Tree Huggers--Cut That Tree!

Field Notices

Luther College Chips
December 11, 2008

A young woman down the block from me convinced her parents several years ago not to buy and cut a Christmas tree. Her argument was pretty simple and straightforward. She wanted to save a tree.

But really, for the sake of the planet and trees in general, it would be better if that family had stuck to their tradition.

Remember that we are talking here not about a lumber corporation with its eye on the General Sherman redwood, but a family of people who drive to a local tree farm where there are rows and rows of six to ten-foot pines, firs and spruces, where they pick out a tree and cut it.

There are businesses out there aimed at a liberal market eager to ease the pangs of its smarting ecological guilt. A Portland, Oregon company that labels itself “eco-friendly” rents potted trees to its customers: hauling them to the door and picking them up again after the holiday. Their Web site proclaims, “Living Christmas trees are a way to say to ‘global warming,’ ‘I did something about it.’”

(Who will one day say to “that company,” “I question its motives as well as its English”?)

But people who rent live trees are rare. The more popular way of getting around the cutting of a Christmas tree, the one that has seriously eroded the sales of cut trees in the last decade, is buying an artificial tree and reusing it.

In that earth-friendly scheme, nine cases out of ten, you pay a Chinese company to mass produce an elaborate construction of polyvinyl chloride and steel, box it, put it in a container ship, haul it across the ocean and truck it across America for delivery to the big box retailer that stocks it for your purchase alongside similarly produced flat screen televisions, “Jingle Bells”- playing strings of tree lights, and the newest version of Grand Theft Auto.

After fifteen years of re-assembling the thing, garlanding its delicate plastic limbs with lights and angels, disassembling its steel joints and cramming the pieces into their original box to haul back to a shelf in your garage, you just send it to the landfill. (That would be the place ageing PVC goes to die, off-gassing and leaching its plasticizing additives into eternity.)

There is a certain logic and good sense to the steel and plastic tree scheme. Even a highly paid corporate accountant would verify its efficiency, not to mention its cost savings.

But where does the $40 to $60 you pay a Decorah tree farmer every year go? Well, among other things, it helps pay for the two trees planted next spring in the place of the one you cut. Farmers abhor an empty spot in their productive acres, and not every tree planted will make it to harvestable size.

The key word in that last paragraph is “farmer.” The tree you cut, or the cut tree you buy, has been grown on a farm. In the case of a tree farm where you are invited to walk around and cut your own tree, it’s an exception to the way modern farming usually gets done. And in the case of Northeast Iowa, where most of the land has a slope, it’s probably the best possible kind of farm for holding soil in place and allowing fair diversity of plants and animals where the crop is being grown.

I’ve purchased trees from all three of the families who sell cut-your-own trees within a fifteen minute drive from the Luther campus. The Bappe and Tjossem tree farms on Whitetail Road are the closest. The Johnson farm on Lannon Hill Road is a few miles further out.

Each of those three farms is situated on hilly land that rises up from the base of the river valley. In each case, if the ground isn’t covered with snow, you walk on grass between the rows and between the trees themselves, grass that stays in place year-round. Trees and grass are the natural ground cover of this part of the world. Leave a spot of earth bare and that’s what will eventually grow to cover it.

If you cut your tree at the Johnsons’ Oneota Slopes farm, you will also be visiting a working livestock operation. They sell organic grass-fed beef and lamb as well as Christmas trees. At all three farms, the person who hands you the saw is most likely going to be a member of the farm-owning family.

Christmas trees are a totally renewable resource: a solar-powered resource that consumes carbon, produces oxygen and puts food on the table for its producer. In the case of local cut-your-own trees, they are a resource that also holds soil in place and provides stable year-after-year habitat for birds and other animals. But if no one buys trees, the market pressure pushes farmers into raising something else. And nothing, locally, makes better ecological sense for those hilly acres.

Cut-your-own Christmas trees are, in fact, the most common example I know of consumers taking a hands-on part in the harvest. They are the most likely annual direct link to the green world of seed, seedling, tree and re-seeding for people who otherwise spend their days shuffling paper, clicking computer keys or shifting gears.

Somewhere in the remote past in northern latitudes where the days around winter solstice are short and dark, some wise soul realized that in holding their color through the bleakest season evergreens remind us that life usually is, miraculously, renewable.

You pretenders to green credibility have a choice. You could spend December with your same arrangement of furniture. You could invest in more plastic. Or you could put on your boots, take a walk through a meadow dotted with evergreens and take a saw along.