The other day, Maren and I discovered a new species.
We were walking through a wooded section of a park in our neighborhood, listening for birds and trying to identify the swatches of feathers we could make out in the trees. Since we know nothing about birds, the conversation went something like this:
“There’s a robin!”
“There’s an oriole!”
“There’s a … um … Black and I Can’t Tell, Maybe Yellow-Winged—Yes, Yellow—Kinda Pudgybird.”
And then, in the undergrowth, a different sort of animal. Not a bird, but that’s all I can say with certainty.
It was the greyish brown of our local rabbits, and shared their round, fat bodies and huge back feet. It definitely hopped like a rabbit. But its tail was tiny, a stump rather than a fuzzball. And its head was like a squirrel: small, pointy, with stubby ears. We spent several minutes tracking it, intrigued, and decided it was the result of a squirrel mating with a bunny. A squnny.
I’m sure the naturalists will tell me it was some well-known species. But I prefer to think of it as a curiosity hiding in plain sight, our own personal discovery.
There’s always new stuff to find, even when we don’t venture very far. I love wandering around Minneapolis and exploring new neighborhoods. But lately I’ve realized that there's Cool New Stuff even closer to home, just across the street. Proximity is no guarantee of noticing. You have to be paying attention.
We live near Lake Harriet. In this City of Lakes, this one's ours. It’s a three-mile walk around the whole thing, three miles of well-kept paths and sights and delights, both lasting and ephemeral, personal and universal.
A cabinet of wonders just outside our door.
Some of them, actually, would fit in quite well with the believe-it-or-not curios of the actual Cabinets of Wonders that old-time aristocrats used to have.*
- Here is an elf house. Real thing. It’s in the hollow at the base of a tree. There’s a little ornately-carved wooden door with a little brass handle, and kids open the door and leave notes inside, and Mr. Little Guy writes back.
- Here is an elusive sea monster, which moves from lake to lake. Also a real thing, a Brontosaurus-poking-its-head-above-the-water thing. (Yes, there’s a logical explanation; no, I’m not going to provide it.)
- Here is the old trolley, the last remnant of a streetcar line that once crisscrossed the Twin Cities, one of the nation’s finest transit systems. Now, it’s a $2-a-head time machine that goes back and forth on a mile of track and across the generations.
- Here is what I’m pretty sure must be The World's Smallest Sailboat You Can Sit Inside, But Only After Mastering Elaborate Cirque de Soleil-Level Contortions. It looks like a sleek coffee table—very Urban Loft—into which someone has stuck a mast.
- Even more confounding are The Sailboats Large Enough to Sail Around the World, plying the waters of this mile-across lake.
- Over here, on the south end, are what I always think of as The Woods, where the path is tunneled with trees. And if you look through the gap—that gap, right there—you’ll get a view of the downtown skyline across the water, compact and modern, glass skyscrapers that glow (I mean really glow) at sunset, and you’ve gotta come here, to this gap, for the best view.
- Over there, asserting their presence, are the Sketchy Dudebro Ducks. Nature, man. Nature can be awful, especially during mating season. These guys are so terrifying in their pursuit of the Ladyducks—chasing them across the skies, attacking in the water—that just watching them for thirty seconds would surely make even the most hardened human misogynist shudder and join the National Organization for Women.
- On a happier note, here are the teeny-tiny ducklings following their mother in the water, little balls of fluff with beaks, paddling for all they’re worth while the runners and Rollerbladers and Sketchy Dudebro Humans in their Hummers stop on the paths and roads encircling the lake and stare and smile and let out a collective aww.
The humans. Cruising in their cars, whizzing past on Tour-worthy bikes, walking with their families … to say nothing of the runners.
- Oh, the runners. So many varieties of runners that to begin to categorize them in any manageable way, you'd have to start up at Class before branching out into Family, Genus, Species. The fleet-footed, tattooed hipster moms and dads pushing their kids in their $1,000 strollers. The gangly high-schoolers who plod past with an air of youthful exuberance matched by stoic commitment to beefing up the ol' college-app resume. The bespectacled and manifestly Not Fit creative types whose pallor and physique betrays their many hours indoors, in front of a computer, and a general lack of familiarity with the sun or exercise.
- Over here are the sedentary lake-goers at the beach. Satisfying the innate human urge to go lie on a towel on some sand, even if the body of water isn’t exactly the ocean, the waves decidedly un-surfable, the stretch of sand just a few yards wide. No matter. Just look at the sign: South Beach.
The curiosities aren’t all visual.
- There are also the sounds. The community orchestras playing at the bandshell, the walkers gossiping, the cars slowly cruising (yesterday, “Call Me Maybe” was on heavy rotation).
- My favorite, though, is what you hear when you walk past the sailboats parked at their buoys: their halyards, all clinking that just-right metal-on-metal note, bright and resonant and deeply satisfying. A cricket-like embodiment of All That Is Right About Summer.
- And the tastes. Next to the bandshell, there’s a refectory—snack bar, if you prefer—called Bread & Pickle. I recommend the cheese curds (house made) and a hibiscus iced tea (ditto). An odd pairing, I realize. But it works.
Or at least it works for me. And that may be because part of the attraction here at Lake Harriet comes from that most potent of all wonder-makers, nostalgia. The broader kind—the street car and bandshell do their golly-gee darndest to conjure a Rockwellian Simpler Time—but also the personal kind.
- Out there, in the middle of the lake, that’s where we walked last winter, when it was frozen solid. Where we made snow angels and waved at the jets landing at MSP, which is just a couple of miles over that way.
- Here is the Peace Garden, where my friends Andrew and Becky got married.
- Here is the field where, watching a movie-in-the-park with Maren on one of our first dates, I first fell head-over-heels in love with her. The table where we sat, drinking hibiscus tea and eating cheese curds and chatting until long after Bread & Pickle had closed for the night.
- Here is the bench where, one unseasonably warm evening in March, I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me.
- Here is the kiosk where you can rent a canoe or a kayak. We keep meaning to do that. A memory yet to be formed.
I’m curious to see what fresh wonders await out there on the water.
* By the by, this is a fascinating book about actual old-school cabinets of wonder and the cabinet-of-wonder-evoking Museum of Jurassic Technology, whose exhibits may or may not be real.