Day 2, Story 2: The Last Evergreen

Hey, come on in! Thank you for stopping by tonight. That wind is a fright. So glad you made it.

Look, you’re covered in dust. Go brush yourself off in the mudroom. Then you can rinse your face in the kitchen. You’ll feel better. There you go.

Here, have a seat, child. I made us some tea. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, and there are some things I’ve been meaning to tell you. Things I want you to know. I’ll get to it.

If I don’t wake up tomorrow, Christmas morning–Lord willing–or sometime next week or in the new year, I will have said my piece. And that means I can go in peace. After a century on this planet. Heck, imagine that. One hundred years.

Now, to you, they’re more like a myth. But to me, they were part of life. The evergreens. 

Yes, I should explain. Technically I’m talking about conifer trees here. They had pointy needles instead of the flat, broad leaves. Both a leaf and a needle did the same job, really. But needles played the long game, all year long. Built for ice, snow, and wind. Holding on.

Since they were green in winter, come Christmastime, heck, we’d cut down small trees from a farm and bring ’em indoors. It’s true! To brighten up the dark time of year. A symbol of eternal life. Isn’t that ironic? Well, back then it was tradition.

Sure doesn’t feel like Christmas Eve without a Christmas tree. But having you here with me sure helps. 

Anyway, it wasn’t just in winter. Evergreens were wonderful to be around, really, in every season. I remember the smell of dried cedar tips on a summer hike. Heck, it was heavenly! Always gave my brain a little lift. Kept me going.

There were so many kinds, too. And I loved all of ‘em–firs, pines, cypress, junipers, cedars, heck, I mean all of ‘em. 

Growing up, my favorite was a Colorado blue spruce out front, right by my bedroom window. It was powdery blue, which seemed gentle, but then the needles were so sharp. That tree was planted when I was born so I guess you could say we grew up together.

The evergreens were important. They made lots of life possible, and kept it protected. Especially in winter when the other trees were bare, they were homes and food to animals. There were moths and butterflies that laid eggs on red cedar branches–they sought ‘em out every year. Huge ponderosa pines were shelters for elk and bears. All kinds of creatures depended on ‘em. Big and small.

Conifers had cones. It’s there in the name. Now, they really fascinated me. Cones were really capsules for seeds, protecting ‘em until the time was right to take root. Heck, you really couldn’t engineer a better system if you tried! Nature will outsmart us every time. ‘Course, some cones had pollen, not seeds. But that’s beside the point. 

Cones grew on branches in the spring. Some were like woody pineapples, or carved flowers. Some were spiky grenades, defending those seeds. But there were others, heavy and sappy and shaped like eggs–perfect for throwing if you didn’t mind sticky hands. Small cones were like berries, just waiting to be picked. Isn’t that something? Heck, I thought so. Each type of tree had its own way. Just amazing. 

I especially loved seeing the fir cones that sat on top of branches like little owls. Other cones hung like ornaments, which always reminded me of Christmas, even in the worst heat of summer.

When I was little, I collected cones. Wow, did I collect ‘em. Heck, I had hundreds, and counting, but then it was outlawed and you had to leave ‘em where they lay. Of course I understood. Everyone knew I loved ‘em, too. They called me “Pinecone Girl,” can you believe that? It annoyed the heck out of me because pines are only one dang kind of hundreds of dang conifers. 

My uncle taught me a lot about ‘em. He fought wildfires for a few years when I was real young, and I’ll never forget it–he once brought me back a sugar pine cone he saved. Heck, it was over two feet long! Best gift I ever got. I wrapped it in a blanket and carried that thing around like a newborn. I was so dang proud.

The thing is, a cone was supposed to be a kind of safeguard. For the next generation of trees. I used to think about those trees, doing their darndest to survive against all kinds of threats and, still, they put a lot of energy into growing those cones. Not for show. To support life! And not their own.

Heck, if only humans had done the same, I know. I know it. 

