Stewarding Parks and People: Taking Bearings (The Field Trip) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #3
A recent trip to Little Mountain Park prompts reflections on stewardship.
A few prefatory words
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This week’s feature is The Field Trip, which means I'm reflecting on a place I visited. Read on.
Noticing the Land
Late one afternoon, to cap off the weekend, I head down the hill from our house. At the old farmhouse a mile away, a hayfield is just beginning to be baled, pulling up memories of the countless bales I loaded and stacked in my youth.
I drive along the Interstate 5 frontage road and look east over a century-old barn, now collapsed, the weight of years too much for even the sturdiest construction. And I raise my gaze beyond the acres of potatoes toward the foothills. Most of the hills are forested, but a couple spots are shaved close, and I’ve watched them get cleaned up since spring. I’ve not lived here long enough to know if they will sprout homes or if it’s part of a regular harvest-and-replant schedule of private forestry.
I live on a similar hillside; the road our house sits on lays atop an old logging railroad. We use wood. We are implicated, always, one way or another in questions like this.
Still, I’d prefer more trees, upright and growing.
Perhaps it is this preference that moves me to the park on the southern city limits, not three miles as the eagle flies from my garden. I turn down the road, park my car, and head into the trees.
Little Mountain Park
This place, Little Mountain Park, requires no elaborate description not contained within its name. It’s 522 acres and just under 1000 feet in elevation. In a couple hours, I can climb, traverse, and encircle it. I found it soon after we moved to our place just beyond the city limits. Besides being a nice respite among the trees and providing an expansive view of the valley and beyond, the park connects to history I’ve written.
On the south side of the park is a small and lesser-used parking lot at end of a long driveway. Once you park, you walk parallel to the driveway along a conservation easement to get into the park proper. That path begins what is called the Darvill Trail. That’s my connection and why I almost always go to Little Mountain Park through this entrance.
Fred Darvill spent a career doctoring in this town. But the nearby mountains changed him. He graduated from high school, college, and medical school nearby. In 1957 he hiked into the North Cascades, and the experience propelled him to a lifelong commitment to the outdoors. He wrote a hiking guide for the North Cascades. He wrote a backcountry medical guide. He wrote his way into the history books—at least mine.
When Kennecott Copper Corporation announced in 1966 that it planned to construct an open-pit mine in a local wilderness area near Image Lake, Dr. Darvill sprung into action. Within a week of the announcement, the Skagit Valley Herald published his feisty letter to the editor, which found its way forwarded to Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson in whose archived papers I found it. Darvill wrote to his US Representative, Lloyd Meeds, asking for help. Then, Darvill bought shares in the company, traveled to Manhattan for the next shareholder meeting, and rose up to protest in the swanky Bowman Room in the Biltmore Hotel. The Wall Street Journal covered it. So did the Washington Post and Seattle Times. Here was a scrappy doctor from a small town, getting national attention for trying to stop a multinational corporation from defiling his beloved Cascades.
Years later, Darvill purchased property at the base of Little Mountain to prevent development from encroaching. He built a house, far back from the road, close up to the park. Then he built trails to get up the mountain quick. He trained there when weather or schedules prevented him from climbing in the Cascades.
The home he shared with his wife Ginny is still there. (So is Ginny, I believe.) In 1996, the Darvill family put the property into a conservation easement with the Skagit Land Trust and enlarged it two decades later. The easement provides access to the public, where they can share the beauty the Darvills stewarded here at the edge of the park.
Noticing in the Woods
As I start down the Darvill Trail, a slow process of unwinding helps me move past the sound of lawn mowers, the road, neighborhood dogs. The sound of crunching gravel helps. The clapping aspen leaves help the most. Birdsong is the periodic reminder to listen to the voices outside my head, the ones speaking now, not those echoing from history.
This kind of walking gives me a chance to notice things. It is why I’m visiting Little Mountain Park. Sometimes I just need to notice, and my senses require practice best done outside.
So as I leave my thoughts behind a little, I notice:
Blackberry blossoms with a pink hue at their center faint enough and dark enough that from a distance I cannot tell if the flowers are white or pink.
Roots crossing the trail like speedbumps that require careful navigation to avoid twisting my ankles.
Douglas fir trees. Vine maple trees. Dead trees full of life, chips gathered at their base from birds hacking away to obtain sustenance.
