A Love Letter to the Magic of Milwaukee’s Urban Nature

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.

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 City’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. ◆

‘Keep Milwaukee Wild’ appears in the April 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning April 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Eddee Daniel is a Milwaukee-based photographer and writer. His work explores the intersection of nature and human culture. A graduate of the UW-Madison and UWM, he brings to his current practice more than 30 years of experience teaching art and writing about nature. He is the author of "Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed," a visual and narrative tribute to Milwaukee’s Menomonee River. Eddee writes two blogs: Urban Wilderness and Arts Without Borders. He serves on the Board of Directors of Preserve Our Parks. You can email him at eddee@eddeedaniel.com.