Escaping Urbanity at the UBNA

By Jack Russillo · 2 years ago

Precipitation somewhere between a drizzle and a mist peppers me as I hear a large procession of tiny flaps from behind me. I turn and see a flock of small creatures—blackbirds, starlings, and probably some other species of birds—switch their perches in unison. I continue walking and, a moment later, watch a pair of great blue herons take off and soar upward, lean to their left, and fly to an unknown destination to the northeast. My eyes track the birds up from the cattails at water level, the hulking Husky Stadium, 520 Bridge, and, in the southeastern outskirts of my vision, the tall office buildings in Bellevue rise up from the water level. It’s often inescapable, but I’m grateful that the traffic building up less than a mile away is finally out of earshot. The sounds of bird calls, the slight crash of waves slapping against the shore, and the scraping of windswept leaves across the ground create a symphony around me. Sandwiched within the gray sky and its gray reflection in Union Bay, the gray buildings match the shading of my surroundings, but not the aesthetic.

It’s ironic that the muddy ground of the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA) land that I’m walking on used to be Seattle’s biggest waste dumping site. Today, the site is being tended to by many of the most knowledgeable and motivated stewards in the area, who hope to return the space to its natural wetland state. Since the patch of land began its transformation to a 74-acre public wildlife area in 1966, it has become a nook of wilderness kitty-corner to the University of Washington campus. As the second largest natural habitat left on the lake and host to over 200 species of birds and 150 flowers, the UBNA is a laboratory of sorts for students and researchers alike to examine the environment as well as a place for anyone to go unwind from urban stresses.

As I stroll past a grove of gangly madrona trees, I pass a field of grass where I once helped eradicate non-native weeds during the spring of my freshman year. I appreciate the fact that I am one of the thousands to have at one point contributed to the rehabilitation of this place.

Today, I’m joined by two friends on my wet walk. One was my roommate during my freshman year, and the other the first friend I made at freshman orientation—I hadn’t seen either in quite a while. As I lagged behind, my old roommate walked ahead, pointing out birds in a small cove along the four miles of shoreline that the park offers. A student of the environment, he’s recently taken up ornithology. This is one of the best bird watching sites in the city, so I trust that he’s enjoying himself. It’s nice to see him able to apply his academics to a real setting. It’s been some time since we’ve seen our other friend too, and I can see that he enjoys visiting with old pals at a place we used to frequent together. I catch up with them as they are recalling a time when we were at the UBNA some night during our freshman year when we witnessed an owl hunting its prey.

We’re between classes, so we can’t dawdle, although we don’t go as fast as the handful of joggers that run past us, squelching in the mud as they go. We’re too busy catching up and discussing some of the 30-plus wetland restoration projects. There are many systems of white PVC piping that we assume are for irrigation—nearly a third of the area is wetland, after all. The sight of a peregrine falcon interrupts us. Beneath the falcon’s perch in an oak tree, a LimeBike is lying on its side amongst some willows. We engage in a discussion of littering, the consequences of capitalism, and police brutality as a couple more joggers speed past us.

Before we turn to complete the loop, I look out onto Union Bay and remember when I went canoeing on my birthday last year. I imagine how indigenous communities used to canoe across the many bays and lakes that Seattle was built on. Things have changed since then. The whole space has changed. We reach the madrona trees again. Their smooth bark is a deeper red than normal, and their foliage seems fuller as well. For all the damage that urban development has done to the natural world, it comforts me that there are places where people are putting in time and effort to help mend the effects of destructive, human actions. As we round a bend of poplar trees and the bridge to campus appears before us, a small tuft of fur skitters across the graveled trail. Three sudden darts in different directions and what we thought was a vole was gone amidst the wet grass.

My phone buzzes in my pocket and my hand is drawn to pick it up. A news notification. I glance at the top of the screen. Ah, it’s 2:13 and we need to rush off to class. Our pace quickens as we step from the wooden bridge onto the asphalt walkway that winds toward campus.