The hunt for wild Christmas trees
For feral greenery, head for the woods
Lined up like the remains of a firing squad, a row of Christmas trees slouches against the concrete wall of the shopping center. My husband and I had been here before in previous years, handing over the $25 or so and dragging our catch home.
We’ve also bought, in an impatient moment, a perfectly sculpted behemoth of a tree for $55 from some earnest Boy Scouts. We’ve walked along carefully spaced rows of trees at U-pick farms, pointing out our choice to a young girl with a handsaw.
That’s all fine, but this was the year we were to go out on our own. We were on a hunt for the wild Christmas tree.
Let’s just get something out of the way. We like them live. We like them to engulf the house with a smell of sappy pine.
In the real vs. fake argument of Christmas tree selection, real—be they from farm, forest or nursery pot—seems to win out on the environmental front. Fake ones are made from petroleum-based plastics and polyvinyl chloride, which creates pollution, commonly contains lead and is difficult to recycle.
Plus, most artificial trees are only good for six years, so they ultimately end up in a landfill. The real one we find in the forest is not sprayed with pesticides, and when we’re done with it, we’ll head over to an annual Christmas tree recycling, where it will be turned into mulch.
Our tree will be cut from an area specified for thinning by the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. Those agencies make $10 permits available every year around Christmastime for the public to thin trees in overstocked areas—something the state pays conservation groups millions of dollars a year to do for fire prevention.
None of that has much to do with why we’re heading for the woods. It’s more about the smell of a live tree, and memories past and forming.
I can’t remember too many trips for grocery-store trees, but I’ll never forget piling in my dad’s truck as a kid—his coffee mug on the dashboard, Willie Nelson in the tape deck, laughing uncontrollably with my mom and sister about God-knows-what—to go snag a live Christmas tree.
So, bundled in coats and gloves, we throw our handsaw in the back of the truck and hop in, along with our dog, Yukon, a bounding mass of black fur and pink tongue. And we drive—past red-tinged hills and frosted sage under a crisp blue sky. We’re headed to Frenchman Lake in the Plumas National Forest.
We stop at Hallelujah Junction General Store to pick up our permit and map of where we can cut. We head down Highway 70 and turn onto Frenchman Lake Road, skirting the water along snow-packed patches of rock and pine. We find a place where trees are plenty and stop the truck. We’re alone here.
Yukon leaps out and darts into the woods. As we eye trees, he eyes sticks, parading in snowy drifts when he finds any that are particularly capable of knocking us flat.
I’ll admit the trees here are not the manicured perfection selected for parking lots nationwide. It’s like the difference between a waxy Red Delicious apple in the store and one picked at a farm—most are imperfect, but not necessarily unworthy.
On one white slope, I see what looks like a full tree just right for us. Upon closer inspection, I see its fullness is because it’s actually two small trees whose trunks have melded and grown together. My husband takes out his saw and down it comes. He shaves off some of the bottom branches and ties our permit tag around its trunk. We drag it through the snow to the truck, and drive home reeking of fresh air and pine needles.
The only downfall to our hunt is that our two-legged wild Christmas tree isn’t entirely stable. This may be due to our faulty screwing on of the tree stand, but it’s off-kilter weight distribution couldn’t have helped.
When it teeters and falls—twice—splaying green and red shards of ornaments all over our floor, we’re pretty sure it’s emotionally scarred our dog for life. Now, whenever he sees any tall and wavering thing—trees rustling in the wind, a waving arm—his eyes widen in fear, and he backs off in the other direction.
But he’ll take a trip out into a snowy forest to check out some trees any day over a trip to a supermarket. So will we.