Where's Walden

Doug Beasley

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."

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"?  

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.

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.


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.

"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.


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

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.

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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