Blue smoke rising from my chimney is snatched, hurled over the roof and down, by a strong gust from the north. The wisp of uncombusted wood eddies in air prison outside the den window before gentler breezes unlock it to follow them off into the Lowland. A blue tinge sifting through a congregation of dark tree skeletons to the southeast, and behind the naked forest a white-bright sun launches from the horizon in what aims to be a low-altitude leap across the Rattlesnake Creek.
Bright and cold this morning on the southern bank of the James in Richmond, and
That December northerly howls out a song.
No. A northerly wind only blows.
Wind blows the reed.
The reed, the instrument of the wind, howls.
The leafless forest behind my house howls out a song.
Nature’s wind section plays a different song in winter than in other seasons. In summer, when trees are thick with soft green tissue paper, the lush reed sounds out a swishing song of river rapids or softly breaking waves. In fall, cool air blowing over dry, spent leaves scratches out the rougher sound of sandpaper on wood. In deep winter the naked trunks and branches sound out lower resonances. The bare reed of the winter forest creates lonely, faraway sounds. True howls. When the wind blows in December, the Richmond forest behind my house howls.
Out on the pavement where we humans rush relentlessly to and fro, one finds another distinctive feature of the Richmond forest in December — a visible one: cars carrying trees. In December almost any type of human transport does double duty as tree transport.
Young evergreen trees scalped from the surface of higher earth somewhere are piled up at makeshift mortuaries throughout the city. We exchange money for these condemned trees. We strap them to the tops of our cars, transport them to our houses, and put them on a type of life support that keeps them breathing for a few more weeks. Long enough for us to celebrate, oddly enough, a season of birth and renewal. Strange ritual. Certainly a true arborist would never participate, would he? But I do.
I have in my hand the ¾ inch thick cross-section disc I cut from the bottom of the trunk of this year’s family Christmas tree. With that fresh cut I was able to artificially resuscitate the 13 year-old evergreen in a small pond of water in my house. My family’s choice has always been Fraser fir. Ornaments hang well on the stiff, pipe-cleaner fingers of Fraser fir, but far more important to me is the special fragrance of mountain places it brings to our house. The Fraser fir grows naturally only near the peaks of the Appalachians in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. This sky-loving species climbs to high, lonely places of thin air and thin earth, of bright sun and winter snow. Fraser fir thrives in extreme, nutrient poor places where most other trees would suffer. Its fragrant canopy not only colors the high country but perfumes it as well. For the Turner family, the smell of Fraser fir, the sweet and rare smell of alpine forests, has become the smell of Christmas.
But what justification is there for the ritual? I trade my money for the decapitated head of an arboreal mountain climber, and I force it to end its days with me in a climate controlled environment near sea level? How is it that an arborist like me becomes an earth scalper? A voluntary tree killer?
To understand my place within the fabric of life on earth, I often find myself trying to understand the difference between a “kill” and a “sacrifice.” For instance, I am a quite lusty cow Killer. I eat steak and hamburger for sustenance, barely pausing long enough to enjoy the process, or to celebrate the earth’s offering. Almost never properly honoring the living system that was erased from earth to erase my hunger. Indirectly I am, as most of us are, prolific “killers.” We kill and consume.
If other living systems annoy us, such as ants or roaches or mosquitoes, we kill them. If other living systems threaten us, such a viruses, poisonous insects or snakes, we kill them. If other living systems appease our hunger, such as cows and chickens, we kill them and eat them. And in the most horrid demonstrations of the human proclivity for fear and hatred, sometimes if other living systems merely have a different belief system or lifestyle than us, we kill them.
In the midst of this bloodbath we make arbitrary, logically inconsistent judgments about the value of the living things around us. The same human who fights with all his energy to keep the polar bear from extinction kills or eats other living systems indiscriminately. The same human who condemns the use of young evergreen trees to decorate habitations at Christmas removes an undesirable shrub, sapling, or weed from his own yard without a moment’s hesitation. Arbitrary, it seems. In instances very close to me, I find that the same human who shows tremendous sympathy towards an animal or tree has little or no sympathy for the struggling human living next door, or the impoverished one living just outside the castle gates of modern capitalism. Our human condition, the evidence has always shown, is characterized by an elaborate, cross-wired network of arbitrary sympathies and killings.
So what about that tree dying in my house? Does my Christmas tree tradition differ from an arbitrary killing?
I hope so. I like to believe so, to believe that the Turner family doesn’t merely kill this tree. I like to believe we sacrifice this one tree each year. For three or four weeks this Fraser fir becomes sacred to us, and becomes a symbol reminding us to hope and to love, and to long for peace. On its bows we drape lights, ornaments and pictures reminding us of the many other times we’ve renewed ourselves with this ritual. Once a year we deeply inhale the sweet perfume of high places, and perhaps think a little about that one being who supposedly came from the highest of places and would like to lead us back with him. The Fraser fir in our house is slowly sacrificed to ritualize our hope for a bright, evergreen future, and upon its death a fresh new year begins. If it helps us to hope, to yearn for higher soul places, and to long for peace and harmony on earth, this thirteen-year-old tree has more impact on the world by dying in my house than it would ever have living alone up there in the high country. Crowned with lights, pictures, and colorful shapes, visited and admired daily, this young fraser fir is sent off to the tree “hereafter” a decorated king among trees.
Ah, but if all that fancy justification is a bit too trial-lawyerish for you, you can still find some justification for your own ritual killing by thinking about how green and quiet are the places where Fraser firs are grown to be sacrificed. Sure, tree farms get frequent crew cuts, but at least the green hair is allowed to re-grow rather than being smothered beneath a concrete or asphalt helmet. Better a green, fragrant tree factory than a black-smoking plastic factory, right? In essence, your yearly ritual supports another green spot on earth.
So as I try to stay woven into the fabric of life on earth, a weave that often requires of me a value judgement about other life forms woven in with me, it seems most important not that I avoid killing, but that I learn to kill sacrificially rather than arbitrarily. Necessarily, or at least respectfully. Always with a sense of appreciation and wonder for the other living systems of planet earth. This special ability to be grateful for the gift of life and the gifts of life is the one that makes the human yarn such a colorful element in the weave.
Whether your holiday tree this year came from the high country or the plastic factory, I hope it helps you also to hope, to yearn for peace, and to experience your own winter renewal.