Taking Leave


Taking Leave
In the fading light of fall, trees put on a final, brilliant show

The hot red autumn leaves of the sourwood in my back garden are partly obscured by its garland of Clematus tangutica. The tree changing color in the foreground is a young variegated dogwood, Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Chief.’

MANY OF the small trees whose spring flowers we admire put on another kind of display altogether in autumn, when their leaves turn shades of gold, orange, red and purple. And now is the time to shop. It is smart when choosing trees for fall fireworks to do it when they’re putting on their show. That’s because in the fall, even well-cared-for trees don’t necessarily flower consistently. Some plants take on far more intense coloration than others. I know there are plenty of other reasons to choose a tree besides autumn color, but at this time of year it is pretty difficult to remember what those reasons could possibly be.

We should all bask in the fact that for the next month or so it is nearly impossible to create the color clashes of springtime, because all the sumptuous autumn shades blend so beautifully. The light and the colors conspire to make us look like inspired gardeners. The low, slanting sunlight perfectly backlights leaves grown nearly transparent in their final days, and clusters of blue, black and red berries only add to the richness of it all.

No other major group of trees offers such possibilities for size, shape and diversity of autumn color as maples. The Japanese maple Acer palmatum ‘Senkaki’ has coral stems that contrast with yellow autumn leaves, and A. palmatum ‘Dissectum’ has finely cut, filigreed foliage that becomes a blaze of orange. Few trees are as easy to grow, stay as compact, or are as brilliant in autumn as our native vine maple (A. circinatum). Another conveniently small, easy-to-grow tree that is spectacular this time of year is the serviceberry (Amelanchiar x grandiflora ‘Princess Diana’), which grows slowly and turns a clear, bright red. Parrotia persica is a more spreading small tree with a graceful shape and dramatic fall color.

Now In Bloom

Chrysanthemum ‘Robin’ is a garden mum whose pompom-shaped bronze-orange flowers accent the changing tones of deciduous trees and shrubs. It has a bushy, branched habit and grows best in full sun and rich, moist soil.

Then there are the small trees whose leaves are colored all season long, turning yet more vivid in autumn. The golden locust (Robinia pseudoacacia ‘Frisia’) has golden yellow leaves that shine even more brightly in autumn sunlight, and the heart-shaped leaves of Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ become an even deeper tint of purple as the weather cools.

If intense, burning red leaves are what you’re looking for, be sure to consider the sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboretum), which hangs on to its creamy, pendulous flower and seed clusters while its foliage turns flame red. The sourwood also turns color early and hangs onto its leaves late into autumn. Another tree that puts on a dependably long display of fall color is the sweetgum (Liquidambar), whose broadly lobed leaves turn purple, orange, red and yellow all at the same time and hang on the branches well into early winter.

One tree that is worth growing although its fall foliage has a short life is the elegant katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). Its leaves are heart-shaped, coming on a bronzy haze in spring, turning to soft green in summer, then moving on to delicate shades of apricot, orange and darkest maroon. Katsuras are planted down the middle of the main parking lot at the Graham Visitor’s Center at the Washington Park Arboretum. On warm days, their fall foliage smells of brown sugar with a whiff of cinnamon. One of my most enduring autumn memories is of a couple of bright bluejays playing tag among the yellow and orange leaves of a katsura, inadvertently denuding the tree by causing a fluttery shower of colored leaves every time they hopped from branch to branch.

Aiming High


Getting a Lift

In art and science, playtime and war, kites count

Drachen Foundation president Scott Skinner, right, helps launch a traditional Japanese festival kite called a Shirone. At about 10 feet by 15 feet, the hand-painted kite has more than 90 bridle lines. Drachen volunteers built it one day on the beach.

TO THE UNINITIATED, kites define lightweight. They hover or flit about, pushed around by the whim of the wind and tethered to earth only by string or cord. The very act of flying one violates today’s multi-tasking, Internet-everywhere-anytime pace.

