MYNORTHWEST HISTORY

Layers of history revealed by ‘Street Trees of Seattle’

Apr 17, 2024, 10:22 AM | Updated: 11:39 am

"Street Trees of Seattle" author Taha Ebrahimi (RIGHT) bumped into Alec Duxbury, her high school En...

"Street Trees of Seattle" author Taha Ebrahimi (RIGHT) bumped into Alec Duxbury, her high school English teacher, while she was speaking with KIRO Newsradio about an Atlas Cedar near Seattle's Wedgwood Rock. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

It makes a lot of sense when Perry KIRO (we can’t say his real name – sorry) sings in the theme song for “Here Come The Brides” about the “smell of pine trees in the air, never knew a day so fair.” And that’s because the bluest skies in Seattle have always paired so nicely with the city’s groves and forests – which is just one of the reasons to celebrate a book that’s just been published all about Seattle’s beloved “street trees.”

This new book is “Street Trees of Seattle: An Illustrated Walking Guide” by writer and artist Taha Ebrahimi. It was officially released earlier this week by Sasquatch Books.

“Street trees” are trees that stand in the public right-of-way, mainly the parking strip between the street and the sidewalk. A street tree could also stand in someone’s private yard if the branches extend over the sidewalk or street—that makes it officially considered a “street tree,” too. Essentially, the trees in Ebrahimi’s book aren’t hidden away; they are very accessible for everyone to see, and often to do so from right up close on the sidewalk.

Ebrahimi’s approach to street trees is something we’ve run across before in these stories about local history: a passionate person compiles and interprets data to create order and communicate a sense of place. “Street Trees of Seattle” fits right in with the salesman who wrote histories of every single post office that ever existed in Washington, the artist who walks Seattle’s sidewalks searching out the esoteric and arcane, and the family in Oregon now in its third generation of compiling the origins of place names in that state.

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Best of all, the books and pamphlets that result from this approach aren’t just data; they tell a story and give you a guide to search out and see things and learn things for yourself. With Ebrahimi’s book, you’ll encounter settlement patterns of Seattle neighborhoods, trends in landscaping from eras past, and the innumerable ways individuals have personalized their homes and gardens over the years.

For example, said Ebrahimi, standing in a parking strip in northeast Seattle a few days ago, there’s something about Seattle trees that most people don’t know.

“Most of Seattle was clear cut” in the 19th century,” Ebrahimi said. “And only 5% of our street trees are native to this region. So most of what you see everywhere is planted and brought from somewhere else, so many layers of history are behind the trees here.”

Ebrahimi, who works full-time for a data visualization company, was inspired to create her book by her lifelong love of trees and the discovery of what she describes as a “data set” created by the City of Seattle and dating back to the 1950s.

“When I found the publicly available data set from the city,” Ebrahimi said, describing information systematically compiled about Seattle’s trees by city staff and volunteers over the past 70-plus years, “it was fun finding out which ones were the widest trees and things like that.”

From the data, Ebrahimi could identify the locations of hundreds of interesting trees, including rare species, unusual species and exceptional examples of rare and common trees, such as the tallest or the widest.

“Tallest” is easy to understand, of course. But the notion of “widest,” said Ebrahimi, needs a little explaining.

“Anytime I meet a tree person, the first thing they ask me is, ‘What do you mean by widest?’” Ebrahimi explained. “Some people measure a tree by the drip line, like the ends of each branch. Some people measure a tree by the circumference of its trunk, but the standard way, apparently, is to measure the diameter.”

“So you get the circumference, you calculate the diameter, and you have to do it from 4.5 feet up from the ground, and that is called ‘Diameter at Breast Height,’” Ebrahimi continued. “And 4.5 feet is the standard breast height, and there’s even an acronym: DBH.”

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Standing near the giant Wedgwood Rock on 28th Avenue Northeast – which is a giant glacial erratic as big as a cottage – Ebrahimi pointed out what she describes as the “second widest Atlas Cedar in Council District Four.” One of the quirks of the data set is that they are organized by council district – which is perhaps yet another reason to be sentimental about the good old “at large” city council years.

“You can tell the Atlas Cedar by these short needles, and they’re in bushels along the branch,” Ebrahimi said, looking closely at the likely half-century or older tree. “You see that? Instead of coming out of the branch. And I see some male cones here, but they usually have these upright kinds of round cones. And I don’t see any in this tree right now.”

“Street Trees of Seattle” isn’t a catalog or a dry database printed out on paper. Ebrahimi has tracked down the backstories of a veritable forest of trees, and she’s drawn sketches of many of them. The book could be read from cover to cover, or it could be used to take a particular walking tour of a particular area, or it could just be dipped into to read about one particular tree.

On a whirlwind driving tour of northeast Seattle, Ebrahimi showed off the Atlas Cedar, and then a Monkey Puzzle Tree, and then a giant Oak Tree that overhangs an entire intersection. Down a little side street, Ebrahimi went in search of a Giant Sequoia she hadn’t yet seen in person.

To her surprise and delight, it turned out to be a Weeping Giant Sequoia.

“Oh my God, it’s so weird looking,” Ebrahimi exclaimed as she pulled her car into a parking spot. “It’s right here,” she continued, pointing. “Oh my God, it’s so cool. It looks like a Muppet!”

It’s no exaggeration to say that anticipation of Ebrahimi’s book has been building in recent weeks with many radio, TV and print/web stories. “Street Trees of Seattle” seems to have arrived at just the right moment.

It’s also no exaggeration to say that trees have been in the news a lot lately around here. The confusing Seattle City Council tree ordinance, people protesting to protect trees from construction projects, and the unfortunate removal of the old cherry trees at Pike Place Market last year are just a few of the recent stories. Stories about threatened trees clearly touch a nerve for many people around Seattle.

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Ebrahimi says that from all that she can tell, people absolutely love trees in Seattle.

However, she also says we’re not really seeing the big picture – maybe not seeing the “forest” of important issues related directly to trees and not focusing as much as we should on taking care of trees in Seattle.

Why? Because they take care of us.

“The mental health well-being benefits that they found are really, really amazing,” Ebrahimi said. They say that being within 320 feet of a tree gives you a better life expectancy and a lower chance of being prescribed antidepressants. And there are just so many studies about it; it’s overwhelming.”

Trees take decades to mature and provide maximum benefits, such as the canopy of leaves that can help reduce air temperature in summer by as much as 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit, says Ebrahimi. Replacing one mature tree with several young trees doesn’t provide the same benefit for years and years.

“So if you imagine all these benefits, we’re not calculating the cost of those benefits,” Ebrahimi continued. “When we’re thinking about trees, we’re thinking of them as these things that are easily replaceable.”

This is why even the “second widest Atlas Cedar in Council District Four” is worth getting to know and fully appreciate.

The debut of “Street Trees of Seattle: An Illustrated Walking Guide” will be celebrated with an author event on Wednesday, April 17 at 7:00 p.m. at Elliott Bay Book Company, and a series of additional events featuring Ebrahimi that will take place over the next several months.

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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Layers of history revealed by ‘Street Trees of Seattle’