A Swamp, A Refuge

The first time I visited Fernhill Wetlands was in late December of 2016, during the presidential transition period. A thick mist shrouded the ponds and streams, and in hindsight, I should have known that the opaque fog was a portent to the darkly bizarre and disorienting year ahead. The cold seeped in around my insulating layers, the air hovering over the water was still, and I could scarcely make out the shapes of plants and creatures ahead.

Fernhill fog, December 2016

Fernhill fog last year, December 2016

A year later, our New Year’s Eve walk is a sharp contrast. A strong winter sun shines down, vague streaks of clouds hover high overhead, birds move freely, mammals rustle in the reeds, and pinks and yellows of a setting sun streak the water’s surface. Still a swampy marsh, but with a clear path, and a bright glow.

Fernhill Wetlands

Am I reading too much into it? Will 2018 be the year we move into happier horizons, escaping the dense morass of our shock and disbelief? That hopey changey thing seems alive and well as more red flips unexpectedly blue. This new year I hope that we step away from disillusionment and fear, and move into the power of the positive, with a healthy side of work and vigilance. I’m taking the long view.

Though visitors at the Fernhill Wetlands are sparse, the majority carry high-end binoculars and big lens cameras and tripod. Serious bird watching goes on here, a signal to keep a sharp lookout for something special and unusual.

Gary Larson Far Side Hey bay-beeA pair of Red-wing Blackbirds exchange continuous calls from their perches atop the cattails. They stop briefly as I pass, but take up their call again, each time jutting out their wings, showing off brilliant red undersides. They do everything they can to attract a mate, and all I can think of is the Gary Larson Far Side comic, “Hey bay-bee, hey bay-bee!”

Red-wing Blackbird, photo by Alan

Red-wing Blackbird, “Hey Bay-bee!”

Countless ducks seem graceful as they float and paddle slowly on the smooth stream, but when disturbed by our noisy bumbling, take off with an awkward flapping and commotion, only to land a short ways ahead. The geese too are constant company, announcing their noisy arrival long before their outlined formation is clear in the sky, and still heard in the distance as they disappear over the horizon.


The egrets and herons, white and grey respectively, wade and wait, motionless, surveying the ponds. They launch and land gracefully, wings spread impossibly wide, wheel and drift down soundlessly, in lovely contrast to the ducks and shorebirds.

Great Blue Heron, photo by Alan

Great Blue Heron

A breeze roughs up the water’s texture at one end of the waterways, but where it is still lies a mirror image of the grasses, trees and sky. The earth’s turning is imperceptible while looking toward standing objects on the shore, but the light show on the water’s surface alters noticeably, revealing our movement in space. A backdrop of nature’s sounds lulls me into thinking I could write an idyllic poetic passage and get away with it. I write, I succeed, I fail. I am reminded of Flora, in Cold Comfort Farm, who tries her hand at novel writing, repeatedly describing the sun as “a golden orb” in her overwrought prose. Nevertheless, I persist.

Nutria, photo by Alan

Nutria. Ugh.

But wait, what’s that? A rat? A small beaver? No, it’s the elusive Nutria, the stuff of nightmares, a rodent on steroids, something I only heard of recently, and hoped never to encounter close up on dry land. This one is crouched in the shallows at a safe distance, gnawing tidily on some root, at home among the waterlogged cattails. I’m happy to learn that this invasive pest is on a hit list. To think they were imported from South America FOR THEIR FUR. A revolting image, a rat jacket.

We come to a marsh, which feels strangely familiar having just finished a book (A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert) that takes place in Ukraine, in the marshes of the countryside. Seiffert describes how the water rises and fills your footprints as you walk, how impossible it is to pass in the winter, and how near impossible to build a road through. Here, the layers of sopping wet dead leaves are a buffer from the sucking mud beneath so we don’t lose our shoes as we walk. Ducks float among trees growing in the shallow stream, and a beaver dam stands, but no elusive beavers. It is peaceful.

Dabbler's Marsh

Dabbler’s Marsh

These wetlands carry the same familiar story as every other local preserve and wetland. 11,000 years ago flood waters came from what is now Montana, bringing fertile soil and swamps. The first inhabitants were the Atfalati, native hunter gatherers. Trappers and missionaries came in the early 1800s, bringing social change and disease, wiping out the natives. The 20th century brought waste dumping and minimal treatment, until finally something more beautiful and useful was created.


In the last five years the natural wastewater treatment component here was re-designed to be a “healing garden” as it also purifies water. It’s a cutting edge model for combining the needs of the area residents – birds, animals and humans – creating an oasis for hundreds of species. At the same time, we humans can perhaps find solace in nature, away from our tired pessimism, and look for more reassuring and hopeful portents in the water and sky. They’re out there, I’ll keep looking.

Mt. Hood from the Wetlands, photo by Alan

Mt. Hood from the Wetlands

On the drive out we found Mt. St. Helens

On the drive out we found Mt. St. Helens

Note: the best photos are the ones Alan took.

5 thoughts on “A Swamp, A Refuge

  1. So lovely, evocative, makes me feel I am there with you – which I wish I were :). Love the concept of that hopey changey thing – I am feeling some of that myself. May it be so…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: A Forest in the Making | Rivers and Roads PDX

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