Searching for Seattle’s trees o’ history

Feb 21, 2018, 6:23 AM | Updated: 9:52 am

Arthur Lee Jacobson describes himself as a tree geek.

In reality, there’s nobody who knows more about trees in Seattle. Jacobson wrote the book about notable trees around the city. Literally. Jacobson’s voluminous yet readable guide “Trees of Seattle” was first published nearly three decades ago, and he completely revised it in 2006.

Arthur Lee Jacobson is a native Seattleite and graduate of Seattle Prep and the University of Washington. He became interested in plants and trees in his late teens, and he’s been studying and working directly with vegetation for 40 years.

In addition to pruning for clients in neighborhoods all over Seattle, he also writes, leads tours, and gives lectures about trees as well as all kinds of plants.

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He personally keeps track of hundreds of noteworthy trees around the city.

While Arthur Lee Jacobson doesn’t have regularly scheduled rounds, as such, he does check in when he can on the trees featured in his books, and he keeps an eye out for interesting trees he hasn’t yet bumped into.

Jacobson’s trunkside manner includes calculating the heights of trees by using a laser rangefinder and measuring the circumference of tree trunks with a tape. He also notes a tree’s growth since the last time he checked and assesses its overall health. Jacobson jots down what he finds, writing on old maps and in the margins of a worn copy of the second edition of “Trees of Seattle.” After all, notes from these tree visits might someday inform the third edition of his popular book.

Last August, I begged Arthur Lee Jacobson to let me interview him about historic Seattle trees. It was the wrong time of year to ask. He’s always too busy in the summer with his pruning business, so he turned me down.

In winter, however, it’s a different story. The pruning work slows down a bit and the weather can be too wet or too cold. So, this past sunny and chilly Monday, we went for a curated trees o’ history tour.

In the living room of Arthur’s home in Montlake, he mapped out the route and described three quintessential trees he’d chosen to visit, each embodying a key concept or era in Seattle’s tree history.

“What we call the Indians or the first people or Natives, you know, the Duwamish? They had 33 species of trees,” Jacobson said, of the time before European contact in the 19th century.

“Now Seattle has over 1,400 different kinds of trees, the most trees of any city in the world,” he said.

Why are there so many trees here? Jacobson cites the area’s temperate climate, mild yet cold winters, and ample moisture as reasons Seattle is so tree-friendly. Add to this the people who actively imported trees here, such as early UW professor and historian Edmond Meany who sought to make the UW campus a sort of living tree museum.

And how best to demonstrate this explosion of species diversity and sample the 1,400 varieties in just a short tour?

“I’m going to show you the native tree that was most important to the Native Americans, what we call the cedar, the red cedar, and we’re gonna see the biggest one in Seattle,” Jacobson said, describing a tree with a trunk 20 feet around.

“And I’m going to show you a very big non-native, a black walnut that’s probably a hundred years old,” which, he continued, would show the influence and prevalence of outside species.

“And then we’re gonna see an ‘ambiguous tree,’ because it’s half native and it’s half European. It’s kind of like my parents. Half the side was Norwegian and half was French [and] they got together,” Jacobson said. “I’m going to show you a hybrid cherry tree.”

Our first stop was in South Seattle, just east of Columbia City, to see the non-native species of tree that Arthur had picked out.

We parked on a residential street, a few houses down and across from an enormously tall tree. It stands out for being so different and because it’s so much bigger than everything else around it. It towers over the one and two-story houses in the neighborhood, and the concrete sidewalk was even built so that it actually jogs over several feet into the parking strip to make room for the base of the tree by going around it.

As I stood and watched, Jacobson went to work. He stood a block or so away, craning his neck as he used his laser rangefinder to measure the black walnut’s height. The dark leafless branches stood out in stark contrast to the midday blue sky, allowing the instrument to easily take a reading. We then walked toward the tree to get a closer look.

“The tree is almost certainly more than 100 years old [and] it’s about 100 feet tall. The trunk is approximately four-and-a-half feet thick,” Jacobson said, only estimating the trunk measurement, as the tree is technically on private property, and the homeowners appeared to be away.

