Yesterday I was slowed by a health matter but today I return to a favorite place, Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge in Washington State. It’s been far too long since I walked those trails, gawked at hordes of birds and heard the wild grasses rustle in the wind. Above are two shots; please move the arrows to see full shot. Some of these photographs were taken March 2018, others January 2019. No matter the season, I am completely enamored of this place. The wind is strong, the sky so big. But since it’s been closed, I’m eager to revisit it here.
In 2019 the $22 million habitat restoration began; it is not open for another year or two The floodplain of this Lower Columbia River area is being reconfigured so the refuge will be reconnected to the natural ebb and flow of the mighty Columbia. Levees will be lowered to their natural height. Soon, species of salmon and trout and lamprey, as well as other wildlife will greatly benefit. Nine hundred acres are being restored so, although Marc and I miss these long walks and birdwatching, we have great appreciation for work being done.
Last week-end, Marc and I made our first early spring trek to check out Steigerwald Wildlife Refuge in Washington State. We visit at least once a season to investigate the bird activities and walk among the marshes and grassland, as well as absorb partial view of the Cascade Mountains and portion of the Columbia River. I grew more excited as we neared the turn-off; this nature preserve shares small surprises each visit as well as peaceful beauty. Many people flock here to enjoy the wealth of the offerings; they are always friendly and usually share what they have experienced.
There is almost more water than trees but alder and fir trees as well as groves of stark black cottonwood are attractive in fields and along the river. We will return when they are fully leaved, but before the summer sun bears down upon us with fiery heat.
Far from being accomplished birdwatchers, we still try to identify our sightings. This time we noted a bald eagle perched high above, blue herons in the marshes, Northern harriers hunting as well as red-tailed hawks, watchful kestrels and a bold scrub jay, and the elegant outlines against brilliant sky of charming swifts. And scores of Canadian geese as well as the requisite mallards and buffleheads. We enjoyed many I could not quite capture on film or name. The harriers were majestic and powerful and flew very low over land, then abruptly rose and rose above treetops countless times. I could barely move for the awe I felt. You’ll find the harrier in the 3rd, 13th and 14th photos. They tend to hover right, almost seeming still, before diving to kill their prey. (Unlike red-tailed hawks which ride the thermals, spiral up and then execute a very rapid dive to prey.) The smallish kestrel stands atop a post. I suspect you all know a bald eagle and heron.
I find the high wild grasses stunning, and love to listen to and watch them sway, shimmy, rustle, sigh and bow in the strong Columbia Gorge winds.
You can see shining Mt. Hood a few times, a dramatic beacon to those of us who live here (though one of many great peaks we can see on a clear day).
There were also a couple of interesting outbuildings beyond the enclosed refuge as you can walk for miles and miles along the rushing river.
After a brief business trip to the west coast they could have taken an earlier flight back to Virginia; he could have bypassed the visit altogether. It’s a jolt to be back here again. He imagines his grandfather would declare it unfit for eye and soul but he thinks the property retains some of its charm. Or it could with expert care. It was so much more expansive, open to sky and the grand Columbia Gorge when he was growing up. Trees, flowers and other plantings have gone wild, ravaging the grounds’ elegance. It used to offer such coherence of design.
It is Elinor, his wife of three years, who has encouraged them to visit once more. He was informed old family friends had taken ownership from the last buyers. Still, the late afternoon party invitation was an aside in the phone call, as if the Griswolds were not that thrilled to extend it but compelled by good manners. They had been eager to share their recent purchase, though. And there will be croquet so dress the part. So Patrick humors Elinor; she’s wanted to see the scenes from his upbringing. The place was in his family for over eighty-five years, after all, two generations.
Patrick feels there should have been a memorial of sorts, create a transitional ceremony noting its passing from one dynasty to…well, the Griswolds aren’t a dynasty but they might be someday with enough business acumen and luck. His grandfather and father would have appreciated that idea, some suitable bombast to mark its fate. But Patrick never quite took to Hal (who had once been a Harry; apparently Hal better suited him now), though maybe he did a little to Pris (Priscilla Martin before marriage).
Neither old friend had been any good at basketball or swimming, hadn’t shared his enthusiasm for spontaneous adventures. They had little use of reading for pleasure, something Patrick early on found improved on real life, plus he was easily held in thrall. The other two were the type that studied too hard to better forge ahead, making them seem more admirable. Maybe they were, though Patrick did well enough. Now his old cohorts seemed on the path to their own material glory. Back then their brief entertainments included gossip and television. They complained of heat and bugs when prodded into doing something even faintly athletic. So Patrick and his younger sister, Susan, included them since they were scholl cohorts but were not so close to them.
