Category: Landscape Diaries

Settling for an Old Adage

watercolor forest painting from Upper MacCleay Trail by Alexandra Schaefers

Monday afternoon, it’s 80 degrees as if summer already. I’m walking into Forest Park via Lower MacLeay, one of the most popular trails in the park. It follows Balch Creek and connects with the Wildwood where one can go north away from the city or south to Pittock Mansion and Hoyt Arboretum.

When I lived in NW I walked this trail almost daily. It was such a comfort. Now I hike it a few times a year when I’m in the neighborhood for other things.

I used to be familiar with every section of the trail as a distinct entity mostly based on landmarks of the creek. The place where the creek runs along a wide gravely shore just a tad lower than the trail. The place where one looks down on the creek as it flows between narrow banks and forms a small green pool between sections of rock. The place where the creek is flanked by a high rock wall covered in ferns. The stretch of creek with a wide, flat rock in the middle.

This trail has seen me through some break-ups. I almost feel destined to love it more than any partner but today I feel the same deep familiarity and utter strangeness as when seeing an ex. There are plenty of landmarks I recognize but they are interrupted with unfamiliar foliage, reconstructed bridges and obscured views. I feel like a tourist by the time I cross Cornell.

This section of the Wildwood brings back other memories. I never walked this far when seeking solace, exercise or a daily reconnect with nature. I came here in more adventurous moods. As I walk I feel suddenly and viscerally at home. It’s rush hour. I can hear the constant rush of traffic on the road below but I am filled with peaceful belonging.

Do we have a specific, unchangeable home? A preordained place we belong despite any roots we have set down elsewhere? Is our birthplace our only true home that we shirk off in the name of opportunity and progress? Or do we create home wherever we care enough to get involved, to invest, to explore and appreciate our surrounds, to fall in love with the place and not just our doings?

The latter seems logical. Yet having spent four years in Multnomah Village and another ten working there, having walked all over the neighborhood and it’s parks, having felt great love for its foresty beauty and quaintness I still feel like a traveler. Do I simply need another 4 years? A few more broken hearts to salve on the trails. Given all the “Stop Rezoning” signs my neighbors have staked in their yards it’s possible I need to become wealthy enough to buy an actual house here to be truly welcome by the community. Not that I don’t understand the desire to preserve the sanctity of one’s neighborhood. But surely we are creative enough to do so while also allowing multi-family housing options that allow people of varying incomes to enjoy the beautiful places we want to protect.

I pass the Cumberland Trail which reminds me of my first love. I know a lot of people don’t think Sasquatch exists but I’m pretty sure I dated him. I never asked, I just assumed that as cameras became more prevalent he shaved, moved into a basement studio in the West Hills of Portland and got a job in a medical office. He’s a sensitive soul, maladapted to city life but he loved to wander in the woods as much as I so we got a long for a bit.

We met on the lower MacLeay Trail. Of course we broke up there too. He’s long gone but the Cumberland Trail still leads to his old street.

I hike to the Upper MacLeay and take a right, I’m too hungry to hike all the way to Pittock Mansion but I stop and sit on a bench admiring the gentle way the Oregon grape plants that cover the slope move in the breeze. I listen to an orange crowned warbler, juncos, jays, and pacific wrens all making their distinct songs the way each plant along the tail has its own distinct shapes of leaves.

When I think back to my most innocent self, home is where there are bluebells, daffodils, rhodies and hydrangea bushes, Doug fir, white oak and big leaf maple, the songs of robins, red-winged blackbirds, Bob White quail, jays, flickers, nuthatches and chickadees. Home was where I was expected to be even when I was the only one who remembered.

Expecting myself at a particular address seems to be the extent of my sense of home now. But this feeling of belonging while walking through Doug fir and Oregon grape today is a deeper thing than simply being happy to arrive at my doorstep knowing everything will be as I left it. I want to fit somewhere on a molecular level.

I consider the Chinook, the Cowlitz, the Atfalati who were violently forced from this land even though their molecules and the molecules of the place are one in the same. I feel disrespectful for dwelling on these lofty questions of home, for wanting stolen land to be my rightful, fated place. Being the descendant of settlers I’ll have to settle for the old adage home is where the heart is.

