How about leaving one little strip of nature in our ‘nature park’

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An amazing thing happened one recent sunny morning while walking at the Putah Creek Nature Park: I saw an otter.

A mother-freakin’ otter.

In Putah Creek!

In Winters!

It was that proverbial “could not believe my eyes” moment. My eyes squealed, “That’s an otter!” My brain replied, “No way, no how — it’s a cat or a squirrel, or maybe you’ve finally just gone plumb bonkers, my dear.”

The eyes had it. There was a real live otter, sitting on a clump of brush, grooming himself in the sunshine. I froze in my tracks because I was sure the moment he saw me, he’d skedaddle.

I slowly approached the fence (because a feature of our “improved public access” nature park is a chest-high iron fence that allows you to look at nature but not touch it), and said, “Good morning!” Rather than darting off, he looked right back at me with his big sweet black eyes and returned the greeting. We had a lovely conversation. If the spirits of the Patwin were looking on, I’m sure I was dubbed “Chatters With Otters.”

I lingered there awhile, but it was time to move on. I was hoping the otter would still be there on my return loop, but it wasn’t. But I’m hoping to see it again — more people are spotting otter in the creek, and beaver, herons and turtles too. If you want a glimpse of some wild things, here’s where you go: There’s a place along the paved path where it dips down, next to a cut-out with some stumps for seats.

It’s the lone little pocket along the so-called “nature park” where there is actual nature — brush, bushes and trees, bunch grasses and wildflowers, all planted by Gaia herself and not teams of humans. It’s the last spot where they haven’t taken all the “wild” out of wildlife, hacking away the things that grew there on their own and replacing them with what they think should grow there.

You see, once upon a time, before there was a “nature park” with paved roads, metal fences and perfectly placed plantings, many of us already knew about the wild stretch of Putah Creek right next to town. We’d worn our own walking paths through the brush and buckeye. There were butterflies and birds, and blankets of bright purple lupine this time of year. You could literally step through the veil of civilization and suddenly be in a wild place. Pure magic.

But then, the city decided to capitalize on this natural asset, and the Putah Creek Nature Park project began, with the goal of encouraging more people to come and enjoy the creekside. To that extent, it was a success. All sorts of people enjoy the walking path — families, couples, even people in wheelchairs — all finally discovering what’s right in our own back yard. As far as parks go, it’s a lovely park. Beautiful in every way. But for those of us who loved the wild place it was, it’s heartbreaking.

For the longest time after the “nature park” trail opened, I couldn’t bring myself to walk along the creek at all. It was too upsetting. Where some saw progress, I saw destruction. Little by little, I finally started venturing back there, because even scarred with pavement, it’s still the best place in town to go walking. I’ve finally swallowed my sadness and accepted that the wild place we once had is gone and now we have, well — this. A park. A very nice park, yes. But no man-made park can equal one made by nature’s own hand. A wild place has a heartbeat. A man-made place does not. And that’s that.

But, maybe there’s still a positive outcome. The more people who visit the park, the more people who will hopefully develop an appreciation for nature and our local riparian habitat, and there’s no better opportunity along that path then “that spot” — that one wild place, right alongside the path, where you can see the water close up, and if you’re very, very quiet, you might be visited by a wild thing.

So cool, right?

Here’s what’s not so cool. Apparently there’s a plan to bulldoze that spot down and divert the creek farther from the path. Apparently this is part of “the plan.” Not only will this make the creek accessible only to those able-bodied enough to hike down there, the animals and birds that visit that spot will be frightened off. Apparently the official response to that is “So what.”

Here’s what: The “nature park” has been manicured enough. Could you please just leave one little piece of actual nature alone? There’s no need to move the creek in that spot. There’s no danger of erosion or threat to human safety or life. It won’t detract from the “nature park” to leave one little splash of real live nature intact. We already paved paradise and put up a walking path. Leave well enough alone.

In a dishearteningly symbolic incident, one of our Little Libraries was vandalized last week. The cute little book house, where anyone can take or leave books, sits along the nature park path and the glass door kept getting vandalized. A Winters Friends of the Library member asked renowned local artist Gerald Heffernon to do a painting of our otter on a wooden door. And he did! If you know Heffernon’s work, you know that this was quite a valuable gift. The Friends figured that A) a wooden door wouldn’t be as much fun to smash as glass and B) the vandals wouldn’t want to destroy beautiful artwork featuring our beloved otter.

The Friends were wrong.

The new door was installed on Wednesday and smashed by Saturday.

The vandals didn’t care about art or beauty, or the hand that painstakingly created it, or the community that could have enjoyed it. They destroyed it simply because they could.

“So what.”

— Email Debra DeAngelo at; read more of her work at and

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