As I drive around the countryside in late December, I look along the winter-brown roadside for the familiar fuzzy evergreen clouds. They’re far easier to spot this time of year.
They float along old fence lines, these tubby juniper ghosts, at the very edge of the right-of-way. They bide their time where state DOT and Army Corps of Engineers property ends, where the natural world waits to wreck the built and overrun the mechanized. Often, their shredded gray trunks smirk and pucker around twisted steel—We can’t grow here, huh? HA! Stupid barbed wire. That’ll teach you.
When I was a child in rural east Alabama and west Georgia, these dark green blobs of badass were our Christmas trees.
Eastern red cedar, or Juniperus virginiana, grows all the way from southeastern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico. A pioneer invader, it prefers pitiful, ragged-out, freshly-cleared land. However, unlike other potentially invasive species, it can live for centuries if left alone. My grandfather’s farm included several cedars with trunks nearly three feet thick. For the most part, though, the ones I notice are between four and seven feet tall, just the right size for the average living room.
I remember only one tree-cutting walk, far behind our house outside Rock Mills, Alabama. We were likely on someone else’s land. My father had to have known this. But, seeing how eastern red cedars alkalize pasture soil and steal nitrogen from forage crops, maybe the landowners would not have cared. Daddy cut it down with a hatchet and a hacksaw, then dragged the tree behind him for the half-hour walk back to the house, my sister and me following as quickly as our little legs could manage.
In this old photo, the short, squat little cedar looks as lush now as it did then to my three-year-old eyes. It sits atop the blanket chest—also red cedar—that my great-grandfather made around the end of the First World War. That same blanket chest now guards my guest room.
Christmas tree farms make me uneasy. Their offerings, while pretty, are not of this land. Their trees’ native soils lie hundreds of miles north and west of here. While I am glad they bring joy while exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, they are just not for me.
Those plush needles stay too neatly combed. Too-tidy firs and spruces demand unreasonable cheerfulness and forced smiles. They heap manufactured happiness on top of organic, deeply rooted sorrow. And they act surprised when the needle-fine roots of that sorrow break back up through the soil.
Thanks, but I’ll skip the farmed Dick and Jane Reader perfection. I like a little asymmetry, a little imperfection, with my major holidays. Instead, give me an eastern red cedar, thriving at pasture’s edge. Give me slowly shredding grayish-tan bark. Give me perfumed red heartwood that swallows barbed wire and NO HUNTING signs along Georgia Highway 219. Give me needles growing in all directions like an overcaffeinated moth-repellent pompom. Wherever I go, for the rest of my days, the trees I have known and loved stay with me.
Photo: “Detail, Red Cedar Christmas: Rock Mills, Alabama, 1976”
© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)