My Eocene Christmas
I think about trees a lot. I don't know why exactly. It might be because I spent a lot of time climbing trees as a child. Being in a tree---sitting on or swinging from a big branch---felt effortless and quite natural. Trees smelled sweet, tangy, and aromatic. The feel of their bark on my skin was comforting.I was profoundly aware that trees were individual beings, each with its own distinctive character. The trees were my friends. The trees were miraculous.
I have never lost this sense of wonder, and I am reminded of it every December, in the season of miracles. On Christmas morning all over the country, there will be a frenzy of gift unwrapping---shiny, colorful paper torn off boxes and thrown carelessly about and expressions of untrammeled joy on the faces of children as their materialist fantasies are fulfilled, if only for a short time. There are some who worry that this ritual of consumer capitalism will overshadow the religious meaning of Christmas, and it is true that in many households, the lonely nativity scene sitting on the end table will be engulfed in jagged hunks of wrapping paper before noon. For my part, I am unconcerned by this supposed conflict between the secular and the sacred because I know that there is room enough for more than one miracle on Christmas Day.
One such miracle is the seven-foot-high Douglas fir tree I buy each year. It stands alone in the corner, technically at the center of the Christmas festivities but also perhaps a bit of a wallflower. This humble living thing we bring into our houses every year has usually arrived at the end of an ordeal, having been cut down, wrapped up like a mummy in plastic netting, shipped to Costco or Home Depot in the back of a long-haul truck, sold to Juliet's dad (AKA me), and then weighted down with lights and dozens of ornaments. After all of this manhandling and fussing, it is the tree's form that most impresses us, the promise of its conical symmetry, and perhaps its sweet, piney aroma if we are lucky enough to land an especially fragrant one. In the end, the tree is an elaborate dress dummy for our dressing up of the season. At least once in the month of December, someone will ask me if my tree is "real or artificial" this year? I will snootily reply, "real of course," but how much does that distinction really matter after the tree has been girthed with lights and bedecked with ribbon and hung with a hundred or so ornaments?
It is easy to think of the tree as yet another thing that must be managed in order to prepare your house for Christmas, like the lights strung across the front of the house or the special cake that must be ordered from the bakery across town. I was thinking about the somewhat irritating thingness of Christmas trees when I brought my Douglas fir home last weekend and began to push the trunk down into the tree stand. This is an annual ritual in our house---me in an awkward dance with a tree, trying to get it to stand more or less upright before I begin screwing it down into the four-legged aluminum base. When the tree was finally standing erect and I paused for a breather, I saw a thumbnail-sized green stink bug (Chinavia halaris) peeking out at me. It had crawled out to nearly the end of a branch, no doubt upset by my violent shaking of its home. I managed to cup the creature in my hands and transport it outside (I do not kill bugs in my house if I can remove them by other means. It's just good karma). The stinkbug reminded me that this tree is indeed a living thing and a habitat for other living things.
The Christmas tree tradition can be traced back to Roman times, from the festival of Saturnalia, when branches from fir trees (not entire trees) were cut to garland doors and houses and people, but the biological pedigree of the Christmas tree is much older, dating back at least 50 million years to the Eocene Epoch. I like to think of trees as primordial beings rather than objects of human commerce or culturally conditioned desire. They are much older than we are, and as stewards of this planet, much wiser.
The Douglas fir, which now grows throughout North America but especially in the Northwest and Western Canada, evolved in symbiosis with other species. Squirrels and red tree mice dine on its winged seed pods. The blue grouse eats the tree's staminate cones and needles during the winter. Antelope, mule, white-tailed deer, elk, and mountain sheep browse the foliage and twigs. Many species of bird, insect, and small mammal live in its branches (my little stink bug friend, for instance).
Before the European humans who conquered North America figured out how to turn the trunks of large Douglas firs into lumber and telephone poles on a mass-production scale, the humans who originally lived here had already gathered encyclopedic knowledge of this tree through simple observation and experimentation. In California, The Shasta turned the resin into a poultice to heal cuts, the Yuki used the spring buds to treat venereal diseases, and the Sinkyone brewed a tea from the bark to ease colds and stomach pain. The Kayenta Navajo used parts of the tree to treat headaches and stomach pain. The Pueblo people used the wood for construction, the twigs to adorn ceremonial costumes, and the needles to brew tea. Prayer sticks, baskets, a natural sealant for wooden jugs---all of these were fashioned from this ubiquitous tree. The creativity and pragmatism evidenced by this list can only come from societies that carefully observe the natural world and have internalized species interdependence at a fundamental level.
It goes without saying that we do not live in such a society.
My Douglas fir is, sadly, another product of consumer capitalism, which specializes everything it culls from nature, extracting particular things because of their monetary value while discarding the rest (think about the way white buffalo hunters would kill a bison and skin it for its hide, leaving the rest of the animal to rot in the sun). My tree was planted on a local farm with the express purpose of selling it to Georgians to display in their houses for just one month---a product that is monetized from seedling to curbside trash. Christmas trees! They come in the house carried over the threshold like a newlywed bride, but a month later, they go out through the same door like someone being evicted from their apartment.
This holiday season, many people will find an Oculus 2 Quest virtual reality headset beneath their Christmas tree. In my 55 Christmases, I have observed that there is always a superstar consumer product each year---the one toy or gadget to rule them all. This season, it is the Oculus. I see sleek, sumptuous ads for it everywhere now, advertising the possibility to "play for real." People all over the country will be using the Oculus to do all sorts of things. I hear the ski simulators are especially wonderful. Because I have skied myself, I can imagine the experience of flying down a mountainside at breathtaking speeds, hurtling over jumps, pine trees whizzing by on either side of me.
I know little about what it takes to code a forest of pine trees on a snowy mountainside for a VR ski simulator, but I am willing to bet that many more lines of code will be dedicated to synching the handsets to the goggles in order to simulate the feel of turning in a steep descent. The trees are merely wallpaper in this simulation, and occasionally, obstacles. The fine details of bark, branches, and pine needles are therefore not really important. The bang from this simulation comes from the sensations it produces in the user, the rush of excitement we will receive, like an electrical charge. It is an entertainment product after all.
So what's wrong with a little entertainment? Nothing, of course. I am no Luddite. The Oculus has a right to exist, along with every other whiz-bang techno-miracle machine we can think of. I have no problem with 3D immersive technology either. Off the top of my head, I can think of at least twelve noble, life-changing, life-giving applications for virtual reality, beginning in my own professional arena, education. The problem is that the thirteenth---entertainment---will almost certainly eclipse all of the others. In the new world created by this technology, trees will mostly serve as props and colorful background scenery for our entertainment. We might get to climb one---sort of, in the mostly wraparound visual style of current VR (if you can even call that climbing a tree). You might even get to be a tree. There is apparently a simulation that puts you in the skin of a rainforest tree, seeing what it sees (if a tree has eyes) as it grows from a seed, pokes out of the ground, and rises up into the forest canopy. I would be willing to try this particular simulation at least once.
I think about trees a lot. I lived in trees as a child---bonded with them---and now that I am an adult, I see in them a bellwether for human health and well-being on this planet. Our first ancestors lived in trees; they evolved with them. Our first religions revolved around trees. The World Tree. Yggdrasil. The Tree of Life. The Bo Tree. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This sense of reverence is entirely appropriate, even in the age of plastic and steel. Some of the oxygen I am breathing right now circulated through the leaves and bodies of trees, which, working together with an entire planetary cast of green things, constitute the lungs of the world.
In a season of gratitude, this is also a Christmas miracle.