THE PLACE’S SENSE of mystery comes not from its remoteness, but from its proximity. It rests between Route 99, the amusement park, and the river. The backs of the houses that border it can be seen, at times, atop the hill. It is a piece of the wilderness carved out and left intact in the heart of the city, but it is also the city itself. Its paths are city paths, although they are made of dirt or wood planks, bordered by sun-laden deciduous forest and floodplains. Since 1988, it’s been called a wildlife refuge, but it seems to serve as a refuge for anybody, as if in those 160 acres a layer of time has been peeled back, the hard skin of urban development scraped away. I can walk through neighborhoods, across an overpass with a view of the train yard and, on a clear day, the mountain, and shortly I can arrive in a green place. A place that knows of the wider world but does not speak of it, except in whispers: a single boot abandoned among the sedges, the soft reek of marijuana, workplace gossip along the trail, brightly colored tents through the trees.
The sign says it’s a refuge. It doesn’t say from what, but we all know. We know what we’re hiding from.
Like many wetlands, part of it once served as a landfill for the city. Flooded land, either permanently or seasonally, was unsuitable for agriculture and therefore seen as useless. Later on, another part of it was filled with the debris from the construction of Interstate 405. Only pressure from those strange condemners of progress, nature conservation groups, prevented the area from being filled in and built up, made indistinguishable from the city surrounding it in its hot asphalt embrace. It might have housed museums, businesses, transportation—markers of urban progress. Instead, the refuge progresses cyclically, its growth and death maintaining the kind of equilibrium that, for a growth economy, is equivalent to death.
It’s tempting to think of any forested space as an artifact from a purer world, but the truth is that the wreckage of the past here is only buried beneath the surface. Rather than preservation, the first and most enduring project of the refuge is restoration. What we think of as forward movement is, sometimes, just straying off the path entirely, then doubling back, trying to find our way.
There is a railroad between the bike path and the woods, and I’ve heard you can ride a nature-viewing train along the refuge on Saturdays, just in case ambling the paths on foot doesn’t keep up with the set pace of your life. On the other side of the bike path, just before the forest casts down suddenly into a short, muddy cliffside, where the patchy and hard to reach banks below disappear and reappear in inverse correlation with the rainfall, the dirt path is overlaid, at various points, with the remains of a much older set of train tracks. They are rusted, half-buried in the earth, emerging like a shipwreck. The river, deep green and placid, shimmers below. The history of this place—like the river’s history, the history of the valley itself and the fate of the old growth forests that once surrounded it—is a human history as well as a natural history.
What I mean to say is: human history is a natural history.
There are those that work for the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, as well as the volunteers at The Friends of Oaks Bottom, but even they are not people of the refuge. Even less so are the day-hikers and cyclists who pass through, admiring the sites and the birdsong as one admires a manicured garden. I admit, I make distinctions between the visitors. There is a difference between the people who come together, in talkative groups, deep in conversation with one another on some subject utterly unrelated to the setting, and those who come alone, stay silent, move slowly. By default the runners, wearing headphones, are slotted into the former group, as are families with young children. But a few of the children, as well as those lone adults who take a slow pace, keep quiet, their attention fixed on the place itself—I consider them my peers. They seek the same thing I seek. A kind of refuge, a respite from the barrage of the immediate, the death tolls, the specter of money, the inadequacy of every answer. Sometimes, the best answer is silence. I’m trying to learn patience from a place that knows it.
None of us, however, are people of the refuge in the same way that the unhoused Oregonians are, those who live in its meadows, its woods, or even in the grass beside its parking lot, in tents and delicate, movable structures. Off the official paths, there are signs that say Do Not Enter Restoration Area, but this order seems to be neither heeded nor enforced. If the cops do in fact drive the campers out, it doesn’t stop them from coming back. The refuge has more appeal than most places in the area, with its relative privacy, quiet and safety. I’ve heard people complain about the trash they leave behind, their utterly un-scenic presence, unconsciously convinced, I guess, that a “natural area” should be a place untouched by the failings and misgivings of the society that has fenced it in and labeled it such.
I don’t like seeing the trash, either, but then I never notice when the people living here pick up after themselves. Care leaves no evidence. I don’t like to see the broken glass or scraps of clothing, the shapeless waste littering the ground around the battered camp gear and water-logged mattresses. Still, I know better than to put myself above it. These wetlands were once a landfill, and in many landfills still operating sits the degraded waste of my own life, mercifully separated from me by cheap and personally painless means, so that I don’t have to look at it, to face my own ugliness, to see the outline of my own body in the dirt.
To dislike the fact that unhoused people live in the refuge is not only to insist upon an unrealistic expectation that the city cease to be a city here in its green and brown and blue heart. It is also to misunderstand what nature really is.
