Posted by: pilgrm34 | September 17, 2011

surprising rain

September 15, 2011

Unexpected sprinkles at the Columbia Slough evolve into a downpour, but subside with approaching twilight when indistinct gray clouds take on banded variations of delicate cyan. The earth smells humid and freshened after long, parched weeks. In the center of a large holding pond across the dike from the Slough, two ducks alight and lightly splash water upward onto their backs. They seem joyful even as I ruefully reflect on my soggy feet and sandals. I try to remember a quote from John Ruskin: “there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.” Even dusk and rain have their own beauty.

holding pond with duck

bridge over Slough

Columbia Slough: late summer dusk

Posted by: pilgrm34 | September 17, 2011


September 14, 2011

The aerial view of West Hayden Island on Google Earth displays treeless indents that appear to lead to the south beach, the desired destination. The indents could be roads—or paths—or not. We won’t know until we get on the ground.

aerial map of Hayden Island from Google Earth

Two indents appear to cross the island. My friend Caroline and I are up for adventure so we drive over and start walking on one route, a gravel road it turns out, past a cottonwood forest on the right and train tracks on the left. We pass the remains of an animal off to the side. Judging by the fur and the few bones, it is a fawn and we wonder what happened to the mother. Was she poached? The “no hunting” signs everywhere make us suspicious. After a half-mile the road curves and disappears in a thicket of tall grass. Though we search for another passage, it’s too overgrown, so we return to the main road to try the other possible route. After traversing a small pile of boulders and a narrow path intersected by blackberry vines, we spy a dirt road leading far into the cottonwoods. To our pleasant surprise, this enchanting route goes all the way to the south beach. We enjoy the accomplishment of walking on the shore while observing tracks of deer, raccoon, humans and dogs.

road leading south to beach

south shoreline

deer track

meadow above beach

picnic on the beach

Posted by: pilgrm34 | September 12, 2011


On a whim, I change directions and decide the wilderness destination is West Hayden Island. Maybe a beach since it’s blistering hot. Only problem: it’s said to be non-accessible and I’ve never been past the gate. I want to see it for myself to better understand what’s at stake with proposed industrial development.

The undeveloped side of Hayden Island, the west, is 826 acres and the subject of controversy. Many citizens such as Friends of West Hayden Island believe it’s worth preserving for wildlife and recreation. Environmental advocates view it as an important link in remaining urban habitat and for shallow areas necessary for Salmon to rest. There are lots of species present. Can there be a spiritual framework of reference in the discussion?

I lock up my bike at the gate on the north side of the island and choose one of several sandy paths leading north.

Soon the Columbia River and Vancouver appear to my right and a sandy beach beckons. There are a couple tents but otherwise deserted and charming in spite of the large outlet pipe and view of an industrial Port of Vancouver across the river. I climb back up and follow a road that looks like it might lead to the interior, or better yet, the more attractive beach on the south edge of the island that can be seen from across the river. If not, that’s OK. Exploring is fun.

Columbia River shore

Like Kelley Point Park across the Columbia, a tall cottonwood forest dominates the landscape. Sand dredgings create a large contaminated open area. I reach a barren interior plateau and spy deer tracks, both adult and fawn. They are white tailed deer according to city biologists. The fawn would be losing its spots now and by winter its coat will be solid. Deer thrive in edge habitat, grasslands and underbrush, but do well just about anywhere especially since we’ve eradicated their natural enemies. That creates its own problems. Too many deer destroy deer habitat. Predators help balance animals with land and remove disease—something we have not understood well. Perhaps the ancient Israelites were right in their understanding of wilderness: there is a divine order in nature (Cultural Viewpoints at Odds). We’ve  just never been patient enough to observe or understand it. Apparently, we only like to see other predators in the grim confines of a zoo, doomed to life imprisonment for our entertainment—like Disney animals.

But there is lots of prime deer grazing here and plenty of thick brush to hide from their most dangerous predators—humans.

The road appears to lead only as far as the interior rather than the other shore. The heat is rising so I backtrack to regroup for the next time.