To aficionados, though, kites are hardly kid’s stuff. They represent ingenuity, patience, skill, a connection to the natural world. Kites are, or have been, used to sail, surf and ski, celebrate and spy, worship and make war, test or kill bats, pull buggies, communicate across oceans, measure atmosphere, fish, compete, photograph. There are box kites, soft kites, art kites, leaf kites, singing kites. Some kites so big they take dozens of people to hang onto them, and some about the size of a penny.

Of all places, the hyperlinked, java-wired city of Seattle is home to an international foundation filling a unique niche of exploring the scientific, historical, artistic and sometimes bizarre world of kites.

It happened in a random way, as unexpected as the next gust of wind. About 12 years ago, a former Air Force pilot from Colorado missed connections with a tour group and ended up wandering the halls of a Beijing Holiday Inn. He ran into a Seattle woman, Ali Fujino, who was there on business. Fujino and the pilot, Scott Skinner, struck up a conversation and he informed her, “I’m going to the birthplace of kites.” Fujino’s initial thought was, “Well . . . that’s nice.”

A successful first flight of the Shirone prompted laughter and celebration from the flight crew, from left, Randy Shannon, Scott Skinner and Ali Fujino.

Skinner later found his tour group staying in that same Beijing hotel. Fujino had finished her work and, loving quirky adventure, attached herself to the tour, too. After 17 hours of riding trains into China’s interior, they came to the purported spot, Weifang. Soon, an announcement spread among the surrounding villages: The Americans were going to fly their kites.

“Like tens of thousands of people just appeared,” Fujino said. “It was like a Cecil B. De Mille movie. I’ve been a lot of places, but this was remarkable. Within moments, they were all there, and within moments they were all gone.”

Continue reading “Aiming High”

Ground Zero


A boomer idealist is hoping Seattle coffee drinkers can spare a dime for his global goal

To see the connection between songbirds and cappuccino and the global economy, you needn’t stray far from Seattle.

Songwriter Danny O’Keefe roasts his own beans in a popcorn popper in his garage laundry room. That way, he says, he’s sure the beans are fresh, shade grown, organic and brought a fair price to farmers.

First, head for a shrubby corner of McChord Air Force base on Migratory Bird Banding Day, as local birders check mist nets stretched across dry swamp. The birders emerge from the bushes dangling handsewn drawstring bags. These are opened, gingerly, one by one.

Out pops a tiny MacGillivray’s warbler with lemony feathers, a soft slate hood, white crescents cradling chocolate eyes. Next, a fluffy yellow warbler streaked with orange. Then, an iridescent rufous hummingbird shimmering emerald in the sun. So small, each bird could nest in a child’s palm. The hummingbird weighs less than three business cards and has only one gram of fat. But delicacy deceives. Like the other songbirds, it has recently flown thousands of miles to this Northwest patch from a swath between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer — coffee country.

Local birder Don Norman helped found the sustainable coffee movement in Seattle.

Next, hop a ferry to Vashon Island for a cup of coffee with Danny O’Keefe. The boomer songwriter may be in his cluttered garage, roasting fist-sized batches of green coffee beans in a hot-air popcorn popper. He has ordered the beans over the Internet, primo coffee from Guatemala, Papua New Guinea and Haiti. He likes the latter for its handsome tobacco-y flavor and the others for their hints of citrus and chocolate. More to the point, he’s chosen these beans because they are organic, brought a fair price to farmers and were grown in the shade of trees that provide refuge for songbirds like the hummingbird and warblers.

As coffee-bean chaff floats like flower petals around the garage, O’Keefe fast forwards through the past few decades — what’s happened to his career, to celebrity activism, to coffee — since he played the No-Nukes circuit with Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne and wrote the classic tune “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.” At 58, O’Keefe looks softly weathered, like his faded denim jacket. He wears a plain green T-shirt and glasses, which he often takes off and puts back on. His only other adornment is a plastic pen, worn around his neck on a cord, so it’s always handy.

