The practice of bringing an evergreen tree indoors to celebrate the winter solstice very likely began around the 16th century in Germany. Now conifers and Christmas go together like eggs and Easter; like cake and birthdays, like Molly and Fibber McGee.
Candles were eventually added, and more recently, electric lights, to symbolize the conquest of light over darkness.
Conifers, as the name implies, are trees that bear cones… as in pine or spruce cone. They are in a group of plants known as gymnosperms, literally, “naked seed.” This refers to the seeds being found in the cone rather than enclosed within a capsule, such as a fruit or nut. These cone-bearing trees have been around for a very long time, showing up in fossils from the Pennsylvanian period, well over 300 million years ago. That’s over a hundred million years before the dinosaurs. Today this ancient group of plants dominates a broad circumpolar belt known as the Boreal Forest, or Taiga, extending across Canada and Siberia, bordered by arctic tundra on the north, and extending southward to the broadleaf forests which characterize America and much of Europe.
Because most coniferous trees hold their leaves (needles) throughout the year, they embody the tenacity of life … even during the darkest coldest part of the year and most brutal winter storms, they remain defiantly green. On the longest night of the year (the winter solstice) this touch of greenery serves as reassurance that life endures. This hopeful trait has become part of solstice traditions throughout the world. Not only do fir, spruce, and pine dominate the Boreal forest, but also dominate our Christmas tree lots with their beautiful conical shape and dark green color. There is ample space between branches to hang ornaments, lights, mementoes, tinsel, etc.Although few conifers are native to Central Illinois, they are popular additions to landscapes as well as living rooms, adding color and texture to the winter scene. What can be more beautiful than new fallen snow accumulating on evergreen bows?
Coniferous trees make up a significant percent of many of the world’s forests and are a huge part of current ecological research. The Natural Resources Defense Council (nrdc.org) emphasizes the global value of our conifers: “Like the Amazon, the boreal forest is of critical importance to all living things on earth. It is home to one of the world’s largest remaining stands of spruce, fir and tamarack. The thick layers of moss, soil and peat of the boreal are the world’s largest terrestrial storehouse of organic carbon and play an enormous role in regulating the Earth’s climate. Boreal wetlands filter millions of gallons of water each day that fill our northern rivers, lakes, and streams. As a vast, intact forest ecosystem, the boreal supports a natural web of large carnivores, such as bears, wolves and lynx along with thousands of other species of plants, mammals, birds and insects.”
About 40 percent of North America’s waterfowl are sustained by the boreal forest in Canada, as well as 30 percent of the land birds, such as warblers and shore birds. The boreal forest is still vast, but is under imminent threat from logging, mining, petroleum extraction, and dam building. Much of this ecological destruction is being driven by U.S. consumption. The so called “Keystone Pipeline,” project would destroy boreal forest to get at tar sands, sully lakes and streams, and pump countless tons of carbon into the atmosphere. The only way to protect what’s left of our planet’s ecological infrastructure is through strict governmental regulation.
We took a trip this fall to the Pacific Northwest to visit our son, Chris. He introduced us to the protected old growth coniferous rain forest in Olympic National Park. After we left him we traveled south to Redwood National Park. A walk into these primordial ecosystems is a journey into the sacred. The oldest conifers are giant redwood, sequoia, and Douglas fir found in ancient groves some of which were located along the American west coast. Many of these amazing trees were already forest giants when Jesus was a kid. And yet nearly all… 96 percent… was consumed before visionaries such as Andrew Putnam Hill and John Muir were able stop lumber barons from completely dismantling this complex hidden ecosystem. “Harvesting” these ancient trees and reducing them to mere lumber is a travesty, akin to burning priceless Renaissance paintings to warm your lunch.
Richard Preston, in his book, “The Wild Trees,” tells the compelling story of a few modern day “Indiana Jones” type ecologists who ventured into the highest reaches of old growth Redwoods and discovered a whole new world. In the 1980’s, Dr. Steve Sillett was among the first to “free climb” to the top of one of these immense redwoods. Gradually Sillett and a few others perfected safe means of accessing the upper reaches of forest giants in order to study and catalogue the incredible biodiversity hidden in trees that tower well over 300 feet.
Who would have suspected you could sit high in the top of one of the largest ancient conifers and find two different species of huckleberries… or locate salamanders and voles that spend their entire lives in this lofty realm. They also discovered a plethora of plants from the most primitive algae, to liverworts, to previously unknown lichens, mosses, and ferns, to shrubs and orchids. They documented so many species of flora and fauna occupying the lofty canopy, it changed the way we look at the forest itself.
What began as protection of beautiful trees has resulted in an ecological epiphany… a Christmas present, of knowledge. America’s conifers have opened up discoveries in forest ecosystems around the world. Sometimes it’s the non-Christmas tree conifers that reveal the tenacity of life.
“The outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century is not television, or radio, but rather the complexity of the land organism. Only those who know the most about it can appreciate how little we know about it.” – Aldo Leopold