Category Archives: Personal Blog

Exploring Wisconsin – Deeply Rooted

A Camping Weekend

Last week, I had the opportunity to join some friends for a camping retreat in central Wisconsin. We met at a place I’d never heard of before: Deeply Rooted Community in Athens, WI.

About Deeply Rooted

Deeply Rooted is an intentional community in the woods of central Wisconsin. It’s completely off-grid, by which I mean there is no running water and the only electricity is provided through the use of solar panels. They do have a gas stove for cooking in the main lodge, but otherwise the place is completely rustic.

 

Things To Know Before You Go

For those interested in visiting Deeply Rooted, there are a few things you should know before making plans.

  1. DR community hosts several private events throughout the year, so check the website calendar to see when they are open to receiving visitors. You’ll need a reservation to visit.
  2. DR offers two types of accommodations. Visitors can bring a tent and camp on the land, or stay in the communal sleeping area on the second floor of the lodge. Think of a camp dormitory: you’ll be sleeping in your own bed in a large room full of other people in their own beds.
  3. You’ll need to be comfortable with using primitive facilities. DR offers no running water, but there are jugs of fresh water available for drinking and cleaning the kitchen area. If you want to take a shower, you’ll need to invest in a solar portable. This also means no plumbing. The DR community uses a composting outhouse.
  4. Prepare for it to be chilly, even in the summer. DR is far enough north that it gets quite cool at night. Those staying in the lodge will be kept warm by the large wood stove. Those outside will want to bundle up.
  5. The closest towns with amenities are Medford (20 minutes) and Wasau (30 minutes).

Su-su-Summertime

Winter in Milwaukee may be horrific, but summer here is absolutely perfect.

I miss the drawn out, gentle unfolding of springtime in the South, but I’m also a big fan of the energy and suddenness of the season here in Wisconsin. Nature knows she has to move quickly in order to take advantage of the short warm season, so things here happen fast. Get ready for MKE summertime madness. (Thanks, Lana Del Rey!)

My schedule is pretty flexible right now (looking for a job, hello!) but that gives me plenty of time to observe this firecracker of a season. Every single day brings a dramatic change in the amount of flowers and green that we see, the diversity of colors, and the number of people in shorts!

I am particularly tickled by how pale the folks of European ancestry appear as they try to dress for warmer weather (myself included).

“Wisconsin Winter White” should be a Crayola color. We look like cave salamanders out there.

So I’ve taken a few photos to try and capture the burst of color here in Milwaukee. So many good things to come.

 

 

 

Day Trip – Kettle Moraine South

Just Southwest of Milwaukee

Not only was yesterday Earth Day, but it felt like the first real day of spring here in Southern Wisconsin. Abundant sunshine, temps above 50, and just about everyone was outside basking in the glory. Was I staying in or going to a movie on such a glorious day? Not on your life!

I convinced my partner in crime that today was the perfect day for some hiking or at least some quality outdoor time so we headed down to the Kettle Moraine Southern Unit.

The Kettle Moraine Southern unit is quite expansive: the various campgrounds and hiking trails are scattered over about a 10 mile area about 30 minutes southwest of Milwaukee. We’d been there before, but today we decided to visit a new area. We headed toward the Ottawa Lake Campround area, which is about the northern most area of the Southern Unit.

What to Know Before Going

Fees

The Wisconsin DNR requires all vehicles to purchase either a day pass ($8 – $15) or an annual pass ($28 for in-state plates, $38 for out-of-state plates). Annual passes are window decals that are good for any park in the WI system for the current calendar year. Some discounted passes are available for seniors. See complete details here.

Campsites

The Ottawa Lake Campground includes some gorgeous campsites, many of which are right beside the lake and include direct access to the water. There are sites for primitive camping as well as those equipped with RV hookups. Campsites on the easternmost side of the camping area are alarmingly close to HWY 67. Although a line of trees affords the sites some privacy, the noise from oncoming traffic can be a major distraction.

