Down the middle of America

Heading home from Baraboo right down the middle of Wisconsin and Illinois. Got my last slice of Rocky Roccoco and headed south and east.

My first photo shows the Wisconsin River flowage, Lake Wisconsin. You go slower on the country roads, but you can see more. Next is a walking path at a rest area in Illinois. The windmills are taken from that same stop, as is the photo of the linden flowers. I just love that scent.

The last two photos are the world famous Morrow plots at University of Illinois. They have been planting crops on that spot since 1876 to learn about fertilizer, crop rotation and soils. These are the oldest such plots in North America, but they are not that easy to find. Seeing as how they are probably the biggest tourist draw in all of Urbana-Champaign, you think they would make bigger deal.

Trains, ships & Medusa Cement

We noticed when we were in Oak Park and Elmhurst that many trains went by on at-grade tracks. Trains are a key to our prosperity, but they are largely out of sight.

America has the worlds best freight train network, facilitated by the Staggers Act or 1980. This fact comes as a surprise to most people, since American passenger rail is not very good and that is what experience most directly.

You can see the power of freight when you watch a train go by. Today they often carry containers. This is intermodal transport. The containers can be moved by ship, train or truck w/o being unloaded or reloaded.

The intermodal revolution – and it was a revolution – happened in plain sight starting around 1970. Before that time, something moved by ship required unloading and reloading at the port. Something shipped by train required loading, unloading and reloading all along the road. The same for trucks. Each step created delays, damage and “shrinkage,” i.e. stealing. This is the “fell off the back of a truck” idea.

I was in the Longshoreman Union back in the 1970s when I worked at Medusa Cement. We were in that union because we had a dock, although I never worked on ships.

Longshoremen were hard workers, but the episodic nature of the much of the work meant they did not need to be very consistent. It was possible to be a good worker AND a drunk. In fact, some of the hardest workers were drunks. There was also a fair amount of fringe benefit or the “falling off the truck” sort. And there was lots of unskilled or semi-skilled work to be done. All this changed in the 1970s. Containers require many fewer workers and most of them need to be skilled at operating heavy machinery, i.e. shaky drunks cannot do well.

My pictures show some of the trains. The first shows how many trucks can be carried on one train and the next (look closely) shows trains going in both directions. In front are bulk hopper cars, in back containers. I have enjoyed watching them go by since I was a little boy and still do. The first photo, however is Medusa’s cement ship – the “Challenger”. It is now owned by St Mary’s, so it is the St. Mary’s Challenger, but I think it is the same boat that my father used to unload. The last photo is a water tower in Oak Park, Illinois. They were more artistic in those days.

Landowner dinner in Freeman

We held a landowner Tree Farm dinner at Reedy Creek Hunt Club in Freeman, Virginia. I sold the hunt club six acres a few years ago and they built a really nice facility. The meet there and can cater lunches or dinners, which they did for us. They made an excellent pulled pork. They can seat around 150. Our local meetings are much smaller, but they can do large or small.

I got to show my land to the dinner guests. I am proud of my longleaf pine and the progress since they were burned in February. We also talked about tree farming and the values of conservation.

My theme is that we should not talk about making our ecological footprint smaller, but rather make it much bigger, since what we do improves the land, soils and water conditions for biotic and human communities depending on them. I hate this whole “footprint” concept. It is defeatist. It says that you can never move forward, but only limit the damage you do. It is like the original sin, but worse since there is no redemption. I think we can – and we do better.

Leopold landscapes

Taking advantage of my pilgrimage to the Aldo Leopold place, I stopped off in Madison. Always liked it there and Madison formed the backdrop for lots my thinking. I studied Greek and Latin. I forgot both, but the discipline of those languages stayed. I didn’t actually go to the city or the university, however, but stuck to the edges at the Wisconsin Arboretum and my old running trail that juts into Lake Mendota.

They do prescribe burning at the Arboretum, so I went to see some of the prairies maintained by fire. The big one is Curtis Prairie, originally laid out by Aldo Leopold in 1935, along with the less well-known Norman Fassett, Ted Sperry and the eponymous John Curtis, on an abandoned pasture. There was also a graduate student John Thompson, who planted seeds, along with dozens of CCC boys. It was the first example of scientific restoration. They brought in sod and seeds that they thought represented the original cover and it has been growing ever since.

