Tinsel on the potted palm won't do. It takes a honking big tree to fell the blues of wintertime.
At this time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, days lose a little bit on each end. As a result, December is desperately dark. Maybe that’s the root of the impulse behind the human quest to light the darkness with festivals of light. The tradition in which I was raised celebrates Christmas during this season. With its focus on illumination, from the Star of Bethlehem to Rudolph’s shiny red nose, Christmas gives us a break from the gloom.
Long before Christmas, Egyptians brought green tree branches into their homes on the shortest day of the year to celebrate triumph over death. In 16th century Europe, the tradition developed of selecting one tree among many and anointing it as a Christmas tree. The presence of the first indoor Christmas tree was recorded in Germany, then the custom spread throughout the continent. Once a creature of the forest, the Christmas tree moved into the living rooms of those who celebrate the holiday.
After years of attempting minimalism by hanging a few ornaments from the leaves of a potted rubber plant, I’ve allowed myself to be swept up in the seasonal spirit — bringing a big honkin’ tree into my house, stringing it with lights, weighting down its limbs with ornaments, and hiding the tree stand behind gifts.
There are several methods to obtain said big honkin’ tree. As a kid, my parents would bundle up my sister and me and we’d head to Katz Drugs in central Kansas City. The parking lot was transformed into a display of fragrant evergreens. We’d walk among them choosing our favorites. Always one to side with the underdog. my choice was always of the sickly “Charlie Brown” variety. My older sister would inevitably go for the grandest specimen, one that couldn’t possibly fit into our post-World War Two tract home. Suffice it to say her tastes have not changed.
In the meantime, my parents would stroll the rows of trees and pick out one that looked both affordable and reasonably fresh. Before we could say Donder and Blizten, a Katz drug employee dressed in a red hat would tie the tree to the top of our 1963 Mercury station wagon. We’d drive it the few miles home where my teenage brother would get the job of helping Dad drag it in the house. Hours of torture would ensue, it seemed to me, getting the tree straight in the stand and arranged with its thinnest side to the wall. Then, finally, we could start decorating. My specialty was icicles.
Today my husband and I do our tree selecting together. Living in the high country of the Rocky Mountains, we have several ways to accomplish this. First, we could go to a store of the Katz Drug variety, which gets its trees from a tree farm. These trees tend to be both pricey and on the verge of dropping all their needles. This we learned one year in the middle of a move, a predicament that elicits other unusual behaviors, like eating fast food right out of the bag and skipping showers. At least we had something in the house to hang lights from, we reasoned, while watching needles drop, but we vowed never to buy a pre-cut Christmas tree again.
Many people now skip the middleman and go directly to the tree farms themselves, part of contemporary America’s “back to nature” trend. They can wander rows of fragrant evergreens still attached to the ground by living roots. They can select a tree of the size and shape they desire and saw it down with their own hands. They can strap it to the roof of their Subaru Outback and imagine they are driving the one horse open sleigh of old, dashing through the snow, tree safely bungee-corded to the roof.
Cutting down a tree specifically grown for the Christmas harvest helps some people around the guilt of killing a perfectly good tree just so that it can die a slow death in their living rooms. There’s no harm in making a crop out of Christmas trees, that I can see. But in our particular part of the high country, trees farm are not practical. For one thing, our growing season is too short. At 7200 feet, we only need to mow our lawns once every few years, that’s how slowly things grow. Apply that formula to a 7 foot Douglas fir, and you will see the problem.
In our strata of the atmosphere, most locals head to the nearby Medicine Bow National Forest to find a Christmas tree. The Forest Service encourages people to cut living trees growing of their own natural accord. They sell permits for $10, and allow each household to cut up to five trees each. But with this permission comes a pretty lengthy list of rules.
For starters, Christmas trees many not be “reused,” whatever that means. The permit must be attached to the trunk of the tree the instant you cut it down. Presumably woodland elves moonlighting for the Forest Service will be there watching to ensure compliance. The tree must be transported so the permit is clearly visible to elves or other observers from the outside of the vehicle. This is not a problem, as most rural residents have the wherewithal to transport items on truck beds or vehicle roofs with just a little advance notice.
The Forest Service also insists that tree cutting must be done at least 100 feet from any road or trail and 200 feet from any campground, picnic area, trail head or scenic pullout. That only makes sense so people aren’t simply leaning out of their car windows along the shoulder of the highway and clipping the nearest tree with a chain saw. We are also reminded not to just top off the pretty part of a ginormous tree leaving the stump behind.
We also cannot drag trees more than 20 feet high or bigger than six inches in diameter out of the forest. This is Christmas tree gathering, after all, not logging. And finally, a friendly reminder: “Trees look smaller in the forest, so bring a measuring device.”
My husband and I have happily gathered one Christmas tree a season for many years, not counting during the move. We are also careful to find a tree that is growing close to another, where one is in danger of crowding out and killing its neighbor. At the Forest Service’s suggestion we’ve concentrated on subalpine fir and lodgepole pine. Spruce, they say, tends to dry and drop needles very quickly once cut.
We’ll be headed out for the hunt with our permit, our length of rope, our hand saw, and our plastic toboggan for dragging the tree back to the truck. But the prey has grown more elusive over the past few years in our local forest and all around the West.
Since the late 1990s, the forests have slowly taken on a reddish-brown tint that indicates mountain pine beetle infestation. The Forest Service says the infestation was triggered by a severe drought in the mid 1990s, weakening the trees and making them susceptible to invaders.
The beetles burrow into the bark of mature lodgepole pines and spruce to lay their eggs. The trees fight back by oozing their resin but usually lose the battle because the beetles attack in such great numbers. Once they’ve killed the tree they move in to attack another. The result is slow death not just to one tree but to entire forests as the creatures move through it.
Another reason this infestation has affected trees in epidemic numbers has to do with the temperature. The beetles cannot endure prolonged, extreme cold, just the kind of cold we have not seen much of here for about 10 years. So while it seems pretty chilly to me in this single-digit December, the beetles are snug as bugs in a rug.
The infestation in Colorado and Wyoming has reached nearly two million acres. The Forest Service says that with global temperatures on the rise, we’ll have to find another way to combat the beetles if we want to preserve these trees. There’s an excellent chance that the Christmas trees of tomorrow, not to mention mature trees for logging and young trees that promise a healthy forest, will be gone. Maybe we’ll look to the Druids for our Christmas tradition, search for mistletoe growing on oaks to bring into our homes five days after the new moon after the Winter solstice. But to do that we’ll need to find an oak tree. Those don’t grow here, either. With or without our magic, though, the days will get longer again. At least we can count on that.