“Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see all the world afterward.”
— Wallace Stegner
Chemeketa: A word from the Kalapuya Indians who originally claimed the Willamette Valley as their own, who made their life on the land. When the white men settled here, they didn’t know the exact meaning of Chemeketa, but they interpreted it as “resting place,” or “meeting place.”
The word seemed fitting enough that some of Salem’s prominent founders wanted to use it as the name for their burgeoning city. They also considered Chemawa, another local Indian word of debatable meaning, one commonly believed to translate as “happy home.”
Instead, the territorial legislature, at the behest of other community leaders, decided on the name Salem: the Anglicized version of Shalom, a biblical term meaning peace.
Chemeketa, Chemawa, Salem — I want my young son to know the origin of these words, to learn the history of this land where he was born and where we choose to live. Just as he teaches me to pay more attention to the land in ways that I had forgotten.
With the exception of Bush, Riverfront and Minto-Brown, I can count on one hand the number of times I’d been to a Salem city park before having my son nearly two years ago. Now, on sunny days, I often walk with him to McRae or Englewood near our home; or bike across the pedestrian bridge to Wallace Marine. Or we head to Riverfront to ride the carousel and watch the powerful Willamette River.
We’re never alone at Riverfront — the nicer the day, the more people of all ages we see walking their dogs, picnicking on the grass, climbing on the play structure. My son always starts with the playground’s bridges and slides, but before long, he takes off down one of the sidewalks circling the park, eager to walk but also to stop and look. Every clump of dirt, every stick, every piece of debris — natural or not — he stops to examine. He often carries it with him as he toddles on.
He rarely stays long on the sidewalk, preferring to march into the bushes or onto the wood chips beneath the trees, looking for miniscule things I would never notice if he didn’t hold them up to me. He prefers days when it has recently rained, so he can find puddles, no matter how small, and stomp them until the water soaks him from the shins down.
My son always starts with the playground’s bridges and slides, but before long, he takes off down one of the sidewalks circling the park, eager to walk but also to stop and look.
Sometimes he just doesn’t move fast enough. I want to keep walking, to finish the loop around the park, to head back to our car so we can go to the grocery store or the bank. I try to rush him, but he is oblivious, continuing to explore every inch of dirt that interests him.
When I’m more relaxed, I gaze around while he digs — at the lush trees, the flowing river and the herons I sometimes glimpse traversing the shallows. I listen to the birdsongs, smell the flowering bushes. I think about how much this landscape differs from the brown, dry, Texas hill country where I grew up, how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful city in the Northwest.
Salemites like to say that one of the best things about living in Salem is how close we are to everything — within two hours we can be in the mountains, at the beach, in the forest. But on those days at the park when my son makes me pause, I think about how much beauty we have right here in town, how our daily lives can be shaped by the nature around us. If only we let it.
I recently heard author and longtime Westerner Timothy Egan speak at Willamette University about what he calls “the urban wild miracle” — a landscape of thriving urban areas surrounded closely by wilderness.
The landscape is part of what defines our Western existence, he said, whether we live in the tiny eastern Oregon town of John Day or the metropolis of Seattle. The wilderness of the West is integral to who we are, and yet it often seems so removed from our lives.
“You’ve got to find your place, dig in and defend it,” he said.
Egan lamented that too many people have “nature deficit disorder” — they don’t know why trees blossom in the spring, or what types of plants grow in their neighborhoods. Or why the places around them have certain names.
The wilderness of the West is integral to who we are, and yet it often seems so removed from our lives.
He noted that children frequently suffer from this “disorder.” Instead of going outside, getting dirty, playing with worms and climbing trees, kids are glued to their iPods and video games and don’t have any interest in learning about nature, he said.
Many in the audience, mostly comprising environmentally-minded folks, nodded in agreement. But I wondered how many of us had spent time with nature that day, had looked — really looked — at the plants outside our workplace or along our street at home. How many of us truly connect with — and defend — our place?
Near the end of his lecture, Egan advised that connecting with the Western landscape didn’t only mean we had to go mountain biking or take a day-long hike. He urged us to take advantage of “the little moments.” Watch the sun break through the clouds after a storm, or finger the petals of a flower as it opens in the spring.
I thought of my son and our meanderings in the park. The little moments are all he has. Sometimes they’re all we need.
A few days after the lecture, I watched fifth-graders from Highland Elementary School muddle their way down a slope beside the Zena Forest farmhouse, a few miles west of Salem. They entered a garden that was planted and cared for organically by Willamette students.
It was early spring, so the area looked more like an overgrown tangle of leftover winter plants than a working garden that would eventually provide food to Willamette’s dining halls.
“How many of you have gardens at home?” Peter Henry, Zena Farm’s coordinator, asked the students.
A few muttered, “I do,” but they mostly stayed silent.
“Have any of you had kale before?”
Again, several nodded their heads, but most seemed perplexed at the over-wintered, flowering purple stalks that sat in front of them.
“Would you like to try it?” Henry asked as he started tearing off leaves near the ground.
The students quickly lined up, eager to grab their sample. More than one scrunched up their face after munching on the raw vegetable, but most chewed with puzzled looks as they pondered the new taste.
At home, they might have rolled their eyes at the suggestion of kale. But at Zena, framed by the green hills of the nearby farm and forestland, plucking the food straight from the plant, they didn’t hesitate to try the foreign, purple wonder.
Japanese zelkova: East Asian ornamental trees with short trunks that divide into a web of thin, upright branches; bright green leaves that turn yellow and red before drifting to the ground in autumn; prized by the Japanese for the age-old arts of bonsai and taiko.
I gazed up at the two beauties still standing beside the Ladd and Bush Bank Building on State Street, their complicated network of stems and leaves bright against the blue spring sky, shading the sidewalk and passersby below.
I pushed my son’s stroller out of the shade toward three evenly spaced wooden circles on the ground, all that was left of the other zelkovas that used to share this space before the adjacent U.S. Bank had them removed.
I crouched and used my finger to trace the outlines of the stumps, their edges curving in and out and in again like the slopes of the West Salem hills. I pointed toward the trees’ inner rings, laid bare and rough from the cut of the saw, and explained to my son how each one documented a year in these trees’ lives, decades of history contained in a series of lines. He watched silently from his stroller.
I crouched and used my finger to trace the outlines of the stumps, their edges curving in and out and in again like the slopes of the West Salem hills.
I walked back to one of the remaining zelkovas and fingered the trunk, its scale-like bark covered in delicate moss. When I pushed the stroller closer to the tree, my son reached out to touch it, but couldn’t quite reach. The nearest bit of bark hung by a thread, so I detached it and handed it to him. He turned it over and over in his tiny hands before breaking it in two.
As I started to move on, I saw my boy raise the bark to his mouth. When I moved to the front of the stroller and peeked in, I noticed spots of dirt lining his lips. He grinned.
We continued past the stumps toward Willson Park, in search of more sticks, more dirt, more trees to remind us why we live in Salem, this city of peace, this resting place.
Salem Is co-editor Sarah Evans moved to Oregon from Texas a decade ago. She greatly prefers the green of the Pacific Northwest and does not miss the south’s brutally hot summers.
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