Who else lives here? The deer, unhurried, grazing the meadows, straying in and out of the bounds of the refuge, wary and assured. The snakes whispering in swaying lines through the pale grasses, away from the reverberations of footsteps. Frogs and salamanders, hatching, swimming, growing legs and lungs and hopping away into the reeds. The red-winged blackbirds flitting across the wetlands, easily spotted against the backdrop of invasive purple loosestrife. Beavers and otters and mink swim and work in the dawn’s dark waters, along with nutria, their invasive counterpart. California sea lions encroach, traveling ominously upriver, and can be seen on the banks here. Bushtit nests hang, tear-drop shaped, built of detritus both natural and manmade, from the branches of the trees. The great blue herons stand, still and wakeful, in the water, indifferent to the passing squabbles of the ducks and coots.
Animals too small for me to catch sight of are here, too. A four-legged something skittering quickly beneath duff, out of my sight. Scat and noise, a flickering, still breath and fear. The barred owls, pale and imperious, stare at the shifting ground, diving suddenly into violence. Bald eagles circle, astonishingly large even at a great distance. Crows and squirrels and racoons, urbanized city animals, accustomed to fast living and human scraps, find solace here. Scrub and stellar jays, towhees and juncos and song sparrows, these common backyard birds are in the refuge as well, serving as it does, essentially, as a very large, wild backyard. Hummingbirds click and dragonflies glint blue in summer. There is a mural on the back of the Portland Memorial Mausoleum, which looms over the refuge like a great stone forefather, depicting many of these animals, supplying a vision of the wildlife when it is not itself available to meet public demand.
The oaks and madrones and redcedars speak when the wind prompts them. The river runs along, faceless, lulling, the blood of the city, moving with the cadence of a dream. The animals and plants are awake to city life, and the skyline is their night sky. The ebb and flow of pollution, the noise of the streets, the train’s wail and screech, glass shattering, police sirens howling. The fiddleheads unfurl, spreading their fronds like wings, moving on their own timescales. The mosquitoes hum, the birds flutter off at a sudden noise. The dull tapping of a woodpecker against a snag is the only sound for a moment, and then it all resumes, the refuge carrying on its own life, which is city life, which is our life.
Wilhelm’s Portland Memorial Funeral Home, Mausoleum and Crematory began as the Portland Crematorium in 1901, the first of its kind in the west. Inside, it is full of stained glass, ashes, and emptiness—an enormous, elaborate house for the dead, sitting just between the refuge and rows of quiet neighborhoods. If it was not so fully visible from the refuge itself, made-up in crystal blue and green paint, decorated with idyllic animal paintings, and surrounded by a wire fence, I would never have even known it existed. The mausoleum stands against the edge of the refuge, tucked into the center of the city like a relic, like something from another time, before the start of the momentum that pulled all of the city with it, tearing down buildings and putting up others, shuttering businesses, making some people money, making others angry, the hot pulse of time thrumming away, noticed perhaps but not minded by the animals or the plants or the dead.
Before, I said that it was only an illusion that the refuge was old, that it was nature preserved in its original form. So, too, is it an illusion that the mausoleum holds any real grip on the past. One hundred and twenty years is a fleck in the eye of time. What about the rest of the dead? According to the Native Land Map, the area where the refuge is located was once, not that long ago, the land of the Clackamas Tribe, the Cowlitz Tribe, and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The surrounding areas were homes or served as summer encampments for many more tribes. With the Oregon Land Donation Act of 1850, the federal government made this land and much more available to white settlers by removing the Native tribes already living there. Fifty-one years later, the mausoleum opened its doors, establishing a place for the white settlers to cremate their dead and set them to rest. The dead who were not white settlers are not granted a mural, nor a marbled interior. They are buried like the former landfill, like the rubble from the freeway construction, like the whole mottled ruin of the past, its shame and its sorrow teeming beneath the new growth of the restored refuge, the city’s towering heights.
I wonder to what extent restoration is even possible. Restoration of what exactly, and for whom? I consider the city my city, and the refuge my refuge, whether or not I have any right to the land and its beautiful and ugly inheritance. The earth is forgiving, the ecosystems eager to stabilize, to return. Ghosts are not usually as forgiving.
And beyond the dead, what of the living?
Just because the tribal reservations are elsewhere doesn’t mean this place, in the center of the city, is not connected to those tribes. The past is connected to the future, as death is connected to life, and the trail in the refuge connects a parking lot, through the woods and wetlands, to a public park. We don’t want to see the parking lot, the graffiti, the smashed bottles in the gutters. We don’t want to see the unhoused people, the lost and displaced, the injustices that have been and still are perpetrated against those who are indigenous to this land. We don’t want to look too hard at the past, and we don’t want to recognize that a wildlife refuge is a human place, set in human parameters, defined by both the presence and absence of humans. We want to do away with every scrap of humanity, every reminder of our own lives, and our ties to everything else.
But the refuge has ties to everything. It is not really the city’s backyard, it is not its conscience, not even its heart. It is the city, restored to some approximation of its elemental state, a slice of the past that we’re comfortable confronting fixed into the present, into the future. It hears echoes of the protests and marches carrying over the river. It hears me talking to a spot between the trees, asking for too much. It answers back with living silence.
JAYE NASIR is a writer living in Portland, OR. Her work focuses on mysticism, nature, dreams, sex, and the places where these things overlap.