By Bridget Bishop

Take an early spring walk along the greenway of Milwaukee’s Left Bank, say south from Kern Park towards Riverboat Road, and you’ll experience the collective work of generations of conservationists. You’ll likely traverse Koenen Land Preserve as you pass the Quaker Friends’ Meetinghouse, and may encounter at least one Northern Lights project, say a spectacularly oversized firepit, meticulously masoned to accommodate a crowd. Longtime resident Paul Ryan has been an active part of the conservationist record being sown over the past few decades in Riverwest.
While still a Biology student at UW-Milwaukee, he started working as the Land Manager of the Koenen Preserve on Auer and Gordon and maintained that position for the next 6 years, later on working concurrently as the land manager of the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Bayside.
Around this time he also started working for a few people who were part of the Natural Landscaping group called the Wild Ones, which focused more on using native plants and natural materials. The legendary Lori Otto became a mentor. Renowned for walking into a Village of Bayside town hall meeting with a basket of dead robins around the time of publication of SIlent Spring, she guided Ryan as he eventually found himself working for clients with similar sympathies. He developed a following and a thriving contracting business, enough to transition from land manager to an employer.
Our specialized niche can probably be described as native plant community restoration, but we also do brick and stone patios, walls and walkways, drainage correction, rain gardens, select tree removals and invasive species management/control. In the last 5 years or so, I’ve also been collaborating with a stonemason from Door County on some more creative stone projects and we are fast developing this aspect of the business.
Ryan, not to be confused with the former veep hopeful–his eyes are a more subdued shade, a grey-blue that complements his understated wry humor–is similarly subtle about his life’s work in the field of conservation. Contemplating this year’s unseasonably temperate winter weather, as maple syrup is being tapped five weeks ahead of schedule, it’s hard not to find those who dedicate themselves to the cause more valourous than any legislative representative.
Paul is fond of his connection to Otto, who “became a great friend and mentor, and challenged and encouraged me up until her death at 90.”
Speaking of his work educating young people in conservation, “We developed what we called outdoor classrooms at Indian Hill School in River Hills and at Bayside Middle School, among others.” However, of his own youth–
“I haven’t always been the paragon of virtue,” Paul starts, only half-joking…
Discussing his early adolescence in the heyday of Milwaukee’s mid-1980s punk scene, it’s hard to find fault. Sneaking off with older girls with licenses to venues like Yano’s on Broadway, the motivation was the music. The establishment served no alcohol, its customers were kids that had to take a stand to be different in a time when individuality could mean harassment, or few blows. Expression, through fashion or music that rejected the mainstream, meant vulnerability. Unlike today, punk was a commitment.
The venue, subject of a 2006 book by founder and local attorney Peter Flessas “Kids, Soda and Punk Rock,” was closed after a violent altercation with police that Paul was present for. He describes a similar beatdown in Green Bay, that one came from locals while the cops refused to intervene.
At the time Yano’s closed, he was playing for the group Drastic Measures, one of dozens of bands he would play in over the years. He was also a bass player for Jesus Manson, Syndicate, Ragamuffins, and the band Thirteen, for which an unreleased independent documentary film may somewhere exist. Some may also remember Louie Lucchesi and Crime Family, the Woolridge Brothers, Blister, and the Splinters. at different shows. Jokingly, he was the skinny kid with the black hair.
In his early twenties, he was asked to join the Spanic Boys. An epic tour through Canada, France, Italy and Switzerland resulted, though he was not present for their infamous Saturday Night Live performance in 1990. For those too young, they were called in to perform when Sinead O’Connor canceled to protest Andrew Dice Clay as host. You may-have-guessed Mike Fredericksen was bassist on the pitch-hit team.
Lately, associations with current bands include the Swivels with Carter Hunnicut, a collaboration project, Saint Christopher Webster, and very recently Aluminum Knot Eye.
And he has continued to return to Europe as often as possible, along with several trips to the Middle East. His sister Kelli is an immunologist in Cambridge, UK, her wife Lucy an instructor at the University as well as an NHS doctor, so “London has turned out to be a convenient launch point for destinations in the region. The budget airlines make it so easy.”
The first calendar quarter in Wisconsin is downtime; close to this time last year, Paul found himself traveling solo in Jordan, Israel and Palestine:
I have done a bit of my international travel alone and it seems like then I sometimes meet more people. One night in Bethlehem, I helped a bunch of kids clean up this pile of rubble/debris they were struggling with and one of their older brothers came around and invited me into their home for some whisky. I’ve found that to learn other languages, it can help to put yourself into situations and have interactions like that.
Learning French to get around North Africa and the Levant, he also developed an interest in learning to speak Arabic, “although the Darija spoken in Morocco is a bit different than the Modern Standard Arabic spoken in places like Egypt.”
He also tried to learn Italian in Italy, but it was not as close to Spanish as presumed: “I can get by passably in Spanish, pero yo entiendo mas que puedo hablar. My dad was fluent in French and Latin and used to teach me a few things in French when I was very young.”
His father a former Jesuit priest, Paul Ryan has the singular distinction of being the product of a match made from God’s grace:
I think my mom was studying to become a nun. My parents met around 1967 at Marquette University while my dad was working on his PhD in Religious Theology.
My dad was born in Ryan, Iowa and moved from the seminary in Dubuque to Leuven, Belgium in 1957 in order to become a Jesuit. He used to travel all over Europe and the Middle East on a 2-stroke Maico motorcycle with his friends in the summers. I think that history has inspired some of my own travels.

