single organism, like a beating heart.  Suddenly a tiny head pops up, its sharp triangular beak open wider than the head itself, revealing a ribbed throat and a disarmingly passive trust in the providence of existence.  The utter, defenseless fragility of life could not be more manifest than this.

The mother bird, understanding only the merciless laws of nature, will return expecting to find the violated nest empty, the hatchlings eaten.  But since I have no predatory intent, I step away with deferential care.  Here in the mud, I am out of my own "natural environment," the one altered by civilization.  But along with an uncharacteristic propensity to dirty myself I have brought into the marsh a certain civility and the uniquely human ability to question the consequences of my actions and choose accordingly.  I choose to leave the nest intact.
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Wildest Dreams

excerpt from Chapter 4: Frontier


Like few other places in the watershed, here in a wedge between highways, between the suburb and the city, the river twists and turns like a snake writhing to elude a predator's grasp.  One of the meanings of wild is free—of constraints—as in "one's wildest dreams," which is to allow the imagination free reign.  Then it can "run wild," unencumbered by the reservations of civility, logic, or reason.  This stretch of river has a wild character that surpasses my wildest dreams. 

It isn't an easy place to be. 

There are no trails.  One cannot go for a relaxing stroll.  I plow through chest-deep grass, climb over or duck under fallen trees, scramble around eroded gullies, crawl through brush, all the while pushing aside nettles and burdock, stumbling in hidden holes, and sinking in mud.

Luminist painters notwithstanding, wilderness is not inherently scenic in Classical aesthetic terms.3  Here is what was once a venerable cluster of giant trees, now upended—thrown with unimaginable violence across the river.  Their bases still knotted together in death, a great mass of soil rears high overhead.  Torn roots intertwine like a fistful of worms, simultaneously clutching and surrendering with convoluted gestures.  Backed up behind the broken trunks, an incoherent mass of driftwood and debris demolishes all sense of the placid river flowing beneath.

And yet it can be seen as beautiful.  There is a kind of purity to the ugliness of nature that makes it palatable in contrast to human-made ugliness, which possesses a conceptual repellence that goes beyond visual aesthetics.

An old dump lies partially hidden in a ravine behind a fallow field above the river bluff.  Among the more typical rubbish is the wreckage of gasoline pumps, their inner workings exposed like the uneaten entrails of a butchered animal.  Numerals stare from small square slots, like unclosed eyes on a corpse, registering a price fixed for eternity.  Is it a symbol of the debt we owe the Earth by extracting its precious oil to burn?

Wilderness in its purest sense refers to a place untouched by humankind.  An urban wilderness may be a place that has been neglected long enough to have acquired its wanton temperament and donned its disheveled attire.  A place, it’s possible, of peace and beauty.  In your wildest dreams. 

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Designing the River

excerpt from Chapter 6: Designing the River


Not long ago a river was here.  Now a wide, level clearing runs as far as can be seen through bifurcated woodland.  This ribbon of smooth dark soil marks the low point between hills to either side, on which are massed the front ranks of urban development.  It is manifestly a place where there should be a river.  And there was, but it has vanished.  I stand atop the old riverbed, buried with tons of clay and topsoil, tamped flat and hard as a new road.   An actual gravel road runs alongside, the entire length of the missing river. 

There is no mystery here, no divine intervention; the watercourse has been moved—in the poetic jargon of federal bureaucracy, it has been "dewatered"—replaced with a "new and improved" river.  Stumbling in a Caterpillar's tracks, I walk a few yards east to where its course now flows between matching banks of burlap netting.  The mesh secures pale yellow straw placed there to stabilize the fragile banks until new vegetation can establish an anchoring root system.  It looks like a long, open, festering gash, with thin, mottled gray "blood" running freely down the middle, reflecting the uneven tones of an overcast sky.   A second gravel road lines the far side of the new channel, bearing the impressions of huge, lumbering backhoes and dump trucks.  Traffic signs are nailed to posts and convenient trees:  "One way" and "Yield" and "Wrong Way." 

