Book Review: Eddee Daniels' Urban Wilderness

Dec. 23, 2008
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Pure wilderness, in all its unaccountable mystery, is a state to which children are probably most susceptible. It’s no surprise then that in his book, Urban Wilderness: Exploring a Metropolitan Watershed, photographer Eddee Daniels embarks on a quest to seek out the looming wilderness of his childhood. His journey along the banks of the Menomonee River is marked by a desire to reestablish an almost primordial connection with nature—to once again experience those incomprehensible stirrings of the soul.

His choice of the Menomonee River, an urban waterway that is both uniquely tied to Milwaukee’s history and typical of many rivers throughout the States, highlights another motive; to challenge the persisting notion that nature and civilization must always be locked in fierce combat. The very title of his book undermines the adversarial relationship often ascribed to these two states. By placing an urban river at the epicenter of his enquiry Daniels highlights the intermarriage of nature and industry and the sometimes disturbing, sometimes beautiful offspring its union can yield. As such his tone is largely lacking in the misanthropic bitterness commonly found in works of this kind (despite his hearty lament at civilization's “barbaric impulses and ruined machinery”). Notwithstanding the abundance of elegiac outpourings, Daniels is careful to distance himself from the idealized vision of nature’s unsullied perfection, embracing instead today’s more muddied realities.

Urban Wilderness charts the course of the river from its headwaters in Germantown all the way to Lake Michigan. The journey straddles close-cropped farmland, boggy marshes, industrial sludge and vast manicured lawns stretched tautly across featureless suburbs. The author stumbles upon worn gravestones and the sequestered outposts of hermits or hunters. Using evocative prose and crisp, colored photographs, he catalogues the river’s idiosyncrasies with the rapt adulation of an attentive lover, recording the stark juxtapositions between industry and agriculture, attentive stewardship and wanton neglect. Daniels faithfully records his own reactions—elation at the brilliance of wild irises and the metallic glint of dragonfly wings, fear of the teeming darkness of thickets, boredom and disappointment at the sight of flat fields rolling towards corporate citadels.
Most touching of all, however, is the author’s clear sense of his own culpability. As he tramples through the wilderness in search of his “dark epiphany” Daniels is keenly aware of the human conceit guiding his quest. The book embodies his ardent desire to purge himself of this inherited sense of ownership.

Like Rousseau’s Reveries and Thoreau’s Walden Pond, Urban Wilderness exhibits a romantic faith in nature’s power to yield higher truths, “a new understanding of how I am to live on earth.” However, even though he often uses the river springboard to launch into metaphysical enquiries Daniels is careful never to touch with its physical presence. He maintains an almost childlike, close-to-the-ground perspective that keeps the river firmly within view.


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