Secret Corners of Strange Places

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This is where you bring your victim when you want to make it look like an accident.

I’m standing at the marshy edge of Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum. It’s a maze out here, of dried-out, head-high cattails with squelchy paths between, leading with murder-mystery inexorability to a curious set of floating platforms in Lake Union. Over some several hundred yards, these slippery wood-and-metal constructions – nailed and chained into the vaguest sort of unity – zig and twist across open water to a small island. They’re nothing like flat or easy: ramps rise up and skid down at random; edges dip precariously waterward with your weight; handrails disappear on the steepest sections. When a small boat motors by, its wake rocks the whole structure, squirting tiny geysers up between the platforms’ creaky joints.

If I was a mystery writer, this is where I’d kill off the arrogant, cheating brogrammer character, when his fed-up girlfriend arranges a midnight tryst on the island – and of course, never shows up herself. Did she mean for him to slip, strike his head, and drown among the reeds, or was she just trying to scare him into better behavior? The world may never know; I’m not writing that.

My husband spots the blue barrels floating up one section of the tortuous walkway. “I feel like we’re in Half Life 2,” he says. “This is sketchy.”

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It is (here’s the video, see for yourself), so of course we step out anyway, walking right through a congregation of gray and black coots. They ignore us utterly; one group is busy scrapping over a piece of waterweed. When the conflict resolves, the dripping string of glistening green dangles inelegantly from the winner’s beak.

Tiny black and white ducks rear back and dive vehemently underwater, again and again. I’ve never thought of ducks as fierce before. I feel a little sorry for their invertebrate prey. These have a distinctive patchy pattern and bulbous head I’ve noticed elsewhere; I tentatively identify them as possessing the wonderful name ‘Bufflehead.’

We make it most of the way to the island before we notice someone sleeping in a canoe beneath a ramp, directly under a sign warning “Danger: Canoes Boats Stay Away.” It seems polite to leave them alone. That island is probably just more mud and cattails, anyway. Or the lair of the lake monster; who knows?

***

Seattle’s deservedly famous Arboretum is better known for its collections of gorgeous spring and summer blooms. My favorite is the long, wide avenue of weeping pink cherries. None of those are out in January, but, an avid wanderer of gardens in all seasons, I’m sure there will be winter highlights.

There’s one, at least: mud. We start on the outskirts of the park and work our way around it, sliding all the way. I duck into a grove of cedars separating trail and neighborhood, just to feel that perfect hush a circle of full-grown cedar trees creates. And to catch a break from the slop: cedars lay down a comfortable coniferous carpet.

Around a corner, there’s an island in the way, fenced off and full of earthmoving equipment and stacks of supplies. Just next to it, a freeway crosses the water, its harsh wall tattooed in orange and blue. We swerve right on a path that barely merits the title, and a few steps later literally stumble on a tiny beach. It’s made of pebbles, dark on this rain-washed day, and fronts a dumpy lagoon the map identifies as ‘Duck Bay.’

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It’s nothing flashy; in brown winter, it’s not even pretty. But crouching at water’s edge, I’m half hidden by a leafless, moss-grown shrub and a large log that’s chained in place. I feel like a spy, observing and reporting on this post-industrial wetland. A pair of mallards cruises up obliviously, then shies away in seamless unison when I shift my weight. I watch their v-shaped wakes until the ripples disappear.

***

In the Arboretum’s hilly center – on our way back from Murderville – my nose finds what it’s been missing. Two sweet scents vie for attention: one white and piercing, just this side of cloying; the other earthier, with a slight astringent edge. I start taking paths randomly (they’re all over, bewildering), following that scent map – an elusive way for a human to travel. Jeremiah follows without comment or apparent confusion. He’s been down this road before.

I come on the source of the sweet white fragrance suddenly: a skinny, sentinel winter daphne, taller than I am and completely covered in delicate, purple-tinted blossoms. Just behind, its rival: hazel. Among my favorite flowers, hazels bloom in soft yellow and burnt orange profusion, each clutch of spindly petals unfolding haphazardly from a deep red center.

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Once discovered, winter’s scent and color are everywhere. A pine’s bark smells like vanilla and butterscotch. Sweet box are just beginning: vivaciously scented white flowers pop between orderly spirals of glossy evergreen foliage. Cyclamen – mere inches off the ground and the size of my pinkie fingernail – shout up at us in triumphant magenta. Hellebores nod gracefully, white and cream and dusty pink princesses of earth. I’m beginning to suspect an intentional ‘winter garden,’ and later I learn this is true.

I love the assertiveness of winter flowers. It’s not like they have a lot of competition; the showy blooms of spring (magnolias, cherries) and summer (rhododendrons, lilies) are still asleep. But the hazels’ long fingers beckon with all the considerable charm they can conjure, daphne and box send siren scents through the frozen air. They’re unmissable, secure in their power, and still they’re pulling out all the stops. They very nearly seem to enjoy it. I hope they do.

***

We are marveling at flowers when Jeremiah spots the hummingbird. It’s an Anna’s, a lady, and she’s darting and hovering not over blossoms, but above the trail itself. We freeze, as surely as if she’s cast a spell, and she dips and hovers, delicately drinking from the interstices of the graveled path. She’s in no hurry, and so we are content – compelled? – to stand unmoving, allowing her first access to the trail not five feet in front of us. She never seems to see us; her business is all-consuming. Only when she flashes out of sight among the tangled camellias do we breathe again, exchanging glances: Did you see that?

It’s perfectly natural behavior, of course; only the novelty of observing it at close range created the enchantment. But this day, in this place, is heavy with a feeling of mystery, and I’m happy to indulge such a benign apparition.

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***

I came to the Arboretum for a pleasant walk in a pretty place I’d met before. I found sticking mud, reverent trees, industrial ugliness, humanity’s margins, unsettling wetlands, and a winter garden like something from a fairy tale, complete with enchanted bird. Each one felt like a secret we were privileged to behold.

Every natural place has secret corners, especially the ones we humans have built or preserved. You probably won’t be looking when you find them. A more mystical person would say that they find you.

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***

Seattle’s Washington Park Arboretum covers 230 acres, with several miles of mostly easy trails. It’s adjacent to the Madison Valley neighborhood. There’s no fee for the larger gardens, and parking is free within the Arboretum. (The Japanese garden, open spring through fall, does have an entrance fee.) You can also park in nearby neighborhoods and walk in. Several restaurants on bordering Madison St. offer post-walk refreshment.

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