Tending to Seattle’s Green Spaces

Susan Zeman, a forest steward of Forterra’s Green Cities program, finds community and reprieve among the trees she helps restore.

Susan Zeman is a nurse at Swedish Hospital. Many months ago she requested time off so she could take a road trip along the coast of California in April and then in May head to the Olympics to backpack with friends. But because of COVID-19, she never left Seattle and she’s not in the mountains. This disappointment came just when an escape and a little bit of self-care was needed most, especially for someone in her profession. But Zeman got her respite in the end, albeit closer to home: a walk in her beloved Cheasty Greenspace, the 43-acre forest on the eastern slope of Beacon Hill near where she lives in Columbia City.

Susan Zeman, Forterra Green Cities program forest steward

Zeman is a forest steward with the Green Seattle Partnership, a collaborative effort between Forterra and the City of Seattle, supported by local nonprofits, businesses, schools, and neighborhood stewardship groups. She volunteers about 10 hours a month with the Friends of Cheasty Greenspace Mt. View. There is always work to be done in the forest. The “lesser weeds,” as Zeman calls them—the nipplewort, stinky Bob, and wall lettuce—must be pulled before they go to seed. Invasive blackberry and English ivy don’t give themselves up quite so easily. Woody blackberry canes, as long as 40 feet, put up a defense with hard, hooked thorns and coalesce into formidable thickets. English ivy vines can grow twice as long and as thick as an arm, running up trees and quickly fanning out through understory. But there is birdsong in these woods and the whisper of wind through the leaves, muses Zeman, and if you’re lucky, a red-tailed hawk coasting overhead. She feels happy here and eager to work, grounded in her piece of the land, and awash in the goodwill of community stewardship.

Zeman wants others to feel that connection to nature too, and to feel it so strongly that they are moved to act of its behalf. With only a residual canopy of bigleaf maples near the end of their lives and easily felled by wind, the future of Cheasty depends on active management. Much of the forest floor is blanketed by ivy and blackberry, smothering even the most persistent Western red cedar and Douglas fir seedlings, and suppressing the next-generation canopy.

Looking out over a landscape overcome by ivy and blackberry can overwhelm a new steward. “It’s true, you’ve cleared about four square feet today,” Zeman will tell a discouraged volunteer. “In November, we’re gonna come back and we’re gonna plant a Western red cedar in those four square feet.”

Cheasty Greenspace by Florangela Davila

Come that November tree planting, Zeman has more rallying words. “Look at that cedar tree in your hand,” she says. “When you plant that today, take your time, dig your hole right. When you’re done, stand back and look, and if you’re not sure, get back out and replant it, pat the soil around it, and walk away. Know that you have planted a tree, which is going be there for your grandkids’ grandkids’ grandkids’ grandkids. What an incredible legacy.”

Zeman’s school of environmentalism engages the intellect and dirties the hands. She is not one for stories about melting glaciers and forsaken polar bears—all that scare mongering and negativity just depress people. She believes that environmental action comes from a place of positivity and that action begets more action. “If we do one thing, that increases the chance that we’re going to come back and try to do another thing right. If we feel proud of ourselves and if we are validated…we’re much more likely to step up to the next level, to repeat it, to do something new.”

Zeman motivates those who show up for the twice-monthly work parties by pointing to proof of past success. The Cheasty Greenspace began with a 10-acre parcel cut off by a four-lane road from the rest of the preserve. For 10 years, volunteers worked those 10 acres, and today the land hosts healthy Pacific Northwest forest. It is laced with trails, busy with joggers who choose to circle the “little bitty loop” rather that run alongside traffic, and birdsongs fill the air. At the end of a work party, Zeman tells her volunteers to visit that site—and to come back next month, because all Cheasty will look like that one day.

Zeman calls this commitment to the land and working shoulder to shoulder with others “placemaking”—a powerful antidote to the feelings of alienation that plague many Americans and which she sees up close every day at her job. As a telemetry nurse, she cares for cardiac patients who are not candidates for surgery. They tend to be older, many with multiple chronic diseases that exacerbate their condition. Among them are anxiety and depression, and one that resonates most with Zeman—social isolation.

All sorts of people show up to a Cheasty work party—neighbors, college students satisfying their service hour requirements, members of the Mountaineers, and people in the justice system. Some come quite regularly, others come once and never return. Regardless of the commitment, whether introvert or extrovert, working alongside others in such a relaxed setting breeds camaraderie and frank talk. A passing remark about, say, an elderly relative, might become a meaningful conversation on hospice care.

We really consider what we’re doing to be restoring the forest and restoring the community.

Like the Olmstead brothers, who laid out Seattle’s greenbelt, including Cheasty Boulevard which runs along the northern edge of the preserve, Zeman and Forterra believe that if we want people to live in cities, we need to make them livable. And livable cities require well-maintained green spaces where everyone can enjoy the natural world. Zeman acknowledges that as a member of the middle class, she can get in her car and drive out to Cougar Mountain, but not everyone has that luxury. All Seattle, she says, must have easy access to birdsongs, soft trails underfoot, and bigleaf maple canopies overhead, because it’s that lived connection—not stories of polar bears—that engenders the placemaking that spurs action against climate change.

Land like Cheasty has suffered innumerable injuries, Zeman says. As a nurse, she uses this last word with intent, noting the impact of repeated logging, introduction of nonnative plants, and encroaching development. The land never had a chance to recover until it entered the care of Friends of Cheasty Greenspace in 2007. Friends groups like this are in neighborhoods all over the Puget Sound—citizens caring for local parks and building community. But they do not act alone. They are a part of a coordinated effort by Forterra’s Green Cities program, specifically the Green Seattle Partnership, in which Forterra works with cities to develop and implement a forest management plan, volunteer training program, and system for measuring and monitoring restoration progress. Action begets action and healthy forest begets healthy habitat for wildlife—and humans.

Learn more about Forterra’s Green Cities programs