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Bernie O’Brien’s Tree Sanctuary

One man’s quest to give a second life to trees destined for the chipper

“And this,” Bernie O’Brien says, his eyes getting dewy, “is the Joshua Tree.”

For an hour now, Bernie has led me on a walking tour of his 5-acre wooded property near Seattle, introducing me to a selection of his favorite trees. Western hemlocks, big-leaf maples, cedars, and Sitka spruces rub shoulders and stretch skyward all over this plot, 38 miles and a ferry ride southwest of the city. Most of those leafy giants were well established when Bernie and his wife, Michelle, bought the place. The rest, though, he dug out of backyards all over the area and brought here in the bed of his ancient red Ford F100.

Over there’s what the 56-year-old calls the Spirit Tree, a gnarled noble fir that a family pilfered as a seedling from a state park in southern Washington more than 35 years ago, just months before the park was leveled by the fury of Mount St. Helens. There are the 16 Japanese maples that were set to be bulldozed to make room for a housing development. And then there’s the Placenta Tree, which … you know what, let’s just not.

But the Joshua Tree is something different altogether. Bernie told me about this 18-foot Douglas fir—its namesake, how he adopted it, the responsibility he feels to keep it alive—when we met for the first time weeks earlier, and he did it with the somber tone usually reserved for discussing a monument. Honestly, it felt a little over-the-top because, come on, we’re talking about a tree. But seeing it now, its spindly branches haloed by the sun on an uncharacteristically clear May day in the Pacific Northwest, I think I get it. I might even get trees, in a way I never have before.

Have you ever looked at a tree? Really studied the knots and imperfections in its trunk the way you’d obsess over the blemishes on your face? Gotten so close you could smell its branches, like damp cardboard left to dry and curl in the sun? I hadn’t, at least not before I met Bernie. Which is why I can’t tell you much about the three fruit trees I cut down behind my house in 2010.

I was a first-time homeowner, intent on, as a real estate agent would say, making the place my own. Because I’m the son of a man who took as much pride in the exterior of his home as its interior, landscaping was a priority. I had two goals: beautification and increased functionality. Any existing plant life that impeded that plan was expendable. And those three trees—two craggy, lichen-covered plums and an apple—cast too much shadow on my postage stamp–sized yard and would make it impossible to one day play catch with my then-infant son. So they had to go.

If only I’d known Bernie back then. By the time I was firing up the chainsaw, he’d been transplanting trees to the property—which he calls the farm, though the only things he harvests are sweat and good intentions—for more than a year. “I don’t know anyone who goes to the lengths Bernie does, of digging out these humongous root balls and then getting them into his truck and planting them on his property,” says Randall Babich, who owns a large parcel of land across the street from Bernie’s. “He’s like the Mother Teresa of trees.”

It started with Craigslist. Bernie is a junker, self-professed. The double-hung, wood-framed windows in his house on the farm? They came from an acquaintance’s home that had been gutted for a remodel. He saved a downed tree on its way to the chipper and turned its trunk into a bench for Michelle’s mom to rest on when she takes long walks on his property. In 2009, he stumbled upon an ad for 15 Douglas firs that a woman wanted removed from her yard, dead or alive.

“It was muddy, dirty work digging them up, but I didn’t care,” Bernie tells me. It’s two weeks after the farm tour, and we’re sitting at the kitchen table in his primary home, a modest, eclectically decorated craftsman in West Seattle. He has broad shoulders, a narrow gap in his teeth, and close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. He’s a Carhartts–and–T-shirt kind of guy who answers his cell Hi, sweetie every time Michelle calls. Every time.

While we sprint through life, trees amble. So Bernie doesn’t plant a tree where it will look good now, but where it will become part of a bigger tapestry.

Those trees weren’t just an impulse acquisition; they solved a problem. Bernie and Michelle bought the farm as a weekend retreat—he’s the property manager for a wealthy investor/art collector, and she’s an interior designer—and early on he’d fall asleep there to a chorus of owl hoots and coyote howls. “It made me feel like I was living in a developed ecosystem,” he says. “I was just a visitor.” But months later, a neighbor had her property logged, and the woods fell silent. Bernie couldn’t replace what was lost, but he could build out his own little forest with other people’s botanical castoffs.

So back he went to Craigslist, again and again and again. When I ask him how many trees he’s moved out to the farm, he smiles sheepishly at Michelle, who’s just walked in with a load of groceries. “Come on, man, you ask me that in front of my wife?”

Is that a bad question?

“We have a joke,” she interjects. “Some people sneak new clothes or new shoes into the house. Bernie sneaks in new trees.” She lowers her voice in a loving impression of him: “Oh, I don’t know where that new tree came from.”

The answer, by the way, is well over a thousand. Since 2009. And he even took one year off after tearing his rotator cuff. Only about a quarter of those transplants were taller than 5 feet, but still: That’s a lot of digging. Most of which he did by himself.