Facilities

You’ll have access to flush toilets and hot showers, a children’s playground, fishing pier, and plenty of evenly surfaced walking paths. Most of them are paved. Even on this early spring day, we saw people boating, fishing, and (surprisingly) swimming.

Highlights

What excited me the most about Ottawa Lake were the lakeside campsites and the amphitheater/beach area. This facility is comfortable and very family-friendly. For those who want to enjoy the comforts of hot showers, paved walking trails, and easy accessibility to fishing, then this is the place for you.

Those seeking more challenging hikes and other adventures can hop on one of the many adjacent trails or take a quick drive to another part of the  state forest system. The southern unit is close enough for excursions to both Madison and Milwaukee, and there are a number of small villages in the area.

NOTE: Pay attention to the speed limit signs in the surrounding areas. Speed limits change frequently, range from 15 – 55 mph, and there are a number of well-planned speed traps around the Southern unit.

Earth Day Resolutions

Most of us are probably familiar with the New Year’s tradition of deciding on a resolution for the coming months. A new diet. Joining a gym. Quitting an unhealthy habit. That sort of thing.

But what about resolutions for Earth Day?

Regardless of our political leanings, I’ll venture to say that most of us want to keep our planet and environments healthy. If not for ourselves, then hopefully for the generations who will come after us.

Even people who find climate change science unconvincing can be concerned with the immediate and long term effects of pollution, our collective reliance on single-use plastics, and the alarming rate of deforestation.

The problems can be overwhelming. News reports and scientific data often paint a picture that evokes a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness.

But it doesn’t have to be so.

I’m a big believer in the wisdom that small changes can have a big impact if they we are consistent in their implementation. So, what would happen if everyone made a new choice for the coming year? A resolution to alter our behavior in practical, manageable ways for the good of our environment and the health of our planet?

In order to put my money where my mouth is, here are my three resolutions for this Earth Day:

  1. Stop using plastic straws. Disposable plastic straws are a huge source of pollution, and there are countries and cities around the world which are already moving towards banning them. Here’s one of many news stories describing the problem.
  2. Stop using disposable shopping bags. I already have reusable grocery bags, but I am not consistent in using them. I have a terrible time remembering to bring them with me to the store. Or, more often, I make an unplanned stop for groceries and the reusable bags are at home. Paper is a better but imperfect alternative, but at least paper bags are biodegradable. Here’s a post about a few ways to remember your reusable bags, and here’s a link to information about why reusable bags are important.
  3. Eat a low-meat dietIt sometimes catches people by surprise to learn that meat consumption has a negative effect on the environment. I won’t delve into all the details here, but as a quick overview the meat industry requires massive use of pesticides and contributes to deforestation as farmers clear land for their livestock. A more thorough analysis can be found here.

So that’s it. If I can manage to keep these habits for the next year, (and hopefully convert them into lifetime habits in the process) I will feel like I’ve made a small but significant dent in one of the biggest challenges facing our environment.

Other ideas? Feel free to comment and let me know what you’re planning to do for Earth Day 2018.

Wisconsin Adventure – Sweetwood

On a beautiful and warm day last summer, I attended an earth spirituality celebration in Madison. It was a small affair, held at one of the parks and attended by 150 or so people. There were plenty of activities and vendors and interesting folks to meet. After making some new contacts and browsing the offerings of a number of booksellers, jewelry makers, and artists, I casually picked up a brochure for a retreat area in the center of the state called Sweetwood Temenos.

The Sweetwood website describes the facility as a kind of nature preserve and dedicated space for people of various earth-centered spiritual practices. They host regular events that include camping, fellowship, good food, and the all-important opportunity to relax and unwind. I was sold.

According to their calendar, there was an upcoming weekend festival to celebrate the autumn equinox. The event coincided with a long weekend for me, so I decided to see about joining them for at least a day. The website requests that all first-time visitors contact the hosts prior to arrival, so I sent and email and set up a phone call with one of the folks in charge.

Our conversation was pleasant, and I was told that experience had taught them that it was best to connect with first-timers ahead of arrival to make sure the facility was a good fit. I’ve been to a number of pagan festivals and campgrounds, so I had an idea of what to expect. But that’s not always the case with folks who are exploring Neopaganism for the first time.

