“In honor of our teachers, the plants”

On Wednesday at the Wisconsin Wetlands conference, Robin Wall Kimmerer signed my copy of her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, “in honor of our teachers, the plants”. Reading her book, one thing to seep in early and strong with me was that the plants are the wisest among us. It reminds me of a lesson I keep forgetting, that often the quietest people in the room are the ones most worth listening to. Or, said another way – listen; don’t speak much.

Attending both her book club session and her evening keynote was a joy. Robin shared and invited much thought about the collective practice of gratitude, and about reciprocity – what can we give to the plants and the earth in return for all that we receive.

Questions were asked about how to relate to the invasive species in out-of-balance ecosystems that we work to remove and counteract. She spoke about remembering that these plants, too, have something to teach us while they are here. The invasive exotic Phragmites (giant reed grass), might be teaching us about the problem of excess nutrients that we have caused by our destructive land practices – and that we created conditions to invite their abundance.

This made me realize the teaching of the invasive exotic Phalaris (reed canary grass), in one wetland where we work. One year we really aggressively pulled it, quite successfully. We then got an unexpected and problematic algal bloom later that summer. The plant was, maybe, suggesting to us to take this incrementally. Remove a good amount at a time, but maybe not all at once. The presence of some, in the transition, helps take up excess nutrients, while waiting for the still-present native plants to reclaim their own abundance. Let the balancing act be in concert with our steps to control the invasive species.

Then Dan told me this: In another wetland, perhaps we unknowingly heard what the reed canary grass was teaching, or maybe it was serendipity. Here, as we pulled the invasive grass in late spring and early summer before it flowered, we hung armfuls of the pulled grass up out of the water on the waiting and willing stout branches of the ash trees. If we pull it and leave it connected to water, it re-roots and re-sprouts, so lifting it out of the water was necessary. The branches were a convenient place, seeming to invite us to take advantage of their nearness. As it turns out, this was a smart thing. Because… once the clumps of reed canary grass dry, and become inert, they also weaken and slide off the branches back into the water. Here, their carbon provides the necessary energy source for the decomposers to take in excess nitrogen in this not-yet-balanced system. Wisdom of the teachers. Thank you.

One of the posters by a young researcher, Brianna Kupsky from UW Green Bay, was about efforts to re-vegetate the altered, wave-ravaged Bay of Green near Cat Island with native Vallisneria americana (water-celery) and bulrush. In a prior step, Phragmites had been reduced with herbicide. The most successful re-planted Vallisneria were when planted directly into the remaining root-and-soil substrate of now-dead Phragmites, which provided perhaps a nurse environment as well as anchor in the otherwise inhospitable present-day lakebed. A departing teaching gift for us from the plant.

And thank you to Katie from Wisconsin Wetlands for the gift of the book.

- Nancy Aten

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Pitch pine’s view of the world

Pinus rigida, Spy Rock, Cornwall, NY

Spy Rock, Black Rock Forest, Cornwall, NY

1830. Dear Diary: I am old enough to collect my thoughts. And it rained last night so my needles are paying attention. There is another, like me, the next rock over, that I can barely sense… but the breezes bring the pheromones, and I know. I know that the season of dryness is coming, and I try to nap through that.

1870. Dear Diary: It is nice to be tall enough to feel the full measure of the wind, most of the year. In winter it is dramatic with a frigid chill, but then I am hunkered down with antifreeze in my veins and my senses are thankfully dulled.

1900. Dear Diary: My world has changed. Much of my forest is gone, and the rivers run too fast with abandon. I try to spend my time not agonizing over my fellows, but rather looking down at my feet, and enjoy the company of the small ones, the little bluestem and the lichen and the moss. It is they who teach me chemistry and geology.

1960. Dear Diary: My age has brought me twists and kinks, but also deepness of strength. My roots have found comfort in crevices after so many decades of hanging on by my toes. I count the years by the fiery red of the young maples in the valleys below and the bold yellow of the hickories.

2015. Dear Diary: I don’t really understant the penchant for group photos under my branches, but have come to enjoy my role as icon of the rock.

