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‘Once land is gone, it’s gone for good’: A tribute to Seattle’s Cass Turnbull

A couple months ago, we published a piece about a “guerrilla gardener” who filled an empty lot in Green Lake with stuffed animals and fake flowers to protest that the city sold it off instead of turning it into a green space. We granted her anonymity because she was illegally trespassing on the property and could be fined or arrested.

Over the weekend we heard that Cass Turnbull, the woman behind this neighborhood mystery, passed away. Cass founded PlantAmnesty, a nonprofit “to end the senseless torture and mutilation of trees and shrubs caused by mal-pruning,” wrote two books, and created TreePac, a political-action group advocating for more trees and green spaces in Seattle.

After receiving permission from Cass’s close friend Laura Watson to identify her, we wanted to say a little more about this extraordinary Seattleite.

Cass Turnbull works on her protest ‘zoo’ at Aurora and North 80th Street last fall. (Photo by The Evergrey)

 

The first time I (Anika) drove by the lot, I did a double take, and then craned my neck closer to the passenger side window and squinted until a car behind me honked. I could have sworn I saw some stuffed animals … and were those flowers fake or real?

A couple of weeks later I stopped by a nearby auto repair store next to the lot and asked the owner if he knew anything about the weird lot next door. He laughed in a way that made me sure he knew but wasn’t going to tell me. Later that week, I clicked around the internet until I found some stories that quoted a woman who was particularly upset about the city selling off plots of land that used to house substations to developers rather than developing them as green spaces. I called her, and that was the first time I talked to Cass.

Ohhh that? I think it’s a zoo of some kind,” she said in the voice of someone who has a secret but isn’t even trying to keep it hidden. I asked if she knew who was behind it and there was a long pause.

We gave her anonymity in the story that resulted from this conversation because, as she said, “I promised my husband I wouldn’t get arrested.”

Over the last few months, the animals and foliage were removed several times. And then they’d appear again. Just before the holidays, Cass did “a sort of finale reinstall,” as she called it. She emailed me an update:

“According to my schedule the zoo should be fully operational by the 15th. If it gets torn out, it will reappear in two days. Do not under any circumstances, alert the developer or I will strangle you with my own hands :)”

Then she sent me this photo of her work:

Photo courtesy of Cass Turnbull

But by the time I drove by, the plants and animals had already been removed. “Nothing gold can stay, or goofy either,” she wrote me. (Maybe “gold” was a typo for “good,” though actually both make sense).

I told her to keep me posted on future projects she did in the new year. And then she sent me this final e-mail:

“The future will need these properties for green space … for resiliency, for eco-system services, food security, or for any number of other public uses. Seattle’s gonna be one hot, dirty, flooded town with no respite for anybody, anywhere. Well, except the rich. Gotta start including green infrastructure with all the Density. It’s not wise policy to solve a temporary, current problem by causing a future, permanent one. Once land is gone, it’s gone for good. I’m looking forward to Smarter, Smart Growth. End rant.”

Cass was a force. She had strong opinions – to say the least – about how Seattle was growing. Some people agreed with her. Some didn’t. Regardless, based on my few brief encounters with her, there’s one thing I know for sure: She cared deeply about this city and its future.  If we all bring just an ounce of that passion to the things we most care about in and around Seattle, there’s hope yet.

Thanks to Evergrey readers Jack Bautsch and Catherine Morrison for writing in about Cass. “Thank you for composing that beautiful, funny video. It really captures her spirit,” Catherine said. “The video is a great reminder of the spunky, activist spirit with which she lived and influenced the rest of us. God speed, Cass,” said Jack. Lynda Mapes of The Seattle Times wrote more about Cass’s life and legacy here. And Peggy Sturdivant of the Ballard News-Tribune wrote a piece here.

Want to share your memories of Cass? Leave a comment below.

*Updated Editor’s Note: Thanks to a few readers who suggested that Cass was referring to the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

By Anika Anand
Anika Anand is a cofounder of The Evergrey. She previously worked at The Seattle Times Education Lab and Chalkbeat.

  • David Miller

    Thanks for this tribute. Cass was one of my very favorite people and I was very lucky to have been able to work with her over the years on Seattle’s Urban Forest issues. This is such a tragic loss for our city.

  • Jeremy Puma

    Cass was awesome and inspirational.

    Just as an FYI, “Nothing gold can stay” wasn’t a typo; it’s a quote from a (very fitting) Robert Frost poem: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/nothing-gold-can-stay

  • Laurel Howard

    I lived in a building next to this lot and about a month before I left some flowers and other trinkets started to find their way there–I always wondered who was behind it. Thank you for sharing her lovely story!

  • Bo Roth

    Oh I am so sad. I loved Cass, though I hadn’t seen her in years. Was a member of plant amnesty for many years, and took several classes from her. She was a force for such goodness.