The wild place next door

By Tim Akimoff

You wake up and hear the birds chirping. Your cat left another chewed up mouse on your doorstep. There’s a lump of something unidentifiable on the side of the freeway during your commute to work. The evening news shows a picture of a young bear that was killed because it became habituated to humans. 

Your interactions with the natural world are limited. 

But you watch slow-motion nature shows, richly voiced by celebrity conservationists. There are all those YouTube videos of ferrets chasing down snow rabbits, morons getting too close to a bison at Yellowstone National Park and that one guy who has a tame black panther that gives him hugs. So you’re savvy about nature.  

I walk for an hour in the Fairview Wetlands every day. They are directly across from my office in an industrial park. I have walked them every day for almost four years now. I have seen a lot in those four years, but the more I go, the less I understand the place. Or, rather, the more I have questions about the beautiful complexity of a seasonal life. 

January, and the ground is hard. Not frozen, but unyielding. The branches are bare, the wind just moves through as a whole. And there are not very many people out walking in the blustery weather. It’s bleak, and I’m mesmerized by the waterfowl that have taken up residence in the big pond. They are getting their mating colors. They’re loud, and they bring an energy to the place that belies the barren sullenness of that season. 

March, and the ground has softened, the ice has thawed, and there are little indicators of life on the wind, though it still blows through the place unbroken. There is water everywhere. A few brave people walk the trails now, though they do so with earphones in or with a phone extended in front of them. Of course, I’m no different, I’m looking at this place through a digital interface. I use a plant ID app to tell me if I’m seeing a native aquatic plant or something invasive. I use eBird to count the birds. I use iNaturalist to indicate whether I’ve seen a Pacific tree frog or a Bull frog. And I see everything through a Canon digital camera with a 400mm lens. 

May, and we’re at the height of the spring migration. There are a dozen varieties of warblers, small, often yellow or some combination thereof, bird that winters in Central America and flies through Oregon to the wide-open spaces up north, and the green-up is in full force, and the wind now moves through slowly, playing the leaves as chimes above my head.  

August, and the water is gone, tall, dry, brown grasses dominate the landscape, and the migrants have migrated. The local birds: The Scrub jays, the Black-capped Chickadees, the Downy woodpeckers, the American goldfinches and the Cooper’s hawk form a microcosm of a community, otherwise known as an ecosystem. It is not a friendly one, in that the Cooper’s hawk must eat, and the Cooper’s hawk eats birds. The other birds know this and try to keep the Cooper’s hawk from eating by harassing it constantly. The wind has a voice in the drying leaves and tall grasses that sounds like loud whispers. Other people say that the Cottonwoods like to gossip. 

November, and the rains trickle down the feeder creeks and the hillsides into the depression that is the wetlands. The ponds slowly fill, and the south-migrating shore birds find their way to the shallow waters to feed on invertebrates coming back to life in the thirst-quenching waters that always travel downhill. As the shorebirds depart, the ducks and geese move in, often overwintering on the big pond. A few will stay into the next spring and raise their young in the ponds, a race for survival against the weather clock. The leaves have mostly fallen, and the wind is drowned out by the sound of the rain falling on fallen leaves.  

The wetlands were designed by my brother when he worked as the wetlands manager for the City of Salem. That I get to enjoy them every day is a gift, one he left to me and to many others. And most importantly to the wildlife that live there and those that stop in for a bit on the shoulder seasons.  

Tim Akimoff: Appreciating and documenting the natural world

Tim Akimoff worked as a reporter for newspapers, television and radio in Oregon, Montana, Alaska and Chicago for a decade, before going to work for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as a writer and social media coordinator. He says, “I like Hemingway’s work ethic, Vonnegut’s morbid comedy, Fairey’s street art and canned fish.”

Editor’s note: I met Tim in 2005, when he was a University of Oregon student and I was The Oregonian’s recruiter. He joined the newsroom as a reporting intern that fall and I have seen him build his multimedia skills and polish his writing every year since. His wildlife photography is stunning.

Tomorrow: Lillian Mongeau Hughes | When you’re sitting on a plane: A reflection on a mother’s love

10 thoughts on “The wild place next door

  1. Tim,
    How cool your brother is associated with your bird playground. That’s fun.
    You write, “I’m no different, I’m looking at this place through a digital interface.”
    I often am out and enjoying nature — with the camera in my phone, taking down notes of deep thoughts or questions about something I see and don’t know about in a full way. Then sometimes my phone dies, as I take too many pictures or have been out too long for it to continue on as my companion. Almost without fail, I’m always glad it does.
    My time out there (wherever there is) becomes a take-it-in experience and feeling instead of the learning one I gravitate toward. More play, less work. My felt need for knowledge grows strangely dim in the light of a heron seen without my trying to capture its take off.
    I try to remember the feeling for the next time. I usually don’t, and instead spend much of my nature time documenting and questioning with my phone. Hmmm.

  2. There is something that happens in our souls when we connect with nature that is so important. Thank you for sharing this place with us, and reminding me that this is *really* close to my house and I’ve yet to check it out. This weekend seems like a good time to explore!

  3. How cool is it that your brother designed the wetlands you’re walking through? Too cool. I’ll have to check it out. I walk every day and notice the wildlings everywhere I go. When my mind gets to chattering, I take a breath and just listen. The trees are full of life, and the frogs join the chorus if I’m lucky. Lovely writing, young man.

  4. Tim, I regularly hike with a group of friends and one of our standard practices is to limit the use of electronics to emergency purposes and to hike in silence for agreed upon periods of time. While the detachment from electronics was easy, I was reluctant to comply with the periods of silence. But, I’ve come to appreciate the practice as it has allowed me to more deeply enjoy nature’s symphony of sounds. Thanks!

  5. Beautifully written and so descriptive. Amazing pictures of birds. Great that you can identify them. I have my own favorite wetlands too – Ullistac in Santa Clara, CA which was originally home to the Ohlone Indians. It went through many transitions – including being a golf course! Now it has been restored to its native habitat. It’s my place of worship really, so I know what you mean about a daily walk through one. Fairview looks beautiful!

  6. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes (as in your piece) the opposite is also true that written words can capture an essence in a way that pictures can’t.

  7. I appreciate the reminder of the importance of being present, one of my weakest traits. I love your familiarity with the seasonal changes. Thanks for taking me along!

  8. Beautifully written and a wonderful reminder to pay attention to the real natural world around us, not the one created by news events.

  9. Tim There is a synchronicity in your bringing together of talents in writing, photography to a place your brother built, and you so wonderfully shared with us. I felt that I walked along side you for a full year in only a few minutes.

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