Coping with COVID: Jane’s Walk goes virtual
By Eddee Daniel
Have you walked in one of Milwaukee’s parks in the last two months? Odds are high that you were not alone, even if you wanted to be. Everyone, it seems, wants to be outdoors instead of locked down inside, and parks are a preferred destination for many. In times of stress and anxiety like these, we turn instinctively to nature for its healing qualities and the joy it can bring. That seemed to be a main theme and primary takeaway from a panel conversation last week sponsored and organized by Jane’s Walk MKE and 88Nine Radio Milwaukee. The two organizations teamed up to present “Sidewalk Stories” online.
Jane’s Walk MKE was established five years ago to honor the work and vision of Jane Jacobs, author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” and indefatigable promoter of people-friendly and walkable urban communities. In a normal year, the month of May saw numerous walks all over Milwaukee guided by a host of volunteers. This year, due to the pandemic, those in-person tours were suspended. Virtual tours and this panel on “Sidewalk Stories” were created to take their place.
I was one of six panelists who were invited to respond to three questions. Here are my reflections on those questions.
Where have you been exploring during the pandemic and why?
It will come as no surprise that I’ve been exploring parks—many parks. After all, as Project Director of A Wealth of Nature: Parks and natural areas in Southeast Wisconsin and curator of its website, that’s essentially my job description. When the shutdown was announced I saw it as my obligation, almost, to encourage people to get outdoors and into parks since they were among the few places still open to the public. But my goal during the pandemic has been not just to explore the parks but also to document what people are doing in them. I also made a point of going to as many different parks as possible to showcase—as always—our region’s wealth of nature.
How has the pandemic changed you and your exploration habits?
For the first time, I made going out to parks a daily practice, as opposed to once or twice a week. This has enabled me to visit well over 100 parks and preserves in two months, an average of about two per day. I’ve also made a deliberate choice to stop at parks that I normally would drive on past. Since the mission of A Wealth of Nature is to highlight—yes—nature, I’ve considered parks that feature mainly lawns and playing fields to be largely out of bounds. But the general public isn’t so particular and I’ve found open expanses of lawn to be as inviting to people with cabin fever as what I like to call the urban wildernesses.
Up to now, my goal as curator of our website has been to showcase parks and preserves. To that end I have emphasized in my photography the natural features of the places I explore. It rarely mattered that many of them were deserted at the times I went there. By contrast, during the pandemic my whole purpose has been to highlight people. At first I simply saw an opportunity to include the human element in natural scenes—since, for a change, I could generally count on seeing people. But before long I decided to focus more directly on the people themselves.
This has led to the most dramatic and surprising change in my habits. Ironically, during this time of social distancing, I have been meeting and introducing myself to far more strangers. I have discovered that people are almost always delighted to have their picture taken when asked and willing to engage in a brief conversation about the places they are in, as well as the pandemic. Or not so brief, on occasion. My chance meeting of storyteller Paul Akert in Seminary Woods in Saint Francis led to his inviting me on a two-hour guided tour of Grobschmidt Park in Franklin.
What have you discovered—about yourself, about the city, about a particular place, about others?
Lapham Peak was a shock and a revelation when I visited there in late March. I had already spent two weeks documenting the parks during the pandemic and it had been clear to me from the start that nearly everywhere I went attendance was up. But I had never seen a park so crowded as that day at Lapham Peak. As a parks advocate, it was both exhilarating and alarming. Testimony, if ever it was needed, that people yearn for parks and the outdoor experiences they provide. At the same time, there were too many people. Even without the concern for social distancing—practiced by most but not all—I had to wonder how such intensive use would affect the quality of the park.
Not long afterwards, my fears were realized when Governor Tony Evers ordered many state parks closed due to excessive crowding, vandalism, and stress on park employees’ ability to maintain them. Some county parks and private preserves followed suit. I was not surprised. While most of the people I’ve met on trails have been courteous and careful to maintain an appropriate distance, a significant number have not. This has been true all along and continues now that restrictions have been eased.
I have discovered that while some parks are extremely popular—along with Lapham Peak, Pike Lake, Grant Park, Lion’s Den Gorge, Petrifying Springs Park, Milwaukee’s lakefront, and Hoyt Park stand out—there are still plenty of places where it’s possible to find solitude. Private preserves are among the more likely candidates. Places I’ve had all to myself include Kratzsch Conservancy in Newburg, Tabor Woods in Caledonia, Engel Conservation Area in Muskego and the backwoods sections of the Menomonee River Parkway in Milwaukee.
The phenomenon of increased park attendance has been most surprising on cold, dreary and even drizzly days, of which there were plenty in March and April. These months are normally the most fallow for photography, when the snow has melted, the trees are barren and spring flowers have yet to bud. Add muddy trails and it’s rare to see a single soul—until the pandemic drew them out!
The most heartwarming aspect of this phenomenon has been the prevalence of families exploring nature together. And not just mothers with young children, which was to be expected with schools and daycare centers closed. Parents with teens, fathers with sons, mothers with daughters, multigenerational families…you name it, I’ve seen it.
The grandmother I saw helping a toddler jump a narrow creek in the Milwaukee County Grounds. The Mom watching as her four kids of varying sizes climbed a fallen tree trunk at Lapham Peak. The father competing with his two teenage sons at disc golf in Estabrook Park. The Mom, Grandmother and two children exploring a stick fort at Petrifying Springs in Kenosha. The whole family fishing from the pier in Watts Lake at the Cedarburg Bog State Natural Area in Saukville. The grandfather helping his young granddaughter learn to ride a bike at Malone Park in New Berlin. And on and on.
On Memorial Day, the official unofficial first day of summer, I had to check out the scene at Bradford Beach. The weather was suitably hot for the occasion and the beach seemed fairly crowded—until you compare it to a normal sunny, hot Memorial Day (above is 2020, below is 2018). Not completely social distancing compliant but well below the typical density.
I want to thank Jane’s Walk MKE for including me in their “Sidewalk Stories” and for sharing my virtual tour of Riverside Park on their virtual tours page. I hope we will return to in-person tours in May 2021!
This is the eleventh installment in our “Coping with COVID” series. Here are the previous ones:
Remember, our “Find-a-Park” map can help you locate a park or preserve. Please observe safe personal hygiene and social distancing guidelines when you head out for fresh air, exercise and a healthy dose of nature. And, as always, take only pictures and leave only footprints.
To see the complete set of chronological images from over 100 different places taken during the COVID-19 shutdown, go to Eddee’s Flickr album.
The featured image at the top is from Menomonee Park in Waukesha County. Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks and A Wealth of Nature Project Director. All images in today’s photo essay were shot in the past week, except as noted.