Remembering M.A.

M.A. Willson in her natural element.

M.A. Willson in her natural element.

Before I get all sentimental, here’s a tip: Go to mawillson.com for the best, most detailed information about where to hike, and when, to see wildflowers in Central Oregon.

You’ll learn that you’re running out of time to hit Alder Springs, and that the last week in June is usually the best time to go to Coffin Mountain. She also details "the premier hikes in Central Oregon" that you should explore in August.

In all, M.A. Willson’s site features a dozen hikes near Bend, with ideas for the Columbia River Gorge and the Arctic too. Each destination includes more than a dozen photos of wildflowers you’ll see along the way, plus directions and tips for your trip.

That website—which she created simply as a gift to her fellow nature lovers—is how I met M.A. Willson six years ago. I ran across her site while researching The Nature of Bend, and asked M.A. if she might have wildflower photos she’d be willing to share. I thought maybe she’d donate a few, but she ended up providing more than 60, including many of the most spectacular photos in the book, and she lent her considerable expertise too.

Bitterroot, one of M.A.’s favorites.

Bitterroot, one of M.A.’s favorites.

More importantly, M.A. became a friend.

I should point out that she created that website when she was in her 70s, and she was well into her 80s before I met her. So, if you didn’t know her, maybe it won’t be a surprise to tell you that M.A. passed away last June, at the age of 87.

But if you did know her, maybe like me you can’t help but think she should still be heliskiing in Canada or rafting the Owyhee or gardening better than the rest of us.

On the last active day of her life, M.A. gave a talk about wildflowers to a packed house at Broken Top Bottle Shop. I remember how light on her feet she was that night, how on point and comfortable, and how she looked forward to her post-talk beer.

It was clear to the room full of friends, family, and strangers that she’d been everywhere, knew what you’d find on every trail, and had pretty photos of all the plants you might want to know.

At the end of her talk, she handed out laminated bookmarks of photos she'd taken over the years. Then she had that beer, and a good dinner too, before walking out of the restaurant and suffering a heart attack.

Beargrass is another of her favorite blooms.

Beargrass is another of her favorite blooms.

Being M.A., she insisted on driving herself to the emergency room, where she spent the next week or so saying her goodbyes and making to-do lists for her daughter. She also told her book club which book they should read next.

Somehow or other, it’s June again, meaning a year has passed without M.A. in it. I can’t tell you how sad that makes me, but you know how it goes: There’s no stopping change, no slowing down time, no life without death. You can’t have the good side of nature, with all its beauty, and not have the rest of it.

To celebrate her life with me, please use her wonderfully generous website to explore Central Oregon’s best hikes. And in life, if not out on the trail, go ahead and leave a trace. Share what you find beautiful. Make friends every year of your life. Laugh so hard your body shakes and your eyes earn their wrinkles. Be a force of nature, like M.A.

Spring in Shevlin Park

Shevlin Park in fall. Photo: Mike Putnam

Shevlin Park in fall. Photo: Mike Putnam

My dog used to drag me around to different trails all over Central Oregon so she could smell new things while I plodded along on my weekly runs. But my pup passed away last year, so this spring I've been running in one place over and over: Shevlin Park.

I think of Shevlin as Bend's version of Portland's Forest Park. It's nowhere near as large as FP, but for a close-in natural area with lots of trails, gorgeous views, and diverse flora and fauna, it's tough to beat.

On one run early this spring, I heard a branch break up on the eastern ridge and spied a female elk. I held still and she gave me maybe 10 seconds of her time before returning to her climb. What a beauty she was!

In early May I was jogging along thinking of my mom (gone, like my dog) when I stumbled across a couple does. One stotted off, but the other stopped not 20 feet from the trail, looking at me with her mule-like ears raised. When I started walking, assuming she'd do the same in the other direction, she instead held still and swiveled her head to watch me with those big doe eyes. No, I don't think she was my mom reincarnate, but a few tears fell anyway.

On my most recent run at Shevlin, I heard my first Olive-sided Flycatcher of the season ("Quick, three beers!"), which made me laugh as it always does. (And, no, I do not know how a bird forms the "th" sound. It just does.) I also heard the sweet song of a Black-headed Grosbeak right beside the trail and saw a Lewis's Woodpecker, which is sadly in danger of extinction.

If you've read this far, let me tell you one more thing about those experiences at Shevlin. Right after I spied that elk, I saw a runner coming toward me, and I was going to tell her about the beauty right across the creek from us. Only she (the runner, not the elk) had headphones in and didn't even look at me. Same thing happened when I saw those does.

On another run, someone was playing their music out loud (not on headphones), so I couldn't hear nature at all.

I've run with headphones in too, and I've been on my cellphone while hiking many times, so I'm not casting aspersions ... much. What I can tell you is that I do those sorts of things far, far less often now because I know more about the plants and animals around me (I didn't even get to tell you about the sand lilies, penstemons, paintbrush, phacelia, and more I've already seen in bloom this spring).

Believe me, the songs, conversations, and connections you can experience with nature are far more varied and exciting than the ones you're likely to experience on your digital devices. Especially in spring and especially at Shevlin.

The Wonders of Sitting Still

After we finally started moving again ... a view down the canyon at fading balsamroots and lots of sagebrush, thinleaf alders, mock-orange, elderberries, and more.

After we finally started moving again ... a view down the canyon at fading balsamroots and lots of sagebrush, thinleaf alders, mock-orange, elderberries, and more.

If you know what's good for you, head out for a hike the day after a spring rain. My hiking partner and I went to Scout Camp today, where the sagebrush, bitterroots, and oceanspray looked like they'd been specially washed and buffed for our viewing pleasure.

And the smells! The elderberry blooms, curl-leaf mountain mahogany, and oceanspray were in spectacular form. Don't get me started on the misnamed bitterbrush either: Even with the blooms already gone, after a rain that scraggly shrub has a sweet aroma.

About a half-mile in, we stopped for a quick snack overlooking the canyon ... and ended up staying at least a half-hour because of all we saw and heard. A Kestrel slipped across the river and into a hole in the canyon wall across from us. A Canyon Wren serenaded us with that song that reminds me of a Steve Miller song (I'm pretty sure it's only me). Swallows swooped and darted. A Song Sparrow called. A Turkey Vulture swung low, perhaps assessing our age and whether we were too close to the cliff edge.

Most spectacularly, an Osprey perched on the opposite cliff to watch the river with us (you could see to the bottom today). Then suddenly the Osprey rose high, spun around, and dove smoothly toward what I'm sure would have been a tasty fish. At the last moment the fish must have slid from view because the Osprey broke abruptly, almost skimming the water before rising back up to a perch.

I used to hike for exercise, and to some extent I still do, but it turns out that stopping and sitting quietly can be at least as rewarding as working up a good sweat. Besides, it's uphill on the way back up the Scout Camp trail, so you can get your exercise after you watch nature put on a show.