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Personal nature essays

Planning and conservation    Natural areas, parks and trails    Protecting natural areas    Personal nature essays

Naturalists, teachers, volunteers and community leaders experience the region’s natural areas firsthand. Here, several nature lovers share their reflections on the places voters are protecting.

James Davis and Doolin O'Connor

Metro naturalist James Davis and his protégé Doolin O’Connor

Looking for beavers and turtles? You might spot a special person, too

By James Davis, Metro naturalist

During 30 years as a naturalist, I've led hundreds of programs and helped thousands of people connect with nature. Every once in a while, I'm lucky enough to develop a longtime relationship with somebody who lives near one of “my” parks – somebody like Doolin O’Connor.

The first time I met Doolin, he was 4 years old and came with his mom for a turtle walk at Smith and Bybee Wetlands in North Portland. He carried a first aid kit in a small bucket and wore a helmet and red wool gloves. He was prepared for anything. Fortunately, Doolin took my suggestion that he could lighten his load since I already had an official first aid kit and the helmet would be way too hot in the sun. But he kept his gloves on – hardly ever a bad choice when working outdoors.

We had a great walk that day, and I got to know Doolin pretty well. I think there were a few other people along, but I was so busy keeping up with Doolin's curiosity that I can’t remember. When we headed back, Doolin asked if he could hold my hand, and I said, “Sure.” His mom, Sherry, says she will never forget seeing that little red-gloved hand in mine as we walked out. We were buds, that was clear.

Doolin and his family, who live in the St. Johns neighborhood, became regulars at Smith and Bybee. When his school came on field trips, he helped a younger grade because he’s so familiar with the wetlands. Doolin has always liked uniforms, and I gave him one of my patches for his ranger shirt. He got some other great ones at summer nature camps, so he looks pretty official now. Doolin has volunteered at Bug Fest, an annual celebration that Metro co-hosts. His family comes to events along the Columbia Slough, too, and Doolin slips right in to take my place at the mammal pelts display if I step away for a moment.

I know he wants my job, but I'm happy to make way for the next generation of naturalists – when they're ready.

It will be fun to watch how Doolin, who's 9 now, grows up. Will he stay in the naturalist groove? I know I'll stay in touch with Doolin and his family, because they are my special friends from Smith and Bybee. Getting to know them is as important a part of my experience as the park naturalist as paddling among the painted turtles or seeing the beaver swimming at dusk.

The other day I ran into Doolin's mom and his younger brother, Keegan. I hadn't seen any of the family in a while. “Wow,” I said, “Keegan sure looks older.”

“Jamesdavis, Jamesdavis!” Keegan said, using the boys' one-word name for me. “Look at the bird we saw in our yard!” He pointed to a drawing of a varied thrush in his bird guide. Sherry let me know that Keegan, who's 6, is quite the bird watcher. Another naturalist in the making in St. Johns.

Making Tigard a ‘place to call home’ – and a green one at that

By Tigard Mayor Craig Dirksen

During the 1980s and 1990s, Tigard saw a period of explosive growth. It was changing from an outlying suburb, still surrounded by the remnant open fields of its agricultural past, to an integral part of the Portland metroplex with subdivision after subdivision crowding its original center on Pacific Highway.

Tigard had only about eight acres of parks and open space per thousand residents – far short of the 11 acres recognized as the national standard – and its population was growing. With the coming of the millennium, preserving our remaining open space and protecting the Fanno Creek Greenway had to become a priority if we were to maintain our quality of life and leave ourselves with a lasting legacy to pass on to future generations.

Over the past decade, we’ve managed to increase our park and open space from less than 300 acres to more than 500, but available funds kept us from making any significant purchases. One parcel we had our eye on was the Summer Creek property adjacent to Fowler Middle School, a 43-acre gem at the confluence of Fanno and Summer creeks with meadow, creek bottom and amazing mature forest. The school district had recently decided it didn’t need the land, which was in danger of being lost to development.

Tigard assembled a group of local partners including Metro, Washington County and The Trust for Public Land in an attempt to buy the property. Despite negotiations, the money available wasn’t enough. In 2010, after one failed attempt, Tigard voters approved a parks and open space bond measure to invest as much as $17 million in park acquisition and development. This allowed us to finalize the purchase of the Summer Creek property and will also allow us to acquire upto 100 additional acres around the city – including an amazing 20 acres at the crest of Bull Mountain with bluff and forested canyon and views all the way to the Coast Range. Combined with the previously purchased Cache Creek Nature Park, our residents will have a major asset in the western part of Tigard, the area that was most park-deficient. We will also make significant progress completing our segment of the Fanno Creek Trail, which eventually will reach from Willamette Park in Portland’s Johns Landing all the way to the Tualatin River and beyond, linking Portland, Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin.

With this vision, and with these resources, we will reach our goal of creating a park and trail system that will be one of Tigard’s defining features and help keep the city, as we say, “a place to call home.”

Cooper Mountain vista

Cooper Mountain Nature Park

Cooper Mountain Nature Park: Listen to a legacy

By Karen Mathieson, Metro volunteer

Each time I introduce friends to Cooper Mountain Nature Park, I point out the metal ear trumpets facing like fluted, otherworldly flowers toward the gentle hills and green fields of the Tualatin Valley. Bend to place an ear against the aperture at the narrow end, and you will catch the conversation of birds, and perhaps an amplified patter of rain or a swoosh of wind through dry grasses. What I hear when I stoop to listen or walk the looping, graveled paths of the 230-acre park is the past, the present and the future of humans connecting with a landscape.

