The lazy, drone of bullfrogs follows Teddy and I up and down the Cedar Creek Trail during our early morning walks. Bullfrogs, merciless hunters of our native wildlife, are with us to stay, so I allow myself to enjoy their tuneless call.
Several weeks ago, my dog Teddy and I stumbled upon the Cedar Creek Trail behind the YMCA in Sherwood. Stepping into such a peaceful world so near the busy highway was a delightful surprise.
The paved trail is surrounded by lush greenery; lovely suburban homes sit on one side and natural wetlands and wildlife haven stretch the length of the other side. In quiet places along the creek, red wing blackbirds sing from the top of old snags, and impressive stands of tall fir trees create a forest habitat where chipmunks play amidst fallen logs on the forest floor.
In the busy days since recently moving from Milwaukie to Newberg, I’ve missed the small daily adventure of immersing myself in the sight and smell of the outdoors and quietly observing the ordinary lives of suburban wildlife. Fortunately, I’m learning that this area has many opportunities for outdoor exploration.
Our first morning on the Cedar Creek trail I kept expecting the path to end around the next corner, but it continued through several neighborhoods with side trails giving access to the main trail. I followed the path as it snaked alongside the natural habitat, stopping to listen to birdsong, smell the fresh air, and pay attention to occasional rustling in the brush.
Along the trail I heard the buzz-trill of busy Towhees calling and flitting about in the low branches. I’ve never seen so many Towhees in such close proximity, though it is the busy nesting season. The songs of many birds fill the air and every few feet a robin hops about carrying a worm or grub. We would marvel at the beauty of the robin if we didn’t see them so often.
The creek flows evenly and gently in some places then stalls for a while, flattening out and providing quiet habitat for water birds and other creatures before turning into a gurgling, free-flowing body of water.
Three tiny bunnies hopped about on the trail ahead of me one morning, then they dashed toward the brush when they saw me. One bunny allowed me to stand only a few feet from him while he held still and silent, hoping he had become invisible. In silhouette he looked like a little piece of yard art. As soon as I tried to get his picture he made a dash for the underbrush.
Two weeks ago, I watched a pair of quail moving in and out of the bushes and, a week later, saw the older birds with several recently hatched babies.
I have yet to see a dog loose in the protected habitat, though there are plenty of dog walkers on the trail in the morning. Joggers, and dog walkers, birdwatchers, and day dreamers all seem to understand the importance of leaving the habitat to the wild creatures.
I’m just beginning to learn about the Cedar Creek Trail and other remarkable ways that the community has integrated wetland and natural habitat in the middle of human habitation. It’s a unique and extraordinary sign of a healthy community.
It was thirty minutes before sunrise when I pulled in to the parking lot at Sellwood Riverside Park. I was planning to walk Springwater Trail to the wildlife refuge.
Since it was dark, and I was counting on being alone, I sat in the locked car for a minute or two, assessing the safety of the early morning. With the engine turned off, and the windows rolled up, I heard something. Someone must be out there disturbing the early morning with their music, I thought. I rolled the window down an inch or two and the mellow tones of a flute filled the car.
Long, low, rich tones floated gracefully from the direction of the river. I wasn’t hearing a familiar tune it was a series of slowly played tones that blended with the darkness and the night sky. I took in the very light blanket of fog, the dark quiet of pre-dawn, and the flute; I knew I was receiving a gift. The gentle music was drifting above the vast lawn in the park and filling the nearby woods. I was enchanted.
I set caution aside and let my feet guide me in the direction of the music. I couldn’t have done anything else. As I neared the river, I saw the outline of a lone figure sitting in the the dark on one of the picnic tables. The stranger’s feet were on the bench, and his peaceful song was coming from a wooden flute. His dark hair was loose and fell well past his shoulders. He wore jeans, I think, and a jacket against the morning chill. He raised his head slightly, saw me, but did not acknowledge me. I chose to widen my path around him; not out of fear of a lone stranger in the dark, but out of fear that the music would end.
