A colorful life lived close to the land


For The Beachcomber

Talk to John Browne, and stories pour out of him, circular and colorful stories that illuminate a life lived far from the mainstream.

Browne, whose shaggy gray beard gives him a happily disheveled look, recalls his early days as a musician, when he opened for Lightnin’ Hopkins and the Grateful Dead. He talks about Seattle and Portland in the early days of the hippie scene and the idyllic 1965 he spent in San Francisco. He details his work as a native plant-grower and student of botany — a love of the natural world that makes him one of the Island’s most well-known naturalists.

Sharply intelligent and curious, he framed his memories with eye-opening moments, the revelations that changed his world view and his life.

Recalling his experiences working in the Oregon woods, he said, “I’d notice a plant or a flower that I never saw before in my life, and for the next few weeks I see it a dozen times. You get your consciousness elevated about something, you start looking around you, and that’s been happening with me for the last 30 years.”

Today Browne is known for his bluesy tunes at the Saturday Market and the plants he sells from Judd Creek Nursery, which he runs with his wife Vicki.

The tangled, shady nursery surrounding the ramshackle house they built together overflows with raspberry and Marionberry. Young madrone and native roses reach up for sunlight. In a plastic-walled greenhouse, seedlings grow and Vicki’s glass art project lies on the table. Browne points out rare species, the school bus he once lived in, the trees planted when he first settled here.

Inside, shelves sag under the weight of books about plants, and a guitar leans on a chair. Faded news clippings are pinned to wooden beams. Every inch is crammed with homemade crafts, treasures of nature and found objects, dusty and gleaming in a stray sunbeam. Browne pours a cup of hot water from a thermos as he sits down to talk about his arrival on Vashon 26 years ago.

“My dad lived out here, and he was in the process of renovating a cottage… I spent about 10 months living in the school bus in his yard.”

He met and married Vicki, and together they raised their children from previous marriages, a combined family of seven. Vicki worked for Sound Foods, and soon Browne was working there as janitor and became “the all-around support person, fix-it guy, buyer, recycler and baker.” His weekly trips off Island to buy supplies and take recycling to the city changed the way he saw trash.

“I started picking up recycling, paper, cardboard mostly, from Sound Food and Minglement and Bob’s Bakery, and pretty soon I had 15 regulars and maybe 44 irregulars. (At Minglement) they got it down to one pickup a month, and it was about 90 percent plastic. The volume was gone; the weight was way down. I didn’t really appreciate it until they did that, how much stuff got into the waste stream. So that was an eye-opener. And it was one of those moments when you get your consciousness elevated about something and you start looking around you.”

Asked to talk about his boyhood, Browne recollected a family with pioneer roots in the Northwest, “in the lower part of the middle class, by our fingernails.”

Born in 1943 while his father served in the Army Air Corps, Browne grew up in Tacoma and later Richland. He fondly recalled early visits to Vashon.

“My grandfather in Tacoma had a boat, and I’d been on the Sound periodically. I came to Vashon before 1950, to the store at Tahlequah to get ginger snaps and Hershey bars and herring.”

Browne described his father as “a sports nut, a devil-may-care guy,” who attended church only on Christmas and Easter, and his mother as a faithful Catholic who sent her eldest son to parochial schools in Tacoma where he sang Gregorian chant. Moving to the company town of Richland, Browne saw the “cookie cutter houses” set in a windy sagebrush desert.

He described himself as “a daydreamer, space cadet student, kind of a loner,” but his sharp mind and voracious reading won him a merit scholarship. Influenced by his mother’s preference for a Catholic school, he went off to the University of Miami in 1961.

At Miami he had “one of those consciousness-level changes” when he saw white students being waited on by black workers at freshman orientation.

“There was a lovely young woman in one of these starched white costumes behind the salads, and I smiled at her, and she smiled at me,” he recalled. “And I looked at the rest of the room, and (the students) were all white. I thought, ‘What’s wrong with this picture? This is weird.’ That nagged at me.”

Other incidents in Miami, such as trying to go to the movies with a black friend who was refused admittance, awakened him further.