Just how would a tree like this make it to Seattle a century ago?

“This could’ve been from a local nursery, it could’ve been brought from the Midwest, maybe,” Jacobson said, wondering aloud if it might have been part of an orchard at one time. “The nearest native black walnut trees of this kind could be, I’m guessing, in Oklahoma.”

But trees are mute witnesses to their own history, so we don’t know definitively how it got here, and we probably never will. But that’s part of the mystery and part of the fun if you’re a tree geek.

From the black walnut in Columbia City, we drove over Beacon Hill and across the Spokane Street Viaduct and then up and over the West Seattle Bridge to Schmitz Preserve Park.

Schmitz Preserve Park is a thickly forested acreage that includes a deep ravine, and some of the oldest and biggest cedar trees in the city – many more than 300 years old.

We had an old park map from late Seattle Parks and Recreation historian Don Sherwood’s files. Arthur had printed it off and marked it up years ago to show the locations of several interesting trees in Schmitz Preserve Park, including one of the biggest cedars in the city.

We parked on the overpass that crosses the park and then headed down into the woods from Admiral Way, hiking along the service road that doubles as a trail.

On the bright and chilly day, the park was busy with families and solo dog walkers, though the trails were damp and muddy in places, and a little steep and slippery.

Schmitz Preserve Park is filled with trees of all kinds, and it’s easy to imagine how much of what’s now Seattle must have looked 200 years ago before Europeans arrived.

“The original intent of the Schmitz family was to keep a part of the wilderness to show the descendants what it used to look like,” Jacobson said, checking his map to match it up to the correct trail. “This gives you the best glimpse imaginable, for West Seattle, anyway.”

Walking amongst those big cedars, I got to thinking about the history stories I usually produce. They seem to all involve buildings, airplanes, statues or other human endeavors. I suddenly got all philosophical.

“There’s part of it that’s kind of cool, though, that these [trees], they’re not monuments that’ve been put up by some organization or some entity,” I said, obviously enthralled with the sound of my own voice. “They grow, they get old, they get knocked down, they rot,” I went on. “There’s something that’s a little bit comforting about the life cycle that goes on in spite of human beings’ efforts to do anything.”

“That’s called looking on the bright side,” Arthur said, laughing at my tree-inspired episode of temporary earnestness.

“I can’t help it,” I said, now laughing at myself. “I always do that.”

And in this case, looking on the bright side was a good thing.

It turned out that we couldn’t find the specific Western Red Cedar tree that we were looking for. Arthur Lee Jacobson had told me on the drive over that he hadn’t visited this particular tree for many years, and he’d warned in advance that the giant cedar could’ve blown down in a storm a long time ago.

But time was running short, and there was still one more Tree o’ History to try and locate.

To find this one, we drove back over the West Seattle Bridge and then north on SR-99, taking the Alaska Way Viaduct and Battery Street Tunnel to get to the north end of the city and Carkeek Park. It was packed with families enjoying the sunny and cold President’s Day holiday.

We had another one of Arthur’s maps from the Don Sherwood files, and it took us awhile, but in the middle of a hillside filled with fir trees and alder, we finally came across the very different looking trunk of a hybrid cherry.

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The bark was nothing like any of the evergreens around it; it had horizontal rather than vertical markings, and a dull, steely shine. And it was as straight and symmetrical as a telephone pole and stood almost a hundred feet high.

Jacobson fiddled with his laser rangefinder, standing in various spots and trying to take readings. Other trees kept getting in the way, but eventually, he was able to calculate the hybrid cherry’s height. And then the batteries conked out.

“So I think that probably is Seattle’s tallest known cherry,” Jacobson said. “It’s half European and it’s half native, and we can guess that it might date from the 1950s or late 1940s or the 1960s. The way to find out, of course, is you’d do a core of the trunk and you’d count the rings, but who cares?”

And who’s got the time?

There are only so many hours in the day, and the city is full of natives, non-natives, and hybrids waiting for their next visit from tree geek Arthur Lee Jacobson.

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Searching for Seattle’s trees o’ history