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A path for art in restoration

An art committee working to plan the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER)’s 25th anniversary world conference met in May 2013. A thoughtful discussion ensued. Can art be a partner in the unfolding process of an ecological restoration? Collaborating in the science? Collecting data? A restoration participant?  We wondered if there are yet unexplored opportunities, for art and ecological restoration entangled… particularly in art that assists our work – that documents, learns, and does.

The arts have long engaged ecologists and other scientists and disciplines in collaborative work meant to explore intersections, relationships and complex ideas. In the broad realm of Land Art, projects have often used landscape as material, and explore ideas as diverse as the human experience of place; earth in the context of climate change; the processes of ecological succession and human intervention; toxins and bioremediation. In Maya Lin’s constructed Storm King Wavefield, done in consultation with landscape architect Darrel Morrison, one of my favorite details is the self-sorting of seeded native grasses over time, so that Bouteloua curtipendula has become a clear “fringe” on the warmest, driest ridge lines.

Maya Lin, Wavefield (photo N. Aten)

Lin has said about her work, “maybe I am just asking you to pay closer attention to the land”, and that might serve well to categorize this kind of collaborative art.

Some projects have been called “eco-revelatory”. This was the subject of a landmark special exhibit and issue of Landscape Journal in 1998, Eco-Revelatory Design: Nature Constructed / Nature Revealed (contents list). Eco-revelatory design is the idea of work that draws attention to ecological function and process, while at the same time improving ecological function and process. These are projects that both explain and do. They are often in places of dense human inhabitants – with a large audience for the work. Green infrastructure tends to incorporate these ideas, because they have inspired advocacy and empowered follow-on work. For example, the wide popularity of rain gardens followed after numerous eco-revelatory public projects managing rainfall in urban areas. (See Stacy Levy and Biohabitat’s Dendritic Decay Garden and other projects). Art can be a conduit for understanding something – for understanding how ecology works.

An alternative conduit for understanding does not mean the subject is simplified or reduced; just that other pathways of experiencing and learning are offered. Quoting the eco-revelatory artist Patricia Johanson writing about her project Endangered Garden: “This fusion of form, function, and ecological system that I want the visitor to discover, and its pervasiveness from microcosm to macrocosm, often lies along a mucky path.  I believe such unfolding relationships require individual wanderings, the considered pause, and knowledge acquired over time…”.

Yes, that sounds like one of us, learning a place we study and restore. We know the importance of paying close attention over time. Out in the field measuring, logging, assessing, intervening… we still catch our breath at the way the afternoon sun lights the wetland. And while light colors the wetland, we also see the patterning of sedge hummocks, the interspersed Salix candida, and we assess health of the restoration. We learn the ecosystem not entirely with our selves of reason; sometimes we are led to understanding through other conduits.

Those conduits can be available in a perhaps more familiar art form. A recent exhibit showed 36 (of 140-and-ongoing) paintings of one remnant patch of woods in urban Milwaukee known as Seminary Woods, a place where it is possible to imagine the Milwaukee of the early 1800s. The artist, Michael Kutzer, an amateur botanist, walks in the woods daily, and his observational skills translate into paintings that reveal the dynamics of ecosystem processes at work. He is six years into this study; an artist documenting ecology.

 Michael Kutzer and Seminary Woods series (photo: N. Aten)

We know that scientific repeat photography at a restoration site is a useful tool for us; consider that an artist has the additional opportunity of applying human powers of observation to repeat visits. His work reminds me of ecologists engaged in a long-term field study. This exhibit, at an environmental education center, enables teachers there to give students an alternate conduit for understanding the ecology of a place.

Observational skills were important when we first learned science and remain important in our restoration work today. The process of art-making can strengthen those skills and perhaps engage a broader range of people (including students) with natural sciences. Recently, a high school biology teacher in Milwaukee gave students an alternative conduit to understanding plant physiology through art, in a process explained here.

