It’s been awhile since I took you along portions of the Willamette River– as well as the smaller Tualatin River, which flows east into the Willamette. I’ve trekked many a riverside mile the last year and more–but in early spring it gets a bit more interesting. It always gives me a lift to see spring flowers poking up from the ground, the unfurling tree leaves and buds on bushes. Here in Oregon we have had the usual cold rains and then a terrible ice storm–it has also been an often glum winter, as it has been for us all to one degree or another. I’ve lately heard many more birds, and think they sing out differently. Today there was a “varied thrush”, it’s clear and seemingly random notes startling and lovely. Many hummingbirds are out and eagles and hawks. And a noisy bee buzzed right over the top of my head, despite the temp lowering awhile to upper forties today. (We had a mix of rain and sleet on the way home for a few moments.)
Well, spring arrives in fits and starts– for human and all others.
These photos are taken around various parts of the rivers near home the last two weeks. We start at the Tualatin Greenway Trail along the Tualatin River. Wandering through woods, seeing the muddy, at times swift water flow, spotting opening blooms as well as people out and about was cheering. Plus, there is greater evidence of fishing and pleasure boats about, as well as a marina with a couple yachts rocking dockside. But much of the recent walks were peaceful and quiet along the treed, often steep river banks.
BELOW: On to the Willamette in an area we frequent often. Form a bridge, I noticed a grandfather and a grandson, I think, having a nice time offering food to the ducks. A fishing boat with two, maybe three, fishermen waiting wth rods in the water quietly beyond trees and bushes. (In MIchigan when I sort of fished with my first husband on a lake, we called it “trolling.”)
Spring is coming, we can count on that happening in all its curious, beautiful ways.
As an aside, this Wednesday I’m supposed to get my first vaccination, so may not be writing a short story, as I do twice a month. Still… I may be writing like mad to get the story done before midnight, as usual. In any case, hope you find some spring –and see you soon!
In the spacious front hall closet I was rearranging toppled baseball caps, a pair of hiking boots, three IKEA folding chairs, two camp chairs, a small storage unit for more hats/gloves/scarves and a box of Architectural Legos so a new vacuum would fit behind crammed coats when it jumped out at me: a Three Person Wedge Dome Tent snug in its plastic casing.
“Huh,” I said to no one, since I was alone. “How come this is still here?”
Never mind that the corners are shadowy even with a hall light on. It seemed nonsensical that a full-sized tent could be hiding out in there. You see, we don’t camp. The “camp chairs” are what we take to an outdoor concert, or for a restful afternoon by a lake–not for hanging out in the woods for several days. Then I recalled dishes on the shelf above, the pine green enamel service for two plus stainless pot that are good for…camping. We do have basement storage. Yet here this stuff sat.
“We don’t ever camp, likely will not camp again, so what the heck?”
I pulled it out. It almost pained me, looking at it. The tent was beautiful with its lightweight royal blue water repellent fabric and polyethylene floor, the mesh door to bar insects yet allow ventilation. It’d look great with camp chairs and green enamel ware out there in the misty cool mornings under a canopy of Oregon evergreens and big leaf maples and so on and on, with eagles soaring above in hunt mode, owls hooting in velvety depths of night, and a campfire charging up the storyteller in us, even a few songs rolling out as we sipped soup from mugs…But not to be, I mused wryly.
I used to camp a great deal, with enthusiasm. I camped out as a child when at various summer camp programs, of course. And with my parents during my teens (though not too often) with a simple pop-up camper they towed behind their Chrysler and then the Plymouth. We even camped in Canada which was more interesting to me then the camping with parents.
My first husband, Ned, and I went “primitive”; areas we camped around northern Michigan had no electricity or flush toilets with few other tenters around. When we had a family, we took our babies along, I nursed on the go. We backpacked along overgrown trails, branches reaching down as we made our way. We scavenged kindling, chopped and split “downed and dead” logs and cooked simplest fare over an open fire. I had married a man who was at perhaps most at home in the woods and the solitude found there. I wasn’t so far behind with willingness and appreciation. At first there were more skills to learn but it was fulfilling to work alongside him. It was peaceable out there and we and our kids felt good.
