Yes, Sara Macko gets emotional about the horse chestnut at Fauntleroy Way Southwest and Southwest Fontanelle Street, near Lincoln Park.
“We cherish this tree and its history . . . and are honored to behold its abundant glory and all the creatures that enjoy it. I gather snips of the flowers to make arrangements for meditation,” she wrote on a petition to save it.
Macko, 31, is the latest example in this city of someone deciding that here and now, a tree would become their cause.
A tree protest is not an unusual sight in Seattle. The phenomenon picked up maybe 25 years ago.
A big tree faces being cut down. Neighbors put up signs around it, stage a demonstration with homemade placards, hoping to save it from the chainsaw. Often, one person who lives on the same block or nearby is at the heart of the protest.
Whether they succeed or not, just the act of trying to save that tree creates an almost mystical experience for that person. It’s as if the tree is watching over the neighborhood, an old friend who provides a peaceful respite from the stress around us.
Says Macko, “It’s a very spiritual connection. It’s a very special living thing.”
Macko found time to organize a protest to save the tree at a rental home she shares, in between working 60 to 70 hours a week bartending and doing office legal work.
She contacted the city, environmental groups, coordinated a rally at the tree and got the property owners to back her.
Macko’s housemate in the rental was on board, with the housemate’s 9-year-old daughter writing a letter (“This tree is beautiful!”) that was part of coverage by the West Seattle Blog. The Change.org petition started by Macko on April 16 now has over 700 signatures.
In her petition, Macko says the tree is “gigantic 10′ 34″ in diameter!” and over 200 years old.
Perhaps that’s a bit of a literary license.
According to City Arborist Nolan Rundquist, the tree is 48 inches in diameter, although it has several trunks. He says the tree is about 40 to 75 years old, likely the result of a squirrel dropping one its seeds on the ground around the time the property was developed.
By tree specialness standards, this particular chestnut is, frankly, a tree like many others.
What it has done with its roots is extend from the private property onto the sidewalk and cause big time buckling. That, the city has to deal with.
Studies show Seattle has 3 to 4 million trees, with up to 1 million of them on public property, says Rundquist. That figure includes “treelike” shrubs, such as hazelnuts or laurel, he says.
A nonprofit called “The Last 6,000” — named after an aerial report by the city that found Seattle had 6,338 trees with a trunk diameter of at least 30 inches — is using volunteers to catalog these trees. cannot cut down more than three non-exceptional trees each year unless the tree is designated a “high-risk hazard.
It is Rundquist who gets called for a tree dispute such as the one along Fauntleroy.
From Nebraska, he’s been the city arborist since 1998.
“My first impression, well, it was daunting coming from Nebraska,” he says. The trees here weren’t the 25-foot trees he was used to seeing. “They get 100 feet tall here.”
Rundquist says the individual tree protests began in Seattle around the time he arrived in the late 1990s.
The previous decade, the 1980s, had seen protests against logging, with activists standing in front of bulldozers and putting spikes in trees to prevent them from being cut. The Seattle version involved putting up balloons around trees, making signs and taking their case to the city’s hearing examiner.
How many Sara Mackos are out there is hard to quantify. The city’s customer-service logs don’t specifically track people trying to keep a tree from a chainsaw fate.
The problem for the chestnut is its roots pushingonto the sidewalk.
On that street corner, the city plans to install a curb ramp, the result of settling a federal class action lawsuit brought by three men with disabilities. The 2017 settlement said the city would fix or install 22,500 curb ramps over 18 years.
Rundquist says the roots are 2 to 3 inches above the sidewalk, and crews would have to dig 18 inches below the sidewalk to put in the ramp. That’s some 21 inches total cut from the chestnut roots, a tough deal for any tree to survive.
In her petition, Macko writes, “We absolutely want our sidewalk and streets to be accessible for everyone!”
She says the sidewalk could be extended with a gradual slant, “within ADA guidelines,” making it accessible and safe.
The city says it’ll make a decision within weeks.
Going through the news stories about people trying to save trees in Seattle, a kind of innocence comes through.
“I feel the trees are talking to us, they’re taking care of us,” says Suzanne Grant, of Queen Anne, about her losing battle in 2019 to save a tulip tree across the street from where she lives on Fourth Avenue West near David Rogers Park.
Where the tree was located, five townhouses went in that had an assessed value last year in of $3.6 million.
For Grant, what mattered was a magnificent tulip tree that reached 90 feet, with a 44-inch diameter.
She’s a white-haired 69-year-old, but back in the late 1970s she was in the Seattle-based punk band The Enemy.
On Feb. 12, 2020, with the tree cut down after the developer got city approval, Grant took her musical skills and sang before the Seattle City Council.
A tweet of “A Hole in the Sky,” with lyrics such as, “There’s a hole in the sky where the tree once was. Somebody’s makin’ money,” racked up over 836,000 views.
It didn’t hurt that Nathalie Graham, then the City Hall reporter for The Stranger, put out the tweet, not with the song’s title, but the search-optimization headline, “Tree murder song.”
The departed tulip tree is still with Grant, at least its offspring.
In her garden, in the summer of 2020 she saw two little tulip trees sprouting from the ground, and another in a pot. There are no other tulip trees around her neighborhood, she says. The seeds must have come from the one that had been sawed down.
“I’ve got them growing in little tulip pots,” she says. Now she’s looking for homes for them to continue the legacy of the parent tree.
“They grow big,” says Grant. Not an understatement.
Back in April 2015, Jim Davis, a retired health care manager, decided he was going to climb 25 feet up a pine tree in his Magnolia neighborhood and perch himself there. He hadn’t been the protesting kind.
But this tree that he went by regularly on walks with his poodle, Grace, mattered.
He spent much of a Saturday, a Sunday and a Monday morning on the tree at 29th Avenue West and West Tilden Street to protest the city’s plan to cut it down.
His wife, Dinah Donaldson, brought him sandwiches. He talked with passersby surprised at this voice coming from 2 dozen feet above.
“It’s a beautiful tree. It’s big and wide, and it has a lot of branches,” Davis told The Seattle Times back then. “I’m a Seattleite and we love our trees. I just want to know, is it absolutely necessary that they cut it down?”
It turned out the city had issued permits for a homebuilder, who needed temporary electrical service. The city decided the tree would be too close to the temporary power line and had to go.
After Davis’ tree-sitting, the city said the tree would be trimmed but not cut down. A little publicity never hurts, protesters have learned over the years.
The tree still stands, and it helped make Davis into a Seattle tree advocate. He’s on the steering committee for The Last 6,000.
Davis likes to paraphrase poet Kahlil Gibran, who in 1926 published “Sand and Foam,” a collection that includes this line:
“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.”
You start pondering that big tree in your neighborhood, things happen.