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News / Northwest

Shadows lengthen on Rhody Ridge

Couple hoped to protect land; maintenance money is short

By Erik Lacitis, The Seattle Times
Published: October 10, 2015, 6:02am
4 Photos
An electric golf cart gets Fir Butler around on her 6-acre property, with some help from caregiver Jessie Canfield. Fir Butler and her late husband, Merlin, donated the property to Snohomish County in the hopes it would be maintained as an arboretum after her death.
An electric golf cart gets Fir Butler around on her 6-acre property, with some help from caregiver Jessie Canfield. Fir Butler and her late husband, Merlin, donated the property to Snohomish County in the hopes it would be maintained as an arboretum after her death. (Photos by Dean Rutz/Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — There have been five passions in the life of Fir Butler.

The first four are her late husband, Merlin Butler; the 6 acres they had turned into a rhododendron paradise on the outskirts of Mill Creek; the decades of hikes they took into the Cascade Mountains; and the succession of German shepherds they owned through the years.

Their life was centered on nature, just the plain admiration of nature, and that’s all they needed.

“We were two people in one body,” says Fir. Everyone uses her first name.

Even their dogs were named after trees — Acer (botanical name for maples), Pinus, Birch were among them. When they went hiking, the dog wore its own backpack, and, of course, snuggled in their tent.

“We had a wonderful life together, we really did. I wouldn’t change anything,” says Fir, 84.

How many of us would be able to say that, if we reach that age?

She now spends her days at the home the couple had built six decades ago.

On nice days, like some recent sunny days, a caregiver takes Fir around the property. Fir needs to use a walker, wheelchair or golf cart to get around.

Three years ago, she fell from a 12-foot ladder as she was pruning a branch and it snapped.

She was 81 then, and still working in her arboretum. “I’ve been pruning all my life,” says Fir.

The price was a busted right hip and an injured spine and left foot. She crawled back to the house, to Merlin. “I was kind of a mess,” she remembers.

Fir spent a combined two years in a hospital and then a care facility. “I never thought about anything else but returning home,” she says.

Merlin died in January at age 90.

Through a large glass window in the living room, Fir can gaze at the beginning of the arboretum. Out in the distance is that giant rhody that she planted five decades ago, when it was a foot high, and now is pushing 14 feet.

There are maybe 300, 400 rhodies on the six acres, plus a Japanese maple grove, a magnolia grove, a sourwood-tree grove and other plants.

“The rhododendrons on this site rival anything at the Seattle arboretum,” says Tom Murdoch, naturalist for Snohomish County Parks and Recreation. “It’s beautiful when the rhododendrons are blooming.”

Which brings us to the fifth passion for Fir, and Merlin.

It was making sure their acreage stayed as they had dreamed it.

And so back in 1970, they deeded the land to Snohomish County to be used as a park, with the stipulation that they would live out their years there.

They could foresee what would happen in the region.

Driving to visit Fir, not too far away, you pass large apartment complexes. Development is everywhere.

Says Fir, “This had been our life. We wanted to protect the land, we loved it so much.”

Since then, the county has acquired a couple more tracts by the Butler property, and what is now known as Rhody Ridge Arboretum increased from those initial 6 acres to a little more than 11 acres.

Fir grew up in Dallas and went to Southern Methodist University there, majoring in English.

By then she was using her nickname, instead of her legal first name, which was Founta.

As a youngster, she had been on a family driving trip that took them through the Cascades.

“I remember going through Stevens Pass. I just loved it. I had never been meant to live in flat plains,” says Fir. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but this is where I want to live.’ ”

So she began calling herself after the forests she had seen on that trip.

Fir met a young guy who had served as an aircraft armorer in World War II and become a pharmaceutical salesman.

She and Merlin married in 1953.

“On our wedding day, we took off for here,” says Fir.

She worked as a secretary; Merlin continued in pharmaceutical sales. They rented a place to live and saved their money.

In 1957, they bought their dream property.

Tumor surgery meant Fir couldn’t bear children.

But Fir and Merlin had the land, their many hikes, their beloved dogs, each other.

“We worked outside every moment we could,” says Fir. “It’s not what everyone would have wanted for life, but it was perfect for us.”

After a few years, she stayed home and worked on the acreage. When Merlin came home from work, he’d join her in the garden.

Weekends were often for hikes, with their backpacks ready the night before so they could leave at 6 a.m. Saturday. Vacations also were for hikes in the Cascades.

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“Why go anywhere else? We always had the mountains,” says Fir. “When you’re climbing a mountain, you become part of the mountain.”

If you ask, Fir can show you the numerous card files, all meticulously itemized, and photo albums the couple kept.

One bunch of cards is for the various plants.

There is a kind of poetry in their utilitarian descriptions.

One card explains, “Removed all soil because of suspect Phytophthora (a pathogen) in area.” Another card describes one of the rhodies, “Mid to deep yellow, unusually tall candelabra type truss.”

Another bunch of cards is for their hikes, and the descriptions again are straightforward: “Mt. Rainier, Paradise, Skyline Trail. Went to near top of ridge with good view of Camp Muir — appeared to be about same distance as parking lot below.”

The photo albums include dozens of pictures of rhododendrons, and also of the mountain scenery. There are no photos of Fir and Merlin on those hikes. It was nature that mattered.

What will happen to all the card files and photos when the county takes over isn’t clear. A nonprofit, the Rhody Ridge Foundation, has been started.

Perhaps the material will be displayed, so that visitors can get an idea of who was behind this nature park, says Richard Fairfield, head of the foundation. He’s a retired Boeing engineer and has 400 rhododendrons on his own Snohomish property.

The foundation will have to figure out how to pay for maintenance, such as a new irrigation system. This year’s hot summer took a big toll on the plants. Money for that is not in the county budget.

Perhaps the home on the property will be turned into a meeting area, he says. Perhaps the site will be rented for weddings, perhaps there is grant money available.

Fir and Merlin did all they could to save the land.

Now Fir watches the passing of the seasons.

With its foliage, she says, “Fall is my favorite season,” and it is arriving.