In Minneapolis they just had 17 inches of snow in the last 24 hours, a record. Thus a “What it’s like living here” piece from Adam Arvidson in Minneapolis is particularly timely. Perhaps it will be the last communication out of the city til spring. Adam is one of my current VCFA students, a brilliant science/nature writer who has contributed several fine craft essays to NC in the past few months.
What it’s like living here
from Adam Arvidson in Minneapolis
Blue has no dimensions, it is beyond dimensions, whereas other colors are not. They are psychological spaces; red, for example, presupposing a hearth releasing heat. All colors bring forth specific associative ideas, tangible or psychological, while blue suggests, at most, the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual nature what is most abstract.
– Yves Klein
You meet a girl. A local girl. They all seem to be local girls. You trudge through the snow between her apartment and yours in the middle of the street, because the sidewalks are unreliable—some already cleared by ambitious homeowners with powerful snowblowers, many still buried in the drifts. You don’t think it strange anymore when the first snowfall of the year happens in October. The public radio station devotes a whole hour to discussing the impending event, and listeners call in to ask when the earliest measurable snowfall occurred or what was the most snow the city ever got in October. You learn that talk about the weather isn’t just small talk here; it is a well-researched discussion, full of personal opinion, documented theses, and bold predictions. You surprise yourself by enjoying that October snowfall, the way it hangs in the trees still spangled with the yellow and orange of autumn, the way it lays on pumpkin patches like a blanket on a bed of marbles, the way the people immediately commandeer it for their own fun: the making of six-foot snowmen, the strapping on of actual skis to replace the versions with wheels that the die-hards have been training on for weeks, the dangerous racing on sleds down the park hills toward the not-yet-frozen creek. You marry the girl. You snowshoe with her under the gnarled bur oaks in the park near the house you bought together. She pauses, smiles, her winter coat bulging at the middle with your first-born. You drive past the lake near your house on the way to pick up the new storm windows you ordered, and you are struck by the blackness of the water—a bottomless void in the white world.
This is called the City of Lakes. Minneapolis. The Lakota word for water; the Greek word for city. There is hardly any private waterfront here. Cedar Lake, Lake of the Isles, Calhoun, Nokomis, Harriet, Hiawatha, Minnehaha Creek, the Mississippi River: The big houses stare at these waters across public swaths of green through which meander slow parkways, bicycle trails, walking paths, and lush plantings of trees and shrubs, lovingly maintained by the parks department. You move here for a job. You are a young landscape architect and there is a deep legacy here. In 1890 H.W.S. Cleveland laid out these 40 miles of waterside parkways. In 1930 came Theodore Wirth, the parks-builder, who made the nation’s northernmost public rose garden, wild bird sanctuaries, sledding hills, swimming beaches. His son Conrad, who grew up in a house in a park near Lake Calhoun, became director of the National Park Service in the 1960s and went on a building spree himself: visitor centers, trails, scenic overlooks: all you expect from National Parks today. Conrad’s son Ted, who visited his grandfather often in Minneapolis, built his own firm in Montana and designed park systems for the world: Riyadh, Kuwait, Nigeria. You are new here, and an anomaly. Everyone is from here and few leave. You walk the trails around Lake Harriet in 45 degrees in shorts and a tee-shirt.
You fall for a girl. A blue-eyed Norwegian redhead. A girl with a family who have lived here all their lives and have a cabin up north. The natives all have cabins and have left the urban lakes for other lakes. Minnesota. Land of 10,000 Lakes. 10,000 shards of summer sky reflected on the ground. Lakota for sky-tinted waters. The lakes become grass-tinted as the temperature rises, choked with algae feeding on the phosphorous you pour on your cabin’s lawn. You mow to the shoreline and dump sand for your beach on the reeds and arrowheads growing out in the water. You break the silence once broken only by loon calls with the scream of Jet-Skis. You campaign for a Constitutional amendment to forever protect your right to hunt, fish, and trap. You sue the government to let you shoot wolves. You marry the girl. And the family. You sit in traffic on Sunday afternoon on Highway 169 heading back to the city from Brainerd, your little boy, facing backward, unhappy, his lake-blue eyes squinched tight and soaking wet. Then you sit in traffic on Monday morning and make plans for another weekend at the cabin in just five workdays.
The summer construction season is ending and you attend grand openings. The Walker Art Center, lightning rod for anti-NEA conservatives, is featuring Eiko and Koma: a Japanese couple lying naked in a gallery in a bed of feathers – for a month. You sit politely and watch them move at glacial pace, then file out without a word. You wander the halls of this giant steel cube, designed by Swiss architects Herzog and deMeuron to resemble a folded bit of paper cut through paper-snowflake style. You watch the videos of how Yves Klein made his artworks: naked women bathing in International Klein Blue paint, then pressing themselves on canvases leaving the blue outlines of hips, breasts. You stare into his untitled blue squares and are pulled inward. Across town is the Guthrie Theatre, another grand opening, designed by Klein’s countryman Jean Nouvel. It sits above the river, a cobalt hulk at the scale of the hundred-year old General Mills and Pillsbury grain silos that stored the flour that built this city. You walk out on the skybridge, a cantilever stretching out toward the Mississippi River. You think it an unnecessary extravagance but that it offers an incredible view. The river rushes hundreds of feet below you, hemmed in by locks-and-dams and the ruins of original sawmill and flourmill races. To your left the water slides down St. Anthony Falls, once the most quickly eroding waterfall in the world, now a concrete flume. To your right the river curves from view through the gorge, the only place it is limited so tightly. Mississippi. Ojibwe for Great River. The leaves are changing. You are pretty far north, exactly half-way from the equator to the pole, and the summer light at 10 PM will soon give way to winter darkness at 4:30. You flee the city one last time to take the dock out of the water, pick Honeycrisp apples, navigate a corn maze.
You marry a girl. A girl with eyelashes long enough to catch snowflakes. A girl who stays fashionable in winter: sweater, scarf, long coat, tights, chunky Sorel snowboots. You buy a 1200 square foot bungalow near a lake in the city and you don’t meet your neighbors until spring. You move your car from one side of the street to the other and back, over three successive days, every time it snows, to let the plows clear the streets. Every storm is compared to the “Great Halloween Blizzard of 1991.” Your two-and-a-half year old son thinks a big lizard came to town last night. The city around you is dark but alive, grumbling about the slush, the chill, but reveling in the new possibilities of skiing on the creeks, cuddling up near the heat of coffee shop hearths. White Christmases are guaranteed. Your father-in-law takes you ice fishing, something you always thought pointless and boring, and you find there’s a certain Zen-like peace to it. The augur drills down into the lake to reveal a cylinder of blue, into which you drop your hooked minnow, weights, bobber, and you wait. After hours interspersed by sips of whisky, handfuls of canned mixed nuts, bites of sandwich warmed in foil on the propane heater, your bobber plunges downward. Your rod spins and you raise a crappie, speckled like a lake full of augur holes, cold and firm. You kill it with a blow to its head and hold it in bare hands like a chunk of ice, then toss it out of the shack to freeze. You learn that crappies taste better through the ice. You notice that the heavens and earth have reversed. The blue lakes of spring have iced and gone white. The hazy hot cloudy sky of summer has gone crystalline blue. Even married into this place, ice-caught crappie in hand, you will never be from here. But you will find it hard to leave.