Last year, I saw sketches in an exhibit that included cave insects, leeches in a wetland, and meadow pollinators. The artist, Kristin Gjerdset, had participated in the long-standing National Park Service artist-in-residence program. During her residencies, she asked to join ecologists and biologists in their field work, documenting what she saw and learned. She became a valued team member. Recently she illustrated, literally and figuratively, her value on a multi-disciplinary team in a field class about dragonfly ecology. This is an avenue for restorationists and educators to consider: artists to visually explain and document, perhaps in a collaborative survey/assessment effort.

One of the ways ecologists have already engaged artists is in bringing people to the landscapes where we work – seeking to strengthen and expand these conduits of understanding in the field. Ecological restorationists might think of our clients as the salamanders and the soil, but the Society for Ecological Restoration Primer and Guidelines also emphasize humans as the audience for our work. And so, we invite installation and performance arts, with people, into our landscapes undergoing restoration and management. For example, a dance at the river. An ephemeral or self-decaying art installation. Or, Shakespeare performed winding through patches of light and mystery in the forest restoration at Nichols Arboretum. Installation and performance arts that can, beyond just appreciation, add ways of seeing and understanding the ecosystem and the whys and hows of ecological restoration. Such projects can be helpful in advocacy for the human audience of our work, and in deepening our own connection to our work. A concern of such works is “[that they not] draw attention away from the real art, that of life” (Ken Leinbach, Urban Ecology Center). What do people see, the art or the ecosystem? Can art draw you into the ecosystem, toward deeper understanding… be the guide, rather than a distraction?

Beyond understanding, or perhaps more effective at it, is the participation inherent to restoration. Not only are humans our audience, they are our necessary actors. Bill Jordan has written often about why participation is essential – and for any individual project, perhaps the process of participation is more important than the outcome. And many restoration ecologists have embraced the arts of ritual in the acts of restoration – for example, work days that begin or end with a reading or poem, or with an expression of gratitude to the place and its life. Basia Irland’s Ice Books are part ritual, part civic engagement, part river restoration. Wisconsin restoration ecologist Steve Glass writes about the role of fire as both ecosystem process and restoration ritual, and annual winter solstice bonfires to celebrate a restoration work season.

Some artists explore what happens when they themselves engage in the practice of restoration. Creating in order to share their understanding, their work can provide collaborative fodder for us.  Artists who seek to further learn ecology might help us as powerful visual explainers and documenters.

Poised. SER Member: Kurt Ewing, Washington. Artist Tyler Green, Minnesota, writes: Back in his early days at the University of Washington, Kurt was asked to restore a landfill. He's become quite proud of it. “That landfill we started on in 1990, it looks pretty good.” The print illustrates spikelets of three main plants used to restore the landfill. They're rendered simply, and standing poised in the foreground like comic book superheroes, which in a way they are. They have made a terribly disturbed landscape healthy again. With help of course: Kurt, the wiseman, the teacher, is represented as a small silhouette on the horizon. His wife would describe him as someone who is, “Grumpy, but gets stuff done.” The restored prairie is an example of that. Ecological restoration is a story of a bad situation turned good. A story with perils and laughter. Worthy of a comic book. The story of nature restored.

One of the SER 2013 endeavors was the “Print Project”. This paired 11 artists with 11 restoration ecologists, who met, walked and talked restoration, and then the artist-printmaker created a visual story of the ecologist’s work based on their new-found understanding. This series, exhibited at the conference and other venues, is a kind of visual explanation of our work. Seen by the average person, they are an alternate way to understand ecological restoration. Seen by us, they reenforce our personal commitment to the field.

Brenda Baker’s Seed Pod was commissioned for SER 2013. The artist sought to create large pod-like structures; open pods of native willow and closed pods made of invasive buckthorn (inert, without viable seed).  Open pods would reference restorative ecological work, the casting of native seed to restore an ecosystem.  Closed pods reference the threat of pest plants and the way these invasives spread, one seed at a time. This thoughtful review was written by an arts historian and curator who once worked in the field for an ecological restoration firm.

Brenda Leigh Baker, Seed Pod proposal

Artists who pursue ecology more deeply have done work that supportively intercedes in ecological restoration. In this realm is the work of Daniel McCormick, described as specializing in “watershed restoration sculpture”. What I find most interesting is not just that the woven willow bio-engineering is beautiful and draws my attention in… but that I perceive his methods as more effective in situ than what one of us might do, perhaps because of his artist’s sensitivity to site as well as his ecological training.

