Before the disaster, I was frequently wildlife tracking in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, on river courses or nearly vertical streams. Now I’m trying to be good, to stay home. I don’t want to clog a hospital or die, so I wear my mask, keep my distance, and get my nature fix on the internet. Late at night, I walk the ponderous lake that sits like a dense weight on the landscape a half mile away. Sometimes I ache for arms to wrap around me, to touch my skin, my face. I miss times when I could afford to be angry at someone because it hadn’t occurred to me that they might die this week.
In my loneliness, I’ve been creating relationships with my neighbors using flyers and telephones, organizing my neighborhood to take care of itself by sharing food, collecting rent money, and delivering prescriptions. We do this since, it appears, we are on our own. I walk from house to house, checking in on folks over fences, over balconies, and over the phone. The process pushes me past where I am comfortable, but it makes it easier to sleep because, so far, everyone is okay. I keep going, beyond my painful self-doubt and half-knowledge on the off chance these small neighborhood groups will preserve beyond this pandemic the best that is emerging from us: compassion, connection, active care.
Today the ache is too great, and I must have the wild green. Though the public parks are closed, I make an illegal foray into an urban forest. First, I fake a nonchalant walk down the middle of the empty parking lot, but really, no one is watching. Then I’m through the arched gate to the park and in. Surprised, off kilter, I’m slammed to a halt by the scent. I stand dead still and close my eyes, breathing in slow lungfuls of the more than human world. That smell of cottonwood sap, of evergreens thinking about needle buds, of sun-hot bark giving off identifiable terpenes. A palpable wave washes through me, rinsing out the terror and boredom of lockdown, waiting to hear that someone I love has died, waiting for yet another careless cruelty from authorities. I imagine dipping a cleaning rag into a bucket and squeezing out the grimy water over and over with each breath.
Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa). A large deciduous tree growing to over 160 feet high and six feet in diameter. The sap of the buds can be harvested to make Balm of Gilead and be used for pain relief and healing the skin.
Going beyond the groomed paths to find the unimproved trails—there are no humans here. I push my mask down to my neck to jump over knee-high tree roots and logs. The trail follows the edge of a tree-filled ravine which hosts a creek at the bottom. The sound of it makes me want to cry. There are robins, phoebes, varied thrushes, crows, and a single hairy woodpecker knocking away at a snag above me somewhere. I stick a salmonberry flower in my mouth and my tongue savors the tang. Every sense is awake and grateful to be alive. I’m almost running now, down the side of the ravine, across the trickle of the creek, and then slaloming up the switchbacks.
Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis). A member of the rose family, it has trifoliate toothed leaves and dark pink flowers. Root bark is used for pain relief and as a disinfectant. A decoction has been used to ease the pains of labor.
About a quarter mile in, I finally slip into forest mind, that familiar state of being where I’m part of the forest, not an interruption. Now I’m walking slowly. I can hear the towhees and juncos to either side of the trail, out of sight beneath the understory, flipping leaves with their beaks or scratching for bugs. After unbroken minutes, I hear the louder movements of a mid-sized mammal pushing through the undergrowth paralleling me along the edge of the ridge. It’s camouflaged by the waist-high sword fern, but I imagine it’s a raccoon, or possibly an urban coyote..
Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum). Called the King of Northwest Ferns, this plant can grow nearly six feet high. New fronds push up from the center in early spring curled in the shape of a violin scroll and are called fiddleheads. Some say they can be cooked and eaten as they contain omega-3, omega-6, and antioxidants. Chewing the fronds is said to relieve pain.
Farther on, something silently calls me off the path, and I bushwhack several dozen yards past nettles, Oregon grape, and salal. At my feet is a trillium in full pageant mode, the petals three slender arcs, white as snow, with bright yellow anthers at the center. Five feet ahead, beyond a cedar log, is a patch of older ones, turned a heart-stopping magenta with age. And still farther, behind a stump, is a trio of trilliums, startling a laugh out of me. A trifecta of trilliums, a triplicity of trilliums.
Western White Trillium (Trillium ovatum). A perennial rhizomatous flowering herb with three white narrow petals and three narrow leaves. Roots are used to encourage menstruation, and therefore the plant is often called birthroot, first bringing blood, then birth.
After a quarter mile, I begin to see urban blackberries and dandelions in the sunny spots; the native bird cherry, some call Indian plum, and the sword fern become less common. Soon I come to a wide grassy swath, a ribbon of field, running endlessly north and south, under looming power lines. I stand in the shade of the forest, looking out on the sunny green, imagining an urban fox doing the same in this exact spot. Houses line the far side, and I can just hear a busy street over the birdsong.
Turning around to retrace my steps, my thoughts drift back to the day’s small acts of faith waiting for me at home: sending an email, raising fifty dollars, chatting on the phone with a lonely neighbor. In this quiet moment, I see that I’m trying both to knit together a city block and to help pull the future out through the contracted birth canal of our painful present. Ah, I’m thinking city thoughts. I must be healed enough to go back now, and I head for my car and my next task.
—April 17, 2020
Postscript, June 29, 2020: There are moments when the essay seems beside the point and others when it seems more true than ever. Here’s hoping whites like me find our courage, stick-to-itiveness, and compassion, and put it to work for the long haul.
Mallory Clarke is a writer living in Seattle. She is working on a book about rivers that flow into the Salish Sea and how best to love them. As a wildlife tracker, lifelong activist, and mother, she learns something new every day. Exhausting, but worth it. For decades she taught inner-city high school people how to read, and is now teaching herself to be a naturalist. Her poetry has been published in Hummingbird and PageBoy, and she is the author or co-author of several books on the teaching of reading.
Dorreen Carey is retired and lives in Gary, Indiana, where she volunteers for an urban farm initiative and takes walks and photographs in the Indiana Dunes. She has worked as a photographer, steelworker, and environmental manager. She is active in local community and environmental issues and serves on the board of directors of Save the Dunes.