A Landscape of Memory

I would have preferred a sunny day, but the rain was where I wanted to go when I wanted to be there, so I shared my walk with the raindrops.  It did not rain the whole time, anyway, and it stopped just about the time I got back to my car.

Walking in the rain confers some benefits.  You are much more likely to have privacy on the path when it is raining, and the rain provides a soothing soundtrack as it falls into the woods.  It also makes everything glimmer a little.  Rain is not something always to be a avoided.

I wanted to walk along my old running trail.  While at Madison, 1977-81, I ran on that trail hundreds, maybe thousands of times.  I used to run a lot. Started at the old red gym, I ran out to picnic point. It took around twenty minutes. Sometimes I ran all the way back too, but most of the time I stopped about half way and enjoyed the walk.  It was good to run along that trail because there were lots of other runners and if you ran to slowly they implicitly “lazy shamed” you.  I never chose to race anybody who passed me, but I tried to keep a pace sufficiently fast that few people did.  I ran in all weather, except when snow and ice covered the trails. In Wisconsin that is a lot of time, but rather less than you might expect, since the university plowed the paved parts of the trail.

My favorite trail surface is the dirt and gravel that you see in the picture on top.  It is a dubious assumption that the relatively softer but uneven surface is better for your legs than the harder but smooth asphalt.  What I liked was the texture and the sound of my feet hitting that dirt and then the sound of my own breathing. By the time I got to the dirt, my body was in energy saving mode, and I would take deep and comfortable breaths.  I know it is silly, but I felt part of the nature doing that. I would never run on tracks.

My time in Madison before I met Chrissy was the loneliness of my life.  Paradoxically, it was also the time when I had the greatest number of friends.  I resolve that paradox by recalling that most of my friendships at that time were ephemeral and episodic.  I was often alone in the crowd. One of my problems is that I just do not love sports the way many guys do.  I would watch the games more out of duty than pleasure.  I did (and do) like to watch the Green Bay Packers, but even there I lack the enthusiasm of the real fan.

I spent most of my life in and between Memorial Library, the Red Gym, the Student Union (Ratskeller) and my running trails. I did not spend much time at home, since for most of my student days the places I rented were not attractive.  One year, I shared what had been a bigger room with another guy.  We had a wall made of cardboard boxes, probably a fire hazard.  The year after that, I did not have a room at all.  I used the couch when it was cold and the back porch when it was warmer.  I paid something like $35 a month rent that year – saved the big bucks.

Still and all, I look back on my Madison days with great fondness.  It was my formative time, when I came to understand what I liked and did not like, and I could contemplate the type of life I wanted, even if the details were foggy.  That is why I still like to haunt some of the same of places.  It is a landscape of memory that still has meaning for me.

Top two pictures show the running trail. Second one is a nice oak savanna.  Next is the student union, followed by the red gym and the library.  That church across the street is new.  It is kind of medieval. That used to be the Catholic Center.  Guess they owned the land.

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A June Day in Milwaukee

Kashube Park with Christine Matel Milewski, Mary Karshna Robertson & Dicky Karshna

Milwaukee River going into Lake Michigan

Bay View Beach

Drinking beer at Humboldt Park Beer Garden

Leon’s Frozen Custard 27th Street


South Shore beer garden

Milwaukee from the south shore

Humboldt Park lagoon on a rainy day

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Milwaukee Sewage Plant

You didn’t need a weather vane or even to hold your finger to the wind to know which way the wind was blowing when we lived near Lake Michigan in Milwaukee. An east wind blowing in from the Lake brought relief from the heat of summer, but the price was the smell. We lived less than a mile from Lake Michigan and from the Milwaukee sewage treatment plant. It is better now than it was when I was a kid, but I still thought it might be interesting to see the place we had so often smelled by never saw close up. So with my sister, Christine Matel Milewski, and cousins Mary Karshna Robertson and Dick Karshna, we went to look at the plant.

When it was built in 1926, the sewage treatment plant was one of the best in the world. It still is. Some of the original tanks and facilities are still working.

