Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Getting to Know the Neighbors Pt 2

By the time we arrived at the Frank Lloyd Wright center in Spring Green, all the tour buses had left, which allowed us to save a hundred dollars or so in entry fees. We examined the Frank Lloyd Wright coffee mugs and the Frank Lloyd Wright silk ties in the gift shop and then continued down the banks of the beautiful Wisconsin River, which had been so important to the early exploration of the interior of the continent. I my youth I read Francis Parkman’s LaSalle and the Discovery of the Great West cover to cover, and the experience took on new shades of meaning as we zoomed through the woods alongside the river.

Wisconsin is older than Minnesota. The towns are older, the buildings are older, and everything is slightly different. We stopped at a café in the village of Boscobel, where the Gideon’s Society of Christian Travelers was founded in 1898. Since that day 1.3 billion Bibles have been placed in motel rooms throughout the world. (That’s a lot of Bibles.)

It was approaching evening by the time we arrived at the Super 8 in Prairie du Chien, a town who's chief claims to fame is that it is the only town in the world named Prairie du Chien. Peat’s Hamburger Shack downtown was having its hundredth-birthday celebration (When was the hamburger invented, anyway?) but as we stood in line in the parking lot I could see the burgers through the window, swimming in grease, and I convinced Hilary we would have better luck, and a shorter wait, at the deli of the Piggly Wiggly down the street.

The next morning we drove up to the cliffs at Wyalusing State Park, on the south side of the Wisconsin River where it enters into the Mississippi. There are effigy mounds all along the cliff-tops, many of them dating back more than three thousand years. It was a foggy gray morning, the views were majestic but less expansive that normal because of the fog, and what appealed to me more than anything was the extraordinary array of summer weeds and grasses lining the path. I don’t the names of more than a few, but the soft light and the moisture from the fog gave each individual frond and seed and stem a sharply-edged and dramatic presence.

Later we crossed the river to Effigy Mound National Monument, which had a well-fitted and informative visitor center. But the center was down in the valley in the shadow of the bluffs, and I was sure that the last time I was there (which was thirty years ago) you could drive up to see the mounds. Nowadays the only way to see them is to hike up the hill. And that’s fine with me. I was curious to know if my memory of having driven up was correct, but I was reluctant to ask. I didn’t want to be taken for one of those red-necked rubes who say, “You mean we have to walk up?” Ah, vanity!

The walk to the top was extraordinary, switchbacks up the steep wooded hillsides, tall trees, very little underbrush, everything wet from the mist, glistening. No one there but us—for the time being. The mounds rise perhaps five feet above the surrounding landscape in long chains, and an individual mound might extend for fifty or a hundred feet or more. Some of them were shaped like bears but most were merely cones or elongated geometric shapes. Once again I was taken more by the solitude, the moisture, and the vegetation than by the mounds themselves. And our visit was elevated another notch or two when we spotted two red-headed woodpeckers chasing one another through the trees.

The final stop on our weekend road trip was Cedar Rapids where our friends Mary Beth and Glenn Freeman live. We proceeded south on Highway 13, and the stretch between Farmersburg and Strawberry Point was awesome, putting to rest any notion that Iowa is flat and featureless. The highway cuts across the valleys of the Turkey and the Volga rivers (A sort of geographic Cold War in miniature, I guess) and the distant layering of hills and valleys, fields and woodlots, is simply lovely. I have driven most of the valleys of the Root, Zumbro, and Whitewater rivers in Southeast Minnesota, but this expanse really takes the cake.

We stopped at the Burger Barn just outside Elkader and ate lunch at a picnic table in the parking lot. Four white-haired ladies—I’d put them at 75 at least—were enjoying ice cream cones in the shadow of the awning, and there was a good deal of commotion when one of them was struck by the sudden fear that she’d eaten the white paper wrapper of her cone.

“I don’t see it. If I didn’t eat it, then where is it?” And they all began searching through the gravel under the table, laughing good-naturedly.

Cedar Rapids isn’t a BIG city, but it’s a lot bigger than a small city, and Glenn and Mary Beth gave us a tour of both the flooded areas and the cultural hotspots (often one in the same, alas!) as we listened to Amy Klobuchar tell jokes on the Prairie Home Show being broadcast live from Avon, Minnesota. Glenn is a professor of creative writing at nearby Cornell College and Mary Beth buys a good share of the textbooks for Kirkwood Community College. (Kirkwood was recently cited by a local business publication as the “Best Place to Work in Eastern Iowa.” I don’t think Mary Beth would agree.)

