Where's Walden

Terri Sutton scours the concrete for something wild.

Eighteen years of cities, and the sight of litter still makes me feel like punching somebody. But I'm starting to understand that it is not an aberration. We are like the peregrines whose cliffside nests are marked with crusty lime. We shit where we eat, walk, work, raise our young. It's the nature of people; the nature we've chosen.

When is a skunk not a skunk?: The wrist of our tour guide at the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center supports a mildly interested great horned owl. Most of the birds brought to the center have been shot, poisoned, caught in traps, or hit by cars, the guide stresses. But a number have no physical injuries. These owls, hawks, and kestrels were taken from their parents as chicks and became imprinted on humans. Eventually they were let loose in the wild, where they soon sought out humanity--in the case of this owl, by landing on the head of an unsuspecting picnicker. They think they're people, she explains. They don't know how to be raptors.

Doug Beasley

Any ranger or park employee who's tried to relocate a garbage-imprinted bear or lettuce-chewing whitetail will offer a similar narrative: These "pests" don't know how to be the "bears" or "deer" we recognize. However far away they are dumped, they will return to the nearest human outpost and their "bothersome" behavior. It's their nature, the nature we helped teach them. Just as it's the nature of some Canada geese to enjoy the sensual short grass of golf courses. (Migrate? Not necessarily.) It's the nature of nature to change nature.

Standing upwind from the Pillsbury mill, I watch three groups of pigeons swirl like an Escher print between elevators and warehouse. How many generations, I muse, have stolen grain from this mill--how many have perched on it, shit on it, followed lives that assumed this human industry? Well, the mill was built in 1881, and wild pigeons (rock doves, actually) have lived up to six years, so...But I've forgotten a small story. The rock dove, once a creature of European seashores and cliffs, was introduced to the Americas in the pilgrims' day. Did the bird settle here with the whites in the mid-1800s? Or had it already spread west on its own? When did it become known as the "common" pigeon?

Only 150 years ago, the passenger pigeon was North America's most common bird, blackening the sky for hours in flocks 2 to 3 billion strong. As late as 1871, 136 million could be found in an 850-square-mile nesting area in Wisconsin. The sight must've inspired quite an unholy awe, for people hunted the wild passenger pigeon into extinction by the turn of the century. The nature of humans is to change nature. Among humans, however, there has been much variation as to the extent of said changes, and the responsibility taken.

"All the way to heaven is heaven" (Julian of Norwich): I'm praying, in a living room in a second-floor duplex in a house near the twin SuperAmericas on South Lyndale. I'm trying to grow a root, to slide my mind down that thick tuber into the soil, to feel myself anchored, at home, and, as Raymond Carver wrote, "beloved on this earth." I hear: the sound of small quick feet downstairs; the grumble of Lyndale traffic; a plane overhead. The more I try to block the noise out, the more it pushes.

Knowing this place means knowing all of it, not just what nature has done here, but what nature intends. "Nature" being the combined efforts of white oak, extreme weather, Canada geese, and people. Glaciated hollows and hills, sugar ants, our machines, and untold generations of gray squirrels. The lingering stories of humans who chose to let change speak through them more slowly. I feel: the activity in houses all around; the dark compression of city soil; and Lake Harriet, a deep weight at the hollow of my back.

Is it winter if the lakes aren't frozen? Days before Christmas, we drive past Calhoun. The lake holds ribbons of ice, canals of open water. The bank thermometer reads 46 degrees.

It was always there everchanging: I'm leaning on the Stone Arch Bridge, looking north at a curious white cascade to the right of the falls. A petite man with a sharp gray beard strides up. "A marvelous day!" he exclaims, with an accent I can't place. "And people say the winters are so bad!" I grin and agree, although I'm thinking most winter days are not so balmy nor so giddily golden.

I ask what he thinks the white formation is. "Oh, ice. But it looks like a statue! Your fundamentalists would not only see something there, they'd hear it speak!" It resembles the Virgin Mary, I propose, and he nods with a quick laugh. "Are you Catholic?" No, I say, fervently. "I was born Catholic," he demurs, "but in my country, religion is not taken so seriously. It is something for births, weddings, and..." "Funerals," I supply. "Yes."

He looks west to the riverbank shell of the Gold Medal Flour mill. "I was here the night it burned down. It was incredible! I wish I had had a camera. Arson, no doubt." We stare at the wreck, now draped with a giant tan sign--"West Side Milling District Revitalization"--then take our cheerful leave. I never ask him his country's name. But on this day of blue-bowl sky and sun-sparked tower, I know mine. It's not a name you could write on a postcard. But it holds within it far-flung horizons, shiny skyscrapers like broken teeth, and water all around, crystallizing and falling, puddling and moving, always moving.

I think, walking on down the bridge, that I shall always know this place by the Mary cascade, the broken mill, and the bright little man. And it strikes me that this is how you map your territory, make your home. How you find the center of the world.

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