There is no question my molecules belong on earth. Choosing love over ambition and getting to know the bus schedule so I can leave my gas-powered vehicle parked may provide more belonging than navel gazing.

Sasquatch was not good with money and often predicted future homelessness for himself. Every so often I check the internet to make sure he’s still alive. He doesn’t exactly share his data there the way the rest of us do. The first time all I found was a marathon finish time buried in the local paper. Since he loves to run, that seemed like enough.


This is my first time at Riverview Natural Area. It is like a neglected patch of woods behind someone’s house—growing over with ivy, criss-crossed with ill-planned trails. I expect to see a few tree-houses and forts but they’re absent. At least the city took the time to number the trails and mark them with laminated paper stapled to stakes.

I walk into the park feeling out-of-touch, quite a bit like a neglected patch of woods overgrown with the desire to not feel my own reality after heartlessly severing a six-year friendship because it housed an on-and-off romance that functioned like a cumbersome, worn out, bug-infested sofa-bed during a move. It doesn’t fit through the doorway of my future. No one can blame me for not wanting to bring the bugs along.  If I’m honest it doesn’t belong anyway. But the memories. The cozy moments. Then again how many time can one try and fail to be heard?

It’s nice to be out under the trees even if everything seems unremarkable in the light of my mood. I cross a log so wide I just sit on it and swing my legs over. I stand up to find a big, wet spot of fresh bird poop on my camel-colored corduroy skirt. This would normally be funny. A bird-lover is eventually going to meet with bird excrement, it’s required. But it’s squishy and I feel oddly embarrassed about walking the trails and riding my bike home with a poop spot on my skirt, as if people will know and assume it’s my own.

I pour most of my water bottle out while trying to rub the debris out of the soft ribbing in my skirt then keep walking, unconcerned that I might now look like I peed on myself.

The trail starts to head steeply downward toward Macadam and I consider that I just rode my bike up this same slope through the cemetery, that I had to rest a few times along the way and that I may not be happy arriving at the bottom to have to climb all the way back up again.

I turn around, resigned to an unremarkable walk getting acquainted with a new place. Getting up to date on my requisite encounters with bird poop. Doing the best I can to to reckon with the edges of emptiness around a pain in my heart, that will slowly fade in the recognition that the hardest way isn’t always the most noble.


watercolor illustration of crows flying through spring trees by Alexandra Schaefers

The scent of Magnolia blossoms draws me along the trail into their grove. Some trees have already leafed, some have yet to bloom and there’s every stage between.

The blossoms form colored clouds around their home trees and layer against each other, against the green adding a murky aliveness to the quivering air. As if the oxygen molecules are moving to make room for the bursting buds and pin-prick sized rain droplets.

One crow forages alone at the edge of a large grassy slope punctuating the intense green. When I look down the trail I see flashes of other crow slipping between the trees. The cloud cover deepens their black feathers so they look like oil dripping through the woods.

watercolor illustration of a crow at the edge of a green slope by alexandra Schaefers

I sit on a bench here, a picnic table there, reaching into the lace of bird song for the familiars: scrub jays, yellow warblers, dark-eyed juncos, spotted towhees, crows. A woman walks past so engrossed in her phone her steps seem suspended, in slow motion, a Tai Chi practice perhaps. I do not think I exist in her attention or peripheral vision and for that moment I feel how a forest creature might while hiding in its own stillness watching the brash world of humans pass.

The rain drops become larger as I write in my sketchbook so I get on the trail again and head for the picnic shelter wishing I had brought a pen with waterproof ink.

A spotted towhee darts across the trail from one brushy cover to another. It is so funny to watch birds run even in situations where flight would be unwieldy. I feel as though my whole life is the same sort of comic but necessary dash. Somehow this inspires me to photograph the rusty hues of dead salal leaves and draw a few buds from the spray of spring twigs along the trail.

sketchbook drawing of spring maple buds by Alexandra Schaefers

A loud truck rumbles down Burnside. On the drive over I was preoccupied thinking about the importance of generosity in relationships, in art, in work. There are too many small things I am mad about that keep me just as small and ungenerous.

