Photo courtesy of Plant Amnesty 
Cass Turnbull on pruning rhododendrons, "They want to be big." 

At Large In Ballard: Cass Turnbull

By Peggy Sturdivant

No photo exists, or could capture, the power generated last February when arborist Cass Turnbull learned chainsaws had started on Japanese Cherry trees at the former Loyal Heights substation. She stalked toward the security officer and yellow hazard tape with the force of a bull. She was afire with anger. I saw steam coming from her nostrils. She was the mother bear of a whole forest of cubs, from sapling to giant. I have never seen anyone so passionately, eloquently, powerfully outraged.

Cass Turnbull, arborist, activist, writer, the Northwest’s Queen of Pruning died suddenly January 27, 2017, while on annual vacation in Hawaii.

As her lifelong Seattle friends and family respond to news of her death there will be other stories in which Cass Turnbull has superhero powers. They will all be true.

“Cass Turnbull’s Guide to Pruning” protected thousands of bushes and trees from what Cass termed senseless destruction, which was the mission of Plant Amnesty, the non-profit organization she founded. When I met her at another surplus Seattle City Light substation it was like a towering statue come to life, because Cass Turnbull was statuesque, Amazonian even, but foremost, funny.

In addition to clients, pruning workshops, speaking engagements and her advocacy groups Cass had been monitoring the surplused Seattle City Light properties for years, tending them in fact. She was maintaining the plants and adding design elements to them at times, such as entire pop-up guerilla site at one location. Her goal was to keep them green, or greener. Last spring she put enormous effort into stopping the sale of the largest open space owned by the City of Seattle, the Myers Parcels in Southwest Seattle.

Turnbull had known and worked with John Beal, the Army Veteran credited with restoring trash-filled Hamm Creek in the Duwamish Watershed, and reclaiming that area against huge odds. After his death she continued to be vigilant about the Myers Parcels; construction of the Joint Training Facility for firefighters had damaged wetlands there. She was also the keeper of many of Beal’s records from his long fight. She was determined to keep Myers safe, and was keeping an eye on JTF’s current expansion. In an email on January 23rd she was emphatic, she would be at the Myers Way Encampment Meeting on February 1, 2017. That was the last email I had from her.

In addition to founding and promoting Plant Amnesty Cass started an independent political action committee, TreePac, to lobby for the public value of trees. Even during her busiest pruning season she was willing to spend evenings and weekends working on behalf of the Boards of Seattle Green Spaces Coalition Board, Plant Amnesty and TreePac. She showed up everywhere that trees and green spaces were on the agenda, or should be. Organizations all over the region are reeling as they learn the news. If trees are sentient they know they’ve lost their greatest protector, their mother bear.

Cass had many big ideas and one of her recent ones, through TreePac, was to treat green space as a public utility, establishing tree banks to counteract pollution and reduce the environmental hazards of overbuilding, such as urban flooding, poor air quality, heat island effect. She knew her metrics cold, the percentage of Seattle that is currently impermeable/paved (64%) and was outraged that open space planning goals are being decreased even though they weren’t attained with less density. “We are not meeting our quantitative public open space goals now. We aren't making any more green spaces. Solving one temporary problem now by creating a permanent one for the future is unwise policy.”

Her collected articles, “No Place for Old Trees” are a manifesto that has been falling on deaf ears as the region rushes into growth. She railed against rhetoric that pits green space against affordable housing, or green space advocates as against potential solutions for homelessness. She wrote to fellow Seattle Green Spaces Coalition Board members, including me, “More housing, including low income housing can always be added by building up. Green space, the universal mitigator for a huge number of urban problems, must be ground based.” Mitigate, to lessen in force or intensity, as wrath, harshness, grief or pain.

Hearing disappointing news regarding Seattle Green Space Coalition’s urban land bank planning, Cass emailed from Hawaii mid-month, “I spend a lot of time being devastated. Goes with the territory of trying to get something big done.”

When Seattle City Light posted the removal notice on three exceptionally large, and therefore old cherry trees at Loyal Heights in February 2016 Cass said, “Most cherry trees die young,” I keep thinking of that now. She wasn’t meant to die young.
Cass Turnbull will be mourned, memorialized but not forgotten by anyone who interacted with her, friend or adversary. As with John Beal at age 56, Cass Turnbull died of a probable heart attack at least 30 years short of what should have been a lifespan at least as long as that of a 100-year tree…a Paper Birch maybe, or a Flowering Dogwood.

Whatever the arboreal and environmental community conceives to recognize Cass Turnbull’s contributions to her hometown it will need to be big. “A park in her honor at the former Loyal Heights substation?” a colleague suggested.

“Bigger,” I said, “much bigger.” Nothing can mitigate the grief, but in honor of Seattle’s own Cass Turnbull it’s our duty not to mitigate her role as a superhero for this planet Earth.

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