From September 1995 to June 2000 I lived in Olympia, Washington while attending Evergreen State College. Olympia was boring and in those five years I logged thousands of miles and hundreds of hours driving I-5 between Olympia and Seattle. While the majority of the trip one spends in the underwhelming suburbs of Tacoma or south Seattle, I always looked forward to passing through the short stretch eight miles north of Olympia that wound along the bottom of the Nisqually Valley. Coming from the north or south the view is amazing. You cross the Nisqually River and catch the best snapshot of the journey looking five miles west over a delta whose horizon ends on the bottom of Puget Sound.
That two-mile or so stretch has additional meaning for me personally as it always makes me think of a friend that passed a little over ten years ago. The train tracks that cross over the freeway and river for years had a long NEXT tag on the bridge, the letters man-high. NEXT was my friend Nick and Nick was killed in a bike accident in 2001. Nick’s name would be left untouched on the bridge for years, and his life memorialized in Olympia’s alleys with murals and flowers. I saw Nick the week before his accident, running into him on my lunch break on Broadway in Seattle. We ate Mexican food together and promised to see each other soon, as he was living with a mutual old friend and ex-roommate of mine in Olympia. It was one of those great run-ins where you see someone who you want to stay close to, but distance and growing up have pulled your lives apart. You remember in reuniting that you get along before for a reason, and make plans to re-kindle old times with promised beers together in familiar settings. I never saw him again.
Regardless of it reminding me of a friend’s life cut-short, the Nisqually Valley absolutely fosters positive thoughts these days, and seems the only stretch on I-5 that will never change. It looks the same today as it did thirty years ago. All of the cities between Seattle and Olympia have morphed and changed through development (City of Dupont?) or neglect (Lakewood??), but almost all of Nisqually has been protected from development since 1974. That’s when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department purchased what was once the 1,500 acre Brown Farm and protected the land from any development, setting the groundwork for a much-needed habitat restoration. I’d always known that the land is protected, but had never in those hundreds of trips ever considered stopping and checking it out. And then 2009 happened. That year a federal and tribal habitat restoration project was implemented that removed a dike. This removal project subsequently restored the natural commingling of fresh and salt waters in the area that existed there before 1904. Salt water tides swept into the fresh water marsh for the first time in over a hundred years. The marsh was first drained by a man named Alson Lennon Brown who had built the five-mile long dike that blocked the tides and allowed him to maintain a pasture on his 1500 acre hog and dairy farm. Consequentially, Alson was the son of Amon Brown, a founding pioneer of Seattle. Amon was an original settler on the Seattle waterfront at what is now Spring Street, and an apparent friend to Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Seattle himself.
After fifteen years the Brown farm failed and the land continued to be used for agricultural purposes until after WWII, when there were a number of ideas kicked around regarding the land’s potential future use. These environmentally terrifying options included an oil refinery, landfill, and an aluminum mill. This beautiful and ecologically sensitive area barely avoided being turned into another doomed Duwamish/SuperFund Site. Thankfully some early environmentalists, pioneers themselves, stepped up and saw that this area was especially sensitive and necessary for the livelihood of many natural creatures that contribute to the bio-diversity of the Nisqually Valley and Puget Sound. So in 1974 the former Brown farm site and an additional 1000+ acres surrounding it were designated a protected wildlife refuge by the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife.
The land has remained protected since 1974 and in 2010 U.S. Fish & Wildlife completed the restoration of some 764 acres of the delta and in January 2011 opened up what brought me to the refuge, a board walk that offers amazing views of the finished restoration and dike removal, and that takes you a full mile out into the wetland. I had read about the project and with last Saturday’s beautiful weather took the opportunity to check it out. It was absolutely worth the trip and I was glad I arrived early as there were dozens of others out enjoying the refuge that day.
I took many photographs that reside on my photography page at Flickr and even managed to learn a thing or two from the many bird watchers out that day. I’d be meandering along the trail or boardwalk and a paparazzi-like storm would be gathered around with all their binoculars and mega-lens camera’s pointing at some heron/tern/eagle/hawk/goose/duck. I’d sort of sidle up and listen to them try to out do one another with tidbits about the rarity of what they were seeing or the health of the animal or its behaviors. The refuge did seem like a happy place for the migratory birds and the their habitats that it was protecting. There were lots of birds. And this definitely made the bird watchers happy and was entertaining from my standpoint as the outsider, just a guy with a point & shoot camera checking out the delta. At times it seemed ripe for a Christopher Guest parody a la Best In Show. It was a bit like a Star Trek convention for birds and those that love them.
Beyond the live comedy of watching people who are very nerdy about their hobbies coming together en masse, there was a more poignant moment when I overheard an older fella relating to his friend that he’d been bird watching almost his entire life and had come to terms with the fact that no one really cares more about his “bird list” (birds he’s seen and recorded) than himself, and that after he passed it wouldn’t mean anything at all. His kids would probably just toss it with the rest of his life’s work in his desk in the house he’d been living in for forty years. His friend said she felt the same way about all of her photography. But they both agreed that at least they were still out there and enjoying it while they were alive. The exchange reminded me of myself and my friends and our record collections, and the limitations inherent in having our life’s joy attached to physical objects. It made me consider that more and more in my life I find it’s the enjoyment I get through the act of doing, not particularly the amassing of accomplishments or material things. It’s a shift I’ve been going through over the last three or four years and I find myself working so that I can experience rather than gather. Spending my money on travel and experience rather than something that will simply sit in my apartment, or whose use is limited to when I am actually there. And that is likely the purpose of these writings and my photographs, to record and journal these experiences so that I can relive them down the road. I think most of us have had that existential 21st century moment of wondering what will happen to our online profiles when we die, and I think the only thing we are sure of is that they’ll die with us. And that’s okay with me because if I’m not using it all to relate to those far away (Facebook/Twitter) or relive the emotions of past trips and journeys (WordPress/Flickr), than it’s appropriate that they’ll end with me. But just in case when I’m an old man filling out my will and getting my estate in order or whatever is required of an old me, I’ll leave my passwords in there, bequeathed to whoever I think at the time will enjoy reliving some past memories that we may have shared together.