They live in a hilly neighborhood east of downtown, and it was a pleasure to sit on their deck at the top of the hill watching the fireworks (and also the fireflies) as darkness fell and the strains of Cannonball and Coltrane, Brazilian Forró, and Eddie Harris wafted out through the window from the rec room. The next morning Glenn (who used to be a chef at Café Brenda) made us some huevos rancheros with beans, we took a walk along their favorite creek, and then reluctantly turned our noses toward home.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Visit to the Walker

It was one of those “tourist in our own home town” days. Lunch at the Malaysian restaurant Singapore on 26th and Nicollet, a stop at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see the new Pre-Raphaelite show featuring William Holman Hunt, a visit to the ‘Lectric Fetus, where I was sorry to see the jazz section so terribly depleted (I bought an Ahmad Jamal CD with a sideman playing the steel drum) and finally, a stop at the Walker Art Center to see the new pottery show, “Dirt on Delight.”

The Holman Hunt exhibit confirmed my view of how BAD the Pre-Raphaelite painters really are. Anachronistic themes (Camelot, Jesus in the Temple, etc), garish colors, phony poses, rosy-cheeked Palestinians and Egyptians—they would serve adequately as illustrations for children’s books (printed in China) but the combination of meticulous detail and utter lifelessness sets a benchmark against which all subsequent works and movements seem remarkably imaginative and daring. The black and white engravings were better than the paintings themselves.

The pottery show at the Walker, on the other hand, which the reviewers had made to sound dreadful, even in praising it, turned out to be sheer delight. As you walk into the room you’re greeted by an array of colorful sculptural blobs of clay, misshapen vessels, and rococo figurines sitting on tables, on stands, or on the floor.

Imagining that I would never have heard of any of the 22 artists included in the show, I roamed the room freely without bothering to read any of the plaques. And I saw the beauty of the clay, which gushes and oozes. I saw the genius of those who could bring the clay to life in little figures of people dancing together, laughing, or milking cows. I saw the remarkable incandescent red of one set of pots, sitting on the floor like a set of waspish paper lamps from IKEA, glowing with thermonuclear heat. And I saw the post-modernist classicist references of pots that combined whimsy, structure, and geology (see above). There were orifices (George Ohr) and incense-burners (Eugene Von Bruenchenhein), classical busts, mushed (Robert Arneson) and absurdist abstractions (Peter Voulkos).

(I got these names just now from the brochure, which is sitting here on my desk.)

And speaking of Peter Voulkos, we visited the traditional potter Otto Heino at his studio in Ojai, California, a few years ago, and he informed us with ill-concealed glee, “Peter Voulkos has huge warehouses filled with his pots in Los Angeles…and no one wants them. But I sell everything I can make!")

I don’t know if I would care to own any of the monstrosities on display in the Walker show. But wandering among them, I couldn’t help saying to myself, “Gee, this is fun!”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Getting to Know the Neighbors

On the long fourth of July weekend, foregoing all thought of an African safari, we embarked on a modest “getting acquainted” road trip to our near neighbors Wisconsin and Iowa. The hills along the freeway in western Wisconsin are always a pleasure to motor through, and it’s easier to enjoy them when you aren’t making a long haul to Madison or Chicago. We were destined for Devil’s Lake State Park and the International Crane Center just north of Baraboo.

I have read that Devil’s Lake gets more visitors every year than Yellowstone. Well, it didn’t seem that crowded to me. The lake itself was a bit forlorn, tucked within its envelope of towering gray cliffs. We had secured a wooded campsite in the Ice Age ring on-line, and that entire zone of the campground proved to be not only heavily shaded but downright chilly. We spent the better part of the evening sitting on the dusty ground in our collapsible leg-less chairs, watching the fire as the children from the neighboring sites, all of whom seemed to know one another, rode their bikes repeated back and forth, to and from the toilet facilities that were just across the road. We had already hit the sack when camp songs began to drift our way through the night, but I conked out before I had time to get worked up about it. Much later we weres awakened by the sound of a barred owl hooting from the branch of a tree close by—in fact, it sounded like it was right outside the tent. Listening near at hand to the rich extended trill at the end of the fourth and last note of that haunting call was a real thrill. Over and over and over again.

The next morning we broke camp at sunrise and headed into Baraboo, passing Circus World along the way. It appeared to be closed, all the booths were empty, but the place did look intriguing from the window of a speeding car. After an odd sort of breakfast in downtown Baraboo—huevos rancheros with no beans?—we continued a few miles north to the crane center, situated out in the hilly fields a few miles north of town. The center is dedicated not only to breeding cranes of all sorts in captivity, but also to education projects designed to maintain and expand the habitat that cranes need to survive. Their most well-publicized projects are designed to increase the population of whooping cranes, and even to establish alternative migration routes with the use of ultra-light aircraft. But the Center also devotes funds and personnel to far-flung places in China and Africa with the same end in view—to enhance the habitat of the grus species that live in those parts of the world.

It’s fun to look at the maps and watch the videos, but most people come to the center to see the cranes themselves, and if I’m not mistaken, there is no other place in the world where you can see all fifteen species within the space of forty-five minutes.

