Thursday, November 29, 2007

Living or artificial?
   Are Christmas trees green?

A few of us head out in search of the
perfect tree. This year, all five of children
managed to make it to this annual tradition,
along with their spouses and seventeen
of the eighteen children. The eighteenth
grandchild is fifteen, so sometimes other
obligations seem more important to her
than yet another family gathering.

Sometimes I’m even more glad than others that years ago Valerie and decided to live in a small town near family rather than near career opportunities. This morning I came across an article in the
Washington Post pondering whether people should put up living Christmas trees or artificial ones. Well, “pondering” is actually too impressive a word. Fiddling with the concept would be more accurate.

I do worry though that such fiddling too often passes for thinking among many of us--judging by the detritus of modernity that fills my own inbox each day. There seem to be a lot of people quite busy with not much.

At a superficial level, the question might seem a touch one. On one hand, a living tree gets chopped down. But on the other, most artificial trees are made of nonbiodegradable plastics and metal in China. Cutting a tree. Oh my! Contributing to nonbiodegradable mountains. How awful!

From where I live, no such dilemma appears. Each year, my family gathers to cut our trees on a piece of property purchased by my wife’s father decades ago. The land is in the foothills of the Mission Mountains, more than a mile above the nearest county road. Some years, just getting in there is a challenge. This year there was snow, but it was a sunny day with temperatures above freezing. Stunning.

If any of us had more time or resources to devote to managing the forty acres, we would somewhat aggressively thin the trees, cutting thousands of competing fir and pine and spruce and leave healthy trees spaced every fourteen feet or so. We’d select the trees we left for general health and to preserve the mix of conifers that have grown there as long as anyone knows. I’ve done quite a lot of such thinning in the past, in much the same spirit as I thin carrots once they have sprouted, leaving only as many as can flourish. In any case, we don’t imagine our taking of a few trees is harming the planet.

Many years ago I cut some trees to sell at this same property. I was a first year teacher and Valerie and I were quite poor. It seemed we could either tighten our belts at Christmas or do something to get some more money. We drove a few hundred miles home, spent one day cutting and bunching 500 trees to load on our 1956 4x4 GMC (I loved that truck) and then we drove back to eastern Montana where I worked (and where trees were more scarce). We sold all the trees out of our front yard, charging $1.50/foot. Most trees were seven or eight feet tall.

The removal of 500 trees wasn’t noticeable, but the little difference it made was an improvement, helping the forest renew itself more quickly. Crowded trees can’t grow very fast.

None of which interests me much.

What interests me is the family tradition of going to that place to get our trees each year. We do it on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. We started when Valerie and I had three small children. We’ve done it every year since. This year, there were twenty-seven of us. For a few hours we spread out through the mountains, the toddlers staying near parents and the older kids going sledding on the ungroomed hill that bounds the property on the north. Our kids, who are young adults with families of their own can’t remember not doing it, and their kids experience it as a huge festival involving all their cousins who, for these kids, are nearly as well-known as their siblings.

As it gets dark, we leave the hills and gather back at the homestead for chili. Well, this year it was clam chowder. I usually make the chili, but my son-in-law, Dev, made chili for everyone the day before to serve at his oldest son’s birthday party, where we all gathered. So, chowder. The key to keeping traditions going is being flexible. In fact, several people didn’t even get trees this year. My youngest son cut some fire wood, which he needed at the moment more than a tree, and my oldest daughter, who had a two-month old baby riding in a pack, seemed content to just wander through the woods with us, enjoying the day.

Until a few years ago, most Christmas trees were harvested from wild forests. Today, nearly all commercial Christmas trees are grown on tree farms, where trees are continually planted and harvested. Buying all those trees keeps the land planted to trees, albeit small ones, and it keeps a lot of people working on the land, which I take as a very good thing.

It seems sad to me that about half the trees out there this year will be fake. Perhaps the time will come when my family, too, will switch to synthetic trees, which will for a while try to create echoes of the sort of memories I am rich with. If that time comes, I will indeed face a dilemma, but it won’t have much to do with worry about landfills.

Instead, I will be thinking about how to create new traditions that link family members across generations in reliable moments of togetherness. What else is Christmas for? (Hat tip: Garden Rant)

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/29 at 09:20 AM
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© 2007 Michael L. Umphrey
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