Christmas Trees

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

0 Christmas tree!

0 Christmas tree!

Your leaves are faithful ever!

Not only green when summer glows,

but in the winter when it snows,

0 Christmas tree! 0 Christmas tree!

Your leaves are faithful ever.

When I was a child growing up in Olympia, Washington, I knew Christmas was upon us when the family, aunts and uncles, cousins, mother, father, sisters, the whole family, as I recall it said, packed up on a cold and wet Saturday and proceeded to Hawks Prairie to cut each family’s Christmas tree. What an adventure! What a place!

In the late 40s Hawks Prairie was still a prairie: open grassland, surrounded by a forest of Douglas fir. Around the margin were many smaller trees – Christmas tree-sized trees.

The family arrived in force, got out of the cars, and then began what I swear was the beginning of the world’s greatest annual slowdown ever, the countdown till Christmas morning. Christmas eve, of course, was when time stood still, perhaps moved backward. As you might suspect, we opened presents at our house Christmas morning, after Santa Claus had come and gone. I still look askance at families who open presents before Santa has officially arrived. I think they are depriving themselves of one of our culture’s greatest anticipatory events.

On the prairie, in the wind and rain, we walked around looking at countless candidates, looking for the perfect tree. More often than not, we cut one of the first trees we scrutinized.

Prairies in the middle of the Puget Sound lowland? How could it be? I didn’t find out till years later when I studied the vegetation dynamics of the gravelly prairies of western Washington for my Master’s thesis. The prairies formed on the draughty soils of the outwash at the terminus of the last great Pleistocene glacier. Constant burning by natural fires set by lightning or Native Americans maintained the prairies. Once the Europeans established fire protection, seedling firs could get established, an event that is playing out with the disappearance of the open grasslands. Today, Hawks Prairie is gone and in its place is a Douglas fir forest that has trees that might do for the White House, but not my house.

As you might suspect, the Christmas tree tradition continues here in southern Oregon. For years the families of friends and colleagues have gotten together to venture forth on an annual Christmas tree expedition to the local high country. It’s a mixture of popcorn balls, mulled wine and adrenaline, for me. How much snow? Will we get stuck? Will we get the elusive silver-tip or have to settle for a white fir, or god forbid a Douglas fir? I still love ’em, Douglas firs. Someone else is spoiled. The silver-tip is the noble fir, called by many in southern Oregon, the Shasta fir. It makes a beautiful Christmas tree. I don’t feel too badly about cutting Christmas trees. It cuts down on competition for the others. I suppose I should be ashamed. Sorry, I am not.

There are two odors that bring back a flood of pleasant memories: the heady smell of Douglas fir in the house first thing in the morning when you get up, and the distinctive smell of the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog. What memories.

0 Christmas tree! 0 Christmas tree!

Your faithful leaves will teach me

That hope and love and constancy

Give hope and peace eternally.

0 Christmas tree! 0 Christmas tree!

Your faithful leaves will teach me.

 

— Dr. Frank Lang           

 

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