And we have come back to the point where we began: can art and artists be actors in the restoration? Art and artists can explain science; can art do science? Can art do ecological restoration?  And to what benefit – can art advance our work beyond where we can take it ourselves?

As we think about working with artists, it might be a challenge to see the artist as needing the same freedom to be rigorous as our researchers need in science. Research without immediate applied purpose. In our field, practitioners and researchers desire good exchanges; using this model, perhaps we can begin to incorporate artists as both practitioners and researchers.

A Land Art project often cited in thinking along these lines is Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1991-ongoing). A collaboration with a research agronomist, this multi-year art installation tested heavy metal uptake by hyper-accumulator plants. In describing the bioremediation cycle, the artist says, “this renewed ecology is the completion of a work of art”.

Brenda Baker’s original idea for SER 2013 was very different. She proposed a large-scale solar powered floating installation on Lake Monona (at the heart of the city of Madison and highly visible), that could trap and collect invasive plants or fish. She discussed the ideas of such an ambitious project with local limnologists, ecologists, and agency staff, but more time and investigation would have been needed to implement it. “I would love for whatever I make to not only comment on these issues, but actively help solve them in some small way.  I have always done work that comments on ideas or issues, but hasn’t actually made a difference, except perhaps in getting people to see things a little differently. [I would like the] art to become a medium for restoration itself”.

It’s an idea worth exploring: artists who want to help address ecological restoration challenges, with art that participates in our work and advances our thinking.

- Nancy Aten


Beardsley, John. Earthworks and Beyond: Contemporary Art in the Landscape. New York: Abbeville Press, 2006, Fourth Edition. Print.

Brown, B., ed. Eco-revelatory design: Nature constructed / nature revealed. Spec. issue of Landscape Journal. 1998: 17 (2). Print.

Jordan, William R. The sunflower forest: ecological restoration and the new communion with nature. Univ of California Press, 2003.

Lin, Maya. Boundaries. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000. Print.

Kelley, Caffyn. Art and Survival: Patricia Johanson’s Environmental Projects. British Columbia: Gulf Islands Institute, 2006. Print.



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Ah, Matisse

Journal pages
It was a few days saturated and dripping with significance, and also wonderfully airy in thought and idea. The Matisse Cutouts at MoMA, a once in a lifetime experience of seeing many of his late-life things together, as they were created, in some semblance of connected thought. It is one thing to be entranced by Blue Nude II, but quite another to see four world-scattered versions side by side along with his sketchbook pages, also scattered to the four winds, where he worked it out. But this trip started with an intense desire to see Swimming Pool again, not seen by me (or almost anyone else other than restorers) for more than 20 years. Entrancing. And that he made it for himself. This is something I noticed this time. I like the things he made for himself. To enrich his own spaces, his environment. Freer in how they were both conceived and carried out, maybe. I am paying attention to all the under-sketching and use of black. Three times to see Matisse. But then so much more – Cooper Hewitt and the fantastic do-design-right-now exhibits. Dubuffet and his Phenomona and ‘The Incursion of Botany into Lithography’. Ethereal Frankenthaler with paint thinned to translucence. The language and the hope of Group Zero: works called ‘Dissolution of formation’, ‘Vibration white and yellow’, ‘Chronotopo’, ‘Seventh attempt to burn the night’. The marvelous surprise of Indian painter Gaitonde and his breath-catching atmospheric abstracts. He says, first you must absorb all the silences. And then you wait. Wait. Wait. To be both a rasika (one who experiences intuitively) and a rasajña (one who learns analytically). And the Lauder Cubists. It was a revelation to be reminded of the value of superb curation and editorial choice and understanding of vision. I’ve never been fond of the early Picasso-Braque brownish cubism – but, here, fantastic. And paper-collé. I am longing to be in the studio. And Juan Gris – I never appreciated him until reading his story and seeing gorgeous works here – and wow. Gris’ ‘Flowers’ – I am in love. This writing is for me – to remember.

