By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter
The goodies, the gifts, the lights, the music — all are nice ways to experience the holiday season. But for me, selecting our family Christmas tree is a tradition I look forward to more than all others.
Notice I say “selecting” a tree, not putting one up. Blowing the inch-thick dust off the boxes of ornaments in the basement, hauling everything upstairs, straightening then anchoring the tree in the stand and decorating the whole assemblage is actually rather mundane to me. Getting the tree — now there’s the good stuff.
Selecting a tree means different things to different people. For some, the decision of a tree was made years ago while looking at a stock model in a store. I have a brother-in-law who long ago went the artificial tree route. To his defense, he always has his tree up the day after Thanksgiving, it always looks great and he never has to worry about vacuuming dropping needles as Christmas draws near. But to me, that’s just not natural.
In town, I see no shortage of people pushing a bright-orange cart out of Home Depot with a tightly tethered tree protruding like a lance several feet in front of them. Purchased trees are less work than harvesting your own and have more character than the mass-produced artificials. And they smell real, but it’s a purchased reality, rather than an experienced one.
More to my liking is taking advantage of the seasonal opportunity allowed by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to load up every family member, drive to a remote area, swaddle everyone in thick layers, plod through the woods seeking a suitable spruce, chop one down and lug it back to the vehicle for the trip home.
My wife and I are both nature lovers who have weighed the odds of which is more harmful to the environment — synthetically produced or naturally harvested trees. From the research we’ve done we believe harvesting is the better choice in the long run, and as dog mushers, my wife and I go an additional extra mile to find each year’s selection.
Running a team of dogs through miles of forest all around the peninsula affords us the opportunity to eyeball many prospective trees months in advance of harvesting one. My wife and I have to take many passes by prospective trees since we’re going by them so fast, and back home we weigh the pros and cons of each potential.
You might think, then, that we select the tallest or fullest-bodied specimens. Quite the contrary. We realize we’re going to kill a tree, but we don’t want the added guilt of seeking out the choicest, healthiest tree. Instead, we select one that is closely competing with another tree that will likely, over time, die off anyway.
By cutting one out before that happens, not only will the other tree better thrive from the open space and sunlight now available to it, but we benefit from taking the competitor home for the holiday season. It’s a win win for everyone but the cut tree, though we console ourselves that it wasn’t long for this world anyway.
A side effect of this approach is that our tree is the most aesthetically pleasing. It tends toward the Charlie Brown, rather than Norman Rockwell, aesthetic. We’ve gotten used to our tree having one side that’s a little stunted, with shorter branches and thinner needles than the rest of the covering. No matter. This side just gets turned to face the wall.
Harvesting by dog team, while fun, is also no easy feat. Once the perfectly imperfect tree is selected, I have to get the dogs to stop close enough to it. As anyone who’s been around a sled dog can vouch, they’re good at going forward — but standing still, not so much.
If I can stop them within spitting distance of the tree, they have to stay that way long enough for me to step away, cut the tree and secure it in the sled. (And by “secure” I mean foisting it off on my wife who is riding in the basket of the sled, who wraps her arms around the tree and hugs it the whole way home to prevent the branches from being bent or broken on the return trip.)
It’s like Christmas algebra for me — there are many variables at play, but when all come together the resulting equation perfectly sums up the holiday season for me. Concerted effort and conscientiousness make for a celebrated tradition. Looking back at photos of past Christmases, I remember the character of each tree and what we went through to get it as much as anything that went under it.
Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Redoubt Reporter.