Not ready to leave the experience behind, I took the longest path to the Springwater Trail. I walked past the stranger, through the grassy field that would be filled with people and dogs in a few hours, into the woods by the frog pond, and finally up to the trail where the music gradually faded and the sun was beginning to rise.
Sometimes an insignificant event turns into a memory you can pull out and enjoy all over again.
* * *
Only a few feet in front of me, a black and white cat tore across the street carrying something in its mouth. The hot July day had cooled after dark. Jasper and I could enjoy a quiet evening walk. The sweet old dog didn’t pay any attention to the cat and probably wouldn’t have even if he hadn’t been blind.
I recognized the cat. She usually hung out on the porch of a house on Cardinal Street.
Once she reached the front lawn of her own yard the cat dropped a mouse on the grass. Then she settled down in front of her still-living prize and contemplated the many ways she would enjoy toying with the tiny thing. The porch light spilled on to the lawn, illuminating the scene.
The mouse spent a few seconds quivering and gathering his senses. Perhaps he had been snatched so suddenly, and carried so swiftly through the neighborhood, he didn’t yet realize what had happened. Perhaps he was simply surprised to still be alive. The cat, cool and calm, narrowed her calculating feline eyes and watched
Tentatively, the mouse moved a few inches to one side. The cat calmly stretched her paw out and batted the mouse back. Then she relaxed again and waited for the unlucky rodent to play some more. She was in no hurry.
Again, the mouse moved, this time in the opposite direction, and this time more quickly.
Kitty just slapped him back to center stage. The mouse was confused and disoriented. He began frantically attempting to escape. Time after time the cat batted him back, sometimes rolling the mouse over in the grass, then sitting back to continue watching her little toy. It seemed the game would continue for some time.
I had just about decided to intervene. After all, this well-fed cat was cruelly entertaining herself. Suddenly a front door across the street opened. Yellow light spilled out the door and a small schnauzer followed. The dog spotted the cat and immediately tore across the street. For a minute it was a Tom and Jerry cartoon with the cat holding the mouse at bay and the dog in hot pursuit of the cat.
Then kitty turned from her prey and raced to the porch of her home with the dog following. Before the dog could reach her the cat turned, humped her back, and hissed menacingly.
The schnauzer, who must have been familiar with sharp kitty claws, skid to a stop just out of the cat’s reach. He suddenly lost interest in sport, turned, and headed back to his home where a woman was still holding the door open for him. Only seconds had passed since she had let him outside.
The cat seemed to have forgotten her tiny plaything. She calmly lay down on the door mat and folded ladylike paws in front of her as if to say, “Nothing to see here.”
The mouse had disappeared. He was headed home with quite a story to tell.
Oh Canada goose! How often have I cursed your multitudes. You spread across grassy fields leaving slippery bullets everywhere. One woman and her small dog can barely navigate without falling into the filth. I have wished you into a stew pot or the centerpiece of a Dickens Christmas dinner.
Yet I cannot look at you without smiling. Sitting alone, at the highest point on the roof, you look down on humans walking the paths in Crystal Springs. You cackle and croak, offering us a cranky tongue lashing perhaps, or quoting scripture and spreading the Good News. Maybe you are cursing us, wishing us into stew pots.
You are a cocky fellow, confident and handsome Without your friends and relations, I see how beautiful you are, a living bright-eyed study in black and white and cream. You have something to say and you are a fine dressing for the top of that roof.
I’ll curse you and your friends and relations again, but this morning I bow to your singular spirit.
Once spring brings new fawns, it isn’t long before the yearlings separate from the does and join the herd. I thought maybe it was the presence of a new baby that signaled to the yearling to leave her mother’s side.
Yesterday morning I think I saw how the separation actually occurs. A spindly-legged tiny fawn and her yearling sister wandered the field as their mother lay in the grass watching. The rest of the herd was grazing elsewhere.