We saw the Matisse Cutouts with close friend and landscape architect Darrel Morrison. The trip’s grand finale was a visit with Darrel to the Native Flora Garden he designed and planted at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Because all of the art is to help see the natural world and what could be possible.

Nancy Aten

Native Flora Garden

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Meaningful species as we work

For the Society for Ecological Restoration’s 5th World Conference last year in Wisconsin, to help with conference wayfinding graphics, I chose a few representative and memorable species commonly associated with ecological restoration in Wisconsin – in prairies, wetlands, or woodlands – and wrote the following 15-20 word descriptions. It was fun to think of individual species that come to mind when thinking of restoration work here, and what they mean to us in our work.

Big bluestem or turkey-foot (Andropogon gerardii), the quintessential prairie grass touching the sky.  Perhaps six feet above ground and ten feet below.
Low sweet blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), very tasty to humans and black bears.  Facultative seral species in transition to forest.
Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), open-grown, wide-branching herald of the midwestern oak savanna.  Evolved with fire, remnant savannas are rare.
Broad-leaved arrowhead or duck-potato (Sagittaria latifolia), emergent aquatic in shallow wetlands, food for much wildlife.  Helpful in nutrient management.
Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), a spring nectar source for migrating hummingbirds.  Nodding flowers glow in late afternoon light.
Eastern gray tree frog (Hyla versicolor), arboreal; a flash of yellow on hind legs seen when jumping.  Conversational calls keep wetland restorationists company.
Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), part of the notable “yellow” of young restored prairie.  Quick to establish, and fun and easy to harvest seed.
Wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina), challenged by forest fragmentation we seek to repair.  Sings two notes at once, its call a memorable ethereal flute.

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The Missing ‘Small Magic’ of Water

Milwaukee surface waters

One loss we have in urban neighborhoods is the ‘small magic’ of water – we no longer see little streams; they run underground in pipes; we no longer see little wetlands and ephemeral wetlands; they are filled. When our only visible water is the big rivers and the Great Lake, we have lessened our opportunities for intimate connections to water, and the sense of stewardship such intimate relationships often engender.

These maps both use the 1835 GLO land survey data. Left, showing present WDNR-mapped surface waters in yellow — notice the absence in Milwaukee — overlaying the historic vegetation of Milwaukee which is extrapolated from those 1835 surveys (reds and blues were large swamps). Milwaukee County boundary is shown; and a the boundary of the inset view to the right. Right, zoomed in to Milwaukee, the 1835 GLO land survey maps, showing then-mapped large wetlands (those visible walking the square-mile sections).

I recently made a project proposal that matches communal food production for the neighborhood with communal inputs of rainwater and energy from the neighborhood. It then also asks for a small share of water to bring back a bit of magic. The idea uses the regularity of food garden watering (with stored rainwater), to substitute for the missing regularity of groundwater supply via a small diversion… to make a small surface wetland functional as part of the urban community garden habitat, and give something back to the earth and the skies.

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This Place and Time

As the sandhill cranes fly and talk overhead, and the snow melts underfoot, I know just where and when I am. Wendell Berry: “You don’t know who you are until you know where you are”; Thomas Berry: “Everywhere on earth, life is established on a functional community basis”. When thinking about our role in making landscapes, repairing them, restoring them… we strive toward ecological function, health, wholeness, sense of place, and the marking of time and season.

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Swamp Friends

Two days in the Okefenokee, November 2012Quoting the artist Patricia Johanson in Art and Survival (2006), writing about her project Endangered Garden: “This fusion of form, function, and ecological system that I want the visitor to discover, and its pervasiveness from microcosm to macrocosm, often lies along a mucky path.  I believe such unfolding relationships require individual wanderings, the considered pause, and knowledge acquired over time…”.

Here’s to friends human, floral, and faunal, with feathers and with scales and with bites taken, and time along mucky paths.

(Above, my sketches from canoe, in sequence, two days in the Okefenokee last week).

