Caring

It's been a very tough few years losing wetlands and public lands locally and in the state. And now, in the last year, federally too. Heartbreaking. All of our work projects are focused on protecting remaining wetlands, and our spare time too. This whole notion that wetlands can be effectively 'relocated' is a false one. It's like 'relocating' a mountain. The dismissing and undermining of science is a tragedy. When the things we care so deeply about, and that affect so many people, are continually undermined, it affects many aspects of our life. It is really good to be working together so closely with others who understand and care.

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Nancy Aten
“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.

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Nancy Aten
Pitch pine's view of the world

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.

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Nancy Aten
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.

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Nancy Aten
Ah, Matisse

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.

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Nancy Aten
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.

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Nancy Aten
The Missing "Small Magic" of Water

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.

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Nancy Aten
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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Nancy Aten
Swamp Friends

Quoting 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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Nancy Aten
Wild[er]ness, or 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.

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Nancy Aten
Thoughts in the Prairie

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.

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Nancy Aten
On Knowing How To Do Things

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.

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Nancy Aten
Hometown Work

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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Nancy Aten
In the 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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Nancy Aten
I. A. L.

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.”

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Nancy Aten
True

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.

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Nancy Aten
Gray

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.

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Nancy Aten
Funk's 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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Nancy Aten
March Madness

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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Nancy Aten
Old-School

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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Nancy Aten