Pale winter sunshine draws me outdoors, and the map for Graham Oaks Nature Park showed promise – three miles of winding paths amidst 250 acres, including a “Greenway” (protected open space in urban corridors) which is now my Google search word when I look up new territory to explore.
I head south on I-5 for about 15 minutes to Wilsonville, the town only known to me as that place where there’s always an inexplicable slow down on the freeway in either direction, before it just as inexplicably gets back up to speed as you head to points beyond. It’s one of the many mysteries around here I’ve yet to solve.
A big selling point for me at this park is a section of mature forest that has all my requirements: towering, dense, wild, and green, where I can steep myself in another world. There’s even a hard to find 700 year old-growth fir.
Otherwise, the majority of the park appears to be mostly overgrown grasses, dried out shrubbery, and wide swaths of tiny Oak trees with plastic netting around their base, waiting to become a mature grove in the next century. It’s more of a nature park in the making, so the most interesting parts of Graham Oaks are not what I expected – the history, ecology, plans for the future, and a fantastic shining white view of Mt. Hood, a touchstone for me, always giving me a jolt of astonishment and well-being. I never fail to stop and think, how did I get here?
Much of the park is sparse – what’s called a savannah – and most people would look at the land and make plans for a housing development, strip mall, prison, or golf course. Fortunately, wiser people say things like: ecosystem, wetlands, preservation, great great great grandchildren, native peoples, Oregon White oak, Douglas Fir, tarweed, camas, salamander, newt, and mountain views.
The original residents, Kalapuya Indians, used the Oak savannah, forest, and wetlands for hundreds of years, encouraging productivity with fire, harvesting acorns, berries, Camas, and attracting elk and deer. Once the Indians died from malaria or were moved to reservations, it was cleared and farmed by settlers. Then of course it needed restoration and regeneration. Over and over I am struck by our loss because we have so long favored the ingenious invention and hard work of settlers at the exclusion of the ideas, generativity, and creativity that existed before they arrived. Fortunately, things do sometimes change for the better when forward thinking people step up to act.
As with so many of these now nature parks (here and here) this space was once slated to be a landfill, but instead, a park was established in 2010 for future generations to explore and enjoy. Further development will link this greenway to other greenways, from the Willamette River in Wilsonville on north through Tualatin, Sherwood, Fanno Creek, and eventually into downtown Portland. Now that’s some amazing planning, so good for all of us, city dwellers and suburbanites, as well as being good for the ecosystem and longevity of the whole area.
On one edge is Villebois, Oregon’s largest planned community. Not my scene, but I was interested to see how it’s designed for walking, with streets replaced by pedestrian paths and grass, few driveways, and garages hidden behind houses, accessed by an alley. A school sits at another end of the park with a full view of Mt. Hood from the playground, plus an environmental education center and garden.
It’s been a long, cold February, and stopping frequently to read the interpretive signs means I barely warm up though the temperature finally crests 40 degrees as I walk. Even the most mundane flora and fauna, like raccoons and squirrels, acorns and weeds, are featured in the informational kiosks and placards, rich with details of history, goals for the future, and a lesson for those who take the time to learn.
The park is full of wise planning that includes low impact, sustainable details. 150,000 native trees (15,000 oak) and shrubs were planted along with more than a hundred million wildflower and grass seeds! Designers used local stone, pervious pavement and swales, and buildings featuring solar panels, recycled paint and lumber, on and on.
One old Oregon white oak (150-200 years old) stands alone amidst the up and coming forest, its wide spreading canopy foretelling the beauty to come in the next 100 years when the rest of the trees catch up. I’ll return this summer to see it in full leaf, but for today, I got a good walk in.