The Teachings of Mud

I was not the sort of child to make mudpies. Memoirs and novels focus nostalgia for childhood on plenty of more complicated experiences, but the one that always sticks out for me is the universal assumption that small children (at least used to) love to get dirty.

I wasn’t fastidious, either. I loved the outdoors, which is a dirtful place. It is hardly possible to build a fort in the overgrown ivy, start a “secret” club at recess behind the hedge at the back of the school, or follow your cat on his rounds about the yard, without incurring grass stains and grimy fingernails. My mother forever dressed me in beautiful clothing – candy-pink corduroy pants, pastel dresses with white ruffled trim – which I treated with neither particular regard nor disdain. Other mothers asked after my play clothes – would she make sure to pack those for the sleepover party? Mine still finds this amusing: “Why shouldn’t you look pretty? That’s what laundry is for.” Indeed, I’m pretty sure all those “fancy” clothes were the type you could toss in the washer with some color-safe bleach.

But it was a rare day when I brought those clothes home truly filthy. I dealt in the kind of outdoor play that resulted in regular smears, stains, and drips, but I was not generally to be found wrestling in the dirt or making a pretend kitchen out of a mud-puddle. (I might be knee-deep in a tidepool, but my jeans were neatly rolled up.) Dirt was a necessary adjunct to other pleasures, not a pleasure it itself. I don’t recall any parental instruction or deep decision-making involved in this; I can only assume I preferred a sort of unconscious moderation regarding messy outdoor adventures.

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Adulthood has changed nothing about this preference. I can enjoy the odd unavoidable filth-fest, but as a regular pursuit I find such adventure to be more uncomfortable than it’s worth, requiring, for example, the awkward changing of clothing in a freezing trailhead parking lot.

Once I got caught in a thundering downpour several miles from home with my new husband; we laughed all the way back and let ourselves in soaked to the underwear. It was glorious. But most days, I take a waterproof jacket, so I can keep my core dry and warm. One Easter Sunday a few years back, I gleefully slipped and slid all the way around the perimeter of Hagg Lake in such a quantity of mud that boots and pants came back coated, and no part of my body escaped unspotted. But normally I would seek drier paths.

All of which has me wondering what the crazy hell I’m doing at La Center Bottoms on an actively wet March morning. It’s my first visit to a place I’d never heard of until I riffled through my pocket hiking guide to the Columbia River Gorge. But unfamiliarity is no excuse: bottomland means flat and means wetlands, both of which – after weeks of winter rain – mean a guaranteed mire. There’s no one else here; I remark to my husband that this surprises me. Eloquently, he returns no answer.

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The simple reason I’ve risen early to drive from my home south of Portland, north on I-5 and deep into Clark County, is that winter in our region is the time, and wetlands are the place, to see all kinds of interesting waterfowl. Sunrise and sunset are better than any other time of day for this sort of spotting. And five minutes out of the parking lot, there they are: Trumpeter swans – my first – and a drift of Northern pintails, and scads of Ring-necked ducks, all floating and foraging on the shallow seasonal lake that is this small preserve’s primary attraction. There’s a pair of wooden shelters at lake’s edge – “bird blinds” – with windows where you can steady your elbows and peer through your binoculars, ostensibly without alarming the objects of your attention.

The path as far as the second structure is graveled, but beyond, it descends to a stream crossing that, from here at least, appears to be nothing but sticky clay mud. Jeremiah is a good sport, but not a man who favors even my moderate brand of getting dirty. He looks from the sludge to me, but I’m not looking at him. I’m picking my route. If he sighs, it’s internal. Like the lovely and supportive partner he is, he waits for my decision, then follows me down the churned-up path.

Which is, in fact, a disaster.

 

Our boots are instantly sunk to the ankles, solid-coated in viscous yellow-brown. Balance is a minor challenge, and walking requires much more than usual effort: feet come free with evocative squelching sounds. We’re concentrating on our footing, so we’re through the first long stretch by the time Jeremiah finally raises a mild objection. To which I reply that we’ve come this far; we may as well push on through as turn back.

This would be fine advice if we were walking a loop trail.

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Tricky trail footwork doesn’t usually lend itself to observation of anything but the ground, but endless fields of mud, I am discovering, are the exception. Clearly defeated, I am still determined, so I zigzag carefully to the driest spots (there aren’t any), thinking about how I should fall when my foot inevitably slips. Then I look up, and it’s more of the same in every damn direction. Jeremiah does not say he told me so. I give up: fine, it is going to take approximately forever to walk this one ridiculous mile.

Creative types are well aware that constraint drives invention. It’s more productive to imagine a solution to a problem – or create a fantasy world, or write a song –  when there are certain elements you must include. Even if you give these constraints to yourself, arbitrarily, they function as catalysts, focusing your imagination and directing your ability to innovate.

I’m not making anything on this trail today. If anything, it’s sort of making me. But I expected to move through this landscape as I always do: fluently, easily, the ground subservient to my will. And it’s impossible.

The shift from entitlement to wonder comes sudden as a slip in the mud. Why should trail-walking always be free and easy? If it is, what a lovely gift. If not, the nature of the grant is changed, but not its generosity.

This trail was made by someone else – their hands and their time and their land and their money – for me. The birds I access so easily on this flat, created stretch are wild, and precious, and in no way obligated to display their uniqueness for human consumption. They wouldn’t come here at all if someone – do I even know who? – had not preserved this land as excellent avian habitat.

All of this discomfort – muck and cold and inconvenience and difficulty staying upright – are not only my choice, but my tacit acceptance of an offering, presented for nothing by people, by birds, by rain. I did nothing to ‘deserve’ it. So what do I bring to honor it? Grim determination and occasional swearing look pretty pale in comparison.

So I look up. To do this, I have to stop, a lot. I cannot step and look at once. I stop, and listen to the swans. Their voices fall somewhere between the brash honk of Canadian geese and the soft wooden rasp of Sandhill cranes. In transit overhead, at rest on the waters, they’re conversing, and I get to listen in.

Above the motionless surface, fog wanders without purpose. I watch it long enough to see its mission accepted: it gathers substance and begins to roll, and in moments the bottoms are blurred by dense, light rain. Life falls quiet, and the morning fills with a soft hiss, like static.

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We’re on the way back now, having understood the trail to be a single muddy mile out and back. We’re soaked, too, unexpectedly and without a waterproof anything between us. I’ve stopped minding, and stopped interpreting my partner’s quiet as some kind of judgment on me. In fact, when we reach the first of the bird blinds and I look up through dripping lashes, my first words are a smile, and he smiles back.

All this for us. Mud, of all things, as a teacher. Not a barrier to enjoyment, not even a means to an end, but a bridge to grace.  

***

La Center Bottoms is a joint project of Clark County, local businesses, and private owners. It’s not a great choice in winter, unless you really love waterfowl, or want to learn your mud-lessons as personally as I did. But in drier seasons, half of the trail is wheelchair-accessible, and the whole thing is very nearly flat. Parking is free. Access is off I-5 exit 16; turn right on 3rd Ave/Aspen Street as soon as you enter the town of La Center.

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