Rants from the Hill: A Christmas tree grows in the Nevada desert

The pinyon offers an alternative to artificial or commercially farmed trees.

 

Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

While you might imagine that artificial Christmas trees may be traced back only as far as the glory days of plastic in the 1950s, people actually began making fake holiday trees in the mid-nineteenth century. The practice began in Germany, where extensive deforestation compelled folks to make “trees” out of goose feathers that were dyed green. I don’t know what it says about a culture’s environmental stewardship when its geese outnumber its trees, but if goose feathers seem like a weird thing to make a tree out of, try optical fiber or holographic mylar, the latest trends in holiday-spirited arboreal fakery.

Eleven million artificial Christmas trees are sold each year, and sales continue to rise in an industry that is worth 800 million real dollars annually. And this despite the fact that 80% of these fake trees are manufactured in China, where environmentally hazardous lead stabilizer was the chemical du jour in binding the PVC from which the trees are fabricated. Although the recipe has now been changed to tin stabilizer instead (which somehow doesn’t sound much better), the EPA estimates that 20 million artificial Christmas trees still in use in the U.S. are slowly-detonating toxic lead bombs.

Fake Christmas trees: another way to a white Christmas.

On the other hand, people who buy cut trees shouldn’t rush to any sanctimonious claims of superiority over the fake tree folks. As it turns out, the farm-raised vs. artificial Christmas tree argument is about on par with paper vs. plastic bags at the grocery checkout. The live tree market is now worth more than a billion bucks annually, and employs around 100,000 people. But the industry also occupies 350,000 acres of land with a monoculture crop that is not particularly good wildlife habitat and is often treated with pesticides. The spraying, cutting, and transportation of the 25 million farm-grown trees sold each year also generates almost two billion pounds of greenhouse gases. I get that nobody wants to decorate their Christmas tree while pondering its contribution to global climate change, and I’m also aware that the acres not given to Christmas tree production are more likely to be planted in fertilizer-soaked GMO corn than protected as sanctuaries of wildness and biodiversity. Still, I don’t want you live tree people to jump to the conclusion that you’re necessarily more righteous than your neighbors just because your tree arrived in an eighteen-wheeler instead of a cardboard box.

Of course the fake vs. farm-raised fork in Christmas Tree Road (which reminds me of Yogi Berra’s sage advice that “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”) leaves out a third route—a practice that was once ubiquitous but is now so statistically insignificant that the Christmas tree data nerds don’t even bother counting it: hoofing out into the wilds to cut your own tree. Our annual family tradition is to take our two young daughters, Hannah and Caroline, and join the family of our buddies, Cheryll and Steve, and head out into the wilderness of central Nevada to cut our Christmas tree. Now you might think the Great Basin Desert, which is a vast sagebrush ocean dotted by glaring, white islands of salt encrusted-alkali flats, would be an uninviting place to hunt up a decent tree. Not so. Nevada has more than 300 mountain ranges, most of which are home to “the PJs,” desert rat shorthand for a high-elevation desert forest consisting of dominant pinyon pine-juniper woodland. 

In our part of this big desert, the pinyon-juniper biome occurs above about 4,000 feet and below the alpine zone. It requires 10-20 inches of annual precipitation (which falls mostly as snow), and so it exists in a band above the lower-elevation sagebrush steppe, which receives only 4-8 inches of moisture. Although the PJs have some scattered sage, rabbitbrush, and ephedra—even an occasional Jeffrey pine—this environment consists almost exclusively of pinyon pine and juniper trees. Although many people picture our part of the world as a bleak, treeless desert, almost 20 million acres of the Great Basin (nearly a fifth of its total land area) is occupied by the PJs. 

In fact, these pinyon pine-juniper forests are colonizing more ground every year. Since the mid-nineteenth century the PJs have expanded at least three-fold, and perhaps as much as ten-fold. This expansion and infill, which has been caused by a number of factors including over-grazing and fire exclusion, is now encroaching on the sagebrush ecosystems that are home to threatened species such as the pygmy rabbit and sage grouse. Land managers here in the Great Basin are using fire—and fire surrogates like thinning—to check the advance of the PJs and protect the sagebrush biome they are so successfully invading from above.

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Lower elevation of the Desatoya Range, Nevada.
Michael Branch

Our annual pilgrimage to find a wild Christmas tree takes us to almost 7,500 feet in the Desatoya Range, on BLM lands about 135 miles east of the Ranting Hill. There we hike, search for fossils, play with the dogs, and scrape away enough snow to gather around a bonfire of dead sage, where we swap family stories, eat snacks, and drink warm “Abuelita” cocoa and chilled rye whiskey. The tree cutting is, in fact, a small part of a long, lovely day in the snowy, high desert mountains. Our BLM Christmas tree tag costs a whopping five bucks—about a tenth the average cost of a farm-raised, commercially sold tree—and while we burn plenty of gas in our pickup to get our tree, we’d likely be headed into the hinterlands to hike and snowshoe whether we were tree hunting or not. While slaying a wild tree for one’s own ritual purposes might appear environmentally destructive, by cutting in BLM-identified areas, we’re actually functioning as unpaid members of a small crew of stand thinners whose work helps to reduce fire danger and stem the advance of the PJs on the fragile sagebrush biome below. 