RR trestle


view from beach: Port of Vancouver

road north

deer and motorcycle tracks

cottonwood with tent caterpillars-a good source of food for wildlife

Posted by: pilgrm34 | September 9, 2011

oldest living things

September 8, 2011

I’m at the top of the Bluff overlooking Willamette Cove. It’s early morning…early for me anyway. 7:30ish am. New location: a secret viewpoint accessed by following the south fence of the Benson estate out to the edge. It’s a steep embankment (close to straight down) with a sweeping view of the Willamette greenway extending for miles. As soon as I get to the precipice two turkey vultures coasting just beyond it eye me. We’re equally startled! Their broad wingspan is the first thing to strike me—six feet at least. They soar quickly south sweeping with their eyes even though

Turkey Vulture view of Willamette Cove

we’re hundreds of feet over the greenway. They have sharp eyesight and can soar gracefully for hours without flapping since they glide on thermals of warm, rising air. According to the Turkey Vulture Society (you gotta love it), after rising effortlessly on a thermal, they glide as far as possible before flapping to regain altitude. They rely on air currents deflected upwards off hills, to remain aloft while scanning the ground for food—an ingenious way to conserve energy.

three oldest native oak

I’m actually here to commune with the oldest living things in the neighborhood: the native oak on the 3-acre Benson estate at the edge of the Willamette Bluff. The trees are upwards of 200 years and protected by heritage status. Oaks can live up to 500 years or more. In the middle

with Benson house

east there are reputed individuals over a thousand years old. Three sister trees display the classic oak horizontal growth pattern, each with branches as large around as a normal tree trunk. I like to lean on the massive trunks and look up at the stunning branches. These are among the very few original oaks left on the Bluff. All the others, no doubt as magnificent, were cut and slid down the slope in the 1800s to be used for steamboat fuel. These three trees witnessed William Clark and his crew discover the Willamette River in 1806, and were present when the Multnomah Chinook lived here. Oak were considered sacred by the Chinook—a thin place between heaven and earth, just as they were to Abraham, the father of Judeo-Christian heritage. Immediately upon leaving the great city, he went to a hill at Shechem to the Oak of Moreh (Genesis 23:6). Several important firsts happened there: God appeared to him in revelation; a promise of land was made; and the first of seven altars was erected by Abraham to commemorate the sacred place.

A contemporary poet Sharlande Sledge give this description of thin places:

“Thin places,” the Celts call this space,

Both seen and unseen

Where the door between the world

And the next is cracked open for a moment

And the light is not all on the other side.

God shaped space. Holy.


massive trunk with heritage plaque

from below

horizontal branches

Posted by: pilgrm34 | September 5, 2011

animals small and great

September 4, 2011

As I approach Smith-Bybee lakes by bike, the air is still. Its warmth hints at a hot afternoon. The warble of male crickets intones hopefully from either side. Gossamer tents teeming with caterpillars inhabit every other cottonwood.

break in trees at Smith-Bybee with great egret

Humans don’t tolerate tent caterpillars well even though they don’t generally cause lasting damage to trees. To avoid them, we buy insect-repelling alien plants that create a food desert for local wildlife. In contrast, the caterpillars contribute to the chain of life by providing high calorie meals for small mammals, birds and bats.

Two miles later, turning into the road at Kelley Point Park, the light wafting fragrance of willow shifts to the scent of hot blackberries and back again.

cottonwoods at Kelley Point

Local media has piqued my interest in the fresh water mussels that can be seen along the Willamette shore here ( “Lowly mussels bond with salmon”, Portland Tribune, SustainableLife, 8-18-2011). Apparently scientists are finding that freshwater mussel beds are often found near healthy salmon runs and may be one key to restoration since they clean the water. Each of the small, overlooked species can filter an astonishing 18 gallons a day! Unfortunately however, most seen on the Willamette shoreline are empty shells, a sign of their decline.

Willamette River shore

A bony carcass of a harbor seal catches my attention. Closer inspection discloses a scaly tail—it’s a sturgeon, six or more feet long!

As I walk south on the beach, a few live mussels become evident along with the empty shells near the water’s edge. The live ones have heft when handled and resemble small rocks. The number of shell ridges indicates years similar to tree rings. These are young, only a few inches across.

