Monday, March 24, 2008

Carol Purcell: Treesaver

Just as there are certain rare trees that bowl you over with their character and uniqueness, so are there certain people: Carol Purcell is one of them.

I well remember the impression she made on me when I first saw her striding into a Treesavers’ meeting with her magnificent Yucca staff. I love people who dress like paintings, and this she does- like a Matisse painting- always wearing beautiful colors and personalizing her clothes with delightful details- whether adding bindings made from contrasting patterned fabrics (she is a quilt-maker) or flowers to her many beautiful hats:

Not only is she a joy to look at but she’s also a joy to talk to- and has a fund of interesting stories.

She is of that admirable generation of American Twentieth Century women: a pioneer, an early environmental activist- a whole woman.

Born in Virginia, her father being a Naval Officer (stationed in Constantinople) the family were mobile, moving to the tropical island of Guam after three years in Milwaukee. Three years later they moved to California- first to San Diego and then to Long Beach. There they experienced the 1933 earthquake, when their house moved 11 inches- but her resourceful father saved it from collapsing by propping it up with 4x4 timbers!

When Carol’s father retired, the family bought an early trailer, large enough for 6 people- Carol, her parents, her 3 brothers and 2 Scottie dogs. They intrepidly explored 33 States.

Finally, in 1935, they came to Santa Monica. Here they moved a house from 4th Street to a lot on 21st Street and Washington. Again resourceful, her father rebuilt the house with the help of her brothers, who were excused from school for the experience. He was also a “sailor turned farmer” and cultivated fruit trees. Today, Carol belongs to the Rare Fruits Society. She spoke with pleasure of a valley she had visited with the society, planted with alternate Avocados and Cherimoyas, which fruit she described as “the nectar of the gods” and Mark Twain described as “the most delicious fruit known to man”.

Carol met her husband when he was at UCLA. They had 2 daughters and 1 son. When we joined a group of Treesavers at the Chamber of Commerce’s luncheon at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel she told us that it was there that she became engaged and had her first Champagne. Coincidentally, when asking her whether she had a favorite tree, she said yes, the Miramar Fig tree (a stupendous Moreton Bay Fig Tree, with a charming history attached to it. see Link) known as the “Kissing Tree”:

And here she is with her staff at the Chamber of Commerce Luncheon:

Carol’s interest in trees was sparked by her friendship with George Hastings, author of “Trees of Santa Monica”. She first became an environmental activist when the City threatened to remove the extraordinary Coral Trees on San Vicente Boulevard:

She and Clo Hoover (who became first woman Mayor of Santa Monica and supported the Downtown planting of the Ficus trees on 2nd and 4th Streets), among others, were successful in saving them. For this we must all thank her.

When her husband went off to the 2nd World War and her 17 year old son went into the Naval Reserve, Carol decided to take her daughters camping as she did not want them to “marry the village idiot”. Just as her enterprising parents had driven through 33 States, Carol drove her daughters and 2 bicycles in a small Buick for 1800 miles across America- Key West Florida, the Hudson River, Vermont, New York (this was where one of her country-loving daughters cried in despair: “Momma, show me a COW!”) and finally across Canada to Calgary.

In 1967 they moved to San Francisco but after Carol’s husband died she returned “home” to Santa Monica in 2000. And now she is a tree-activist yet again, helping us to save the Ficus trees. Carol is an inspiration to us all, sitting there with her knitting through long City Council meetings- she explains how knitting helps her concentration and that after learning to knit at school, when a senior she was allowed to knit during classes as she was making socks for soldiers overseas.

Asking her what advice she would give future generations regarding trees, she replied that trees should be “respected”- they are living things and should not be carved or harmed.

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