Though he never had another big commercial hit, O’Keefe has earned a comfortable living writing songs for himself, Nashville and name artists including Browne, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, John Denver and Alison Kraus. As for celebrity activism: Even though Raitt, Browne and gang are now old enough to be card-carrying members of the AARP, they’re still shouldering the social-justice banner, spouting slogans for causes that have become too complex to fit on buttons.

Take coffee. These days, it’s an uneasy grind of politics, economics and ecology. Coffee is the second most-traded legal commodity on the planet, behind petroleum. This year, there’s a surplus of 1.3 billion pounds, about 10 percent of annual global consumption. Paradoxically, that’s both too much and too little in the eyes of sustainable-coffee advocates such as O’Keefe. Too much low-quality robusta coffee raised on treeless sun plantations using chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase yields. Too little high-grade arabica coffee grown in mountain forests and traditionally harvested by hand-picking each coffee cherry when fully ripe.

Cathy Mohns retrieves a warbler from a mist net at McChord Air Force base on International Migratory Bird Day. The bird, along with others caught that day, will be banded so its journey can be followed. Smithsonian biologists were the first to make the connection between shrinking shade-coffee habitat and dwindling numbers of migratory songbirds.

The coffee glut has dropped the price for a container of arabica beans as low as 52 cents a pound, less than half what it was two years ago. Some blame international development programs that, to alleviate poverty among struggling farmers, funded massive plantings of sun-grown robusta in Vietnam, where coffee had never been much of a crop. Others blame conglomerates for stockpiling trash-grade beans to use as filler in inexpensive blends.

Either way, the glut drags down the price of virtually all coffee. That means small farmers (who produce 70 percent of the world’s coffee) can’t make a living growing shade-grown arabica beans. So they’re chopping trees to sell as firewood, clearing the land for quick-cash crops, grazing cattle. Or they are abandoning the jungle to seek jobs in cities north. Over the past decade, 40 percent of shade-coffee farms in Mexico, Colombia, Central America and the Caribbean have been converted to sun plantations. This means coffee, as a cause, has become an odd brew of songbirds, traditional Latin American farmers, the futures market in New York, international development agencies, backyard birders, Smithsonian biologists and, of course, the highly caffeinated, trend-setting café society of Seattle.

Enter O’Keefe. He and other sustainable-coffee advocates hope if they can persuade enough Seattle coffee drinkers to request “shade grown-fair trade-organic” when they order their usual no foam-double talls, the rest of the country will follow. Coffee companies would patronize farmers who grow environmentally friendly beans. Ergo, songbirds would have forest to live in, farmers would have a way to make a living and the specialty-coffee crowd could be assured an ample pipeline of primo beans. That’s the one-sip summary and the goal of the Songbird Foundation, a nonprofit O’Keefe started four years ago.

Idealistic? Unrealistic?

It would mean changing business-as-usual for some 25 million farmers and 80 nations in the world’s $11 billion coffee industry. It would mean changing cuppa-joe habits in America, which last year consumed about 2.5 billion pounds of coffee, a third of the world export. Surprisingly, only 13 percent of globally traded coffee is specialty coffee — the type used by gourmet roasters such as Starbucks, SBC, Peet’s and Caffé Appassionato. So no matter how it’s grown and traded, gourmet java can only minimally impact the global economy and planet’s ecology.

The Songbird Foundation hopes to change the global economy, world ecology and American coffee-drinking habits. So far, the foundation consists of O’Keefe, executive director Kim Winters and their laptops.

Why, then, have activists such as O’Keefe targeted specialty coffee? First, there’s a natural confluence of growing gourmet coffee beans, which require shade, and preserving bird habitat and traditional farming methods. Second, the demand for specialty coffee is growing while commercial coffee is losing the younger generation to pop. Third, at more than $10 a pound and $2.50 a latte, the spendy specialty stuff attracts consumers who’ve already demonstrated price is not their main consideration. They’re most likely to pay more (up to 10 cents a cup and $1 a pound) for triple-certified coffee. Fourth, gourmet coffee is highly visible, a glam product around which to create public buzz and, advocates hope, a domino effect that knocks into the commercial-coffee giants.

