Everyday Beautiful Life in a City Park

Everyday Beautiful Life in a City Park

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At last. I have arrived at one of our neighborhood parks, a favorite. And I am filled with sweet relief. I’m released of artificial enclosures, set free in a world of green abundance and those critters who always occupy it. The park is its own entity, a series of paved and hard-packed dirt pathways, many varieties of towering trees clustered together or spread about the rise and fall of 25 acres.  Their quietly powerful forms arch overhead, massive and lithe branches rustling in the breezes. I want to greet them: “Great-grandmother, Great-grandfather, hello.” (I have recently read of research verifying that trees do communicate and live interdependently in a number of ways, as many have suspected. Or perhaps as we all knew once upon a time when the workings of nature included us more intimately and routinely.) Perhaps they know me and perhaps not, but they seem to welcome me.

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As I power-walk the steeper incline, the fist-sized heart muscle squeezes and releases fast and strong, glad of partnership with lungs, aiding my reaching legs and arms. All mental fog clears as oxygen is given rapid delivery to cells. It then commences to empty and refill with simpler and finer stuff. Eyes note rocks, twirling airborne leaves, patches of cobalt sky and chameleon clouds, birds a flutter of feathers and plaintive or cheery melodies. My senses are governing me, guiding me through each moment; they do what they do very well indeed. Without this daily walk I would be a lesser human being and far less fit. Without this rolling park and more in my city, I would feel bereft–yes, it’s true– of much my mind, body and soul crave.

I am near the top of the hill when I halt progress. There is something going on with the crows as they surround nearby area, a zigzag of cried orders or observations that change to scolding or an alarm signifying worse. I gaze upward into thickets of leaves and crisscrossing branches, searching for what it is they are fussing over. There, is that the issue? A barred owl perching in what appears to be one of the park’s pretty magnolia trees. That explains it: owls and crows seem born enemies. This owl must have been found out and disturbed. It’s nervous and perhaps annoyed, repeatedly turning its head ’round and about. I pull out my camera, capture its wild beauty. It darts its black eyes at me, looks away, back again. I more often site various owls in denser forested acreage, rarely in broad daylight–they are sleep of course and blend in perfectly. But this one has been spotted by more than just me.

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The mob mentality of crows takes over. They are diving about the tree, making a louder racket, harassing the singular creature. An ominous sense of anxiety creeps up as I watch; it is rarely a welcome party by the ever-governing crows. It will roust the barred owl if at all possible, peck it, swoop down upon it, perhaps even prey upon it. I stand and wait several minutes but the crows seem unable to reach the bird. Or that is not yet their intent. I am surprised by a slow anger toward the fifteen or more crows. They are such aggressive birds, dominating all they can. On the other hand, I suspect owls can make a meal of a crow or two when at their prime advantage. I have read that Great Horned owls are masters at it.

In a flash, the owl flees the magnolia for another tree and its wings are wonderful to see, its small soft-feathered body so strong. I can somewhat see the division of crows race after it. The owl appears to find refuge among branches again. I do not have a good enough view to note what is next. The bombastic calls of the relentless crows go on.

I feel for the moment that the barred owl has the upper hand and so press on, contemplating the natural order of things. The curious incidents experienced here and during other park walks. The hierarchies in place and dramas played out, the battles fought, lost and won. It seems no creature can be entirely free of it.

But there is usually better news at the park. I find it immediately.

There are grassy off-leash, dog friendly areas and they take right to it. I walk by and enjoy the fun vicariously, being without a dog these days. Large and small, energetic and more retiring, they’re game and take full advantage of freedom, as any reasonably healthy dog will. They leap for Frisbees, fetch balls flung far and wide, sniff and greet, race each other madly back and forth. And the subtle posturing of various canine messaging goes beyond my ken. But the not so subtle occurs, too, as one gets too friendly or another finds the personality, breed or rank of another unappealing or even threatening. The owners compare notes and chat like great friends, too, including their pets in sometimes baby talk, sometimes adult conversations. I am always interested in whom goes with which dog; it isn’t always so easy to guess correctly.

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I am particularly interested in the man who does squats while his dog politely waits for him to finish. It appears the man is talking to the dog, perhaps explaining his routine, or counting aloud or asking his pet to be patient– his time will come. I also wonder if the man is more motivated to exercise when out with his dog. Pets can do that for us–start us up, keep us going in one way or another. The park has plenty of older citizens walking with their faithful friends. I feel gratified to see it and like to greet them both.