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Wild[er]ness, or It’s still only gardening

It's still only gardening

I was in a field class recently.  During a break with another student, a research professor, I shared details about my ecological restoration work.  He responded with interest, but finally said, “It’s still only gardening, isn’t it?”.

His comment seems to suggest a lesser valuing of ecological restoration, alluding to gardening in the sense of dabbling, of artifice, of not the real thing (not real nature).

This is something I encounter regularly, and is often discussed in the fields of restoration and environmental philosophy.  It is part of the trouble with wilderness. It is shown by the wonderful field ecologist who waxes poetic about the wild places in which they work, but at home grows only lawn and daffodils.  It is shown in the valuing of the far-away over the next-door.  It prefers the [fragile] intact, over the functional recovering, landscape.

I don’t at all mind thinking of ecological restoration as gardening.  As that term implies caring and effective human hands in the landscape, it is true.  As that term implies a deeper engagement between people and nature, it is of critical importance.

I am glad for healthy skepticism that insists on ecological quality and function and rejects poor substitute landscapes, like the range of ‘replacement wetlands’ in the urban and suburban world.

And I recognize the dilemma of how to devote resources: preserving our wildest lands and buffering them and connecting them; managing lesser-functioning lands toward ecological recovery; claiming the potential for ecological function where it has been absent.

But what I hope for and work for is a lens that sees wholeness, an earth inhabited, and considers landscapes in context and in potential.  I wish landscapes (ecosystems) to be valued by what they are, what they do, and all they give freely — to the wild and toward the whole earth’s health.  Our wild places are worthy. A restored urban riparian corridor that thousands of kids experience is also worthy — not only because it teaches, and that may lead to care of wild places elsewhere, but because it is of ecological value itself, an ecological necessity in the earth’s network.  We cannot successfully divide the earth into wilderness and domesticity, with ecology only in one.  Rain falls the same.  Sun shines the same.  Carbon cycles the same.  We wild gardeners, we ecological restorationists, we volunteers planting native seeds, are doing the earth’s work.

[Above: controlling Phalaris in a small stream where the Penthorum still lives]

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Thoughts in the Prairie

Sketches, Riveredge, July


We hear thunder
The prairie feels the shadow of the clouds
Every leaf anticipates.

How does milkweed do it?
Common, everywhere, defiant, tough, ubiquitous, indispensable
And still catches my fancy.


I wish I knew the voices of the birds
Are they saying important things?  Addressing the health of the planet?
I only want my voice to join theirs.

Teaching, learning, Riveredge

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Hometown Work

ASLA Award

Last week, my partner Dan and I were awaiting the walk across the stage in San Diego to receive our national award from the American Society of Landscape Architects, for our detailed plans for the restoration of a half-mile of the urban Menomonee River Valley.

We were next to Ryan, the award winner for plans for Washington DC’s National Mall.  Dan and I were kind of emotional; we are so proud of our work and so hopeful it will be used fully and well.  Ryan from AECOM smiled at us with similar emotion in his eyes, and said, “So, this is a hometown project for you, too, huh?”.  He could relate.  Yes, it’s a Hometown Project for us in a big, heart-filled way.  We wrote in the client-of-our-hearts for the certificate, now proudly displayed in our office.


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On Knowing How To Do Things

UEC Painted Rivers

A few years ago, I was given the pro bono project of painting the concrete floor of the Urban Ecology Center with the Milwaukee rivers, streams and the shore of Lake Michigan.  The building, by their design, echoes a map of the area: vertically from basement to second floor and horizontally from west to east.  As I was working with paper stencils, a teenager watched quietly.  After a while, we talked, and he started helping.  After a while more, he paused, and asked, “how do you know how to do this?”.

