A dozen or so years ago, when we were newly married, my wife and I bought a spectacular Christmas tree from a tony local nursery. Wildly expensive, even for the time, I trimmed its twelve-foot height to fit our ten-foot ceiling, performed a surgical shearing of two sides so it would tuck nicely in the corner, and–using the waste branches I had clipped–implanted ‘corrections’ to what few shortcomings in symmetry the tree had. A robust specimen, even in its cosmetically customized form it weighed 150, maybe 175 pounds as younger me shouldered it into the house. It took hours to string lights out to each branch tip across the regular planes of its branch structure, and hours again to decorate it with the appropriately tasteful collection of fake birds and silk flowers we wanted to impress our holidays guests with; and as we stood back to admire our aesthetic labors, the massive tree tilted slowly about eight degrees out of vertical. Laying face down on the floor, wedged under the tree, I struggled to lift the sagging side and shim it up. I tore a stomach muscle, then spent the next four weeks bravely wassailing from a hunched-over and painful position. The day after Christmas I purchased a display-qualityflocked, fake tree prelighted with a thousand white lights. It goes up in five sections and takes a half-hour of painless and profanity-free effort to make the magic happen.
But with the enthusiasm of a seven-year old and pressure from my wife for ‘a tree that goes closer to the ceiling,’ I once again found myself at a Christmas tree lot. My wife had seen one with ‘a lot of tall, skinny trees,’ and so we went back…just to see. I already knew it was a foregone conclusion.
The lot DID have a lot of tall, skinny trees. Very unusual tall skinny trees, with needles held upright on branches of irregular but somehow symmetrically spaced sprays. I asked the owner what kind they were; he replied ‘Alpine Fir.’ When I confirmed, ‘Abies lasiocarpa?’ first, the double-take; then the bromance began. He told me of his Forest Service permit, and how he snowshoed in at 5000 feet elevation and selectively harvested tagged trees, and then hauled them back out on a long, toboggan-like sled.
Now, going to the U-cut Christmas tree field to get a tree sounds a bit to me like going fishing at the trout farm. Not very sporting. But hiking into the high-mountain backcountry to capture a wild tree like some kind of holiday Jeremiah Johnson? I’M SO THERE. Still, as I own neither snowshoes nor tree toboggan, as well as having a number of other time commitments, I will have to keep sending my tree-lot friend to harvest my Christmas tree, should I elect to continue with the natural kind.
I told him I’d never seen Alpine (frequently called Subalpine) Fir used as a Christmas tree, and as it happened I had quite a number of the same tree growing in my “backyard.” We got to talking about other types of trees from the alpine zone, the propagation and use of native mosses, native plants in the landscape, and the blending of native and non-native plants in our region and their impact on the edges of the natural landscape. He gave me a brochure for his landscaping business, and I realized that he was not just a cool guy with a cool Christmas tree lot, he was also my identical landscape twin. My identical landscape twin, that is, if I had a Bobcat and a backhoe, employed a number of talented landscape leads, and had a troop of manual laborers for the really big stuff. Which I don’t. I’d hire him in a heartbeat if it weren’t illegal for me to have such a landscape, and also for my continued woeful failure to win the MegaMillion.The tree, with a light trim on the trunk and a little nip off the leader, is just about twelve feet tall, stopping just an inch or so shy of the ceiling. Its slim, four-footish diameter near the bottom made it easy to move to the center of the room to hang our birds and glittery pinecones even on the side facing the rear window, because Sasquatch says ‘me want see shiny tree too.’ In daylight, looking beyond our somewhat twisted and slightly irregular tree to the smaller, even more krummholz-y trees beyond, makes it seem as though the forest extends all the way into the living room. I’m bringing the outdoors in! I am living a magazine cliche!
I remain a bit conflicted about the tree. On the small disc I cut from the bottom of the four-inch-thick trunk, I counted 82 tightly spaced rings. For 82 growth seasons, the tree had battled wind and frigid mountain temperatures, terrible soil and heavy snow loads to become, essentially, a sapling. To spend a month in our living room and then become firewood is a rather ignominious end to this grizzled mountain survivor. I think about this a great deal as I raise my glass of cheer in the evenings…I can’t make this The Giving Tree, there is really so little to it; but perhaps, with enough thought, I can give this tree George Nakashima’s second life beyond its lighted holiday glory. I do love a thought experiment and also a project.