I called in to Think Out Loud the other day to make both of the guests unhappy. They were discussing, on the show, the relative merits of real versus artificial Christmas trees. One of the guests was a Christmas tree farmer and the other one was a trade representative for a consortium of artificial Christmas tree makers. I made the first guest unhappy by reminding listeners that anyone (at least here in the forested West) can get a five-dollar tag from the Forest Service to cut a Christmas tree on our public lands. I made the second guest unhappy by demanding some accountability for the sheer amount of non-biodegradable plastic involved in the “hassle-free,” multicolored and otherwise customizable artificial foliage he was hawking.
My strong feelings about Christmas trees have to do with my environmental values, for sure, but it’s certainly also true that my indignation about the whole farmed-vs-fake conversation was shaped by my family’s holiday traditions, one of the most important of which is the Christmas Tree Hunt in the forest. (I was somewhat indignant at my mom this year, too, for accepting a couple of firs from a friend’s thinning project. But what about the hunt?! I cried.) My dad and my brother and I used to go out, usually somewhere in the Umatilla National Forest, looking for two trees: one for my dad’s house and one for my mom’s. The adventure was always accompanied by hot chocolate and, in years when there was snow, a brief snowball skirmish. My dad lives in Indiana now—nary a wild fir to be found, alas—and my brother lives in Boulder. Although I miss their company, I haven’t missed a year’s tree-hunting here in NE Oregon.
This year, as I prepared for the hunt, I decided to spend some time scoping out the Christmas tree scene in my Wild Connections project area, out to the north of my home in Lostine. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in this part of the landscape over the years, but the country out there is vast and wild and the ownership is patchy, so it takes a long time to explore it properly. I’m taking every opportunity I can get, these days, to walk around in it.
I drove north on Whiskey Creek Road in the afternoon, startling hawk after fencepost hawk, admiring the orange creekside willows against the snow. At the first few junctions I kept vaguely north, heading for National Forest through a gauntlet of private ranch and timber lands. Whiskey Creek Road becomes Straight Whiskey Creek Road becomes a web of hunting and logging roads. I took my time on the icy curves and now, at the splits, I began following the tracks of rigs beefier than mine. Another few inches of snow and this place will be locked away for the winter, at least for me.
I got out to take a walk on the ridge above Teepee creek. The snow was fluffy and hoarfrosted and the sky was beginning to go that strange orange-violet of a clear winter evening. It was just about time to turn back toward civilization. But I ducked and swept through the low limbs of Douglas firs, tracking rabbits and turkeys and deer—and then, along a dead-end spur road, I saw the unmistakable long prints and long stride of a wolf. I followed his tracks until he turned up the ridge, and then I postholed back to my car.
Hancock Forest Management, a private timber company, is logging pretty hard these days. I hear they’re liquidating. As I drove southwest through their patchwork hills, aiming for the north highway, I was struck by a brand new road cut through the snow into the red dirt. I got out to take a picture and wondered which trees, in this vista, they were after. Of course, I was after a tree, too. I hadn’t forgotten. It’s not the same, but on some level, of course, it’s the same.
It was getting dark. I drove on, watching the bluing snow, vaguely unsettled by the deep shadows in the third-growth lodgepole thickets. I was hoping to see the wolf, but I didn’t. I saw squirrels and deer and an owl. By the time I hit the highway and picked up speed, it was night. I was ready to be home. A few days later, my husband and my mom and I went back for a tree.