Getting Re-oriented

I was ecstatic to go on the graduate school’s orientation trip the first time, but the second time was even better. This year the organizers incorporated urban ecology into the mix, and that part of Wisconsin was *ironically* like a breath of fresh air for me. A connection to the environment can involve 240 cows and 2300 acres of corn for some, or it can involve kayaking down the Milwaukee River encompassed by a growing city skyline for others.

View of Milwaukee, from the urban ecology center.

If I was a kid living in Milwaukee, the Urban Ecology Center would be the ultimate after-school or summertime hideout. There’s a camouflage room with sliding murals of hidden animals, an animal room, a rooftop beehive and natural garden, lots of woods to play in, and even the classic “Elmo in Grouchland” slide that will bring you from the first floor to the basement. The organization also lends people outdoor equipment like kayaks and snowshoes and is a great place to hold meetings or have some quiet time. It’s a place that you can learn about or gear up for going outdoors, but you can also hangout and be at peace with where you are indoors because it’s an amazing space!


Here’s the snapping turtle who snapped at all the graduate students as we walked past his tank. To the right are much more well-behaved salamanders, who actually looked a little dry so I hope they got a good soak that day. Drought is extremely damaging to salamanders in the wild. Other threats to salamander species include urbanization, disease, invasive species and the loss of certain feeder insect species, and the pet trade. Although the status of nearly 30 percent of salamander species in the world is of least concern, roughly half of salamander species are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. There is also sufficient need for more research on salamander taxonomy and behavior. I encourage you to check out the IUCN red list if you’re interested in learning more about salamanders.

There’s no point to moving to the nation’s dairyland if your orientation doesn’t involve a dairy farm. The farm in the photos above had robotic milking machines that baited cows with a little treat, then milked them and even recorded their name from the nametag so the farmer knows who was milked that day. It was interesting to see that the cows would just line up on their own when they were ready. The rest would mill about indoors with giant fans at either end of the barn to keep their temperatures low. Cows apparently have very high body temperatures.

At Hinchley’s farm, we heard one farmer’s firsthand experience with the decline of milk sales over the years. Although the farm also produced cheese and ice cream from the dairy, milk was the “bread and butter” if you will. Hearing the labor of local dairy farmers to make ends meet when milk prices have dropped below the profit margin made me want to run to the nearest bar and grab a family-size side of cheese curds. However, there were hushed ramblings in our group about diversifying products, the impact of long-term government subsidies, climate change, and lactose intolerance. I stood my ground. I still drink soymilk. Sorry, milk tastes funny.


The Kickapoo Valley Reserve is such a beautiful place and you can tent camp there for just 15 bucks a night. There’s no water or plumbing though, so be ready to really rough it. There is a complicated history behind the eye-catching reserve that was once destined to become a dam. Many people once lived in the valley, which floods during extreme precipitation events. Archaeological treasures buried there by ancient peoples have since been recovered and protected. We spotted some toads and butterflies on our way through. I was told the reserve has some issues with invasive plant species but I couldn’t recognize them because learning local species is hard enough. Volunteer groups and individuals are welcomed by the reserve to help with upkeep, monitoring, or other tasks.


Do you prefer a quiet reserve out in the country to connect to nature? Or something more reachable from the city, like an urban hangout where you can meet other people with environmental interests? Have you been to Wisconsin? I’d love to hear in the comments! Have a great day, Jess

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