So we had a lovely conversation in which we talked about my experiences at other festivals and discussed some of the people that we knew in common. I had the sense that this was a healthy and welcoming community, and so we decided that I would drive up and spend Saturday with them. I would have loved to have camped but did not want to make an investment in camping equipment at the time.

What did I find?

First and foremost, the drive up was a pure delight. Since moving to the Midwest, one of my chief complaints has been how flat the land is here. I’m used to small mountains and big hills, something that Wisconsin lacks. But this far north, things were different. My path took me through miles of rural farmland, gently rolling hills, and near the quiet simplicity of what appeared to be some Amish communities.

Sweetwood

 

With the help of Google Maps, I was able to find Sweetwood without any problems. (Upon arrival, I was told that I had taken the longest of three possible routes, but I did not mind in the least.) I was greeted warmly and given some time to settle in before I received a personal tour.

Sweetwood consists of 40+ acres of pristine woodlands, secluded and well-kept. The local community and a group of volunteers maintain the area and tend to the forest, so undergrowth is minimal and I did not notice any poison ivy. (Poison ivy is always on my mind when I’m outdoors because I had a nasty tangle with it as a teenager and  I never want to be that miserable again.)

Campsites_1

Aside from a designated camping area, the site consists of

  • a permanent covered structure (no walls) that is serves as a dining area or gathering space during rain
  • an enormous permanent ritual circle
  • a shower house with HOT water, private stalls, and flush toilets (If you’ve ever been to a festival without these amenities, you will recognize the awesomeness inherent therein)
  • Designated spaces for campfires throughout the camping area
  • Several devotional shrines scattered throughout the woods

As you’ll see from my photos, Sweetwood is a beautiful place and it is definitely worth your time to visit if you have the opportunity.

Keep in mind that all first-time visitors must contact the community before attending any events. 

 

 

 

 

Remaking the Metro Market

I love thinking about marketing and branding.

I’m especially fond of watching retailers reinvent themselves (or at least their stores) in order to stay ahead of consumer trends and remain competitive. So I have watched with great interest as my local grocery store, the Metro Market, underwent an extensive renovation in the winter of 2017-2018.

For those who may not be familiar with Metro Market, here’s some background:

Metro Market is one of a handful of store brands used by the Wisconsin and Illinois-based Roundy’s Supermarket chain. Roundy’s is also known from its many Pick’ n Save locations as well as its Chicago flagship store, Mariano’s Fresh Market. Roundy’s was bought by the Kroger company in 2015 but the Roundy’s branding has remained mostly intact.

 

Metro Markets are located in middle class, urban neighborhoods in Milwaukee and Madison, and thus their primary competitors have been Whole Foods Market, Fresh Thyme Farmer’s Market, and to some extent Sendik’s Food Market. In the case of my local store, the three closest competitors are Whole Foods (2 miles), Fresh Thyme (0.8 miles), and Glorioso’s Italian Market (0.6 miles). 

In order to remain competitive with these other local stores, the Metro Market branding strategy has incorporated two primary objectives:

  1. Distinguish the Metro Market from the Pic’ N Save stores. Pic’ N Save stores are  usually located in suburbs or less affluent neighborhoods, and their aesthetic can be best described as a 90’s-era, average supermarket theme conveyed by a sterile atmosphere and an emphasis on cost-savings. Overall, the Pic N’ Save locations are bland and boring. You know the type: white floors, white ceilings, and row after row of shelves packed with a few different brands.
  2. Tap into the urban middle class appetite for a “market experience.” This means an emphasis on locally-sourced and organically grown foods, a warm (perhaps even earthy) atmosphere, and a store that feels less like a monolithic supermarket with only one vendor and more like a communal retail space shared by a variety of merchants and their unique brands.

So how did they do?

