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.)

Day 1, Story 1: The Snowflake’s Journey

Hello! I see you’ve noticed me in the morning sun. I was hoping you would. Please know that while my delicate form may seem miraculous, and my spirit bold for traveling all these miles, I sure-as-shooting-stars didn’t start out this way.

Have you ever heard the saying “as pure as the driven snow”? The truth is, we snowflakes all start out riding the coattails of dust. That’s right–dust! 

I want to share with you the cold, crystallized, and sometimes wonderful truth of it all. And how I wound up here, on your mitten.

A wee speck of moisture in an airborne ocean, I was. No different from trillions of vaporized kin, I remained anonymous but content for a while. How long, you ask? Who can say? Time moves slowly up there. Until it moves fast.

One uneventful day, I detected a shift in the air and in my soul. A deep yearning welled up in my molecules. A growing suspicion that I was destined for something greater. This pull was vague but undeniable. I decided then and there to follow this conviction wherever it may lead. To let it, and myself, take shape.

Not long after, a tiny castoff from a wayward westerly meandered aimlessly in my general direction. At odds with my grandiose thoughts, I was drawn to this run-of-the-mill particle. Through some inexplicable alchemy, we bonded.

We went together like thunder and lightning, which are really one and the same. I had no idea what this would mean for me. I felt scared. Everything was up in the air, so to speak.

Remembering the calling I felt, I considered the possibilities. Perhaps this was the beginning.

Just as I acclimated, and could no longer imagine life without this new part of me, a chill brought new change. Swift as the Kuroshio current, temperatures dipped and a process of metamorphosis was precipitated. 

The roundness of my ethereal being transformed into crisp, angular sharpness. I became multi-faceted, with six delicate branches. Through blasts of cold and warm air, my newly formed arms morphed, refined, and extended, as if reaching out for an unknown future. 

So began the fall from all I’d ever known. As you can probably imagine, it’s a dizzying descent from the upper atmosphere to this rough-and-tumble earth. There were times when I thought I might melt. Times when I felt I was moving sideways instead of forward, which in this case was down. Uncertainty abounded yet I knew I had to carry on. 

I’m not sure how long this expedition lasted. In fact, I began to wonder if there was even a destination at all when lo and behold, at long last, I alighted at the North Pole. 

There I was, perched on the highest tip of a reindeer’s antler before a quick shake of his head loosed me once again. I drifted and swirled briefly until landing at the foot of a young elf.

Like you, she must have been struck by my elegant structure, the artful handiwork of Mother Nature herself. No sooner had I settled, when the elf scooped me up into a perfect sphere of a snowball. And she had an arm!

Suddenly, I was airborne in a way that defied the laws of physics as I had thus far experienced them. This velocity was breathtaking. Straight and purposeful like an arrow. I felt alive but also nervous. Where would this trajectory lead? Over the head of a mischievous toy maker who ducked just in time and–smash! Into the back of Santa’s sleigh, it turns out. Upon impact, a flurry of new and familiar sensations crashed together.

I was disoriented, yet oddly fixed in place. Back to feeling like just another face in the cloud, yet thankful to be part of this festive scene. Of all the places to wind up, I found myself here! 

I glimpsed an old neighbor on an ice sculpture, but there was no time for hellos. Bells and cheers rose, and so did we. Up and away from the earth. Most astonishing! 

We quickly reached Santa’s intended elevation and again I experienced a way of flying that I could not previously have conceived. Soaring as part of a team. Without the foggiest clue about where we were going, I was eager to see what lay ahead.

A few rooftops into our trip, we hit turbulence. The reindeer bucked. There was a jerk and jolt, a dip and a drop, and my fellow frozen passengers and I began plummeting. We were a helpless clump in free fall until a passing nor’easter scattered us.

That very gust brought me here to your front yard. I found myself surrounded by fresh-faced snowflakes. They’d just arrived and sparkled excitedly in the moonlight. To them, the world was new. In them, I saw my younger self.

The night’s stillness was broken by the scraping of beastly snow plows, passing by then fading away, growling into the distance. The darkness of night bowed to the blue glow of dawn, stars now barely visible in the wake of a nimbostratus. As the sun emerged, I saw red birds foraging red berries and soon, there were rosy cheeked children bundled up and venturing out into a landscape remade.

Then I saw you! Marching out from your yellow house, the color of high noon on a sunny day, you carried a silver sled. You shielded your eyes from our brilliant albedo, boots sinking into powder.

I detected a sense of awe and kindred spirit. A new feeling bubbled up. I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Behind you, a much smaller child came out to play. He wore a fuzzy hat the color of pine needles and a look of determination. He tried to run but could only trudge as if pulled back by an invisible rope, due to his short stature and our impressive depth. Unfazed, he plodded his way to an enormous snowbank.

This temporary mountain towered over him. No matter. Step by step, sometimes pulling himself up with his insulated hands, he fought to reach the summit. Ah, but just when triumph seemed assured, he lost his footing, and rolled bumpily down the steep slope until landing face-first in the snow. 

He cried seemingly inconsolably, wailing skyward to curse the heavens. Snowflakes stuck to his eyelashes and tears poured down his flushed face. But you were there to comfort him. You gently picked him up and dusted him off, and all was calm. This was moving to me, as I know how traumatic a fall can be. 

Next, you surveyed the land and a look of creative inspiration came over your face. You began balling up snow and rolling the ball, gathering emotional steam and physical mass with each step. I watched as this process continued into late morning. 

You stepped back to assess your work. There were three imperfect spheres, stacked with the largest on the bottom and the smallest on top. It was pleasing to my eye, despite the lack of elven ease and precision. This was a labor of love.

A woman came out and handed you a striped garment. You wrapped it around what I assumed was the neck of what I began to realize was an abstract human form. Rocks became steely eyes, a carrot gamely took on the role of nose, and a small branch formed a wry, knowing smile. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. 

After another brief evaluation of your work, you turned in my direction and bent down to grab more snow. Once again I had the fantastically odd sensation of being raised up, against gravity and instinct. This time I felt nothing but joy.

You patted the handful of snow carefully, adding round cheeks to the snow human’s face. 

As you finished sculpting, I remained on your mitten. And then I caught a glint of sun and your eye. Perhaps it was chance. Perhaps I didn’t want to let go.

Ahem! Well, that’s that. There you have it and here we are. 

Yes, it’s been quite a journey, indeed.  Meeting you this Christmas morning has made it all worthwhile. 

Would you look at that? The sun is now high in the sky and the day is warming. Won’t be long now!

Farewell, friend, I’m onto what’s next. I do hope I’ll see you the next time around.

The end for now

(Note: Remaining holiday stories can be found here as they are released each day from 12/13 through 12/24.)

12 Christmas stories for 12 days!

You are invited to read 12 festively original stories in the 12 days leading up to Christmas.

I was eager to do some creative writing, and the holidays provided plenty of inspiration. You can find the stories posted here each day, December 13th through 24th.

These tales will vary greatly in tone and topic. Hoping it will add some fun to your holiday season!