Soon after I watched a male belted kingfisher arrow straight into a nest hole in an earthen bank of Coos Bay with unswerving accuracy, grace, and commitment, I felt a pang of longing. Where is that arrow leading us to avert the worst of climate change and wildlife extinction within a decade? When feeling despairing, I seek acts of local affirmation.
I recognized an affirming arrow in the climate action quiver when revisiting Millicoma Marsh (south end of Coos Bay) last weekend on a lush rain-soaked morning with voluntary steward Jamie Fereday. Here, where one of the last best salt marshes stores carbon for centuries and serves as a nursery for aquatic life, is an educational offering for school children and adults alike.
The messages embrace the values of the Hanis and Miluk bands of the Coos people who are instrumental to this sparkling project combining creative interpretive signs, student artwork, and teacher trainings that bring school children to the fresh and saltwater marsh for hands-on immersion in their local nature. Completed in fall of 2021, the self-guided nature trail is already a source of community pride. I believe there’s also a changing of hearts and minds to treasure and renew our life-sustaining ecosystems.
Over the past few years, I’d worked closely with Jamie, artist Ram Papish, the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw, plus other partners on an interpretive project like no other I’d ever done before.
From the start, I was intrigued by the premise that Jamie put forward when he approached me about his idea. He told the story of a buried salt marsh–diked, drained, and filled in for buildable land that lay below people’s feet on the Coos Bay School property. Jamie wanted people to know that as they walked from below Millicoma Middle School (where Jamie had taught science for many years) across the track and then on the two-track trail through a freshwater marsh to arrive a half-mile later on the original salt marsh that with every step the marsh was coming closer to the surface.
With that premise, we created a themed story weaving in the wildlife, words in Hanis and Miluk, and cultural traditions with the buried salt marsh below. The idea was to craft a series of stops along the trail that would point to the depth of the original salt marsh, while engaging readers’ senses en route to a splendid viewpoint of the living vibrant salt marsh.
Here is the Trail Theme: “Take a trip back in time to the original salt marsh by tracking its depth underfoot as you walk the trail to view the remnant of one of the richest ecosystems on earth. Appreciate the rich culture of local tribes who still rely on the bounty of salt marshes. Discover wildlife adapted to differing habitats along the way. Feel inspired to join in the restoration of the Coos Estuary—starting here on the Millicoma Marsh.”
Only the first panel at the kiosk is a traditional two-dimensional sign. All the others are tiles that stack and bend around posts that are fitting for the marine environment. Each post is brilliantly colored in screened plant prints created by local sixth grade students. The artwork to go with the text I wrote is all Ram Papish–such a talent (and the artist for Halcyon Journey: In Search of the Belted Kingfisher).
And there’s more–thanks to successful grants from the Three Rivers Foundation, Oregon Shores Coalition, and the Gray Family Foundation. Teacher trainings are leading to more outdoor classroom experiences on Millicoma Marsh. Jamie and I also created a salt marsh webinar as part of the grant for Oregon Shores Coalition. What also felt different after planning and writing so many interpretive signs over the past decades was my involvement in most aspects, including the satisfying day of helping to install the posts this past October.
If you find your way to Coos Bay, Oregon, I urge you to walk the Millicoma Marsh Trail and immerse in the messages, in the sounds of tree frogs, warblers, song sparrows, and the way the salt marsh sedges and rushes rustle like waves in the winds. Come at low tide, high tide, and in different seasons. Value the living salt marsh nurturing salmon. Come to know the stories and language of the Hanis and Miluk bands and an origin story shared in two parts along the trail. Think restoration and renewal.
South of Coos Bay at the Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, visit the Ni-les’tun salt marsh, which has returned to full vigor after a major restoration project removed dikes and allowed the ocean tides to once again flow into historic channels. Renewal. Beauty. Nurture and nourish. Carbon storage on steroids–nature’s gift.
Now home from the coast, I return to my personal small arrow in the quiver of actions. Pulling up lawn grass overtaking our pollinator garden is saving lupine, penstemon, and blanketflowers that invite native bees and butterflies. I know, too, that every home action has to be tied to supporting big changes. Voting for pro-climate candidates in the midterms is essential, as is supporting reforms that are essential to the future of Democracy like Ranked Choice Voting. Passing the bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act this Spring is looking promising if enough people contact their Congressional representatives. Supporting clean energy projects that sustain biodiversity is both strategic and affirming. Simultaneously, protecting our carbon capturing and storing ecosystems–like big trees, intact forests, and coastal salt marshes–is vital.
My final thought for the day is this. Acting with humility and respect toward this sentient world takes immersing in nature’s intricacies. In the end, we do protect what we love.