Tree City Loses Its Cachet

Forty-plus years ago, we moved 2100 miles from the urban-Midwest to Pacific Northwest, USA, our destination city sight unseen—at least, unseen in real life. A friend had traveled there and returned flaunting post cards. One card was a view of the city’s main street. The street appeared to end in a hill covered with trees.

From my concrete-laden world, the picture was beyond implausible. I told her, “That’s not really how it looks downtown, is it? They doctored the composition to make it look nicer than it was.”

“No,” she insisted, “I think that’s really how it looks.” I remained skeptical, imagining a future reunion when I would thrust my finger at her and denounce the post card as a sham.

Three months later we set off for graduate school out west, from Interstate 80 just southwest of Chicago, across Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and into Oregon. A little ways beyond the Idaho border, we grew transfixed by low-lying white clouds on the horizon; they grew perceptibly every few miles. Eventually we realized the clouds never shape-shifted. They weren’t clouds but snow-capped mountain peaks, the Cascade Range.

Cascade Range

We hadn’t researched the area in advance of our move, but I had a vague recollection that some such geographic formation existed. Making our way up and over this gentle range, we discovered another wonder: white-ruffled rivers that babbled and burbled over rocks and timber, a marvel upending my image of rivers back home—the smooth-gliding Fox River, renown for spontaneously igniting from toxins steeped within its muddy banks. Here I found a western revision, the lively green McKenzie.

McKenzie River
Standard-issue CPO

Our old Buick sedan lumbered like a barge, side-swiping waterfalls and tipping around mountain curves, down through foothills of holly farms and blueberry fields, into the valley that cradled our new home. The town’s look was conventional—a little downbeat and old-fashioned but familiar enough for us to feel comfortable. Over the weekend, we ventured out to the city-center army surplus store for camping gear and woolen CPO jackets, 70s hippie de rigeur. My counterpart chose olive, I a polished US Navy-navy. Our arms loaded heading back to the car, my gaze swept the townscape. Sure enough the street dead-ended a quarter-mile north in a hill studded with trees. They called it a butte, just a bump on the landscape, and there it sat, right in the middle of town.

So began our decades among ski slopes, ocean cliffs overhanging beaches that spouted spray through mussel-crusted rocks, whitewater rivers, corkscrew hilly roads, and speed limit signs shot up by local cowboys. We took to hiking and camping nearly every weekend, when we weren’t in school.

We house-sat here for one of my profs

In those days, our cities had not discovered landscape architecture. They were unadorned concrete monuments. Except for the poshest residential areas, streets had not been transformed into boulevards with landscaped medians. Businesses had not framed their entry doors with potted ornamental grasses. Our new city, in this respect, was rather unkempt. Charming bunglalows aside, you could discern no exclusive neighborhoods, except around the university where professors maintained dignified red brick colonials with boxwood hedging.

On campus
Douglas fir as far as the eye can see

But trees were everywhere. “Tree City!” one of my new school buddies from Iowa gushed. University sidewalks were lined with a smattering of variously colored maples among the fir. That’s Douglas fir, to be precise—not a true fir, nor genetically aligned to other evergreens, suggesting this tree was a type unto itself. Documented in the 18th century by an eponymous Scottish naturalist, native Douglas fir stretches from north of the (San Francisco) Bay Area right up through Oregon, Washington, and into British Columbia. On our weekend jaunts east from town and into the forests of fir, the hillsides to the horizon softened from dusky green to deep and frosty blue. Our only occupation: to inhale, to move, and to reflect back freshness and well being.

Back on campus, classic university life rebooted each fall, rustling around leafy quadrangles and dignified elder evergreens, the imperturbable solace of college student life.

Three years into grad school we had a baby on the way and established ourselves in a tiny rental house set back from the street under a towering redwood and walnut trees. Another couple years and number two was on the horizon. So we bought a home with two mature willow trees, a scraggly fir, and a sumac out front, three firs, a cedar, and five fruit trees out back. Thirteen trees on our half-acre lot.

