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Author Archive: "Laura Foster"

A Neglected City Treasure, Restored by Activists

Last summer I led two walks for the City of Portland that began in a Northeast Portland neighborhood, climbed through deep woods on trails once used to pasture cattle, entered a mysterious tunnel, and emerged on a stone-lined roadway, which we strolled to the top of Rocky Butte. Of the 50 people on each walk, most had never been up to the top. When they got there, they were stunned.

Walkers coming up the Grand Staircase to the top of the butte

Rocky Butte offers the best view in Portland, I think: nearly 360 degrees, ranging east into the Gorge past Vista House, north with views of three Cascade peaks, west to downtown and the West Hills, and southeast to the series of Boring Lava domes that lift the land to the base of the Cascades. And even better, the stonework atop the butte rivals Timberline Lodge for its "wow" factor. I first wrote about the butte in Portland Hill Walks and it's still one of my favorite walks ...

Are You a Citizen?

I've been writing about Portland for years. Without gushing, let's just say Portland is one gorgeous setting in which to wake up each morning . While I give props to volcanic eruptions, the Missoula Floods, and damp marine air for the riches they left behind here, overlaying these natural assets is something perhaps more intriguing: individual citizens whose passions and tenacity have shaped the city — fighting back proposed freeways, mucking garbage out of urban streams, righting toppled headstones in forgotten cemeteries...

They started with no more background or skill than many of us, and simply adopted a corner of town — and over the years, incrementally, have created urban treasures. I've met many of these people in my research and they are, I think, some of our most shining urban assets.

A citizen, the American Heritage Dictionary says, is "a person owing loyalty to and entitled by birth or naturalization to the protection of a state or nation."

Robin Jensen and David Lewis are two Portland citizens who haven't just enjoyed the entitlements of citizenship but have put a citizen's loyalty into ...

Stripping It down for an Urban Walk

If you’re never uncomfortable how can you recognize comfort?

I’m just about 50, and have been jettisoning stuff from my life for the last decade or so. Freedom from fumbling around in a coat and pack with 12 pockets each, let me tell you, is rich, and in itself both a small pleasure and my revolt against our culture’s obsession with comfort and provision. The less I have or carry, the more I enjoy the challenges of making do in the moment.

Though my work is to explore and walk Portland, a city many believe to be one of the wettest in the country, I don’t own a raincoat or rain pants. Those shoop-shoop noises rain pants make would cause me, I’m pretty sure, to strip them off and make a scene right in the middle of a staircase or city park. Gore-Tex raincoats, so densely pocketed and over-designed, make me feel like I’m in an isolated pod of technology, with every noisy arm-swing keeping me full of myself and out of the scene. Wool, crafted in the laboratory of evolution, is my choice.

A Poem, Two Feet, and a Sidewalk

When stressed by money, people, or deadlines, I take my feet into a Portland neighborhood and start walking. Søren Kierkegaard wrote, "Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness." So true. I have Portlanders to thank for my relatively good mental health. I live in the forest just beyond the city's limits, and many afternoons I leave my computer and kitchen to climb around in our woods, pruning saw in hand, cutting back dead limbs and toppling small trees shaded into death by our growing firs. I come back tired and peaceful. But walking in the city's neighborhoods makes me laugh and come home optimistic and enthusiastic. At an observer's pace, the small displays of human creativity seen on an urban walk stand up to make you smile: a chimney turned into a climbing wall, a tile lizard inviting you to sit and rest in a homeowner's parking strip, and the poetry posts that are proliferating in yards around town.

A few weeks ago Portland author Gabriel Boehmer emailed me about Portland's poetry posts. Gabe wrote a book ...

Embracing My Irrelevance

I was invited by a warehouse club near Portland to sign books one recent Saturday afternoon . It was in East Vancouver, Washington, an area not featured in any of my books. With a bit of trepidation about that, but thankful they were carrying my books, I arrived and checked in.

2 p.m. I settle in. Passersby and I nod or smile. Sale number one comes after 16 minutes. Was my gratefulness to the couple uncomfortable for them?

Get out the notebook. To shoppers ambling by, eyes focused on the opportunities ahead, it's meant to telegraph that while interested in my surroundings and in them, too, of course, I have a notebook. A purpose. I am not desperate.

"Daddy, can I be the pusher?"


"But I can see!" The girl, about seven, demonstrates her ability to see over the cart handle. But her father's attention has transferred to the display of iPhone docking stations. He didn't hear that last bit, or even notice me. I shouldn't have worn earth tones.

2:24 p.m. Still just one sale.

Typical scene: one person pushes the cart, musing aloud about potential purchases and perceived needs to the other person, ...

