Epics and Ghosts
The Big, Great Landscape Sculptures and Stories You've Never Heard Of
Stairs: Holly Taylor/Past Forward; Viewfinders: Donald Fels
Duwamish Hill Preserve
3800 S 115th St, Tukwila
There is a hill in Tukwila that has been preserved for the purpose of telling you a juicy story. It used to be an unmarked, privately owned, blackberry-infested bump in the rivervalley near the Duwamish River. Today, when you climb up it (which takes about 10 minutes if you do it slowly, pausing to look at the madronas and licorice ferns and red-flowering currants), from lookouts on the top you can point to every location in the story you are about to read: Grandmother's Hill is a slope half eaten away by the mining and development of white settlers (appropriate, given Grandmother's ordeal) to the south across the freeway. To the west, beneath a stand of poplars at the edge of the Duwamish, is the fishing platform of the story's villain, the North Wind. This story, "The Epic of the Winds," is the earliest recorded story of the weather in Seattle.
Two men fought over the same woman. They're still fighting; they continue their battle every winter. When the cold North Wind kills the warm South Wind and takes captive his pregnant beloved, that's when the cold prevails. But the South Wind's son grows up to discover the story of his real father, and to seek revenge. Despite the warnings of the North Wind never to venture there, the boy one day wanders out to distant Grandmother's Hill, where Grandmother (mother of the South Wind) immediately recognizes her son's son. He finds her in the state the cruel North Wind left her—frozen in a sheet of ice filthy with raven feces. When Grandson begins his onslaught of revenge, that's the freakish warm storm system we have every year—the one that breaks the back of winter. The two carry their battle out to a point off Bainbridge Island where it can still be seen raging in the whitecaps.
This hill is not a nature preserve—not strictly. Boeing planes fly overhead constantly. A shooting range directly to the north crackles and pops. Instead, explains Holly Taylor (whose company, Past Forward, is dedicated to preserving local cultural resources), the hill is a cultural preserve—the first cultural preserve in Tukwila. Cultural preserves aren't common in the first place; the term "preserve" usually implies the saving of trees and creatures, not stories. But this one is part-culture, part-nature—or all culturenature with no breaks and no borders.
The informational signs that tell the story and talk about the plants aren't up yet. It's still just a hill, partly humanized. It has a series of winding, semisteep paths, a little amphitheater with stone benches halfway up, and a bird's-eye view of the machine storage company right next door. The machine storage company's owner wanted to blow up this hill, to dynamite it down for more heavy-industry parking. But when the owner (Mr. White—you can't make this stuff up) announced his intentions for the land back in 2000, the Cascade Land Conservancy raised $1 million, bought it, and a group of volunteers helped to set it up for public visits. They've called it Duwamish Hill Preserve, it's been worked on by dozens of devoted volunteers (including residents of the nearby Poverty Hill neighborhood), and there's no bad blood. It opened September 18, and throughout, Mr. White was very nice about the whole thing, Taylor says.
Taylor is not a member of the Duwamish or Muckleshoot Tribes—both of which consider the Duwamish River to be part of their traditional territory—but she worked with them on the preserve's creation. "If you like this," she says, "you should talk to Donald Fels."
Donald Fels is an artist. He currently has a show at Bellevue College Gallery (through December 2). In it are paintings he made collaboratively with a crew of old South Indian billboard painters he met five years ago, when, as a Fulbright Scholar, he hired them to cocreate postcolonial pictures depicting the arrival of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in India in 1498. These new paintings are based on photographs of the crew working together; their subject is the postcolonial production of the artmaking itself.
Whatever Fels makes, he connects it to its locale. His website says, "For artist Donald Fels, the network is the medium. His work explores the routes that connect people with commodities, institutions with their environments." After organizing Seattle's first urban archaeology dig in Rainier Valley in 2002, with archaeologist Peter Lape and a bunch of fourth graders, Fels, Lape (a curator at the Burke Museum), and a graduate anthropology student named Amir Sheikh started a project called Waterlines. So far, Waterlines is a website (www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/waterlines) with pictures, maps, and stories of the way the land of Seattle has changed and developed since the Ice Age. Fels wants to expand the Waterlines project. He wants to make crazy changes to the landscape that would draw attention to its history: returning Occidental Park to a lagoon, to its "muddy suggestive self," for instance.
The restoration of "nature" is not so much Fels's program—probably, Occidental Park was something else before it was a lagoon. What he's really into is the restoration of story to land. Just as the Duwamish Hill Preserve peels away a layer of stifling, blackberry-brambled silence with its new paths and lookouts, so Fels brought out the ghosts at Alki, where the Denny party landed in 1851. His series of ghost viewfinders are easily overlooked, even to regular visitors of Alki Beach, where they stand among the pay machines. When you look into them, you see a historical photograph from this place superimposed over the actual view, hovering like a ghost. In one is a canoe paddled on this same water by Duwamish folks; in another is a view of the Joy Wheel ride at night at Luna Park, the amusement center that sat on this land for the first years of the 20th century—until it was wiped out by an act of arson. The art is not the solar-powered viewfinder sculpture itself, or the photograph, but the entire experience of hearing the place speak.
This article has been updated since its original publication.