Spring/Summer 2002, Volume 19.3
Living the Land
At the Sea-Tac airport in south Seattle my family greets me—dogs and sisters, kids and our mom—everyone except our father who has died of cancer two months before. Mother Nita looks shorter, sister Jill more brittle and thin, and the gaggle of nephews too timid and shy to meet my eye. We adults trade compliments and hugs.
Just moments and we're home, as my sisters and I still call it, a ranch house surrounded by flowers and grasses and trees. We're in Burien, a suburb of Seattle, where ranchettes of several acres slope from the road to marshes and trees. Back to the days of my youth I slide, to the garden overgrown in pumpkins we kids planted and weeded, picked and sold at the roadside cardboard table, back to the grease pencils for marking prices on pumpkins and to the muffin tins for making change. The family acreage conjures the plentiful pets of my childhood, the herds and ponds and flocks. Once more I smell lanolin from lambs-wool on my hands; again I hear beef cattle bawling for me to toss them hay. Dazed by these sensations and the summer sun, I wander out past tufts of orchard grass and blackberries to the weathered barn and sheds, to the willow clusters grown from shoots we simply poked into the soil.
I've flown back not only to be with my grieving family, but also to cultivate clusters of native shrubs and trees, to cultivate the indigenous plant community my father, Harold, began to restore before he fell ill. In a vacant field beside the house he built a trellis arching over double benches. That bower summons all comers; it serves as entry to the would-be garden that should lie beyond. Here I'll do my spadework. The garden has good drainage and southern exposure, sweet situation in this region of fogs and drizzles, northerly darks and damps. Finding a place where native plants still grow, a spot that has never been grazed or bulldozed, drained or sprayed, is altogether rare. The garden plot lies in the shade of a dozen Douglas firs that Harold saw fit to let stand once he had cleared the acres of lowlands for animal pasture.
A century old, these trees have confronted roads and homes, phone wires and sewer lines, gas mains and power poles—and two stout bars that span the trunks for practicing gymnastic stunts. Those fir trees still drop cones aplenty. When gales tried to topple them toward the house, we feared they would fall but admired their supple aptitude to stand. We lopped their boughs to make Christmas wreaths and mantle mangers, flung ropes over the branches to contrive tire swings, watched robins and orioles and Brewer's blackbirds nest among their needles. We liked to think we used those trees well. They were our evergreen sanctuary, a scrap of wild space at whose prolific intricacy we gazed and wondered how it might prove useful.
On this visit to the homestead I get reacquainted with the trees, marveling at the thick, resilient bark, the pitch smearing my hands. The trees call up more than memories. They remind me that I have become what some detractors might call a tree-hugger, a pagan, a pantheist who praises this creation. Before I sit down to supper with my mother this first evening, I scrub with a hand brush to remove the sticky residue of those trees. Some layers of my skin come off in the process. I know how relations with my people can be sustained by kindness and by time—the kindness of persistent interest and attention, the time all creatures need to heal toward trust.
In the tribal way of those committed to memories and blood, my family still lives near familiar jobs and haunts, in old farmland turned suburbia. An anchor-hold for the kinfolk, that neighborhood is swiftly changing. Neighbors move in and out so often. No longer do we know who sleeps next door, never mind several houses down. Exotic faces blend and blur with freeway spurs, the quickie marts, the airport grown from one runway to two, the jets that blast much closer now. Germs and crime occupy my family's minds and time—homes burglarized in daylight, cars hot-wired and stolen. The German shepherd's yelping after nightfall prompts alarm.
Idling in traffic or shopping in town, I wallow in a haze of nostalgia that lies as thick and sweet as the scent of honeysuckle that cloyed the summer yard and yearned for breezes to disperse it. At other times, the haze of the past seems like a tangible fog compounded of auto exhaust and spent jet fuel, the same scents that industrialists tell you smell like money. But I don't work in industry any longer—haven't for years. I don't live here. If I yearn for the past, maybe it's my old self I yearn for, who tunneled through the foxtail barley, bracken ferns and stinging nettles, who made plaster casts of raccoon tracks and captivated garter snakes.
Heads and antlers of elk and deer jut from the indoor walls. So do the rifles and shotguns that used to be my diversion. Bequeathed me by my father, those guns and mounted trophies still are inseparable parts of me. The parquet pattern of teakwood floors, the corkboard walls that deaden sound, those are more than the accouterments of a domestic life. Everything about this family landscape constitutes an emotional documentation I will try to translate in the months I have to visit. There is the cedar-sided house where I was born and raised. Those are my teeth marks scoring the maple chair I chomped upon in a petulant mood. That is the garage that contained the indoor range where as a boy I first drew a bead on a target. Dragonflies from the marsh believed themselves trapped in the garage.
