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Pikes/Pines | Being grateful in 2021 with a walk through the Washington Park Arboretum

The other day I found myself aimless and waiting. Any other winter, I probably would have plopped down at a cafe with a book or journal. We’ve all had a bit more time and fewer options than we’re used to in this time-starved existence. It was time to dwell on how absolutely terrible 2020 was and then move on. Time to start baking bread. Time to finally clean out that storage closet. Time to get outside. I chose the latter, and found myself poking about in the Washington Park Arboretum.

As a sometime arborist who grew up installing garden designs for my mother’s business, I’ve always appreciated arboretums. They may be entirely contrived spaces, but they are also spaces for people who live urban existences to be in dialogue with trees and plants and everything they support (By the way, did you know that Bigleaf Maples in the Olympics can support upwards of 77 pounds of epiphytic organisms in their canopies?!). I found myself not only picking along paths gawking at specimen trees and in equal appreciation of unkempt corners, but spinning my head to watch Red Crossbill take off from the top of a Douglas Fir and noticing how well the layers of green muffled the external sounds of traffic and construction. And the internal noise of my angst about life, the world, and well, everything.

How lucky is it that this kind of place exists at all? I can say this without contradicting my sincere support of the LANDBACK movement (knowing I stood on Duwamish territory) and knowing that arboretums are not natural spaces. That people bothered to devote spaces in the city to growing plants, just for the sake of growing them, the same way that we house libraries, floors me. And while I know that arboretums are more than just tree libraries, I am deeply grateful that they exist.

I needed to take a moment and be grateful as we start 2021. We are nature, nature may be everything and everywhere, and yet there is something fantastical about nurturing plants and finding what they bring. And all over the Hill there are plenty of more than human things to be grateful for. So, here’s my list of gratitudes:

Trees: Arthur Lee Jacobson, who literally wrote the book on the trees of Seattle, says that “no Seattle neighborhood is more tree rich than Capitol Hill.” Native or not, the Hill has many, old and unique and beautiful. Like the Chinese Scholar Tree at Cal Anderson, Sophora japonica, that is designated a heritage tree by the city of Seattle, likely a century old and the largest in the Pacific Northwest. The bigleaf maples rebounding after forests past in Interlaken Park. The Flame Ashes that line Broadway and grace us with deep auburn in fall. The beaver gnawed trunks of willows lining Lake Washington, from Montlake to Madison. Even the scraggly, stubborn, and unwelcome hollies, scions that are a boon to hungry native birds in winter, even as they are frustratingly deep rooted. We have trees, let’s make sure we keep them and hold them dear.

Native birds: I have no disdain for house sparrows or starlings, but the species that are not our commensural companions are the ones that I think of most. All are wild, but knowing that the robins we watch flying high over the Hill in late fall might have been in Alaska is a particular pleasure. Walking down busy 15th Ave E and hearing the chatter of Black-capped Chickadees overhead in the honey locusts will never cease to bring a smile to my face. The rasping of a male Anna’s Hummingbird in the scrubby margins between I-5 and Lakeview Blvd, pelting out over the noise of combustion is resilience incarnate. A chance glance skyward while striding along on errands might yield a glimpse of a Bald Eagle, or a Caspian Tern, or a Peregrine Falcon, all birds that embody the deepest wildness and despite our impediments, grace our urban spaces. It’s not just pigeons and gulls and crows, (even if we’d be lucky just with them).

Greenspaces: Private property may make up most of the Hill, but if you take a broad approach to our hyperlocal nature nerding, it’s pretty easy to see that we have a lot to offer. Even the tiniest of parks that dot the Hill have been vital during a time when few safe options for being outside our homes existed over the past year. It should go without saying that Volunteer Park is a gem with the open spread of tall trees and expansive views. St. Mark’s Greenbelt may be a bit of a tangle, but it’s our tangle and novel ecosystems spring from such spaces, no matter how hard we try to tame them. And while the arboretum should be deeply cherished, we should never forget that Seattle University also stewards their own series of gardens, quietly and effectively in our midst.

Views of the Mountains: Perched on the Hill, we can see many mountains. Two national parks are within view. The giant volcano of sprawling glaciers and rampant wildflower meadows that is Mount Rainier National Park. The mountain range of oceanic seafloor squished and twisted into the horizon we watch at sunset, which houses Olympic National Park. Some vantages on the Hill give us sneaky little views of Mount Baker or Glacier Peak, nearly as much “the mountain” as beautiful Tahoma. Even pedestrian sights of lightly blanketed Cascade foothills give me pause and I have been staring at those mountains and clearcut scarred hills most of my life. Not everyone gets these things, let alone any space to enjoy them.

I don’t know how much of a flaming bag of dog poop your 2020 was but I’m over dwelling on it.  I don’t mean to suggest that feeling shitty isn’t OK and to forget that awful things happened this year (and every year before), but I merely wish to remind you, and myself, that all is not lost and there is much to take care of on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. We have trees and birds and places where they all intermingle with our human communities. Anyone can visit them no matter if they are rich or poor or born here or not. These are great gifts that a great many people have worked hard to establish and maintain and keep out of the neoliberal clutches of the free market. Let’s remember that in our experiencing of 2021.

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1 month ago

Dude, I love reading your stuff. This city and Capitol Hill in particular is all about the trees and greenspaces and proximity to water and mountains. Thanks for the reprieve from the usual gripes about development and politics and nuisance street people and protesters.

1 month ago

Great article! And very true. Good place to clear the head and relax.

Kris Parfitt
Kris Parfitt
1 month ago

Great article, Brendan! It’s good to see you’re still exploring, writing and sharing your experiences! Cheers, KP

Julie by the park
1 month ago

Thanks for sharing your insights and for the reminder to get outside! There is so much to appreciate locally.