Settling for an Old Adage

watercolor forest painting from Upper MacCleay Trail by Alexandra Schaefers

It’s 80 degrees as if summer already. I’m on the Lower MacLeay, one of the most popular trails in Forest Park. When I lived in the neighborhood I walked its length almost daily and was familiar with every section. The place where the creek runs along a wide gravely shore just a tad lower than the trail. The place a small green pool forms between narrow banks. The spot flanked by a high rock wall that’s covered in ferns. The stretch with a wide, flat rock in the middle.

Today I feel the same deep familiarity and utter strangeness with this trail 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.

As I walk up the hill I feel suddenly and viscerally at home. It’s rush hour. I can hear the constant roar of traffic on the road below but I am filled with peaceful belonging.

I wonder about home. Do we have 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 progress? Or do we create home wherever we care enough to get involved, to fall in love with the place and not just our doings?

The latter seems logical. Yet having spent four years in Multnomah Village, another ten working there, having walked all over its streets and parks feeling deep affection for its forested beauty I still feel like a traveler. Do I simply need another 4 years? Maybe I need to buy a house here to be welcome, what with all the “Stop Rezoning” signs around. I believe we can preserve the uniqueness of our neighborhoods while allowing housing for people of all incomes to be built but its a touchy issue for many.

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 for 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 this trail and would take the Cumberland from his old street into the park for our walks.

I hike to the Upper MacLeay then sit on a bench admiring the gentle way the Oregon grape plants on 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. There are the songs of robins, Red-winged Blackbirds, Bob White Quail, jays, flickers, nuthatches and chickadees. But this feeling of belonging makes me 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. It seems disrespectful to dwell on these lofty questions, to want stolen land to be my fated place. So being the descendant of settlers I’ll have to settle for the old adage home is where the heart is.

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 share his data 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, it was enough.

Unremarkable

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, crisscrossed 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 feel like a neglected patch of woods myself, 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 kept me from getting on with life.

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.

Delicate

watercolor illustration of crows flying through spring trees by Alexandra Schaefers

The scent of Magnolia blossoms draws me along the trail into their grove. The blossoms form colored clouds around their trunks and layer against each other and the green adding a murky aliveness to the quivering air as oxygen molecules shift to make room for the bursting buds and 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 crows slipping between the trees. The cloud cover deepens their black feathers so they drip through the woods like oil.

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

I sit on a bench 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. I do not exist in her attention even peripherally and for a moment I feel how a forest creature might 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.

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 so I stop 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 and I feel aquatic in this dense atmosphere, snuggled on all sides by 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. What do I remember about them 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.

I want every moment to be this good and decide there’s no reason today can’t be the day everything changes. All I have to do is stop minding my frustrations—to let them fuss like small children while I dwell in beauty unimpressed with their complaints.

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, 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 but this porch—surrounded by neighborhood trees and blue skies—is so decadent I don’t feel bad about it.

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.

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 while pushing a stroller down the sidewalk.

watercolor illustration of crows flying by Alexandra Schaefers

A soda can cracks open in the house. My friend comes out to check on me. I show him my sketches. 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 in their backyards and kids holler at a nearby park invoking the sound of violent death.

Car doors. 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 before flying off.

watercolor illustration of a bird shadow by Alexandra Schaefers

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

A little hair blows in front of my face and I remember myself separate from the warmth, the peaceful goings-on of eternity as it tends to its everyday chores on the block. Its clear 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.

Finding a Lost Trail

When I arrive at Marshall park three varied thrushes scatter from the trail-head 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 on a map of walking routes put out by the city, is simply not well used.

As I descend toward the creek I see a trail on the other side I hadn’t noticed before. I realize that this was the spot where the path became thin and unreliable so I cross the wide log over the creek and follow this new trail along the water and up the bank to the intersection at Boones Ferry.

A couple blocks away I find the trail-head into Tryon. 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 admiring the maple blossoms and budding leaves springing up right next to the remnants of fall: old seedpods still hanging on the branches, leaves stuck in the cruxes.

Above me chestnut backed chickadees sing to each other in a cloud of high-pitched chatter. One peeks over a mossy branch before darting off into the high branches. Down the trail a ways I find a sunny bench to have lunch on. Behind me a barred owl sings occasionally as I watch people walk their dogs past and 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, the bold black and white stripes on the underside of their wings striking as they fly through the deep greens. A female perches next to a broken branch right above the trail, her lovely orange breast the exact same color as the inside of a tree before it weathers. I stay very still, watching until she flies off.

I cross the log again and head up the hill, noticing this part of the trail is in a process of erosion which makes it seem unlikely to be a city-sanctioned trail. I pass an unmarked fork farther up and get out my map to check my route. This was actually my wrong turn. I was supposed to take the narrower trail to the street.

I’m a little sad to have just discovered this enchanting path only to realize I should take a boring street route next time since it’s not good for the creek and all the life it supports to have the bank wash down.

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. In Autumn fog writes intrigue with the silhouettes of twisted trees. In winter clouds lay heavy in their grey mist passing over the ocher grass. In summer the blue sky shapes itself into jagged panes between each unruly branch.

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 so snug back in its familiar hills, creeks, and the forested slough slipping into the Willamette.

Today I am here on a visit after moving away. 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 the loss 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 flits about in the branches alongside the trail with a patch of yellow on its sides, probably an immature or female yellow-rumped warbler.

At the top of the hill I spot a couple white-breasted nuthatches high in an oak. 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 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 coals 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 real 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.