I love going into the woods to cut my own Christmas tree. It's not that I want to snub the Boy Scouts, who host a tree lot in town. I've spent a lot of time in those urbanized groves, searching for the perfect conical tree, and sampling hot chocolate.
But a backcountry tree hunt is an entirely different adventure. Give me a sled and a folding saw, and I can disappear into the woods for an entire afternoon. My goal may be to get a tree in the truck, but I can make the process of finding the right one as circuitous as I like.
I usually go alone so I can wander at will. This year, I walked to a grove of seedlings on public land near the ski trails above Helena, Mont. I'd been eyeing the spot for 20 years, but once there I wandered in the snow like a man lost, and I must have crossed my tracks a hundred times as I viewed the stands from every angle. A live creek tumbles off the mountainside there, working its way downhill among granite boulders and nurturing a diverse forest of Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, and subalpine fir. It's a surprisingly wild ecosystem up there despite its proximity to town -- a very uncivilized tree lot.
In the past, I sought out the classic pyramidal tree with even tiers of branches, the kind that's sold in town for $6 a foot. But over the years, my wanderings have evolved toward a different quest: I want to find trees that truly represent the forest at large.
Take the double tree, for instance, pairs that have grown up intertwined. They may have a lovely form in the forest, but if you cut just one and haul it to town, it will look bereft at the loss of its partner, flat-sided and with bark rubbed raw where limbs had crossed.
But take them home as a pair, as you would candle-holders or bookends, and you suddenly have a graceful couple that should never be parted. When I first came to this realization, alone there in the forest, I laughed until tears ran into my balaclava. Everywhere I looked I saw matched pairs of trees where I'd earlier seen only decay.
What about firs with missing limbs, stunted bonsai pines or spruces chewed by porcupines? I've lugged them all home as long as they sported green needles, sometimes rehearsing flimsy excuses for my family. "Don't blame me," my apology would go. "I'm just the messenger, and this is what the forest looks like."
But this year I noticed a disturbing change in the forest up on the Continental Divide. Alone in a grove of lodgepole pines, I saw evidence of an infestation of bark beetles that stopped me in my tracks. One pine looked as if it had been used for machine-gun practice, with hundreds of holes peppering its trunk. From each boring the tree wept pitch. I checked the next tree, and then another, finally turning in a circle to take in all the dying pines. A shroud of sawdust dusted the needles beneath each tree. I realized that one of the first harbingers of climate change in Montana will be the browning of our forests.
I wandered the mountainside for hours that day until an old idea germinated: I thought about the spirit of Christmas and realized that the tree is just a symbol of nature in all its imperfection, and that any tree can bring good cheer once it's taken home.
I finally settled on a Douglas fir that split into two trunks a foot above the ground. Both trunks were three feet too tall for our living room, so I cut the tops off right at the ceiling. I hauled the two tops -- bare sprigs really -- upstairs to where the trees would penetrate through the floor if they could. That puts them in the bedroom of our oldest son.
He can't come home this year, but I think he'd appreciate the sentiment.
Chris Dorsi is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a freelance writer, and the publisher of books about green building construction in Helena, Montana.