The boggy marsh is now a wetland, protected by state and federal laws and regulations, a portion of incorporated Burien. For many years a suburb of Seattle, it always has been the headwater of tiny Walker Creek. In 1951, when Harold bought the land, the marsh harbored ducks and geese, coyotes and deer, even a porcupine that filled a Shetland pony's nose with quills. Harold could creep with a shotgun to marsh edge and shoot a duck or two to pluck and roast. Early settlers, to drain the swamp and make it fit for grazing, dug a system of ditches that required constant clearing so the water would flow. The ditches clogged with vegetation—decaying cattails and willow leaves, fireweed and ferns—demonstrating the will of the marsh to die the slow and natural death that comes from tons of accumulating biomass.
The swamp was dying naturally till engineers built a freeway spur beside it. They altered the hydrology so far, the swamp brimmed once more with runoff water. In 1974, one enterprising neighbor, his eye trained on the main chance, trucked in fill dirt to this wetland, planning to build a mobile home park there. He never got his permits from the city, but the springs that give rise to the creek lie entombed now by truckloads of concrete, crumbled asphalt, even a set of wooden stairs that go nowhere. Now the swamp is little more than a sump for the freeway and nearby housing sites.
Where waterfowl used to breed, brackish runoff oozes and spawns a colorful sludge. A few ducks—urged by instinct, programmed by blood—still nest near those hidden springs of Walker Creek. Late each July, when the water becomes so greasy and rank it hatches flies, mallard hens try to guide their broods to flowing water blocks away. But the hatchlings mostly end up grabbed by cats or thumped by cars on Des Moines Memorial Drive, named for soldiers who fell during the World War. Here is a bit of historical metaphor, engraved on schoolyard plaques in brass.
Just south beyond the freeway sump, Walker Creek begins. To follow its first trickles en route to Puget Sound a mile away, you would need to tunnel under mats of vegetation that look firm enough to walk upon. Suspended by water, though, the floating braids of vegetation sink beneath your weight. First the water gurgles under rushes and cattails, whose sharp thin leaves divined the watercourse. Their keen genetic materials foretold the spring, even when the cattail stalks lived only as seeds in dung between the toes of barn swallows. Strong stalks, pliant, they cradle redwing blackbird nests now. When people in the Middle Ages saw a cattail swaying in the wind, they called it a "reed mace." They recognized in its shape a bog-grown weapon wielded thousands of years ago by gods who fought for power.
Those cattails divined the water source just as surely as the willow wand of the alcoholic water witch whose work I witnessed when I was twelve. Neighbor Al Gaddis wanted to discover where to drill a well when he built a home. And so he hired the witch or diviner to dowse the knoll and decide where the well should go. I got to watch him do his work. With his red nose and squinting eyes, the dowser did not match my vision of what a wonder worker should be. His miraculous hands just like mine, his shirttail trailing from droopy dungarees. On the low grass knoll grown sparsely in hawthorns and maples, he surveyed the land's contours. He squinted and spit. He lifted his chin haltingly as if sniffing out a drink. Then he crept across the knoll, here and there stamping his feet and listening for a thump.
Satisfied, he stalked to the swamp below to cut a forking crotch from a willow, that water-loving tree whose roots grow toward and invade storm drains and water mains. The wand he cut was like a long slingshot, but he held it by the opposite end. He gripped it by its twin ends as he might have handled plow traces or bridle reins. He walked as if he were plowing the land, his close-set eyes fixed so fine upon the willow crotch they almost crossed. The willow wavered and hovered above the ground; walking with care he waited, concentrated, for the forked stick to dip. With a downward jerk it marked the spot. He wiped his hands in contentment. The backhoe came in next week and clawed down fourteen feet, after which I spent two days digging further, ninety cents an hour, and glad to have the work. Nineteen feet below the earth, water began to pool around my shoes.
Among the roots of alders and poplars, Walker Creek is sourcing, the liquid surfacing to become a legible trickle, inches deep and one foot wide. The water purls; it drops like notes of ancient music, quickening the willows and the grass. Small trout, hatched there or swum from Puget Sound, spook easily. Their dark backs split the surface as they squiggle away. The earth is so spongy, they don't need to see me to detect me. Vibrations from my steps suffice.
