Autumn Odyssey 7: A World of Trees
January 25, 2023 | Topics: Places
By Eddee Daniel
What do the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and the City of Milwaukee have in common? (Besides being in the State of Wisconsin.) The former sprawls across more than 1.5 million acres up north, while the latter, in the southeast corner, is the state’s most populous city. Most populous if you’re counting humans, that is. What they have in common is this: there are more trees than humans in them. Yes! We live in an urban forest.
I’m not exaggerating. According to the latest US Census figures, a little under 600,000 people live in Milwaukee. They are surrounded by 3.4 million trees (as reported on the City of Milwaukee website). And just imagine this for a moment: how many millions of trees must there be in the whole of the Milwaukee metropolitan area, with its 1.5 million people?
“This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” ~ Richard Powers, from his Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Overstory.
As our desultory winter continues to disappoint snow-enthusiasts let us continue our journey around Southeastern Wisconsin. Trees figure prominently, of course, since they provide the radiant color palette of the season. Richard Powers also says, “Trees know when we are close by.” Let’s tread lightly and respectfully around them, acknowledging their significant role in not only making our day a little more joyful, but also in maintaining the health of the environment and the air that we breathe. Come, let’s continue our tour…
Price Park Conservancy
We’ll begin in Walworth County, a quick hop down I-43 from Milwaukee. The park’s trail system is divided up into four color-coded loops, which correspond roughly to different ecosystems. I visited with a small group from the Sierra Club, Great Waters Group. We hiked around the perimeter of the trail system, including sections of all four of the loops. We experienced a wetland habitat, open meadows, a pine plantation, and my favorite, an upland hardwood forest with plenty of golden foliage.
Three Bridges Park
We can find trees even in the heart of the city. In the Menomonee River Valley, known primarily for the industries that helped make Milwaukee the “Machine Shop of the World” in the early Twentieth Century, lies one our region’s most unusual parks. Three Bridges Park was created on the site of a former railroad yard, its rolling hills built up using rubble generated when the old High Rise Bridge was demolished to make way for its replacement. You wouldn’t suspect those origins, though, when walking through the rolling hills on the Hank Aaron State Trail. Except for the riparian fringe along the river, the trees here are only as old as the park itself, which opened in 2013. Nevertheless, they are beautiful in any season.
I would not have found this lovely 63-acre park on my own. It is tucked away next to the MeeKwon Golf Course and, not being a golfer, I wouldn’t have ventured past the golf course sign. But I was delighted to be given a guided tour by Ozaukee Parks director Andrew Struck over the summer. I went back during my Autumn Odyssey and found the woodland surprisingly green for the most part, well after most of the area had begun to reach peak autumn color. Trees keep their own schedule, which doesn’t always conform to our expectations!
Just down the road from Mee-Kwon is another lovely woodland. Highland Woods is an 85-acre City of Mequon Park. A trail system loops through the hardwood forest, providing a leisurely half-hour hike—or, if you’re dawdling with your camera like me, hours of forest bathing and communing with the trees.
“Trees know when we are close by. The chemistry of their roots and the perfumes their leaves pump out change when we’re near…. When you feel good after a walk in the woods, it may be that certain species are bribing you. … Trees have long been trying to reach us. But they speak on frequencies too low for people to hear.” ~ Richard Powers
Mequon Nature Preserve
On my way home from the previous parks I stopped at a long-time favorite for a quick hit of its autumn offerings. Like Three Bridges Park, Mequon Nature Preserve is the product of intensive restoration. In this case the land had been used for agriculture for over 150 years. Its 500+ acres are gradually being restored to pre-settlement forest and wetland habitats. I love seeing this work progress over time. While much of the landscape is still very open, the newly planted seedlings yet to become a visible forest, there are several mature woodlots to break up the scenery.
I also stopped at Thiensville Village Park on my way to the others above. I wanted to check out the newly completed reconstruction of the fish passage that allows fish to migrate around the Thiensville Dam on the Milwaukee River. I got the drone shot above, which clearly shows the switchback route the fish take to get from one water level to the other.
I leave you this week with this quote from Wendell Berry:
“The awareness that we are slowly growing into now is that the earthly wildness that we are so complexly dependent upon is at our mercy. It has become, in a sense, our artifact because it can only survive by a human understanding and forbearance that we now must make. The only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity.”
The trees and the fish would thank us if they could for making a place for them in our urban forest—although they persevere by instinct. On the other hand, it is we who should be grateful for their presence in our midst. And we have the capacity for gratitude, if not the instinct. Let us exercise our capacity.
Previous installments of Autumn Odyssey 2022:
Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks. The featured photo at the top is of the Menomonee River from the Valley Passage Bridge in Three Bridges Park.