As I write this, Luma, a large western redcedar, Thuja plicata, still stands at 3849 88th Street N. E. in Seattle’s Wedgewood neighborhood. The name, derived from Spanish, is meant to convey a motherly presence. The 80-footer is much in the news since the City of Seattle gave developers the nod, and a Burien outfit called the Bad Boyz GC LLC started oiling their chain saws. Motherhood be damned.
Redcedars have little male cones on lower limbs whose pollen winds loft to germinate seeds in larger female cones on upper limbs. The tree itself has no gender. The Snoqualmie Tribe, anxious to carve out a presence in metropolitan Seattle, threatened Mayor Bruce Harrell and the City Council that they would sue the city if the tree came down.
Tribal elders and an archaeologist declared Luma a CMT, a Culturally Modified Tree, as it was split when young to mark a trail. The Snoqualmie Tribe also argued that rocks strung from limbs made them grow at right angles to mark directions to resource areas.
This seems rather too clever, so I went down one Tuesday evening (7/18) to join the goodly crowd of Luma’s supporters. No city officials were present, nor developers. But one of the Bad Boyz came promising not to touch the tree, a move cheered by the crowd and a good plug for the tree service industry.
Luma has a remarkably burly limb that elbows northwestward, providing ample support for one of three “Droplets”–the term for citizens who take shifts lashed to the tree to protect it. Several spoke to the gathering on the need for preservation.
I poked around looking at other trees and noticed Luma was not the only one twinned or sporting Popeye forearms and pointy elbows. I went down the next day to explore further and map the location of similar trees. They are breathtakingly beautiful. Massive trunks soar, some to candelabra canopies with lower limbs of immense girth flexed in what seem unnatural shapes. Other cedars and firs are also twinned, and their number gives this part of the neighborhood a special grandeur. I was looking for three twinned trees on a single alignment that would suggest a route, but I found that many had great limbs pointing at all and even opposite directions.
Gardeners alter tree limbs by pollarding: pruning limbs at the top to cause dense growth. Limbs can also be trellised into different shapes. One might do this with string and rocks, but a likelier cause in Luma’s cases was the October 1962 Columbus Day storm that topped many trees in the Seattle area. Retired arborist Tina Cohen recalls that unemployed lumbermen were active at the time, warning homeowners of the danger of falling timber and offering their services as expert tree-toppers.
Most firs and hemlocks that are topped, particularly in drier Seattle, will die. But cedars more often continue growing. Long low limbs once unshaded angle sharply toward the light. The tree’s xylem cells continue transporting water and minerals from the soil, and phloem cells provide nutrients for photosynthesis in the remaining canopy. A longer lower limb will take the lion’s share of nutrients and grow huge while others continue skyward on what they can get. The result is a grand, extravagant tree. (Twinned trees are another matter.)
Despite their unfortunate animosity with the Duwamish, the Snoqualmie provided Seattle residents a public service by threatening the City government, causing developers to back off, at least for now. Cecile Hansen, Chairwoman of the Duwamish Tribe, was the only native leader who attended the Tuesday gathering, and her image went viral. Luma support group organizers gave her the stage, but I think some of her words shocked the audience. Praising the effort to preserve Luma, she added: “and you know what cedars are good for? Building houses!”
Luma is popularly regarded as a sacred presence to be preserved at all costs. But Hanson underscored an important point with a deep tribal history. Seattle has not added one square inch of land since 1986, but has grown by nearly a quarter-million residents. Where and in what are they to live?
It is bracingly obvious that there are neighborhoods in Seattle that live comfortably with their great trees and will rise in passionate defense of them if they are threatened. Mayor Harrell argues for compromise, implying a moral equivalence between contending groups. On the one hand are homeowners paying stiff property taxes and whose sense of civic duty impels them to protect the flora that shades the city, keeping it cool, oxygen-rich, and beautiful. On the other hand are developers eager for profit, and often owned by many out-of-towners who pay no local taxes.
Recall that in 2022, developers had a bulldozer tear out the roots of the history-laden fir in Ruby Bishop’s yard at 24th and Jefferson, in the Leschi neighborhood. Bishop was a fixture in Seattle’s early jazz scene, welcoming Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and other black musicians to her house for home-cooked meals and her view of the lake beneath the sheltering limbs of the great tree. The Leschi community worked hard and appealed to the city to save the tree, but after gutting its root base, the developers brazenly announced to the city that because its roots were damaged, the tree had to come down.
Similarly, retired arborist Tina Cohen fears that the pit already dug into Luma’s roots makes her existence precarious. I would love to ask Mayor Harrell, the City Council and department heads tasked with forest preservation to explain how Luma’s absence will benefit a tight warren of hutches with no greenery.
About 5,000 years ago, a dense coniferous forest replaced an oak-studded savannah in the Puget lowland. Expanding forest cover crowded the understory of vegetation supporting elk and deer populations and the rhizomes, bulbs, and berries that balanced the animals’ and human diet. In response, Duwamish lit fires, used to direct game during hunts, to keep enough space between trees that sunlight could nourish the understory. Recent forest research finds that 60% of the forested lowland was regularly burned so that herds and people could flourish. In a 1927 court case, a Duwamish witness testified that burns were carried out every two to five years.
Forests required careful management. Regular burns consumed deadwood, reducing catastrophic burns. Low-level fires minimized insect and fungal pests, leaving healthier trees. Explorers and settlers mistakenly praised the beauty of what they encountered as a wholly natural phenomenon. In fact, managed forests and open parklands were the product of native ingenuity and intelligence exercised over millennia.
Americans later commoditized the forest for profit. In three generations many lowland forests were erased. On foothills, a managed forest matrix was replaced by monocultures made more flammable by fire suppression, popularized by Smokey Bear, preaching “only you can prevent forest fires.”
At the same time a bountiful salmon fishery carefully and successfully managed by native protocols maintained through kin alliances was similarly destroyed. It was only when salmon stocks were becoming extinct that American officials allowed native people a say in managing the dwindling resource. The environmental and social ethics of native culture combined with western science provides a measure of hope.
The Duwamish knew all this wisdom. In their homeland trees were used to shelter people and resources managed to provide plenty for all. But natural disasters and American policy brought famine. In traditional native societies no one went begging, no one spent winter freezing and dying outside as Seattle now lets happen to its homeless poor.
Could housing developers repurpose larger homes to provide for several families? Could we build homes around and not over greenery? Somehow, we need to learn the social and cultural norms that kept the environment intact and productive for so many for so long. We need to listen to Native American voices offering critical advice.