A big challenge for the sewage plant is that Milwaukee originally had a combined sewer system. That means that rain water that runs into storm sewers mixes with sanitary sewer that run from toilets and drains. In 1926 this made sense. The cleaner storm water periodically flushed out the system. The cost was that when storms were severe, there was too much to process. One inch of rain over the area covered by the sewer system. drops 7.1 billion gallons into the system. The excess went out into Lake Michigan, partially treated.

Milwaukee addressed this problem in 1994 by building tunnels deep under the city. During big storms, the water is shunted into the tunnels and processed when there is capacity. Partially treated water is sometimes still discharged. The woman at the sewage plant said that it had been almost two years since this last happened. Ironically, I just saw on the news that the sewers had backed up today. We had a couple inches of rain in a short time, following a lot of rain yesterday.

I was also interested in biosolids. We have used them on the tree farms, but they are hard to get. Milwaukee makes fertilizer out Milwaukee’s crap. Milorgranite is very well processed so that it can be used even on food crops.

The sewage process also produces methane, which is used to run the plant.

When the water is discharged into Lake Michigan, it is 98% clean. Not sure what that means exactly, but it is clean enough. The area around the discharge is full of sea birds because it is attractive to fish. What the fish like it the highly aerated water.

The pictures show the process. Sewage is first filtered by screens. Lots of stuff finds its way into the sewers, things like shopping carts, mobile phones and even bowling balls. These are taken to landfills. Next they filer our coarse materials like sand and grit. It then goes into settling tanks, where settling materials are removed at the bottom, while grease and soaps are skimmed off the top as they float on top of the water.

After that, the water goes into digester, where microorganism literally eat the sewage. These are also aerators. Lots of air is pumped in to give the microorganisms a little help. The microorganisms live for only 7-10 days. They spend their short lives eating & reproducing. They settle to the bottom when they die, where they are processed into Milorgranite. The progeny are recycled into the next batch. Milwaukee put in the first microorganisms in 1926 and the community has been in business ever since. The microorganisms are hard working employees. After the microorganisms are done, the water is chlorinated to kill any pathogens that somehow made it through. Then the chlorine is neutralized and the water discharged into Lake Michigan.

First picture is the skimmer, followed by the digester. Picture #3 show some of that rain that overwhelmed the system. Next is Lake Michigan south of the plant. You see a group of geese going one way and a group of boats towed in the other way. Last is a Lake Michigan vista looking north.






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Old World Wisconsin

Wisconsin was demographically more like Mitteleuropa than middle America in the late 19th Century.  The majority of the population was immigrants or their children.  The biggest ethnic group was German, but there were lots of Norwegian, Swedes, Poles, Fins and various others.

At first, they looked for their fellows from their own countries, but very soon they were merging into the culture that became Wisconsin’s.


America was MORE a nation of immigrants back in the late 19th Century than it is today, and they were MORE diverse.  It is fashionable today to talk about diversity only in terms of skin tone, but it is more a matter of culture and habits.  A Polish peasant coming from rural Galicia was more different culturally from an America-born neighbor that a typical immigrant from Nigeria or China is from his American-born neighbor today.  Consider that the Polish peasant may never have heard a word of English before embarking for America.  He would not have read American novels, heard American music and he could not have seen American movies or listened to American radio.  You can find nobody like that today unless you go into the forests in places like the Amazon or New Guinea, even there maybe not.

We look back on the successful integration of immigrants back then and think its was easy.  It took about three generations, which is not that different from now looking at how fast immigrant language become only second languages and then largely disappear.

Our mental model of assimilation is also wrong.  America did not assimilate the immigrants of the late 19th Century.  We integrated them and their cultures into the American whole.  I often choose the Germans as example, since they are Americas biggest ethnic group, at the time of Old World Wisconsin, they made up at least 25% of the American population and a majority of the people in Wisconsin.  People of those days thought they would never fit in completely.    I bet people reading this are surprised how much of America is German.  Why?  Because they fit in so well that we don’t think about it anymore.  Americans think that they are just being American when they have a beer and a hot dog, when they send their kids to kindergarten, eat an apple pie or hamburger.  And these things ARE American, since they are modified from the original.