In Florida, Browne joined a folk trio and sang in clubs and coffeehouses. Although he enjoyed math classes, he was more engaged with the music scene and going snake hunting in the Everglades with zoology majors than with his studies. When he left the university after two years, he landed in Portland, Ore.

Browne found himself doing day labor, hanging around the open mikes with his guitar and eventually playing regularly at a local club. He traveled often to Seattle with a girlfriend, and “met people in the whole coalescing hippie subculture.” He was called in for an Army draft physical and turned down — perhaps for his flat feet or perhaps because, he said, “I was just weird and didn’t look like anybody else.”

He moved with friends to a farmhouse outside Portland in the cold winter of ’64, where they “got frozen out. We didn’t know anything about wood heat; we were essentially urban-raised kids, even though my relatives had wood cook stoves when I was little.”

He and his girlfriend headed south to San Francisco, in “idyllic 1965.” Browne was living on Clayton Street near Haight when the two broke up.

“I was kind of morose, but … within 10 days my brother showed up with a friend, and they stayed in my apartment. And all of a sudden all these people that I had met in Portland and Seattle, musicians, the house just filled up. … Within a month of that someone had a friend who was booking the Matrix (Club). They hired us to open for Lightnin’ Hopkins.”

The band became the PH Phactor. Browne played guitar, harmonica, some mandolin and fiddle. They dragged a piano up to the attic and acquired a manager who “got us gigs all over the city.” Originally focused on acoustic jug-band music, they developed an electric sound to accommodate larger venues.

Browne learned to play electric guitar. The washboard player learned to play drums reasonably well. And by the fall of ’66, a tour of the Northwest gave them a chance to play with the Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead.

Browne supported himself through music and casual labor. “You could get a house in Portland for $35. Gas was 22 cents. I’d learned to live pretty lightly, and I was an effective scrounge. I was picking up that facet of hippie culture that was adapted from rural living, heating your house with a wood stove.”

What strengthened Browne’s resistance to the mainstream? In part, he acknowledged, the psychedelic culture of the time, in part his attraction to a more earthy culture, he said.

“What appealed to me was old stuff, beautiful old Victorian houses as compared with square box cement, … stuff that had texture and character and design.”

He also recalled that “the Vietnam war became a pivotal thing. The people who supported it were the people who wanted to be successful. … The people who were against it were cranky people who gravitated to my own sensibilities as far as music, architecture, art.”

He also grew increasingly aware of social justice issues.

“I started looking at everything with an eye toward OK, is this fair, is this OK, who’s getting screwed by this?”

When Browne married and raised a family on the Oregon coast, he continued to live with unusual self-sufficiency. His children were born at home, which created some friction with the local health authorities. He worked as a tree-planter for the Forest Service.

“I spent a lot of time outside in the woods, and I saw a lot of flowering plants that I didn’t know at the time. I eventually … learned their names and something about cultivating them. It was another of those eye-openers, that mystery, you find these beautiful things growing in the woods, and you go to the places that sell plants, and you don’t see any of the plants that are growing nearby.”

After his marriage broke up, his kids went to live with his sister for a time. Browne moved back to Washington to be nearby. Settling on Vashon, he and Vicki made a home for their blended family. He continued to play music and work a variety of jobs until his focus shifted to plants.

In 1992, Browne and his neighbor enrolled in a wetland forest stewardship class offered by King County. They realized that the growing number of habitat mitigation projects meant a need for a steady source of native plants.

“We didn’t know of any native plant nurseries at the time, but we discovered a network of them later.” They built Judd Creek Nursery with “low capitalization and sweat equity.”

Today Browne seems content. The nursery continues, growing plants to sell and raising seed for a Forest Service contract. Browne’s children and stepchildren live in the area — two on Vashon and the others close by. His grandchildren love rummaging through the dusty collection of glass and feathers and bone in a sunny corner. His youngest daughter is expecting her first child.

Browne is still making music, finding amazing stuff in the woods, remembering the ancestors who made their way to the far west. As unique as his life has been, it’s brought him full circle, to a lifestyle that his grandparents would recognize: wood heat, a big garden and the skills of self-sufficiency.