To mark the coming of the Autumnal Equinox this year, I planned a trip through my favorite local natural area. Though this year’s autumn solstice was sunny, muggy, and warm and all the leaves were still green, I embraced the seasonal importance of the day and the few hours of sunlight still available to me to walk through the woods.
I have written about the Marquam Nature Park in the Southwest Hills many times before, but as is true with our favorite places, they continue to feed us spiritually and creatively. I love the change in seasons, the sensory and aesthetic changes that move within our bodies. Emotions naturally ebb and flow as these seasonal changes assault our senses. And where else are the change in seasons most apparent than in the middle of the forest?
When the leaves begin to blush red and orange, when the air becomes crisp and cool, when the sky begins to grey and open up into a wet drizzle, I begin to crave hearty fall food- roasted vegetables and self-picked apples. Walking around in sweaters seems like a good idea and the emotion is comfort.
When the leaves have all fallen, the rain is persistent and cold, and the grey is everpresent, I begin to crave warm blankets, hot chocolate, the smell of fir, and knitted hats and mittens. The emotion is warmth.
When the rain begins to clear, leaving its dew on the buds of new flowers and leaves, I begin to crave dry patches of grass or the notch of a tree with which to spend with my book, a cherry blossom to put in my hair, and a long bike ride. The sunlight is weak but persistent through the new bright green and the emotion is exaltation.
When the days are longer and the evenings are balmier, when the rain is increasingly a memory, I begin to crave nights spent eating outside, bonfires to push away any remaining cold, and the taste of berries fresh from the vine. The emotion is freedom.
I love the change in seasons. So what is better to mark this natural transition than to take to the trails of your favorite wooded area? This year, I walked to the Marquam Nature Park on the busy street near my house. The air was warm and dry, almost dusty, and almost every tree displayed a resident spider. As I descended into the park from Broadway Drive, the air became muggy, danker, and the surroundings more verdant. Cool, moist air filled my nostrils. The trail was quiet except for my footfalls, as I passed native banana slugs inching their way across the trail. I also thoughtfully observed the native plant species in the park: Western Redcedar, Douglas Fir, Sword Fern, Maidenhair Fern, Lady Fern, Horsetail, Duck’s Foot, Oregon Grape, Big Leaf Maple, Trillium devoid of its white blossoms, Vetch, Thimbleberry…
The species were all there, just as they have been for many generations, living out their existence, slowly growing and changing with the waxing and waning of the sun throughout the year. What came to mind while walking through the forest past all these growing things was my experiences traveling in Japan two years ago. I landed on the other side of the world and was hit with the realization that the people I was encountering were going about their lives separate from my interactions with them, talking and walking and eating and growing, most within customs completely unlike the ones I am familiar with. It was a shocking realization which seems egoistic but enlightening as well. As was coined by Colum McCann in Let the Great World Spin and the Weepies in “The World Spins Madly On”, people halfway across the world live out their ordinary lives and customs as independently from a bark beetle climbing up a Douglas Fir trunk down the street from my house. It is only when confronted with an outsider such as myself that their walks of live begin to seem foreign.
As I walked along the Sunnyside Trail contemplating these thoughts, mostly alone, I passed by 8-10 runners, a few with dogs. I heard the satisfying crunch of the trail, rubber on gravel or soil, or the squelch of an unforeseen puddle. I began to climb the South side of the Marquam Gulch and turned onto the Upper Marquam Trail. The air became drier again, warmer, dustier. (fyi: There are longer and shorter routes throughout this park but I chose the longer route for the purposes of my meditative walk.) My destination this time was OHSU (Oregon Health Sciences University)- a sprawling campus of hospital buildings- from an award winning children’s hospital to a women’s health research center, to the Veteran’s Administration to one of the most competitive medical schools in the nation to countless research labs. I emerged from my trail onto the periphery of the campus and then walked down the hill to the Kohler Pavilion, home of many clinics as well as local art on its outdoor patio on the 2nd and 3rd floors. Upon walking out on this patio, I immediately determined that this site features one of the best views of Portland, up there with the Pittock Mansion, Council Crest, and Mt. Tabor Park. The entire patio set-up was pretty impressive. Among other features, it is the site of the Portland Tram, an aerial pod that suspiciously resembles a space-ready vehicle from a science-fiction novel. The Tram carries passengers from an OHSU research building at the South Waterfront neighborhood to the central OHSU campus and was the subject of hot controversy arising from residents of the Lair Hill neighborhood who live directly below the Tram’s route. Residents were concerned about their privacy, located directly under such a public transit option, but the project was completed anyway and there have been few complains since. North of the Tram on the patio is also an attractive rain garden featuring plants, numerous pieces of sculpture art, ample seating, and the fantastic views.
“But why hike through the woods to a hospital?,” you may ask. I was on a concentrated mission- to find a decorative labyrinth located on an outdoor patio at the Kohler Pavilion. I felt it appropriate to expand my exploration of labyrinths from San Francisco to my current location and upon searching for labyrinths in the Portland area, I found that there was a labyrinth on the OHSU campus! It is in a beautiful location- set in stone tiles on the same level as the rain garden looking directly over Portland. It reminded me of an urban version of the Land’s End labyrinth in San Francisco…walking it almost tipped me over the edge into the city itself, just as walking the Land’s End labyrinth just about pitched me into the Pacific Ocean’s crashing waves. As I have spoken about before, walking labyrinths has become a meditative practice for me in times of uncertainty, an emotion I have had to embrace as close friend recently. I came to the labyrinth on the Fall Equinox to celebrate fall, celebrate the established goodness in my life and search for ways to find more goodness. As I walked its circuitous route back and forth, back and forth, searching for its entrance and exit just as I searched my mind and experiences for meaning, the overwhelming feeling that came up was yes, uncertainty. Uncertainty for the future and its inevitable dead ends, but also gratitude for all that has already been laid out in front of me. And gratitude for all of Portland that was laid out for me that very moment in the view of my beloved city below.
The society in which we live pressures us to live very busy lives- filled with work, hobbies, activities, family, as well as the constant search for an inner life. We barely have time to check our personal email or call a faraway let alone look outside our front doors. But as the days pass us by and slip away from present to past, I invite each of you to take at least one minute, maybe even 30 minutes, maybe even an hour out of your busy days and weeks to look outside your window and take notice of the beauty of the changing seasons in front of you. Maybe you’ll notice a leaf changing color or detaching from its branch to fall to the ground. Maybe you’ll see a squirrel collecting acorns for winter or a bird fluffing itself or growing extra feathers for the coming cold. Take a look around you, notice the constantly changing world, and celebrate!
so the question I ask you today is:
what signs of fall do you see in your neighborhood?