The value of diversity is that we can appropriate and adapt the more useful or attractive parts of the cultures we meet, while sharing ours with them.   Appropriate AND adapt.  We do NOT want to keep the cultures pure or separated and we should never encourage people to keep the old ways.  If you want to see and appreciate the old ways, you can go to places like Old World Wisconsin.  In Old World Wisconsin, you can see the roots of lots of our habits and behaviors.  We are today more aware of the flowers and the fruits.

The first two pictures show livestock. They have heirloom breeds, like those immigrant would have owned. Next is the Polish house, followed by a Norwegian house. These are actual structures moved to Old World Wisconsin from other parts of the state.  Last is a schoolhouse. Immigrants thought education was the way to the future and they were right, so they build schools like that. They taught only in English, often using the famous  McGuffey Readers to teach reading and wider America culture.

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I wish I did not go, but I am glad I went.  I took much less joy in my trip to Mauthe Lake because of all the dead ash trees all along the road on the way up and then all around the lake.  The emerald ash beetle and killed almost all of them.  I did not appreciate how many ash trees there were until I saw all the skeletons.

What to do about it?  Last time I was here, I wrote about possible solutions using GMOs. Maybe we could develop ash trees naturally resistant.  But maybe it is just the impermanent.  I also wrote about the vastness of geological time last time I was here.  The ice day did not end very long ago in the great scheme of things.  The ash forests are recent.  This kind of geography would be dominated by tupelo and bald cypress if they were farther south.  Global warming has made most concepts of “native” almost meaningless. Maybe it is time for tupelos and bald cypress in anticipation of the “new” climate.  I don’t know about tupelos, but I know that bald cypress can survive and thrive in Wisconsin, although they are not native to the state.  They tend not to reproduce is the cooler climate, but if the climate becomes less cold, maybe that will change.

I like the woods and fields familiar from my youth. Mauthe Lake was where I learned to love nature.  We were in a day camp up there when I was in 5th grade. We took the path around the lake that I walked today.  It is only a couple of miles, but for us kids it was a true adventure.  I don’t remember details, but I the feeling abides.  I don’t want change, but change is what we are getting, so we can adapt and make things better or let them get worse.

First picture show a ghost forest of the ash. Next is a recently cut stump. I counted 98 rings. Since I probably missed a few, I figure the tree was more than 100 years old. Not all the ash are dead. You see a healthy one in picture #3. Don’ know why that one did not die. It might be useful to find out and maybe help spread. Picture #4 shows some tamaracks, eponymous of the trail. Tamaracks are very shade intolerant. They tend to grow in place where others do not thrive, places like bogs. Last shows the beech on Mauthe Lake. Glad to see people enjoying being outside.

Facebook reports re Mauthe

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Forest Visit June 2018


Went down to the farms to look at the thinning and burning.  Besides just being in my forests and checking on those things, my goal was to try to get rid of some of the ailanthus.  It is an endless struggle. I wish that other – useful – trees were so resilient.  I have trouble telling ailanthus from sumac at a distance and sometimes even close.  I don’t doubt that I have been knocking off sumac too.  Sumac, I like so I am not happy about that.  Sumac does well with fire, at least that is what I observed.  I see a lot of it sprouting from the roots after the burns.

I still worry that the Brodnax fire was a bit too hot.  The heat plumes scorched the needles. Some of the local guys who know fire told me that scorch does not kill southern pine, and that they would come back.  I looked carefully today (see picture).  Most of the trees have some green again.  They will probably make it. Still, I think in future I will want only dormant season burns, and certainly not after they have candled.  The anxiety is too much.  You can see the picture of what the trees on the other side of the fire line looks like.  The fire top killed the hardwoods.  On this land, we are doing patch burns, one-third each year, so we will go after the far section next year and the adjacent one year after that.  That will give us a chance to see the variation and maybe start over again.

