Meet Me in the Grove
September 25, 2019 | Topics: featured artist
By Virginia Small
(With Gratitude to Daniel Urban Kiley, 1912-2004)
We meet in the grove,
sit beneath budding horse-chestnut trees,
sketch in the shadow of skyscrapers,
drum the djembe, strike a chime,
As tiny leaves flutter,
the poetry of this place resonates:
Alice Walker, Mary Oliver,
Jane Jacobs, Frederick Law Olmsted,
Vel Phillips, Frank Zeidler.
This terrain their shoulders,
this canopy their mantle.
As night envelops the grove,
we sway to plaintive riffs.
We forget summer is fading.
our limbs keeping time.
Spreading a harvest feast,
we circle within this square,
recall those who bequeathed this place to us
long before we breathed.
We gather fallen chestnuts,
currency of kindreds
worthless to those who covet this land for mammon,
beyond measure to us.
Meet me in the grove
after the first white flakes fall.
Let’s stroll through symmetrical sentinels,
wait for what springs from silence,
for what endures beyond ancient trees,
for what lingers after a poem’s last word.
Coda: The grove of horse-chestnut trees that inspired this poem no longer exists. Designed by renowned modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley, it was the heart of a public plaza created as part of Milwaukee’s Performing Arts Center in 1969. Kiley, a National Medal of Arts recipient, drew inspiration for its design from the Tuileries Garden in Paris.
In Spring 2019, despite citizens’ calls to honor and thoughtfully steward the nationally significant oasis, the grove was ravaged in its 50th year.
Milwaukee County administrators permitted the corporation managing the public facility now called Marcus Center for the Performing Arts to raze the gridded trees. Earlier, Marcus Center officials had released sketches of a proposed “great lawn” intended to accommodate events, including private parties, saying it would have greater potential value. Despite citizens’ concerns, the county executive deemed the living work of landscape art expendable. The county board has no authority in the matter.
As of this writing, more than half of the formal grove’s 36 trees have been felled. Random remnant trees, still venerable individually, display butchered beauty and discordance.
A new concrete pad, with a stock railing and umbrella-covered picnic tables, plopped within one end of the former grove, hint that the vaunted “great lawn” plan either has been scrapped or is on hold. Since before trees were cut, no public updates have been issued about the status of Milwaukee’s high-profile civic limbo.
Virginia Small is a veteran journalist who writes extensively about environmental topics and the public realm, including historic landscapes. Her poetry has been published in regional and national publications.
Photographs by Jennifer Current, American Society of Landscape Architects. The featured photo, at the top, shows the grove of horse-chestnut trees at Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in September 2017, viewed from its western end.