City Wilds

Beaded snowflake made by Carol Montgomery. 





“When are we going to decorate our tree?” Jan asked in early December. It took me a few moments to figure out what she meant.

Then it hit me. Of course. “Our tree” grows along a popular local woodland path, the Turnagain Arm Trail. Since 2016, the year we met and formed a relationship, we’ve hung ornaments on not one but two spruce trees, across the trail from each other, while building on a holiday tradition of mine that began more than a decade before we met.

Ours were the first new decorations to be placed upon the trees this year. Among them were a homemade beaded snowflake fashioned by Jan’s friend Carol, a couple of small stockings, two bears (one pewter, the other porcelain), a pewter snowman, and a decorated Christmas ball. Eventually, we figured, other people would place additional ornaments upon the trees, adding to their festive nature.

Wild, decorated evergreens are nowadays spread around the Anchorage Bowl. For the past few years there’s even been a Solstice Tree Tour at Kincaid Park (this year made into a ski-it-yourself event because of the pandemic). But the Turnagain Arm Trail’s original ornamented spruce continues to hold the most meaning for me, brings me the most pleasure. I suppose that’s partly because it was the first “wild Christmas tree” that I encountered in a local woodland. 

It’s also deep inside the forest, requiring a hike of more than a mile to reach, and thus a greater commitment by the decorators. One other reason comes to mind: it’s located along my favorite forest path, one that I have regularly walked for more than three decades. 

When I lived on the Hillside, I would sometimes walk the Turnagain Arm Trail three or four times a week. Now that I live in west Anchorage I don’t visit nearly as often, but this Chugach State Park trail remains special to me. It’s a place to leave concerns behind and celebrate wild nature along the city’s fringes, while marking the passing of the seasons. And especially in winter, when fewer people go there, it can be a place of peaceful solitude.

I don’t recall the year that people first decorated the spruce, though it had to be at least 15 to 20 years ago. I do remember it was ornamented in silver, gold, red, green, and blue “holiday balls,” plus lots of tinsel. That was the last year for tinsel, which too easily got blown away by the wind; in succeeding years it has been replaced by a greater, more creative assortment of Christmas-Solstice symbols, many of them handmade.

I have no idea who the original decorators were. A couple? A family with kids? A group of friends? People I know? I like to imagine that they came in secret during the dark of night, with candles to light their way and work, though it seems more likely the tree was chosen and ornamented in the revealing brightness of day. (I also suppose a single individual could have done it all, but it struck me as a shared activity.)

Someone or another has hung ornaments upon the tree every year since, making it a lasting local tradition, a holiday ritual shared by both friends and strangers.  For well over a decade I have joined that tradition; and as I’ve discovered the many close connections between Christmas and much older, pagan practices that mark the Winter Solstice, in my mind (and heart) the decorated tree has come to represent the best of both winter observances.

Several years ago, during a summer hike, I was both startled and disheartened to see that several lower branches had been chopped off the tree, leaving a large hole in its form. An overzealous trail-clearing crew had decided the branches were too close to the trail and removed them, leaving what to my eyes was an ugly and unnecessary scar.

Though saddened—and then angered—when I discovered the wound, I now celebrate the spruce tree’s resilience and endurance, and its continued place in linking people and wild nature along a favorite woodland trail, particularly during the holiday season. 

When originally decorated, the spruce was short enough that a person stretching high could place ornaments at or near its top. Nowadays that top rises 30 feet or more above the ground. The spruce’s growth, combined with its wound, means that only a small portion of it can now be ornamented (the tree’s limbs are not stout enough to climb and 1¼ miles seems too far to carry a ladder). And yet that seems sufficient.

Someone also slashed a much smaller nearby spruce and for a while it appeared the young tree might not survive. But one of the remaining branches began to grow more upward than outward and has formed a secondary trunk. And the tree, though misshapen, has healed and grown stronger. Perhaps recognizing that tree’s resilience—and wishing it well—people began ornamenting it too, a kinder, more inspiring gesture. Jan and I have joined this celebratory gesture and now this smaller tree is an important part of our shared observance.

 Though some friends dislike the holiday decoration of woodland trees, especially ones deeper in a forest, I sense a lightness of spirit at play, a healthy thing during our darkest and harshest season. For me it’s also an invitation to celebrate our ancient connection to trees, to forests, to wild nature. I, for one, would much rather decorate a live, rooted tree than one that’s been cut down.

Preparing to retrace my steps toward the trailhead, I offer thanks for these two ornamented trees, this season, my community of friends and family and wild neighbors, and this familiar yet special trail and the woodland through which it passes. And I thank all of the wild-tree decorators, past and present, for what they’ve given me here across the years: surprise (especially that first year), delight, and the blessing of a holiday celebration done simply. And in the wild, our original home.

 

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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