Now I feel almost aquatic in this dense plasma of life, snuggled on all sides in all moments by the world’s exhale and the viscosity of ions exchanging—green things sending ripples of freshness across the air as they turn light and water into fiber.

I came here to admire magnolia blossoms and end up with fish-sense, critter-sense. This seems like a bargain to me. What do I remember about the blossoms anyway? How delicate and soft the petals were even on blossoms larger than my hands.

watercolor painting of a magnolia blossom by Alexandra Schaefers

I get to the shelter but it’s almost time to go.

Can a person decide in one day to stop minding their worries, their frustrations—to let them fuss like small children while one goes about the business of enjoying life anyway?  I will find out. There is no reason today can’t be the day everything changes.

A junco flies in and hops around the rivets of the shelter support. Another lands on the trash and peers into its dark opening. He sees nothing of interest and flies off.

Neighborhood Trees

watercolor painting of neighborhood trees in Sabin, Portland, Oregon by Alexandra Schaefers

Today is a warm, sunny, blossoming day. The first day of spring, in fact. I am lounging outdoors on my friend’s porch in Sabin. My ankle is a bit sprained which I could be depressed about, but this porch—surrounded by neighborhood trees and blue skies—is so decadent I don’t miss the hike I would normally be on.

Don is currently in his room programming LED lights. I’ve been reading a book and feeling guilty about using this injury as an excuse to be really unproductive. But isn’t this the life I always wanted my productivity to lead me to? Enjoying the day exactly as it is, untailored by my expectations. Occupying—fully—my place in the elements, in the biosphere, in my own skin.

The wind rushes through the tall fir with the spray of ocean sounds then rattles the branches of the blossoming deciduous trees on the other side of the block, then rushes through the fir again.

watercolor illustration of crows flying by Alexandra Schaefers

Dead leaves scitter across the driveway. Crows pass over now and again calling to each other. The traffic, the chirp of sparrows and goldfinches, clatter of a cyclist, a man shushing a baby, pushing the stroller down the sidewalk.

A soda can cracks open in the house. Don comes out to check on me. I show him my sketches with unhinged enthusiasm. He talks about mini computers, knobs, switches and 3D printed brackets for LED lights. I absorb every twelfth word and feel bad for my poor friendship skills.

Meanwhile finches sing in the treetops while people rearrange things loudly in their backyards. Kids holler at a nearby park occasionally invoking the sound of a violent death.

watercolor illustration of a bird shadow by Alexandra Schaefers

Car doors slam. Shadows flit back and forth across the porch, the old green couch, my lap. A bird shaped shadow sails across the light. I look up to see two sparrows hopping about in last year’s wisteria plucking bits of twigs then flying off.

A breeze cools my face. A leaf skitters down the sidewalk. An insect passes. I look up and see their light bodies hovering here and there in the open air of the porch. Crows again. The screen door creaks on its own. Wind chimes tinker. A car whooshes by.

A little hair blows in front of my own face and I remember myself separate from the warmth, from the peaceful goings-on of eternity as it tends to its everyday chores here on the block. Each time I slip into the richness of the world like this I see clearly that I have been doing everything wrong; thinking myself into a person, into a purpose, a quest to find beauty even though it is exactly where I left it.

The chimes pick up again as the ocean sings through the fir while car stereos add beats from two different directions. I sneeze and wonder what’s next.

Finding a Lost Trail

When I arrive at Marshall park three varied thrushes scatter from around the trailhead into the trees. I walk down to the bridge, over the creek, past the playground and up the trail—hopefully on my way to Tryon Creek State Park. Last time I got lost and wandered entirely too far on a deer trail with the absurd notion that this trail, despite being on a map of suggested walking routes put out by the city of Portland, is simply not well used.

As I descend toward the creek again I see a trail on the other side I hadn’t noticed last time. I realize that this was the spot where the trail became thin and unreliable last time so I assume not crossing had been my wrong turn. This time I walk on the wide log over the creek and follow the trail along the water and up the bank to the intersection of Arnold and Boones Ferry.