Over the decades we added more: a line of poplars along with apple, peach, plum, and cherry. Eventually birches, sweet gum, dogwood, redbud, maple, and cypress elbowed their way in. Admittedly some trees died. The peach quickly succumbed when we refused to spray it with pesticides. Fifty-foot poplars rotted from the core out. One willow ran afoul of the electric company, and bronze borers attacked the birches.

Forever, it seems, green growth has been irrepressible in the Pacific Northwest. Despite our losses, we’ve steadily looked out over a veritable parkland, now grown in order and sophistication. Climate-wise, I flatter myself that we’re model citizens. We tend the grounds, grow veggies, compost, and plant for pollinators. In truth, we’re no exception. Tens of thousands of neighbors share our devotion to outdoor space. Greenspace, parks and recreation bond measures pass by landslides here.

Acer japonica Sango-Kaku/ Coral bark maple

No wonder the report this year from our Urban Forestry Supervisor came as a shock. “Tree City’s” tree canopy is declining about 1% a year. To restore and sustain our ecosystem, we need to plant three to five thousand more trees a year over the next ten to twenty years.

I should have paid attention when a well established 25-foot maple across the street up and died last year. So did a hardy 20-year-old coral-bark maple outside our kitchen windows. Too dry? Twenty-first century heat waves and forest fires have exacted their toll. While those miles and miles of Douglas fir remain one of the best oxygen-producers on the planet, annual conditions for their stability have grown wobbly. Fire and heat aren’t the only parts of the equation. We face a human toll. More inhabited space means less canopy. Trees increase the soil’s water retention. As go the trees, so goes our water.

Black Tartarian cherry tree, planted in 1847

We came west for school; it’s not an exaggeration to say we stayed for the trees. Trees are our fundamental daily furnishings, and they enrich every breath. Word has it an acre of Douglas fir can absorb the amount of carbon dioxide produced by two cars in one year. We don’t have an acre of fir on our lot, which suggests we’re not keeping our part of the bargain. From the university-area hilltop park studded with oak and fir, to the heritage cherry tree in the city rose garden, to our flatland but tree-rich neighborhood across town, this tree city still loves its trees, with insufficient support, it appears. I imagine we all can find ways to befriend our own, others’, even public and wild trees. Here as of yet, no one has pressed the five-alarm bell, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to keep planting.

We’re having a heat wave

Super strawberry honey moon, June, 2021

The strawberry moon appeared like an omen that crept around the globe the last week in June. We noticed it as we topped an overpass driving home after dark. A glowing beach ball moon hung over the tree line. As we dipped lower, it vanished as suddenly as it had appeared,

At 2:00 a.m. that night it bounced back. Dazzling light shafts radiated through our bedroom blinds. Would it blind me if I sustained my dumbfounded gaze? Transfixed I wondered what a nocturnal sun might portend.

Morning dawned unseasonably warm. All week our news and weather apps warned of oppressive heat coming to the Pacific Northwest. Friday the high would be a tolerable but not pleasant 95° F, Saturday 102°, past the tipping point, and Sunday 113°, unthinkable.

Native Chicago mid-westerners, we transplanted to the Pacific Northwest scores of ordinary moons ago. Since then we have strategized travel so as to skirt hot and humid summer visits. We hold dear those lush cornfields that furnished our childhood landscapes, but the same spongy fields absorb buckets of rain into 14 feet of sandy loam that just as quickly releases back its watery weight. Humid air is hotter, more oppressive to be sure, where the heat index reaches 110° when the thermometer shows ninety.

The Pacific Northwest is another story altogether. October hints at the rain’s return, but real rainy days begin in November and never surprise us through June. Summers? They’re bone dry. Lawns turn straw-colored. Summer green is the heavy powdery blue-green of 100-foot Douglas fir exclamation points structuring the landscape. We might have one very hot day a year, first week in August. OK, maybe two days. Otherwise the US Northwest stakes its reputation on rain, trees, and clean air.

