The outdoors is a classroom. Roaring rivers, snow-capped mountain peaks, and flowering valleys have much to teach about the workings of the world and our place, as humans, within it. Childhood summers spent outside playing, hiking, and camping encourage self-awareness, personal efficacy, and an ethic of care. E. O. Wilson’s work speaks of a subconscious pull that humans feel towards other living things—an innate, biological love of nature he termed biophilia.
And yet, opportunities for nature-based experiences and learning are becoming less accessible.
Challenges, however, can present new opportunities. The stories of our natural spaces do not have to be heartbreaking. How about heartwarming instead? Encouraging? Inspiring? Living testament to the kindness of humankind? One such story is right in Portland’s backyard.
Over ten years ago, West Linn residents Ed and Roberta Schwarz discovered that a tower of Himalayan blackberries (Rubus armeniacus) in a deserted chunk of their neighborhood blocked a sweeping view of the Willamette Narrows. That 20-acre stretch between Salamo Road, Tannler Drive, and Blankenship Road is a White Oak Savanna. Over one hundred years ago, the Valley was covered with White Oak, also called Garry Oak (Quercus garryana). Today, it is estimated that less than two percent remains. So when Ed and Roberta discovered their hidden hiking oasis was slated for development, they decided to do something about it.
Roberta has championed the effort to save the White Oak Savanna for over a decade now by rallying support throughout the greater Portland Metro community. Her goal? To make the White Oak Savanna into a public natural park and wildlife habitat. The upper 14 acres have been restored and preserved with matching fund grants received in 2009 from the City of West Linn, Oregon State Parks, and Portland Metro. The White Oak Savanna has benefited from over 6,800 volunteer hours stemming from a variety of individuals and organizations, including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, high school and primary students from several schools, church groups, the Northwest Youth Corps, neighborhood organizations, and SOLVE. Most recently, the Schwarz’s dining room table was covered with materials for sending out 10,700 mailings to community residents and businesses in a fundraising effort to match Portland Metro’s second Nature in Neighborhood grant. The $500k grant, awarded this time in 2013, must be matched two-to-one—that’s right, they need to raise $1M by mid-2015 to seal the deal and they are right on track to achieving it. Over two dozen fundraisers are planned for 2014. Metro’s grant and the matching funds will provide the means to purchase the remaining six acres of the savanna for conservation, ultimately preserving habitat that supports hundreds of species—deer, ferns, and humans alike.
You read that correctly, humans. Homo sapiens sapiens. We do, after all, rely on Earth’s ecosystems for our own survival. We inhabit the earth. And there is something cardinal about the physical immersion of ourselves in nature that research is just beginning to capture. Take Dr. Geoffrey Donovan’s research that found a correlation between healthier birth weights with increased access to trees even after accounting for other differences such as socioeconomic status. Or the German biological studies led by neuroscientist Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg that compare the mental health and stress of people living in rural, amenity rich areas compared to those in our cities. Richard Louv focuses on the connection between childhood obesity rates and outdoor play. Then there is Dr. Todd Rosenstiel’s research into the benefits that lichens have on decreasing asthma rates. Google some form of “health benefits of nature” and you will find countless more examples. It all points to what our bodies already know: access to the outdoors is fundamental to our well-being. There is no substitute, no nature pill we can take as a replacement.
Health impacts aside, being outdoors is fun! A visitor to the White Oak Savanna can hike the meandering one-mile round trip trail, swing on one of the tree swings, absorb the vistas from one of the ten benches (made of reclaimed wood), listen to the birdsong from one of the over 75 avian species, and witness a deer bound through the grass. With the recent snowfall, an adventurer can add snow-play onto the long list of possibilities.
It goes without saying that the White Oak Savanna is a gift. Roberta and those she has mobilized around the savanna have acceded to the role of stewards of the land. They have accepted the responsibility for its care amongst the hustle and bustle of urban living. With the restoration, they have not only saved a wild place from being paved—their theme song is fittingly Joni Mitchel’s “Big Yellow Taxi” (re: “…they paved paradise and put up a parking lot…”)—they have strengthened the community around it. They are loving and caring for the land. They have planted trees under whose shade they might not ever rest. The story of the White Oak Savanna is one of a challenge-turned-opportunity. It is community-based and it is just getting started.
Indeed, sometimes the gifts we tend to overlook most often are the ones that grow when shared.