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Column: The perfect imperfect Christmas tree

by Chris Dorsi & Writers on Range
| December 17, 2008 11:00 PM

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. 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.

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. He is a freelance writer, and the publisher of books about green building construction in Helena).