by mathew sabatino December 04, 2017

Traditions run deep.  They swirl around in our collective imaginations and bring us to that cherished, nostalgic place.  I wonder though, if these heirloom notions and warm traditions have become a burden on the environment.  We sometimes don't look beyond the good tidings to consider what impact decorating a fresh, cut tree for the holiday season may have on the environment.  Without diminishing the greatest time of year - when all mankind can embrace a friendly handshake, glance a wholesome smile and all can warm their hands over the fires of unity - it is important to look at this impacts that can effect the future.

On average, it takes 7-10 years to grow a 6-8 foot tree of the most popular varieties of fir -the most common ones being Fraser, Balsam, Concolor (white), Douglas and Grand.  In those 7-10 years you have to understand what goes into growing these trees. You have to understand the scope of farming and land management, all the years it took to cultivate and nurture the soil to perfection for each and every species growing there.  If you look at where these trees are native to, you will understand, for instance, that the White fir likes higher altitudes where the soil is less rich with nutrients, more rocky and full of limestone.  Fraser and Balsam firs like a more nutrient rich soil, coastal grand fir grows at lower altitudes, deeper in the wet forests of the Pacific Northwest and depending on where you live, Douglas firs can tolerate a wide variety of temperatures and weather variations.  To understand these species is to understand what it will take to grow them and for every farmer they must choose their poison and set up their land for this.  They will need to have a fundamental basis for the general care that goes into growing a tree farm.  The main concern being watering them and this is all dependent on weather.  Some years you will get more rain than others.  If you are out west you will get none for long periods of time and in the current state of affairs dealing with the change in climate its a risky proposition for farmers to even venture forward.  The future of tree farming may just not be worth it.  This year you may have heard the news of tree shortages and spikes in the prices which are already pretty high for something you only use for pure aesthetic purpose and for a short period of time. Lest we forget the importance of tradition though!  But we can be more responsible in having these traditions and we should be.

In a culture of waste we must think ahead to the future.  Tree farming is a huge expenditure in resources, time and money which all have an effect on the environment.  Most people probably look at their tree as some object that was never a real living thing in the first place.  The disconnection is apparent.  Which is sad because the truth is all living animals, including us humans, could not survive without trees.  It is a age old irony that we decorate and celebrate and use these trees as a symbol of so many great feelings that are rooted in family and yet we regard them and discard them so easily.  Its sad to think this, especially in this day and age because I have seen the wild trees - the wild growing Fraser firs in NC and TN.  The ones atop the Great Smoky Mtns.  The ones that are critically endangered because of an introduced bug from a foreign land that is further thriving due to the overall warming of the climate.  It's sad to think, that  in the west, so many factors are combining to possible be the end for a single species of tree.  Drought coupled with wild fires, coupled with southern pine beetle infestations, coupled with climate change can be the end for many species of plants and trees out there.  What can be done?  We are trying to do our part by investing time to spread knowledge.  Teaching about these species is the first step.  To inform is the best weapon against almost anything.  If we know these beautiful forests exist we can then make plans to see them for ourselves.  We can revel in their beauty and understand that they are fragile and can one day be gone.  Just take a trip to the Smoky Mountain National Park and you will see the skeleton forests, where once thriving Fraser fir stands stood alive and green.  It's already starting to go away and if we don't step up and do something, our children will never know them in real life, just pictures in books.

This month, after the holiday season is well winding down, we will be doing our annual treecycle program at a local nature preserve.  We encourage people to bring their trees to us instead of tossing them to the curb for a future in the landfill, where it will serve no more purpose.  With us it will carry on still. We will take those trees and chip them for mulch to be used in garden beds but before we do so we will steam distill them to extract their essential oils.  With those oils we will make our plethora of products and we will use these products to help educate on the importance of conservation, on protecting the Fraser firs for instance.  These trees will have the chance, long after they are physically gone, to still tell their stories.  Most importantly we will have a discussion on the responsible practices involving our beloved holiday trees and what you can do to have less of an impact on the environment.  

For the sake of long standing traditions, we are creating new traditions to uphold and secure that we will always have these things to cherish.
Some facts & considerations:
1) Consider buying a balled root tree so after the holiday you can replant the tree (perhaps in         your yard or back into the wild).
2) If you do toss your tree to the curb - Do Not Bag it. Save your ten bucks.  The trees will   biodegrade in a landfill.  Plastic only adds more unnecessary trash into the environment.
 3) Mulch adds nutrients back into the ground, continuing the natural cycle of decay and  growth.
4) When you get your tree, decline the plastic mesh wrap.  This is not only uneeded plastic  added to our landfills but its horrible if it ends up our oceans.  It will likely become a death trap for some poor turtle or shark.
5) Use branches/needles to insulate sensitive plants, like fig trees, through winter.
6) At the very least you can always burn it in your outdoor fire pit.  Conifer trees are super fire starters as they have volatile oils that are very flammable. (never use indoors)
7) If you have a friend that cares deeply for the environment and need a good gift, consider planting trees in their name.  There are many programs going on currently.  check out for some more info.

mathew sabatino
mathew sabatino


Also in The Naturalist - Dispatches from the Wild


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by mathew sabatino January 18, 2018

Our single plant studies are love songs, pure, unfiltered, admiration, of one species of plant or tree.  One plant with so many scent notes in its catalog, balanced by millions of years of evolution...

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