October 15, 2007 in City

Connect: Arboretum a tree whisperer’s joy

Pia K. Hansen Staff writer
Photos by Dan Pelle photo

Dean Evans, left, has lived in Spokane since 1982 but has never visited Spokane’s Finch Arboretum. On Tuesday he brought his uncle Clancy Evens to the park to take in the afternoon color before Clancy caught a plane back to his home in Glendale, Calif.
(Full-size photo)

At a glance

An arboretum primer

Who was John Aylard Finch (1850-1915)?

Finch came to Spokane from England with his parents in 1854. As a young man, he left this area to work in steel and iron but returned in 1887. He married Charlotte Swingler and they settled in the Kirtland Cutter and Karl Malmgren designed Finch Mansion, 2340 W. First Ave. Finch went into the mining business with Amasa B. Campbell; together they operated the Gem Standard and the Hecla mines. Finch was also president of numerous other local businesses including the Blalock Fruit Co. and National Lumber Co. In 1891, he was elected to the Idaho State Senate.

Why is the arboretum named after him?

In 1907, the Spokane Board of Park Commissioners was drawing up a master plan and set its sights on a mile-long strip by Garden Springs Creek – the current location of the arboretum – as a strip of land it would like to acquire.

Finch donated some of the land, as did D.H. Dwight, another influential Spokane businessman who had a summer cottage there. Dwight planted some of the oldest trees at the arboretum, and eventually the Parks Department acquired all the land.

When Finch died in 1915, he was widely recognized for his philanthropic efforts and considered one of the single largest donors to the Spokane parks system.

Work on the arboretum as it looks today began in 1949 with 49 specimens showcasing 23 species of trees, shrubs and bushes. Today, the John A. Finch Arboretum covers about 65 acres with more than 2,000 labeled trees and shrubs, representing more than 600 species and varieties.

This year’s Fall Leaf Festival takes place at the arboretum on Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Bring a picnic, enjoy the stunning fall colors, jump in a gigantic pile of leaves, and pick up information from environmental and gardening organizations. It’s free. Call (509) 624-4832 or (509) 363-5455

Sources: city of Spokane historic preservation office; city of Spokane Parks Department publications; The Spokesman-Review, Oct. 11, 1964; Nostalgia Magazine, December 2000.

Armed with a vague memory of a college botany class I flunked 20 years ago, I set out for the John A. Finch Arboretum.

And it’s gorgeous. Trees and bushes light up in bright mustard yellows and burning reds, the lawns are fat and soft and dark green, and there are people all over the place.

Families are taking pictures in front of bushes the color of fire. Among the crab apples – as I later learn they are – a handful of people are playing lacrosse. Kids run ahead of their parents, looking for brightly colored leaves and cones. Some gather at the little creek, peering intently for whatever life is in there. A woman sits on a bench, carrying on a quiet cell-phone conversation.

I find a place to sit by the giant willow tree in the middle of the main lawn and turn around just in time to watch a man, slowly, make his way toward the parking lot on what I guess must be new artificial legs, supported by two canes.

I walk on and follow the “blind trail” – an interactive nature trail established by Girl Scout Troop 22, using a guide rope and featuring signs in Braille. I close my eyes and follow the rope – but with steady traffic on the freeway droning to my left and loud crashing noises coming from the bushes on my right I quickly open them again.

What I see among the trees can best be described as squirrels carrying on their cone-trafficking with as much noise as a herd of hogs. I walk on, and end up surprisingly surrounded by hawthorns – one of my favorite trees.

I can feel the sun on my cheeks and my nose as I turn around and walk back toward my car. The lindens sit to my right, a collection of perfectly tree-shaped trees, like the ones you see on model train sets. The sun is setting behind me.

When I return to the arboretum the next day, head gardener Sally Sullivan is waiting for me – in the rain.

“This really is the best light to see the place in,” she says, as we survey the arboretum under a gray sky, rain softly falling on umbrellas. “While it rains, or right after the rain stops but before the sun comes out – that’s when I like it the best.”

She’s been at the job for over a decade, and she works year-round taking care of the grounds. Her cap reads “life is good” and she affectionately refers to the trees as hers.

“I’d say I have a personal relationship with the trees out here,” Sullivan says.

I tell her how I’d never been to the arboretum before and couldn’t quite find my way around and she laughs: “People say that all the time – we are the best-kept secret.” We walk up through the middle of the arboretum and return on the gravel path that runs next to the freeway.

“This is a learning place,” Sullivan says. “We work really hard to keep all the trees labeled with the genus, the species, and the year it was planted, and the Latin name.”

Earlier on, sitting in a little break room and workshop, we talked about all the wildlife that’s out here: deer, a moose now and then, red-tailed hawks, nuthatches, quail, squirrels and the occasional porcupine.

People ask Sullivan all sorts of questions.

“Often, they want to know if I know what kind of tree is in that and that spot (somewhere in the city),” Sullivan says. “They describe it and say, ‘it looks real pretty right now’ and it really doesn’t give me a lot to go on, but I try.”

Her favorite tree is the beech – at the arboretum you can find “plain” European beeches (green), a tri-color beech as well as a copper beech, including a small weeping variety Sullivan describes as looking like a reddish haystack.

“It’s a pretty amazing place,” Sullivan says. “And no, you should not carve your initials in a tree – that really is vandalism.”

For years, Spokane lovebirds have been doing just that on the trunk of the magnificent weeping European beech.

“Vitaliy + Angela = forever” is etched among other declarations of affection.

“DM + JM” in a heart that looks raw and green, carved just the other day.

As I drive home in the rain, I wonder what happened to “Marc and Jamie” high up on the trunk. And if “Ryan + Bri = love” still holds true today.

There’s probably no way of knowing what happened to all these people – except that they all shared a special moment in the John A. Finch Arboretum.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email