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Thursday, August 23, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Natural Wanders

The art of conservation: creativity and conifers in the Duwamish Greenbelt

Special to The Seattle Times

Celebrating nature

Festival this weekend

The Nature Consortium's Arts in Nature Festival is this weekend at West Seattle's Camp Long nature reserve. From wandering performers and string quartets to dance troupes and more, the festival showcases locally renowned performing artists, sound artists and ensembles. Camp Long's rustic cabins will house a "Museum of Sound" where artists create multidisciplinary installations blending sound, auditory arts, music and visual arts. Hands-on activities include EcoArt and EcoRhythm Instrument Building workshops, improvised movement and dance performances, and guided naturalist activities. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. Suggested donation: $5. Camp Long, 5200 35th Ave. S.W. (at Southwest Dawson Street), West Seattle. For more information: www.naturec.org or 206-923-0853.

Getting to Camp Long

Take the West Seattle Bridge from Interstate 5 or Highway 99; stay in the left lanes for the Fauntleroy Way Southwest exit. Turn left at the first stoplight (35th Avenue Southwest). Continue .6 miles; Camp Long will be on the left. Unlimited parking along 35th Avenue. By bus, Metro Transit Route 21 passes Camp Long.

Hiking the Greenbelt

Entrances to the West Duwamish Greenbelt are at 14th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Holly Street; 16th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Brandon Street; 16th Avenue Southwest and Southwest Morgan Street; and at Highland Park Way Southwest west of the West Marginal Way intersection.

Work parties

The Nature Consortium hosts volunteer work parties in the West Duwamish Greenbelt at least once per month on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and occasional other dates. Each work party begins with a Forest Ecology Workshop. Performing artists come out to "play in the woods" during each work party. Upcoming dates: Sept. 21 and 22; Oct. 13; Nov. 3. E-mail or call Mark Tomkiewicz to RSVP for work parties: buphalo@na turec.org or 206-923-0853. More information at www.naturec.org/restoration.htm

Field notes

Osoberry

or Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)

Thriving in second-growth woods, especially under maple and alder trees, osoberry is a common native shrub which grows abundantly in the West Duwamish Greenbelt. One of the first plants to leaf out in lime-green finery in late winter, osoberry's striking yellow leaves in late summer remind the hiker that fall is not far off. Its delicate white flowers have a strong odor that some say smells of cat urine — an adaptation that attracts early-waking pollinators such as flies. The small, bluish-black plum-shaped fruit has a distinctive melon-cucumber flavor with a bitter finish. These are tasty to many animals including birds, deer, coyotes and bear — "oso" means bear in Spanish.

Hiking Seattle's West Duwamish Greenbelt is a study in contrasts — while trucks rumble and backup signals beep in the near distance, tiny birds called brown creepers gracefully spiral up trees in search of insects, as a creek burbles determinedly, smoothing stones in the shady secrecy. Birdsong overcomes the buzz of traffic, seemingly weaving the color green through the very air.

Human impacts have challenged this pocket of woods, whose 500 acres constitute the largest contiguous forest in the city, but humans are also helping it. Since 2003, hundreds of Nature Consortium volunteers have planted 6,200 native firs, cedars and spruces, and 2,000 understory plants in 13 acres of the sprawling greenbelt, which stretches from Duwamish Head overlooking Elliott Bay to Burien.

Along with the rest of Seattle, the area was shorn of its big conifers in the late 1880s and early 1900s, and what grew in their place were deciduous trees like big-leaf maple and red alder, many of which are nearing the end of their life span.

So the conifer project really is a forest rescue mission. And West Seattle's Nancy Whitlock is its leader.

Whitlock, a longtime arts and environment advocate, organized a small, neighborhood street fair 10 years ago around the theme, "What is Your Art?" It was the seed that inspired what has become a vibrant arts-based education and community action program, the Nature Consortium.

Reaching out

Besides organizing tree plantings, the Consortium offers free, environmentally influenced art classes to youth ages 5 to 19 in a wide variety of forms — from printmaking and poetry to origami, African drumming and street dance. Last year the organization conducted more than 900 classes for 1,600 kids at the Rainier Vista Art Studio, Yesler Community Center and Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. The staff of nine and 25 volunteer artist teachers will soon be bringing art programming into some schools.

Integral to their teaching, both instructors and students visit the woods to inform their art.

"I don't see a separation between art and nature," said Whitlock, founder and executive director of the Consortium, which hosts the annual Art in Nature Festival at Camp Long this weekend. "So many artists get their inspiration from nature and create songs, dances or paintings — whatever their medium. I see nature as extremely creative and when I'm in the woods I feel at my most creative."

This is one reason Whitlock was elated to discover the forest treasure within walking distance of her Puget Ridge cohousing home. "I was used to smelling burning tires and exhaust from the industrial corridor below; just 10 feet into the forest the air quality improved — it was cleaner and cooler."

It only took one visit to the greenbelt for Whitlock to make it part of her organization's mission to restore this forest, which she considers crucial to the health of surrounding neighborhoods, many of which are home to low-income families.

"With 10 EPA Superfund sites along the river, people living here are affected," she said. "Our goal is to plant native conifers throughout the greenbelt in a kind of conifer revolution. We see this as the beginnings of old-growth forest that will flourish over a few generations' time."

Playful and purposeful

After you park at the pullout off Highland Park Drive on a summer afternoon, heat and dust melt away behind you as you head uphill on the main service road. Skippers jump from flower to flower as robins take a dust bath in a sunny spot.

Baby conifers dot the trail, tagged with bright ribbons in Whitlock and friends' old-growth nursery.

While volunteers perform ordinary restoration work, removing ivy or planting trees, they are frequently treated to extraordinary performances by local artists. Twice a month, volunteer artists reward trail workers with their talents. Shakuhachi (Japanese flute) players or guitarists serenade them, dancers surprise them on a snack break with leaps through the woods, or an improv artist transforms himself first into ivy, then into a thriving tree.

Though a sense of playfulness is threaded throughout its work, the Nature Consortium has succeeded through simple sweat and determination. Whitlock says she's a "doer" who would rather be out planting trees than sitting in meetings, though she did take time out from the trail to participate in a years' long legal battle that recently saved seven acres of the greenbelt from condo development.

To reward herself, Whitlock goes on adventures into the greenbelt, choosing winding side paths that lead to deeper parts of the forest where ponds and wetlands hide and hushed mossy glades cool the air.

Explore for yourself, but bring a compass or a nose-wise canine. It's easy to get lost along the approximately two miles of trail in this very definitely loved but as yet unmapped urban wilderness.

Freelance writer Kathryn True of Vashon Island is a regular contributor to Northwest Weekend. Contact her through her Web site: www.kathryntrue.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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