Tag Archives: Indianapolis


Somewhere on one of my short runs through the city of Indianapolis I saw a single bagworm sack hanging from the limb of a small, street side, deciduous tree. Was it a maple tree? A pear? Maybe a ginkgo or tulip? I’m not sure. It was a brief image as I passed by on a wintry run. I see it very clearly now, in memory, but I have no idea where it is. I often run out from my office or home in a more or less straight path for two or three miles, but make my way back in a series of dog-leg turns. The little sack, if it’s still dangling from its limb in the wind and ice and snow, could be anywhere on either side of the street for roughly twenty miles of running routes. I doubt I will ever see it again. A woodpecker or crow will likely find it first.

The bagworm hangs suspended in my disjointed memory with tenacity. It does so, in part, because it belongs more in my memory than it does in an urban landscaping tree. Were I a child again in rural Kentucky, I could find hundreds of these in cedar thickets and fence rows. I see them now at eye level, practically in the face, as I tracked various critters through day old snow.

The evergreen bagworm (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) in winter is a prickly sack of leather encasing the dead body of a mouthless, headless, wingless, legless female moth. And inside her body, itself really just a sack, the shiny little eggs, tapioca pearls, wait for spring. Most home owners with manicured evergreens will consider the moth to be a pest; it is voracious and unsightly. We trimmed them off our cedar Christmas trees with pruning shears. The gut strings of their bags are so tough that they can girdle a small limb … and in a season or two, choke it out to brown.

Here in Indianapolis, recent winters have been mild. The moth is increasing its northern range. In twenty years of living north of the Ohio River, this is the first evergreen bagworm that I have seen. I am sure that there have been many others, especially in the southern part of Indiana, but I have missed them. This December has been cold. If the coming months are colder, the moth may retreat a season or two to the south. What little, aimless sense I have of home follows.

Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis


South of 11th street, the Indianapolis Central Canal finishes its last mile and a half in a concrete basin. At, roughly, sixteen feet below the city streets, it is a welcome and mostly pleasant alternative to the ordinary urban bustle. Nonetheless, but for goldfish and mallards, it’s a lifeless display. The ecosystem is still recovering from the city’s $423,000 cleanup (completed three years ago) and battling a monthly barrage of anti-algae treatments. Before the “cleanup” the canal (especially near the government building and the State Museum) was a foul mess. Full of weeds and algae and rotting vegetation, the methane was strong and gurgled audibly. But the weeds, while hiding the concrete, gave cover to the fish; the bass, bluegill, and carp swam slowly, in and out of view in the submerged forest.

Today, the ginkgo trees have shed their nuts and the mums have begun to brown. The water’s surface gathers corner blankets of blown leaves, slowly sinking. November tannin and tea. Below, the goldfish, some with fan tails and few longer than a hand, hang two feet and deeper beneath the wind and rain. Waiting.

I miss the old, foul canal. Without another cleaning, it will return … probably within the decade. I miss, already, the seasons of increase. The bottom growth rising to the surface, fecund and rich. But the summer passed with equal violence and the fall was too warm, and now, the waiting.

Folly and Place: Madison, Indiana

We recently returned from a semi-annual camping trip in southern Indiana. After the fourth stay at Clifty Falls State Park, the Madison, Indiana area has begun to shape itself in my memory, but vaguely. New vocabulary words need frequent repeating (more than 10 times) before the student owns and uses them with confidence. New languages appear, at one level of mastery, in the speaker’s dreams. Places, in my experience, require either longer or deeper practice. I have dreamed, in my current recollection, of only four loosely defined places: two from my childhood in Kentucky, one in northern Indiana (the first decade of my adult life), and a single street in Montreal. With the exception of Montreal, which can claim only a few weeks, these places mark seasons and years of eating, sleeping, and traveling across a local landscape. (These five years in Indianapolis will wake up someday, perhaps.) Long before they appear in dreams, places need associations. If these are not forged by the force of events, they are built on repeated exposures.

Madison, Indiana, however, might be an exception. Some places (or rather, the communities that occupy them) cultivate shared and public identities–a kind of personality, narrative, or brand, at once explaining and claiming a cause for existence. Madison has spent a hundred years or more preserving its downtown as an antique. In doing so, it displays a proud, but also sad, and even a bit desperate, character. Of course, I do not know anyone that lives there, and I reflect here upon only the most shallow encounters, but nonetheless, Madison has chosen to preserve a memory of its days as booming city on the Ohio. During the first half of the 19th century, it was the largest city in Indiana–“1,752 souls” in 1830. I’m not sure why it did not become a Louisville or a Cincinnati, but when the railroads and the highways crisscrossed through the city of Indianapolis, the distant Madison was marginalized. Through Indianapolis, central Indiana agriculture and industry had quick and convenient means to trade with larger markets. Indianapolis won much that Madison lost.

Now Madison has adorned itself with historical markers. A century and a half after its golden days, the city prides itself in having avoided becoming a metropolis. As writers of the excellent, digital library project, “River to Rails“, note:

[Madison] maintained her pride in just maintaining. As a result, perhaps no other city in the country can boast of so many homes and businesses on the National Historical Register. … In the long run, who can say if Madison might not have followed the best path after all.

Pride preserved or not, signs of Madison’s (old and relatively recent) desperation are not hard to find. The massive towers of the Indiana Kentucky Electric Corporation (IKEC) power plant loom over the city and are visible or audible from every point in the state park. IKEC is the county’s largest tax payer and employs hundreds, but (built in 1952) it is a visible departure from Madison’s efforts to preserve its heritage. The bridge (first built in 1929) over the Ohio to the tiny town of Milton, Kentucky must have been a similar effort to improve Madison’s economic competitiveness. The impact of the bridge was probably minimal (it merely replaced the ferry business to a very rural county), but the bridge will be rebuilt in the next couple of years. An even older and less successful effort can be found in Clifty Falls State Park. There many of the hiking trails were built on the remnant of Brough’s Folly, a failed attempt to improve Madison’s early access to railroads. In the 1850s John Brough, president of the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad and future governor of Ohio, began constructing a winding and less steep track out of the river valley. The track would have made rail traffic to and from Madison easier. The existing route, the Madison Incline (also known as “the cut”), was far too steep. The project ran out of funds and was never completed. Had it been completed, it would have slowed Madison’s economic losses.

Madison Incline

Madison Incline

I’m happy to hike where the railroad construction did not succeed, but I’m sure many families suffered when Madison lost future jobs. Undoubtedly, people moved away from the land that they knew in their dreams, away from the people and neighbors with whom they shared deep, domestic responsibilities. The empty tunnel, the abandoned trestles, and the ceaseless hum of the power plant at Clifty Falls have reignited my interest in questionable moral value of loyalty to place. In recent years I have moved away from my places, physically and intellectually. I have declared my home (broadly speaking) in the world without declaring allegiances to specific locations–cities, states, and even countries. Visiting Madison, Indiana (a place bearing the scars of its self-preservation) and living in the city it could not become (Indianapolis) is a reminder that such decisions are not so clean.

Black Berries

Black raspberry

Black raspberry, watercolor 1893

Here, Indianapolis, only the last raspberries, those hidden deep in the thorny shade, remain on the cane brambles after July 4th. I found a few of these on my bicycle commute to work. The fruit hides just off the paved path topping one of the White River levees. I’ve stopped there nearly everyday for a month–decreasing my work productivity by a few minutes, daily. On one of these days, a black guy stopped his regular trek (I see him often) to ask me what I was doing. I told him that I had found some raspberries and I gave him a handful. He ate these and noted: “We call these ‘blackberries'”. I think I might have tried to explain that what I call a “blackberry” (Rubus fruticosus) is different from what I call a “raspberry” (Rubus occidentalis), but he wasn’t interested. His manner suggested that he already knows what “we” call these berries, and I (not being of his “we”) have no place to call for clarifications.

I had a similar discussion in November at church. There I made the white error of referring to the “dressing” as “stuffing”. I was told that “we” call it “dressing”. (I think I’ve heard my white, southern relatives call it “dressing” as well … so, that “we” might be more inclusive.) I will concede that “dressing” seems more sophisticated than “stuffing” … also, “stuffing” is seldom stuffed these days. However, I happen to think that life is one berry richer with (and one berry poorer without) the raspberry, but that is beside the point. Also beside the point, is the fact that one may find plenty of raspberry recipes in soul food cookbooks. (See, for example, Patty Pinner’s Sweety Pies.) Not every black person thinks “blackberries” while eating raspberries, but the above “we” do.

“We” matters far more than the names of berries. One might afford some poverty in exchange for the communal wealth of “we”. I have heard, in my limited experience, a lot of “we” in black speech. It claims the territory and recognizes a difference; it lets everyone (“we” and not-“we”) know that another cultural currency is alive, well, and perhaps beyond reach.

White people use “we” too; in reference to any group: a church, a profession, a family, or a community of people with shared interests. Do white people use “we” when talking to black people about the ways of whiteness? I cannot remember having done so, but I’m sure that “we” do that sometimes. Whiteness assumes a broader territory. Whiteness imagines itself as the norm; a norm against which any “we” might be employed for distinction. White people, therefore, do not want a “we” for whiteness. White people look for a “we” elsewhere … or they join the Klan.

Of all the “we” inclusions a white person might assume to someday achieve (political parties, team allegiances, religious affiliations, professional associations), blackness is beyond reach. In the case of my fellow commuter, “we” is worth a poverty of berries. Sadly, “blackberries” are free, but roadside raspberries are a luxury not everyone can afford.

Urban Mullein

Verbascum thapsus

Projekt Runeberg: CAM Lindman: Bilder ur Nordens Flora. 1917-1926.

A vacant house in my neighborhood sports a good paint job, a well-kept lawn, and a hedge garden with three, very tall mullein plants. Apparently, the folks who are paid to mow the grass do not know that “Cowboy Toilet Paper” is not a popular landscaping plant.

Though near enough, the three plants grow separated by a distance which would suggest a deliberate planting. At over eight feet tall, they make a fetching place to stop on an otherwise concrete and asphalt tour of this part of urban Indianapolis. The plant is a weed, an invasive from Europe. Invasive, but with a longer history on this soil than have many of my relatives. Verbascum thapsus has some merit (medicinally, structurally, and in pure, but restrained tenacity … it can also be used to harvest fish) and perhaps it has a claim to this place which equals my own. As weeds go, I prefer it to the monocultural, yellow stretches of drab and squat day lilies planted in city medians.

For the vacant house, however, it is a sad but fitting monument. No one lives there to rip it from the garden, but (even sadder) someone meant to garden, but left the work unfinished. Mullein seeds rest in the soil for years waiting for someone to scalp the sod and start a project. Exposed, they germinate. Two years later (two years after a garden’s false start) they shoot up a bloom spike and prepare to drop their tiny seeds nearby. Biennials, the plants will die this winter and fall over sometime in the spring. The surrounding weeds will prevent a new crop of mullein. Thus, so it is, for one year only, a vacant house boasts the most interesting hedge garden on its street.

Eight-and-a-half Innings

We took three of the children to an Indianapolis Indians baseball game on Monday. The kids payed little attention to the game. (Hot dogs, cracker jacks, popcorn, and peanuts were on the dollar menu.) It was the second Indians game and probably the fifth or sixth professional game I’ve attended. Back in the very late 70s I saw the Cincinnati Reds play the Montreal Expos in Cincinnati. I remember the van ride, the seats (third base), and hoping for a foul ball. I think Tony Perez was playing. I liked his card.

I almost remember attending a minor league game in Louisville, but in any case, I took a long, uninterested, aimless break from baseball. (I like athleticism and competition, but I am not much for fandom.) I did not see another game until I had my own, uninterested children in tow. Exemplifying the aimless disinterest, my most memorable experience sitting in a baseball stadium has little to do with baseball and much to do with a fondness for insects. I remember one night, nearly a decade ago, at a South Bend Silverhawks game. A lone praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) rose over the seats and the stadium roof. She seemed huge in the evening light and summer heat. Tilting this way and that and hovering, at once a hulking, opportunistic predator and (had there been a bird nearby) easy prey.

At Monday’s game, I did not see any insects. I remembered the mantis, however, when a mourning dove flew up out of the right field bullpen. While the mantis seemed fragile, but dangerous, the dove appeared to be overweight and a poor flyer. It too flew over the stadium, flapping awkwardly to clear the double-deck seating. It would have been an easy target for one of the city’s pigeon-fed, pet falcons.

The Indians (a.k.a. the “Tribe”–the mascot is neither an Indian nor a Tribe, but Rowdie, a red bear with a baseball for a nose; Rowdie is probably a rodent pretending to be a bear) defeated the Columbus Clippers (they cut a lot of hair in Columbus) 5 to 3. Indianapolis had the lead at the end of the game, reducing game time to 8.5 innings. In their first, beginning-to-end baseball game, the kids were eager to leave in inning six … but we stuck it out.

Here are the all-important game stats: 8 hot dogs, 4 bags of peanuts, 4 boxes of popcorn, 3 boxes of cracker jacks, 3 beers, 2 usher redirects (the kids were standing at the wrong time), 1 bag of chips, and 1 mourning dove.

Beavers for Indiana

Every River where the current was moderate and sufficiently deep, the banks at the water edge were occupied by their houses. To every small Lake, and all the Ponds they builded Dams, and enlarged and deepened them to the height of the dams. Even to the grounds occasionally overflowed, by heavy rains, they also made dams, and made them permanent Ponds, and as they heightened the dams [they] increased the extent and added to the depth of the water; Thus all the low lands were in possession of the Beaver, and all the hollows of the higher grounds. Small Streams were damned across and Ponds formed; the dry land with the dominions of Man contracted, every where he was hemmed in by water without the power of preventing it: he could not diminish the numbers half so fast as they multiplied, and their houses were proof against his pointed stake, and his arrows could seldom pierce their skins.

— David Thompson and Richard Glover. David Thompson’s Narrative, 1784-1812. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1962. p. 198-199 | http://www.archive.org/details/davidthompsonsna00thom

Indiana needs more beavers. In an earlier time (the 1600s), I suspect the Indianapolis area had plenty of beavers. The terrain and the many tributaries to the White River are well-suited to beaver life. Like most states, however, beavers were extirpated from Indiana in the mid-nineteenth century to feed the market for fur and perfume. According to the Indiana DNR, a breeding pair was released in the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in 1935.

A few, potential descendants of this beaver pair from Wisconsin now live in the EcoLab, a 55-acre wetland on the Marian University campus. E. and I were there, recently, for a cloudy, wet walk. It was a good day to be outside; my, now cancer-prone, skin appreciated the cloud cover and I appreciated the mostly empty trails. In addition to the ruins of Jens Jensen’s landscape design, the beaver lodges are probably the most popular feature of the Lab. I was pleased to discover that a sign explaining beaver lodges failed to follow a colony to its latest location, but instead pointed to a shrinking mound in a dry pond. The lodge was sprouting a fair sized shrub, so it has been vacant for at least a couple of years. Occupied lodges are visible elsewhere in the Lab, but not near the signage.

Arriving in the late morning, we did not, however, see any beavers. In fact, I have seen only one non-captive beaver in my lifetime. Last fall I was fishing roughly a mile north of the the Crooked Creek tributary. At day break I was knee deep in the water and casting in the mist. I saw the beaver for at least 30 seconds before it saw me. Swimming my direction (it seemed huge), it paused gave me a quick look and dove with a very loud slap of its broad tail. If any other beavers were within a quarter mile, they were fairly warned. I have spent a lot of time fishing on the river’s east bank, but I have yet to spot a lodge in the area, so I’ll guess that this beaver a) was house hunting, or b) has a lodge somewhere on the west bank.

With a life mostly “lived” outside and preferably running on trails or fishing in silence, I have spotted my first beaver after moving to the nation’s fourteenth largest city. Why are they here? And now? Perhaps the urban beaver benefits from access to public land. Farmers and suburbanites may be less beaver-friendly. Perhaps, while municipalities pause to deliberate, the animals keep munching, dam building, and girdling trees. In other words, while people argue, urban beavers are allowed to fell fresh planted saplings … at least, until someone wraps them in four feet of heavy chicken wire.

Now that I have seen one beaver, a few lodges, a couple of dams, and plenty of bank-side tree damage, I want to see beavers everywhere. There’s a heap of bark chips in the elementary school parking lot … beaver lodge. There’s a flooded alley behind the Walgreens … beaver pond. The neighbor’s midsized basswood is dying … again, in another time, it would have been the work of a beaver.

In 1955 Indiana counted 1,695 beavers, in 1998 Ohio counted 25,000, in 2008 Wisconsin counted 68,800. How many beavers are in Indiana? I’m guessing, probably more than 20,000, but less than 60,000.  In other words, not enough. When all the beavers return, Indiana’s portion of the estimated 100-400 million beavers in this country prior to the arrival of the fur trade, they will be a nuisance. Restoration will look like destruction. We will do battle and if we call a truce, life will be different. Then, if I’m a beaver’s neighbor, I’ll be a nuisance too.