I haven’t been through my canyon since the last big storm. Some things have changed.
The route, for one, and I’m wearing the wrong pants for the detour. A douglas fir – average size – has snapped off near its base and splintered along the path. Chickadees are chasing each other through the rubble, a knee-high wash of wet black branches, violently interlaced. It’s not a long way around but it’s not a clean one either, wobbling over great geometric boulders, testing each step for soggy ground beneath. This is what happens when I think I’ll just have a quick walk, no need to change out of my best black trousers.
It hasn’t been a quiet weekend. On Friday: the inauguration of our country’s new president. On Saturday, the largest mass demonstration in history. Also on Saturday, the opening salvos of fascism from our new leader’s press secretary – ludicrously angry with media for accurate reporting of historically low inauguration attendance – and from one of his counselors, excusing the secretary’s subsequent bald-faced lies as “alternative facts.” I wish I was making this up.
So I’m out here to get away. I always flee outdoors when my heart and mind are too heavy with human concerns. But it’s not as if Out Here is free from human influence. I place my feet on this path maintained by the city, drive on interstate highways to a wilderness designated by the federal government. We can’t escape ourselves.
“The canyon” – which probably has an official name – is the secret side of a well-loved city park. Everyone walks the paved path from the parking lot by the river; a few of us turn right instead and travel up the creek toward Oswego Lake. I like to approach from the other direction, down a neighborhood culdesac. I prefer loop trips as a rule, but sometimes my courage fails me at the pavement, and I end up walking back through the canyon. The main park isn’t what most folks would called overcrowded. My nearly antisocial need for space can still sneak up on me.
I love the massive arched bridge, like an ancient ruin – although it’s very much in use, high above, by the street I live on. It lurks improbably in the trees, its scope unrealized until you turn a corner and feel its challenge right in your face. Its lower reaches host a rotating installation of inexpert graffiti. Right now it’s mostly scrawled words in black paint, everything from “poop!” to “friendship is magic.” Which I guess about sums it up.
A kingfisher splatters its song along the turbulent river, always heard before seen. There he is: just a streak, grey-white-black. They’re always so much bigger and more solid than I recall. This one’s flight dips and weaves, excited: much to tell this afternoon. I’m weary of news.
Leaf corpses everywhere underfoot, mostly maples, mostly rotted into mud. I walked here at October’s end, when each still had its shape, but you could see it starting to melt around the edges. I thought of salmon, then, seen and smelled on the Malahat in autumn. They were dead and dying and strewn about the forest, no longer powerful predators, but silver pools of pure nutrient value.
The mallards are whistling this Sunday afternoon, something I’ve never heard them do. Single, short, high bursts, like a child with a plastic toy. The crowd of piping drakes is escorting a single hen. I’m always tempted to give her a mental high-five – and then I catch the action. I watch mallards often; you’d think I’d have some comfortable conclusions by now. But I struggle with what appears to be assault, every time.
Today it’s a little too on the nose. My country has just elected a president who was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women. We expect, in such an instance, apology, and insistence from the offender that he’s seen the error of his ways, that he’s reformed. Instead, our soon-to-be President dismissed his crass and minimizing remarks as “just locker room talk.” As if how our leaders talk about things – gender, foreign policy, facts – doesn’t shape how we perceive them.
For exactly this reason, I marched in the rain yesterday with tens of thousands of other Portlanders. Water pooled on my wool hat and dripped off its brim, soaking the backs of my knees. I stood in a crowd larger than Waterfront Park has ever seen, sharing solidarity with men and women and children of so many ages and colors. On the face of it, we didn’t do much: we cheered, we chatted, we said “excuse me” every ten seconds. We held up signs demanding equality, advocating love.
I hate crowds. I’ve never been a joiner. This gathering felt too important to shy away from. A sign spotted at another city’s march told my story, too: “So bad, even introverts are here.”
And in the moment, in the rain, that massive group of citizens held this introvert up. It gathered frustration and anger and fear and it poured out determination and love. In a crowd, I always plead for deliverance. In this one, I received it.
Not the end product. There is no such thing. Justice achieved will wash away unless we work to shore it up. But I felt the buoyant promise that I am not alone in my astonished grief at the sharp turn my country has taken toward fascism and fear. I will not carry the burden of resistance by myself. If this is a bubble, it’s a big one.
The United States likes to preach about democracy. We’ve been setting ourselves up as a city on a hill since long before George Washington led an army of British rebels to independence. Yesterday, millions of Americans – and our sisters and brothers around the globe, even to Antarctica – literally stood up to assert how much we care about preserving that democracy. It isn’t perfect. It’s stood in need of some serious work for awhile now, and it’s our shame we didn’t do enough until extremism forced our hands. But our moral arc does bend toward justice – because we take it in our hands and we push.
Beneath a boulder, brown against the litter of mud-colored leaves and leaf-colored mud, a fierce and tiny bird. I’m lucky to see him. Blurs of earth-brown energy and feathers, winter wrens are difficult to spot. It’s their voices we can’t escape: dripping and spiraling through the stripped-down woods of winter. Songs go on for seconds that feel like minutes, burbling and rising, impossibly loud and rich for one so small.
This one looks right at me, black liquid fire in his eye. And then he starts to sing.