I see walruses in the Pearl. Crisp mornings I see them bristling at corners like sumos, stamping and huffing for the green light. Lunches I see them lolling and grunting at cafes, drunk on spiced fish ale. They nap in pools of sunlight outside my office, tucked against shopping carts or draped mumbling over laptops and cell phones. If you know what to look for, you’ll see them everywhere down here. From a distance, they seem awfully cuddly: you might want to give them a big hug or flop on them and take a nap, too. TV Naturalists and denizens of the Pearl know better: walruses are volatile carnivores with large dreams and appetites. It only takes one or two maimings to teach you how to recognize a walrus, unless you’re timid and bifocular from the start.

Old stories tell of an underground walrus empire in Portland. My grandfather said that on cold days you could see their breath shoot through vents and cracks in the sidewalk and hear them groan at work like old freight elevators. Fawley Price’s 1939 book,** The Highs and Lows of the Opium Trade in the Pacific Northwest from 1754 to 1890, describes how they built subterranean palaces in the early 1800’s along underground tributaries of the Willamette and fostered the opium trade till it ran under our streets like salmon. The book includes a black and white plate of a “hands on” walrus pasha overseeing the transfer of opium from ship to warehouse at an underground dock.

Yesterday I bought breakfast for a hollow-eyed street walrus who let on that a secret community still existed in catacombs under the old Armory, planning and waiting. He said that they rise up at night like morlocks and feed on street walruses, and when those were gone….

As I work through my words, I have to ask: Are metro-walruses a metaphor and am I just free associating? Are they only tales spun by grandfathers or the ramblings of the sleep-deprived, romantic, comfortably insane? Creatively plated facts would argue yes. Literature provides deeper truths (especially in the words of beloved dead authors). Lewis Carroll said this about a certain class of walrus:

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed—
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”

I’m not afraid of these walruses, although I also never travel in the Pearl alone after dark–especially near the gourmet grocers. And in the suburbs where I live there are no walruses. Weasels, stoats, foxes, and tiny booming frogs, yes–threats to be described in a different posting.

* Here There Be Walruses is the title of a marvelous approach to systems science by Steve Shervais, the title used here by permission.

** Price–no relation–was a historian and professor at OSU in the 20’s and 30’s.