A couple blocks away I find the North Creek Trailhead. I am elated to have finally made it here after one failed attempt! I haven’t been on this side of the park much. The woods feel open where the creek winds through a wide marshy area, especially without the leaves of the deciduous trees filling in the space.

I walk through the park on my favorite trails admiring the maple blossoms and budding leaves. I love the way the new buds spring up right next to the remnants of fall, old seedpods still hanging on the branches, leaves stuck in the cruxes. It’s been such a cold winter, I am especially eager for spring.

Above me chestnut backed chickadees sing to each other in a cloud of high-pitched chatter. I only get a good look at one who peeks over a mossy branch before darting off into the high branches.

I admire a wren hopping about in the undergrowth loudly defending its territory. Down the trail a ways I find a sunny bench to have lunch on. Behind me a barred owl sings occasionally and I watch people walk their dogs past as I eat the two bread heels out of a bread bag identical to the one my sandwich is in at home in the fridge.

On the way back I startle several more groups of varied thrushes. They aren’t a rare bird but I’ve never seen so many in one walk before and it makes the day even more enchanted than finding a lost trail on the other side of a log bridge.

I’m surprised to find varied thrushes have bold black and white stripes on the underside of their wings. It’s so striking as they fly off through the deep greens. As I watch a female perched next to a broken branch right above the trail I also realize their lovely orange coloring is the exact same color as the inside of a tree before it weathers. I stay very still, watching until she flies off. Up the trail a bit I spy two males on the other side of some bare brush. I watch them foraging alongside the creek until a fellow with a dog passes and the birds scatter.

After I cross the log again and head up the hill I notice this part of the trail is not stable. It is in a terrible process of erosion which makes it seem unlikely to be a city-sanctioned trail. When planning my route I had expected to walk on streets more then I actually did before arriving at Tryon.

I pass a fork in the trail with no signage. I had taken the wider path assuming the narrower trail went into the nearest neighborhood. Now I get out my map and find that this was actually my wrong turn. I was supposed to take the narrower trail to the street.

What a dilemma! I just discovered this enchanting trail but feel morally obligated to take a boring street route next time. If the bank weren’t in such bad shape I wouldn’t mind taking the unmapped trail but it’s not good for the creek and all the life it supports having the bank wash down.

It’s tough sometimes to balance out our rights as mammals to be close to nature with our obligation as stewards to make sure we stop ruining our neighboring species’ habitat. In my ideal world, we restore so many natural areas and effuse our cities and neighborhoods with so much plant life and other-species habitat that we don’t feel deprived when we shut ourselves out of areas that need to be restored.

I walk the rest of the way home and eat my sandwich finally. It tastes all the better for having been missed.

here’s a really great article about one effort to add more nature back to cities!

The Exact Shape of the Sky


Ivy Hill was the first place I fell in love with when I moved back to Corvallis. A wide trail loops around the hill on one side ascending to it’s peak where one can stand in the bare meadows and look down on the charming city of Corvallis shrouded in its many trees. The unruly branches of white oaks and open meadows there have the most dramatic relationship with the changing weather. Fog writes intrigue with the silhouettes of twisted trees. Clouds lay heavy in their grey mist passing over the ocher grass. The blue sky shapes itself into jagged panes between each trailing branch. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Corvallis in the spring especially at the top of Ivy Hill.

I arrived in Spring and felt as though my heart was the exact shape of the sky above the contours of North Corvallis. I felt such peace being snugly back in its familiar hills, creeks, and the forested slough slipping into the Willamette.

Today I am here on a visit from Portland where I have spent most of my adult live. I head up the trail and miss the deep fir-filled woods that used to flank the sides of the hill before the oak release. The startling beauty of oaks against the skyline should salve my grief but I do not feel quite at home in the restored oak savanna.

Without ambition or binoculars I spot and hear several acorn woodpeckers, one of the declining species the oak release aimed to make habitat for. Even the oaks themselves were not doing well with so many evergreens crowding them. I didn’t used to see acorn woodpeckers this far east so I imagine this project has been successful.

