Where's Walden

Terri Sutton scours the concrete for something wild.

Inside the bus, there is suddenly air to breathe. An older man exchanges raised eyebrows with a middle-aged guy in a baseball hat. At the next stop, a woman climbs up wearing a Halloween vest; she greets the baseball cap. "Man," he says, shaking his head, "you missed some funny people, just a couple stops before you." She doesn't ask him for more details, and he can't explain without revealing his fear to us all.

Doug Beasley


Driving by feel: I've been driving a 13-year-old around recently. As we travel through the city, she'll tell me stories: "My dad lives around here. It's a bad neighborhood. Once, when my friend Tish and I came up here, there was a shooting." "This is where I met those two boys, when I was riding my bike, and they followed me home." "I came down here once, when I was running away." She often doesn't know the name of the street we're driving down. But she knows a story.

I have not been a driver long. Mostly I've ridden the bus, learning to see the city in routes: The #4 goes to my boyfriend's parents'. Getting to Uptown takes a #18 and a transfer to the #6, 12, or 28. This girl's stories remind me of a time before I took the bus regularly, a time when I rode in other people's cars and navigated by memory.

Over Thanksgiving, a friend's father asked me where I lived. When I told him, he shook his head. A native Brit, he still wasn't comfortable with the way Americans give directions. "You always use the street names and say, 'Go north'--and I often don't know where north is," he explained wryly. "In England, I'd tell you, 'Take a right at the church, then a left at the grocer's.'" "Okay," I said brightly, "it's a right at the SuperAmerica."

I've known the Twin Cities only 12 years, and already many of the landmarks that organized my Minneapolis have been demolished. If I wanted to tell you what happened once at Moby Dick's--or the punk-rock parking lot behind First Avenue, or the 24 Bar, or Met Stadium--the stage sets, the totems, are all gone. How do we pass on stories if the places that hold them keep changing? What happens to memories if they can't touch the earth?

Home is where the heat is: Last spring, I watched a male sparrow mount a female in my neighbor's apple tree. He wasn't content to do it once. After the third intent hovering, the female up and flew. Soon, they--or perhaps another pair--were fluttering at my window; just above it, under the roof eaves, they'd made a nest. I still see chickadees, starlings, and sparrows sheltering there (or fighting over sheltering there) in mid-November.

Daydreaming about the bloody capture of these feathered housemates keeps my cats busy. They're also entertained by the coy and quite plump squirrels who use the roof of my other neighbors (generous birdfeeders, not coincidentally) as a thoroughfare. The squirrels have colonized a couple spots where buckled shingles pull away from the gutter; one hole seems to have been helped along by industrious gnawing.

Other frequent inhabitants of "our" homes:

Swallows (eave nesters)
Chimney swifts (in migration, flocks funnel down chimneys to spend the night)
Bats (the famed mosquito killer currently hibernates in attics across the Twin Cities; 25 percent of living mammal species are bats)
Mice (a pair can eat four pounds of food and bear 50 young in a year)
Skunks and raccoons (like to den in suburban garages or basements)
Penicillin, bread, and mildew molds (hardy plants in the fridge; floating spore in the air)
Fruit flies (produce the next generation in eight to 12 days)
Termites (mostly sterile and blind)
Mealybugs, aphids, springtails, spider mites, thrips (house-plant eaters)
Nematodes (eel-like mammals partial to plant roots, bacteria, and fungi)
Arthrobotrys (a fungus partial to nematodes)
Brown spiders, daddy longlegs, house spiders (they molt, like snakes!)
Fleas (excellent germ carriers, all 1,750 species)
Common roaches (more European immigrants)
Carpet beetles (you are what you eat--including formaldehyde?)
Silverfish (nocturnal, quick, scaled; favor starch)
Clothes moths (of the family Tineidae; the larvae chow your wool)
Dust mites (a small pile of dust may contain 500 mites, happily munching on human and animal skin cells; some people are allergic to proteins in the droppings)

The newspaper has a story about a young woman who is allergic to everything. She lives in a tin-foil house. Has she banned dust mites? If so, does she have to sweep more often, to clear the floor of her dead skin cells? What food can she eat? How does she feel, so quarantined from birth and decay? Does she miss spiders?

The woman says her sickness arose after exposure to chemical toxins. Will people make themselves allergic to life?

In winter, ice exhibits a coyote nature: Midday, just before Thanksgiving, Powderhorn Park resembles a giant crystal bowl, sliders busily etching its slick sides. Kids freed from school ride sleds, toboggans, the green covers of recycling bins. They slide alone, cool and light; they pile on in packs and tumble off, yelling. They turn 6 inches of snow into a perilous hard-pack surely climbable only with mountaineering spikes.

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