I’m no fan of this pandemic but without it, there would be no Vetucchio. There would be no magical land of early morning fog, no kaleidoscope of birds, no month-long daily binge on blackberries, no daily escape from the routine to this wonderful landscape just down the street from my house.
Let me clear with you: Vetucchio didn’t exist before the pandemic … or at least it didn’t exist as Vetucchio. It’s not that it wasn’t there. Hell, I had even been there–it’s just that I rarely paid much attention to it. I’ve lived in my house since 1998. Once, when the kids were young, we walked across the old treatment ponds during a dry summer, as if it was just a field of tall grass. In fact, it was the location of years worth of “unscreened biosolids” that had been deposited in the lagoon from approximately 1958 to 1995, years in which this site had been used as the city’s very old-school wastewater treatment facility. We walked all the way across to the cement spillway, the overflow point that allowed raw sewage to drain out into the Snohomish River if the waters got too high.
Then the city was forced to shut it down and pump their effluence west to Everett, after the first stage of treatment had been completed in the newly built treatment facility. Local birdwatchers started to patrol the periphery, and eventually convinced the city to support making all the area around the treatment ponds into a wildlife refuge with walking trails. Their master plan, submitted to the city in 2013, called for the creation of the Riverview Wildlife Refuge, and the signs you see pictured here date to 2014.
You would have thought that the designation as a wildlife refuge would have caught my attention. My friend Bill Fulton, who was part of the committee that pushed for the refuge, told me how much he liked walking there, and the access points, both of them, were literally just down the street from my house. And yet, we rarely if ever walked there. Sara and I had our 4-mile loop, our 3-mile loop that cut across the back of Freshman Campus, hell, I think we even had the walk we now call Pilchuck Flats. But the refuge never captured our interest. I always viewed it as a kind of marginal re-use of city land, blighted by the proximity of the city yard, the Highway 9 bridge passing overhead, the treatment plant. For more than 20 years, I walked my town nearly daily, and yet I was virtually a stranger to this location.
I can’t pinpoint the day I discovered Vetucchio, but I can triangulate it within a set of conditions that came into existence somewhere between March 7–when MediaPRO employees were directed to start working from home—and my first photographs of Sara and I walking toward Vetucchio on May 7.
It was this peculiar mix of conditions that created Vetucchio: conditions that opened my eyes and my mind to seeing the world in new ways. The first month or so of the pandemic shutdown was what I call the “walking days,” days when suddenly the streets were filled with walkers: middle aged couples, families, teenagers, all strolling out in the spring sunshine in the middle of the day, often in the middle of the street. The pandemic was young and new to all of us; there were no masks. It was a big adventure and we all smiled and said hello. Sigh!
I can’t pinpoint the day, but I can pinpoint the moment—the moment my mind opened to seeing the world differently, to slowing down and digging the beauty that was in front of me, instead of being distracted and sucked along in the vortex/slipstream of work and email and meetings, the combined energy of a group of people working toward a common objective, an objective that had once mattered a lot to me but now, well, not as much.
First, there was the pandemic. It sent us all home, wiping out in one fell swoop not just the vast time suck that was the commute and its associated preparations—showering, eating—but also the bounded time of “office hours,” even those as flexible as mine. Suddenly you could start and end work whenever, and that meant you could also find holes in your day when, if you looked outside and the sun was shining, you could dash out for a quick walk.
Second, there was the birding. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about birding prior to April 24th. Hell, I was actively dismissive, ridiculing the obsession with those who obsessively identified and named all the birds they saw. If anyone drew my attention to a bird, I’d opine: “There are really only four kinds of birds: killing birds, cool birds, water birds, and the rest are all little brown dicky birds.” Thus, I thought , I put in their place those folks who paid too much attention to things that didn’t matter. (I was wrong.)
Then, on April 24th, Jeremy Schwartz gave his bird presentation to the company. We were, by this point, six weeks into working from home. I suspect we were all just beginning to recognize that we missed interacting with our co-workers, or at least interacting with them in ways that didn’t involve the prison of the work Zoom meeting. So Lauren, our office manager, gamely arranged some Zoom lunches for people to share their interests, and sincere, earnest Jeremy stepped up to give a talk about birds, a group version of his ever-present offer to go out on a bird walk at lunch, back when we were all in the office and could do such a thing.
I’ll write more about birding at some time–about the permission it gave me to slow down and look more closely–but for now, suffice to say that the moment I began to pay attention to birds, Vetucchio became a magnet for my attention. The city publishes a brief birding guide to the refuge on its website.
Third, there was the permission I granted myself to think differently, for it was right around this time that I opened my mind to thinking differently about work, thanks to giving up my operational duties at MediaPRO, reducing my load to half-time, and taking up the work of writing a regular blog for the company and supporting our marketing efforts as the Chief Evangelist. This major shift in my worklife meant I allowed myself the opportunity to think about my mental space differently, to open it up to purposes other than the growth of the business and solving the problems that the business presented. Granting myself permission was crucial, because it was purely a cage I had put myself in. It’s as if I opened the door to a cage that had never even been locked and all I had to do was push open the door. Was this the most important condition of all? It will take me some time to figure that one out!
So there it was: the pandemic and the way the whole world shifted, the birding, and this sudden openness of mind, and in that moment I walked into what has become Vetucchio. Floating in that moment, I awakened to the beauty of the place: to the sound of the Common Yellowthroat singing in the marsh, to the perfect perspective of the lane stretching along the wetland, to the sight of Mt. Index and Persis beyond the bridge. It roused the romantic in me, the guy who exclaims “I dig beauty” whenever I am struck by how beautiful the world is (quoting a line from the Stuart Dybek story, “Blight,” from The Coast of Chicago.)
How could this beautiful place not have a beautiful name? I asked. So I sought one, trying the sound of various words in my mouth as I walked about, remembering the feel of the Italian hilltop towns along the Amalfi coast: Ravello, Positano, Sorrento. And I stumbled upon—which is to say made up—Vetucchio, and it’s now my name for this combination of wetlands and river and stretching lane, fragrant with blackberries, trilling with birdsong. And I made up the spelling too, using conventions that lean Italian: there is a real place, Verucchio, a comune in Italy, and an Italian family that runs Vertuccio Farms, outside of Mesa, AZ, but as best I can tell there is no other Vetucchio. It is one of a kind.
I’ll end this with a few of my favorite pictures of Vetucchio. You can be sure there will be more.