I walk up the hill looking for the distinct white spots on the wings of the acorn woodpecker as they fly from tree to tree. I stop to admire a group of juncos crossing the trail together. A little grey bird I don’t recognize flits about in the branches alongside the trail with a patch of yellow on its sides. My best guess is that it’s an immature or female yellow-rumped warbler which the internet agrees with later at home.

At the top of the hill I spot a couple white-breasted nuthatches high in an oak, the first time I’ve identified them solo. A western bluebird flies by and I look out across the valley wondering if it will spark the same sense of home, the same sense of paradise and good fortune it did when I moved here. It doesn’t. Which is a relief because I am really enjoying my life in Portland even with its challenges.

I walk back down the hill considering the intelligence of the heart to make itself at home in whatever place it needs to be. It was so peaceful to be in Corvallis the first two years, staying with my folks on 11 acres along the slough, working two days a week at a cafe, riding my bike here and there in no particular hurry, painting in the woods. When I got a full-time job the small town charm instantly evaporated. Then they cut down the firs in Chip Ross Park, gathered the debris in piles all across Ivy Hill and burned it. I regretted the smoldering piles but knew it was right for them to do. I also knew it was right for me to be here with my dad at the end of his life. That the snugness of my heart had more to do with him than the hills. That I might end up back in Portland as if one of a species crowding out the devoted Corvallians.

I hear some hollow drumming as I walk down the other side of the hill blinded by the afternoon sun.

I shade my eyes and look up into the oak by the trail to see a Pileated woodpecker working away, striking in its size and brilliant red crest. I stay and watch it until it slides around the back of the tree, still pecking at the bark.


Illuminated by Gravity


This morning I woke up to find a fresh undisturbed blanket of snow on the ground. A rarity in the Willamette Valley, I decided to go to Gabriel Park to admire the trees and riparian brush under the wintry elegance.

I pass through Spring Garden Park, deeply sloped it has attracted many sledders making impressive use of a scant inch of snow.

I stop at the cafe to say hi to my waitress friends who are mostly unoccupied. There are two customers in the restaurant. No matter how little snow is on the ground it’s almost always wet here and the temperature is generally just above or just below freezing so people are terrified to leave their homes. It’s an easy target for humor; Portland acting like an inch of snow is a life threatening blizzard. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that no one is really great at driving on ice which is what we most often end up with on the roads.

The traffic creeps slowly along the boulevard as I head up the hill to the park admiring the amazing lace of the trees, a Stellar’s jay quietly perched on the top of a branch and two Anna’s buzzing past me with alarming closeness en route to a feeder.

Gabriel Park is dazzling. The star-like patterns of white on fir boughs, polka dots of white in bare brambles, the structure of each brushy swath of woods illuminated by gravity and snow’s brilliance. Everyone I pass looks buoyant and privileged to be out in the spectacle.

Crows call across the woods to each other and I get distracted from the loveliness. I think about what a headache it will be to paint snow in watercolor. This is the territory of artists who like to paint boat docks and architecture.

I try my best to come back and enjoy the day, to trust the struggle to paint will yield something more interesting than expertise would. Something one could at least cut up and use in a collage.

I manage a couple minutes of contentment then start plotting the most efficient route through my favorite parts of the park to take on days I am too tired or cold for a leisurely stroll. I discover I am already on the most efficient route and consider there is some metaphor in there.



The next day I walk through Spring Garden Park again on a loop through the neighborhood. The ground is frozen and crunchy under my feet. The cold gray sky feels larger than normal, or maybe nearer, certainly more exposing. There are only little bits of snow left here and there. The robins collect in holly bushes feasting on the red berries.

I’m absorbed today, as I so often am, considering my direction. A serial haver-of-epiphanies, a connoisseur of fresh starts, I will do everything to make my life lovely except actually believe in myself. I imagine living a personally meaningful life instead of a productive one as a long drive on a solid sheet of ice instead of a stroll through one’s favorite parts of the woods. I don’t really need another reason to judge myself so I decide that when it comes to one’s path in life the shorter route won’t do. Perfection won’t do. Adventures like learning to believe in the compass of one’s own heart should not be abbreviated.

