Where's Walden

Terri Sutton scours the concrete for something wild.

We name a plant we don't want a "weed," and yet that label becomes meaningless in another context: The English have declared the dandelion an endangered wildflower. Big bluestem was a nuisance to early white settlers plowing up the grassland. The seeds and fruits of crabgrass, ragweed, dandelion, and sumac provide significant fodder for birds. Humans have ingested dandelion, burdock, plantain, goldenrod, and nettles as food and medicine; local dandelion aficionado Harriet Godfrey was not the only "fool" to import a plant we now disdain.

A couple of years ago, I got swept up in the panic about buckthorn, an invasive non-native which gardeners first planted here as a hedge. My boyfriend's parents have their backyard bordered in it, to their increasing dismay: Buckthorn grows like a, um, weed, has to be cut back yearly, and, per its name, puts out some sinister thorns. Meanwhile, birds chowing the berries have dropped seeds into the parks, where buckthorn is now crowding out all manner of plant life.

It's alien, it's extremely difficult to get rid of, it's voracious. And--I can't help it--buckthorn is funny. Because here we rant, hysterical over this foreign menace to our "native" ecosystem, this horrifying despoliation of Lake Wobegon--and what is the demon but us: a hungry, fast-breeding immigrant, suitcases infested with the virus of change. How do we protest ourselves? By railing against the next one fresh off the boat.

On deck: Stand on the north sidewalk at the center of the Hennepin Bridge. Feel it tremble (a little for one car; a lot for a bus; a constant rattle at rush hour). Look down to the slow river, watch the water quietly rush at you. Let yourself imagine it is the bridge that moves, that you are standing on a riverboat, heading upriver past the aqua face of the Federal Reserve building and the black tangle of skeletal trees opposite. Feel the bridge moving. Watch the water, so smooth and impervious, studded with debris. What does it mean to say that something is alive?

I look upriver and imagine I see a wake. It turns out to be the parallel ribbons of a great power line, reflected in the still water as three open V's.

"A pattern for survival is fiercely stated" (Joy Harjo), Part I: Once the leaves start to come down, crows appear everywhere. Two of them rise from lampposts at Boom Island Park and choose different currents away from me, gossiping all the while. At least 30 coffee-klatch in the pines south of Powderhorn Lake. Mingling among the oaks and pines at the Wirth Park picnic grounds, there must be more than 100 boisterous birds--a regular crow convention.

Some people don't favor crows because they've been known to peck a corpse or two. Some people even believe the sight of them foretells illness, bad luck, or death. I enjoy crows, myself. They remind me of people: clever, selfish, not good with secrets, always hassling the noncrows and butting in where they're not wanted. Those humans who freak about crows can thank themselves for exacerbating the "problem": We've built lavish crow aviaries which we call cities. They're lush with food and nesting sites, if you're not too choosy, and crows aren't. Crow predators (including prepubescent boys and vainglorious felines) have a low success rate. And the beat of change discourages other species with less flexibility, so the skies are not crowded all day.

I wonder why these birds, who have adapted so smartly to human presence, attract so much of our scorn? Other hardy city birds--jays, magpies, gulls--earn, by their scavenging wit, almost as much contempt. At a birding seminar I attended, the lecturer described the European house sparrow's dangerous curved beak with clear distaste. This non-native, she advised, unlike all songbirds, may be legally killed if causing property damage; the audience took the point and chuckled.

In maze tests, house sparrows have proved the match of monkeys and rats. Raptors commit murder more often. The male house sparrow wears the same warm rust and steel gray of the lovely kestrel; the crow's ebony shines deep as jet. Do we despise the very commonness of these birds, their urban dominance, which is so like our own?

Once the leaves start to come down, crows appear everywhere. They were always here.

Part II:Halloween Eve falls cool and quiet in front of the downtown Barnes & Noble. The 18G bus from South Nicollet pulls in with a wheeze of brakes. As I step up and pay, noise rolls over me like a blanket. My head down, pushing into the uproar, I look for a seat; painfully taut faces stare out windows, into books, anywhere but here. The noise sharpens.

"Northside Rats got --" but a raucous chorus smothers the point. By the back exit door, a group of teens lean into each other as if they've got a game going; the currency is clearly swagger. One fellow's litany of boasts sets off a furious crescendo of derision. "Southside Rats got...!" Their volume writhes like a wild thing, a wind, a dragon. The rest of us shrink to make room; the bus can hardly contain it. When the posse spills out at Neiman Marcus, a straggler yells out, surrendering: "At least Northside Rats got class!" White, anonymous masks hang backwards around the kids' necks as they move out into the evening.

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