Well, that was back around the time Madonna came to town. Maybe 1985. In March. When asked how she liked it here, she said she liked that there are lots of trees and everything is green and wet. But I digress.

Oregon azalea

Summers start cool and windy. Ordinarily a day in June goes like this: nighttime temperatures in the upper 40s. Cool marine air blows in from the coast (an hour west) so that early morning if you sit on your patio, the umbrella will lift right out of its stand and try to blast over the 6-foot wall into the neighbor’s yard. Other than that, you’re not enjoying coffee, say, with the morning paper, because the paper (yes, hard copy) gets rumpled by the wind, and despite the hot coffee, the firs are shading the deck and you’re freezing. Coffee on the patio in early summer is a blanketed affair. Afternoons warm up maybe to 70°. Giant clashing azalea blossoms persist until you’re praying the voluptuous blooms would wilt and be done already. The coherent vibrancy of real summer flowers calls for heat.

June this year it’s 70° F on our deck at 8:00 am. I walk out barefoot, jacketless and sweaterless. There’s a light breeze fluttering a few leaves and lightly billowing the red patio umbrellas. My newspaper stays put. Misting drip sprinklers freshen the air. Two mourning doves lift their ruffled white and tawny wings over the grape arbor. We sit and we breathe. We say it’s beautiful out here.

On about 11 o’clock all is still and waves of heat smother me. I have a new Windex outdoor washer for my windows. I screw it onto the hose and start soaping and rinsing my way around the house, my face up toward drifting spray. The glass now sparkles but the sun glares. Back inside I start to reopen windows, but check myself, ensure they are firmly closed, and adjust the blinds to shut out light.

The weather app has shot up to 108° F, from 106° ten minutes ago. I’ve moved upstairs where we have an air conditioner. Who needs an air conditioner in the Pacific Northwest, we used to say. Driving into our driveway on a 90° day in years past, the air felt 10 degrees cooler when we stepped out of the car. We were surrounded by trees, firs yes, but also willow, oak, birch, maple, dogwood, cypress, spruce, and apple. Lots of trees—pumping out oxygen and moving water around our domestic atmosphere. Inside our house was air conditioned. we could say—by trees. Not today.

Willamette Valley vineyard

Inside the darkened house, I think about the grape vines, not our four little arbor vines of seedless pink grapes, but the acres of vineyards throughout this western part of the state. They grow predominately pinot noir and pinot gris grapes because of our cool, moderate climate. The closest you can get to good French burgundy, they say. Joseph Drouhin’s daughter Dominique (Drouhin a classic producer in Bourgogne, France), founded Domaine Drouhin, about ninety minutes north of us. Nearby Domaine Serene, too, grows Burgundian rootstock. What happens to pinot noir grapes when they get too much heat? Recent tastings tell us the wine is “hot,” that is, heavy and brassy, not light and elegant. What will happen to our wine industry? Will we wind up drinking tempranillo and zinfandel—the cozying winter wines?

We’re now at 109°. I’m sweating in an air conditioned room. My phone’s weather app tells me we’ll be hanging over 100° until 9:00 pm. My poor garden. We do have summer flowers this year. Zinnias, salvia, zonal geraniums, broad drifts of lavender, roses of course, but they’re looking lackluster. My hydrangeas sulk, bowing their mopheads to the heat. “I don’t do heat,” they say. Neither do I. Well, I guess I do.

Last night we talked about how over the past several years, crises have forced us to stay home. Summer 2019 it was my broken leg. 2020 was the pandemic. Last September it was wildfires throughout our region, locked in without good air. Now we are holed in and pent up this time from heat.

I’m thinking about our ideal body temperature: 98.6° F. When we’re up to 108°, isn’t that hazardous territory for the human body, like when you call the paramedics? I read just now that dangerously high temperatures—fevers—range from 104 to 107° F. So when they tell us to stay inside and stay cool, we’re convinced. We stay home.

