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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

O Christmas Tree! Reflections of a Wildcrafter

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

I was raised in what most would consider a traditional, rural New England family. When Christmastime rolled around, we would scurry about with both handmade and store-bought decorations, lights, and many other assorted sparkly things. We were all about the music, at least I know that I was. My father had a spectacular voice and would not hold back. With a twinkle in his eye, he sang along with Ray Conniff, Glenn Miller, and the others from his era. During these times of blushing Santas, elves, angels, music, sweets, and delightful chaos, the centerpiece was the tree. This was when it was trendy to drape way too much tinsel on the branches, and the lights were much bigger than the small twinkling lights that are common today.

I grew up with four sisters, in fact, I was right in the middle. We had very specific rules about decorating the tree. We spent hours carefully placing the tinsel, one strand at a time, on each branch. If you ever thought about tossing so much as one piece, you would be shamed and considered an impatient fool. Being the rebellious one, I often fantasized about just throwing it about randomly and accepting the consequences, but I refrained. One thing that concerned me for as far back as I could remember, was the killing of trees. Why would we (as a species) go out into the woods, hack down a tree, cover it with glitz, and then toss it out? I simply did not get it. Of course, as I learned more about the old stories of our cultures and traditions, I understood the origins and the meaning of the Yule and the Solstice. The whole tree thing was beginning to make sense.

However, I thought it to be wicked to expect that a tree should sacrifice its life for a few weeks of commercial exploitation. I also didn’t have the desire for a tree made of plastic or other manmade materials. I was okay with tree farms that grew trees specifically for harvesting for the holidays, but then I thought, why not do this for the sheer importance of planting trees because of their value in the balancing of our ecosystem? Why are we always cutting things down or taking them away?

My father was not one to buy a tree, at least not as a rule. He would trek out into the woods and come back with a wildly imperfect tree. I loved that about the trees that he brought home. They were thin and proud with gaping holes that we would position near the wall. Eventually, he caved into the pressure and started to bring home perfectly shaped, full trees that everyone praised and felt proud of. I never fully appreciated the need for a faultless tree. In fact, I was starting to get a little put off by the commercialization of the holidays and was wondering where Jesus fit in. I mean, I know where he is intended to fit it but is he there? Is he hiding somewhere near the lights and wrinkled-up gift wrap and discarded bows?

I am taking a hard turn at this fork in the road as I write because I have no desire to unravel anyone’s perception of the holidays. It means what it means to each of us, and that’s how it should be. But, this sudden change of path has landed me right in the middle of the woods, considering the taking of a tree. Like my sisters, I have hard, fast rules. However, they are very different. As always, we have choices. All of our choices have consequences, some are immediate and some inch along and catch up with us later on down the road. Going into the woods with me is not a typical experience. First of all, I am a wildcrafter. Everything that I do in regard to the outdoors is considered with deep thought, deliberate intention, clear goals, and gratitude. Nothing is taken without the fore-mentioned or ever taken lightly. I am usually with other people, people who want to cut down the quintessential tree that will fit in a specific corner, with the right amount of branches growing perfectly for decorating. Some people see a beautiful tall tree that they believe they should cut down and use the top. Use the top? Just entertaining that thought for an instant makes me weak in the knees. I have to remind such folks that these trees appear to be much smaller in the wild than they actually are in the corner of your living room. Willing to throw myself at the trunk of the tree in order to prevent a cruel, reckless death, but not having to, we move on. I find it necessary to outline the rules of cutting down a Christmas tree. BASIC RULES FOR CUTTING DOWN A CHRISTMAS TREE Be on your own property or have permission to cut down a tree from someone else’s property. If it is still hunting season (it usually is in these parts), wear bright red or orange. Yes, it is important. Don’t get shot.