There are friends in deep conversation, with linked arms or companionable silence everywhere. I was recently asked who I walk with daily and it gave me pause. Not that many, I admit. Some friends are still working or live a bit far away. A couple have hip or knee problems. My spouse is not so much a moving-right-along walker as one who likes to pause and look at every small thing that catches his eye along the paths, in a bush, peeking up from dirt, moss and grass. He is quite engaged in collecting rocks and sticks. I enjoy looking up and around as I speed by, catching bits of talk, noting the way the light falls through the leaves and the shadows dance. I do stop long enough to take photographs. My older sister says it exhausts her to see me go; she likes to mosey, sit on a bench and chat–which I do like doing with her. In truth, not too many keep up with my pace. It’s not even intentional; I have always been fast on my feet. Most of my five adult kids likely can outpace me; they tend to be quite active and fit. I look forward to taking off with them; it pushes me. I treasure such times with them, the brisk pace, the bright air, the sounds of nature mingling with human. Their nearness. But most of them live in other states, so it is getting more rare these days to share these times outdoors. (If I’m lucky, I can hang out some with grandchildren. My fourteen year old granddaughter told me today that she is NOT too old to go to the pumpkin patch and when can we go? I about leapt for joy but composed myself and texted back.)

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Yes, I sometimes wish I walked with others more. But not often; I well appreciate being one among others, amidst nature within the city. I feel safe; I pay attention. The park is full of all ages with their own life stories.

I’m a happy gal to be able to keep my heart strong, to commune with the natural designs about us. To observe the human theater, photograph the scenes. Everything fascinates me in one way or another: the butterfly’s wings against a bloom, the reflection in an inch of water, the sounds of a pack of teens running in concert, the sun beaming on a turtle, the child reaching for a duckling.  The breaths I still can take– in, out; life given, life shared. So I go to the park to ease aches physically and emotionally, to even connect more readily with God as I meditate on such small beauty, each curious anomaly. These moments given like many gifts unexpected.

I also walk to jar free some ideas for writing. A first sentence, an image, a character or two–these will come forward as I move across a landscape. It’s as if they are waiting for me to clear more space for internal movement, to allow creative energy to take rein. I find a good walking pace generates more useful moments, rather than depleting me. I return home or go on to the next task feeling renewed.

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In this city-block-sized park (actually two, also with a children’s playground, basketball and tennis courts) there are runners, power walkers, strollers, sitters, Tai Chi and yoga practitioners, cyclists and roller skaters and more. I frequently see people practicing acrobatics. Tumbling pairs of adults. Those balancing/walking atop what appears to be a cord strung tautly between two trees will stop me cold a few moments. Jugglers practice their art and draw onlookers, too.

There are sometimes groups of young moms exercising, babies in strollers beside them. Many park-goers spread feasts on picnic tables, feeding a slew of family and friends. Some read in the shady quiet spots while others doze and sunbathe, even in October before winter rains take hold. And musicians like to bring their instruments; I have enjoyed a tuba player (very good), saxophonist (also good), a flutist (fair but chipper), a violinist (beginning stages), many guitarists and singers of various levels of talent and piano players (there is an upright kept in a maintenance building, brought out now and again). I keep waiting for someone to bring a drum kit and wonder how folks would enjoy that. I’d listen.

Sadly, Portland has thousands of homeless persons. The parks are often temporary camp-out areas. I don’t know all public park laws or how stringently they are enforced. But it’s not unusual to come upon several empty or occupied sleeping bags, a tent or two, shopping carts piled high with belongings, circles of folks who must know each other on the streets and meet up at the park, too. They are living their lives. Occasionally someone is talking to himself or seems upset about something. They are mostly quietly talking, smoking, listening to a radio. Sometimes we exchange a greeting, other times barely nod. But I do not find them invisible. Something we clearly have in common is an appreciation for the park’s offerings: old sturdy trees with their shade, open expanses for roaming and areas for solitude. Its easy atmosphere. Its richness.

There is a good-sized pond inhabited by common water fowl. I watch the squabbling, floating, friendly ducks.  I admire an occasional elegant blue heron from a distance as it perches and stands tireless, still, and sometimes it swoops down from a treetop. There are turtles aplenty basking in sunshine on logs in the pond, and a garter snake here and gone in the grass. Everywhere are benches about the pond where people sit and commune or snooze or chat with friends or lovers. Many take pictures there, greenery casting glowing reflections upon its calm surface.

