“Dear children, I am going away into the wood; be on your guard against the Wolf, for if he comes here, he will eat you all up-skin, hair, and all.”
-The Brothers Grimm, The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats
It’s cleaner than I would have suspected underneath THE HENNEPIN AVENUE BRIDGE. Dark and cool and shot through with abyssal alcoves, but no trace of anything, really. No opossums or rabid raccoons or pack of starving dogs looking to make a meal out of a lone traveler. Blankets and boxes and the ramshackle, pell-mell leavings of the homeless: no sign. I also regret to inform you that Anthony Kiedis and his bygone heroin addiction are not present under the bridge. Conspicuously absent, too, are trolls demanding a tax for crossing (although I’m kinda glad I don’t encounter trolls, as I don’t have fire or acid, which is necessary when attempting to halt their impressive regenerative capabilities).
The white-noise hum and rumble of the traffic above is an industrial lullaby. It’s weirdly soothing and conjures images of high school, of troublemakers under a bridge along Minnehaha Creek, of a misshapen moon reflecting off a slow black trickle, of the inescapable bravado and guitar fury blaring from Pantera’s Cowboys From Hell on cassette, of Captain Morgan’s spiced flourish being washed away by a chug of Icehouse and its flavor of frostbitten aluminum, of the malignant waft of Marlboro Reds and vomit. We were young and hidden, but most of all, we were imperiled. Swirling in a smear of night and taillights were cops or another gang of toughs or a destitute addict or the molten-white eyes of some nocturnal animal voyeur. But the possibilities, man! There they were: scenarios to enact, limits to test by way of playful self-destruction. It was all in front of us, those possibilities, unfurling from under the bridge like a bolt of polychromatic silk. Every color, every danger, every thing! Dude, it was an adventure.
I’m under the bridge because I’m eschewing the known quantity that is HENNEPIN Ave. and its edge-of-downtown trappings. A few moments ago, as I crossed THE HENNEPIN AVENUE BRIDGE, I noticed a jogging path between a road and the Mississippi River, a path that led northwest and that I’d never had the pleasure of traveling. So after a quick trip down some stairs at the bridge’s end, I move out of its stone and steel umbra onto the jogging path. It’s still drizzling a bit, so there are only a few Lycra-clad run-mannequins. I’m going northwest on JAMES I. RICE W. RIVER Pkwy., and, judging from the lack of motorized vehicles, it’s a seldom-used thoroughfare. To my right is still the familiar Mississippi River. But the beige and concrete-gray urban palette morphs into shades of green the further I walk, until the river and road drift away altogether and I’m ensconced in a Crayola-blend of emeralds and olives and mints. Minneapolis is cool in this regard; there are all sorts of forested gems laced through the city (Minneapolis is always featured in “Top 10” lists for best urban forests in the U.S. and boasts of having a park “every six blocks,” according to American Forests).
Before I know it, I’m crossing into the NORTH LOOP PLAYGROUND. Being that it’s a school day in the early afternoon, and a rainy school day to boot, there are no kids on the panoply of monkey bars, slides, and bridges. It’s a very nice playground, colored in natural tones of limestone and bark and organic drab with an inoffensive tree-and-stump motif that blends well with its lush and wooded periphery. Although I generally like playgrounds and take my daughter to them often, they contain the DNA of contrivance, of how parents want their children to experience life: on the parents’ terms rather than on the child’s terms. In essence, playgrounds are an authoritative statement of concrete and sand and iron that says (with a German accent, most likely) “You will play HERE in this designated construct!” They are places created to purportedly maximize fun while the children/participants benefit from an Ivory-Tower-thesis on gross and fine motor skills. All while mom and dad watch. Every. Thing. They. Do.
Civilization has a way of magnifying the hazards of the untamed and knotted wood. All the unquantifiable variables of the forest, all the lurking beasts and poisonous flora, have scared the shit out of parents since humankind could communicate. And this magnification, on some level, is certainly justifiable. In Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites, she writes that in India, from 1800 to 1900, tigers killed “approximately three hundred thousand people”. Scary shit, indeed. The Roman historian Tacitus stacked pejorative adjectives in front of all of his descriptions of the German wilderness in The Germania: forests are “bristling,” swamps are “foul,” and the landscapes “forbidding.” The forest is pretty much the ultimate manifestation of evil in most of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. We’ve been told the wilds are dangerous for eons, so thus playgrounds.
