When we visited Washington recently, I drove us back through our old neighborhood, down our old street. The Leyland Cypress trees we planted eight years ago this spring are flourishing. They tower over the backyard now, spreading their lacy arms over the fence. Rob loved those trees. Born and bred in the manicured Midwest, Rob fell in love with the wild beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Like a good Midwesterner, he still hated the clover that cropped up unbidden all over our lawn, but the native conifers he absolutely adored.
Soon after we’d moved to Washington, Rob made it his goal to learn to identify all of the state’s native evergreens. On our family hikes together, he’d stop and inspect the trees until he learned their defining features. Western redcedar bark stretched long and thin up the trunks, the perfect versatile material for native peoples who wove it into baskets and jewelry and clothing. Rough and furrowed Douglas fir bark created a million hiding places for little insects who thrived in its protective ridges. Barrel-breasted Sitka spruce towered over the others, creating a canopy that sheltered a vibrant forest floor. Rob learned them all and loved them all.
When we purchased our home in a Seattle suburb, the first thing Rob wanted to do was plant conifers. Impatient to be surrounded by green, we hired a landscaper who delivered six foot trees to our property — twenty trees or so to line our yard and create our own backyard forest. Our landscaper assured us the Leyland Cypress, an Alaskan and Californian conifer hybrid, would grow rapidly and fill out quickly. Before we knew it, we had a little forest of our own.
We measured the trees’ growth through the years by taking pictures of the kids beside them. The trees flourished in the well-drained soil and summer sunshine. They grew and grew, and Rob cared for them like a doting father. He’d mulch around their bases, clear limbs broken by ice storms or wind, and gently trim and shape them. When the trees along the side of the house finally reached the window of our second-story bathroom, Rob decided it was time to set their height, and he leaned out the window to trim the tops.
It’s no wonder Rob loved the trees so much. He and they were so alike. Like the Western redcedar, Rob continually found new uses for his raw material. His career that had begun as a small town journalist morphed into finance writing, college marketing, humanitarian work and business operations. There was no subject that didn’t interest Rob, no career path he ever felt was truly closed to him if he gave it his best effort. Rob prized adaptability.
For us, his little family, Rob always stood as our Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. He created places for us to thrive, faithfully providing for and sheltering us. He was not a perfect man, but he was a good one — strong, reliable, and trustworthy as the evergreens that blanket the mountains of the home he came to love.
Last year, when we visited our old neighborhood a week before his death, Rob marveled at how the trees in our old yard had grown. “I wish we could stand in the backyard and see them,” he said as we walked our old street. We talked about all of the happy memories we’d made in the shade of those trees for all those years — throwing pitches to our emerging baseball players, grooming the lawn with our old fashioned rotary mower, building forts and a clubhouse for the kids. Those trees had seen good days.
“Tree planting is always a utopian enterprise, it seems to me, a wager on a future the planter doesn’t necessarily expect to witness,” writes Michael Pollan in his book Second Nature. Rob can no longer see those trees, but they stand as a quiet testimony to his love of wilderness, a little patch he lovingly cultivated in his own backyard. And every time I stand in a conifer forest, surrounded by these friends he knew by name, I feel him close.