Parkdale Park, bad dad and sick brick highlight week in nature
As Wisconsin’s spring shows its wacky personality, there’s plenty of interesting activity to observe both locally and around the world – and I use “interesting” in the Chinese-curse sense of the term.
But some of it is “good interesting.” We’ve got bird and flower walks at our new Portage County park this weekend. We’ve got a cool nature-friendly tourism promotion.
We’ve got a Chinese artist who can make a brick out of polluted air, another who can make a wedding dress out of pollution masks, and a coordinated effort to stop some bad guys from ruining what may be our most iconic American outdoor treasure.
Finally, I’ve got a kid with nature-deficit disorder calling me “bad daddy.”
That’s a good thing, because it drove me to a place that’s new to me, as well as a new promise to keep.
First, the bad news …
A couple of items making the rounds caught my eye recently and spurred me to a little bit of action. The first was about the number of air-pollution deaths worldwide, which is, not surprisingly, in the millions and most pronounced in China and India.
An internet outage caused me temporary loss of the exact statistic as I began writing this column, which figures into what I write to a certain extent. I’ve become utterly dependent on the internet in some ways, as have my kids, and I’ve been thinking about how to rectify that.
My follow-up reading revealed a story about a Chinese artist who goes by the name “Nut Brother” and who walked around Beijing with a wheeled heavy-duty vacuum cleaner, sucking up the city’s polluted air. He then mixed what he filtered out with a bit of soil to make a brick – and an artistic and social statement.
A different Beijing artist made a lovely white wedding dress out of pollution-filtering masks. As appealing as these art stories are, Googling “Chinese pollution” is equally depressing, especially because of the pictures you’ll see in which people have to draw in outlines on pictures of smog-obscured Chinese landmarks.
I also read this week of the Koch brothers – you know, “those” guys, the ones who really only need to be identified by one name, like other famous sulphur-spewing personalities – and their efforts to open up land in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon to destructive uranium mining, likely leading to further despoliation of that monument to nature.
The good news is that I read of it in various social-media campaigns to fight the move, coordinated or spread by groups like the Sierra Club, the Pew Trust and the National Geographic Society.
Thinking about how we might ruin our future spurred me to start reading a book I’d long wanted to – Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,” a 2005 bestseller that many of my nature-centric colleagues have raved about since it came out. That book leads me to more optimistic topics.
Nature-deficit disorder not incurable
It’s a rare nonfiction book that strikes powerful emotional chords from the outset, but Louv’s classic work did so for me. I finally opened it this past Sunday and only got two short chapters, or 26 pages, in before I had to put it down and let it start working.
His opening paragraph transfixed me: “If, when we were young, we tramped through forests of Nebraska cottonwoods, or raised pigeons on a rooftop in Queens, or fished for Ozark bluegills, or felt the swell of a wave that traveled a thousand miles before lifting our boat, then we were bound to the natural world and remain so today. Nature still informs our years – lifts us, carries us.”
Louv’s initial pages set the stage for what comes later, including definition of a new relationship to nature that our children have, one different than that of previous generations. As is clear from his opening lines, he takes a broad approach to considering what constitutes nature and natural life for us, including play in the streets of our communities.
Lamenting the lack of opportunity for our kids to simply lay in the grass and stare at the sky, Louv highlights the importance even of seemingly mundane interactions with the outdoors.
His thoughts on “nature-deficit disorder” reminded me that, twice last week, I failed my 7-year-old, picking her up from the Boys & Girls Club of Portage County shortly before dinner and denying, as gently as I could, her requests that we go to a nearby playground instead of going home.
We were on our bikes, but I still set the wrong priorities when I told her we should get home. She frowned, only half in jest, and said, “Bad daddy.”
It’s amazing how right our kids can be when calling us out. She didn’t hold it against me – at least as strongly as I did myself. I’ve since been worrying about how our so-called lawn at home doesn’t really have, as many chemically deprived yards may not, a lush place to lie down.
Because we’re near downtown, we also don’t have as much space. So I’ve been taking stock of where we can go or my kids might go on their own to see more of our urban or suburban outdoors. I’ve also decided to organize a summer scavenger hunt for my kids – the older one on his own with friends, and the younger with a little more supervision.
Parkdale small, but still a jewel
I scoped out one potential, but more distant, outdoor target with the oddly redundant name of Parkdale Park, on the city’s east side, next to the Portage County Youth Soccer and Ice Hawks Arena hockey complexes.
For some reason, I’d not seen the sign announcing its presence on the southern border of the two facilities, just before turning into the parking lot from the west on Badger Avenue. It simply looks like some as-yet undeveloped woods between the athletic facilities and a convenience store and gas station at the corner of Badger and Highway 10.
But sure enough, the city-park sign and a trail leading into the woods invite visitors. It’s a simple little park, with little more than a loop through the woods that’s accessible from two different entrance trails (the second off the soccer parking lot).
There’s a small bridge over a creek and a short boardwalk over a bit of wetland. Birdlife is rampant and noisy, and chipmunks have burrowed into the trail and can be seen scuttling about.
A farm field borders the 21-acre park to the east, and there’s a meadow south of the constructed path and beyond the trees, smack in the middle of the larger woods, that invites kids to explore a little more off-trail. That more open area and the woods beyond look like the perfect kinds of places for a kid to go hide and daydream.
The park has an interesting background – it’s a wellhead protection area – which I’ve been learning since my visit, but that’s for another time. My main interest was exploring and finding a place for the kids to explore.
Because of that, I was acutely aware of all the other stuff in the surrounding area that would have drawn my attention as a child – a stagnant-looking slough overgrown with rushes behind some duplexes west of Badger Road, what looks like a pile of leftover construction dirt, a tiny lake that’s fenced in, a pond on open land that’s guarded by a no-trespassing sign, some tractor tires laying by a shed between the soccer and hockey complexes, a water-filled ditch bordering the soccer fields to the north.
My adult thoughts are about liability and whether kids should be discouraged from hanging out at any of these places. My kid thought would have been simple: “play there.”
The scavenger hunt will take some effort and will be part of my broader attempt to keep my two kids outside with some of their friends. I’m sure there will be some benefit in there for me, too.
Coming up: Steinhaugen Saturday, “Point Back to the Land”
Two upcoming events worth mentioning before closing are Saturday’s bird and flower walks at the Steinhaugen preserve (our newest Portage County park) and an effort to promote environmentally friendly tourism in our area.
The 270-acre Steinhaugen plot’s official grand opening will be held this Saturday, with a 7 a.m. bird hike, led by retired University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) professor Alan Haney, and a 9 a.m. wildflower hike with retired UWSP biologist Bob Freckmann. An 11 a.m. ceremony will cap the day.
The park address is 3485 Bentley Road in Custer, but to get there from the direction of Point, head toward Jordan Park on Highway 66, turn north on County Y, and then take a right on County K about three miles in. Bentley is a little more than three-quarters of a mile down K on the left. Turn and continue north until reaching the park on the right.
A program worth watching further, but recently announced, is “Point Back to the Land,” which promotes local green tourism. A grant from the state’s tourism department will help a joint effort by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, Central Rivers Farmshed, UWSP, UWSP’s College of Natural Resources and the Stevens Point Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
That effort will target environmentally conscious visitors from larger cities in the region, encouraging them to visit the Portage County area. The partnership has a web site at www.pointbacktotheland.com.
As much as I like solitude when I’m out in our area green spaces, I’m more than happy to share them with friends from all over, so this is an effort I can get behind. Look for more on this program later.