You can see Curtis Prairie in the first photo. On the side is Leopold woods. It is good to have the history, since you can get ideas about the ages of the trees. These are about eighty years old. In the next photo you can see that they grew up in the open, since the white pine kept many of its lower branches for a long. Lake Wingra in the next photo is surround on three sides by the Arboretum and so is nice and clean. Next is the end of Picnic Point on Lake Mendota, the turn around point for my runs for obvious reasons. I used to be able to stop and get a drink at the pump shown in the photo, but it is now defunct.

Chicago with Chrissy

Of course, the big reason that it is fun to tour is because I get to be with Chrissy in new situations. You can see in my first photo when we had supper at a nice Italian place. The second photo is from the Navy Pier on Lake Michigan. As we walked back along the pier, I mentioned that this scene reminded me of Lake Michigan (I was thinking of Milwaukee). Chrissy made fun of me, pointing out that maybe it reminded me of Lake Michigan because it WAS Lake Michigan.

We stayed in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst. It is an “trolley suburb,” i.e. one built around trains and transit. These are pleasant suburbs, since they are fairly dense near the train stations. This one featured restaurants and beer gardens, surrounded by leafy suburbs.

We also toured the Quincy Street Distillery. They make a variety of spirits there, including various sorts of whiskeys and gins. The owner and manager, Derrick Mancini, was clearly an enthusiast for his profession. He explained how the system worked. The key to flavor is aging. Whiskey acquires flavors from the wood in the barrels. If they use smaller barrel, it ages faster, but produces a less mature whiskey. We did the tasting. Chrissy liked the younger whiskey. We bought three bottles, each of the different sorts.

As I listened to Mr. Mancini and perceived his love of what he did, I thought about the future of work. We have passed through the machine age, where we need to mass-produce standard products. Maybe we can do products the are also in their own ways works of art.

Wisconsin Nature

Old growth forest in Milwaukee

Cudahy nature center is actually in Oak Creek, just off College Avenue. I started coming here sometime in the early 1970s, before it was a nature center and before Milwaukee County owned it. I used to read books about ecology and natural succession and then come to place like this and try to see how it worked. This is very much my “home woods.”
The preserve is about 42 acres of maple-basswood forest (farther east it would be joined by beech, but there are no natural occurring beech trees in Milwaukee County outside the immediate reach of Lake Michigan fog) that managed to avoid being cut. I doubt it is “virgin” forest, as some say, but it sure is old growth.

An obvious sign of old growth are big trees, but there is more. If the stand is really old growth, i.e. has been there for more than a generation or two, you will find unevenly aged trees and a variety of species.

If you look closely, you can see how the forest composition has been changing. There are some very old oak trees. They are probably at least 200 years old. Some look like they grew in a more open setting, since they had lower branches, but most are very tall before they branch, indicating that they grew with lots of other trees.

The oaks, however, are not the future. Oaks are disturbance dependent, since they need a fair amount of sun. Their offspring will not grow in the shade of the parents and here you have sugar maples and basswood that replace them.

You can see that in my first photo. I saw the trunk and the bark and though “oak” but then looked up and saw maples leaves. I was confused for a second and then looked farther up and saw oak leaves. If I could jump 100 feet into the air, I would see an oak poking out above a sea of maples. The next photo shows some very big basswood trees. They are part of what we used to call the climate community. Basswood and maples will dominate this site until disturbed, since their seedlings can thrive in the shade. The third photo is one of the old oaks that I bet grew up in a much less dense forest, maybe a field. Last is me by the sign for the nature preserve.

Kettle Moraines
Continuing some observations from yesterday’s wet walk around Mauthe Lake. One thing I like about the walk is the constancy of the biotic communities around the lake; another is the constant change. It seems like a contradiction that both can be true at the same time, but that is how natural systems work.