The author’s daughter, Hannah, with a fossil she found of what appears to be a willow leaf.
Michael Branch

Of course all this sounds mighty virtuous. The plain fact is that we love to be in the desert mountains in winter, sharing a family outing in a remote, spectacularly beautiful part of our home desert. If circumstances were reversed and a farm-raised tree cost five bucks while the BLM tree tag cost $50, we’d still be driving past the commercial tree lots in town on our way out to the desert to find a pinyon pine for our family’s Christmas tree.

The species of pinyon we cut is single-leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla), the state tree of Nevada—although in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that we have two state trees; the other is the bristlecone pine, which can reach ages upwards of 4,000 years. (The only other state to have two state trees is neighboring California, with whom we compete at every opportunity.) Pinus monophylla is a beautiful high desert tree: short-needled, grey-green, thirty or forty feet in height and about as wide as it is tall, gnarled, twisting, and wildly branching when mature, but when young is handsomely columnar—like a Christmas tree.

This tree is remarkable in many ways. For starters, it is the only single-needled pine on the planet (note to the 99% of us who routinely use the word “unique” incorrectly: perfectly fine to employ it here). It is also the most xeric pine in North America, enduring conditions of aridity and temperature extremes almost beyond imagination. And it is an old-time westerner. Fossil pollen records and fossil needles in ancient packrat middens show that the pinyon pine, having moseyed north to the Great Basin after the last ice age, has been native here for thousands of years. Individual trees can reach ages of more than 900 years, and usually don’t become very productive of cones until they’ve been standing around for a half century or so.

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Pinus monophylla single needles in closeup.

It is the seeds hidden within those cones that are the pinyon pine’s most extraordinary feature. While all pines produce edible seeds, the pinyon’s seed is so unusually large as to be a major food source for both humans and for many species of rodents and birds—including the pinyon jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus), whose harvesting and caching of the tree’s seeds is an important mechanism of its dispersal. Pinyon nuts are not only large and delicious, but also have exceptional nutritional value. They are high in iron, manganese, and other essential minerals, are loaded with vitamin A and E, riboflavin, niacin, and antioxidants, and contain all 20 of the amino acids. They are even gluten free. And, at 3,000 calories per pound, pine nuts boast a fat content exceeding that of chocolate—thus providing a nutritional density that has made them a highly-valued wild food. Although the pinyon was not scientifically described until the mid-nineteenth century, the wonders of its delicious, nutritious nut have been known to Europeans since the tree’s use by Indian peoples was first reported by Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca in 1535.

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The author cutting his family’s pinyon pine Christmas tree while his daughter, Caroline, looks on.
Eryn Branch

Pinyon nuts have played a vital role in Native American cultures, and evidence suggests that this food source was important to the prehistoric peoples of the Great Basin, just as it is still culturally important to our Paiute and Shoshone neighbors. Long before the appearance of the Christ who is celebrated with the Christmas tree, the native peoples of these high, cold deserts made posts from the bole of the pinyon tree, and enjoyed the special aroma of this pine as its branches crackled in an open fire that provided welcome warmth. Pinyon pitch forms an adhesive so powerful that it was used to mend cracked water jars, and in its boiled form, employed as a waterproofing that was applied to basketry and to the cradle boards in which infants were carried from one pinyon grove to another. Medicinally, pinyon resin was placed on a rabbit fur patch that was applied to wounds as an antiseptic, while the needles were boiled into teas and ground into powders that were used to remedy a range of maladies. And pine nuts were gathered, processed, stored, and consumed in an impressive variety of ingenious ways, while their harvest each fall was a major ceremonial and community event—just as it still is today. It has been said that the pine nut was as important to the native inhabitants of the Great Basin as the bison was to the Plains peoples. 

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The author dragging his family’s pinyon pine Christmas tree.
Steve Glotfelty

In Walden, published in 1854, at exactly the historical moment when Christmas trees first became commercially available in America, Henry Thoreau wrote that “It is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who never plucked them.” “A huckleberry never reaches Boston,” he concluded, because “the ambrosial and essential part of the fruit is lost with the bloom which is rubbed off in the market cart, and they become mere provender.” Thoreau here makes two points that are repeated throughout his work: the first is that the sweetness of nature’s fruit is produced as much by our experience of nature as by the fruit itself; the second is that commodification of nature can compromise its meaning and significance.

Like Thoreau’s wild huckleberry, our pinyon pine Christmas tree is something we harvested ourselves from the wilderness, and that is one of the many reasons we find it so beautiful. And with it we have harvested a memorable shared experience. When we gather by the woodstove to admire this pinyon shining in our home here on the Ranting Hill we see not just a Christmas tree, but also windswept high-elevation ridges and canyons, the rippling texture of bleached vermillion cliffs, the crests of range after snowy range flowing out to the distant horizon. We hear the sweep of downcanyon wind and the croak of jet-black ravens and the crackle of a little bonfire, smell pine pitch and hot chocolate, whiskey and sage. We remember tromping around in the snow, as a family, deciding together that this is the wild tree we will bring home and decorate, and beneath whose boughs we will place our gifts. 

The end of a great day in the Desatoyas.
Steve Glotfelty

Our Christmas tree is neither as green nor as shapely as a farm-raised tree. It grew more than a hundred miles away from our home hill and so will never be handy by, like an artificial tree. It is almost too heavy to carry, too brushy to decorate, and too pitchy to handle. Its short, stiff, sharp, single needles jab us as we coast by it with warm milk or chilled eggnog in hand. As a Christmas tree, our pinyon pine could not possibly be more inconvenient. And that is yet one more way of saying that to us it is perfect.