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Wandering at Discovery

Discovery Park is a place I visit when I want a slice of nature and solitude but don’t have time nor energy to get to higher up or farther out. At any time of year I can go birding, get some exercise, and maybe get enough off the beaten path to hear myself think.

However, when the sun shines in Seattle, you know you’re going to have trouble finding quiet space outside. The parking lot full, and it took three full loops before I found a spot. I felt a bit guilty about not biking, knowing full well it would have been the perfect day to get out on my neglected, 3000 mpg steed. I’m pretty good a guilt in general, but lately I’ve been feeling especially so, guilty about where I stand, my work ethic, projects half finished, promises not kept, and innumerable other things. It’s a worthless emotion, and that’s why I was at the park.

Days before this I’d discovered I’d not gotten into a Master’s Program in Wildlife Sciences. While I didn’t explicitly expect to get in, I’d hoped I would. Hopes dashed, I realized I’d put a lot of things on hold while waiting. It seemed like a last chance for a career that might lead towards stability. As I sat in that rubble I realized it was time to get outside, make some art, and get back on the horse. Being in academia after all isn’t a tell all of intelligence and ability, nor the only means of making a living. As many academics tell me, it’s not a good way to make a living at the moment either (but for god sakes, that’s almost everything that’s both fun and legal). So, I bundled up a long neglected camera, journal, binoculars, and stuffed it all into a backpack with my self-pity and headed to the park.

There’s another reason I often seek out Discovery. It’s fantastic. At 534 acres, it’s the largest green-space in Seattle, with forest, wetlands, meadows, and shoreline all open for exploration. From the sandy bluffs one looks down on Puget Sound, across to the Olympics, and south to that bulk of all bulks, Mt. Rainier. On soggy winter days I’ve looked out on innumerable seabirds from the shoreline. In the depths of the forest I’ve found secret hideaways and come face to face with Barred Owls and coyotes. Despite a full parking lot, Discovery is the sort of place that even on a busy day, you can find a corner to yourself.

When a seasoned birder neglects birding, even the most mundane of afternoons can summon up thoughtful reflections and realizations of species not seen for months. It also takes you a moment to calibrate what you should and shouldn’t be seeing. With indian plum and salmonberry blooming and the mercury at 60, I felt I should be seeing neotropical migrants. But, it was only early March. Wishful thinking aside, Hairy Woodpeckers were making nuptial rackets through the second-growth and Ruby-crowned Kinglets were singing their chuckling songs, practice boasting before their exodus to breeding grounds. The twinklings of Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and even a few Hutton’s Vireos kept me company as I wended through packs of joggers, dogs, and families towards the water.


Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)

Discovery is far from pristine and unaltered. Crumbling roads course through the trees at seeming random. Overgrown orchards barely peak out from the creeping scrub. Yet, until you see the houses, those beautiful turn of the century houses, standing at the top of the meadow, does it dawn on you that this wasn’t always a park.

The officers’ housing, the decrepit old church, and several other buildings are most of what still stands of the previously sprawling Fort Lawton, established in 1900. The City of Seattle gave the original 1100 acres to the Army in 1898, but by 1938 was offered it back for the low price of a dollar. They refused at the time, facing the depression and having no extra money to throw at a thing as paltry as a park. By 1970 the land was being prepared for surplussing and the plan was to sell it back to the city for the creation of future Discovery Park (which finally opened in 1973). However, this tidily overlooked US. – Indian treaties that promised surplussed military land to the people who lived there first.

Looking at the Wikipedia page on Discovery, I find it fascinating that this last bit is left out. More recent turmoil, over the creation of low-income housing in the Northeast corner of the old Fort, is cited as the largest issue at the park. Ignored, and far more consequential, was a clash between the United Indian People’s Council (now the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation) and sympathizers (including Jane Fonda) who arrived to sit peacefully on their promised land. Their intention was to create an Indian University to teach and celebrate culture on the acreage; instead they were hauled off to military jail. Leonard Peltier, who later became a leader in the American Indian Movement, was among those present and this protest launched a career working with AIM to fight for native rights across the country.


Seattle PI coverage of the “Invasion”


Seattle PI coverage of the “Invasion”

The scuffle at Fort Lawton may have been brief and largely non-violent, but it ultimately required congressional intervention. A compromise brought about the creation of the Daybreak Star Cultural Center on a small section of the land. One of the original protestors, Bernie Whitebear (of the Colville Tribes), ran the center till his death in 2000. The center is still going strong. I remember visiting as a kid, listening to fantastic stories, and staring at wonder at the art on display.

I digress a bit, but minds wander when you’re alone on a walk. I found this being left out of Wikipedia astounding (despite being a sometimes vacuous source of information). As I walked, I wondered who would have been better stewards of former Ft. Lawton.

Fort Lawton closed in 2012, but there’s still buildings sprawling about an area of the park overlooking the South Meadows and Bluff. So far as I know, only the old Naval Officer’s housing, built in the early 1900s, are in use as private residences. The rest stand memorial in a Historic District, as old buildings that were utilitarian from their onset. The rather decrepit WWII era Chapel, used to stand outside this district and was set to be destroyed, until locals pushed to have the district expanded and the chapel made a city landmark. Now I suppose the only real use these uninhabited buildings get are from the local animals.


The Sound from the Bluff.

Pondering the notion of land ownership, parkland, and wild-space, I bent under the long arbor of crabapples that sits at the top of a stairway near the South Parking Lot. The rasping song of an Anna’s Hummingbird brought me back to earth. There’s always one on the edge of this old orchard, abutting the houses and meadow below. It’s an ideal spot for Anna’s Hummingbirds to set up shop, and I could only assume there was a female nearby either sitting on eggs or young already. In 1970, before the park was a park (let alone when it was an active base), Anna’s Hummingbirds wouldn’t have been here at this time of year, not yet having become year-round residents of Puget Sound.