In April 2012, after receiving a tip from one of Bernie’s sisters, a reporter for The Seattle Times wrote about what, by then, had evolved from a simple attempt to fortify the farm against the steady march of development to an honest–to–John Muir quest to save doomed trees. The article appeared under the headline “The Human Shovel,” and in the months after it ran, Bernie received 300 emails from Seattleites with trees they needed to off-load. Some were very serious, he says. Others probably just wanted a little help with their yard work.

Among the serious was Kathy Edgell. “I read about you in the paper the other day and would like to offer you a 5' douglas fir which is in a large plastic pot,” her email began, innocuously. As Bernie continued to scan it, though, his eyes welled up. He tried to read it to Michelle, but couldn’t finish.

Edgell’s son Joshua had been killed by an avalanche while snowboarding in Switzerland in March 2006. At his memorial, she handed out 75 seedlings so friends and family would have something tangible by which to remember him. Of the few that were left after the ceremony, she planted one in a pot in her backyard. Six years later, it was flourishing, but it would eventually need to go into the ground, and her tiny yard was no place for a tree that could one day reach 300 feet. “It would give me a good feeling to give this plant to you,” she wrote.

Bernie may only be here temporarily, but he’ll always be able to watch over his trees.

If Edgell got a good vibe about Bernie from the article, the feeling only intensified after meeting him. “I thought, Oh, gosh, this is the perfect person,” she says now. “He was just so kind.” (The two had lost touch in the years since the original exchange, and when he contacted her to see if she’d speak to me, he also asked for her permission to prune the tree.)

The Joshua Tree has more than tripled in size in the five years since Bernie transplanted it, evidence of not only the good growing conditions at his property, but also of his dedication to its health. That first year, the most crucial to its adjustment, he never skipped a watering, even when his schedule forced him to neglect other trees. It’s getting so big now, stretching its long, needled branches up toward the sun, that he’s beginning to think about how he’ll soon have to cut back the nearby western hemlocks to give it room.

While we sprint through life, trees amble. So, at the farm, Bernie measures time in decades, rather than hours or days. He doesn’t plant a tree where it will look good now, but where it will one day become part of a bigger tapestry. It’s at the heart of a friendly debate that he and Michelle have all the time. “She thinks in terms of two or three years,” he says. “And I say, ‘But, sweetie, you have to think 10 or 20 years from now.’”

In 20 years, Bernie will be well into his 70s. But his forest will still be young, and it will outlive him. Which presents a bittersweet dilemma: What will happen to the farm after he’s gone? One of his neighbors has an existentialist mantra: “One man’s plan … ,” which is another way of saying that the next person to own your property might not see it for what you do. Bernie’s plan is to put the property into a trust that will prevent anyone from logging it after he dies. He may only be here temporarily, but he’ll always be able to watch over his trees.

Anyone can dig a tree out of the ground. I know this because I’ve done it. I wasn’t satisfied with just cutting down those two plums and an apple in my backyard—Can’t leave behind anything for the little guy to trip on!—so I tore out the stumps, too. They weren’t so much living things as tasks to complete on my way to landscaping perfection. So I hacked and sawed and excavated until I could wrench them free. And then I threw them on the compost pile.

To rip a tree from the only home it’s ever known with the goal of keeping it alive takes a special mix of brute force and delicate coaxing. It takes the right tools and methods; clean, sharp shovels make the best cuts and reduce the chances of an infection weakening the roots. It takes an understanding of the growing season; you want to transplant after the ground thaws but before late spring, when the tree wakes from its dormancy and begins replenishing its energy stores. In other words, it takes care—something of which I had none and Bernie has a surplus.

He’s not perfect. He estimates that 40 percent of his transplants haven’t survived. And he gets legitimately upset when he does that math. But then I remind him that 100 percent would have been turned to mulch had he not taken them, and he brightens. “I’ve never thought of it that way,” he says. “All of them would have been cut down.”

I’ll admit, there were moments as I guided the chainsaw through those trunks that I felt … something. Not really guilt because, as I rationalized it then, I paid for that backyard. Instead, maybe it was a fear of what the neighbors thought; they knew the previous owner, an elderly woman who, decades earlier, had raised two boys in that house. Were they judging me for tampering with her little version of perfection? I pushed away the thought and cracked a beer to celebrate the fruits of my labor.

At Bernie O’Brien’s farm all these years later, though, standing among the forest that he inherited and augmented, I couldn’t help but think of that woman and those trees. Maybe they meant nothing to her and her husband. Maybe they planted them without thinking about how big they’d really get. Maybe they hated them.

But what if she picked the apples to bake pies that cooled on the kitchen windowsill? What if he loved birds and hung feeders from the plums’ branches? What if their boys played tag back there, chasing each other around the trunks and hiding in the high branches?

Not every tree is special. Even Bernie knows that. They all have a history, though, even if we can’t see it.


Matthew Halverson has written for Conde Nast Traveler, Seattle Met, and St. Louis Magazine. He lives in Seattle. Email him at matt.halverson@gmail.com.

Illustration by Levi Hastings

Originally Published November 2017