Every Wednesday morning, 52 weeks a year, an intrepid group of nature lovers gather to make Salem a better place. They are volunteers who tend a 7-acre parcel of mixed oak woodland in West Salem.
“I do it because it’s a worthy thing, and I enjoy being outside,” says Bruce Patterson. “We all like the company and have a good time together.”
Week by week, year by year, the land being improved is the Salem Audubon Nature Reserve. Located on a hillside just east of Eola Drive, the parcel was donated to Salem Audubon by Mark Gehlar in 1991 to serve as habitat for nature and an escape for people. Since 2002, the Audubon group has been actively managing the area with a crew of usually about 10 people showing up every Wednesdays from 9 a.m. – 11 a.m., with coffee and conversation at McDonald’s afterward.
“We’re always looking for more people,” Patterson says. On a recent morning, Patterson and others strategized to replace the liner of an artificial pond first created more than 20 years ago.
Ken Johnson was one of the team. “The new pond will have aesthetic value and be a source of water for wildlife,” Johnson says. “And we’re also hoping to introduce some native frogs.”
Lee Slattum has served as Nature Reserve Chair for the past six years. “I might be called the property manager,” he says. As the Chair, he decides what jobs need to be done on any given Wednesday and matched the volunteer with the task.
The assignments are varied. Slattum and the team create and maintain trails, oversee the installation of fences on slopes to prevent erosion, remove invasive species like ivy and blackberries and plant and maintain helpful natives like milkweed, camas, lupine, columbine, bleeding heart and more – often hand-carrying 5-gallon jugs of water across uneven terrain to get to young plantlings.
They show up in rain and in heat, in wind and in snow, with a slightly different crew each weak. But people do always show up. “A couple of years ago,” Slattum says, “two of us were out working in about an inch of snow, and it was also snowing on us. It was really fun.”
The group partners with others as well. Slattum is especially proud of an osprey nesting pole erected for the Reserve by Salem Electric. “They installed it a couple years ago,” he says of the tall pole with a platform nailed to the top. “The first year the birds found it really fast and raised two chicks to maturity.” Ospreys have continued to use the site each year, raising three chicks both last year and this.
“You can see the parents bring fish to the chicks,” Slattum says. “It’s quite an attraction.”
Another partner has been the Glenn Gibson Watershed Council, which funded fences installed on steep hillsides. And a horse logger came through to place logs that would shore up the soil.
The group also partners in the planting of young replacement oaks which will create more habitat and ultimately replace older trees. “We work with the Friends of Trees [www.friendsoftrees.org/salem],” Slattum says. “They use our ground as a training site, to learn how to successfully plant natives, and we get to keep the things they plant. It’s a good reciprocal relationship.”
In recent years, homeless people have begun to sleep in the Reserve. “They need to be recognized and talked to as people,” Slattum says. One volunteer, Eugenia, close to 80 years old, often picks up trash associated with these people. “She interacts really well with them. If she finds an abandoned sleeping bag she takes it home and washes it, and donates it to a homeless agency,” Slattum says.
A volunteer with a very different task is Janet Adkins, in charge of restoring plants around the pond. Spraying water on a variety of plantlings she says, “There used to be a lot of [invasive] shiny geraniums here. But we got rid of them and are putting in Columbine, bleeding heart and oxalis. It’s coming along really well.”
Although volunteers who’ve got to know each other over the years always enjoy the chance to meet, new people are made welcome. Volunteers are enthusiastically sought through advertisements in the Chemeketans newsletter, Salem Audubon’s The Kestrel and in Salem Weekly’s Calendar.
“This reserve is a work in progress,” Slattum says. “It’s a labor of love and a love of labor. And the camaraderie is great. We welcome new people so much that their first time out I personally buy them a complimentary large coffee at McDonald’s.”
One recipient of free coffee is Clark Shattuck, who recently showed up for the first time. “I’ve always admired whoever it was that’s taking care of this place,” he says. “And so I said, ‘hey, I’ll help you with that.’ And everyone has been very welcoming, very appreciative.”