A crow swoops out of a bare tree leaving his partner to pick at the moss for bugs in the bare branches.

A scrub jay flies across the street holding something bright orange in his beak, a bright orange ort that perfectly compliments his blue body.

Smaller Adventure

Stephens Creek Natural Area

It’s sunny in the neighborhood today. I head north with my sketchbook. A tiny grocery list is in my pocket because I love to be quaint and today that means walking to the store for my weekly food stuffs. It would be 24 minutes to Fred Meyer by foot if I took Barbur but a stroll along the main thoroughfare sounds like a terrible morning. Besides, I’m short on adventure lately so I take the long route, crossing Barbur to meander through South Burlingame. From the Terwilliger exit the patch of trees along Burlingame park looks like a dense forest. From here in the park I am surprised to find it a thin, scraggly barrier barely veiling the cement wasteland behind it.

I walk past the playgrounds and through the abandoned tennis court at the end of the park then up the hill to Canby street where there is a shrine of various toys and figurines on an ivy covered burm. I’m not drawn to plastic toys even in the spirit of irony and these dolls have become so dirty outdoors they look even more like trash.

I walk down stairs in the hillside and watch a Cooper’s Hawk hunt in a neighbor’s yard across the street. He dives into the ivy but comes up with nothing before disappearing around the backside of the house, each movement so quick it is only the distinct stripes on his tail that confide his identity.

I take another staircase up to Terwilliger and endure several minutes of traffic hell while I cross main streets to get to the store where I engage in the odd practice of selecting my groceries by weight so my book bag won’t be too heavy on the way home. Next time I’m going to wear my backpacking backpack so I can distribute the weight onto my hips and buy more food.

I feel squeamish about becoming impractically idealistic. No one is going to be happy to bag my groceries into a deep outdoor backpack and placing the eggs just right will be an act of unwieldy devotion. In my 20s I refused to buy a car, new clothes or even packaged food. One day I felt I needed some clear tape and it was a moral dilemma. I bought the tape but I’m not sure if I have forgiven myself yet.

At the time I thought I was an inspiration for good stewardship but looking back I believe I was mostly just a grim and neglected relic of my own ideals.

I leave the store out the parking garage and take Bertha Street to Stephens Creek Natural Area. The first time I came here it was dusk. I was on my bike headed home from downtown and more than a little saddle sore. I locked my bike up along Capitol Hill Road and descended toward the creek raising the ire of a large group of crows. I wasn’t sure if this was their rookery or if there was a particularly nutritious dead animal in the park but they were quite vocal about not wanting me around. The dark sprawling branches of willows with their odd, obtuse angles in the dim light enhanced the menace of the crows into a Hitchcock-like scene. I loved it of course.

Now it is midday and there is not a single crow here. There is an Anna’s singing it’s lungs out above, robins hopping about listening for worms, a couple song sparrows calling. The crows are elsewhere, possibly even in my back yard hunting for bugs.

I stop and sketch the brambly woods a bit and head up the trail. I’d planned to take Capitol Hill Road but get sidetracked on a foot path that sashays up the hill through the unmanicured neighborhood. Sometimes dirt, sometimes gravel, sometimes the bend of a narrow paved lane or the cracked pavement at the end of a cul-de-sac, sometimes lined by ivy or cut deeply by run-off the path carries me up the hill by the water tower and back down the other side to Barbur passing blackberries, brambles and disheveled gardens, a wooden cart with wheels sunk in the mud, a tarped boat. There’s an impressive variety of evergreen trees I’m not able to identify along with some fragrant cedars and at least one Doug fir so tall the wind sings through its needles like the ocean.

I arrive home tired and happy to put my groceries away, enamored that I just carried them over a small hill having an even smaller adventure. I don’t have to walk to the store. I have a working car in the driveway full of gas. It’s a privilege for me to indulge my quaint notions of life. I think of it like a shrine I built to a simple, slower and possibly fictional time when people weren’t cogs in a fast moving economy. If I don’t maintain this shrine it will get overgrown with ego. I will start walking to the store grim in the notion that it’s the right thing to do, that everyone else should too.

Crows at Stephens Creek Natural Area