Then I think that if I had wanted to live in perpetual sunshine and heat, I would have moved to Phoenix. But I didn’t. I moved to the Pacific Northwest, where the people and climate are in sync. They’re chill. This suits me. Now we’re being stuffed into new suits. Heat. Drought. Xeriscape gardening. I want fresh water. I want wafts of cool air and birdsong in the morning. I want green plants. I want rivers and streams that rush over rocks and host trout and salmon.

So many wants. So spoiled are we. We’ve been making choices and getting our way all along: where to live, what to wear, how to eat, how to heat (and cool) our home, what to drive, what to plant, and what to water. Maybe our original sin is to choose that which destroys us. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From here in the Northwest US, it looks as though fire has the upper hand. Our 2021 climate is what it is, as they say. Doubtless it has become what we have chosen.

Air is all you need

September 18, 2020
Today would have marked eleven days of hazardous air. On Friday, day four, our son in Chicago texted around 8 a.m. to ask how we were doing. I remember saying something like “I wonder what happens when there’s no oxygen left.” To me it didn’t sound too dramatic, but he called within a few minutes. He’d found some empty flights from our Pacific Northwest home to Chicago. We could leave tomorrow, stay with his family for a week, and return when this was all over. We love Chicago and long to see our family there. But, we thought: COVID. Airports. Undependable fellow travelers. Car rental hubbub at O’Hare. We could be exposed, asymptomatic, inadvertently importing the virus to them. So we stayed put amidst the toxins. After eleven days, today it rained. Sir John Lennon, you may prescribe love, but all you really need is air.

That Monday before, Labor Day, September 7th, our day at the coast was so glorious we hesitated to leave. We took off around 5 p.m., when light glinted and sparked from horizon to lacy shoreline, but we cast a cold eye onward.

By the time our car had climbed up the first mountain pass back to the valley, my cell phone began to blare: LEVEL 1 ALERT! Wildfires! Within seconds the car tipped to the downward side where smoke crawled over the landscape below.

We soon learned that Level 1 meant “get ready” Level 2, by the time we were home, was “get set,” and Level 3, a few hours later “go now!”

As it turned out, we were not and would not be in any evacuation area, but we discovered the next day that as we were driving, twenty-foot flames had been leaping and careening around our friends’ homes up river. Before the GO Now! alert sounded, they were out, heading to their kids’ home in town, not knowing whether they would see their own again. They were among the fortunate.

We valley-dwellers were thrust into the nebula of wildfire-land. Tuesday first light was at 8 a.m., a bright marigold. The hazy sun soon faded to a dull yam shade. We read the news and checked the Air Quality Index (AQI). Hazardous.

The AQI scores grade air quality from 0 to 500. 0 to 50 is green, or good. One point over 50 and you’re no longer good, you’re moderate. Politically speaking, moderate, to me at least, is good, but moderate in air quality and you’re on your way to unhealthy. You can be unhealthy for sensitive groups before you’re just plain unhealthy. Before you get to hazardous, you’re very unhealthy and experiencing “health effects” like headache, cough, damaged lungs, and even cardiac issues. Hazardous, beginning at 300, is beyond that. Our air quality as of Tuesday night was in the 400s. When I went to bed Thursday night, we were at 525, even though the AQI doesn’t go up to 525. A friend’s post on Facebook said she glanced at the AQI around midnight Thursday night; it was 758. True, officially 758 doesn’t exist. We had reached air quality Never-Neverland.

We already had done the obvious. We closed the windows first thing. We have an air conditioner that brings in outside air. Not going there. We began running it on recycled air. But we were two humans in shared space taking in used air. We know trees give off oxygen, but our windows were closed to the 40 trees on our property. These were my thoughts when I wondered to my son what happens when you run out of oxygen. I started drinking water by the gallon, a cup an hour, figuring the O in H2O provides some form of new oxygen. Showers, steaming pots on the stove—we kept breathing.