The entire construction site, for that is what this mile of floodplain has become, is clearly demarcated with perforated plastic fencing, like the bold outlines in a coloring book.  The bright orange line is the most colorful part of the wintry scene.  The land has become a canvas on which the human hand has drawn abstract contours of an idealized river.  It awaits nature's regenerative potential to paint it with a representation of reality.

The new stream meanders slightly—a wobble rather than a true meander, but more natural than the strict lines and impervious materials of other engineered waterways in the watershed.  Who gets to design a river?  The thought arouses a mixture of fascination, envy, and horror.  How do we presume to usurp the power of Creation?  Of course, people have been modifying rivers since the first time a Mesopotamian farmer diverted a trickle of the Euphrates.  Manipulating the nature of rivers is arguably one of the oldest signs of "civilization."  It's a relief to see a river designed to be more natural and it is fittingly symbolic that it should happen within the confines of the city.

The old river looked pretty wild compared to what I'm seeing here now.  For all its subtle irregularity and biodegradable banks the new one currently resembles a concrete ditch more than a stream.  Gone are the tree roots over which water lapped and gurgled; gone is the shady canopy that kept it cool; gone are the sedges and grasses that waved as it passed.  But something less obvious and far more insidious is gone as well, if the outcome has matched the design.

I walk on a bit farther, to where restoration continues.  A huge gouge has laid bare the sediments underneath the old streambed.  A pool of putrid liquid lies stagnant at the bottom, marbled with swirling, hideously beautiful patterns of purple and silvery blue.   The soft, earthen sides of the hole glisten.  A viscous chemical slime oozes from every crevice, trickles slowly down to join the thickening sludge.  A steel cofferdam segregates this toxic pool from the new channel, which flows placidly.  A segment of old channel that remains exposed has a similarly benign appearance, masking the contamination.

Left untouched the contamination was inconspicuous.  Now the solution appears more unnatural than the toxicity.  Trees cut from the site have been used to shore up the new riverbanks in areas threatened with erosion.  They look as natural as World War I trenches.  Welcome to the hydraulic engineer's new urban wilderness. 

After the restoration work is completed the gravel will be removed and the orange fences rolled up.  Then the land will slowly heal itself.  In the meantime, we must heal ourselves.  For the technological fix is only part of the solution.  We can scrape away the toxic soil and haul it off to be incinerated.   We can remove visible evidence of the evils perpetrated upon the earth willfully or through negligence.  We can reshape the contours of the land with our mighty machines and replant trees and grasses.  We can, and should, do all of this wherever the earth is injured.  But healing will only come about when we believe in what we've done.  True healing means becoming whole once again. 

Collective understanding of the value of restoring this ecosystem is needed in order to make whole the diseased environment.  The watershed cannot be whole if we do not feel part of it.  If we continue to deal with environmental degradation piecemeal, then pollution mitigation will be no more effective than trench warfare in an age of chemical and biological weapons.

Another cofferdam isolates the construction site from the river downstream.  Two stout tubes float behind it, looking like long, white sausages.  These trap flotsam and back up the colorful residue on the surface.  Thick hoses snake out of the pool, connected to a big, square red siphoning machine.  Below the dam free flowing water disappears into the shadows of a dense profusion of vegetation.  But its natural appearance is more than deceiving; it is dangerous.

That is the next section scheduled for restoration. 

A fat vole scoots out from under an idle tractor as I walk past. A high-flying hawk wheels, but my presence deters it.  The vole slips safely into a crevice between the logs buttressing the new riverbank.

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Faint-Hearted Crusader

excerpt from Chapter 10: Industrial Valley


In summer it is possible to be here at the river's edge, transported with only a little imagination to 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, tried but unbroken.

In warm weather the wear on this path 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 with 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,"3 but it needn’t be an either-or proposition.  We must rather 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.

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