A common native tree, a bigleaf maple, that was recently cut down where it grew in the middle of the walking trail around Green Lake had become an object of passion for one Seattle family.
There are about 1.4 million trees in Seattle, so cutting down one common bigleaf maple about 30 or 40 years old — which managed to sprout in the middle of the walking path around Green Lake — might not seem a big deal.
But Mark Mead, the senior urban forester for Seattle Parks and Recreation, understood why a decade ago a then-6-year-old boy and his mom became passionate about this particular tree.
Mead is in charge of 660,000 of those 1.4 million trees in Seattle, as they are in parks.
The city’s Department of Transportation controls 200,000 to 250,000 or so others along roadways, and the remaining third are on private property.
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And Mead also understood why strangers who walked along that path in the summer of 2002 joined the boy and his mom in their plea to save the maple and signed several pages of a petition.
“The connection that people have to trees goes back to our origins. It’s something that hits people on a visceral level,” says Mead.
Because of the petition started by that first-grader, Taylor Butler-Hawkins, the maple got to live another 10 years.
Taylor now is 16, a 10th-grader at Seattle Prep, and more interested these days in sports than getting all emotional about a tree. That passion has been continued by his mom, Kim Butler, and his younger sister, Emma Butler, 7.
The bigleaf maple had become known as the “Valentine’s Day Tree” because the family would decorate around that date with a garland made of hearts, although in December, there also would be a garland of little cutout Christmas trees.
“It was really kind of cool that citizens would participate like that,” Mead says about a thick notebook that he kept for years, filled with Taylor’s drawing and the petition. Mead kicks himself for somehow misplacing the material.
Finally, on March 5 of this year, Mead decided there wasn’t much more he could do for the tree.
He got a call from the maintenance crew at the park, telling him the maple had split right down the middle.
Now it was a potential danger to all those people who walk, run, bicycle and skate along the path.
Mead ordered that The Sign be chained around the tree.
The department actually has 30 to 40 such signs.
They are quite ominous and imposing — made out of metal, 2-½-by-3-feet in size.
In all capital letters, the signs state: “TREE MAINTENANCE NOTICE. THIS TREE WILL BE REMOVED FROM THIS PARK PROPERTY WHICH IS NECESSARY FOR PUBLIC SAFETY AND WELFARE OF THE TREES.”
Each sign lists a phone number. It is Mead’s direct line.
Between 320 and 360 trees in the parks get such a death knell each year, usually because they’re diseased or because they have “structural failure.”
Says Mead, “We want to make sure the public knows what we’re up to.”
And so, what now is left of the tree is the stump, and memories. Shortly the stump will be ground up.
As for the memories, the mom, Kim Butler, tells about taking walks around the lake with Taylor back in 2002, and seeing the original chained sign.
The maple had been rotting. Back then, it already was 20 or so years old, past the average life span of 10 years for an urban tree, says Mead.
In compacted, bad soils, amid paved areas, city trees have it tough, says Mead.
Butler remembers that Taylor found a bond with that tree destined to be cut down.
“So throughout the summer, whenever we passed by this tree, he would run up to the tree and try to tear off the sign,” says Butler. She suggested to her son that he could put a note by the tree to save it, and see if others would sign it.
That is what Taylor did, with a hand-drawn heart, putting the note on a clipboard behind the chain.
Mead says that when he saw the petition obviously done by a kid, he went out to reassess the maple.
What was happening was that the trunk of the tree was rotting and new branches were growing out of the decayed part. The danger was that the new branches would break off the hollowed tube.
Mead told his crew to basically trim and reduce the size of that trunk, and to keep an eye on the maple.
After a decade of that reprieve, when the tree finally had to be cut down in March, Mead let Butler haul off some of the bigger branches.
She hopes to use boards made from those branches in constructing a bench to be placed near where the tree was on the northwest part of the walking path.
All benches go through the Seattle Parks Foundation, and they cost a minimum of $2,000 and up to $5,350. Butler has set up a Bigleaf Maple Tree Branch Fund accessible at any Bank of America branch.
In recent days, Butler and Emma have placed flowers arranged in the shape of a heart on the stump of the maple.
People stop by and sometimes take photos, which have ended up on their blogs.
“I love the spirit of this family, who encouraged one small boy to stand up and make a difference,” writes Rosemary Washington, a local who walks around the lake, on her blog.
Meanwhile, it will be inevitable that soon another of the imposing metal signs will be chained around yet another tree.
And Mead will again be answering the phone, talking to somebody else for whom, out of the 1.4 million trees in Seattle, it is that particular tree that matters.
“Sometimes it’s difficult for us to find why people get attached to a tree,” says Mead. “Trees are very personal.”
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or email@example.com