“Change first has to happen within a core group,” O’Keefe says. “If it’s tuna, the activists have to realize the connection with dolphins. Then all the kids have to know and love Flipper. Then let’s show a dolphin, hanging in the net, flipping. Now you got your poster boy. All the mothers and the kids will insist: Don’t let Flipper die for our tuna!

“That’s why the birds are important. Often, we get inundated by images of poor people. It’s overwhelming. You can’t connect with 10,000 poor people. Instead, treat the coffee grower as the steward of the environment. He takes care of the birds and the land de facto as you take care of him. You do that by paying a premium for a certain type of coffee.”

If nothing else, Seattle is practiced in the art of paying extravagant prices for quality beans. Early this year, the Songbird Foundation commissioned an independent poll of coffee drinkers in Washington state. Asked which brand they purchased, 41 percent in King County named a specialty brand — more than triple the national average; 25 percent purchased Folgers. When told that shade-grown coffee preserves habitat for songbirds, 75 percent of the specialty coffee drinkers said they’d be likely to switch, and even pay a little more, as long as the coffee quality remained high. The poll confirmed Seattle as an ideal target market. The nation’s first major sustainable-coffee campaign was launched here this spring by the Songbird Foundation, Seattle Audubon’s Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign and TransFair USA, a nonprofit that certifies and promotes fair-trade coffee.

Maybe you heard the radio spots, or were offered a Dixie cup of sustainable coffee, or glimpsed billboards and bus signs of an adorable Peruvian boy with bright yellow tropical birds perched on his shoulder. Maybe the message stuck, maybe not. Maybe, the issue doesn’t percolate to the top of your long list of cosmic concerns.

O’Keefe is betting that given a little information, enough people will care to create a tipping point. He’s not a cyber millionaire with a fortune to throw at the problem. Instead, he’s counting on friends telling friends telling friends — as if birds chattering in the forest could change the world.

IT ALL STARTED with sound. “As a singer, I know we have something profound in common with the songbirds,” O’Keefe says. “When I’m singing, rather than talking, this whole other feel comes into play that’s much more communication. Tone carries emotional context. What appeals to you is the vocal sound, as much as the words. It’s like hearing a bird that sings a great song. You don’t understand the language, but you know the feeling. They fill the air with song when spring comes and the flowers are in the air and suddenly there’s hope again. …When they disappear, you know something has disappeared that is essential.”

Coffee is the world’s second-most-traded commodity behind petroleum. This year, there’s a surplus of 1.3 billion pounds. The glut is causing all kinds of problems for farmers, birds, the forest and lovers of specialty coffee.

One morning, while reading the newspaper, O’Keefe stumbled across an article that said coffee was killing songbirds. Biologists from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center had counted more than 150 species of birds on shade-coffee plantations in eastern Chiapas, Mexico, a greater diversity than anywhere except undisturbed tropical forest. But shade-coffee groves were becoming threatened habitat as farmers converted to sun coffee. Without trees, the biologists found, bird diversity plummeted 94 to 97 percent.

At the time, O’Keefe happened to be at a mid-life crossroad. He wasn’t enjoying churning out lyrics for Nashville. “Maybe if I’d had a lot of hits, I would have,” he says. “Everybody wanted me to write another ‘Good Time Charlie,’ but I didn’t have any more. It was a gift.” He realized songwriting wouldn’t be how he changed the world. “I thought to myself: What am I going to do that’s going to make a difference?”

That night, O’Keefe dreamed he was surrounded by singing birds. They were hidden by leaves, but their songs swirled through his head, a glorious dawn chorus. Then, in his dream, he awoke to eerie quiet. “False dawn,” he says. “But I kept following this path. Once you step out, you keep on looking for clues, and one thing leads to another.”

