The Lowly Wild Places (original 2011 introduction)

Like most Americans, I’ve spent the better part of my life in an urban or suburban community.  Nature was something to be discovered while on family vacations.  One summer, this was along the seemingly endless beaches of the barrier islands of North Carolina with their inland borders of dunes.  Another was within the weird, beautiful, stony desolation of the Badlands of South Dakota.  Places like these were available to me.   I have been fortunate.  Perhaps it is less so for my own children who have grown up stimulated by the cities of their homes and cities they visit afar.  I concede that cities are where the stuff of daily life is found:  our schools, libraries, museums, hospitals, markets, and the jobs which sustain most of us.  I would live nowhere else but within a city.  Such city-bound institutions are indeed essential to our daily lives.   But arguably they are not enough to fully enrich those lives.

Wild places, or simply wilder places, are an essential relief to the stimulation of city life.  What is found there is stimulation still, but of another kind, the kind experienced through contemplation and observation.  I would argue that both contemplation and observation are active states of mind.  If you are a journal writer, you know this to be true:  you are thinking about writing (and are writing) even as you contemplate your surroundings.  Fortunately, wild places, or places wilder by comparison, are increasingly accessible in cities and suburbs.  This would seem paradoxical, given the seemingly continuous sprawling growth of metropolitan regions in the U.S.  Except that as land is incorporated, so are conservation easements and the rough boundary lands may be left undeveloped but accessible to the even mildly adventurous.  Often these urban wild places exist as as much by accident as design.

I was raised to have a sense of curiosity about my immediate surroundings, as well as the more exotic locations my family might visit.  With two working parents, I walked to school between the first to eighth grades and was often left to make my own amusements after classes.  Inspired by the grand wild places I experienced over my Summers growing up, I sought, and more often, stumbled upon, the lowly wild places near home.  These were to be found in the intervals between the developed sections of the towns I lived within.  In Bloomfield, New Jersey, in the 1960’s, I wandered with galoshes through the marshes beyond the chain link fence of my back yard.  In Chattanooga, Tennessee, I climbed the limestone ledges behind the gas station at the corner of Hixson Pike & Hanover Street, looking for fossils.  In Chicago, I ambled through the old growth forest preserve  no more than three and a half miles from my front door.  In my adult life, I’ve canoed and fished with an aquatic biologist in a Trinity river overflow, a small lake in a former quarry behind an abandoned cement mill in inner city Dallas.  I mountain biked the unincorporated hills of suburban Austin.  Now I tour some of the 60+ mile stretch of service road along the Highline Canal.  It courses through Denver and its northern and southern suburbs.  The canal served as a an irrigation utility ditch designed to move water from a source in the foothills southwest of Denver to the farms in the eastern plains. The brainchild of a Scottish businessman in the late 1800’s, it never really prospered for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it was frequently dry.   It’s founder didn’t secure the junior water rights from the South Platte River to adequately refill the canal when other sources were dry.

Over time I’ve been something of an amateur naturalist, observing wildlife in the unkempt and overgrown inter-regions of the cities I have lived within.   As Henry David Thoreau put it, “I’ve been perambulating the bounds of the town.”  Like Thoreau, I find that in these places I can “recover my tone and sanity…perceive things truly and simply again.” (Henry David Thoreau, Journals).
This blog will occasionally address the joys found in such reliefs within the urban landscape.  I hope to share photos along with observations.  If you enjoy it, consider commenting, and sharing something you’ve discovered while exploring some wild interval in an urban landscape of your own.
The title is an obvious (I hope) play upon the phrase “wild abandon.”  These places may have been left alone for a very long time, abandoned as it were.  They may have been preserved with intention, as with urban preserves and open spaces.  Sometimes they are simply an egress for drainage or erosion control which in turn make homes for marsh birds and foxes.  Also, look for egrets in the egress.  They may be places which have been given back to the earth in not so intentional a manner.  The later might be the site of a demolished factory or homes or a discarded strip mall, which neglected, have become overgrown and incrementally reclaimed by nature.  These are the Lowly Wild Places.

The Joy of Trespassing

Urban Snowshoeing…Coyotes Optional
One of the pleasures, and be assured that there are so very few, of a one day 10″ snowfall in the Denver metropolitan area is that one can crack out the Redfeather snowshoes and trek locally through the ‘burbs.   Sure, I prefer a winter hike near the frozen Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park.  At nine thousand feet and change, it’s exhilarating.  Yet the two hour drive up US36 over two lane switchbacks of uncertain conditions motivates me to do this two times a year at best.  Even as I post to Wild, Abandoned tonight (2011), the Denver Post is reporting that a back country skier in RMNP has taken a 900 foot tumble and is being conveyed toward the trailhead and to medical assistance by sled.  By sled, he said. Godspeed.  So, it can be dangerous, also.

Get out your “webs.”

With a little effort the winter hiker can find high snow pack closer to home.  Golf courses, for instance, afford an expanse of undisturbed powder and large drifts after a mild blizzard.  Walking the bordering roughs and streams, it’s not long before you feel like Robert Edwin Peary lighting out for the territories (sans his Inuit guides).  The grounds receive no maintenance in the winter and even less attention from park attendants.  I suspect this is a form of benign trespassing.  To even walk across a public course in the late spring involves a $50.00 green fee. 

There is an affluent suburb to the south of Denver which is effectively a semi-continuous golf course relieved occasionally by stands of $900,000.00 homes and Super Targets.  It is a tragedy to imagine that these great tracts of gorgeously landscaped acreage would otherwise be left fallow and unused at the taxpayers’ (or club members’) expense.  Especially when there is webbed winter walking to be done.

My alternate venue is a twenty-five acre unsettled roadside triangle steps from my front door.  Well suited for a snowy romp in “webs,” it slopes down into the Little Dry Creek and affords a scenic tour aside a sometimes twenty to thirty-foot deep ravine.  The tract has been slated for a development of faux Tuscan villa town homes for many years now.  I suppose the deed holders are sweating out the recession.  For now, it’s the neighborhood open space. (Editor’s note:  Yep, it’s fully developed now in 2019).  It is a doubly enchanting hike when you disturb a coyote den on the way down to the creek.  These critters have never done more than stare me down for a moment.  But I keep my distance, my hand firmly on my walking stock, and step away not as quietly as I’d hope to:  crunch, crunch.  This is their creek.  I’ve met the actual deed holders and I know when I’m trespassing.