It is often surprising to people to find this segment of forest tucked away in Clackamas county.
As you land at Portland International Airport amidst the noise, traffic and buildings of the city, you can see Mt. Hood looming, but it seems that wilderness is so far away. You probably leave the city via congested interstates and will soon find yourself in sprawling suburbia. And finally, because of planning policy that limits that sprawl, the suburban landscape eventually gives way to farms stretching over miles and miles. But somehow, it is that last turn that is most surprising, the one from the winding country highway onto our driveway and you suddenly realize that you are leaving the the farms behind and entering a towering forest. Forty-five minutes from the blessings and curses of the modern age, you enter into a healthy and diverse forest.
The towering western red cedars, Douglas fir, and big leaf maples dominate the scene and draw one’s eyes to the heavens, by nature, as the cathedrals were designed to do, by artifice. The profusion of vine maple, rhododendrons, and ferns fill the understory with even more green, where the blackberry thorns and stinging nettle also remind you to pay attention. And last the carpeting of sorrel, mosses and fungi blanket the remaining surfaces with the occasional wildflower bringing a burst of white, yellow, or red as a counterpoint to the symphony of greens.
When people ask, how can this be that these acres of wilderness exist, surrounded by land so clearly shaped by humans, it is our joy and work to help them understand that it was done so by choice. Over and over we tell the story that it was not so long ago that this land looked like the surrounding area. But the predecessor to Alton L. Collins Retreat Center, Camp Leewood, was founded in 1941 by Methodists who chose to let the land be wild. Over the succeeding generations, people have continued to make the choice of letting the trees grow, die, fall, and decompose to nourish the earth anew. We continue to choose to let nature run its course except where it endangers our few buildings or to remove the invasive non-native species.
The blessings of this verdant and wild space speak profoundly into our retreatants experience, and sometimes we join our voices with those of creation in teaching how this wondrous and surprising patch of land came to be.