Where's Walden

Terri Sutton scours the concrete for something wild.

"Someone died!" shrieks a girl as she pops up from her slide. "Look, you guys! It's a body!" She points across Powderhorn's frozen lake to the northeast, where a cop car sits amid a couple of Parks Department trucks, a large trailer, and at least five cars.

I walk around to the recovery site. Sure enough, there's a ragged hole in the center of the tiny lake, where some idiot driver lost his bet. Two men in heavy red and black rubber venture out with sticks, testing the ice. Big-booted and awkward, they totter like Ice Capades clowns. A woman with a dog knocks on the window of a Parks truck: "What's going on?" The driver summarizes: "We don't know if there's a body in the car. A diver already went down, so..." He shrugs his ignorance. One of the rubber suits yells from the ice: "C'mon, bring it out here, ya coward!" and laughs.

When I come back an hour later, they've hooked the cables to the drowned vehicle and are slowly winching it in. The cable gets stuck in the thick sheets close to shore. The car is an invisible movement under ice.

"Nature forms us for ourselves, not for others; to be, not to seem" (fortune-cookie message): The Sunday before Thanksgiving, the lakes have not yet frozen over. Snow rims Lake Harriet, thin temperatures require hats, and the muted sun lies low in the sky. Overhead, an uncertain V of geese points southeast: "That's the biggest group I've ever seen!" shouts a man, pointing.

We stroll, talking of the dull brush of depression, the usual impediments to action. Black coots litter the shiny water. On the south side, families feed bread to fat geese; the emerald necks of meandering mallards glow iridescent as sequins in the slanting light. Further on, we come upon a lakeside row of gilded crystal umbrellas: what waves and cold, sunshine and short branches, have made of themselves.

december

All you hear: In Boom Island Park, in the winter, all you hear is the howl of the I-94 freeway. That, and the wind scratching the dried red and blond tallgrass together under the power lines. And the sparky cicada buzz of the power lines. And two crows on lampposts, talking. And a train's gruff lumber. And, next to the river, wavelets slurping at the rocks.

Down the river, walking the Stone Arch Bridge, all you hear is the falls rushing. That, and the hum of the Pillsbury mill. And the wheeze of a gull.

The season of headstrong leaves:Early in the fall I motored up past Cable, Wisconsin, and camped overnight. In the twilight, the blood-red maple leaf and yellow aspen looked wildly picturesque, a postcard from an eternal fall. A week later, along Lake Superior, most of the maple leaves were crunching underfoot. But the ungentle aspen shook their brassy gold at the sky, their pale, thin skin a bright bone against the ringing blue. I came home to late summer, verdant maple leaves still as soft as those gamely unfolding on old hand-lotion commercials. The green of my neighbors' crab-apple trees had gone rusty, yet held. Midmonth, my tomato plants continued to produce.

A giant's passive solar heating system, the city stores sun in asphalt and cement and brick. The urban climate stays two to three degrees warmer than that of the surrounding country, which doesn't sound like a lot but can mean we freeze as much as two weeks late, and thaw as much early. For some plants, that extra month represents the possibility of dying shriven--the time enough to pay off karmic debts so they may be born again in spring.

This autumn, the frost did not come, and it did not come. The cities were spared even the short sharp shocks of cold that, like illness for the human elderly, warn the leaves and dresses them in proper mourning attire (like fighter pilots, they prefer to go down in flames). Instead, the first freeze was the deepest; hearts pierced, the trees cut their leaves loose. And, on the morning of October 27, people walked out to green leaves in heavy carpets, green leaves draped over cars and caught in windshield wipers, green leaves lying in perfect circles beneath mute trunks, a resonant outline of life.

After the first snowfalls, a neighbor was moved to rake her lawn, depositing great piles of leaves and snow on the sidewalk.

In mid-December, the maples continue to cling to curled brown wraiths of leaves, worn to nubs by the wind. These stubborn trees may have been damaged by last spring's hard post-thaw frost. On the ground, which has thrown off its usual snow blanket, you can see fallen leaves frozen a deep green. Bring them into the house, and they will warm into surprising pliancy: still unpersuaded of their deaths.

Things seen on a Wednesday walk:

Dirty softball
Flat top of a tin can
McDonald's fries container
A gabby flock of sparrows in a pine tree
Purple-print boxer shorts
Faded red coozie
White plastic bag
Pair of hairy woodpeckers
Couple of nuthatches and some chickadees
Two men carrying huge bags of cans
Two older women with matching
orangish-salmon lipstick, identifying birds
Two bareheaded women jogging in
black leggings and polypropylene

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