Why bother with toys? A simple tree captures a toddler’s attention

By Jayson Jacoby December 04, 2009 11:58 am

Went to the woods Saturday to saw down the year’s Christmas tree, and by Sunday afternoon the house was infused with the pleasantly earthy scent of fresh fir.

So was a little girl’s blonde hair.

We expected of course that Olivia would be intrigued by the sudden appearance of a 7-foot conifer in her living room.

She is, I should mention, 2 1/2.

And at 2fi your sense of cynicism is so stunted that pretty much everything that happens to you is intriguing.

Olivia raises the alarm when she notices irregularities much less conspicuous than a tree — a single cracker crumb on the kitchen floor, for instance.

Still, the level of her obsession with the light-festooned fir seemed to me disconcerting.

I didn’t put a stopwatch to it, but Olivia spent at least two hours on Sunday hunkered on her knees before the tree, as though praying at an altar.

(Although you don’t often see a penitent repeatedly kick the object of her adulation.)

In any case Olivia brushed against the fir’s branches so often that by evening her hair smelled of balsam rather than baby shampoo.

As did her hands, which busily plucked needles and then dropped them into the water that had collected along the rim of the tree-stand after I overfilled it.

I scolded Olivia, and told her she would kill the tree if she continued her campaign of defoliation.

I might as well have been chastising a spruce budworm or a tussock moth, for all the impact my fallacious story had on her.

I suppose it’s possible that Olivia understands that once felled, a tree — even a tree that gulps a quart of water in a day — is already as dead as it’s going to get and that yanking off some needles is just harmless fun.

Despite the occasional frustrations that are inevitable when you put a tree in a house occupied by a toddler, I relish the sense of wildness a bit of greenery introduces to any indoor setting.

Our tree this year, as with most years, is a grand fir.

(My wife, Lisa, suggested a spruce because its prickly needles tend to deter plump toddler fingers; but she didn’t push the idea.)

The grand fir seems to me both more pungent and more attractive than its cousin, the Douglas-fir.

(Which according to the botanists isn’t even a fir at all. The experts, in fact, don’t seem to know what to do with the Douglas-fir, taxonomically speaking — the tree’s scientific name, translated from the Latin, means “false hemlock,” which means, I guess, that it’s neither a fir nor a hemlock, but nearer the latter. The Douglas-fir, which is Oregon’s state tree, was also for a time lumped in with the pines.)

We found the tree on the west side of the Elkhorns, between Union and Deer creeks.

It was growing on a west-facing slope, which is an advantageous place for most trees since west exposures get quite a lot of sun.

I counted the tree’s rings and there were 15. Which makes the tree the same age as my son, Alexander.

This coincidence got me to wondering whether the tree had sent out its first root by the day Alexander arrived, Oct. 8, 1994. I can’t say, since I know as little about dendrology as I do about quantum physics.

This is a common conceit, I’ve noticed — to put a tree’s life span in perspective by linking its age to historic events.

A popular one is to note that certain bristlecone pines were already ancient when the Black Death was decimating Europe’s population.

Confirming that my Christmas fir sprouted during Clinton’s first term — which is history but not, you know, historical — seems a silly exercise by comparison.

And yet, these secrets of the forest hold for me an eternal fascination. I’m grateful for that — it grants me the increasingly rare gift of seeing the world with that sense of awe and discovery which still defines life for Olivia.

I wonder, for instance, about the tree (probably another grand fir) that will grace our home during the Christmas season of, say, 2024.

Does its seed even now lie beneath the duff and the snow, as cold as death yet brimming with life that will be?

Or has it already germinated, and thrust its bole, slender as a pencil, through the soil?

It is of course premature of me to think of this tree as mine; yet my mind insists that I will still be cutting my own tree 15 years from now, and so that tree, or at least its embryonic version, must exist.

And I have great hopes for this tree.

I would have it grow, hale and good.

As Olivia is growing, and Alexander before her.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.