When photographing two in the shallows, I startle to see movement! One shell parts and rotates subtly. It opens, separates and closes with each small wave. When the wave retreats, barely discernible white lips spit water a few inches straight up in the air! I notice the other one has a parted shell and the white mussel is scouring sand underneath. They are busy at work, filtering, taking on the work we appear incapable of. They are western pearlshells, or Margaritifera falcata, and can live for a century or more. They are some of the longest living species on Earth. 18 gallons of filtered water per day for 100 years equals 657,000 gallons in a lifetime. More than half-million! That’s a lot of filtering. In sharp comparison, some of our superfund industries have spent millions of dollars to do the same thing to arguable effect. Of course, much of the money is spent on PR, something the unassuming mussels have done without until now!

empty fresh water mussel shells

live mussel

at work filtering the murky river

Small animal wonders are rarely recognized or understood by us. We know little about the tapestry of life that supports salmon habitat. The Willamette River has been degraded by exploitation of its natural resources with no thought beyond profit, trusting that somehow it can be fixed—or not—by someone else. Lip service is given, but there is no intention to stop. It brings to mind an article from the New York Times today entitled, “A Debate Arises on Job Creation and Environment” in which Republicans and business groups argue that we can’t afford environmental protection (New York Times, “Business Day Economy,” 9-5-2011).

Wisdom tradition of Judeo-Christianity reveals the correct divine, nature and human interrelationship. For instance, the Book of Job contains some of the best nature poetry ever written as God describes the awesome traits of His wild animals and calls Job to admiration (Job 38-42). There’s an interesting book on the subject by Bill McKibben entitled, “The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation.” 

Our system makes everyone, bar practically none, dependent on people who gain from nature’s destruction and don’t have the foresight to see what they are doing. Yet we trust in their authority. I often wonder what independence from such a system looks like?  It is the basis of wilderness tradition—a rejection of Empire and its idolatry—that forms the root of Judeo-Christian spirituality.

Posted by: pilgrm34 | September 1, 2011

reverse clouds

August 31, 2011

It’s sunset and the first time I’ve been to Columbia Slough at dusk. People walking and talking on the trail add something new. Only one crow and one swallow are visible—surprising for dusk!

sunsetThe mud islands are gone. The water is high and so utterly placid I had to stare to see current—it’s flowing backwards away from the Willamette. A breeze finely ripples the surface and obscures the mirror image of a train crossing the trestle.

Just under the smooth surface a pattern can be discerned. Shadowy clouds of silt curl up rapidly everywhere, dark billows stirred by the changing tide.

As dusk morphs into early darkness people disappear. A cormorant flies low over the bridge, neck outstretched with only the sound of nearly noiseless beat of wings. Ducks swim from one shore to the other trading places. I see only their black silhouettes and ripple paths in the distance while dark, reverse cumulus clouds pass swiftly, silently below my feet.

Posted by: pilgrm34 | August 27, 2011


August 25, 2011

Just yesterday my friend Tony called my garden a jungle. I prefer to think of it as ordered chaos, an over-size cottage garden. Whatever…

Canadian geese fly low overhead every night. I live maybe 1000ft uphill from the Willamette River. They arrive at dusk and barely clear my fir trees. When I was out closing the coop they passed overhead silently except for the sound of powerful flaps as outstretched wings sifted the air gracefully and surely heading north to roost. Summer brings the rhythms of life: sunrise; heat rising; sunset; Canadian geese fly over; moon rises; stars appear in their familiar, comforting pattern.

Often they call to each other. Usually I don’t hear the raucous honk until they’re startlingly overhead. I stop whatever I’m doing and gaze upward to see the beige-white bellies with clumsy black feet tucked up, long, dark wings unhurriedly rising and falling with a the grace of surety, necks straining forward, eyes on home. They never look down. I watch the nightly ritual respectfully as do my hens who stand still and crane their necks until we can’t hear them anymore. Maybe we’re thinking the same thing: admiration; envy. The geese are heading to roost on the water due north, possibly on Sauvie Island’s large lakes—points north anyway. They will join their fellows in a large enclave with nightly rituals known only to them.

I watch and wonder with a certain awe how they know what to do without second guessing, fanfare or suffering—they just know how to get home. In Derrick Jensen’s memoir “A Language Older Than Words,” he confesses weeping after watching geese fly over realizing his own monumental struggle to find ‘home.’

