Brian Mittge Commentary: When a Tree Falls in the Forest of Time

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Last Saturday at 7 a.m., a frail tree fell on a long-gone homestead near Tumwater. This quiet collapse would have gone unheeded, but this was a famous tree that had many good friends looking after it.

And so while it might be strange, perhaps, to write an obituary for a tree, in this case I think it’s worth taking a moment to mark the passing of a piece of our shared heritage.

The tree was a butternut, a kind of walnut native to the American Midwest. It’s known as Juglans cinerea in scientific circles. The meat of the nut is creamy and delicious, I’m told, but what made this tree noteworthy was not its biological particulars, but the life of the man who planted it in the earliest days of pioneer Northwest history.

A Black pioneer named George Bush came west from Missouri and brought the butternut with him. He planted it in 1845 at his homestead near present-day Tumwater.

Bush planted himself there as one of the first American pioneers in that area south of Puget Sound because it was, at that time, under joint British and American occupation. He hoped that would keep it a place free of the racial injustice he had known in Missouri and which had infected the Oregon Territory, with its “lash law” for any Black settlers.

Unfortunately, that prejudice followed him. The Donation Land Act, passed by Congress in 1850, specifically excluded Black settlers like Bush. He was left unable to claim the land he had settled.

Those unfair laws didn’t leave Bush bitter, at least when it came to the new American settlers pouring in around him. In fact, he was known for his unfailing and boundless generosity. Well established, he gave food and seed to the pioneers who came after him (he had plenty for those who were hungry, but nothing for speculators who wanted to resell at a profit.)

“Pay me in kind next year,” he would tell those in need. To those who had money, he would say, “Don’t take too much — just enough to do you.”

His neighbors held George Bush in such high regard that 55 of them urged the brand new territorial legislature in 1854 to officially request that Congress pass a special act validating Bush’s claim. Eleven months later, Congress did just that.

Bush is a noteworthy figure in Pacific Northwest history as one of the few Black pioneers able to settle land during a time when racist American laws prohibited it.

A law proposed this year in the Legislature (it did not pass) aimed to honor Bush with a dedicated mural at the Capitol. House Bill 1339 read, in part: “He was a man of great Christian ethic and character in the face of discrimination and prejudice, and he lived this out through a demonstration of grace by which every Washington state citizen can be proud.”

Bush’s homestead is long gone (although there is still a farm there, near the Olympia airport). The butternut tree he planted was a cherished part of the farm and a living link to this noteworthy pioneer.

A friend of mine, Ray Gleason, has been the official arborist caring for the tree over the past decade. He helped extend its life through damaging storms. More importantly, he used a clever air excavation technique to transplant several of the Bush butternut tree’s saplings. One of them is growing at the state Capitol campus in Olympia. (It’s northeast of the “Winged Victory” monument and is the only tree on the grounds growing on a mound, which makes it easy to identify.)

Another Bush butternut is growing at Fort Borst Park in Centralia, near the historic Borst home. Gleason gave that tree to Centralia as part of the 2017-18 commemorations for another remarkable Black pioneer, Centralia founder George Washington.

Gleason has permission from the city to install an informational sign about Bush’s life alongside this vigorous young butternut sapling.

Anyone who wants to help Gleason pay for the sign can contact him at cascadetreeexperts@hotmail.com.   

The Bush butternut tree may have fallen, but it is survived at the historic homestead site by several naturally reseeded butternut saplings nearby, each more than 20 feet tall.

We who mourn its fall can take solace in knowing that it lived 176 years, more than twice the typical 75-year lifespan of this species in the wild.

And while we mark the sad loss of a rare living link to pioneer history, we can be thankful for the pioneering life of George Bush and the tree he left as his legacy.

 

Welcome Back, Sheriff

What a treat it was this week to see that former Sheriff John McCroskey is back as a Chronicle columnist.

John was a popular weekly writer for The Chronicle two decades ago when I started at the newspaper as a cub reporter. I was disappointed when he hung up his keyboard a few years ago, and I’m delighted to see him come back.

He brings a practical, common-sense perspective that has always been popular with our readers (just as many residents of the county nodded in approval when as sheriff he took televisions out of the jail and fed inmates Brussel sprouts and military MREs, based on the logic that if he made jail an unpleasant place, people would try harder not to end up there.)

Of course, I don’t expect that I’ll agree with him all the time, but I know I’ll always look forward to reading his perspective each week.

I wish more newspapers had a voice like John McCroskey’s. We’re lucky to have him back at The Chronicle.

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Brian Mittge can be reached at brianmittge@hotmail.com.

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