Once settled down enough to take school seriously–he did live in Los Angeles in the decadent late 80s for about a year, Paul pursued electrical engineering before earning his B.S. in Conservation Biology, focusing on Botany and Plant Ecology. He also earned an Ethnic Studies certificate in Western Great Lakes American Indian Ethnobotany and studied yet another language, Ojibwe for two semesters.
As part of an ethnobotany course at the field station in Saukville, we had learned the names of many plants and related terms for their various uses in mostly Menominee and Ojibwe. I found that fascinating and fun.
The certificate included a field course in Northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula, Exploring the Spirit of Special Places: Dreams and Visions in Native American Metaphysics. The entire course grade depended on a journal kept during the trip. He describes a simple poem written during the field course on the Summer Solstice at a special place called Thunder Hills:

The wind has a language
spoken through trees
Vocal the elder
responds to the breeze
Whisper the grasses
delicate songs
Rustle the sumacs
singing along

Another poem also about the wind, written while camping by the Mississippi:

The Wind

The wind, it examined us-
there for its folly
We showed ample samplings
and raw melancholy

There’s a cave on the ridge
there’s a waterfall cove
there’s a point on the bluff
there’s a river below

there’s a train that runs through
there’s a whistle that blows
there’s a thunder within
there’s a thunder that grows

there’s a canopied path
through a cool autumn wood
bracken vigor we sense
carnally understood

The wind, it impaled us
with cold introspections
with penitent chills
and candid reflections

  • Wyalusing – September, 1999

“I think ongoing education is an open attitude and lifelong mission.” A lifelong learner, Mr. Ryan has pursued graduate studies at UW-Madison in Geography and GIS. More recently, he pursued the Arboriculture program at MATC and earned a certification this January in Wildland Fire at Fox Valley Technical College.

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Prescribed burns have become more frequent in his contracting and consulting practice, as wildfire tragedies have sparked renewed popular demand. “I started doing prescribed burns in the mid-90s and I eventually got trained with the Nature Conservancy at Lulu Lake. Since then I have conducted or participated in several burns most years across southern Wisconsin, some up to around 50 acres.”
Paul maintains his professional associations as a member of Wild Ones for the past 25 years, a lifetime member of the Rachel Carson Council, a former secretary of the Milwaukee Audubon Society and as a board member of the Milwaukee Area Land Conservancy.
He is currently reading Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer (author of ) and Road Series by musician Hugo Race, and continues to create poetry.

how likely
pine savanna, lichen heath
a mat of sphagnum underneath
beach dunes open up the space
with bracken vigor, feral grace
to wax romantic, wander, try
and make each moment really be
and every atom of surprise
becomes an element of glee

dumb struck with wonder
as cool as can be
in awe and amazement
and earnest incredulity

just to be a part of this
grand amalgamation
and this
splendid diversity.

Find out more about Northern Lights Natural Landscaping’s services at
Swivels –play March 9th & May 4th at Linneman’s Aluminum Knot Eye will be at the Void in Racine March 23rd.
Robin Wall Kimmerer will speak March 20th and 21st at UW-La Crosse: University of Wisconsin La Crosse —

Visit to learn more about the legacy of Lorrie Otto.