Over the past year of the COVID19 pandemic many people around the city of Milwaukee, the state of Wisconsin, the United States, and even the global community at large have discovered a renewed sense of connection with Mother Nature. We need nature not just for growing food and providing freshwater but also for our mental health and well-being. Over the past year, county and state parks experienced record numbers of people hiking and enjoying the serenity of our natural surroundings. In the simplest terms, nature brings peace and a sense of calm in an often tumultuous world that we live in.
As we begin to emerge from the COVID19 pandemic, many people are experiencing a renewed sense of civic involvement to protect and preserve nature and to help cultivate an even greater sense of the need for sustainability in the Greater Milwaukee area and beyond.
“Our goal is for Milwaukee to be recognized as a world-class eco-city,” Sustainability Director for the City of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office Eric Shambarger stated with a beaming grin on a recent Zoom call with Rock the Green. “We have so much good work being done right now, and the time is right to really move forward and focus on ways to create more sustainable systems in and around our beautiful city.”
Shambarger is spot on. The City of Milwaukee has been implementing a plethora of programs and initiatives to help achieve this goal. Some of these initiatives include the largest solar array installation in Milwaukee history on a ten-acre solar field next to General Mitchell Field and the City-County Task Force, which aims to reduce racial and income inequality by helping transition people who live in more vulnerable parts of the city to better sources of energy to both reduce greenhouse gasses as well as provide green jobs for people in neighborhoods with more limited economic opportunities.
“We offer an Eco Neighborhoods Tool Kit as well,” Shambarger shared, “During the pandemic this program has been very popular as it partners with wonderful non-profit environmental organizations around the city, including Milwaukee Riverkeeper, to give people resources to help make a difference in their communities. There is truly hunger for people to be in nature and to get out and go to local parks.”
As we know, however, not all citizens in our city have the same access to its beautiful parks, trails, and environmental green spaces. This is where the Home Gr/own program comes in and makes a huge difference. Home Gr/own supports neighborhood redevelopment by restoring blighted vacant lots into community green spaces. “Everyone should be within a ten-minute walk to a park,” Shambarger continued, “the Home Gr/own program is helping create jobs, community gardens, and orchards. We’ve seen a huge transformation in the Lindsey Heights neighborhood as a result of this for one example”
While Milwaukee Riverkeeper has stayed afloat during the pandemic with some slight readjustments to their programming, Bolger Breceda is even more thrilled to move forward this year. “We have our 26th annual river clean-up coming up on Saturday, April 24th. This year we are pretty close to a normal clean-up. We are doing things a little differently, of course, by requiring mask-wearing and providing hand sanitizer, limiting the number of people on our sites, and staggering our clean-up starting times, and requiring pre-registration. We have an amazing group of over 2,500 registered volunteers already and a lot more are signing up every day leading up to the clean-up date itself. People are hungry to get outside and give something back, and our response has been nothing short of amazing.”
Jennifer Bolger Breceda shared more about an eco-challenge that has become even more apparent during the pandemic… the increased waste from single-use plastics and COVID face coverings and masks. “We have a much higher level of trash this year than what we’ve seen recently,” remarked Bolger Breceda, “Everything, as we know, makes its way to the river and then into larger waterways. The increased consumption of single-use plastics, from plastic bags to disposable gloves and other PPE gear, to face coverings and masks has generated a lot of extra waste. As a result of this, people perhaps are becoming even more mindful about the importance and need to be active. What would we do without the beauty of our rivers and natural environments, now more than ever? We must beautify, preserve, and protect our green spaces and rivers in the greater Milwaukee area. Our natural surroundings promote and strengthen both our physical and emotional health.”
Longtime Rock the Green rockstar and eco-champ, Trapper Schoepp, couldn’t agree more with this being a ripe time to do good and promote environmental awareness. Schoepp is no stranger to Rock the Green having performed many times over the years including the main stage at the 2016 Rock the Green Sustainability Festival along side Lord Huron, Robert Delong, Best Coast, The Heavy and Thao & the Get Down Stay Down. In addition, Trap headlined the 2017 RTG Earth Day Celebration and jumped on board last year to kick off the first Roch the Stream, a benefit concert series pairing Milwaukee musicians with local nonprofits to raise funds and awareness for both, splitting 100% of donations equally between the musicians and nonprofits. During the pandemic, the Milwaukee-based troubadour and his partner fostered a greater enjoyment of nature by going on robust 30-mile hikes, camping regularly, and even gardening.
Schoepp’s new record May Day is an album that has great reverence for the natural world with a focus on regeneration and renewal. His latest single, “Yellow Moon,” is a great testament to this aesthetic. “Our connection. as humans, with nature is both awe-inspiring and humbling,” Schoepp quipped, “The moon still shines every day regardless of what happens… rivers roll on regardless of the times, and even as we perhaps standstill as a society with everything we’ve experienced in terms of COVID19 and our desire to make action happen politically and personally in the world, every night the moon just shows up.”
May Day has a lot of significance to Trapper on a variety of different levels. Schoepp explained, “May Day is an old Pagan holiday that is tied to a good harvest. People would have dances and celebrations on May Day and dance around the May Pole in hopes of a good harvest and a positive future. Overall, our record May Day, has a lot of ties to the natural world… it encompasses darkness as well as hopefulness with an overall vibe that together we can, and will do better.”
Schoepp even took this theme of rebirth and renewal to a whole new innovative level by releasing his music on packages of seeds. Schoepp explained, “During the pandemic, my partner and I got more into gardening. I made homemade pasta and grew tomatoes and basil. I wanted to tie in the whole theme of the record by including something that people could use and enjoy. The holiday “May Day” is centered around agriculture and fertility, and with so many people becoming amateur gardeners these days, I thought ‘why not.’ There is a lot of useless band merchandise that ends up in a landfill. I contemplated this even when filling orders for albums, t-shirts, and other merchandise over the past year and thought that it would be great to put something in fans’ hands that we can put into the world rather than toss into the landfill. That’s where the idea with the seeds started.”
Schoepp’s seeds have a QR code on the package that allows listeners to scan it with their phones and listen to his latest single. “I’m just hoping people like their plants and flowers from the seeds and enjoy the music too,” Schoepp chuckled. Schoepp’s words hold true not only in regards to his fantastic new record but in relation to our state of the environment as well. Taking action this Earth Week is a great first step. There are a boon of ways to get involved and reflect on our planet, from volunteering at a local Milwaukee Riverkeeper site to being more mindful about the use of single-use plastics, to helping pitch in to create new green spaces in the city, we all share a common bond as humans without the natural world. There is no better time than now to take action.