When I was first married, the southern Idaho desert seemed so empty and desolate to me, coming as I had from the lush, forested country around the Great Lakes. So at Christmas, I wanted to see a Scotch pine or Douglas fir tree in our living room, shapely and full. But one December afternoon, my husband in a cost-cutting measure, brought home a scraggly Juniper to be our Christmas tree. He was proud to tell me he’d cut it down on some ranch land north of our farm. Ranchers were happy to be rid of the trees, as they tended to overtake grazing habitat. Well. There were a lot of things I was willing to do to save money, including bake braided Christmas bread to give as presents, but trading an elegant pine for a smelly Juniper bush, was not one of them. I went out to the porch, swept the diaper basket off the lid of the Kenmore washer, laid my head in my arms on the cold metal, and cried.
My husband peaked past the porch door and gently suggested the Juniper would look great if we set it on that old wood stove we never used, to give it some height. I remember I placed a lacy tablecloth around the base for a tree skirt, put some shiny red balls on the sparse, weeping fronds, and stood back for a look. There was so much air between the branches, I called it my Charlie Brown Christmas tree. For a month it seemed, I vacuumed up tiny bluish, cone berries that dropped from the Juniper boughs on the carpet. The berries, crushed under the vacuum rollers, sent out a distinctive spicy smell that by the time Christmas was over, I’d actually come to like.
Now, winters later, I’m thinking about a Christmas tree again and trees in general. Though temperatures have finally dropped, it was a hot summer in Idaho this year. On June 28th, the National Weather service recorded another record, 114 degrees in Glenns Ferry. We had 11 straight months of above average temperatures and the forests in Washington, Oregon and Idaho burned. I’m beginning to plan mountain excursions around a smoky August. Last year, our family hiked the Sawtooth Wilderness, Fourth of July trail, only to find ourselves enveloped in the smoke from pine and fir trees burning a hundred miles away. We were barely able to see the lovely granite peaks surrounding Fourth of July Lake. This year there were two weeks of smoke and air quality warnings in August, and incredibly, even in October we endured another week of smoke from a forest fire near Grimes Creek.
I am so thankful we finally have cold temperatures and snow. I told my children over the phone, winter has come to Idaho, then we discussed them flying home. They talked about decorating a Christmas tree and wondered if we could drive up to the Owyhee’s and cut a Juniper, like we’d done in the old days. I told them there should be a wide selection of trees up near the cow camps on Juniper Mountain, and this time of year they’d stand so pretty in the patchy snow, their boughs heavy with clusters of icy, blue cone berries.
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I’ve considered how much I’ve changed over the years, how much everything has changed, except the noble Juniper tree. Such a tree, the Juniper, with its gnarly trunk, willing to endure heat, drought, and the most inhospitable soils, standing strong against the challenges of both climate and mankind.
Diana Hooley, of Hammett, is a teacher and writer.