Every few minutes, the yearling trotted up to her mother. The first time, the doe stood and chased the yearling off. After a minute, the yearling moved close again, as though she hoped for a little comfort after a rude rejection. Once again the mother chased her off, without violence, but with unmistakable firmness that I could feel from the top of the hill where I stood.
Navigating beginnings and endings is a challenge for most of us. Relationships often have to change, sometimes they end. Even sending beloved children out into the world can be a tough transition.
After a couple more tries, the yearling seemed to accept rejection. For the next 20 minutes, while I watched, she stayed within eyesight but never moved in close to the older doe again.
One early morning observation isn’t science, but I think I know what I saw. The yearling needed a determined maternal push in order to move on. She had to come to terms with a change she wasn’t prepared for.
Whether the mother struggled with the change we will never know; but I do so envy her ability to know when, and how, to let go.
For two week I’ve been walking by blooming lilacs, bushes loaded with fragrant blossoms. Their sweet smell reminds me of being a child in Spokane (the Lilac City), sitting in the back yard with my little sister, Christine, and sucking sweet nectar from tiny purple blossoms.
It should be enough to inhale deeply as I walk by those blooms every morning; but no, I’ve wanted a branch for myself, sweetening the air at home. There are places I could pull off a branch without leaving a hole for anyone to notice. But early morning walking means I can’t get permission from sleepy homeowners. It wouldn’t be right to take without asking.
For two weeks every purple bush I pass seems to be telling me it’s okay to take a small piece. Yesterday I lost a battle with my conscience – or did I win? I passed by a particularly huge blossoming lilac. I remembered the homeowners are friendly. I imagined asking them for permission to take just one small blooming branch. In my imagination, they said, “Of course!”
I stole a low branch hanging so heavy and rain-soaked that it nearly touched the pavement. Nobody was around and nobody would ever notice anything missing.
My kitchen smells wonderful! I’ll confess to those friendly people when I see them. I’ll thank them for sharing an intoxicating piece of spring.
I won’t say I’m sorry though!
Bruce, a dear family friend, recently asked me how it’s been since I started my blog.
“Have you enjoyed it?” he said.
At the time, I wasn’t prepared to reflect. I expressed myself in a way that didn’t at all convey what this experience has been.
“It’s been ok. People have been kind,” I said to Bruce.
As if the experience hasn’t been so much more than that.
The truth is the last six months have flown by and it’s been wonderful.
When I imagined exposing my small essays to the public, even family and friends, I was sure it would mean constant grammar and punctuation correction. Sometimes I change tenses in inappropriate places, and I don’t even want to talk about how full of conviction, yet convoluted, my logic can be.
But the critics have been kind. Those of you who have responded to posts and those I have met have been delightful, open-minded, and engaging.
Sally must have recognized Teddy one day when we were walking. We stopped and talked for a while. Sally has an infectious spirit, and she shared some of her adventures with urban wildlife. Now I look for her beautiful smile when I’m out in the neighborhood. Sally is just one of the amazing neighbors I’ve met and had a chance to talk with.
Claudia is a writer and introduced herself with a beautiful comment on one post. In an email she once described a colorful picture of chickens as a ” bouquet of chickens.” Claudia makes a wonderful Monday morning walking companion and she’s not afraid of the rain.
Writing about my dear friend Marlena and her lifestyle helped me to know and appreciate her even better than I already had. She was so generous with herself. It was a joy to write. Debbie generously spent a couple of hours filling me in on skunks – yes, skunks. I can’t wait to share her story!
Many of you have written kind messages. Every one of you has refrained from offering the good advice I should probably listen to.
This is my thank you. Thank you to my writing partner, Cindi, who encouraged me to trust you. Thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to read. Thank you for your tolerance. Thank you for sharing yourselves and reminding me that there are a lot of great people out there.
