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Out in the woods (07/16/2006)
By Frances Edstrom

John is spending the weekend at the summer board meeting of the Minnesota Free Paper Association, being held Up North in Brainerd.

I have mixed feelings about that Minnesota institution, Up North. Woods and lakes seem to exert a universal draw on the human imagination. But that drive to get there! Perhaps if my family had had a cabin Up North for generations, that drive would be a mere inconvenience. But since my emotional investment portfolio has a big zero next to Up North, it's the drive that keeps me close to home. A smart traveler would get a copy of War and Peace on talking books, and maybe be able to ignore the wall of SUVs, extended-cab pickups and RVs trailering bikes, boats, ATVs, Jet Skis, and, at least once that we saw, the family pet and his dog house. (The guy trailering the dog was also an Elvis impersonator, by vocation or avocation, I couldn't tell.)

To be fair to all of you who truly dig Up North, I do appreciate your feelings. I had a similar love of a little cabin in the woods on a small mountain pond in Vermont that my folks bought after I was out of the house. (Do you think the savings on groceries would be enough to afford such a thing?) But they, too, shuddered at bumper-to-bumper traffic and noisy neighbors who share your water, so while the rest of New England was overheating its engines on the way to Maine and New Hampshire, Mom and Dad wended their way to northern Vermont, which even now, nearly forty years after they bought their place, has not "caught on" with the hordes of East Coasters on holiday. That's probably why the ski resort there keeps going out of business.

When I was a kid, it seemed we had limitless woodsy and watery areas to play in around our suburban Boston neighborhood. A real pond was down the street, and that's where we took swimming lessons and spent many happy hours. A short walk from the bathing beach plunged you into the woods, where you could get relief from the sun and explore the paths through the trees. It was probably not much different from the woodsy area on the bike path here near the highway, but then it seemed to stretch into infinity, a mysterious abyss.

At the end of our block was another woodsy area near the ball fields. In there we discovered a small stream, more a rill, that was home to various small fish and many frogs and tadpoles. We found an old piece of plywood, which we imagined our raft, and fallen tree branch in hand to act as a pole, enacted our own version of Huckleberry Finn's adventures.

My brother, wanting to share the romance of our adventures with the rest of the family, one day brought home a baby frog. Mother was not fond of animals, domestic or wild. In spite of the fact that she regaled us with memories of her childhood pet, a dog named Count, she seemed to think that no one but an only child, which she had been until age 13, "needed" a pet. I wonder if she knew that all six of us had a secret wish to be an only child from time to time.

The frog then, was given an immediate eviction notice, but not before it had escaped on its own, and could not be found. Not found right away, let's say. Several weeks later, it surfaced in the basement near the washing machine. It had thrived in the basement, having no competition for the various bugs that inhabit such places, and had grown to such a size that it brought a scream from Mother that we could hear all the way out to the swing set.

My brother ran to rescue the frog, whose size by then much impressed him and made him want to keep it even more. But instead we organized a committee to escort him back to our little stream, where we staged an appropriate farewell ceremony. The frog never looked back.

Are adults just too old to recognize these pockets of wilderness in our urban neighborhoods, or have they been devoured by progress? Is that what pulls Minnesotans Up North, to search for a wilderness close to home, that's safe and not too, you know, wild? (Where do I plug in my hair dryer?) I'll have to ask John when he gets home. 


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