Cass Turnbull was an imposing figure, and I was a little afraid of her. She spoke in a point-by-point, professorial way, half-tongue-in-cheek, half-seriously, but never aggressively. She seemed comfortable in her own skin and secure in her mission. In fact, she wasn’t interested in apologizing for who she was though she liked jokes and had a heart of gold. She was kind of like the Carrie Fisher of Seattle horticulture.
Cass worked in the Seattle parks department while doing pruning consultation for years, progressively frustrated by the ignorant things she saw homeowners do to their trees and shrubs. Shearing, sawing, and topping their way into a yard of sick and sad plants, committing what she called “Crimes Against Nature.” Seeing a tree or shrub with branches cut bluntly and randomly motivated her to found, arguably, the most famous, horticultural non-profit organization in the Northwest: Plant Amnesty. It was a name she’d chosen because she knew better than to publicly whine about well-meaning homeowners who indiscriminately went at their plants in the name of reducing height or making a plant behave. Cass wanted to reach as many regular, tree-owning folks as possible to change their ways and save plants from suffering. She knew humor would do that more effectively than ranting.
I only knew Cass through my half-year in the Plant Amnesty Master Pruner program. After working a dozen years as a certified horticulturalist and having taken a few years off to raise kids, I wanted to formalize my pruning skills.
In class, Cass would stand beside the slide screen, remote in hand, showing before and after photos of trees that had been hacked at and then later grown hundreds of water sprouts. She’d talk the straight botanical knowledge about selective heading, auxins, and lateral buds, but then she’d also talk about “the Medusa effect,” and “chicken on a stick” and “leaf crud,” creating her own unique language for the common issues known to longtime gardeners and gardening professionals. She liked to slip some kind of lozenge or candy in her mouth every twenty minutes or so, probably dry at having to lecture for two and half hours at a time. That she often opened the floor to hear from gardening professionals on their approaches and experiences made me warm to her as a person.
I don’t really need to list the enormous amount of work she put into educating the public about appropriate pruning practices or her time at Plant Amnesty. Anyone can google the organization, her book, or the many interviews she did on radio and other media. There was no denying her extreme, lifelong dedication. Volunteers who worked with her for years can better speak about her interpersonal style and sense of humor. But what I can share is my memory of how Cass, on the day of the Master Pruner graduation, after leading the audience in a rickety version of Pomp and Circumstance with a knowing smirk as we students stood in goofy graduation caps, beamed a huge, loving smile as she announced each graduate’s name and shook each of our hands, reassuring us that we had nothing to fear from her one-of-a-kind, sharp-minded, and radiant personality.