My current husband, Marc (who camped as a kid on Lake Michigan during summers with grandparents), and I camped at times with our combined five kids, borrowing my parents’ camper until they sold it. We tended to do this for other purposes, i.e. we were visiting a certain person “up north”, attending a folk or bluegrass music or similar event or were on our own Canadian sojourn. It was more economical and fun to camp rather than throw away money on hotel rooms. Not all the children were thrilled–hotels were luxurious playgrounds, unlike home–but most adapted. Naomi and Joshua, my children with Ned, were at ease, happy, helpful. Alexandra, our youngest, was excited to try anything new and adventurous. My stepdaughters were more skeptical. But Cait easily embraced the beauty of nature, loved finding wild berries, cooking with us. Aimee loathed it. She insisted she was genetically programmed to be a city person and to drag her out into any wilderness–despite flush toilets, showers, electricity: near civilization–was a true injustice and perhaps neglect of our responsible parental duties. (This never changed–she adores the concrete jungle and generally avoids being in dirt or in spitting distance of bugs unless required.)
Over time camping was less and less a family activity choice. A few grandchildren still went, however, with my parents–even when Mom and Dad were in their seventies. They were good at the more comfortable style of outdoors living. My dad had talents one would never suspect when he was in his tuxedo, conducting a symphony. He’d set up camp with simplicity and speed. My mother was a farm girl-turned-teacher and organized, efficient, if not thrilled with constant dirt in her makeshift home, under her nails–hadn’t she been done with all that? But they both respected, even seemingly revered what nature offered and taught the children more valuable lessons with each trip. Among which was cooperation with others–a love of familial fellowship. Those who enjoyed those trips still recall them fondly.
The last time spent hunkering down in a tent was autumn of 2010. Marc and I bought the tent when my son, Joshua, and his family (with two dogs) invited us to join them. I was thrilled he invited us. We didn’t have what we needed but he did. Joshua is a veteran camper and hiker, a woodsman-type like his father. He, his two children and their mother know how to manage the basic and arcane things one learns when spending much time in wilderness or close to it. By the time they were in school Avery and Asher could identify many animal signs via scat and tracks, bird calls and even wild plants. They could explain differences between poisonous and nontoxic ones for use as, say, poultices for injuries and bites as well as for teas and food. I looked this info to verify it and was stunned. And Joshua can start a crackling fire with little and no modern helps, spot a deer in the distance before anyone else, root out stones from water or earth and name the types found. He has made a peaceable connection with all bugs and even spiders, despite a few having bitten and infected him badly with venomous wounds made.
My son and I experience nature at a perhaps primitive core which also encompasses our highest sense of all things–but he knows more about the outdoor life by now. Hence, it would be good to tag along with him into Oregon’s forests in the Columbia Gorge.
If only I could tell you it was an entirely satisfying time but our one night camping experience was rough at moments. For one, my husband snores and has sleep apnea and without his CPAP machine, even with pillows propping him up a bit…well, it was an even less restful sleep for me; he seems more adapted to his apnea. We inhabited two separate sleeping bags with thin foam cushioning beneath. Nonetheless I felt may stones, lumps of dirt and stray twigs every time I was awakened by the drone from my husband. And I sweated too much so threw off top half of the sleeping bag, then felt the chill of skin drying inch by inch.
Sightless in the seas of blackness, I listened to the wilderness’ darkened voice in between the snores and coughs. Its enveloping presence was alternately soothing and disconcerting. Thoughts arose about cougars, my most feared (such hunting prowess with stealth and fierceness) wild thing in these parts. And bears which I knew tended to be avoidant of people if food was securely put away (it was). I had long trusted deep forest when I’d camped before and that night it was like a familiar but also a stranger one. I had lived at the edges of a few woods, miles out in country, and rustlings and sighings and snappings and occasional unknown soundings of something, somewhere…yes, it was so recognizable. I was duly mesmerized. The trees were so alive–of course they were!–but they were so utterly alive even if sleeping–did they ever sleep?…What else was awake besides me? My blood coursed with adrenaline at odd moments despite sensible self-talk. Heart rat-a-tat-tatted or harrumphed. Mostly I wanted to stop itching and sweating, feeling the uneven ground and hearing Marc emit snores. Wait, what was that landing on my forehead? And why didn’t I just buy a second small tent? Pitch it on the other side of the site? Why didn’t he just find a happy pause in racket and lsnooze on? Likely scared off near anything out there.
But even the dogs were sleeping.
Breathe in the good magic, Cynthia, be at your ease.
