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Urban Wilderness: Exploring Nature in the City

Today's blog post is from Eddee Daniel, author of Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, a new book just released by the Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago and distributed by the University of Chicago Press. Eddee Daniel is an urban eco-explorer who has taught art and photography in the Milwaukee area since 1980. For more information about the project and additional excerpts go to and click on Urban Wilderness. This post was adapted from the introduction to the book.

19_tranquility_industrial_valley_mi What is "urban wilderness?" It is a paradox: the experience of the wild in the city. I recently completed a six-year voyage of discovery, not of untraveled locations—for at the turn of the millennium there are none left—but of my own vicinity. What I discovered was a rich and worthwhile experience of nature in the midst of urban and suburban development.

I explored natural areas—and also other areas that lie along a continuum from wilderness to concrete—within my local watershed. This quest became The Urban Wilderness Project and was eventually adopted by a partnership of seven local Wisconsin environmental and community organizations.

I wanted to raise awareness about fragile environmental systems within an urban setting and inspire people to protect and enjoy natural areas. I envisioned a new way of seeing the city, one that encourages people to leave pavement behind, to discover secret footpaths and dwell in the presence of wildlife. I found a wealth of natural resources in the metropolitan region and learned that urban living leads to a wide variety of contrasting realities. The Urban Wilderness Project promotes an understanding of watersheds and biodiversity. It also promotes the creation of a network of interconnected natural corridors along rivers and streams based on watersheds rather than political boundaries.

I began to explore the natural world at such a young age that the memory is buried in a deep crevasse of childhood.  My house stood on a high plateau above a dark forest canyon carved by an untamed torrent. Sheer cliffs dropped into its mysterious depths.  Scaling down them led to a world of adventure and discovery.  There were hidden recesses, thickets and dells.  There were islands over which to claim sovereignty, and deep pools in which to plunge.  A needle-laden pine grove in the shelter of overhanging rock became a secluded sanctuary, a place for contemplative respite from the exertions of exploration.

20_freeway_overpass_menomonee_valle Never mind that the plateau was a cul-de-sac bulldozed flat by subdivision developers, or that the "canyon" below could be reached by walking a short distance to where a road sloped down and spanned the burbling creek.  The forty-foot drop was cliff enough; the wooded creek-side was forest enough.  Never mind that the deepest pool reached up to skinny ten-year-old ribs, or that the mighty cascades could be waded across.  The cool, soothing rush of flowing water was real enough.  The hoarse cough of frogs concealed beneath grassy banks was real enough.  The scent of pine on the hill—and skunk cabbage in the muddy hollows—was real enough. 

It was my first wilderness.  And it was more than enough; it was formative.  Research has demonstrated that exposure to nature in one's youth is instrumental to developing a conservation ethic and these early experiences helped shape my understanding of the world. 

Unlike pioneers who set off in search of new worlds, I am content to discover the world around the corner, beyond the next bend in the river.  The lands I explore have paths well worn by those who have preceded me, even scars of abuse.  There is, of course, no vast wilderness left in southeastern Wisconsin.  But its flavor lingers.  I have tasted it in the heart of this urban environment.  The purpose of Urban Wilderness is not to provide a glimpse of far-away or exotic locations, but to reveal the near-at-hand and illuminate the commonplace.  It is far more important to discover where we are than to seek out new places.

Although I worked within a particular watershed, it is also important to me that the message of Urban Wilderness transcends the local and specific. It is the experience and the vision of nature that is significant and not the location. Although we sometimes live as if this were true, we do not rent space in nature; we are embedded in it. Cities exist on that continuum from wilderness to concrete, the totality of which is all part of nature.


You may also be interested in John Hanson Mitchell's Beacon Broadside post on the Big Dig, the Flickr Urban Nature group blogNature in the City, and the Green Museum.