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Almost no one makes a fuss. Sometimes there seem to be tears shed. I, too, have taken refuge to settle a clattering mind, let sorrow wend its way from my heart. It’s as if we all agree to democratically share these common spaces in order to rest, rejuvenate, play, meditate. To acknowledge each other and share a smile, a few words, or to pass by without even a glance, safe in silence. How much life the park has witnessed, how many secrets it keeps from over more than a century of use. Its presence is rounded out by us, its visitors and keepers. (Many volunteers augment the park staff; I saw them raking today.)

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Portland is growing very quickly after a bit of a lull of a couple of decades. The natural  beauty of the Northwest is a magnet. It seems everyone from everywhere else wants to take part in our economy known for entrepreneurial ventures and the small businesses’ success stories. It is a city that draws people with creative energy and vibrant city center. Each day there are more attractive old buildings and houses torn down, replaced by plain, tall apartment buildings, often multi-use –and they cost a lot to live in. The lifestyle may be easy going here but the cost of living isn’t, not anymore. As we become more crowded, more will be seeking places to spread out, to breathe deeper, to find a spot to sit and gaze outward and inward. We have treasures nearby us–the Columbia River and Gorge, our mountain ranges, wild and gentle rivers, the vast Pacific Ocean and its beaches, valleys and vineyards, the arid lands in eastern Oregon. There is always somewhere to explore, to learn about and appreciate.

But in the city we need our public parks, places to go to at a moment’s notice, to access most hours of day and evening. Not all have to be impressive in size or history. We have about 180 parks in Portland, including the Guinness Book of World Records’ smallest city park in the United States. But we also enjoy over 5,000 acres of Forest Park within city limits, a mere ten minute drive for me. Around 11% of our city land is devoted to parks–a reason I love being here.

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I thought quite awhile today about what sort of post I wanted to write. To be truthful, I wanted to write about my youngest daughter’s wedding two years ago this date. Her wedding reception was at a venue right across from the park I visited. The couple lives in California for now. I would be glad to s hare much more but she prefers her private life to not be so public as she gains momentum in a fascinating career. Still, while I was musing about the parks’ importance, I also recalled her wedding day in a beautiful meadow, deep in a woodland park in our city. The pictures, I have to admit, are fairly breathtaking. I am showing just a glimpse of the forest dream of a wedding day: her hands and mine; hers with her husband’s, her crazy-fab shoes, of course…She and my son-in-law wanted it to be smack in the middle of nature’s wilds with  trees, plants and all creeping, crawling, flying creatures–along with people–as witnesses. I understood that desire, and we made it happen.

My spouse and I were hiking over there recently. We mentioned again how fortunate we are to have this verdant rain forest landscape to play in. No wonder she wanted that forest wedding; she is her tree-seeking mother’s daughter–and her rock-hunting father’s. Happy Anniversary, my beloved youngest and that good husband–the Northwest misses you both just as you miss it. We will share a happy park walking date again.

Now that my motherly moment is done, back to one of Portland’s loveliest parks. Please enjoy more pictures below. Celebrate public parks; they celebrate community and that includes you!

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A Crow Visitation

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Striding through the neighborhood, I felt cocooned by rich fragrances the morning rainfall had released. I eyed scenes to photograph and snapped at my leisure. My injured foot, taking months to heal, was holding me up but a slower pace afforded lingering observations. Autumnal changes are often subtle, marked by overlapping cycles of life and death, of dramatic shifts in light and shadow. I am fond of the season and felt at peace with the transformations. How fortunate to be walking at all.

Then suddenly there was a thwump accompanying a light smack on top of my head. Something soft but with some heft had skimmed my head. I heard a brief, slow slap of wings through air. I came to a halt. The mysterious offender had left as soon as it arrived and was now gone. I further examined my head for any clue; nothing hurt. All was unmarred beneath my sunglasses, an accessory added in the dim hope of sunshine. I searched the pewter sky and colorful trees.

There, not three feet away, sat an ordinary crow, fluttering its wings on a big leaf maple limb as it settled down. It looked at me long enough to be a strong candidate for the culprit. I couldn’t imagine why it would want to dive into my unruly, wavy mass of hair. In fact, I couldn’t think quite why a crow would bother with me at all, a regular person strolling, except to make note of my passing with cawing and flying from look-out to look-out.

There are scores of such sentinels in our neighborhood. Their posts change by their own design but they never vacate a block for long. The crows barely note me; I nod at them as we go about our business. My husband likes to talk to them, while I study and admire their ubiquitous presence at a distance. What I know is that they inhabit a lively existence made of intricate communications and a strong social hierarchy. That they are smarter than we imagine. Can even recognize people they have seen and don’t forget bad behaviors toward them. I have read little of them and understand less.

