This is excerpted from a body of work produced in 1997-1998.

Discovering the Milwaukee County Grounds:
A Land for All Seasons

An Introduction

Jump to poetry

 

Imagine the astonishment and delight with which you would greet the discovery of buried treasure in your own backyard.  Then imagine emotions that might accompany the news that, despite undisputed ownership, you would not be allowed to keep it.  Not long ago some of us in Milwaukee County experienced these things collectively.  The treasure was 235 acres of open land buried in plain sight under bureaucratic neglect.  Its legal and emotional disinterment came when the county proposed selling the land for residential and commercial development.

I set out to explore the land.  What I discovered is a place of both subtle complexity and startling contrasts; one that was once thoroughly developed, but which has been largely abandoned to the ravages of time and unhindered access.  Ultimately it has reverted to a semblance of wildness that transcends a great variety of activities.  I have walked on every acre, witnessed use and abuse, met innumerable people, and encountered wildlife in every season of the year.  In the end what I value above all is the unbounded horizon, and the simple exhilaration of being there.

Is there a need for a large, open green space in the middle of an urban area?  Does Manhattan need Central Park?  The question pales before the myriad questions that come begging after it, questions about the variety of overlapping and competing needs and how to establish priorities for them.  While out walking, I have often wondered which of the needs this land currently serves are considered expendable.

In the eastern corner a high berm conceals a flood control retention pond for the adjacent medical complex, along with an annual brood of ducklings.  Seasonal migrations fill it with many more waterfowl.  Nearby a fence encloses a windswept field.  A small wooden sign with white stenciled letters is the only indication of the hundreds of forgotten bodies lying there in paupers' graves.  Nearby soccer fields teem with players of all ages. 

Over a thousand plots of community gardens make up the single largest acreage.  A county nursery is being discontinued, but it is the planned site for a huge new flood control project.  Tennis courts, golf, and archery aficionados have designated places.  Wil-o-Way day camp is tucked away in the woods.  There are several businesses renting slowly decaying structures, an abandoned one in a condition that makes historic preservationists wince, a deep tunnel, and a coal-fired power plant.  There's a bone-yard, where hogs were butchered, once upon a time.  There's a 40 acre hardwood forest, and similar amount of rolling prairie.  There's a log fort, a makeshift wigwam, and several less noticeable hideouts for children with free imaginations.  I've also seen the sheriff's department using it as a training ground, pursuing likewise imaginary felons.

All of this is interspersed and interconnected with a crazy quilt pattern of dirt roads and trails on which people drive, stroll, jog, walk dogs, ride bikes, hold hands, pick flowers, daydream.  There's even room for wildlife.  I've seen coyotes, foxes, raccoons, possum, ground hogs, rabbits, turtles, frogs, mice, and plenty of deer.  And birds too plentiful to enumerate. 

Not long ago Milwaukee's county government found itself scrambling when, after proposing the commercial and residential development of this land, it encountered a storm surge of protests from the public.  Lo and behold!  There's a huge, vocal constituency which supports the preservation of green space.  Is there a need for open land?  No urban park will ever be big enough to satisfy all of the needs that exist.  Human needs are overwhelming enough.  Adding wildlife habitat to the mix might seem a secondary priority.  But I believe that enabling wildlife to coexist with us is a human need.

The land will never be big enough for all of the needs, and it will never be bigger than it is right now.

 
  Four Seasons
Poetry written for the project by Eddee Daniel
   

Outskirts

Imagine houses here…
the little stones
grown large
with permanence.
Imagine no more prairie here…
upon this hillside where
the city seems so small
and far.

Behind the trees
the city marches right up to this place…
with regiments so legion
their conquest looms as destiny…
I do not need to close my eyes
to imagine it all

gone.

Here in the unobstructed breeze
the city surrounds but does not touch.
The little stones crunch underfoot.
I walk insistently
against the wind…

A Gift

a spot of land
no more
than a garden patch

a few beans
tomatoes
maybe a squash or some herbs

ripening. . .

Grant me a gift of growing!
so that I am undeceived
by the supermarket

a spot of land
untouched
by the city

a few acres
trees, grasses
maybe a hawk or some crows

riding on the wind. . .

Grant me a gift of sunlight!
unencumbered
by walls

   

There’s a Place

There’s a spot on the hilltop
where I go to watch the sunset.
The tall grasses in the surrounding fields
glow like fiery embers
in the fading light
and the sky is too big to believe.

In the indigo east
is the city--a small spark
like a bravely held torch in a very deep cave.
The growing dark is unpierced
by its light
under a sky too big too believe.

There’s a place where I go
when I need to watch the sun
set, shake the city out of my bones,
and know the way of the sun
is to rise

into a sky too big to believe.
 
 

Flood

I.

Rain blackens tree trunks
like charcoal;
collects in tiny iridescent droplets
on leaves
until,
                overburdened,
                                                        they fall,

sink into sodden ground.

Rain finds unseen crevices,
fills cracks, reveals jigsaw shapes on the land,
then
                erases
                                     them
inexorably
removing pieces of solid terrain
madly undoing the puzzle,
submerging  contours,
creating muddy depths.

II.

No rain falls on the desks of the planners.
Architects’ immaculate tables dryly sprout designs:
shopping centers, streets,
congregations of quarter-acre lots,
seamless surfaces of asphalt,
spillways into sewers…
which syphon off the rain,
granting absolution for the sin
of concrete.

 

III.

Rain falls like a disease
that eats away at the mind.
Bits and pieces disappear:
a native knowledge of balance,
the feel of freshly plowed soil,
the fecund smell of the forest at night,
the sound of
                                     solitude.

 

Rain pours into every cavity:
drainspouts, gutters, sewers, and
the ethical void
                                        where instinct
has drowned.

The rain continues;
sewers overflow. 
The rain continues;
foundations crumble.
The rain continues;
things begin to disappear.

 

IV.

Rain drives us from our homes,
toward receding shelter.
                We seek higher ground,

pervious earth,
                                            a remembrance
 
of consequences.

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