An expanse of ferns that resembled nothing so much as a lawn of giant and ragged blades of grass.
But the cedars stand out.
Growing up, I knew several large cedar trees growing in two parallel lines in my backyard, transplanted by my dad when he worked the land before it was his own, a decade before my birth. One day, either bored or adventurous, foolish or bold, I climbed one of them to the top. I felt accomplished, looking above the house and across the fields. Afterward, moments or years or both, I felt nothing but lucky to have returned to the ground on my feet.
More than personal memories, though, cedars provoke the historian in me, for I know their utility to the Coast Salish peoples who have used them here since time immemorial. Peeled and woven, cedar bark can be worn—in skirts or hats or capes—or made into baskets.
When I was a boy in my backyard, I stripped cedar out of idleness, never realizing its potential. Now, when I see those telltale vertical bark lines telling me a tree is a cedar, almost all I see is bark as a tool, a technology, a substance of culture.
Some of the cedars I pass by seem covered in light green fungi. I noticed that it disappears at hand and shoulder height, and I speculate about the countless hands reaching out to touch that bark, feeling its history without knowing it.
Intimacy is on this trail with these trees.
Signs of Peace
For the first mile or so, the trail climbs gradually, but then it ascends. After some work, you reach a shoulder, something you sense, more than see; the trees never quite open up a view but the interstate noise is detectable. At that near-edge of the mountain, I notice a peace sign made of rocks and sticks.
The breeze cools me, making me aware how hard I’ve been working at the climb. I wonder who is at war. Is the peace sign directed toward Ukraine? Or Americans who cannot resist being at each others’ throats, amped up on cable news, noxious tweeters, and the conspiracies saturating everyday life and matters of state? Or is it self-directed? Did was the person who placed each rock and each stick in precisely the right place begging to be at peace with themselves? Despite these thoughts, the breeze makes me more comfortable. Or maybe it is the message of peace, paid forward to me, that slows my breathing.
As an afterthought, I remember that for many Americans the peace sign signals disloyalty.
Rounding the Mountain
I climb on, the final push on Fred’s Trail, the steepest leg which makes me wonder a bit about Fred Darvill’s character that he’d construct a trail that required this much strenuous work. It spits me out at the top. Today, the picnic tables are occupied, the parking lot half full, and I don’t even bother to go to the lookout. I want to return the shade of the forest, so I hop onto Ginny’s Trail, a short, gentle descent (again a question about character) that I use to link up with another trail, then another, and soon I’m on the opposite side of the park from where I started.
The trails are all like tunnels in trees, gently shading me on the warm day. I see signs of logging, ubiquitous in the woods here and a reminder of different economic possibilities in the town. I see signs of fire, also ubiquitous wherever that timber economy traveled. My meandering finally gets me to the last phase of the loop I have walked.
I take the Up Quick trail. I’m noticing fewer birds, ferns, and cedars. Could there be that much variation in such a small area? The answer is obvious in the very formulation of my question.
Thankfully, Up Quick turns out to be “down fast,” too, and I’m starting to think I’ve earned a milkshake. I’ve linked back to the Darvill Trail and head back toward my car, about 90 minutes after I left. The trail skips past the Darvills’ home, visible barely through the thick growth of trees and brush, every shade of green. Despite the forest sanctuary, the house sits in an opening enough for solar panels on the roof to make sense.
This is a place where stewardship and responsibility take hold. I climb back into my car and head home.
When I hit the last stretch before I’m home, the hayfield is completely baled.
As always, you can find my books and books where some of my work is included at my Bookshop affiliate page (where, if you order, I get a small benefit). If you found the history about Dr. Darvill interesting, he is the subject of chapter six in my book, An Open Pit Visible From the Moon.
This week's Taking Bearings focused, at least obliquely, on stewardship. For a very personal essay of mine about stewardship of a different kind, check out "Seeds" which appeared in Stonecoast Review last summer. (Two versions are available: scanned pages and .pdf.)
If you're in the Skagit Valley, check out the park:
Facilities • Mount Vernon, WA • CivicEngage Information about Little Mountain Park
Taking Bearings Next Week
Next week's feature is The Library, and I'll be moving away from the Northwest for a quick jaunt through Yellowstone. I hope you enjoy it. And again, please pass this along to people who might enjoy it.