Longleaf are doing well on the Freeman place. I went after a few ailanthus among them and knocked out some sweet gum and yellow poplar for good measure.  None of them were big problems.  I think the fire does a good job on them.  Still not sure if we will burn this next year.  I keep going back and forth about it.  Not even sure if I will burn the thinned acreage. The cutter, Kirk McAden, did a really good job and made easy to use fire lanes.  We are going to plant a couple thousand longleaf before Christmas this year.  We have around five acres of that we clear cut. The trees were twenty-two years old and the tract had not been thinned. I feared that if we thinned they would be too likely to be damaged by ice or wind storms.  They had been growing so tight that they did not develop strong enough roots or branches.

I am going to replant myself and get he kids to help.  That may be a good reason to burn, to clear up some of the crap so that they will have an easier time.  Next year (2019), we will plant a lot more into the openings (we created ¼ acre openings on every acre, i.e. 80 acres x ¼ acre or 20 acres total.   Along with some trees under to loblolly, that will be around 10,000 trees.  I think I will need to hire a crew to do that.  It is a bit too much for the kids and me.

Loblolly are just easier to grow than longleaf.  I was looking at the Brodnax place where we planted about 30 acres of loblolly and a little more than 15 of longleaf in 2016. The loblolly now come up to my waist and they are competing well with the vegetation, see the picture below. The longleaf are still in the grass stage and I am not sure the ones in the vegetation are even alive.  We burned last year. This top killed the hardwood brush by the other vegetation came up like mad.  You really don’t need to plant loblolly at all.  They come up whether you want them or not. There are probably twice as many loblolly now growing than we planted.  In theory, the planted ones are better genetically and will grow faster.  We will see in a couple years if the rows are much better than the random.  I bet that there are more natural regenerated loblolly on the longleaf plots than there are longleaf.

Anyway, thinking about how the forests are growing is a great joy.  I have an idea of what I want and I guess about how it will play out, but it is always a surprise.

Picture up top shows the loblolly among the ground cover on Brodnax.  The first one below is the longleaf on Brodnax. You can see the difference Bu.t they CAN grow similarly.  The next picture shows a longleaf and a loblolly on Freeman.  Both were planted in 2012 and they are just about the same size. Below that are pictures of the un-burned and the burned one next to it.






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Sand County Almanac

Spent my morning rereading and thinking about parts of “A Sand County Almanac”. I read “Axe in Hand” and the “Land Ethic.” That book had a great influence on me. I realize it when I reread the passages and find so many of “my” ideas. Way back in 1972, my biology teacher, Mr. Hosler, assigned us to read it. Since I was a poor student, I probably only skimmed it enough to pass the test, but it sunk in roots nevertheless. Maybe that is because I was living in Wisconsin and studied forestry at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, which is itself a sand county. I have visited Aldo Leopold’s sand county shack a couple times and enjoyed the white pines he planted, the ones he mentions in “Axe in Hand.”

“A Sand County Almanac” was published in 1949, a couple years after Leopold’s death. He died of a heart attack while fighting a fire on his neighbors land, but his insights and advice are still valuable to us today. One thing that I noticed reading time was the ethic of valuing the non-economic communities on the land.

We spend a lot of time trying to explain to people why it pays to conserve nature. We talk about the value of “ecological services” and that value is immense, yet undervalued. However, things have value in themselves. The beech forests on my land are valuable to me for their beauty, even if they have little economic value. But even that does not go far enough. They have value in themselves beyond their economic value, their ecological service value and even their value that I appreciate as beauty. They are part of the world, as we are.

As Leopold writes in “Axe in Hand” – “Whoever owns land has thus assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine function of creating and destroying plants.” We need to take that very seriously and think of yesterday, today and tomorrow when contemplating the land and what to do on it.

A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There is a 1949 non-fiction book by American ecologist, forester, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold. Describing the land around the author’s home in Sauk County, Wisconsin, the collection of essays advocate Leopold’s idea of a “land ethic”, or a responsib…
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I Speak for the Trees

A really great article. It is a little long, but well worth reading.

I remember those protestors in the picture. I thought it appropriate that one of them was dress like a cartoon character in a children’s story, since it reflected the level of their understanding.

