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Christmas Trees
10 December 2002

It was 1956. My grandmother had a house in Middletown, Indiana. It was a brown brick house with cream-colored gables and a cherry tree in the back yard - the canonical Midwestern house. In those days, Christmas trees were always real. People who had pretensions to higher class had what were called "flocked" trees. Some chemical substances (similar to the pesticides in our Wonder Bread, no doubt)
were sprayed onto the tree to approximate the aura of snow. In 1956, my Grandma had an idea.

Now I must digress a moment about my Grandma. She managed the Eavey's food store in Middetown, Indiana (pop. 1500) at the time. In about 1946, she made the amazing discovery that a grocery store could be a place that one decorated, a place that could offer excitement and artifice and wonder for the folk who bought their food there. I think the idea actually came to her one day when she was chasing one of the tarantulas that regularly crawled out of the banana crates with a broom. It was near Halloween and so she started making spiders and witches, and then at Christmas she made elves and then she just kept
going. My Grandma had a flair for decoration.

Anyway, in 1956, she was down in the basement of her house the week before Christmas flocking the tree. By then it had been discovered that a strong mix of soapsuds and water and some mystery ingredients could be combined to do the flocking yourself at home instead of buying a pre-flocked tree on the lot for twice the money. Always before the tree had been flocked white, of course. But that year Grandma had an idea. She had just had the walls of her living room (at the far end of which were gas logs on which my younger cousins and I would hurl various chemicals to make bright colors) painted light aqua. She decided to mix some of the paint from the walls into the flocking mix so the tree would match the room (matching was big in those days; I am told by my children that it is uncool now). And so she flocked the tree with aqua snow. And when it appeared to be dry, she dragged it up from the basement, through the dining room, and into the far corner of the living room, over the finely woven, incredibly expensive light gray wool carpet. Because there was oil-based paint in the flocking, and because it wasn't quite dry, the tree left an indelible trail.

The next year, an aluminum tree appeared at Grandma's house. At about 4 feet distance stood a floodlight with a slowly rotating color wheel divided into quadrants: blue, green, red, yellow. I was amazed. This was tripping for an 8-year-old in Indiana in 1958. She kept that tree for eighteen years.

Shift-edit. When I first moved here in 1979 my good friend Joe took me up in the mountains (Black Road, which was later the venue of my kids' elementary school) to cut a tree from the earth at a tree farm. This was the most amazing connection with Nature that I had ever experienced. I recall the dim but real desire to live up here someday. Little did I know that an error in the real estate computer system would make that possible, but that's another story.

Now I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California. My Grandma has gone on to the Summerland where, presumably, there are better things than aluminum Christmas trees. I have Douglas Fir trees on my land, but they are spindly (if under Oaks) and viable (If in Sunshine). So you see my problem. Luckily there are many a Christmas tree farm on Skyline Ridge.

We sigh deeply on Thanksgiving, knowing that the next day the Flatlanders will begin to arrive on their mountain pilgrimage to get Christmas Trees from the tree farms. They will drive very slowly. They will occasionally do things wrong. About four years ago I passed a family going downhill from one of the farms with the tree tied to the top of their car, pointy end forward. Now, I imagine that the man of the family was thinking about wedges. He was thinking aerodynamically. But he was an F- in biology, poor bugger. He forgot that trees have branches that reach up. I don't even want to imagine him arriving at home in San Jose somewhere with his tree blown inside-out like an umbrella on a windy day.

The very big trees don't often get cut on the tree farms. We harvested a hoary 15-foot Scotch pine on Skyline Ridge (with respect and thanks). After repeating the weird annual ritual of falling on
Rob, the tree allowed itself to be wrestled into the back of our pickup with a good five feet hanging out the back. Several kids whom we passed on the way out said things on the order of, "Whoa, big tree, dudette!" The last vehicle we passed was a cherry 1957 Chevy truck, black, with black plates. The onerous gas-guzzlingness of the vehicle was redeemed by the two small boys in the front seat. I gave an appreciative
thumbs-up for the truck, and the little dude by the door - the youngest - gave me that nod: "yeah, man, we have a wicked cool truck."

And so our tree was driven home (slowly) and hoisted and decorated and lo, it smells wicked good. It ties us to the land, in contrast to the way the aluminum tree tied my folks to the bright new baby of
50s consumerism. And so and lo, I have the kind of Yule tree that I always wanted and never had till I was all grown up with kids of my own. Although they are sophisticated teens, the girls even helped to
decorate it.

I also have an apartment in Pasadena, near Los Angeles, because I teach down there. I had to ask myself, how does an old Hoosier lady do hip decorations for a Yule party for a bunch of design students? A real tree would be just too corny. And I already used up my quota. What to do? After a desperate search I found an answer at Orchard Supply Hardware, where this year they are selling artificial trees with fiberoptic extensions from every branch. These trees rely on the same color-wheel idea that sent me to heaven forty years ago.

I will hang the star from the ceiling, and it will not quite touch the fiberoptic tree. I hope the distance will be a reminder. A distance, not unlike the distance between an aluminum Christmas tree and the Earth to which we belong. A distance that keeps us aware of what is real and true, as the color-wheel turns.