I went for a walk through Forest Park with fellow artist Alyson Provax on April 23, 2017, despite the promise of rain. We began on Leif Erikson Drive at the top of NW Thurman Street. I generally start at the Lower Macleay Trail via Macleay Park — but a first hike with a long-time friend seemed like it warranted something other than my usual route. I wanted to look with new eyes, to consciously note the various textures and hues of the park. With coffee in one hand, I studied my little guide to Forest Park’s native plants (previously acquired from Portland Audubon’s Nature Store) while I waited for Alyson to meet me. It was not unlike how I would study before a quiz when I was student. I am out of practice, though: I forgot at least half of the plant names, and the rain prevented much consultation of the book during the hike.
The rain fell in earnest almost as soon as we entered the woodier, windier part of the trail. We tried to shelter from the fat, wet drops under the viney branches of a young tree just beginning to shoot out its light-colored leaves. A few runners came by, each alone, and they smiled laughingly at us as they went past, cautious of the slippery, dark mud as it splashed up their calves, but otherwise undeterred. If one wishes to make a regular habit of traversing Forest Park, one must make peace with damp and mud. We didn’t see any of the runners again. This is one of the magical properties of the many winding, interconnected trails: you can be surrounded by people and still be alone.
I forgot what it was like to hike in the rain, usually concentrating my hikes in the dry summer months. It was beautiful and wonderfully quiet, with more things in bloom than I ever noticed before. We saw trillium — such a strange and elegant flower, with its three stark petals — often accompanied by little bursts of woodland violets (a misnomer, given their distinct yellow hue), fuzzy-budded Pacific waterleaf, salmonberry flowers in vivid pink, and little white petals floating down like snow from the bigleaf maple branches high above. My favorite flowers were the Hooker’s fairy bells. They remind me of bleeding heart.
Setting plant identification as a specific goal made me see Forest Park in a more complex way: each texture and shape, once named, became a distinct part of a whole, rather than a wash of tangled but monolithic greenery. I feel like I’ve taken the park for granted, and am just now learning to appreciate it for itself. Where else does a born-and-bred urbanite like me enjoy such ready access to an expanse of wilderness, wondrously populated with so many plants and animals? Someday, I tell myself, I will learn to distinguish not only the varieties of trees, but the different voices of the birds darting out and disappearing back into their foliage.
You can read about how Forest Park came to be (much more recently in history than I assumed) via The Oregon Encyclopedia, a project of the Oregon Historical Society.