As of late I have been hearing the frogs singing into the night, and have caught just a few bars of the red wing blackbird practicing his song. The quickening of spring is a time of immense transition as the winter birds begin to gather themselves to fly towards their nesting grounds, and the summer birds begin arriving from their warmer winter accommodations. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a place with such diversity of birds. From songbirds and waterfowl to raptors and woodpeckers we share our home with a rare plethora of species. The diversity of our birds is a gift we can enjoy year round. How lucky we are!
Recently the word is out about an effort afoot to impose a dog park in the last bit of wildness on the Astoria waterfront. The proposed place happens to be in Alderbrook, the neighborhood where we have lived since 1997. I live in a riparian zone- an area of land adjacent to a water way. In this case the estuarial waters of the mighty Columbia River. The entire neighborhood can be considered an ecological Edge- where different biomes rub shoulders.
There is a railroad causeway with three trestle bridges that defines a large open tidal mudflats/bay rimmed with estuary plants. Alderbrook is nestled between state forest land and Highway 30 to the south, and the waterline to the north. Backyards, Violet LaPlant Park and the baseball field form meadow areas populated in summer with swallows swooping for insects. These three ecological niches: tidal estuary, forest, and open meadow, are intersecting and like a three legged stool provide a platform for habitat diversity. Edges are the richest areas for species to thrive.
In the past 17 years I have walked this bit of land countless times. I often meet my neighbors out walking, and since the expansion of the river walk increasing numbers of out of town visitors as well. The river walk is a wonderful addition to our community, improving our quality of life substantially. I love that so many people are able to breath in the fierce winds of winter, and eat sweet blackberries in the summer together on our commons. The river path is the closest thing we have to a town square, and I LOVE it. That it leads through our last bit of waterfront wild area is no small part of its appeal.
In this post I presented a list of 23 birds my family identified on one walk around the loop. Our master list of bird species that we have identified in Alderbrook has 77 species on it. On walks we have experienced many shared moments of awe with strangers at the antics of eagles or herons going about their business. Walking that same path so often has given us a chance to identify not just species but sometimes get to get to know individuals. There is the Kingfisher who lives on the east end, and the Kingfisher who lives on the west end. There is the place where the white crowned sparrows gather, and the nook where the ruby crowned kinglets winter. Familiarity diminishes the anonymity of the natural world.
While I was attending UO in the early 1990’s I had the opportunity to volunteer as a nature guide for the nonprofit organization Nearby Nature, which was founded by two of my then housemates, Amy and Joseph. Tens of thousands of school children, UO students and adult denizens of Eugene have connected to the natural world through Nearby Nature programs over the past 23 years. It started with a modest crew of volunteers taking school children on guided walks in Alton Baker Park, and has matured into an inspiring example of what can be accomplished with clear vision.
Creating a plan for the highest good of the Alderbrook scotch broom flats needs to prioritize the wild things that live there. It is possible for dogs and humans to enjoy being there, without dominating the landscape. In fact people have been walking with their dog friends along the waterfront for many years prior to the riverwalk. A dog park however, is not appropriate use for the proposed location, because it absolutely would negatively impact the wildlife that make their home there.
The proposed dog park area is on what we have always called the scotch broom flats, which lies between Tongue Point and the bay. (The name was once very apt, until recently when conservation efforts began to remove the opportunistic non native.) This is the site of the famed Hammond Mill, which burned in the 1920’s, so it is not a “virgin” wild area by any means. But like Alton Baker Park in Eugene which includes wild areas along the Mackenzie River and encompasses an old landfill, this jewel on the east end of Astoria is worth saving.
When we think of the land as simply a commodity it is possible to overlook the incredible true wealth that lies before us. The immeasurable beauty and abundant life that is manifest in so many diverse and humble ways. I believe that we are more fully human, most fully alive when we intersect with the natural world. No token of our economic system can “pay” for the loss of life that our human actions impose. There is a much bigger “economy” at play.
Last year when I was trying to walk everyday we joked that the sheer beauty of the river walk was responsible for at least 7% of my recovery. When we looked at my treatment plan we added percentage points up for all of the many different things that I consciously chose to do. So many % points for change of diet, so many points for acupuncture, points for Herceptin etc… In reality we can not measure the impact connecting to nature has on us in the long term. We can only know that in general we are happier and healthier when we spend time in nature, and sicker and more unhappy when we separate ourselves from the natural world.
Do not mistake my words for an expression of territorial possessiveness- It is my fierce conviction that we belong to the land, and not the other way around. Title and deed signify that we have the privilege to be caretakers of a given bit of the earth during our short lives. I do not believe in the myth of Man’s-Divinely-Sanctioned-Dominion-Over-Nature. So though I feel deeply grateful to live in the place that I do, I do not wish to prevent others from being here. My plea is to Awaken! Open yourself to the greater whole. Listen to the birds, they are speaking to us all of the time. Do we really want to hasten a silent spring by deliberately replacing birdsong with the sound of dogs barking?
I was born on Rachel Carson’s birthday, one month after the first Earth Day. I grew up with farmers and huntsman who lived with the land- the idea that the needs of the land and the needs of the people could possibly be so divergent that the land is not even considered in our decision process is very strange to me. I can not help but wonder if perhaps others are seeing something very different when they walk the 3 mile Alderbrook loop around the bay? Perhaps the birds and plants whose very presence fills my heart are somehow invisible to others? Is it possible that other Astorians have not bothered to learn the names of the many birds who share their home with us so generously?
Someone has put the need for a dog park on the table, a place for dogs to be free to run joyfully, and to interact with others of their own kind. I am in support of this. Lets find a way to meet that need without losing something precious. Perhaps we have not fully defined the problem yet. By asking not only where an appropriate place for our beloved animal companions to play, and we add the requirement that it be in an open area that does not contain a treasure of biodiversity, we can find a solution. If we do not include the needs of wildlife in our discussion we will fail to meet their needs.
I love dogs, I also love cats- but as domesticated animals their place in the landscape is wed to ours. As a human who chooses to live with animals I am responsible for minimizing the harm my companion may inflict. We do not let our cat play outside in the yard to protect the birds he would inevitably kill. Instead we have made window shelves, to give him access to fresh air, without birds dying. I hold other pet people to the same standard. Sacrificing the habitat of many birds and other creatures who live on the east end of Astoria to make room for a zone of high density human and dog play, is an unnecessary sacrifice. We can find another solution. We need only to remember that there are always many solutions to any problem before us.