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Union Bay Natural Area: A wild reminder of togetherness

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Wanderings: Patch

One of the many paths through the Union Bay Natural Area.

Wanderings -- column illustration

Dabin Han

One of the regularly glossed over lessons inherent to urban life — which, presently, has also become a great challenge — is in the daily reminder of humanity’s interdependence. 

Amid this public health crisis, the ways in which each point of contact — from grocery baskets to playgrounds — connect from one person to the next is of the utmost concern. Further, the vacant streets and empty buses point to the greater good of humanity, as public service announcements around every corner serve as reminders of the lurking anxieties surrounding COVID-19. 

Yet, the same lessons often bury the hopeful symbiosis between humanity and nature. A city is humanity’s beaver dam: harnessing for its benefit the mass of the forest and the power of the water — albeit with a mixed history of success.

An aimless walk through the open space of the Union Bay Natural Area on the northeastern fringe of campus — hugging the Lake Washington shore directly opposite Foster Point — can serve as a powerful reminder that this city is wild to the core and deeply connected to the greater wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, so often idealized as someplace to visit and return home from.

Wanderings: Blue Heron

A blue heron takes off after catching a fish in Carp Pond in the Union Bay Natural Area.

Encompassing 74 acres, with four miles of shoreline, the Union Bay Natural Area reminds Seattleites that the wilderness is home, and vice versa. The park is described by the UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture as “a public wildlife area, natural restoration laboratory, and an important habitat next to Lake Washington.” 

The most striking feature of the park is the variegated array of birds who reside there. The red-winged blackbird, named after the red shoulder patches donned by breeding males, makes a “conk-la-ree!” sound which echoes through the park. Ravens and crows taunt one another. Though less audible, the likelihood of seeing a blue heron or even a nesting bald eagle is high as well. 

Seeing either of these larger birds catch a fish from the marsh or the lake is a moment worth waiting for.  

Apart from the birds, visitors will find breathtaking flora unique to each season. 

A visit in spring will highlight the apple blossoms of the summer fruit to come, even as the dozens of rose and blackberry bushes wait for their time to shine. 

Cattails — whose appearance like wild corndogs inspire a childish humor — grow between the marshes and the pathways.

Here and there, the steadfast peace of a willow invites a detour from the path to sit in the shade.

Wanderings: Eagle

An eagle finds a spot to perch in the Union Bay Natural Area on April 24.

Towering over everything, swaying in even the slightest breeze, stand groves of cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) whose flurries of fluff inspire both allergies and awe.

The trails of the park are interwoven; there is no such thing as a wrong turn. The natural area may also be remembered by more tenured Seattle residents as the “Montlake Fill.” See this slideshow for images of the park’s history — from its days as a city landfill through the restoration projects to its current state. Be thankful for the ebb and flow of progress.

And if climate or social distancing don’t allow for a visit to the park in person, here’s another reason to be thankful for technology: a virtual walk through the park, perhaps a much-needed break from Zoom.

In a time when a walk in the park on a sunny day in Seattle totters on being a treacherous adventure, be mindful of social distancing concerns, but don’t let the anxieties of humanity subvert the reminder that the beauty of the wilderness is all around and within the city — humanity and nature living together by design. 

Be well, and wander into the sunshine.

Reach writer Austin Van Der Veen at Twitter: @avanderbean

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