Cranes are beautiful—though the waddled crane is not quite so beautiful as some. The crowned cranes of Africa, with golden spikes of feathers rising from the tops of their heads, are so exotic as to appear almost comical. I was confused as to which species—the Siberian crane or the red-crowned crane—is we one we see so often in Chinese paintings, and it perturbed me to realize that if I had looked at the paintings more carefully in the first place, this would never have been an issue.

The sandhill cranes in their pen looked much smaller than the ones we often see by the hundreds in the cornfields outside Grantsburg, but I suppose they may have been a non-migratory subspecies brought in from Florida.

Some of the cranes were leaping about and squawking in their grassy wedge-shaped pens. Others were pacing back and forth anxiously right in front of us. The whooping cranes, an elegant white, have been given an enclosure of several thousand square feet, and they were standing on a ridge above a pond when we arrived. They looked like egrets, only far more robust and twice as big. It was amazing to consider that the population of this species had been reduced to a dismal twenty birds by the early twentieth century, and stayed at that dangerously low level for decades. Today North America can boast 250-odd whooping cranes, and I would like to propose that we match every tax dollar we spend to send another man to the moon with fifty cents to improve whooping crane habitat and flyways.

After viewing the various birds we wandered for a while through the patches of prairie north of the enclosures, and we could see “Crane City” in the distance across the fields. That’s where they breed the birds and hatch the chicks. It’s off-limits to visitors, though we could hear the squawking loud and clear.

It was well into the afternoon by the time we hit the road. Returning to Devil’s Lake, we hiked up into the cliffs for a bit, then wandered across a field at the east end of the park, getting a feel for the landscape. Meadowlarks were everywhere, and by their simple call I could tell they were the eastern subspecies, which we very seldom get in Minnesota. I also spotted a species I’d never seen before, common though it’s reputed to be—the dickcissel. Though its call was intriguing, we had just spent the morning staring at elegant long-throated white creatures standing five feet in the air, and the lowly dickcissel suffered a bit in comparison— just one more little brown bird to add to the list.

By the time we arrived at the Frank Lloyd Wright center in Spring Green... (to be continued)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Best Bike Ride

Minneapolis is well-endowed with bike paths, ranking second only to Amsterdam in one survey. The city’s famous chain of lakes is rimmed with trails, of course, and abandoned rail lines, recently resurfaced and supplied with informational kiosks, also lead out of the city in every direction. Many of the regional parks have extended asphalt loops for bikes, and I think I may have been on all of them.

The best park loop, in my opinion, can be found at Elm Creek Reserve in Maple Grove, just north of Osseo. The twenty miles of trails here course up and down gentle hills, across swamps, through deep woods and over prairielands, past plum trees and majestic islands of sumac. Yellowthroats chatter in the willow thickets and swans nest on the lakes.

The best exurban rail line may well be the recently-completed strip from Wayzaya to St. Bonifacius. Such routes through the suburbs tend to be straight, shady, and a little dull, but the Wayzata line crosses several bays and hugs the shore of Lake Minnetonka for quite a while; it also passes several swamps, and gains in interest due to the architecture and landscaping of the tony neighborhoods it passes through. There’s a decent old-fashioned drive-in just east of Mound (though I wish they’d turn that Paul Anka tape off) and the last few miles before you reach St. Bonifacius run through wide-open country.

But the Minneapolis route par excellence goes like this. You park on any quiet street on the northwest side of Cedar Lake and follow the shore of the lake north to the old Burlington rail lines. From here you ride east toward downtown Minneapolis, leaving the asphalt trail in time to dodge under the elevated freeway and continue east two blocks to the sculpture garden of the Walker Art Center. Here you pass through the tall evergreen hedge into the garden, dismount, and walk along the arbor, admiring the spectacular array of flowers.

When you reach the east end of the arbor, return to the street and cross over to Loring Park, where you can take a look at another fine garden just north of the lake.

Heading northeast on city streets for a few blocks, you’ll come to Nicollet Mall, where there is virtually no automotive traffic and biking is legal on weekends. A trip up the mall is an urban feast of people-watching (watch out for the buses) and a short jog to the east along Washington Avenue will bring you to the weekend farmer’s market across the street from the Guthrie Theater. The produce here is seriously overpriced, but they have a petting zoo, the crowd is diverse yet uniformly well-healed, and it’s fun to wander, sampling the smoked salmon and the artisan cheese made from the milk of cows that have been fed exclusively on organically-raised strawberries.

At this point you head down the lovely path that follows the Mississippi, past the twisted rubble of the freeway collapse and the shining façade of the University’s Weisman Art Center. By the time you reach Franklin Avenue, the river is far below you and the next few miles, though pleasantly shady, are marred by the poor quality of the aged asphalt. But before long you’ll reach Minnehaha Park, where you can indulge in a plate of calamari at the outdoor café or simply spend a few minutes admiring the waterfall.