Learning Slowly From an Inept Teacher

Ten years ago I moved away from town, seventeen miles is all, but far enough to keep me home at night, missing out on a lot. Portland is rich with readings, concerts, tours of chicken coops, lectures, restaurants, beer fests, public pillow fights, bookstores, street fairs, farmers markets, bread fests, hikes, bike tours, tours of vintage kitchens and gardens, art fairs, and dog shows. The newspaper’s entertainment listings give a culture fan the same frisson of anticipation a shopaholic feels when entering a mall.

But the trade off is in getting tuned in and tied to the earth's daily and seasonal cycles. It's the harvest now and each day lately we've helped bring in a chestnut crop. We've dried a bumper harvest of plums; the raspberries are still producing and collecting them is one of the few household activities my 18-year-old still participates in. Tomatoes are looking for attention, peppers, eggplants, sunflowers… I can't go to First Thursday tonight because they're waiting for us.

Winter is time for pruning: limbing up our emerging forest, creating new trails from overgrown logging roads, hacking back the ivy that's not going to get more ...

Ingredients for an Urban Trek

When planning routes for my urban walks, I have standards: the route can't be found elsewhere; must be a loop; must have a story to tell; must contain somewhere to spend money, whether on coffee, beer, or books; and must be at least three miles long, preferably longer.

When I begin planning, my first thrill comes via topographic maps: tight contour lines mean views. Great views are one of life's sweetest rewards. Then, before I research the area's natural or cultural history, I'll map out a route, using what I already know about it. Next is research into the area's National Historic Districts, if any, and mining of the text (and bibliographies) of old Portland books, for offbeat sources of information. Then I drive/walk my draft route, making changes as I encounter a wall made of nineteenth century ballast stone, a park where two streams converge, or a lonely bridge spanning an isolated forest canyon.

My goal is to have each neighborhood, park, and the city's geologically varied landforms tell their stories so that a walker can see why they're here, who and what created them, and discover dozens of reasons to ...

Madam: You Are Not Fit to Own a Cat

My cat was limping severely on a Saturday, with her front leg swollen. I brought her to the vet. When our turn came, the vet squeezed my kitty's leg, spurting blood and pus onto my white sweater, and diagnosed an abscess.

"Do you let your cat out?" A loaded question that has tripped me up before. Once, on a cat-seeking mission, I had to leave the Humane Society catless because I admitted my cats use the doors, just like the rest of us. These days, in some quarters, it's bad form to let a cat outside — the world is a deadly place, and not only should your children be restrained to the indoors, where they can be observed at all times, so should your domestic

Personally, I'd rather forfeit twenty years than be denied access to the outdoors. I live in the country and it's beautiful. My cats climb trees, tag along with us on our trails, dig in the dirt, loll under the raspberries when I'm weeding the garden, and soak up the sun on the lawn furniture. Their enjoyment of life is palpable. Cruelty would be to sentence them to a few decades of my home's not-that-interesting interior ...

Isn’t Enough As Good As a Feast?: Thoughts on How to Lessen Greed’s Grip on This Country

The best paid CEO at an Oregon publicly traded company earned $15.8 million last year. A new-hire at his newest plant earns $27.50/hour, a great wage these days for factory work.

I'll admit: this guy is more generous than most CEOs at sharing the wealth, with the ratio between his pay and a new-hire at a mere 287: 1. Today, the national ratio between the rich guys and the peons they hire is 411 to 1. For every worker making the national minimum wage of $5.15/hour, or $10,300/year (far below a livable wage), there's a greed-justifying executive making $4.2 million a year. Why the ramp-up in corporate greed? Because it's legal and for too many people, legal means moral. In 1980, the pay gap between CEOs and the average worker was 42 to 1; using that ratio, the Oregon CEO's annual pay would be a still-kingly $2.3 million.

"If shareholders do good, we do OK, and if they do bad, we don't do anything," this CEO said. "I personally believe that's the right way to go."

Besides the poor grammar, this comment exhibits incredible values: a moral compass for which true north is simply to make investors (himself included) ...

Humiliation on a Bike

When a teenage child wants to spend time in an activity with a parent, and that particular activity promotes health, there are two reasons not to say, "Not now, honey, I'd rather stay inside and can the tomatoes." That's how I came to be atop a bicycle yesterday riding on Skyline Boulevard, a road known throughout the Portland area as a training ground for serious cyclists. That would not be me.

The ride humiliated me. On weekend days on Skyline, you see more bicyclists than motorists. It's where Portlanders go to train for Cycle Oregon, where members of cycling clubs swarm en masse, like hoards of jewel-toned hornets. I tried to make self-deprecating small talk with a group of four who passed us, within minutes of our start, on a painful hill on our road, a road so steep in spots that motor homes must be strategic about how they approach it, but they weren't interested in consorting with someone who was wearing her gardening shoes, had her dirt-stained pants rolled up to keep them out of the chain, and wore a tee shirt that was not made of vibrant synthetic fibers.

Too busy in their search for ...

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