Can Seattle have both?
When I was in my late twenties, I got a great deal on a beach cottage rental in West Seattle. For seven happy years, I enjoyed a spectacular 180-degree unobstructed view of Puget Sound, the Olympic mountains and the dramatic Seattle skies.
The place sat perched above the beach behind a seawall, but at high tide, the waves often splashed against the front door. During storms, the waves sometimes crashed right over the entire house and I had to time my comings and goings to avoid being drenched. Every day I enjoyed watching for sea lions, harbor seals, eagles, great blue herons, ducks, osprey, and the occasional pod of Puget Sound orcas.
My sweet deal ended when the owner died unexpectedly and I had to move out. The rickety old place was torn down by the new owners, and like most of the vintage cottages in the area, it was replaced with a multi-million dollar mansionette, sitting on one of the best view properties in all of Seattle.
It’s funny, though, all the time I lived there on the beach and had the gorgeous water and sky and mountains to enjoy…I missed having trees nearby. Sometimes it felt harsh…the sun often blindingly bright on the water, and the wet, salty winds constantly battering the house and yard. It would have been nice if the owners had left a few trees.
The house I live in now is not a view property, but I have big windows that look out onto a small, rambunctious garden, and I never tire of the trees and the flowers and all the birds and butterflies they attract. It’s a constantly changing picture of light, shadow, shapes and colors. It’s not spectacular, but it’s wonderful in a small-is-beautiful kind of way.
Unfortunately, the Seattle area is losing its signature native trees. Our hilly geography of water and mountains offers world-class views, and people want the biggest, most expansive view possible. Some hilltop neighborhoods, particularly those built in the postwar era, took out virtually all their large trees, and replanted with low-growing shrubs and smaller trees, often maintained in blobby topiary shapes. Pretty, but in an alien, bonsai kind of way.
Recently, a big story around town featured ex-Mariner John Olerud’s lawsuit against his neighbor who refused to cut down a large evergreen blocking the Oleruds’ view of the Space Needle. Never mind that the Oleruds surely have plenty of other beautiful things to gaze upon in their gazillion dollar place—their property just wouldn’t have the same value unless it carried the full lineup of real-estate view tags: “water, mountain, territorial, city skyline (including Space Needle!)”.
People in this town have been led to believe (encouraged by the hyped-up real estate industry) that views are something to own—to lay claim to—more than they are something to actually look at. For pure visual beauty, a tree is far more interesting than the Space Needle. Sure, the Needle is iconic, and we all love it for that reason, but does anyone really spend more than a few seconds actually looking at it? I doubt it. And most water and mountain views are even more interesting framed by leafy “windows”—a device that has been used by landscape designers and painters for centuries.
A serious side-effect of view obsession is our diminishing wildlife habitat. Large trees, particularly our native evergreens, are critical places for many kinds of birds and other animals. The health of the urban forest depends on maintaining these trees in private yards and neighborhoods, not just in parks. (Especially since the Parks Department started looking at park forests as places for high-impact recreation development).
Next time you look out your window or around your neighborhood, try looking at trees differently. They’re not blocking the view…they are the view. Try noticing how the sunlight makes the leaves appear to glow, or how the sky peeks though leaf-openings, or listen the leaves rustling in the breeze. Look for songbirds, or woodpeckers, or small mammals. You might find trees more interesting than you had realized.
A week after I posted this, I noticed this story in the Tacoma News Tribune. It’s about one of those bonsai neighborhoods and the lengths people will go to in keeping their “unobstructed views”. Check it out and see what you think.