The final leg of the trip takes you west alongside tiny Minnehaha Creek as it winds through the Nokomis neighborhood and Tangletown, twisting and turning through the trees; this stretch may be the most fun to ride, and when you reach Lake Harriet you'l be cheered to think that at this point, you’re no more than five miles from your car.

Whenever I come upon the sailboats moored on the northwest side of Lake Harriet, I can’t help but think of Monet’s Argenteuil, and the retro bandshell in the distance on the north end of the lake does nothing to undermine the association. The ice cream at the bandshell is top-flight, and it might be worthwhile taking a detour along the north side of the lake to the rose garden.

Lake Calhoun has a more expansive and genuinely urban feel. The grassy sward along the southwest shore of the lake draws frisbee and volleyball enthusiasts from all around, and motorcyclists mill around along the parkway admiring one another’s machines.

Our route takes us north across Lake Street and down Dean Parkway to the Midtown Greenway, a sunken rail bed that cuts east-west through the heart of South Minneapolis, but we’ll only be on that path for a few hundred yards, pedaling west, before veering north toward Cedar Lake.

Cedar is the poor relation of the chain—the “quiet” lake with marshes and woods across the north end and a “hidden beach” tucked into the vegetation on its eastern shore that has only recently been incorporated into the Minneapolis park system. Circumnavigating the west shore of the lake (popular with fishermen) we arrive back at the car, a little weary perhaps, but altogether exhilarated by the colorful, leafy, heavily-used but still very attractive urban environment we’ve been cycling through.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


…is a black singer from Portugal with roots in the Cape Verde Islands. She arrived at the Dakota last night to do two sets—flaming red dress, mountains of curly black hair, a smile as large as a telephone booth and a gleam in her eye that was pure delight. The delight comes from being on stage, from singing, from having fun, from showing off her gifts. Sexy, yes, but with a certain artlessness that seems to say, “Where I come from we enjoy ourselves, we sing, we dance. Why not enjoy life? Really. Why not?”

What you also notice is her petite but muscular body, and in the course of the show you begin to understand how she keeps in shape. Her dancing is a combination of arm and shoulder poses, hip shifts, leg pumps—the type of gesture you would do yourself if you were standing on a beach surrounded by tiki lamps with the surf rolling in and this kind of music playing behind you. But you wouldn’t do them nearly so well.

All of which is not to deny the appeal of the music itself. Lura’s voice is crisp, powerful, medium in weight, with little tremolo. She spits out the multisyllabic lyrics of the fast numbers as if they were little pearls and carries the slower numbers without milking them excessively. There is a straight-ahead quality to her singing, as if the words meant something to her, though she knows that no one is the audience can understand the Cape Verdian patois. (A friend who was with us at the show is fluent in Portuguese, but she could only pick out an isolated word here and there.)

The band is admirably restrained. The guitarist has pleasant gaps between several of his teeth; he grins often and supplies a light sprinkling of notes that sometimes almost sound like a steel drum. The bass player is solid and unassuming, the drummer—very fine. The pianist lent a touch of balladic pop to some of the numbers. And the violinist, complete with pony tail, laid down a piercing counter-melody from time to time. No one soloed much, though there were flashes of brilliance here and there throughout the evening. It was as if they were just as enchanted as we were by the infectious rhythms of the music they were creating, and by Lura herself.

Check out her music here.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

“Simply Unacceptable”

It may not be the most dangerous expression to have crept into the political vocabulary in recent times, but it could, perhaps, be the most inane. I’m referring to the habit of our leaders, when faced with a mishap or shortcoming on the part of some local agency or foreign power, to refer to the event as “unacceptable.” For example, Senator Lieberman, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, referred to the recent report that on ten occasions, agents had infiltrated high-level government offices and assembled bombs there, just to see if they could do it, as “simply unacceptable.”
What does he mean by this?

If your eighth grade science teacher gives an assignment, and the report you hand in doesn’t meet the requirements, he might hand it back to you with the remark, “This is unacceptable.” What he means is that it doesn’t meet the stipulated requirements, and you’ll have to do it over or else get a failing grade for the project. But when Senator Liebermann refers to numberous breeches of security as “simply unacceptable,” does he mean that the 13,000 security guards that have been hired in recent years to maintain our security will all be fired? In fact, the expression means nothing in the context of that turn of events. It sounds like the gasping remark of the high school instructor who’s trying to sound tough, “I won’t stand for that kind of behavior!” though he has no idea how to keep it from happening.

The silver lining, if there is one, is this. We thought we were being protected from terrorist attacks by Homeland Security. But it may be that our lives have remained relatively peaceful of late for the simple reason that very few people in the world really want to blow anything up.