Dan Treecraft may have been the most difficult friend a person could have. He was also irreplaceable, and widely beloved.
By Jamie Borgan (September 4, 2011)
One of my earliest memories of Dan Treecraft comes from a wedding, where he told me I might get strawberry diabetes if I didn’t stop eating strawberries off of the buffet table. I was eleven at the time and barely knew who he was, although his sunken Abe Lincoln-like cheeks and wiry frame were memorable even then.
I’m 31 now. My last memory of Dan is from mid-July of this year,
sitting under the shade of a forest pansy redbud tree in his backyard, conversing with him, his wife, Jan, and some friends, while I rifled through a stack of note cards, containing quotes on everything from Zero Population Growth to the price of gold and silver.
Dan received a diagnosis of terminal tongue cancer in late winter of 2009. He then proceeded to live out a very public and self-determined relationship with his illness, led by his strong-willed refusal to undergo treatment. I use the word “relationship” intentionally, as the words commonly reserved for cancer, such as “battle” and “struggle” imply an impulse to conquer the illness. In Dan’s case, cancer was not so much a separate enemy he was fighting, as much as it was a plot twist that provided new material for his lifelong rant against complacency and easy answers.
Even for those that don’t know him intimately, Dan was known. He was an arborist by trade but became better known as an ardent political activist, and sometimes enthusiast, who was actually proud of the times he was ejected from city council meetings. His 2007 arrest during Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez’ visit to Spokane became one of his favorite talking points; he was nearly giddy in describing with precise details the specific tactics the police used to try to subdue him during the arrest.
In the past several years, police accountability had become one of his favorite causes. In vintage Treecraft fashion, nobody was exempt from his critical eye, neither the police, nor those activists working on the issue.
Dan didn’t let the world live in archetypes, and simply allying yourself with a group did not spare you from his at times eviscerating analysis of who you were and what you were doing, or not doing.
It’s hard to separate a public and private persona in Dan, partly because some of the niceties that allow us to overlook, forget, or otherwise ignore those less socially desirable traits of our friends seemed wholly absent in Dan. There were times when interacting with him where I felt I had but two choices: argue or walk away. With Dan, it was just best not to bring up a conversation topic if you didn’t feel ready to engage in discourse about it, a discourse that inevitably left you feeling less steady in your convictions.
Yet, despite all his cantankerousness, irascibility, attention-seeking, and pomposity, Dan Treecraft had an ability to build community and endear himself to a wide range of personalities. Consider, for example the unexpected fact that he was able to persuade one of the world’s dearest people, his wife Jan, to marry him.
Maybe it’s my own Midwestern tendency toward social civility that doesn’t want to let Dan off the hook as a provocateur incapable of censoring himself. For those hundred or so gathered at the Worley community cemetery a few Saturday mornings ago to watch Dan be interred, or those several hundred who packed Craig Sweat’s photography studio last June to celebrate Dan at his own self-engineered wake, there was just something remarkable about the guy.
I feel like I’ve known Dan well for most of my life. The irony is you didn’t have to actually spend a lot of time with Dan to enjoy or experience about as much as you could handle from him. That’s a testament to the intensity of his spirit.
Indeed, when I was growing up, instead of a knock at the door, Dan would announce himself to my mother simply by appearing on a ladder, visible through our second floor window.
Or, there was the time he showed up to play ultimate frisbee with me and some friends. Dan was wearing skin tight bright yellow shorts and an equally tight, equally yellow t-shirt. In this outlandish outfit, he sidled up to one of my friends who’d never met him. She was probably a good six inches taller than he, with flowing red hair, and a lithe, graceful frame. She also happened to be wearing shorts and a t-shirt, neither of which were yellow. He stood next to her, his shoulders resting just above her elbow, and smiled like a contented child. “Look,” he said, without irony, “we’re twins.”
Then there’s the vision I carry of him at breakfast with my family one Sunday morning. My nephew was a year old at the time, and Dan was content to hold him and play the role of distractor while everyone else spun around preparing the meal. When I looked over at Dan to see how he had managed to so completely hold my nephew’s attention, I saw that he was reading to him from the Stephen Leavitt book Freakonomics in a sing-song lilt that had them both completely soothed.
Or, there’s the time he and his wife Jan arrived at my sister’s high school graduation party with a photo of my sister jumping on a trampoline pinned to their lapels. Ironically enough, I still think frequently of the graduation card they gave her, which claimed that most importantly in life, it’s important to be kind, not right. (Jan may have picked that one out.) After his passing, my sister, who’s only 22, referred to him in an online posting as her “friend.”
It’s remarkable that a man who reveled in such relentless pot-stirring and who seemed to feed off upsetting equilibriums could gather such a community around him and engender such feelings of connection in those who knew him. I have several enduring friendships that started at a potluck at the Treecrafts, mostly because of his ability to attract thoughtful, intelligent, and brave people into his community.
As Jan said at his funeral on Saturday, August 6, it might have been easier to dismiss him as a “crackpot” if she hadn’t met his friends.
Despite all his cantankerousness, irascibility, attention-seeking, and pomposity, Dan Treecraft had an ability to build community and endear himself to a wide range of personalities. Consider, for example the unexpected fact that he was able to persuade one of the world’s dearest people, his wife Jan, to marry him.
Explaining the “whys” of Dan Treecraft could be a Sysephean task. There was a randomness to his actions that won’t conform to explanation. Sometimes it left me frustrated, and sometimes delightfully perplexed, such as answering the question of why Dan slipped into a Southern accent during a winter reading of MacBeth at my house. And there was a relentlessness to his intellect that could alienate and offend, yet he pursued in asking circular questions, and making one be accountable for their words and thoughts.
Somehow, he kept us interested and asking questions and engaged and connected to the world of ideas, yet also each other. In venturing into those territories that made us all a bit uncomfortable, Dan seemed to allow everyone space to explore some of the far reaches of our questioning about purpose and meaning. And judging from the scads of people who have risen up in the past year to publicly and privately celebrate his existence, perhaps as one astute funeral attendee put it, “maybe the world is more ready for the Dan Treecrafts than we think it is.”