He called Hazel Wolf, a fiery 97-year-old who’d long championed birds and social justice in Seattle. Wolf connected him with Carolee Colter of Seattle Audubon, who, at the urging of the Smithsonian researchers, had recently founded the Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign to encourage local roasters and retailers to sell shade-grown coffee and tell consumers where to buy it. Caffé Appassionato jumped on board. Now, the campaign has compiled a list of hundreds of places to buy sustainable coffee in Alaska, Washington, British Columbia, Oregon, Montana and northern California.

From buses to billboards to the Paramount Theatre, this Peruvian boy was all over Seattle this spring during the sustainable coffee campaign, the biggest of its kind in the country.

But the Northwest Shade Coffee Campaign lacked money and visibility. O’Keefe figured he’d solve that by calling his Hollywood friends. They’d cut a celebrity CD and maybe publish a star-studded coffee-table book with glossy pictures of songbirds in shade-coffee forest. “It’s good you’re naive when you start,” O’Keefe says, “because if you knew what you were in for, you’d never even try.”

Four years later, there’s still no CD, no coffee-table book. But O’Keefe has navigated nonprofit paperwork; landed a $200,000 grant from the Summit Foundation, a nonprofit that supports work in Latin America; joined international talks on Coffee Conservation Principles to guide international development; staged this spring’s sustainable-coffee campaign, capped by a sold-out benefit concert featuring Raitt, Browne and Keb’ Mo’.

O’Keefe has come a long way from his first speech about songbirds and sustainability — to a sleepy audience of 300 at a specialty-coffee industry convention in 1998. “I was trying to explain why shade was important. I was up there on a panel with a lot of experts, and I wasn’t an expert and I started to get lost in the speech I was making.” So he trailed off … pulled out his guitar … and sang the song he’d written for Hazel Wolf on her 100th birthday.

… A bird came to my back yard

I thought some kind of wren

A bird I’d never seen before

And I’ve never seen again …

“It was late in the day, and it woke everybody up,” recalls Sue Mecklenberg, Starbucks’ director of environmental and business practices.

“Danny’s a soft-spoken artist. That’s his way of communicating. …You can’t underestimate the power of an idea or of people who decide to make a difference.”

•   •   •
SOUNDS GRAND. In theory.

The daily checklist is a trudge — thousands of errands before budging global forces even a bit.

Javier Cabadilla serves samples of certified fair-trade coffee to shoppers at Greenlake PCC and explains how earning at least $1.26 per pound, the fair-trade price, has changed farmers’ lives: cement floors instead of dirt, a health clinic, schools, facilities to properly dry coffee beans and the ability to sell their beans directly rather than losing money to “coyotes.”

Miraculously, O’Keefe was able to track, via e-mails to a small German press, the Amazon rainforest photographer who’d 20 years ago shot the picture of the grinning Peruvian boy with feathered pals. Metro’s design department morphed the images onto 50 downtown buses as well as eight billboards for six weeks this spring.

Earlier this summer, TransFair USA brought leaders of coffee cooperatives in Mexico and Nicaragua to local campuses and grocery stores to tell how earning a guaranteed $1.26 a pound for their certified fair-trade coffee changed lives.

Cement floors instead of dirt. Aluminum roofs instead of cardboard, explained Javier Cabadilla of Oaxaca, Mexico. Before, when rain leaked through the roof, coffee beans set out to dry would get wet and children would become sick from sleeping on thin mats on damp ground. Now, not only are the beans dried properly, Cabadilla says, but the cooperative has organized schools, a health clinic, agricultural and business training. Farmers deal with buyers instead of middlemen, whom Cabadilla calls “coyotes.”

Cabadilla seems a long way from home, standing near the automatic sprayers that mist the vegetables every few minutes at Green Lake PCC. It must seem strange, but he doesn’t remark on it. Instead, he fixates on the high prices at the coffee display. “I suppose that’s the cost of importing, processing, packaging,” he says. “People in coffee country, I think, would be really surprised.”

Several weeks later, 14 Mexican peasants die in the heat while attempting to illegally cross the Arizona desert. Six of the dead were coffee farmers in search of jobs because coffee prices had fallen so low they could no longer make a living.