The tennis court is still intact, he sees, but weedy, a few snaking lines in the cement pad. He has an urge to bound onto the court, execute a few phantom serves. Do they possibly own tennis rackets and balls? The pool on the other hand looks good as ever, and now is being used by the Griswold’s seven year old daughter. Patrick wishes he had packed a swimsuit; he’d like diving from the low board and swimming a lap or two. He’s pleased Elinor undertakes her own social meandering after he introduced her to a few folks he once knew. Hal did the bulk of introductions, then let them be.
In the distance she looks ethereal with her wide-brimmed straw hat and flowing ivory skirt topped by a linen blouse. The setting is much better enhanced by her attire and grace than Pris in her crayon-bright attire. He warms at the thought.
“Is it all you remember, Patrick?”
Pris is standing behind him when she speaks but he still recognizes the scent she wears, to his surprise, something from Guerlain she once told him in high school. He never forgot it after they briefly dated; she was far more into him. He wonders if it was a deliberate choice today, then thinks himself an arrogant idiot for the thought. Maybe some never alter what was once liked. He finds that idea odd.
He turns abruptly to see her long-lashed eyes brighten with amusement. Discovers her square teeth unusually white.
“It is and isn’t what I recall. Ten years since I visited, after my father’s funeral. It was left intact, I think, after the other owners bought it. Which I appreciate. What about your plans?”
“I’d think it needs gutting and a total reno. Finally! It was getting old when you grew up in it. It needs more than a facelift now.” She turns as she places the lip of the tall glass to teeth. A delicate eyebrow rises. “Is that a shock?”
Patrick’s thin lips spread into a cursory smile. “It’s to be expected when a place ages, the fading paint, the creak in the floor. Our horse farm is one hundred fifty years old. But lots of people can’t stand antiquity. Newer means better, so we’re told. Faster, shinier, oh, yes, more ecological but also disposable.”
“I don’t plan on DIY work, no worries there. And I like a traditional look. Just a refreshed one, more color.” She steps apart from him and stares into the scenery. “How is Elinor managing on that place when you take off? She says you travel half the time. Doing heavens knows what, carousing with locals on Crete, I gather, or in Tuscany.”
“She’s devoted to her horses. She isn’t the kind of woman to pine away for an absent husband. Actually, I tend to wander alone more often than not. Scandinavia. India. Montreal. I love coming back to her…And how about you? How will you like it out here without the city excitement?”
“I grew up out here, remember? And it turns out I’m a bit artistic, I paint miniature dogs and cats. I have embroidery projects. I work part-time at the law office. And I have Laura.” She waves to her daughter who is just climbing out of the pool. “She might miss her friends so far out but she can have them out for sleepovers. There’s so much room! I thought it was bigger–as a child, it seemed beyond vast–but I do admit I still can feel lost.”
She looks at him as if expecting a memory to be shared, a moment of intimacy. Patrick’s mind brings forth the house’s interior. He knows how much room is there: eight bedrooms and five and a half bathrooms, a cool, shadowy formal living and dining room, a rustic family room, a leather-and-cherry study, a semi-circular breakfast nook and a pantry almost the size of the kitchen (once white and pale blue)–
“Patrick!” Hal saunters up, slaps his back and hands him a beer. “What do you think? I mean, really? Can you believe your old buddies are married, had a child and are now living here?”
Pris studies Hal and Patrick from under the fringe of red bangs. Patrick looks away. He finds her hair alarming. It was once auburn brown; now it is nearly the bright penny color of Elinor’s hair, an odd coincidence though his wife’s is the real thing.
“What do I think about your buying my family’s old estate? Or about your success in real estate? Or Pris’ very red hair?” He doesn’t mean it to sound so sharp, but the words hang in the air between them and silence gathers.
Pris lets loose a guffaw, to their surprise, then waves to a woman easing into the pool. She dashes off, leaving the men alone.
Hal eyes his old pal and wonders if he made the right decision asking him to stop by. They weren’t all that close and Patrick has turned out to be a semi-reclusive, story-scribbling type. He has published three suspense novels already and they seem to sell very well. Hal likes them. Of course, Patrick doesn’t have to actually work for a living with his marriage to Elinor and his inheritance. He can still play around while Hal works like mad to give his wife what she wants and deserves. What they both want. Including the Keating’s ancient estate.
“I’ve coveted this house ever since I met you,” Hal admits. “Now I have it to myself.” He sighs, a man well-satisfied.
“Really? You liked it that much? I thought you came over to harass, then attempt to romance my sister and, barring that, to avail yourself of all amenities.” Patrick slugged Hal in the shoulder, lightly but not too lightly. “But it was fun to have you and Pris and the rest over to play. We had some incredible pool parties.”
“That we did. And Pris and I will again.”
“Remember the Fourth of July after our senior year? The fireworks our two uncles set off down below, how the sky over the Columbia River blew up with all those bright explosions? Then those stars later, which are always better. Pris and Susan and the others jumped in the pool fully clothed, music was blaring and you got lit on vodka, stinking drunk!”