My brain spun.  My brain realized that it was my training as a landscape architect that taught me how.  I knew how to use GIS to access the watershed data.  I knew how to scale drawings and maps.  I understood, from a communication and learning perspective, that having a scale on the floor that could be easily worked with (200′ to the inch) would help.  And later, in the making of aerial photograph floor tiles for kids to interact with as overlays on the floor, that we could size the tiles as section-sized, square miles (26.4″ square).  I could even align the sections, roughly, as they were marked on the ground by the GLO surveyors of 1835-1836 — and as their echoes remain as major streets and municipal boundaries.  I also understood about projections, and hence to start the alignment of section lines at the location of the UEC on the map, because the alignment wasn’t going to exactly hold (the earth curves).  I knew how to turn digital data into paper stencils, working with the local print shop and the available paper roll widths and inexpensive grayscale plotting.  I knew that paper stencils were an inexpensive low-tech way to transfer the data to the floor accurately.  Accuracy was important, so that the aerial floor tiles would match the painted rivers below.  I also knew why some of the streams and rivers started and stopped (underground in pipes) and how to make that clear in paint.  I knew why some smaller streams had very straight sections (farmed, drain-tiled, ditched).  I knew how to paint illustratively; how to paint the rivers to convey their story, their aliveness and dynamism.  So… here’s to many more teenagers knowing about landscape architects and what our training helps us do for our communities.

Nancy Aten


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In the Twocreekian Age

Twocreekian Age

August 26th 2011,  Two Creeks, Wisconsin.

The company took a field trip to the globally unique Two Creeks buried forest.  An exposed Lake Michigan bluff reveals remnants of an ancient cedar hemlock forest that was “run over” as the Wisconsin glaciers were in retreat 11k before present.  Thoughts of ice mountains overtilling a mature forest of thuja and tsuga; landscapes laid bare, then rebuilt and again laid bare, only to be built again over thousands of years.  Reference models for these types of forests exist near our work at the Bay Shore Blufflands in Door County and maybe some day with in the Menomonee Valley in Milwaukee.   Digging in the dirt of the past we find a landscape of place and think about past and future places.

Dan Collins

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I. A. L.

Increase Lapham Day

From the 1873 Wisconsin State Horticultural Society Report

The advantages to be gained by a botanical report with a proper record of the same, to be made or kept either by accurate drawings of plants, or preserved by drying and pressing or otherwise, specimens of every known species that can be found, is well expressed by Dr. I. A. Lapham, who writes your secretary that already “many of the plants in my (Lapham) collection are now scarcely to be found in the state, having been driven out by the progress of improvement by which May-weed [probably exotic chamomile], Mullen, thistles, etc., take the place of the native plants. The time is now at hand when my collection will afford the only evidence of the former existence of many plants in certain counties of the state.”

(1873 excerpt uncovered by Dan Collins recently; above left, the first published Flora of Milwaukee, 1836 I. A. L.; middle and right, Rob Nurre re-enacts the man and the survey for Aztalan’s Increase Lapham Day recently)

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Have you been to a visioning session lately with stakeholders, where the pronounced rules begin with “Speak your truth” and end with “Have fun!”? It’s happened once too often for me and I doth gently protest.  Perhaps “speaking your truth” comes from what wikipedia tells me is Ehrmann’s Desiderata, “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars…” (yes, I am a child of the 70s and had this on my schoolbook covers). But I’d point out that this text is not fairly quoted, then: it says to “speak… quietly and clearly”, the modifiers being the point.

I would rather not reduce the meaning of actual truth – you know, true is true and false is false… some things are knowably true. I’d rather not confuse truth with perspective and opinion and point of view.

And to paraphrase Derrick Jensen again, it’s not always about us.

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Woods in fog

January. This time of year I get so heart-filled with the colors outside. I want to impress the colors in my brain so strongly that they’re always there. Especially the twilight colors, the very dark gray-blues with the bit of gold hint on the horizon and the barely discernable not quite silhouetted colors of the tree branches and the way snow looks at night. Or that changeable weather we just had with those foggy misty gray days. Gray, and its huge range of colors within gray, make me so alive and noticing everything. It’s weird.

Fog, woods


And then spring comes and I forget I love gray.
May woods

(Native spring ephemerals of the maple-beech forest Erythronium americanum and Floerkea proserpinacoides)

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Funk’s Grove

Funks Grove

I appreciate both the open-grown oaks, despite being most easily seen above turf and farm rather than savanna (right)… and the lovely forest, despite its having grown up during fire suppression – with familiar faces of Floerkea (left).  From the Illinois State Museum: “Private individuals preserved Funk’s Grove, southwest of Bloomington on Old Route 66 in central Illinois. A portion of these woods, Thaddeus-Stubblefield Grove, is a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve established in 1993. It contains 1600 acres of oak savannas, woodlands, and forests. It has some of the largest trees in the state, and the best example of a bur oak grove. A secondary forest of maples is present; local people harvest and sell maple syrup.”