The stream gathers force in the boggy acres owned by siblings Mike and Irma Mortenson, who shared a house on the hill across the highway. Their family held the acreage for many decades, admired it for the apple trees that gave good fruit without poison sprays. The first day we met, I got caught picking apples from their trees. Irma hollered from her front porch, "Hey! What do you think you're doing?" Her father had operated a slaughterhouse beside the creek before he died. Then Mike died too, the zoning around her home changed from residential to multiple, and Irma could not afford the property taxes. She faltered and fell into the apartment complex that rose from ashes of her Victorian home, another being toppled by the undertow from the booming wave in Seattle real estate.
Once it emerges from the bottomlands of the Mortenson plantation, the trickle that originates from buried springs has become the two-foot-wide north fork of Walker Creek, filtered and renewed by seeping through thick vegetation in the valley bottom. The water is clear. There pink and silver salmon, named simply for the color of their flesh and skin, used to fin upstream to spawn. In water so shallow the dorsal fins of the fish broke the surface, and the ready bellies dragged. Eagles and ospreys congregated on the creek and river shores each fall.
My father, a Seattle native, scooped up the fish as a boy with porous burlap gunny sacks that kept them damp till he got home. My more worldly mother thought his outdoor interests hicksville. Dad dug ditches that drained the swamp and baffled spawning fish. In my dreams I have walked those ditches with my boy-father and found twenty-pound fish struggling as if fallen from apocalyptic skies.
Below Mike and Irma's house, slaughterhouse wastes drained into Walker Creek. The operation was planned that way, just as factories have been situated strategically for centuries. Old man Mortenson carted beef and hog carcasses to Seattle to be cut and wrapped. Contemporary accounts tell how the slaughtering took place. When a sledge cocked above a doorway fell, the skull-cap cracked, the stunned beef blundered to its knees, and a walking razor in an apron sliced and turned the steerhide inside out. He stripped the heavy hide to the floor, converting every black Angus or red Hereford into the marble of its own fat. The whitened steer appeared puzzled, blushing, wishing it were dressed. A second jockey hooked the jaw, jacked a handle, and raised the great weight roof-ward till the rear hooves appeared to be dancing a jig on the slippery killing floor. Water from Walker Creek, pumped in and flushed out, cleared the building of its ruptured bits and blood.
Just below the slaughterhouse site, Walker Creek crosses Des Moines Memorial Drive and skirts the yard of a bungalow home. When kids in that house were growing up, they stretched a net for volleyball across the yard beside the water. Screaming with delight, they fetched out-of-bounds balls from the stream. But the kids flew the coop, the house grew quiet, and wild beavers dammed the creek and flooded the yard. County officials promptly destroyed the dam. The beavers rebuilt it. The persistent officials trapped the beavers and relocated them a dozen miles away. But those animals either padded their way back or else another pair chose to carry on the work, for a third sturdy dam appeared. At that point the landowners called a halt. The beavers, they said, would be allowed to build and stay. Now the yard lies beneath the only bona fide beaver pond in Burien city limits.
It is a welcome illusion that nature is reclaiming the land, the same illusion Harold wanted to achieve with his indigenous garden. His arching trellis above twin benches creates an entryway to the garden plot he began to plant. On the benches I rest between bouts of pulling weeds, pruning limbs, carting bark and rooting plants. Lacy leaves of clematis overspread the trellis and furnish heavy shade. Past the entry to the left cascades a pussy-willow; to the right a hawthorn scatters its white petals each spring, its fleshy red berries every fall. Thin-skinned madrona trees volunteer from bird dung. A crumbling fir stump serves as nurse log to a volunteer red cedar. Nearer the ground creep Oregon grape and salal, queen's cup and fescue grasses, false hellebore and kinnikinnik.
The arching trellis Harold built in this garden frames a leafy world that leans toward sunlight, that soothes its human viewers by growing green and clean. Weary eyes gain rest and sanctuary here. The shadowing fir trees bend from the west. To the east, beyond the garden plot's confines, the dying swamp blooms and decays. South of the garden, Walker Creek gurgles in the ear of anyone who stops to hear, gurgles songs of birds and weeds and beavers, of salmon that swam in water so shallow they might have been breathing air. Five minutes north as the mallard hen flies, the city named for a wise Indian lies. Sleep would come easily in this place, solace amid the bird songs and pollen, were not the nearby freeway and the airport jets so loud.