Over thousands of years, native peoples established a complex relationship with the earth, plants and animals of this place and the fertile lands in the distance. Through practices such as controlled burns to halt encroaching conifers and preserve oak trees with their nourishing acorns, tribes thrived to the seventh generation and beyond. The ecosystem was affected by the human presence, but it was also held in balance.

A decade and a half ago, that ecosystem lay in shreds on Cooper Mountain. Vast mounds of Himalayan blackberries shrouded the logged-off terrain. What trees remained struggled in a stranglehold of English ivy. Small rodents sought in vain the seeds of native shrubs to keep them through the winter, and raptors circled fruitlessly above the impenetrable foliage. It seemed logical to assume that giant machinery would soon arrive to level the site for another suburban subdivision, harvesting all that remained of value: the view.

Then in November 1995, voters in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties changed the future of Cooper Mountain. The passage of a visionary bond measure to preserve significant green space in the region allowed Metro to purchase the site, and an army of staff and volunteers began years of hand-to-hand combat with invasive vegetation.

My association with Cooper Mountain dates to blistering summer days in 2008, as I gingerly crouched amid poison oak to seek sparse clumps of native perennial flowers such as the rare pale larkspur. From beneath the broad brim of my straw hat, I saw fellow volunteers from Metro’s Native Plant Center inch across the prairie of the past and future. The seeds we gathered have been nurtured to vigorous life, and amplified for restorative planting in areas deliberately scorched by fire as in millennia past.

In June 2009, Cooper Mountain Nature Park opened to the public, managed through a cooperative partnership between Metro and the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District. The Nature House – a charming red barn with firehouse doors that open to the fresh air in good weather – is a hub of activity and education throughout much of the year. Along hillside trails that pass between thousands of tiny trees and shrubs clad in protective netting, one finds coyote scat, deer tracks and reflective peace.

When I listen to Cooper Mountain Nature Park, I sense a legacy echoing across centuries to come. I can see things too, scenes that stretch from this very summer into the future: A small boy watches a red-legged frog emerge from life among the polliwogs, in a pond dug as the quarry for a logging road. The boy smiles, and a wildlife biologist is born. As night approaches on Cooper Mountain, a young girl learns from a Metro naturalist about constellations familiar to Northwest people of long ago. The girl studies the sky, and begins to dream of reaching for the stars.

Graham Oaks student artwork of the lone oak

Boones Ferry Primary School student artwork

As Graham Oaks grows up, so do the students next door

By April Brenden-Locke, Boones Ferry Primary School teacher

I noticed the old oak tree when I started teaching at Boones Ferry Primary School in Wilsonville. Its lone shape seemed out of place in the middle of the rolling farm field that bordered our playground. Rumor had it Metro was going to build a park there, where the Lone Oak stood. Little did I realize that this tree would capture the imaginations of my future third graders and connect them with their community’s natural environment and history.

The construction of Graham Oaks Nature Park provided a unique opportunity for my students to create something authentic and important for the community. Few people, especially newcomers and younger people, knew why this land in the school’s back yard was becomming a park. For several months last year, my students explored the question “What story would the Lone Oak tell?” and researched how different cultures have used and cared for the land that is now the park. We then wrote and published the Lone Oak’s story in book form with students’ art and made it available to the community.

Students developed important research skills, asking and working to answer authentic questions. At first their questions were thoughtful, but surfacelevel, such as “Who lived on this land?” and “Why are they making a park here?” We interviewed a local historian, read local historical accounts and visited the park with Metro staff while it was under construction. We learned that the Lone Oak is an Oregon white oak, an increasingly uncommon tree in the Willamette Valley. It is some 200 years old, which means it likely “saw” the Kalapuya, the Native Americans who summered along this part of the Willamette River and maintained the land as an oak savanna through controlled burning. My class had recently completed a study of the time of the pioneers – a period that seems so far away for 9-yearolds. I was delighted when one student burst out with an important, sudden connection: “Wait! You mean the Lone Oak was here when the pioneers came?!”

As the project went on, their questions became deeper: “Why would the Kalapuya agree to work on the Boones Ferry?”

“How did people keep the land from becoming a landfill?” “Will Metro burn the savanna to preserve it even though there are houses nearby?” Students began to realize that, over time, cultural values have changed and different groups of people have had different ideas about how to use land. We wrote the story from the point of view from the tree; we had to infer how the tree might have felt about the changes it has seen, from the time of the Kalapuya to that of the trappers and traders, the pioneers, the farmers, industry and, now, restoration. Today the Lone Oak is no longer alone. It is becoming an integral part of a slow-growing savanna ecosystem, along with thousands of young oaks and native plants that have been planted around it. Through this park and our project, my students have become more connected, too, by providing an important book for the community and becoming part of a new chapter in the story of this place.

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The roots of Graham Oaks

Most visitors to Graham Oaks probably don't know about Metro's Native Plant Center, which provided many of the new plantings that will transform the landscape over generations. Learn about the volunteers and staff who made it happen. Watch the video

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