Do kids like playgrounds? Sure they do. But most of my great memories of childhood involve the shadow of a green canopy and the unknown of what lies under the rocks or down the hill or over the creek’s banks, far from the gaze of my parents. I’d be hypnotized by how intricate a spider’s web could be and then a startled moth would flutter and I’d chase him until I’d find a stick that was the perfect length for a broadsword or M-16 assault rifle. I’d get back in time for dinner with thorn scratches, with a wasp’s nest or a blue jay’s feather, with the black and red badges-of-honor known as mud and blood. I’d have triumphed against the dragon Tiamat or unearthed Viking ruins or traveled into the heart of Siberia to investigate the Tunguska meteor strike. I’d be Indiana Jones or Batman or just myself and my triumphs against evil felt earned. Where’s the mystery in a climbing wall? Where’s the danger in a seesaw? Where’s the sense of imagination in a twisting slide? Playgrounds wash away the unknown, the darkness, the narrative, the heart and soul of adventure, of the terrible thrills that go along with building a human consciousness. In Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, he says that a connection with nature
“inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion. Nature can frighten a child, too, and this fright serves a purpose. In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate place.”
I step into the playground’s wooded periphery. Sticks break like ancient bones under my feet. Leaves paint my calves with drops of water and the brown smell of life being born from a warm mass of death jumps from the forest’s floor. Trunks of young ash and birch bend against my rough pushes and there’s a wet rustle as I swim through the teeming super-organism. Gnats and mosquitoes play some sinister micro-version of bluegrass in my ear. I trudge for a solid three or four minutes (or so I estimate; time is swallowed by the freedoms and frustrations of nature) and I’m rewarded by a wooden staircase and a large dog’s footprints pressed into mud. My heart shudders and it is the shudder of fascination and surprise. The wooden stairs (and one of the stair’s steps is broken) lead down to a bevy of overhanging oaks and elms and a thickened tendril of water. For only a fraction of a moment, the staircase, replete with the danger and excitement inherent in its disrepair, is a hidden way to a goblin stronghold guarded by dire wolves. My heart savors this fraction of a moment, these few beats. Feels like a child’s heart behind my ribs.
BASSETT CREEK cuts a miniature swath through the forest. I bend down to view its origin and I’m reacquainted with the Mississippi. A wooden bridge reveals itself after the rotted staircase and, brushing a few cockleburs from my socks, I follow the bridge and then a beaten dirt path, going north, out of the forest. After a few uphill and slightly arduous steps, I’m out of the creek bed completely, out of the forest completely, and I’m back on JAMES I. RICE W. RIVER Pkwy. Continuing northwest, I spot a couple having a post-picnic snuggle on a blanket while their five-year-old boy, sporting a shirt that denotes him as “Daddy’s Little Tough Guy,” pokes at a clump of grass with a stick. He’s a good fifty feet away and they all seem content with the distance. The little boy looks up every now and then to investigate the seagulls high above. He waves his stick at them, gurgling some pre-school gibberish in the seagulls’ direction. I imagine he’s casting a spell to thwart their imminent, swooping attack. The little boy, eventually bored with the clump and gulls (and certainly the “yucky”-ness of his parents’ public display of affection), begins toward the forest. Begins a story that only he knows. Michael Chabon, in his essay The Wilderness of Childhood, wisely asserts that art
“is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted-not taught-to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?”
I think of this question as the little boy vanishes into a tangle of green and brown and black.
The clouds get dark and I’m at the intersection of JAMES I. RICE W. RIVER Pkwy. and N PLYMOUTH Ave. I’ve rarely ventured into North Minneapolis, a place labeled by most Minnesotans as a hotbed of crime and poverty (although the label is a bit unfair, might I add, since most of the information disseminated concerning North Minneapolis is the hearsay of suburbanites and cake-eaters who’ve never set foot there). I think of the little boy, about his boldness, his narrative, and go west on N PLYMOUTH Ave., transitioning from one type of “bristling” forest into another.
Check in next Thursday (ish) for Part Seven: Call of the North!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!