I envy their freedom. They don’t have to gain approval from others in order to subsist. They are simply free to do what they do. It puts me in mind of Matthew 6:26, which I’ve always found fascinating: “Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt. 6:26, NRSV)

How is it possible to trust like they do? Why must I procure favor in order to have a living? Is it possible to really believe I can live like the geese dependent on no one? It’s a revolutionary concept. Our society, instead, is based on fear as Jensen says numerous times. Fear and feelings of inferiority drive us. We need human approval. Failure to instead trust in the Divine IS the subject of Scripture, both Hebrew and Christian—think Exodus. We have thousands of years of written spiritual history to document the struggle. We usually lose. Instead, we place our trust in political leaders and employers. Trust in the Divine does not come easily then or now. Very often I watch the geese pass and stand lost in silent meditation.

Posted by: pilgrm34 | August 23, 2011

reflections on Columbia Slough

August 21, 2011

The air, though cool, holds a promise of heat. I dodge traffic down a side street and ride by my friend Susan walking her dog. Invited to ice tea on her porch, she peers at me with a puzzled expression as I talk rapidly about seeking the work I’m meant to do.

I find energy working on issues I feel strongly about and want to use all my promotion, graphic design, outreach and grassroots organizing skills to achieve what is important to me, particularly the preservation of Baltimore Woods, a 30-acre corridor in my neighborhood. As a volunteer I have worked unremittingly, obsessively, to promote it. I have loved organizing the Friends of Baltimore Woods and made good progress on grants and acquisitions. I would like to continue, but need a job.

She listens and offers thoughtful suggestions and lunch, but I must be on my way to Columbia Slough. She proffers a hard-boiled egg and cheese stick for the road, which I gladly accept along with water. I place them in my bicycle basket. Her kindness is a blessing.

I travel about a block to get to Portsmouth Avenue six blocks east of the Slough. My feet turn a few rotations as I sail downhill toward the water quality plant and the Slough just beyond. As I enter the property I feel a sense of freedom on paths that wind downhill around woods and meadows. The sights and cool air on my face are a delight. Biking offers a more intimate connection with the sun, wind and wildlife and it’s easier to observe, slow down or stop. Sometimes a barn swallow or dragonfly flies alongside keeping pace. I arrive at the Slough bridge over the barely moving backwater.  Feeling the sun’s heat as I scan for wildlife, I spot two Great Blue Herons hunting. I rest my elbows on the chest high rail and peer down. The water’s translucent, green-tinted shallowness displays the reddish-brown sediment bed, which is full of divots resembling mysterious sunken footprints. It’s a perfect predator bird’s eye view. In places the water depth is greater with darker channels. The sediment floor is exposed here and there, producing pocked mud islands. Small, speckled, hyper, but otherwise camouflaged brown plovers fan out on the new islands intent on finding food. In contrast, the Great Blues keep one wary eye on me even as they hunt. I notice they appear to track and likely have excellent long distance vision. If startled, the normally silent, slow birds turn hysterical and take to the air screaming. They are methodic, stealthy hunters taking a few steps, stopping, waiting, until a lightening beak spears a fish. I rarely see a catch, but a water plant employee on break says they catch quite a few, even big ones.

In the shallows just below, a school of small fish suddenly create a perfect spiral and just as quickly morph into a lively amoeba. The employee, Obbie, says the incoming and outgoing ocean tides can double water volume, cause backward flowing current and low water. The constant flux of fresh water makes the Slough a living, breathing entity, constantly changing volume, current and direction. The Columbia River once overflowed here too, refreshing the wetland regularly. The Slough is a remnant but its continual fluctuations remind us that such areas are not static even with our attempts at control. Once adjacent wetlands have been “improved” by a large golf course and drag race track, each peopled by men wearing strange outfits out for a few hours of diversion. I wonder at the 24 hour richness lost in exchange for a few hours a day. How can we hope to understand or appreciate the subtle gifts nature offers without preserving it and taking time to observe it.