Sorry to be snarky (actually not), but these guys are pernicious, not cute. I stipulate that they are sincere, but they do not understand forestry and make appeals to fear and emotion. “I speak for the trees” – what a load of crap. People like me spend years listening (figuratively of course) to the trees and the forest and they certainly would not want this guy as a spokesman.

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Building a More Dynamic and Competitive Economy

Just concluded an interesting program at Brookings, see linked.

Steve Case, founder of AOL, talked about bringing businesses away from the coasts and into the heartland. He has a embarked on a project to help this. The idea is that there is a lot of talent outside the places where all the money drops. I earlier watched a series of his talks re on The Great Courses Series “The Third Wave”
I recommend it.

Most interesting was the last panel that featured our former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe. He is a very dynamic guy. I have always enjoyed encounters with him. (He was a good friend to forestry in the Commonwealth. His first lady even set a small prescribed fire and encouraged longleaf restoration). If I sum up his method for encouraging businesses to come and grow in Virginia, it would be energetic engagement. He and the other panelists advised against big money incentives. They are usually not worth it. This is hard to do, especially for the more out-of-the-way places.

He said that Virginia is lucky in that we do not need to incentivize too much, since the business climate is very good. A potential problem is labor. We are at near full employment and firms might not come because they cannot find the right labor. We should make long-term investments in education rather than short term wins by giving out incentives.

Link to the program





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Looking for a Land Ethic on Virginia Tree Farms

The American Tree Farm System (ATFS) assessed our Virginia program this year. I got to go along with the assessor. We visited a random sample of twenty-one tree farms all around the Commonwealth, covering 1,195 miles. It was fun and enlightening to see so much of Virginia and meet such great people.

What does it mean to be a tree farmer and a conservationist? I have studied this and have been repeatedly drawn to the ideas of Aldo Leopold on a land ethic. I expect you all can read his work. One thing that really stuck with me was when Leopold wrote, “nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written.’” It evolves through interactions with the land. It is written on our hearts and manifest on the land we love. From this I took my instruction. I looked and listened for a land ethic when visiting Virginia tree farms and talking to tree farmers.

I found approaches as diverse as our tree farmers and our Virginia environment, evolving and adapting, changing details and tactics with the times, but always with the core of protecting water and soil, enhancing and improving the health of the biotic communities, while producing wood and forest products for the market. We own lots of things in our lives, but we form special bonds with land; it is our connection to the earth, our promise for the future and joy for today. There is no surprise that people have deep feelings for land that has been inherited their families for generations, but it is astonishing how fast the same connections develop with newly adopted land.

A competent tree farmer makes a reasonably profit. Profit is the price of sustainability in the human world, but profit is nobody’s primary motive

Our tree farms are interwoven in human and the natural environments. Both are complex, and their interactions add another layer of complexity. This makes it more challenging and very much more interesting to be a tree farmer. A competent tree farmer makes a reasonably profit. Profit is the price of sustainability in the human world, but profit is nobody’s primary motive. I met tree farmers who owned the land to improve wildlife habitat and others who wanted it as a home. Some revered family traditions on the land going back centuries; others were new owners. All follow a holistic approach, with active and adaptive management. Diverse goals are not as much prioritized as melded. There is no clear answer to the question, “What is your top priority?” without the context of “In relation to what?” The whole is more than the sum of the parts.

We seek not to mimic nature or “preserve” it motionless but understand and use nature’s principles – energetically and regeneratively

With the caveat that I am summing up in writing what we said cannot adequately be written, tree farmers share a land ethic that knows that trees are more than wood and forests are more than trees. Our stewardship recognizes the past and anticipates the future with adaptive plans and iterative decision making. We seek not to mimic nature or “preserve” it motionless but understand and use nature’s principles – energetically and regeneratively. Forests forever. We respect the biotic and human communities that influence and depend on our land. We are conservationists, caring for the health of our land and its biotic communities while celebrating human use of our land’s resources. We grow trees in sustainable forests for sustainable uses. The wood buildings where we live remain part of our forest’s lifecycle; the clean water we drink is a forest product. All are threads in the big tapestry, so intertwined that they cannot be separated.

A Sand County Almanac

Notes on Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic

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