Please consider allowing me to write about your urban wildlife adventures. It will be a privilege, and I promise to be as kind to you as you have been to me.
In chapter three of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck describes dry vacant land along the highway, grasses and weeds, ants, grasshoppers and sow bugs, “…like little armadillos.” But the land turtle has the starring role in this chapter.
I’m haunted by the turtle, by Steinbeck’s writing. In bed, before I go to sleep, the chapter comes back to me. When I’m making beds or vacuuming, I think of Steinbeck’s words. On my daily Wild City rambles with Teddy, I think of the little turtle.
Steinbeck’s writing is gorgeous, rich, lush, full of metaphor, and brutal. Rereading the chapter this morning made my heart beat faster, just like the first reading.
We don’t know where the turtle is going, or why, but he is single-minded, intent on heading one direction. Carrying his heavy, awkward shell, he struggles up a steep embankment, slips back, but continues relentlessly in exactly the same direction. He tackles a four-inch concrete curb – a formidable obstacle for a creature with short legs and the heavy burden of a shell. He never thinks of taking an easier route.
The poor thing suffers from an encounter with red ants. Still, he forges ahead. He becomes entangled in weeds, frees himself, and continues to the highway – a smooth concrete highway that could make his travels easier. A car passes and swerves to miss him. A truck follows and attempts to run over him. He hasn’t been killed, but he is flipped on to his back and must struggle to right himself. As this chapter ends, the turtle is continuing his slow and perilous journey.
In chapter four, Tom Joad picks the turtle up, wraps it in his coat, and plans to give it to his young siblings as a pet. But Tom, who is just out of prison, finds the family gone and the home abandoned. He puts the turtle down far from where the creature was picked up. Undaunted, the turtle begins his journey anew, turning toward the southwest direction he’d been headed all along.
The harrowing journey of the little turtle foreshadows the dangers of the journey the Joad family is about to take as they leave a hopeless life in Oklahoma toward dreams of a better life in California. It’s a journey that could be a metaphor for my life…and maybe yours.
But Chapter three is something else too.
Chapter three is a beautiful thing by itself. It’s a perfect symphony, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, the Moonlight Sonata, or any painfully beautiful piece of music.
You don’t need to know the words to have the music bruise your heart.
Steinbeck’s words tell a story, but they are also one note following another, each note exactly where it should be in the composition. If you didn’t know English, I could read chapter three aloud and you would hear the melody, one note following another. You would instinctively respond to the major and the minor chords.
Through the music of Steinbeck’s language you would understand the courage of the small creature and the near-impossibility of his journey.
In the end, you might be just a little bit broken-hearted.
Just the same, you would say, “Thank you for the music.”
Several mornings lately I’ve taken my early morning walk intending to experiment with listening more. I wanted to pay attention to the sounds of spring.
As I walk, bird song and other natural sounds often fade behind everyday preoccupations. Last Tuesday I found the concentration to sharpen my listening. It was a wonderful exercise.
I stood at the top of a hill and marveled at the variety of birds I was hearing. Many of the songs and calls were easy to identify. All of them together were wonderful.
Bird song was coming from four directions. Some was produced only a few feet away and some was coming from at least a half-mile away. Using my phone, I began recording. I made four 30-second recordings.
All four recordings establish, without a doubt, that I breathe. I had held the phone near my right ear and the sound of my heavy breathing (I had just climbed the steep hill) drowned everything else out. A rookie mistake.
Never mind, I tried again. This time I held the phone as far away as my arm would reach. Playing that recording I heard a small quartet, not the symphony that was actually going on. I decided to simply enjoy the music and try to record another day.
On my way home I was able to capture the love song of a Song Sparrow . Turn the sound up!
A day or two later I stepped out our back door and captured the music of the
flicker, robin, bush tits, chickadees, crows, and many more. There was the symphony I’d been looking for– in my own back yard.
(Turn the sound up and pay no attention to the little red dog – he has a dog’s sense of decorum)