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March Madness

March 31

Lest you think there is nothing much herbaceous going on March 31 north of Milwaukee below the snow, let me introduce you to the tiniest, mightiest annual Floerkea proserpinacoides (left), which knows better than most how to be darned effective, and the welcome and gorgeous Symplocarpus foetidus (right, in flower), which takes re-training of my forest eye each spring.

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Menomonee Valley models

I admit it, I am tickled by being re-introduced (and introducing others) to how well low-tech models can work to communicate and to persuade: in this case, about the challenge of making truly wild places in this spot surrounded by city.  Works well in the thinking and re-working process, works well in the performance-art process (let me show you how the forests could be restored).  For a digital blending of this with 1990s aerial photo, see Landscapes.

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Nicholas & Raoul’s “Watershed: Art, Ecology, and Community Engagement”

Watershed digital elevation model, historic land survey

I really like how you can feel the watershed’s pulse from a simple digital elevation model (left, Milwaukee River watershed), a living earth even with the faintly visible rifts of freeway and sometimes railroad; let’s not stretch her resilience any further.  And, how the 1836 hand-drawn survey maps so powerfully evoke another time in this place: everything that goes with managing to survey and walk square mile sections, crossing swamps, bluffs, rivers, forests, savannas, blazing trees and identifying each one you cross… at a time when you’d be unlikely to meet another person for days.  Thank you to Nicholas and Raoul for the opportunity to have a tiny part in their far-reaching multi-year project (see Watershed for more), and for making community engagement and activism central to art.

Which reminds me of Derrick Jensen’s July/Aug 2010 Calling All Fanatics essay in Orion, from which I quote: “I would extend her [Stephanie McMillan's] comments beyond art: in times like these, for anyone not to devote her/his talents and energies to defending the planet is a betrayal of the worst magnitude, a gesture of contempt against life itself.  It is unforgivable.”

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Wildness as a Value

I have been thinking more about Wildness as a distinct value of Place, articulated better than me by friend/colleague Marc. An aspect I think important is the sense of personal discovery: that the secret of this unexpected patch of Lespedeza capitata amongst the copper and fluff of Schizachyrium scoparium is mine alone. That nobody else knows about this leftover sand pit, and to look for wolf spiders. (Both photos, Waukesha County). In a city, this idea of undiscovered place seems at first in sharp contrast to the desire for full and deep community engagement with place. Can a landscape belong fully to and be beloved by everyone, and at the same time, be to any person, theirs alone – and full of wild life to be discovered? This is the tremendous potential of air-line yards…

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Anywhere, Sunlight and Rainfall and Aspect Make Detail

Also at Storm King, Maya Lin’s work is beautifully conceived/sited. But the detail I like best is the self-sorting of the native grasses based on slope aspect and moisture… leading to the “fringe” of Bouteloua curtipendula (growing on the upper parts of south-facing slopes) visible along the ridges of the wave field (when viewed from the trail which leads you around the north/northwest).

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Substance Behind The Scenes

Things to love at the High Line – unexpected treasured spots, like this spur (right)… But my favorite has to be the NYC Parks trailer offices, stewardship gear and onsite nursery at the south end (left), right under the High Line.

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Public Art That Shows You Something Else

I find myself sometimes arguing against public art. Well, actually, for public art that is temporary, and for public art that doesn’t distract from something more important. As much as I enjoy Goldsworthy (left), I found something I appreciated more (right) at Storm King Art Center in NY – art that says, “hey, did you notice the forest behind me? Pay attention”. These steel trees (Menashe Kadishman) line the walking trail. On the foreground side of the trail is lawn and structured stuff. On the background side of the trail is a lovely and substantial native forest: a pretty important thing.

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