Saturday, December 29, 2012

The nine lives of a Christmas tree

Should we harvest living trees for use as Christmas trees? Would it be more ecological, a better conservation practice, to go artificial?

The Sauter family Christmas tree. The third life of a Christmas tree, evergreens indoors.

We say yes! Harvest living trees if you wish. Populous modern societies depend on farmers, trees from tree farms are an alternative crop. Tree farming increases utility of marginal acreage and can be a restorative agricultural practice beneficial for depleted or eroded landscapes formerly used in row crop production or in grazing livestock.

We buy local: We do business with a local family tree farm gently laboring three generations on their own hillside fields. Annually, we walk their fields and select and cut our own tree, tie it to the top of the vehicle and take it home, no middle man. This close connection with our grower reveals farm practices we admire and support. We seek farms exhibiting what Aldo Leopold called a "land ethic." And, we pay less, they make more money. 
The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land... 

A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land...

That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics.-Aldo Leopold
If you choose to harvest living trees as we do (until recently, a family pine allergy has intervened), we suggest you get the most cultural and ecological utility from your trees, consider all nine lives of a Christmas Tree.

For example, our friends, John and Jen Sauter, choose tree farm grown Douglas fir trees to adorn their rural Ohio home. Jen Sauter, president of the Ohio Ornithological Society, a conservation leader, values all of the ecological benefits of her annual Christmas tree, all nine lives.
The nine lives of a Christmas tree begin with a germinating coneiferous seed tended by industrious hands on a local farm.

New life, the first life of a Christmas Tree*.

Life one: A growing seedling captures soil in its spreading root web while green boughs spread to gather sunshine, slow winds and soften rainfall, slowing runoff. The first years of a farm sapling see very rapid growth of woody tissues constructed of carbon pulled from the atmosphere. Most evergreens prove drought tolerant, a necessary quality on sandy-gravelly soils. The growing trees promise future high returns in dollars and continuing ecoservices; captured carbon, improved soil texture and soil chemistry, runoff inhibition, wind abatement, and so on...

A tree farm growing on a gravelly, hilly glacial landform in Pickaway County, Ohio.

Life two: A tree farm is a simple forest of small evergreens. This attractive woodscape has secured the soil and is shedding needles and twigs in quantity, organic litter that revitalizes depleted clayey or sandy-gravelly soils. Compared to row crops, a grassy field of evergreens supports greater biodiversity; food, shelter, and shade for insects, birds, and quadrupeds, habitat lasting at least a decade and more. Many small Midwestern tree farms support abundant rabbits and meadow voles, supporting predatory birds and quadrupeds!

Life three: Each year, a section of the tree farm is harvested, the larger habitat goes on. Stumps and root webs of harvested trees remain, modifying and holding soil in place. Harvested trees are essential elements of Christmas celebrations. Greening the indoors near the winter solstice has been a multicultural practice for thousands of years. Evergreens embody our hopes and expectations for the end of the cold season and renewal of abundance in the coming green season, the cycle of life.

Life four: Our indoor celebrations are brief, but they need not be the last life of our Christmas trees. Jen Sauter drags her drying tree to the family bird feeding station for the remaining cold season. The birds benefit, additional shelter for birds staging to feed at her feeders attracts more birds by offering more of them more of what they need. The twelve year old farm grown Douglas fir Christmas tree pictured stood nine feet tall indoors, now it provides nine feet of excellent cover for staging birds at the feeders.

Cover for birds waiting their turn at a feeding station, the fourth life of a Christmas tree.

Feeding stations attract concentrations of small birds, concentrations of small birds attract predatory birds, a natural process. Natural landscapes level the field for predator-prey interactions by offering escape cover. Cover at your feeding station helps level the field, giving small birds a fighting chance when they are over-concentrated at your super-abundant food source.

Habitat to soil; the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth lives of a Christmas tree.
Life five: A year ago, the Christmas tree pictured above served the Sauters indoors, then the feeder birds outdoors. By spring, the tree was repositioned along a field margin where it supports a grassy tangle that will last for several years and more ecological lives. This is "rabbitat" (rabbit + habitat). The fifth life of the Christmas tree offers new green cover for wildlife along an ecotone, a habitat boundary favoring biological diversity.

Life six: Clinging needles and small twigs finally release and collect under the tree, the sixth life of the Christmas tree begins. Natural litter builds under the tree where insects and fungus along with bacteria reduce the litter to organic duff, nature's mulch. Mulch supports yet more types of organisms.

Life seven: Eventually, after a few years as rabbitat, the tree branches collapse altogether, the bole of the tree resting and rotting on the ground, the seventh life of a Christmas tree. The rotting bole is substrate for fungus, the rotting wood is habitat for invertebrates. New plants take root in the deep duff formed by the decomposed tree.

Life eight: Dust to dust. The tree has passed to duff. Much of its carbon is in long term storage in organic soil supporting the next cycle of plant growth.

A Virginia pine cone releasing seed, commencing the ninth life of a Christmas Tree

Life nine: New life. The Douglas fir sapling pictured below grew from seed dropped by Christmas tree rabbitat years earlier, new life! The mulch of the decomposed tree supports the sapling.

New life, the first life of a Christmas Tree*.

1 comment:

Tree Service Brooklyn said...

The best part about harvesting a living tree is that you get to burn later after the new year! They make great firewood.

-Samudaworth Tree Service