Of Noble Fir and A Brave Old World


One of the best bargains around is a Christmas tree permit. Go to your local Forest Service ranger district or BLM office, and for five bucks you get a tag and permission to choose your tree from the millions that grow on federal land. The trick around here is that the best trees are at higher elevations, which are now inaccessible unless you have a tracked over-the-snow vehicle or are willing to snowshoe a long way.

I hitched a ride in a snow cat on Friday. My colleague John (how many Johns do I know? Many. This one operates machines.) was grooming snow over Keechelus Ridge, packing and smoothing the route for snowmobiles. I have ridden this area myself, so I know that it’s prime territory for the noble fir (Abies procera), the largest and tallest of the world’s forty-odd true fir species. Writing to British botanist William J. Hooker in 1830, David Douglas said: “…Among these, A. nobilis [noble fir] is by far the finest. I spent three weeks in a forest composed of this tree, and day by day could not cease to admire it…”

No arguments from me, as I cannot cease admiring it either. Its range is small, growing only from Stevens Pass in Washington south to Mackenzie Pass in Oregon, and along and west of the Cascade crest. Noble fir prefers a cool moist habitat, and unlike other firs, is intolerant of shade. So the stands require periodic disturbances in order to regenerate themselves.

The wood of noble fir is prized for being light, strong, and clear (free of knots). Keechelus Ridge has been partially logged, although laws protecting old-growth forest stopped the logging in the early 1990s. Clearcutting opened the way for new trees to grow, so there are many seedlings and saplings. It was a fine day to be out. The cab of the cat was warm and comfortable, and I was hypnotized by the roll of snow curing up from the blade of the cat while we listened to an audio book. Tracks of snowshoe hares, squirrels, and predators like foxes and martens trailed and zigzagged through the fresh snow. I was also watching the tree species change as we gained elevation, and how the trees on top had more snow plastered onto them. It was clear which way the prevailing wind blows, perfectly demonstrating “windward” and “leeward”.

One of my current experiments is to loosen my death grip on linear time. Since I am laid off from my job, there is rarely a reason to look at the clock in order to be somewhere at a certain time. My wristwatch stays on the dresser, ticking away all by itself. All the clocks in my house tell a different time anyway–I am incapable of keeping them synchronized. Keeping track of time in the modern world is a challenge for me. I would much rather be ruled by how the sun moves, when my stomach growls, how the seasons turn. The clock and calendar butcher time into uniform chunks, and our culture’s adherence to linear time feels like tyranny to me. I will take any opportunity to be free from it, living according to the rhythms of the planet and my body.

So the day unfolded. I found my tree, floundered in the snow to cut it, and it rode on the back of the cat the rest of the day. We went up and down, in and out of shade. At the top, we looked down at Kachess and Keechelus Lakes. Out toward the Cascade crest, fleeced in by woolly gray clouds. The sun traveled a shallow arc toward the west, and dusk fell as we made our way back. We listened to one of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, tales that take place far away from noble firs and mountain hemlocks and snow. John turned the lights on, and I felt drowsy. But I could see stars beginning to show in the velvety darkness.

Now my funny little tree can come inside for one of my favorite winter rituals. It has been snowing here at home, and cookies emerge from the oven to scent the house with sugar and spice. The cat and I are in semi-hibernation, luxuriating in sleep while mostly ignoring the clock. However, the calendar insists that Christmas is nine days away. I’m reading Brave Old World by Tom Hodgkinson. The subtitle is “A month-by-month guide to husbandry, or the fine art of looking after yourself”. I don’t know about you, but I was creeped out by reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. And I’m even more creeped out by how much of it has come true (and continues to come true). The Brave Old World of Hodgkinson is pre-Reformation Europe, and he pored over many classic and medieval texts for clues about how to live well. Tending chickens and bees, raising a garden, singing songs, brewing your own ale, hunting and gathering, cutting wood are all covered with personal stories and humor. He prefers words like “resourcefulness” to “self-sufficiency”, because a person might still want to buy things for practical reasons. Capitalist consumer culture is “New World”, and suspect because it turns us into slaves ruled by money and time. So find your own way to rebel.

December is for feasting and making merrie. Nothing to be done in the garden, huzzah! and the bees are tucked into their hive with lots of honey to eat. Here at my house, there’s a quiet little rebellion going on with a crooked $5 Christmas tree, hand-crafted gifts, recycled wrapping paper, food put by last summer, and a watch-free wrist. A joyous Old World feast is in the making!

David Douglas quoted in Northwest Trees by Stephen F. Arno, 2007. A wonderful book, highly recommended.

Keechelus (KECH-uh-lus) means “few fish”, and refers to a lake near the headwaters of the Yakima River. Its neighbor is Kachess (Ka-CHEESS) lake and ridge. Strangely, Kachess means “many fish”.

5 thoughts on “Of Noble Fir and A Brave Old World

  1. I think your Christmas tree sounds great! I am trying to reduce the clutter and stress of life in the 21st century by making gifts for the holidays and just taking time to visit with friends and family. I especially like the idea of resourcefulness and will look for “A Brave Old World”. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Christine, it’s good to know others are slowing down too. Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy the next couple of weeks with friends and family!

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