What I feel, though, is that they are powerful, exceeding our simplistic understanding or engagement. The creatures I have seemed most connected to have been wolves and coyotes (perhaps foxes, part of the same family), both of which I have encountered. What I was sensing during my crow visitation was that this bird meant something and I was slow to get it.

Not only had it made direct contact but as I trod on, said crow hopped to other branches, then flew to the next tree, perching on a lower branch. And watching me. Well, what? I asked it. Its head tilted back and forth but held eye contact. We each became still. It is a bit hard to see small black eyes in an ebony feathered head from several feet below it–and on a rainy day–but there was that energy meeting eyes spark. I felt seen and examined even as I started on once more. It flew to yet another tree, a swift ascent in the moist cool breeze. I paused to glance at it; it glanced back. The bird was remaining a couple of feet above my eye level. It was patient, and I was its object of interest. Its intelligence was as clear and certain a thing as mine. Was it considering more swoops upon me? Seized by an urge to walk closer to a stone wall surrounding an imposing two-story house, I fought the impulse to make myself smaller. Wait a minute, this was a foolish response. It was a bird, right? The tiny current of fear passed, and my fascination resumed. But I did not dally, kept forward movement in case it thought I was too long in its territory.

Was it considering another dive? Should I stop to chat like a madwoman? Engage in a stare-down? I thought better of that, as it seemed too aggressive. I wanted it to at least emit a conversational call-out.

The visual exchanges between us continued down the block. I came to a corner. The crow paused in a ginko tree, a couple of branches higher up this time. I crossed the empty street with limping steps as my offended foot began to smart. The crow rose, elegant and efficient, only to descend to nearby branches. I slowed my steps to watch; it matched my gaze with its own. Then looked away. Back to me again. I kept expecting my crow–for it had begun to feel paired with me–to speak its language so I could respond with mine. A deeper exchange of sorts. Perhaps I was just feeling possessive since we had been trying to interpret each other as if on personal terms. It had moved from random to…something more.

Or was I feeling as if insidiously possessed by this crow? I waited for it to notify others as usually happens, or to come upon a gathering of crows. To hear their chatter increase, indignant that folks were crossing invisibly demarcated territory or just unloading urgent information. They did speak with impressive inflection and force. Their presence could seem almost imperial. But this crow was silent. It didn’t appear to be ill or abandoned. Was it alone? Lonely?

I tarried and pondered, tossing thoughts toward my crow: What message have you for me? Did you not like how I moved between the trees? Or that I have my camera at the ready? Do you want something I have? Or are you playing, a wily shape shifter intent on teasing as I enjoy the autumn afternoon alongside your kind?

And then the dogged crow rose from the tree branch and claimed a spot on a telephone line crisscrossing corners. It bent its head to look down on me as I backed up a little, raised my camera, and started to shoot pictures. I captured it, whereupon it turned its back on me, perhaps surveying farther reaches since I was moving on.Maybe it didn’t like being photographed? And so I continued on, but my head still bore the odd sensation of that soft, strong body skimming my skull. It remained with me for hours.

I got a call from my son a little while later. He seems affectionately and well-attuned to animal, mineral, vegetable worlds and, like his mother, to other worlds defined by less tangible energies. He at first concurred that the crow was being playful while doing his work of scouting possible threats. Or an intermediary? Perhaps it could be someone reaching out to me with a message? Well, I do know someone who, now fled from earth, who might consider employing a crow to smack me on the head and say hello. I have read that many consider crows to be considered tricksters, as well as keepers of life mysteries and also magical. They also have often been thought to be harbingers of doom. Crows certainly have captivated the imaginations of many a thinker and dreamer.

My crow snagged my attention, an event not soon dismissed. But all the swirling tangents of leading to dark/light, good/evil–it is more than I care to ponder tonight. I am conscious it is close to All Hallow’s Eve; it may be the joke’s on me. A crow is a crow and I, a human, and we are neighbors. But, alright, maybe more.

As I made my way home, a simple idea came forth. I have walked this neighborhood every day for two decades but very little the last three months due to my injured toe. And since resuming shorter walks I’ve tended toward a different part than the blocks this crow inhabits. So maybe it was just telling me it was good to see me again. I like that thought. If so, ditto, and may our paths cross again (though my chances of recalling this particular crow will be minute while crows recall humans well). I will head out tomorrow, see what surprising things may happen. But my crow visitation–as so often nature’s events do–reminded me how we are aligned and connected to all God’s creature cultures, each meant for its own purposes and part of the miraculous design. I feel gifted with such a moment and such a life.