“You always wore trunks underneath your shorts, ever ready for a quick lap around the pool, a grab at the girls! Yes, indeed, I passed out in Susan’s arms–eventually.”
Patrick squirms at the thought. “You did? Where?”
“Under that–” he spins around until he finds a towering elm–“that monster tree. That one nearest the brick outdoor fireplace or oven or whatever it is. There wasn’t any fire burning, of course, so no one else was over there but us.”
Patrick lifts his straw hat, scratches his head, then carefully resettles it. “Susan’s husband is at Oxford, you know, and she’s doing noteworthy new research on Joan of Arc. She’s happy.”
“Well, that’s great, good for them!” Hal reaches down for a stick, then tosses it into the air where it flips twice before making a rapid descent. It bounces into the pool. “But it was your house, I have to admit, that brought me back. We lived on the other side of the road, in a very sound split-level my dad built. Custom design and work! Pris and her family lived four miles east with her mother, yes, it was quite a bit rougher than today…We each lived such different lives. I absolutely wanted yours.”
Patrick finds this sad and a bit absurd. No one can take over another’s life. There are so many factors, the shifting strands of personalities, fortunes that change. You create your own life. Anyone can copy externals or repeat a few choices. But if Hal thinks his moving into their house will be as wonderful as it was for Susan and himself, their parents and extended family, he is in for a rude awakening. That house shared their lives, harbored, celebrated and suffered them well. There were decades of living through ups and downs. Things Hal doesn’t know about and never could understand. The Keatings created their home’s energy. It was seasoned with love. It was a testament to loyalty of family, dedication to noble enough aspirations, a friendly showcase of substantial and comforting style.
That Patrick took another route via Elinor and writing didn’t terribly distress his grandfather or mother. But his father stopped talking to him for five years, then regretted it when he became terminally ill. It could not have hurt Patrick more, those lost years, but in the end they found a commonality once more. They were Keatings, afterall, they were one and the same if with different stripes.
But the house, this acreage, has been in other hands for so long. It is not the same as it was and never can be, not even for Patrick. Certainly not for Hal. He and Pris will have to make it entirely their own, whatever that may be, just forget the varnished past.
He thinks of saying all this but he can see the gleam in Hal’s eyes, how the fervor of new success and the ownership of such a house and so much land have served to ignite him with fabulous expectations. He got what he meant to get.
“Pris may have had the right idea–gut it and start over. Make it something just right that suits you.”
“I can’t have that! We have to preserve as much as we can. I want it to be as it always was.”
“Good luck, then. It was a happy house for me. I hope it is for you.”
Hal shines with triumph and pumps Patrick’s hand. They reminisce as they walk the perimeter of the grounds. Patrick feels a shiver here and there: this is where their favorite calico cat ventured out and never returned; this is where he and Susan climbed a tree with their sleeping bags but Susan fell and broke her leg; this is the rock bench where he brought his notebook to write things on week-ends. The huge brick oven presided over wonderful barbeques, scads of people milling about, the Tiki torches casting their burnished glow on everyone.
Once back at the pool, he has the sudden urge to swim. He strips down to his boxer shorts.
“Wait, Patrick, really not appropriate this time, come back!”
He runs off the diving board, clutches knees in arms and executes a cannonball. Smacks onto the lambent surface of cool aquamarine water, then sinks and sinks into the depths. He keeps a strong hold on his breath. Opens his eyes. All is lit up, gentle perfection, voluminous space emptied of distractions. He shuts his eyes and floats sideways, then upward when there is a rush of water and bubbles beside him. He sees Elinor’s white blouse rising off her chest, her skirt ballooning around her bent elbows. She has a giddy look. Her long red hair streams around her, fire and water commingling in this momentary heaven. Her mouth tells him, I love you.
They grab each other’s hand and float upward, their heads breaking surface. They gasp and giggle, arms thrown about each other.
All around them are the party goers, some considering jumping in, most staring at them with a mixture of admiration and distaste. Strangers drinking and eating and whispering and plotting on this land that was once Keating land. Not his now. It doesn’t cause any pain to say it aloud so he does, to his wife.
“This is so not my life, anymore. It’s a relief to be returning to our own place, my real life.”
“Yes, so right.”
Streaming water, they walk to an edge of the property where she picks up sunglasses and purse from the picnic table. They pause to admire a last time geography of his youth, the grandeur of the Columbia River Gorge. The place that set him dreaming and moving on a good course.
“Patrick? Elinor?” Hal and Pris dash toward them with towels. “Can we help you back to the house?”
“No, we’re on our way.” He sweeps his arms open and around the area, turns to Hal’s disapproving expression.”Treat it kindly but make it your own. It may take good care of you.”
“Where will we change?” Elinor whispers as they walk away.
“In one of their bathrooms or in the cab?”
They leave the others chattering, no apologies offered for the pool plunge. No last words for this good land, the esteemed house. Off to horses and stories. A sweatier, more intriguing, contented life.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson