An ur­ban ex­plorer talks old trees, soar­ing herons and scenic foot­paths.

A city ex­plorer pays homage to ur­ban na­ture, which is brought to us by de­ci­sions decades or even a cen­tury old to keep parts of the land­scape as sanc­tu­ary for crea­tures great and small.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY EDDEE DANIEL

By Eddee Daniel

DO YOU BE­LIEVE IN MAGIC? I do, but not the kind with smoke and mir­rors. The magic I be­lieve in is earth­ier, oc­ca­sion­ally raw and fun­da­men­tally wild. It in­hab­its se­cluded dells, windswept bluffs and run­ning rivers. It has the power to heal. It re­veals it­self fully only to those with ac­tive imag­i­na­tions and a will­ing­ness to seek out na­ture in sur­pris­ing places. Places like Mil­wau­kee.

Not long ago, I was walk­ing along the Menomonee River in Three Bridges Park. Late af­ter­noon sun spot­lighted the un­du­lat­ing hills. Sud­denly, four great blue herons started up from cover on the near shore. They flew sev­eral hun­dred yards down­stream and landed in the up­per branches of tall cot­ton­woods on the far­ther shore. Herons are nor­mally soli­tary hun­ters; to see so many at once seemed mirac­u­lous.

Then a fifth heron stirred close be­hind me. With a loud, gut­tural squawk, it un­folded im­mense wings. Once aloft it was trans­formed, glid­ing grace­fully up and over the thin band of trees at the river’s edge and cir­cling slowly, its slen­der, wide­spread wings look­ing pre­his­toric in the dis­tance. Skim­ming low over the wa­ter, it van­ished be­hind tall grasses lin­ing the river­bank. Far­ther on, it reap­peared, swooped up­ward and cupped its long wings to stall over the out­stretched limb of a dead tree. The mag­nif­i­cent wings col­lapsed onto a sud­denly svelte body as if de­flated. Mes­mer­ized, I watched the heron stand war­ily on its perch where it had a com­mand­ing view of the river – and the glis­ten­ing sky­line of Down­town Mil­wau­kee.

The wings of the heron lifted my spir­its. It was pow­er­ful magic. For me, na­ture is the tonic that makes city life en­durable. Put me down in any city and I im­me­di­ately seek out its nat­u­ral places where I can walk on the earth among trees in­stead of on pave­ment be­tween build­ings.

Ul­ti­mately, ur­ban wild­ness is not magic at all, but ev­i­dence of a con­di­tional re­al­ity. We choose to make this magic by pre­serv­ing nat­u­ral places where peo­ple as well as wild an­i­mals can flour­ish. I feel for­tu­nate to live near an abun­dance of na­ture, where op­por­tu­ni­ties abound to re­lieve the stresses of daily life. Thanks to the Mil­wau­kee County Parks sys­tem that has pre­served land along its rivers as parks and park­ways, I can step out­side my home in Wauwatosa and walk for miles on wooded trails along the Menomonee River. Among my fa­vorite haunts are those where I am so to­tally im­mersed in na­ture that I lose all sense of be­ing in civ­i­liza­tion.

Two of those places stand out and are also unique to our re­gion. The first is a string of con­nected parks and trails along the shore of Lake Michi­gan from South Shore Park in Mil­wau­kee to Grant Park in South Mil­wau­kee. A short hike down the fa­mous Seven Bridges Trail in Grant Park leads to a beau­ti­ful sandy beach with a broad vista of the great lake and miles of steep, forested bluffs.

The sec­ond, the Mil­wau­kee River Green­way, ex­tends from Lin­coln Park on the north to Cae­sar’s Park on the south and is larger than New York’s Cen­tral Park. A walk – or bet­ter yet a ca­noe trip – in the Mil­wau­kee River val­ley can feel like a wilder­ness ad­ven­ture. For much of the way, the sur­round­ing city dis­ap­pears en­tirely, as the trees and fo­liage sur­round you.

More than 100 years ago, Charles B. Whit­nall, of­ten called the fa­ther of the Mil­wau­kee County Parks, helped lay the foun­da­tion of our cur­rent sys­tem. Fol­low­ing the re­moval of the North Av­enue Dam in 1997, a coali­tion of non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions and state, county and mu­nic­i­pal gov­ern­ments es­tab­lished the Mil­wau­kee River Green­way in or­der to pre­serve not just the land but the wilder­ness ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing out of sight of the city.

I go to the river or a for­est or bluffs over­look­ing Lake Michi­gan to breathe deeply and be at peace. Wild an­i­mals are a bonus.

Do you be­lieve in magic? I do. I live with it here in Mil­wau­kee.

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