Where's Walden

Terri Sutton scours the concrete for something wild.

Fifty years ago, a man died in Wisconsin. He left as his legacy the draft of a book, part of which was a journal. Its subject was not the writer but the birds, plants, and animals among which he lived on a broken-down farm, his weekend "refuge." The man's name was Aldo Leopold. The draft was edited by his son and published the next year as A Sand County Almanac.

Leopold was far from sanguine about the future of environmentalism. As he wrote in March 1948, "Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect." Perhaps, he mused doubtfully, people's values could be shifted "by reappraising things unnatural, tame, and confined in terms of things natural, wild, and free."

Many environmentalists since have taken Leopold (and his philosophical mentor, Thoreau) as their guide, choosing to fight their battles and write their books around wilderness retreats far from things "unnatural, tame, and confined." They have tended to see nature in opposition to what another of their idols, Edward Abbey, called "the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus."

Doug Beasley

Yet is city land any less a part of the natural community than country land? What happens when we disrespect the very places we live most? With these thoughts in mind, I offer the following sequel to Leopold's almanac.


I put a hand down on my lawn: The land throbs. Traffic six houses away on East Broadway, yes. But also the city's roots: Electrical wires, gas lines, telephone cables, steam mains, water and sewer pipes, storm drains, the water table, worms, plants, fungi, bacteria, protozoa, hibernating ants, bumblebees, and beetles, the eggs of grasshoppers and crickets, moles, mice, energy, moving.

The last days of the scheming weed: The autumn air, as I walk through a steady light rain, smells fusty somehow: rotting leaves, bruised dirt (not the spring smell, so acidic and bright), mixed with sullen exhaust. The world is gray--not over, but ending. On Nicollet Mall, across from the McDonald's, I almost step on the corpse of a small sparrow. I first think to pick it up, stuff it in a garbage can, so a child won't find it. The inertia of city walking shuffles me past. Death has arrived, I shrug; get used to it.

Still, as I stroll, my mind worries the little sparrow. The urban schedule must be rife with these daily departures: birds, humans, trees, fish, mice; life lost to disease, predators, pollution, old age.

Returning by the glassy-eyed new Federal Reserve Building reminds me of its construction--and the destruction of every green plant on the site. In cities, the average site is now redeveloped every 50 to 60 years, reducing that ecosystem to square one (or worse, given the mauling of subsoil structure and consequent drainage failure; trees planted in this "contractor pressured" soil initially grow at a very retarded rate). It may take 20 years for an ecosystem to recover its previous diversity--part planned, part spontaneous--of plants, insects, birds, and animals.

Yet within those crushing bulldozer treads, seeds hitch a ride from another city site. Seeds also arrive on the boots of construction workers and landscape gardeners. And blow in on winds moving downriver. And plop down from chatting birds. Busy with species native and imported, traditional and trendy, the city carries a greater diversity of plants than a comparable stretch of country. For a cunning weed the city looks like a sanctuary, full of mashed-up ground, a spectrum of habitats and sweet corners where herbicides haven't reached. I know some of these opportunists. I spend the summer yanking them up from my garden soil: dandelion, nettles, crabgrass, the faux rhubarb burdock, wild buckwheat's tangling vine.

There are others: Canada and sow thistle, goldenrod, ragweed, plantain, sumac. These plants have, like the gray squirrel, found the city much to their liking; you can hardly keep them out of vacant lots, power-line corridors, and railways. I admire their resourcefulness. Many let loose wind-borne seeds, taking advantage of the city's schizo air currents. Burdock sends burrs out via passing animals. Their vivacity here has made me ambivalent about urban conservation projects I would otherwise support.

In 1988, the parks department seeded the east hill of Boom Island Park with big bluestem; it finally came up strong nearly a decade later, thanks to a spring burn and abundant July rains. Late this summer, the seedheads flexed bright gold above my head; now, the broken stalks glow caramel against the thin snow. I love the way the tallgrass furs the ground below the power lines, and yet I wonder: Will it prosper in this spot, under the reaching plume of the garbage burner? Has the poor soil--mostly fill, from when Boom Island was joined to the river shore--accumulated enough organic material to nourish the native? And how much is its planting here, where sumac or cottonwood would more easily flourish, part of the same snobbery that calls house sparrows "pests"?

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