Make a paradise where you are

By Victoria Stoppiello

Recently a conflict emerged in the town of Manzanita. Owners, wanting to sell two lots on the north side of the community, put up signs forbidding people to use a trail along a sewer easement to walk to the beach. I’ve used that trail countless times.
As advice has oscillated between “Stay home” and “Exercise in nature,” that trail provided a wonderful option: Park downtown, walk north to a ridge, turn left to the trail diving west, go past a couple sewer manholes, an informal shrine on an old stump, eventually to a gravel street that bends to the beach. On the “trail” section, a steep forested hillside rises on your left and a similarly steep hillside drops to your right to the “beaver pond” a wetland preserved from grading and filling decades ago. Once at the beach, you can walk back to Manzanita’s main drag.

I don’t know what the resolution has been for the property owners, but in Finland there would be no dispute. Finland’s “Everyman’s Law” says you can walk anywhere, as long as you do no harm. You can pick berries, even pitch a tent and have a small fire as long as you’re not close to the landowner’s home. In Hawaii I’m told, even a very rich and famous part-time resident like George Harrison lost a lawsuit when he wanted to move a traditional path so it would be further from his house.
I am acutely aware of how lucky I am. There are several options for walking in nature very close to my home: paved N. Fork Rd., a logging road a half mile away, the utility easement at Alder Creek Farm, the two-mile loop formed by the conflicted “trail” in Manzanita, and finally in a pinch, the walking path next to the riparian zone below our house and pole barn.

An aerial view of the Stoppiello’s property shows the area available to the community for a walk, honoring Finland’s Everyone’s Law.

The old course of the North Fork Nehalem created a big oxbow. The long-fallow pasture within it is rimmed by large alders, chinquapin, Indian plum, nine-barks, salmonberry and the inevitable Himalaya blackberry. In the mid-2000s, we were included in a grant to improve riparian zones; those young cedars, spruces, cottonwoods and, yes, alder, now tower 25 feet or more. Before the new trees were added, we had an eight-foot wide path mowed along the perimeter between field and slough. Now the path is in a forested glade, still granting views of open water here and there. How lucky I am—if all else fails, I have a quarter mile walk in nature right out my door.
Thinking about the Manzanita trail controversy, about Finland’s every man’s law, and about the healing impact of “nature bathing,” especially now during the coronavirus pandemic, I decided to put our land where my thoughts are. I wrote to roughly 12 people in our little community inviting them to walk our path; one did, and wrote this:
“It was so lovely to walk the trails! It started to rain just as I began, so I found shelter in the pole barn. It was nice to sit by the stacks of wood (that I helped stack!) and listen to it rain. I knew it would pass soon. When the skies were clear, I continued on the path. There was a red-winged blackbird that was having a fit about my presence. When I got to the bench, I decided to sit zazen for 15 minutes. I’m doing a month long zazen challenge, where I try to sit for 1 hour every day. It was hard to just sit! There were was so much life and energy flowing through that space. That red-wing blackbird was still chatting at me from above. Hummingbirds were buzzing about, chasing each other like fighter pilots. There were a couple cedar waxwings that were more quiet and shy. Ravens or crows or turkey vultures soaring above. A female red-winged blackbird came to visit too. She had a lot to say to the male! The humid, post-rain sun was delicious. There were duck wings splashing unseen on the water. The green of the vegetation was so vibrant and lush. The yellow buttercups were so shiny! The wind was rustling the alder leaves. A distant tractor’s engine was rumbling along. And a distant cow mooed just little. I ended up just observing it all. It was glorious!”
Through her experience, I was reminded of a statement I attribute to the late Tom Bender: “Make a paradise where you are.”
Tom Bender emerging from a tree.

If we are to come out on the other side of this planetary human disaster with a better world, I hope we Americans adopt the good things I admire from other cultures, and that includes caring for and sharing the land.
My husband and I inadvertently created a little paradise—a place to walk, a wildlife refuge with 159 bird species, and a sauna to share in the good times. That’s next on my list: sign up for a sauna; we’ll fire it, you bring the wood.

This essay was published first in the Chinook Observer based in Long Beach, WA.