It started to rain, fat drops smacking and sliding off tent walls. A relief to hear its music. I closed my eyes and fell asleep a couple hours out of exhaustion. Dawn arrived with a whisper and sweetness that is unlike city mornings, not with a slap but a caress. And the fragrance of fire burning and oatmeal cooking and coffee simmering. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, sneaked outside and stretched sore muscles and bones, grateful for the new day. Mist hovered in the distance like a benign spirit gathering. I could hear the kids at the river, their voices soft. Joshua was tending to the fire, sitting on a log. He looked up and smiled his crooked smile. The dogs noted me, licked his hand and took off.
“It was a sort of rocky night, but glad to be here.” I wanted to be a great camper so I did not want complain to Joshua.
He chuckled quietly. “Good. You just have to get used to it again.” He gestured to the flickering fire. “I piled some wood in the tent. Found other kindling not too damp.”
I nodded, looked out into the wetness and light creeping into inside the cooled air, a persistent brightening of a dullish day. The forest was breathing its fresh breath and I took it in deeply. Damp earth radiated its musky goodness. How I loved woodlands after rainfall, how trees shook off their shower and other plants bathed and glistened. My grandchildren scampered about with muddy boots and clothes, hands full of stones and berries. I thought back to those other days when my children were their ages and life was woven of inexplicable beauty and sorrow, not unlike how it was, still. But now it was safer, freer, deeper for me in countless ways. And my son was cooking breakfast, hugging his two, quietly talking with me as I poured coffee into our mugs. I watched him and was startled, as I still always am, to glimpse his father.
Before long Marc followed his nose to join us. I held my tongue. He seemed more achy and groggy than I. He and Joshua talked wood, stones, fire building. Content to listen, I heard Avery and Asher chattering as if freed of a spell of enforced stillness. The dogs, a mess of mud and plant matter, caroused with them.
Sitting around a small sputtering morning fire, sipping hot percolated brew, hearing birds’ wings slice through a sprinkling of rain and our muted talk, I was nearly as pleased as when camping years ago. Just more sleepy and quite a bit older. But I felt perhaps even more alive than decades ago. Oh, I was flush with boundless energy and vivid talk and brave dreams then. But now…now I was more rounded at my sharp edges, more permeable, flexible. Able to welcome insights other than my own fragments. I was humbled. Enriched. In fact, I had stayed alive when more than once I thought I might not make it so long. And that was something.
Only the enormous, aged trees about us might grasp this and they seemed to lean toward me, branches graceful and strong, their lives enduring an opening of every new day and its progression in this communal place, then into nights. Events of import that seeped into them, slipped about them. I nodded at the forest and heavy sky that promised more rain. A gratitude that filled my throat with tears a second. But, too, I wondered if I could do it again or if aging had begun to conspire against me. If I had what it took to be fearless and sturdy enough of body and soul to make a camp out there. If we would take another chance, just go out on our own s before.
We tore down our lively camp, hiked as light rain came and went. By the time we separated and said farewell, sunbeams were vanquishing soft fogginess and how it shone on us. My heart swelled with wonders even as my body griped a little.
I put the tent back in the closet, tuck it into its corner. Can we even think about camping again at 66 and 68? Maybe, maybe not. But I want to see it there when items need reordering or when I just want to pull it out and look it over. Or when we finally move from here. I want to know it has been done and done well enough. How it has nourished us all, made us let go and attend to the immediacy of life, venture just a little more into the wilder variations of what matters: love becoming even more visible within the realm of natural manifestations.
Still, I find myself dreaming of staking my claim to a spot amid the sentinel trees. And a sturdy blue tent–one for Marc, one for me.
He took the whole day off, declared it
expendable and he, a king (I, a queen),
time freed of bite, gone slack with ease.
We took roads beyond the bridges where
sins long past, weighted days and lean nights
dissolved inside blossoming light.
This is the way we want it to be,
hands dangling in shear of wind,
two hearts plumped with laughter,
a small mastery of life reinstated
on the marshy trail, that welcoming wood.
Since the sun graced us with no precipitation in sight, we got our gear/snacks and my husband and I headed out on a day trip in Washington. We wanted to explore Salmon Creek Park. It’s a favorite spot of ours for a brisk or leisurely walk. Ordinarily we can continue 6-8 miles and we were up for the challenge. This time the creek was–not surprisingly–swollen and had overflowed its banks over winter. Earth was spongy and muddy, trails flooded in places. These are wetlands but knots of trees like it here, too. We had to forego dense forested acreage we love, as there was no dry way into it. Along the creek were signs of beavers having been hard at work, wood chips in nearly neat groupings. Some areas looked wane yet undaunted, but greenery is reasserting itself. Stones, birds, mossy sticks, roustabout water and aquamarine sky–all called to us. The early spring peepers’ songs were like bells jingling, bullfrogs like bass viols with excellent rhythm. Everywhere were people (and dogs) gathering and playing on and off the paths. It won’t be long before the weather will be finer, the rain more sporadic. Flowers and more leaves will burst in profusion. Spring will reign again.