I continue to the end of the dike trail until reaching the round bay just off the highway ramp. In the rising heat, Great Blues, Brants, Canadian geese and mallards rest on exposed logs. All but the herons are preening. Instead, the Great Blues, stock still, watch me. Others have sought deep shade near the opposite shore. Near them a Great Egret, its solid white against dark foliage, patiently takes several slow steps, stops and waits. A large bent-winged shadow on the water alerts all to an Osprey as he alights on a cottonwood top, his rust colors illumned from behind. He suddenly takes to the air, lifts and falls rapidly, hitting the water with a loud slap. Rising again at a low angle, he circumscribes the bay with empty talons uttering cries that start on a high note and descend only slightly. They create a haunting echo. Described as an “annoyed whistle” by my bird book, it is actually one of the most beautiful sounds in wilderness: a piercing series of calls each ending with a hint of echo. Nonetheless, he may well be annoyed. His cry continues from a treetop as motorcycles from the racetrack gun loudly around a curve on the other side of the dike. Now we’re both annoyed. I turn my bike and head back into a welcome breeze. At the bridge I note the water is far lower. A large mud island takes up one third of the width and evidences of civilization are engulfed in it. To my right, a mesh wastebasket, itself become trash, is three fourths submerged. Directly below, a shopping cart’s silt-covered skeleton lies dead and half buried, a symbol of expended consumption. To the left a traffic cone, no longer directing anyone to follow the rules, lies flat under shallow water camouflaged by silt and algae—the symbolic accouterments of civilization subsumed by the Slough. It could be a fitting prophesy of nature’s eventual triumph, I think, as I pedal slowly across the bridge.

Posted by: pilgrm34 | August 19, 2011

osprey danceI

August, 16, 2011.

Columbia Slough. Dragonflies flit through the air along with cotton meandering in all directions. A 6-foot shadow glides over the water surface. An Osprey flies upward, circles high, twisting her head. Forty feet above the water she lifts to vertical, folds her wings, careens downward, spiraling and picking up speed. There is a resounding smack on impact, a moment of suspense, then she takes off at a low angle clasping—nothing. At 10 or 15ft she shakes from head to tail exactly like my dog, sending water droplets flying in all directions.

Circling back and gaining height, she hovers, lifts high, and falls again gaining even more velocity. She strikes the water, pauses, takes off, but—nothing again. After shaking off, there is a third attempt. She lifts and dives hitting hard, immediately taking to the air clasping something. Without shaking, she disappears quickly downstream back to the nest. The rhythm of her hunt reminds me of a high dive: a pause, a slow, graceful leap then an aerodynamic descent, rapidly gaining speed. However, the Osprey has a unique grace: a hover, lift, and precipitous fall with spirals and twists to gain speed. I feel privileged to have witnessed it for the first time. It is a dance with its own rhythm and timing.

I feel a fleeting moment of envy for her freedom in making a living doing what she’s meant to do and dependent on no one’s approval.

In my personal struggle with vocation, wilderness settings are a place of mediation. There is a theme of struggle in the wilderness in the spiritual record as well. I think I’ve come to better understand the struggle of Jesus and Jacob in the wilderness as they wrestled the demon and angel respectively ( Mk.1:13 ; Gen. 32:24). It’s about tension between trust and non-trust in the Divine. Faith and doubt, expressed as angel or demon. Against overwhelming odds, in opposition to the ways of the world is it possible to have faith that YHWH will assist?

Posted by: pilgrm34 | August 14, 2011


August 12, 2011,

Canada and Brant geese

I entered the Columbia Slough Trail from the urban side. The noisy highway ramp leads to a large roundish bay—and seemingly another realm. Two Canadian geese are sunning themselves on a log in the shimmering water while two large flotillias of nearly identical but smaller Brant geese indolently approach. I pause on the trail to watch the interaction. The stately Canada’s are surrounded by ten smaller geese and without haste or losing their dignity leave their post to head for another log.

flotillas of Brants pass each other

The Brants clamber over up while the second flotilla follows the Canadians to their new log. A confrontation ensues punctuated by vigorous bobbing of heads. As the Brants surround and slowly circle, the outnumbered Canadians again give way and casually paddle away to wait in the shade. I often find waiting them out is a good strategy in neighborhood activism too.

sun reflection

I continue on but stop mesmerized by the shimmer of sunlight on the water caused by slight ripples. It seems alive, as two patches merge into one then quickly separate and disappear.

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