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Year in Review: The Best of 2020!

December 28, 2020  |  Topics: Spotlight

By Eddee Daniel

It was a terrible year. Of course. It must be acknowledged. However, we don’t need yet another accounting of the horrors, do we? And so, I bring you the best of 2020 from The Natural Realm.

Last Sunday’s New York Times published letters to the editor in response to the question, “What was one good thing about a bad year?” Respondents admitted to many, including the resilience and compassion of fellow humans, the joys of working from home, the time spent with spouses, children and pets, the discovery of Zoom…, one even gushed about the Dodgers winning the World Series. Although I can relate to some of those, no one, I was disappointed to learn, mentioned the silver lining so near and dear to my own heart.

Hubbard Park panorama
Hubbard Park panorama from The Milwaukee River Greenway in White.

Followers of this blog know where I am leading: People in enormous numbers connected or reconnected with nature during the pandemic shutdown and thereafter. The outdoors in general and parks in particular were seen as safe havens and healthy alternatives to being cooped up inside all of the time. Although on occasion this phenomenon proved to be too much of a good thing, as some parks had to be closed due to overcrowding, vandalism and stress on parks maintenance, the one indisputable fact that emerged throughout the year was the value of nearby nature. In other words, the good news we at A Wealth of Nature have been trying to proclaim for years!

In time-honored tradition I bring you the best of 2020, from photos and stories we’ve published in the past twelve months. For the stories, I’ve gleaned the most popular as indicated in Google analytics. Having no comparable database for photos, that selection is unabashedly subjective. I offer my own personal favorites of 2020. My favorite single photo is the one at the top showing Jim and Noel wearing patriotic and flower power love masks respectively. I met them in April at Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge on one of my Coping with COVID excursions.

A wintry urban wilderness, from The Milwaukee River Greenway in White.
An idyllic spring scene at Hoyt Park, from Coping with COVID: Imagining a future.

The links take you back to the original stories and provide context for the photos.

Even before the advent of the pandemic, the year got off to an ominous start. In January, a wild winter storm ravaged the shoreline of Lake Michigan, causing catastrophic damage, according to some accounts. This was due not only to the ferocity of the storm itself but also to historic high water levels in the lake.

Fishing at Fox Brook Park, from Coping with COVID: The new normal?

For a more optimistic beginning, our first featured artist of the year was also one of the most popular: pastel painter Colette Odya Smith. (Many of the year’s other featured artists were covered in last week’s Year in Review Part 1: ARTservancy.)

Crowded trails at Lapham Peak
Crowded trails at Lapham Peak early in the shutdown, from Coping with COVID: People seek out nature.
ARTservancy Artist in Residence Vicki Reed at Forest Beach Migratory Preserve,
from Coping with COVID: All over the map.

A big chunk of the year, from March until June, was taken up with weekly posts in a series called “Coping with COVID,” which documented the aforementioned phenomenon of people out using the parks. In twelve weeks, I went out almost daily and managed to visit over 130 parks and preserves throughout SE Wisconsin. I won’t list them all here, but the final installment—Coping with COVID: When will it end?—has links to all of the previous ones should you want to relive it all! Many of the photos come from these posts. (The “Coping with COVID” series and selected photos were assembled into the first Preserve Our Parks book, A Wealth of Nature: Pandemic, Parks, and People, which is available online or from POP.)

A socially distanced trio of hikers at Mequon Nature Preserve
A socially distanced trio of hikers at Mequon Nature Preserve, from Coping with COVID: People enjoying our parks.
Caledonia Conservancy bridle trail, from Coping with COVID: Meetings and Distances.

For the third year in a row, a story about Wauwatosa’s Sanctuary Woods was one of the most popular. This one was “An historic tour” of the woods led (and told) by local historian and president of the Friends of County Grounds Park, Jonathan Piel.

I was happy to see that my favorite story of the year made the top ten. It was a two-part story about the Grazing Goats in Pukaite Woods, Mequon that help eradicate invasive buckthorn. In part one we see the goats released into the woods to begin their feeding frenzy and I returned two weeks later to show in part two the dramatic effect of their work.

Must Love Frogs, winning entry, from Annual Milwaukee Riverkeeper Boat Parade rocks Milwaukee River.
This image was also this year’s most popular on our Instagram feed.
Insects on swamp milkweed blossom, from A Photography Lesson in Three Bridges Park.

Another story showing a dramatic change made the top ten. Instead of two weeks, I revisited Hartung Park after two years in order to bring you the floating islands there in full bloom—among other beautiful things in this unusual park.

Kinnickinnic River Parkway, from A Autumn Odyssey of Discovery.

October was an especially rich month, but then autumn is a perennial favorite, isn’t it? Three October posts reached the top ten. The first was my annual autumn odyssey, a straight-up celebration of seasonal color.

Fishing the Milwaukee River, from Moments of Gratitude.
Oak Hill Mountain Bike Trail, Menomonee River Parkway, Wauwatosa,
from Autumn Forays in the parks of Southeastern Wisconsin.

A more surprising hit was by guest contributor Tom Mortensen, which shared plans for developing “America’s most inclusive park” in Milwaukee County, at Wisconsin Avenue Park in Wauwatosa. Great to see accessibility issues taken this seriously.

Shady Lane State Natural Area, from Treasures of OZ Eco-Tour 2020.

Then there was another regular, Treasures of OZ Eco-Tour 2020, the annual Ozaukee County tour of parks and preserves. No surprise here. Popular for the third year in a row. Held in the fall for the first time and turned into a do-it-yourself event due to the pandemic. The camaraderie was missing but the parks remain as beautiful as always!

Sierra Taliaferro with toad, from Moments of Gratitude.

Also in autumn, freelance naturalist Sierra Taliaferro contributed to two important posts. The first, co-authored by Sarah Bregant, documented a tour of a “Pocket of Paradise” in the Lincoln Creek Greenway of Milwaukee’s central city. In the second, Sierra describes “Moments of Gratitude” after a hike in the Milwaukee River Greenway.

Finally, one I didn’t expect to be as popular as it proved, a brief journey of discovery in the “unlikely wilderness” of Kulwicki Park in Greenfield.

Kayaking the Oconomowoc River in the Loew Lake Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest,
from Coping with COVID: When will it end?

As 2021 draws near, hope is in the air. A COVID-19 vaccine already is being administered as it becomes available. A fractious election year is over. However, although a sigh of relief is appropriate, we are still a long way from being settled and a “return to normal” isn’t even in the cards, normal being experienced so divergently by so many different people. But, as you have seen, it has been a GOOD year in the urban wilderness of SE Wisconsin and we can look forward to 2021 being even better!

Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks and curator/editor of The Natural Realm.