I woke up last Sunday morning and felt the woods shining deep inside me. Nature is not somewhere only outside for me; it lives within, for we are a part of it and it, us. We are called to one another, creation to creation. So I knew I had to go to the place of the trillium, a favorite wildflower. I was alone and intended to find a few spots where no one else would intrude. To smell, hear, taste, touch, see, and sense mysteries, trod upon earthen trails. It had been a winter of pummeling rain, now sunshine had arrived. I could take myself right into the thick of forests again and feel once more at home.
I am not a city person out of a deep love for its cacophony of hustle and bustle. Yes, I enjoy the myriad arts events, festivals, architecture, markets and stores, the varieties of people. The ever-present source of stories found by just watching out a window or from a balcony. I was raised in a very small city but it was similar if on a quite limited scale. Yet both here and in my old hometown, I have had escapes. A saving grace in a life I didn’t and often do not well understand or even wholly appreciate as I’d prefer.
As a youngster there were times (often in warmer weather) when even the best things–the beauty of music; aromas of roast beef, potatoes and carrots or cinnamon rolls or Dutch apple pie; allure of a new novel beneath a pile of schoolwork; anticipation of dance class the next morning; a long phone conversation with my best friend, twirling the stretchy cord around my bare feet as I lay on the carpet–were not what I wanted and needed. I’d fight with school assignments, drag my mind back to its required goal. I’d race through cello and vocal compositions. If I had a chore, it’d be a slapdash job.
Those times I felt that yearning for peace and quietude inching its way into my consciousness at a velocity not to be ignored. Soon its urgency was greater than all else. I’d leave the busy common rooms of the house, go sit on my bed, close my eyes, summon the focus of my desire.
The hush of my water-blue bedroom enveloped me. Crows cawed back and forth, robins trilled monotonous calls. A rotary lawn mower whirled around a yard. Across the hallway, my mother’s sewing machine whirred and paused and whirred. My imagination’s magnetic pull took me out of my room, down winding stairs, out the front door, down Ashman Street, two blocks north, one block west and then the birches came into view, and poised maples and oaks and sketchy elms, stalwart evergreens. The poplars’ silvery leaves were tiny cymbals creating a bright, dry song in breezes. A rush of delight, a calm swept over me. Swift gusts rustled my hair, redolent of musky earth, freshest greenery. Everything in me wanted woods close about me, filling me with enchantments.
It was those decades when a youth could mostly still go alone into the world or natural places. (I’d known danger as a child abuse victim; it was within the familiar but failed security of a house and car belonging to a known person. I was not overall afraid of people or venturing out, or if I was, I ventured nonetheless.) Perhaps a somewhat wilder landscape offered a reprieve from moments of boredom or frustration but such a place had long been identified as a pocket of comfort. Happiness. I’d abandon house, work or play and head for the woods.
Soon I saw the grey and white birches thronged like valiant sentries. Sinuous pathways greeted my careful feet. Shadowy designs were thrown over skin like a delicate wrap. Above, the crowns of trees conversed with sky, while below the variety of trees were familiar friends, hearty bodies of pungent wood, bark, leaves. I could examine everything along the way without needing to master it. The multi-faceted insects, each plant unfurling itself was scrutinized. Small mammals scurried, reptiles slithered or they watched, accepting of my presence if not indifferent. I melded with gradations of light and dark, with green and brown and yellow. Stealth directed my movements; I felt compelled to slip between trees and plants, to not disturb. I felt given permission due to my deep admiration. Everything breathed with me and I, it.
The woods were barely swaying, certainly humming. Birds were aloft with chatter and song. I whispered thanks, felt joy rise up from my center then spread, a wash of warmth. There were high-spanning, glimmering bridges of webs. Nurse logs harbored colonies of bugs, were laboratories for mosses, lichen, fungi. There were sudden flower beings peeking from undergrowth. The serpentine creek with its tinkling, gurgling dance pulled me to it. I followed along, around and through the canopy of trees. Sat at its banks, the dampness of the ground seeping into my pants. I closed my eyes to better know just where I was. I was exactly…there. And happy to be one more creature amid the others.
