orb weaver watercolor

The field below the toboggan run at Whitnall Park (Milwaukee County, Wisconsin) has been the highlights of my trail runs for the past couple summers. After getting in a hill workout, I often take a look around. On first glance, one would assume it is a place of weeds, where nothing much happens. On the contrary, it is a haven for an array of life.

whitnall toboggan field

Last Friday was no exception. I noticed butterflies moving about the bergamot at its perimeters. A pair of Great Spangled and a Giant Swallowtail swiftly moved from flower to flower, feeding as they went. It was a privilege to see the Giant in particular, as they are rare in Wisconsin, plus their sheer size is impressive. Red dragonflies, bumblebees, damselflies, crickets, a crane fly and other flies were active here also.

frits and bergamot giant swallowtail underside

I decided to move to the milkweeds in the center of the field to perhaps find some monarch caterpillars. What I found instead was a large orb weaver spider who had made her web between two plants. I have to say it was the last animal I expected to see and one of such good size. She was at least 2.” I have seen ones in Florida and Costa Rica of this length and even longer but not here. The hunting had obviously been good for her. There was a dead damselfly as well as numerous tiny gnats, along with a wrapped up fly in her web. As an artist, I did not want to miss this opportunity to paint her from life. I walked back to my car, about a half-mile, to get my watercolors. I was sure she was not going to move but animal models can be unpredictable so I walked quickly. Thankfully, when I returned, she was still sitting calm amidst her threads.

weaver between milkweed

I sat and began to paint. While doing so, a park person had begun mowing the hill I had just run. I knew from earlier in the summer, the spot where the spider lived, was probably also destined to be mowed. In June, I had spent time in this field, observing hundreds of clovers, daisy like flowers and other woodland plants I do not know the names of yet, covered with insects – skippers, fireflies, other flies new to me, and other butterflies. When I returned the next week, the whole field had been mowed down to the ground. It was a tough sight to see knowing the little Eden that had existed just a few days prior was gone.

I decided that today, I was going to do what I could to prevent that from happening. I called the Wehr Nature Center to inquire on how to stop it. They gave me the number of the supervisor, John, in charge of park grounds. I called him and spoke of my concerns. He said the area would not be mowed, only the hills. I expressed my appreciation of having wild spaces living in an urban community, that I treasured running in a place where one could find some sense of nature. He agreed. He said they mowed to get rid of non-native species, to keep them under control. He said he did not like the method, however, and would like to see controlled burning instead. I said it was certainly a more natural approach. John suggested I contact government municipalities, who are against burning, having concern for the surrounding residents, even though there seems to be more than enough distance between the park and homes. I expected John to be anti the landscape but like the spider’s presence, his response was unexpected to me, showing a desire to maintain the landscape in a respectful way.

orb weaver female

I continued to paint. As I was concentrating, I noticed the sound of the mower was now at my back. The engine stopped behind me. I thought, “Here it comes, he is going to firmly ask me to move.” Instead…”What are you looking at?” came from the man. I showed him my painting then pointed to the spider. He was impressed too. I asked him if he was going to mow the field. He said “no,” that he was done for the day. I explained to him my concerns about how the land was being taken care of. He, too, agreed. He did not even like mowing the hill – “did you see all those prairie clovers?” I sure had. He mentioned a previous pair of fawns he had seen with its mother a couple days ago in the very field I sat. He knows it is a haven, too. His name was Jay. We talked a little bit more. He said it was a mistake that someone had mowed it earlier in the summer and he was not happy about it. I was glad to talk with him. I never expected to hear what I did from him either. I assumed, as with John, he did not care.

Regardless of the concern the Wehr Nature Center, Jay, John and I have for the field at the bottom of the toboggan hill, time is limited it appears. It seems the company “Go Ape” is planning on building a ropes course in this area to open March 2015. People have used the space in a respectable manner for at least over 40 years (probably longer – this is just how long I have personally known this place), allowing for the wildlife to coexist and continue.

Wisconsin has only 3% of its prairie lands left. Every small plot is precious. This is one of them. The company has said it is concerned about the environment and intends to make minimal impact. Then if they are true to their ideals building a ropes course here seems inconsistent. Whitnall Park is a rich plot of public land with a diversity of life that has an intrinsic right to exist now and for future generations.

I have nothing against rope courses or zip lining. I have participated in these activities before and have loved doing so but not in places where the environment was seriously disrupted and destroyed. Disrupting the lives of insects is serious. Hundreds of scientific studies prove their importance to our lives, larger animals and the environment as a whole. How wonderful it would be if this company would transform a vacant city lot, adding trees and flowers and a place for people to play outdoors. Now that would be something special. They would still have a business, make money and contribute to the county in a really positive way.

I believe the company already has permission to do its building but in the meantime, I will do what I can to share the situation and find others to help.

I hope like the spider’s appearance, the unexpected will happen. People will see the beauty and significance of this place and care about its future; and that the company and the parks will find a more suitable space.

Below is a sampling of my photos of the smaller lives in this field.

delicate damsel dragonfly on flower green cricket resting dragonfly skipper in whitnall skippers amidst clovers toboggan field insects frit in field





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