Let go of the image of the perfect Christmas tree. If you cannot, then you must cave in and go purchase one that is grown commercially to meet your needs, or you can cut down your own flawless tree at a Christmas tree farm. Do not expect to find your perfect tree in the woods, because you might cut it down without considering the consequences. Keep your eyes down. Look at small trees, ones that will fit. Ditch the idea of cutting down a larger tree to use the top. That is just plain selfish. Shift your purpose from fulfilling your needs by chopping down an innocent tree growing in the woods, to finding a tree, that by taking it away, will benefit the immediate surrounding area. Think of it as tending to your garden. In a way, you are. Search for a cluster of young trees that are growing so close together, that by removing one, you will provide more space for roots, growing, sun, and air for the others to thrive. Taking away the competition for light, nutrients, and water is a service that you will be providing for the survivors. Yes, you can take this time to consider how it will look and fit in your home, but taking a life from the woods for your use cannot be at the expense of the tree, it must be an improvement and betterment after you take action. Look at the small tree that has started to grow beneath a tall, healthy, and well-established tree. Be certain that this younger tree does not have a chance to thrive and grow because there is no room for expanding roots, light, nutrients, and water. Trees are resilient and have a strong will to survive. Look for trees that have taken root on a boulder. It is common for seeds and nuts from trees to spout and grow in these conditions, especially when a red squirrel is sitting on top of the rock-eating pine nuts. It’s a sure sign. Once you start to think about this, you will find more and more of these small trees growing on rocks. I don’t take the smallest ones, for I admire their determination to reach for the sun and withstand storms, just to be alive and thrive. I like to give them that. Besides, I am looking for a specific size. Think outside the box. Does it have to be a fir tree? Have you ever thought about getting a hardwood tree that has already died? I know, it sounds unacceptable. Or maybe you can find a small tree that is not a fir tree that fits the rules listed above: A cluster that will never work because of crowding; growing on a boulder; is beneath a larger, established tree. I did this one year. There were three small hardwood trees growing too closely together. I removed one to give the others room to grow. It was a little taller than me. I put it in an antique milk pail, balancing and securing the trunk with rocks. I put simple white lights, red bows, and golden sleigh bells on it. I thought that it was beautiful. My kids fell apart. They needed to have a fir tree of some sort. Out we went into the woods to find a tree that by taking it, would better the ecological neighborhood. It went in a corner in the kitchen. By the end of the season, they learned to love the other tree. I cannot remember what kind it was, just that by taking it, another tree had a better chance to thrive.

Consider getting a live tree in a planter, decorating it, and then nurturing it throughout the winter before planting in the spring. With the rapid rate of deforestation and spreading diseases, any tree that you plant (or save) is a form of a gift to the planet. I have spent many holidays in a warm and tropical climate. For those of you who are in such a climate, consider purchasing a fruit tree, or a tree that would grow well in your yard. You can keep it in a sunny spot and then if you have festivities, put a simple string of lights on it and maybe a few decorations. After the holidays, plant it in the earth. It will be a living memory and future resource for all. Please make sure that you get a tree that is healthy and natural, not genetically modified, so that if it does flower and attract pollinators, that they will be all the healthier for it and not at risk. There are resources where you can obtain information about planting the trees that are best for the environment and those that will flourish in your space. When you are wandering around in the sacred woods, take note of your surroundings. Be careful to avoid stepping on others’ homes, disturbing the earth, or taking things with you such as nests or endangered plants. Leave the area better than when you entered the sanctuary. I know that you don’t need to hear this, but just in case, no littering. When you have found that magical, wildly imperfect tree. When you are absolutely certain that it fits the criteria for bettering the forest, that it will actually fit in your home, and you can carry it, give thanks. Thank the tree for its life. That is honor and respect that I give to all plants before taking, usually before making medicine. Trimming: After you bring the tree into the house, you might need to cut off branches that are too long. If you are trimming hemlock (fir) or white pine, keep the branches. Put them in a bag and store them on the porch for later, when you can make tea. Hemlock (fir) and white pine are not only tasty, but they are a good source of vitamin C and antioxidants with healing properties, used by the Native Americans to boost the immune system and treat and prevent winter illnesses. Along with your favorite decorations, try your hand at decorating with wild plants such as barberries, birch bark (from fallen branches), pine cones, and assorted mushrooms; the wilder the better. After you have finished enjoying your tree, you can still use the needles for tea, if they are green. Spread birdseed on it, or hang suet, and bring it outside for the birds and four-legged furry creatures to enjoy for a few months while the tree composts. It is essential that we re-think our traditions. If we are harming the environment or carrying out our goals based on old, greedy habits that we feel are a necessity, we can responsibly shift our roles, and our practices can have new meaning while enriching the world around us.

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