My love of nature may have begun with early lessons from a mother who adored geography, geology and etymology, and a father whose passions included science and mathematics as well as music and education. Family trips were as much running commentary on land formations, vegetation and creatures as anything else. My parents taught me about weather patterns, rock and soil types, the habits of bugs in different places, the important diversity of plants and how all worked together for the good of all. My father pointed out constellations from our back yard or elsewhere; I was mesmerized by God’s heavens. But no one had to persuade me to love the natural world or embrace its wisdom. I’d early experienced those in Barstow Woods as noted above and the plant and tree nursery thriving behind our house (which had a lovely, tree-lined back yard). The many Michigan forests, lakes and rivers afforded me good amounts of time and activity each summer.
From a young age, I enjoyed a somewhat unusual experience. I attended summer sessions at various music camps, one being the Interlochen Center for the Arts in northwest lower Michigan. Founded in 1928 and situated on 1,200 acres, it was named simply National Music Camp for decades, a place where capable student musicians gathered to study and perform. It quickly gained a fine reputation and before long all performing and fine arts were studied by students arriving from around the world. It has grown immensely since then. It offers, among other programs, a premiere private high school arts education. But back in the fifties and sixties my father taught strings and orchestra during summer camps, and my siblings and I were music and other arts students.
I have not had a repeat of such extraordinary experiences, where creative expression and the natural world fit together into one perfect design. We lived in cabins with other like-minded youth in the woods, eating at a mess hall, studying in tandem. We attended music or other classes daily, rehearsed and performed on covered outdoor stages, other sunny, wind-swept spaces, and under star-pearled skies. The dance building was set on a lake shore, and as I danced and rested I could smell fragrant water and earth, see the undulating expanse of green-blue with white sailed boats bobbing or flying along. The campus buildings were mostly stone and wood structures, lodge-like, cozy even when large. Recreation included table tennis, sailing and swimming, volleyball and more. Tiny practice rooms were also of field stone and timber with small rectangular windows. Once one was opened, I practiced my cello or vocal pieces, with warm air wafting in and it carried a delicious fragrance of dried or greener pine needles. Everywhere could be heard musicians, other students laboring over the thing they loved doing, honing whatever talent had brought them. The natural symphonies and unfolding stories of earth’s bounties accompanied my thoughts and endeavors.
All my life the wedding of creative energy with the natural realm has seemed a most sacred thing. A vibrant chorus of voices or resonance of a string quartet, rich notes of a French horn or the mellow beauty of an English oboe–these experienced within the lustrous beauty of a summered landscape are potent magic. Making visual art, dancing, writing, acting–all this replete with the constant inspiration of rhythms and cycles of natural events is an unparalleled way to explore and live. Nature’s formations and complications, the vagaries and wholeness so well shake loose ideas and influence impulses. There were mystery and sweat, dreaming and victories and failures–a mammoth arc of learning as I opened to more teaching. The context of such activity can give rise to a lot of human industriousness. Tranquility.
Oh, but the woods I have known and loved as a child, a youth, an adult. If I am patient and willing to search, I may more fully discover an immutable sense of the organic, microcosmic and macrocosmic worlds. The great synergistic cohesion works. It teaches me there is a purpose to each small piece, part of a span of connections started eons ago and still operating miraculously well if we respect it. I am shown frailty and obdurate strength. Order and ultimate symmetry. Upheaval and rejuvenation. Transformative powers reveal that saving changes do exist. It boosts my most human hope. For we are part of this process, the mighty cause and effect. If I recognize the common thread in the schemata, I will be at peace, at one with it.
Not so many years ago I squatted in the middle of a stream in another forested place and looked about me and listened. The birds and water sang. Rocks glistened. Plant life rippled and rested. The sky was blue as sapphire and trees were arced above me, leaning toward the rippling stream. Golden afternoon shafts of light struck lively water and it sparked with brilliant energy. It came to me in a sweep of awe, the clarity of the primordial and the divine so strong amid wounded fragmentations of our world. Overwhelmed by an ecstasy and bone-aching grief all at once, tears flowed. I looked up and trees were weeping, too, and the sky was all radiance from which love flowed everywhere. And I held my self open to that eternal Presence of God.
It was not the first time, nor the last. But in nature this power is very accessible, it seems to me. So, the woods do call me but I, too, call the woods. Solace, balance and wisdom I often need and find, and such refilling of the well of my soul I always am given. Step gently but boldly into the beauty. Let your soul call and be called, too.
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