By day five I grew testy with the expert warnings and cavalier advice flowing full force from local and national media. Masks don’t work. The fine particulate matter that ruins your lungs slips through a COVID face covering. Scarves and bandanas, even wet, are useless. Get an N95 respirator. Make sure you find someone who has been trained to help you select the right size, test the seal, and teach you how to use it. If you can do that, it “may offer some protection if used correctly.” Don’t use up all the N95 masks, because front line health care workers need those masks to care for victims of the pandemic concurrent with your puny wildfire.

About your air conditioner, it had better have a high efficiency particulate (HEPA) air filter or better yet, an electro-static precipitator (ESP). I went for the filter. I needed a MERV13 grade air filter and found one—the wrong size, not suitable for the air conditioner, but all that was left. We bungee-corded it to a box fan. If all else fails, they told us, seek shelter elsewhere. Thanks for that. There was nowhere within the 100,00 square miles of our state we could go. The fire and smoke ensnared all means of escape from us outward.

We were daily reminded that when smoke is heavy over a prolonged period of time, fine particles build up indoors even though we cannot see them. Turning on bathroom fans and stove venting systems will suck in more of the toxic air outside. Forget using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves, and candles. Don’t vacuum because that agitates the particles already inside.

As the week wore on, news seeped in, as did the stray particles that stirred each time you cracked open a door. Bad air, they said, increases your anxiety level. That seemed consistent with my state of mind. What can you do for it? You can’t exercise because that consumes what little oxygen you have. Yoga, meditation: these are your best bet. Not my forté. You can drink. And eat. Although it sounds grim, we found solace in organizing our vital records.

Another Monday arrived, a full one week into suffocating windless conditions. The fire nearest us remained zero percent contained. Meteorologists now were firmly predicting three days of solid rain, arriving Wednesday. By Tuesday they were back-pedaling. Maybe by the end of the week . . . .

We noticed that the coast was experiencing some air breaks. We had a place to stay. A little over an hour’s drive, and we could be taking deep breaths, maybe even picking up some clam chowder take-out. We made a break for it.

Checking the AQI on our arrival, we found we were now at only very unhealthy. Whoopee, but no deep breathing. A window had been left open a sliver during the fires, so our respite kicked off with masks on (we had graduated to KN95 masks) for a thorough cleaning of ash from every ash-coated surface. Fortunately we had brought along our bungee-corded box fan with it’s MERV13 filter. We could still smell smoke, but after vacuuming furniture (hang the prohibition—the vacuum cleaner there had a HEPA filter), we felt we could sit down inside with a glass of wine and leftover chili, catching a faded facsimile of a sunset over the eerily glassy sea.

The next morning our AQI numbers had flipped. The valley was now just under unhealthy whereas we had tipped beyond hazardous. More holing in. We’d stick it out. Rain would doubtless come first to the coast. And it did that evening with a two-minute shower at dusk. Thursday it returned with a vengeance. Our toxic air quality plunged to an innocuous moderate. I donned my rubber boots, stepped outside with an umbrella, and trudged down to the beach, where raindrops steadily plopped and pattered into rivulets along the shore.


Back in the valley it rained and rained that day. The rain would drop relief onto our local fire, our twenty-something state fires. Our firefighters, those from here and those from everywhere else—Utah, Colorado, the National Guard, farmers with ‘dozers, volunteers with shovels—would pause for a moment and take a pure breath. And they would forge on.

September 26, 2020
Now, nearly three weeks after the fire jolted our world, its 173,000+ of the million acres statewide, are just 45% contained. An inch of rain has helped to quell further spread beyond its perimeter. Firefighters “mop up,” subduing hot spots. Displaced homeowners are able to consult maps to determine the status of their homes. More than 60% (that is more than 700) of the structures hit are a total loss. There are gradations of shaken; I realize I have not encountered the half of it. Still we all are breathing plentiful fresh air this fair afternoon while bright cumulus banks blow across a cerulean backdrop.