Walking is about scent as much as anything else. Imagine a forest without the fragrance of tree or blossoming shrub, a meadow lacking the perfume of dew-wet grass or dried bracken. I can’t do it. I don’t suppose I’d notice the absence right off, the way I would if dropped into a sightless or soundless place. After all, if you’re both sighted and hearing, you don’t need your nose quite as consistently. But a few unscented minutes and I’d grow uneasy, start looking over my shoulder. Even in my dreams, woods and hills and shorelines smell like something. They must, or I’d know when I’m dreaming.
I left for the tropics (eager) in mid-February, came back (grateful) in March to find spring in Portland well underway. The symmetrical ruffles of the ultra-seasonal daffodil and the tumbling creamy bells of the glossy-leaved Pieris are the obvious giveaway, but let’s say for a moment I hadn’t noticed. I’d know spring by the scent of the forest this morning.
It’s a curious smell: damp and fresh and slightly stinky, interesting and repellent at once. First light entered the space between the trees maybe a half hour ago, and the scent uncoils toward the sun. It’s not unfamiliar, and I’m this close to a better description when it occurs to me that spring is when all of nature has all of the sex. And there it is.
I think the standard writerly descriptor for this scent is “fertile.” I’m not using it, because it leans pretty heavily on the implication that sex is about reproduction. Which, of course, it is. We usually assume that it always is, at least in the plant and (non-human) animal world. But how do we know salmonberry bushes don’t enjoy pollination by hummingbirds and bumblebees? I’ve never asked one. So I’ll stick with the less polite descriptor. It’s a sexy spring sunrise out here.
The robins know it; they keep telling me about it in that aggressively cheerful springtime chirp. Robins are the awkward friend who drinks too much in public and talks just a little too loudly about their love life.
Winter mornings are long, and walking the ridges of Forest Park is a fine way to keep an eye on one. Sunrise flames briefly around the contours of Mt Hood, but otherwise it’s nothing startling, just soft pastels quietly blending themselves into a watercolor skyline that lasts half the day. Cascade foothills roll away purple against a peachy-silver sky. Behind the graceful green spires of the St. John’s Bridge, the mountain, entirely out, glows. For the first winter in four, it’s properly gowned in white. Mother-of-pearl, if the angle of the low-slanting sun aims true.
The great thing about Forest Park – wait, where was I planning to go with that? Forest Park is the heart, the natural genius, and the jewel of the City of Portland, and great things about it are not scarce. But my favorite thing right now is its solitude. Get out before noon and pick a trailhead south of Germantown Road, especially in winter, especially on a weekday. Other humans are as rare as red-breasted sapsuckers.
Though I did just spot one of those. It’s low-down on a Douglas fir, tap-tapping the already-riddled bark. Sapsuckers don’t have the reinforced drilling machine of a skull that makes most woodpeckers such unflagging percussionists. They do excavate, but softly, and I listen a long time as this one searches for sapwells and small arthropods, rappelling backwards and scuttling sideways on the vertical trunk with the same dexterity he brings to his forward motion.
Bird names are an endless source of amusement. The more descriptive they try to be, the better. On first hearing, the words sound familiar, yet their total meaning eludes us. Flip through a bird guide and you’ll see what I mean: Mustached puffbird, White-cheeked pintail, Northern shoveler, Rough-winged swallow, Smew. A room full of birders must sound like bad actors mumbling Shakespearean insults.
In front of me now is the real actor: the winter wren. These guys can sing like nobody’s business, but it’s not their lovely soprano solos I’m hearing right now. I can’t tell if it’s my presence or something else that’s alarmed him, but this barred brown bird perched on a flowering branch of Indian plum is pissed off. Wrens always look a little pugnacious: tiny, energetic sprites hopping and twitching and posturing like they can’t wait to give you a piece of this. (House wrens, which this angry little soul is not, have even been known to get shirty with other bird species nesting too near their territory, specifically by attacking their eggs.) It’s funny because they’re small, but imagine a cassowary-sized wren. Now think about how fast you can run.
I’m making a loop through central Forest Park, starting at the up-ridge terminus of Saltzman Road. The particular configuration of my route is new to me, and I miss a turn and have some trouble with my map. I’m not in a hurry, and there isn’t an ugly trail to be found in this part of the world. My misstep means more pleasant walking on moderately muddy country roads. I can live with that kind of mistake.
There’s a lot of flat walking in Forest Park, though the primary roads providing it follow different contour lines. Loop trips generally involve a couple of steep scrambles between them. Today’s winner is the Cleator Trail: a narrow chute of churned-up clay about as well-graded as Dog Mountain but – praise creation – so much shorter. That tropical hiatus I mentioned earlier was a Caribbean cruise, and this isn’t my first pointed reminder of the short-term consequences of high-calorie food and nowhere to walk for a week. I threw myself into work the moment I returned, which makes today my first chance to be a body again, not just for eating. It feels good. Mostly.
I’m keeping a lookout for the year’s first trillium. They’re up, but on each plant I find, the characteristic leaves and flowers remain tightly furled. They face outwards, petal-tips white as the mountain. Soon. The wood violets are blooming, though: tiny yellow eyes blinking from the moss, as un-shy as any daffodil. One spring, I spent half of a hike on my hands and knees and front, trying to detect the scents of these forest-floor flowers. I learned: they don’t smell like much to a human, other humans find this behavior mildly disconcerting, mud is not the worst thing that can happen when you do this. I carry wet wipes in my pack now, in case of further encounters with…well, I didn’t look too closely to find out whose scat.
I still spend a lot of time crouching, touching, and sniffing when I’m out for a walk. Along with my 20s, I left the inevitable I look crazy right now narrative behind. Not that it was stopping me in the first place, but it did deflect my focus toward myself, instead of the moss or flower I’d meant to explore. Self-consciousness is a prerequisite of humanity, and also a daily disaster. Social inhibition and over-analysis are the enemies of observation.
Actively ignoring these barriers has changed my hiking style. Instead of a driven stride, I tend to wander now, stopping often. Paused, I might pivot suddenly, searching for the source of a sound or scent. If I’m carrying binoculars or a camera, I use them often. I get less exercise, but I notice a whole lot more. Yesterday, I tried to take a fast morning walk by the river before work. I failed completely. Look at the sunrise in each wavelet! What was that flash of white wing?
I’ve said often that I walk because I have to, though I’ve never been able to divine a reason. I leave that question alone these days, but I’m starting to answer another I never even asked. What’s worthwhile about my personal compulsion is the access it allows to a world that contains me, but which I do not contain. Nothing here can be assumed; conclusions are precarious. It is mostly necessary to watch. To listen. To smell.
Central Forest Park is accessible from any of several trailheads on NW Germantown, Skyline, and Saltzman roads. The Friends of Forest Park organization has a good set of resources to get you oriented. This particular hike started and ended at the Saltzman Road trailhead off Skyline Drive. The exact route (except for my accidental detour) is described in One City’s Wilderness, a hiking & field guide to the entire park that also makes pleasant afternoon reading. There is no fee to park, but also not much space. Tread can get muddy in winter; opt for boots, not sneakers. Forest Park is technically open something like dawn-dusk.