It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, the rejuvenated Metro Market definitely feels warmer and more upscale, and the aesthetics of the place are greatly improved. On the other hand, the branding changes don’t go beyond the surface to offer shoppers much that is new. Of course, offering shoppers something “new” was never the point: it was about making it feel new. Here’s what was accomplished:

First, shoppers will notice the most dramatic changes in the produce, deli, meat, and bakery departments. Each is now branded separately (at least nominally so) in order to give the emulate an experience such as that of shopping at the Milwaukee Public Market.

The floors have been resurfaced in dark wood, the outdated lighting fixtures have been replaced by trendier models, and each section of the counter boasts its own superficial signage. The bakery counter is now “Badger Baking,” the liquor aisle is called “Cork & Cask,” and the deli counter is being billed as the “Van Buren Deli” and “Todds BBQ” (sic).  The missing apostrophe in Todd’s BBQ really stuck out to me, but that’s my issue as an English teacher. 

In addition to the store’s facelift and the use of multiple “brands” to break up the monotony of the shopping experience, there are some new additions. There’s a juice bar (“Squeezed”), a Starbucks location, and a beer and wine vending area so you can have a drink in the store. There’s also a gourmet popcorn counter, a gelato case, and an expanded Asian-themed counter.

These changes are welcome and in some cases they are substantial improvements. But overall, the renovation and rebranding are largely about aesthetics and not about the way Metro Market is doing business. Once shoppers wind their way past all the new signs and the wine bar, they will see a familiar sight:

 

20180417_095701
This part of the store has received updated signage but has otherwise remain unchanged.

 

So that’s my short review. Metro Market is still my closest grocery store, and I’ll continue to shop there as long as that’s the case. I’m pleased that the store received a much-needed facelift, but I’ll continue to long for the day when my location (and budget!) will allow me to shop more frequently at grocers that truly offer a closer connection to the food I eat.

Skillet Rolls

Cast iron adds an extra level of scrumptiousness to any recipe, but these rolls are a TKO in my book. They take a little time to prepare (they are a yeast bread) but the recipe is simple and straightforward. Prepare these for company and I promise you will be asked for the recipe!

Here’s what you need for about 12 rolls:

  • 2-1/2 – 2-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 envelopes Fleischmann’s Rapid Rise yeast
  • 3 TBSP sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 c water
  • 2 TBSP Mazola corn oil
  • 4 TBSP butter, divided

Directions

  1. Mix 1 cup of the flour, undissolved yeast, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl
  2. Heat water, oil, and 2 TBSP of the butter until very warm (120 – 130 F)
  3. Add to the flour mixture
  4. Beat two minutes at a medium speed with an electric mixer, scraping sides occasionally
  5. Add 1/2 cup of flour
  6. Beat 2 minutes at high speed
  7. Stir in enough remaining flour to create a soft dough
  8.  Knead on a lightly floured surface for about 5 minutes or so, until the dough is smooth and elastic
  9. Cover and let rise until doubled in size

OK, the hard part is over! If you’re new to proofing dough, there’s nothing to it. It works best when the dough is left in a warm area. I usually just leave my dough in the pan and set it near the stove while the oven is heating. DO NOT SET IN THE OVEN OR ON THE STOVE. But near it. Gentle heat. Nothing to it. You should end up with something that looks like

1

Now, the first thing you’re going to want to do is to grease your cast-iron skillet. For this batch, I used generic shortening from the store. I actually prefer to use lard most of the time, but in either case you really want a fat that is thick and solid at room temperature. SLATHER that stuff on. Not too much, but be generous. It will also help condition (season) your pan.

So now you have a greased skillet and some proofed dough. Let’s finish this!

Divide the dough into 12 equal pieces and shape into balls. You can adjust the size and number if you like.

Place each of the 12 rolls into the greased skillet (a 10″ or 12″ skillet will work great).

Cover the skillet and let rise for a second time, about 30 – 45 minutes or until doubled in size.

3

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Melt some butter and brush over the rolls.

Bake for 18 – 20 minutes or until slightly browned. Serve warm.

I recommend serving with warm herbed butter of your choice.

5

Recipe adapted from “Cast Iron Cooking” magazine, published in 2016.