Evangelical tree-hugging, along with other native plants

Oceanspray is among Center Island’s native plants I’ve sought to preserve through educational — and entertaining? — posters.

CAN TREE HUGGERS convert the masses? We can try.

I’ve given up denying the tree-hugger label. I embrace it, along with firs and cedars. I’m pretty sure I cemented my reputation on Center Island a few years back when a former caretaker cut down a beautiful big fir in front of my cabin. At the road’s edge, it was on community property, so he was technically within his rights. But it wasn’t unhealthy, leaning, or in any way an obvious threat to the public good.

For context, this was back in the days when I was still a working stiff, with a busy 40-hour-a-week job in the city. My family retreated to our cabin for a quick weekend once a month, if we were lucky. Once here, after battling through freeway traffic and squeezing into a crowded water taxi for an often bouncy voyage, my favorite decompression hour involved firing up the charcoal barbecue on the cedar deck, sipping a glass of something choice, and gazing through a curtain of big firs and maples as the sun sank over Lopez Sound.

Years of savoring that view, which includes some of the largest and oldest trees on the island, made me familiar with each one. The giant Doug fir with thick branches gnarled as an old man’s arthritic fingers. The forked hemlock with the big black hollow where squirrels nest. The Douglas maple whose dazzling fallen leaves stuck to my deck railing amid October mists.

So when I confronted the caretaker to express my dismay that he had removed a healthy big tree from my favorite view, in my emotion I blurted out, “Every one of those trees is my friend!”

Ouch.

It was true, certainly. But was I 12 years old?

A former logger from Sedro-Woolley, the caretaker surely repeated that line far and wide.

Incidentally, I never did get a clear explanation why he took down the tree. Maybe he needed firewood.

That was years ago. These days I’m a little more circumspect — or grown up, at least — as to how I express my tree-hugging nature. I also acknowledge that I am at least partial owner of two chainsaws. I have cut down trees — unhealthy ones — and I partially heat my cabin with wood harvested on the island.

But I continue to value the island’s lovely woods, and I believe I’ve found a better way to express that.

Two things set me off in recent times. The first occasion was when I volunteered for a work party to clean up one of the island’s little community park lots. While I envisioned picking up litter and raking fallen limbs, some of my neighbors had another idea. With machetes in hand, they undertook to denude a hillside of its salal. “Wait! Stop! That’s a beautiful native plant, what are you doing?” I — once again — blurted. “Think of the erosion that will cause.”

Salal is the most common native shrub on Center Island.

They stopped. But there were mutters and smoldering glances. Cantwell the Tree Hugger was standing in the way of “cleaning up” Center Island.

The second occasion came when a new cabin owner moved to the island and immediately clear-cut the lush and healthy salal from his property. In its place he planted laurel bushes like you’ll find at Home Depot. He lined them up to form a hedge just like you see in Bellevue or Redmond.

What’s worse, it became a copy-cat crime. A week or two later his next-door neighbor planted his own laurel hedge.

My question: Why did they bother to buy property on a remote, semi-wild island in the first place? Were they on a mission to bring the suburbs to the San Juans?

But I kept the snide remarks between me and friends.

Publicly, I set out to educate and, perhaps, entertain. For decades, I was a professional outdoors writer and photographer. So over the past couple years I’ve produced three small posters under the headline, “Getting to Know Center Island’s Native Plants.” I’ve posted them in the island’s mail shack and clubhouse, and Monique Maas, the island farmer, has shown them off at her produce stand.

So far, I’ve featured salal, oceanspray and, most recently, snowberry. Have the posters made a difference? Hard to know. Nobody’s torn them down, at least. It’s a small thing I can do without trampling anybody’s right to do what they wish with their own property.

Here’s what my snowberry poster looks like. I hope it makes people think. Maybe it will slow the machetes.