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On a warm, sunny July afternoon, a bright yellow excavator sat idle where a housing development will be built in North Seattle. Growing behind it is a Western Red Cedar estimated to be 200 years old.
With a double trunk, this special tree could be part of an ancient system that indigenous people used to mark important trail locations. As such, the Snoqualmie Tribe has applied to have the tree declared an archaeological site by Washington state and tribal law.
Named Luma by its friends, the 80-foot cedar has quietly towered over this residential street since long before the street (or much else of Seattle) existed. It is easily the tallest tree on its Wedgwood neighborhood block.
The atmosphere surrounding the site seemed almost festive: Chatting neighbors and dog walkers strolled by to see Luma. A man who had just hugged the tree laughed as he brushed bark bits off his shirt. Two girls sold lemonade. Despite the convivial atmosphere, however, critical work was being done. Activist groups were working literally day and night to save the cedar, which had been scheduled to be axed on July 14: It was in the way of the housing development. Due to their ongoing efforts to urge city leaders to preserve mature trees, the cutting had already been stalled by a couple of weeks.
News stories had helped raise public awareness of Luma’s fate. I thought most visitors that day were likely Wedgwood residents, but one woman I chatted with had driven across town from West Seattle to see the tree after reading about it. She signed up with the activists to stay informed.
The sisters selling lemonade, Vera and Sabina, were donating all proceeds from their sales to help Luma (Venmo or cash accepted). I asked Vera, a fourth grader, why she was helping trees this way. “They help the planet,” she said.
Indeed, they do. According to the civic campaign The Last 6000, Luma is one of a dwindling number of “majestic trees” remaining in Seattle with a trunk diameter of 30 inches or greater. That diameter is significant because it’s a way to measure the level of carbon dioxide the tree is taking from the atmosphere, the amount of energy being conserved by shading and cooling, and the amount of water the tree absorbs during a rainstorm. In a year, one tree cools as much as 10 air conditioners running continually.
The campaign to save Luma was in full force. Colorful, hand-lettered signs and posters covered the chain-link fence between Luma and the vacant lot. “Save Seattle trees!” one sign read. “Respect our cedar brother,” “Plant seeds, not greed,” read others.
The urgency was not just about Luma – it was about all the mature trees in Seattle that have already been cut down in recent years, most for new construction. According to The Seattle Times, 255 acres of tree canopy were lost between 2016 and 2021. That’s an area the size of Green Lake, which takes me three-quarters of an hour to walk around. As anyone who has ever sought shade on a hot day knows, trees provide much-needed cooling (as well as other services).
Sketching Luma on three sunny days, I was grateful to be in the shade of other large trees. I thought about how often trees have protected me from being sunburned in the summer. The rest of the year, trees have also kept me dry while I sketched in drizzle.
The group Tree Action Seattle believes that it doesn’t have to be a “housing versus trees” issue. Creative design solutions can be found so that trees and new housing developments can coexist peacefully. “We are in the midst of a climate crisis, and we must build housing with our trees,” a statement from the group reads. “Trees provide respite from today’s extreme heat and mitigate against tomorrow’s worsening climate.”
Each time I visited Luma, I became increasingly moved by the commitment of the tree’s supporters. A person identified only as “Droplet” (to protect their identity) was living and sleeping in the tree 24/7. (I wanted to sketch Droplet, but it was too dark way up there to see much.) Groups used social media continually to rally the public and keep us informed about Luma as well as other endangered trees. Fearing for Luma, I read each update they posted with concern.
On Aug. 9, the communities and organizations working together announced joyously that Luma had been saved. After pressure from citizens supported by city leaders, the developer agreed to change its plans so that Luma could continue growing and serving the neighborhood for generations to come.
Tracking Luma’s fate led me to learn about another tree just blocks from home – a mature Douglas fir growing on a property that will soon become another development. I feel compelled to sketch all the trees currently in danger of disappearing from our urban landscape. Eleven days after I sketched it, this healthy fir was chopped down.
We all need trees more than most of us think about. Although trees are one of my favorite sketching subjects, I admit that I usually take them for granted. I appreciate that Luma has made me (and a lot of other Seattle residents) think more about trees and how they help us every day.
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