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Freestone woman killed by oak was avowed nature lover who wouldn't be deterred from daily walk by storm

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FREESTONE -- The forest where Paula "Jamie" Kuhle walked alone and ultimately died is considered sacred by Freestone locals because of the old-growth redwoods rising majestically into the sky.

The 49-year-old woman had often walked the one-lane gravel road, off Freestone Flat Road east of Bohemian Highway, about a quarter-mile from her home.

Sunday's winter storm could not prevent the massage therapist and avowed nature lover from her daily devotional. After calling a friend for advice with her 6-year-old son's cold, Kuhle donned rain gear and grabbed an umbrella before heading out for what was supposed to be a short walk. She was planning to attend services at Santa Rosa's Center for Spiritual Living later that morning.

Nobody could have predicted her fate. For sure, Kuhle's boyfriend and their son did not expect such a horrific sight when they went out looking for her and came across her lifeless body pinned beneath a fallen oak tree.

"I really expected to find her talking to someone," said John "Vimal" Stewart, a general contractor. "It's just a bizarre set of circumstances."

A lone calla lily was visible on the gravel road Monday at the spot where Kuhle died.

The oak that killed her uprooted about 50 yards away from the road on a steep hillside. The bottom of the broken tree was about five feet downhill from the rooted base, suggesting the oak gathered momentum quickly, as if blown by a strong wind and going airborne.

Whether Kuhle had any time to try and get out of the way will never be known. She was not wearing headphones of any sort, but who knows if the lashing wind through the trees and steady downpour muffled the sound of cracking wood or even if it would have been enough of a warning.

Why that particular tree broke also is a mystery. Stewart said he thought he recognized signs of sudden oak death on the tree, which he estimated to be about 60 feet tall.

What is certain is that had she been walking just a bit slower or faster, Kuhle would have avoided her fate.

One of her brothers said he felt compelled to visit the site Monday to "try and connect the dots" with something that seems so random and meaningless.

"Most of us would have had a better chance of winning the lottery or being struck by lightning than something like this," Ken Kuhle of Palmdale said after driving all night to Freestone. "One second more or one second less would have been the difference between life and death."

David Stewart, his young eyes bloodshot, was cradled in his father's arms Monday as they stood outside their rented Freestone Flat Road home where signs caution motorists to slow down and plum trees are in full purple bloom.

The rural home just north of Freestone was the ideal setting for Jamie Kuhle, who felt she had a spiritual connection with nature and was described by one friend as being left of New Age. One of six children, Kuhle insisted on only organic foods for herself and her son. She wore a pendant around her neck that was supposed to ward off cellular waves she perceived as being a danger to her health.

Friends in this free-spirited west Sonoma County hub admired Kuhle's beliefs and were also a bit bemused by them.

At Freestone's Osmosis spa, general manager Joan Southon said Kuhle had reached a level of consciousness that others aspire to. But Southon smiled when remembering Kuhle's choice of attire, which she said most often included baggy pants and other comfortable fitting clothes.

"I doubt she ever had polyester on her," Southon said. "She preferred it to be of the Earth."

Kuhle had worked at Osmosis for eight years and had built up a devoted clientele. Southon said Kuhle's death has hit the healing community hard. But Southon does not view what happened to Kuhle as a repudiation of the love Kuhle had of nature and her belief in its power as a salve for the soul.

"I don't think she was taken out by nature. I think she went with nature."

Several people expressed the belief Kuhle died doing what she loved. But they say that's complicated by the fact her death robs her of time with her son, and vice versa. The boy was her greatest joy, said Josh Woodlander, president and CEO of Raspberry Media in Sebastopol.

"She dedicated herself to taking care of David," he said.

Injuries and deaths related to fallen trees are not unheard of in Sonoma County.

In 2005, a 35-year-old Petaluma woman lost a finger when a 30-foot eucalyptus branch fell on her car in what locals refer to as the "gum grove," the most heavily concentrated group of trees on Lakeville Highway.

A 45-year-old woman was killed in 2002 when a 100-foot eucalyptus toppled across her car on Arnold Drive near Infineon Raceway. A eucalyptus on the MacArthur Place hotel grounds in Sonoma fell in December 2002, causing $30,000 in damage and resulting in 45 of the trees being cut down.

The other two tree-related fatalities in Sonoma County since 1995 were the result of falling redwood and fir trees.

Kuhle's loved ones hope the story of her death urges people to take caution during periods of heavy rain and wind.

On Wednesday, close friends of Kuhle's will gather for a private ceremony in Sebastopol that will honor the Tibetan tradition of helping one's soul to make the transition from life to death, Southon said.

Loved ones have established the David Stewart Kuhle trust fund at Exchange Bank to help pay for the boy's future education costs.

"You do have to accept it was Jamie's time," Southon said. "It was the way her story was told."

You can reach Staff Writer Derek J. Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com.

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