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A private bower of wildness in Seattle

Scene at the Union Bay Natural Area Credit: 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.

I had just lighted one of my little cigars and presumed that since I had seen the silhouette, the silhouette had also espied me, and was now lying in wait, waiting, waiting for whatever, as was I.  I just kept waiting, considering the possibilities who this person might be. I figured it was a man, I couldn’t imagine a single woman of any kind venturing into this part of the wilderness in the dark of night. There had been some stupid pre-July 4 fireworks set off at the parking lot and athletic field about a half-mile off. It might be one of those fools. It wasn’t anyone who followed me, since it had come from a different direction and, besides, I had been in “my bower,” spinning my dreams, for at least half an hour.

Just as the moon finally made it across the Cascades, blood-orange, the mountain crags briefly taking a bite of its soft underside, and shone some pale into the reaches of the bower, I decided to stand up. What the hell, might as well face whoever instead of falling asleep. I peered through the layers of branches and leaves down toward the area where I thought I ought to be able to make out a set of feet. Instead I thought I spotted something that appeared to be a slew of clothing, a blanket or sleeping bag that seemed to twitch a bit on occasion. So: whoever had lain down on the ground.         

I took my flashlight and started to make my way through a fairly complicated, twisting tunnel through the bower thicket, starting to talk to and shine the light in the direction of what turned out, indeed, to be a sleeping bag.  

There was of course the possibility that whoever, on being discovered, might do whatever. So I had made sure that my Swiss Army knife was where you might keep a handgun. I have run into more crazies in Seattle than anywhere in the world, and that includes the numerous Mr. McGoos of the humanities faculty of academe, 25 years in New York, nearly six years among some very strange people in the St. Monica Mountains, and L.A., and three years in the so utterly peaceful, harmless Mulege, Baja, California Sur. But perhaps it is just that my trouble detector is sharper now.

Also, one night, taking a short cut home from the Gym, a University cop rose from out of the man high prairie grass and shone his flashlight into my face. Unprepared to have anxiety make a coward of me, I blurted out what came instantly to mind, no sang froid of any kind, and said: “What are you doing here?”

Unprepared to be challenged, the cop replied, as though to a superior: “I am on patrol.”

“For what, pheasants?”

Later he and I got to know each other better, at the wooden curved nearly Japanese garden bridge across a small canal that has the mountain beavers and water rats in it, where he would post himself on occasion, and he explained to me that it wasn’t baby beavers that I watched from the bridge, but water rats and otters that had taken up residence, too. The trunks of the poplars lining the canal on both sides gave ample evidence of good Beaver work, some with protective fencing at the bottom of their trunks.

So who was it this time? A fellow in a sleeping bag, a kid it appeared, with his iPod plugs in his ears. “I thought I’d spend the night. And this seemed like a good spot,” he explained. He was from Philadelphia and had just wandered in.

I explained that the circumference of the prairie into which he had wandered was patrolled with some regularity by a variety of police because the adjacent Center for Urban Horticulture conservancy had been partially burned down a few years back by anarchists who were enraged by genetic engineering. People are a little nervous about vagrants, I explained; and mentioned the raccoons, the three coyote packs.

I wished him a good night’s sleep and expressed the guess that he’d probably wake at the crack of dawn, or even earlier, because of the profusion of robins; and, to myself, why I had not heard him, my left ear, my good ear had been turned in the direction where my eye caught his silhouette. He was wearing sneakers, the grass was soft, and so was that part of the ground, which was still moist. Still. I was used to picking up just about any sound.

By the time I woke, an hour after the sunrise, later than I had planned, he was gone, as I had expected. All that was left of him was the soft wide shape of his sleeping bag outlined in the grass.

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