People were everywhere I looked. A regatta was in motion out on the Sound, and the Olympics were their usual gleaming, sublime selves across the water. Originally I’d planned to hike to the Westpoint Lighthouse, but midway through the meadow, I turned and disappeared down into a eroding cleft in the Bluff. The miasma of people gabbing loudly about their lives and the bright vomit of neon spandex was suddenly too much.

Then it was quiet. Or at least it seemed so. Then the other noise, the noise of non-people, the noise of nature was there. The buzz of a female hummingbird collecting spiderwebs mixed with the wind rustle of not yet leafed out big leaf maples and red alders. Water dominated the soundscape. Freshwater slid out of the hillside, picking at the layers of deep time from one side, breaking saltwater lapped at it from the other.


An off-limits area, this treadmill of deciduous trees atop landslides is used by high schoolers looking for a place to do illicit things, homeless folks to creeping away from judgement, and people like me looking for momentary solitude. It’s not really a secret spot but it feels like one. The steepness of the bluff and the prohibitory signs are enough to keep most away. I felt that twinge of guilt again, because I was being selfish in this expedition. Just because erosion is a natural process that builds land elsewhere, doesn’t mean one should speed it up.


Looking back uphill at Esperance Sand and the top of the Bluff.

Walking down the bluff is like sliding through time and away from the city. If it wasn’t for the distant boats and planes, I could have expected a black bear or a coyote (the former being a recent one time visitor, the later a full time resident). And as you head downhill, you see evidence of twenty or so thousand years past, displayed in layers, demonstrating what just one (of at least five) push of the Puget Lope of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet could do. This sedimentary sandwich is what Seattle is built over, but Discovery’s Bluffs put them on display.

Glacial till is a term most Seattlites have heard. This till is the youngest and highest sitting sedimentary layer, the ground up material that was pushed around by the glacier itself. Scaling from finer grain, cement like material, to striated granite boulders, it’s what most of our houses are built on and what we struggle with in our gardens. This ground up material is practically non-existent at the South Bluffs, as it’s mostly fallen away under time and the heavy human foot.

What is immediately obvious here is sand, called the Esperance Sand, and older than the till above. At 200 feet deep, it’s what preceded the glacier, an outwash from the melting foot of the advancing glacial lobe. We see this layer all over Puget Sound, where islands are slowly melting into the water and exposed tan cliffs drop precipitously to the shoreline.


Lawton Clay being washed away in a creek.

Below and yet older, is Lawton Clay. It’s my favorite because it stands out so starkly gray in comparison to the Esperance. I feel like I could bag it up and sell it to art schools around the city. This clay was formed when a massive lake sat over the region, dammed by the glacier. Rivers and streams deposited fine sediment into it, forming a solid strip of clay and silt. In many places it isn’t obvious because the Esperance Sand has slid over the top of it. Water running between these layers and over the clay makes a nice slip and slide for the sand and anything riding atop, be they trees or houses. Of this, the surrounding cliff-side homes of the Magnolia neighborhood are no stranger.

The final layer you can’t see unless you get down right on the shoreline in certain spots. It’s called the Olympia Beds, old condensed mud flats of river valleys and wetlands that would have spread out over the area before the last glacial advance. Even though this is the layer bearing extinct mammalian fossils, these beds represent what we probably would view as a norm; the climate and landscape when the beds weren’t covered would have been relatively similar to today. Because there’s more organic material here too, it’s easy to date, the oldest wood material found is from over 20,000 years ago.


Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)

I may have been walking down through time, but really I was just looking around, thinking little of geology beyond the patterns it made. Stopping to admire more salmonberry blooms, I watched a flock of Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees flutter down into a stream bed made up of Lawton Clay. At first they were nervous to bathe, but I stood still and they eventually began to flutter around in the silty water. I enjoy seeing animals let their guard down slightly in my presence, it makes me feel like less of a monster.


Looking to the Sound from just above the shoreline.

Down on the beach, hulking queen bumble bees, fresh from a winter underground thumped into the blooms dangling from the bank above. Clay spilled in great chunks onto the amalgam of worn rock, smoothed bricks, discarded metal, and bits of organic and inorganic detritus. I wasn’t the only person who’d had this grand idea, but I found a cove to steal away to, set up my spotting scope, and absentmindedly set to eating.

I thought about what exactly I was doing with my life, why I wasn’t having the success I wanted, why I couldn’t manage to support myself doing what I love, and why it felt like I couldn’t get anyone but my closest friends and family to buy into my ideas. I wondered momentarily if maybe I didn’t have any talent whatsoever and I should just settle into a rewarding career hawking outdoor equipment. Even with talent, any failures must all be my fault, because I can’t follow through. And why am I worrying about this when the natural world is collapsing around my ears? I wallowed a bit more in this slippery slope, lazily scanning the Horned Grebes and Surf Scoters on the flat water.

Somehow, looking at them preening and displaying to one another, snapped me out of it. The sun was shining, I was healthy, I was privileged, I had loving friends and family, and no matter what a college committee, an editor, nor anyone else, I knew what I wanted to be doing was important. Feeling sorry about it wasn’t going to help anything, nor get me to higher ground.

So I shouldered my bag and turned to huff up the literal hill to my back. En route  to the car, I ran into a fellow birder.

“There’s a Long-eared Owl back over there, might still be roosting in sight” he said.

“Nice find!” I replied, and thought to myself: Good thing I have my binoculars and camera.


A Long-eared Owl (Asio otis), not a typical species for the park.


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