VOICES // Before the falls

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August 29, 2011
By: chuck terhark
chuck terhark
Wild Northeast

On screeching cicadas, flying carp and little dogs lost One of the unexpected joys of living in Northeast is its proximity to nature, which feels closer here than it does in the more concrete-covered portions of the city. This makes for tiny moments of beauty, and a few tragedies.

In these days of late-summer heat, the afternoons come alive with the song of the cicadas, revving their brittle, cavernous abdomens like tiny Harley-Davidsons in the trees. As I write this on a picnic table in my backyard, a neighbor’s lawnmower is locked in a sonic duel with the unearthly chorus of those crunchy little buggers, and the lawnmower is losing.

The oppressive heat so loved by the cicadas has made for poor fishing all summer, as fish, like myself, grow slow-witted above 90 degrees and prefer lazing to snacking. That didn’t stop the dreaded Asian carp from continuing its relentless thrust northward, as reports have emerged of the legendary silver variety encroaching into the St. Croix River, with some experts even estimating they’ve already reached St. Anthony Falls. These are the giant fish that become so flustered by passing boat motors that they take to the air, kamikaze-style, often to the chagrin of the boater’s face.

Moving up the food chain: Fox sightings were on the rise this year, as were coyotes, causing a few neighboring families to half-joke about keeping a closer eye on their toddlers. Just after sun-up one Monday morning last month a large red fox padded slowly down the sidewalk on University Avenue toward the bus stop, as though dutifully heading into the office. In truth she had probably just clocked out and was heading home to her litter following a long night’s work hunting rabbit. And good for her: The rabbits have become a plague, the unwitting beneficiaries of the urban farming trend.

Mountain lion sightings have been down following a peak year in 2010, but deer have been abundant as ever — perhaps no coincidence — and will likely become more so this fall, particularly near the river. The turkeys that haunt the hills of Audubon Park had an unusually active summer, squabbling and bickering and ranging closer to Downtown than usual, causing one bicyclist to do a double take and wonder whether his neighbor had taken to raising peacocks. A group of wild turkeys, by the way, is known as a “gobble” — another example of the poetry founding  the animal kingdom’s collective nouns.

There is another prominent class of wildlife in the neighborhoods of Northeast, apart from the pack of teenagers that egged my house last spring. (Is there a collective noun for teenagers? I nominate “jerkstore.”) They are our domestic cats and dogs, and for them, it was a hard summer. Two close friends lost dogs last month. Autopsy reports being unreasonable in this economy we can only guess at the cause, and both look like poisonings. The unprecedented July humidity gave rise to countless mushrooms, which may have been the culprits, or perhaps it was some other toxic vegetation, or a careless can of antifreeze or something else completely.

The weeks immediately following the loss of a dog are pure emotional pain, and the bereft dog owner isn’t likely in a mood to learn a lesson from the death of their best friend so soon, but the rest of us can and should. We owe it to our pets, and to the memories of other people’s who left too soon.

George Carlin once said that when you buy a dog, you buy a small tragedy. If the neighborhood telephone poles are any indication, this summer’s tragedies aren’t limited to my circle of friends. It began this spring with the appearance of “Missing” posters for a cat named Caesar. Hundreds of them, on every pole along every street in Northeast, sometimes three per pole. The bottoms were fringed with phone numbers, and nearly every poster was missing a few of them. I took one of the numbers myself after a month of seeing these posters. I wanted to know if Caesar had been found, but I couldn’t call. I’d started to enjoy seeing Caesar every day and wondering whether every passing stray was him, and I didn’t want to hear that this work was in vain.

A pet on a “Missing” poster becomes the shared burden of a community, and as with most burdens, they become objects of our affection as well. Our most recent communal pooch is Cooper, a Bichon Frise service dog owned by an autistic man who lives across the alley. I use the present tense as an act of defiance against increasingly long odds, as Cooper disappeared from his backyard almost two months ago. When the posters went up, there was no reward listed, because Cooper himself was once nearly stolen by a pair of hoods (or perhaps it was a jerkstore of teens) trying to cash in a reward for another identical dog. The more recent posters offer $500.

The most depressing statistic I’ve read concerning this new American recession comes from the American Kennel Club, which says in the last year, dog theft is up 32 percent. This makes no sense. I know nature is cruel, and that we live in a world where the cicada fears the squirrel fears the fox fears the lion. But Cooper should not fear the human. It makes you want to do something, anything, to make the natural world feel a little less unjust. Which isn’t far from what it must feel like to staple a second, and then a third, poster of your missing pet to a single telephone poll. And so I’ll end this little letter as that poster ends: If you find a little white dog with a tag that says “Cooper,” please call 612-789-3999.

Chuck Terhark writes a monthly column about life in Northeast.