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A private bower of wildness in Seattle

Listening to the wildlife in Wakkakium Prairie, tucked under the University's nose.

Scene at the Union Bay Natural Area

Scene at the Union Bay Natural Area Seattle Audubon Society

On full moon days, when it is mild, I sometimes spend a night in what I call “my bower.” My bower is pretty much in the center of a square mile of “reconstituting prairie” that adjoins a big big lake, between some athletic fields and a classy Seattle neighborhood. It is  approximately a square mile of fields, bosques, and ponds.

Its only straight lines are a canal, the estuary of Ravenna creek which goes underground as it leaves Ravenna Park at 55th Street and 25th Avenue N.E., resurfaces at 45th St. N.E. and eventuates in Lake Washington to the south east; and a road on the prairie's northern edge, a short cut from Laurelhurst, past a golf driving range, to a major thoroughfare.

The “reconstituting prairie” used to be a peat bog for thousands of years, sometimes under water, sometimes not, until Seattle built the Ship Canal in 1916 from Lake Washington through Lake Union all they way to the Shilshole Bay part of Puget Sound five miles to the west, lowering the level of Lake Washington by nine feet. Ten years later, the now completely exposed peat bog became Seattle’s public dumping ground for half a century — one reason why, for all intents and purposes, "Wakkakium Prairie" as it is now called as part of the Lake Union Natural Area, is still a superfund site, with quite a few pipes venting methane from the combusting crap underneath. Who knows, the whole damn thing may explode one of these days, throwing a couple of hundred raccoons into the air. In the event of a major earthquake it, and adjacent University Village shopping haven, will liquefy!

Meanwhile, since the early '70s, that huge field of garbage  (wrecked cars, fridges, you name it) was overlaid with dirt and then a crust of loam was used to "cap" everything. Brush and trees, chiefly alder and poplars, were planted; native grasses were sown; there was an invasion of non-native Himalayan blackberry bushes that has proved ineradicably hardy; and the now fairly wild area has become haven for raccoons, possums, pheasants, migrant coyotes, a profusion of robins, a pair of eagles; and no end of smaller birds, and for ducks and geese and herons. Its stand of poplars is an evening stopover for swarms of crows on their way back to their sleeping venues across the canal in the Arboretum. Crows can also be seen hitching rides on the evening sand barges as the tug that pushes the twosome into Lake Washington.  In its several ponds — one of them year round, the others subsiding as the weather warms and the various overlapping rainy seasons abate — veritable armadas of geese and ducks stand around the edge to perform regattas.  

There are scenic walks and of course the usual advisories to stay on the walks. The signs telling you what is what (bullrushes, soft tipped rushes) are usefully informative for once. Lots of bird watchers, lots of folks walking the dog early in the morning, joggers.  A "youth garden" prevails upon delinquents to use their youthful energies in organic, tomato-growing ways.

"My bower” is an extremely dense, nearly impenetrable thicket. It's where I sat during a freeze last winter and noticed what I thought was a raccoon about eight feet off the ground, hugging a sapling and apparently bothering its loudly protesting midnight Peking duck in the accumulating water, a huge puddle, below. That raccoon that turned out to be a great horned owl, with tufted ears looking raccoon-like.  The great horned does not hoot at night, but  you can see it swooping about.

I have made a small lean-to in the center of my bower thicket, not only for my back's sake but for the rain. Before going to sleep the other night, waiting for the still fairly full moon to rise above the Cascades to the East, my left eye noticed the silhouette of a figure slipping through the passage between my thicket and the thicket one over, through that defile, now dry, there. It is unusual to encounter anyone except a raccoon or coyote in the prairie at night, or hear a sound other than that of a protesting duck, or a hysterically laughing coyote, or the occasional song bird waking from its nightmare fright. The figure did not walk on. It appeared to stop. The moon had not yet risen and I really couldn’t make out where the figure might be because the thicket is just too thick.


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