One change I do not like is the death of the ash trees. I noted last time that the ash were still alive. Invasive emerald ash borers evidently arrived in sufficient numbers to change that. I wonder how the damp, but not wet, land near the lake will change.The ash grew well in this environment and changed it by their growing, pulling up water and transpiring it. Will the damp-land become wetland now that they are not doing that? Will the damp forest become more marsh-like. Or will some other sort of trees take up the slack from that niche? There may adapt some natural control. Emerald ash borers eat only ash. They have now eaten themselves out of a home, although I am sure there are residual populations lurking around. Maybe local birds and frogs will learn to like the taste of ash borers and they will be transformed from an existential threat to a mere local menace, maybe just a nuisance, or maybe human effort can extirpate them. Hope.

Mauthe Lake represents the headwaters of the Milwaukee River. The official source is nearby Long Lake, but it flows through Mauthe. The river was high, as you can see from my photos.

My first picture shows a nice stand of white pine along the path. They are probably (only a guess, I was unable to confirm & if anyone knows better let me know too) seventy years old, planted by CCC. Next is the Milwaukee River leaving Mauthe Lake, followed by a photo of is coming in. The “river” after that is not a river at all. the left branch is the hiking trail and the right one is a bike trail. The water was shallow and warm. Last is the ghost forest of ash trees.

Chicago & Frank Lloyd Wright

Continuing with Chicago, Chrissy & I went the architecture tour on the river. I recommend it. We had an exceptionally good tour guide. He even played blues harmonica was we came in to dock.

Since I live in Washington, high-rise buildings are not something I see often. Chicago is the place to see high rise buildings and the river is the best way to do it. It is a beautiful city.

Frank Lloyd Wright
Catching up with recent activities, Chrissy and I went to Chicago to take a look at some of the architecture and specifically at the Frank Lloyd Wright house and neighborhood around Oak Park.

The neighborhood is very pleasant, but I do not think that it results exclusively or even mostly from the Frank Lloyd Wright contribution. I like many of his innovations – and many have entered American vernacular architecture, but the totality of his deigns were not always that good.

The neighborhood is part of the “garden city” movement of he late 19th and early 20th Centuries. What I like about the area is open aspect, varieties of buildings and – more than anything else – the nice big trees.

My first photos shows Wright’s house and studio, followed by one of the Wright designed houses. Next is an ordinary Victorian house, that also adds to the beauty of the neighborhood. Wright evidently hated those things. Last tow are the nice trees. First is a big elm. Next is a ginkgo ‘s Wright’s yard. The tree was there when he bought the place in 1887, so it is at least 130 years old. It is the widest ginkgo that I have ever seen, although not the tallest. As I examined the tree, I notice that the top had been cut off. It looked like damage from wind and not a aesthetic choice.

Wet trails at Kettle Moraine

When you get completely wet, and can’t get any wetter, you no longer dread getting wet. That happened to my feet at least. And there is a real charm in walking in the woods in the rain, even when the trail is officially flooded.

I liked how they treated the warning. They did not close the trail, just warned you to do it at your own risk. Even if it had been closed I would have gone, but I liked that I did not have to break the rules. The worst parts of the flooding were only about ankle deep, as you see in the photos below. This should not be surprising on a trail through wetlands. The surface underneath is paved with gravel, so you don’t sink into mud and walking is not hard. It started to rain as soon as I arrived, this and the flooding trail meant that I had all the Mauthe Lake Trail in Kettle Moraine State Park to myself.

The Kettle Moraine State Forest is where I first learned about ecology. This was back in 1965, when I was ten years old. I got to go to a day camp up around Mauthe Lake. We did nature walks and learned about the forests, wetlands and the various remnants of the lake ice age, conveniently names “Wisconsin Ice Age” after the state where some of its most prominent features was easily visible. I try to go back when I am nearby. I get a very peaceful feeling here, maybe reaching back to my childhood and my imaginings of the great forces that moved earth.

My pictures show the trail, the wet trail and my wet feet. There is also a cut red pine. I counted the rings best I could. There are more than fifty. This means that it was just a little tree plantation when I was there in 1965.  It grew very fast at first but in the last decades grew hardly at all. Last are the red pine relatives.