I remember when we started losing the giants. First Phalanx went, the biggest pine of ‘em all. Then General Sherman,  after 3,000 years. Heck just imagine that. Hurts my heart even now. Then it was the Centurion and Menara. People mourned around the world. It was more than trees we lost.  I was still a young woman then. 

Wasn’t just one thing that did the evergreens in, you know. It was a long run of dominoes, like the kind my grandfather had. Each falls a bit faster than the one before. There was no more snow to protect their roots in winter and water ‘em in the spring. Trees grew weaker and more vulnerable to invasive beetles and those beetles grew bigger and faster as the world warmed. There was fungus and disease, all sped up by the warming that turned forests into darn petri dishes and tinder boxes. One change tipped into the next until all the evergreens came down. Heck, they brought a whole lot with ‘em. I felt nothing but doomed for a long time.

And you know what? For a while, I never thought about what I could do because I was so focused on what I lost. And heck, the evergreens were one of so many things lost. To me, they were more than trees.

Of course, I had my daughter. Your grandmother. And I even thought about you then, long before you were born. I started to feel like “doomed” just wasn’t an option. Struggle, oh heck yes. Inevitable! Doom, no.  Not for me and not for you. 

You know I did try. I want you to know that. For a while, I used seeds from my cones to plant trees way out back in the forest. What was left of it anyway. Through trial and, well, many errors, I figured out ways to protect the saplings. They didn’t survive but each tree did a little better than the one before. 

Heck, the last evergreen I planted was four feet tall when we left. Besides all the mulching and the netting, I planted it near a granite ridge to try and stop it from burning and I set up a rain barrel to water it–’course it wasn’t full very often or very long. Then, heck, the fire came through. We lost everything. Moved on and never looked back, just trying to get by. 

Good question. How do you carry on when everything is falling apart? Well, I’d say you know this about as well as anyone with all you’ve seen in your life up to now, in the world you came into. I’d say, you mourn what’s lost but you also grasp what’s there. You find even, just, that one thing–whatever makes you feel alive. You grow it. You appreciate the beauty of it. Whatever the heck it is. Could be a song. Could be feeding people, or making ‘em laugh, like your mama always does. Heck, I saw a miracle in a pinecone, something most people probably never thought about. You find your path toward something you love, and you take it. Away from “doomed.”  It’s simple, but it’s not easy when things are falling apart. Though if you do find that path, you might see that other people want to come along.

And here’s what I need you to know. 

After a few years of service, my uncle got sick from the smoke. His firefighting days were over so he gave me his lockbox. Standard issue. A little beat up, but sturdy. Made of steel. He figured I could use it to store my cone collection. And heck, that’s what I did. 

This sounds crazy, I know. But what if–what if those cones are out there? Buried in the ash and earth? Steel doesn’t burn easy. Heck, that was the whole point! So it’s possible. Heck. It really is.

Could you go back there, where the old house was, and take a look around for me? I wish I could. Heck! The wind alone would take me out. There’s nothing out there to break it. I’m asking you to carry my little bit forward. The seeds or maybe just the story. Either way, I hope some good can come from it.

Thank you, child. That’s the best dang Christmas gift I’ve ever had the fortune to receive. Well, it’s at least a tie with that sugar pine cone!

Tell you what. If it’s out there and–Lord willing–you find it, well, I know you’ll take good care of that cone, and the rest of ‘em, when I’m gone.

Heck, I know you will.

The end (unless we act)

Note: Because I don’t think my young nephews, who are following these stories, should carry the weight of imagining all Christmas trees gone from the earth, I whipped up another more kid-friendly take on the concept of The Last Evergreen. You can find it here!

Support Save the Redwoods League.

(Note: Remaining holiday stories can be found here as they are released each day through 12/24.)

One comment

  1. Greg Hescock · December 15, 2021

    I have evergreens around my house and in the woods behind. I will never look at them the same way again. The story is a tragic reminder of how fragile our planet has become. I am hopeful like in the story will find a box
    of seeds and save the world and the trees.

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