AK Voices: Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Living with Wildness" and "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness."

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Wild Christmas Tree

In honor of the Winter Solstice/Christmas season, I offer this essay (written a couple of years ago) about a holiday ritual along one of my favorite hiking trails:

On a blustery, gray December day, I leave my home and head for the forest at Anchorage’s southern edge. My mood matches the weather: somber, even gloomy.

A surprisingly long spell of deep-cold stillness and occasional brightness has been blown apart by a stormy coastal low that raised temperatures more than 30 degrees and will, over the next week, nearly erase the one-foot-deep snowpack of dry powder that covered the forest floor. In short, the day is dark and rainy.

My mood picks up as I enter the woods, which is delightfully noisy with natural sounds: the rush and whistle of wind, the creak and groan and banging of trees, the cheery – and cheering – songs of black-capped chickadees.

Other forest inhabitants grab my attention: a squirrel chatters and a cow moose and her calf eye me warily as I pass by them, browsing downhill from the trail.

And so, step by step, the heaviness lifts.

Within the first mile, I pass three people with dogs in tow, and we exchange hellos and nodded greetings. Two, like me, are regulars and their presence brings a smile, just as chickadees and squirrel and moose have. But my mood gets its biggest lift as I round a corner in the trail.

Off to the left is a white spruce that stands more than a dozen feet high. And its bottom half is adorned with Christmas ornaments. The decorations are both a happy surprise and the answer to a wish. I’ve been hoping to see Christmas balls and other small treasures hanging from this tree since the week of Thanksgiving. Now, finally, the ritual has been completed.

Nearly a decade has passed since I first found this wild spruce tree brightened with tinsel and shiny Christmas balls. Someone or another has hung ornaments upon the tree every year since, making it a local tradition, a holiday ritual shared by strangers along a trail I walk regularly, while marking the passing of the seasons.

I have no idea who the decorators are. A couple? Family with kids? A group of friends? People I know? I suppose it could even be a single person; but I don’t think so. This is an act that is best done in playful partnership of some sort. I assume, too, that they are trail regulars, but they could be folks who come here once a year, for this purpose alone. And I like to imagine that they come in the dark of night, with candles to light their work, but they could just as easily decorate in open daylight.

Whoever the decorators may be and whatever their strategy, I thank them for their gifts: surprise (especially that first year), delight, and the blessing of a Christmas celebration done simply. And in the wild.

That first year the Turnagain Arm Trail Christmas tree was decorated simply, in silver, gold, red, green, and blue Christmas balls, plus lots of tinsel. That was the last year for tinsel (which too easily got blown away by the wind); it has been replaced by a greater assortment of ornaments. The colored balls are this year joined by felt mittens and stockings, elves and bears, angels and snowflakes.

It’s been my pleasure to share the Christmas spruce with several people, including my sweetheart, Helene, and my brother, Dave, and his wife, Jane, while visiting one holiday from New York. This year, too, I’ll introduce friends to the spruce. But for now, on this wind-blown day, I am content to look at the ornaments and stand alone in the presence of the tree.

In one sense, it’s a small thing. In another, it’s grand. The only thing that could make it better, perhaps, would be if all the ornaments were hand-made. Still, the spruce doesn’t feel either commercial or contrived. I sense a lightness of spirit at play here. And an invitation to celebrate.

Offering thanks for this tree, this season, my community of friends and family and wild neighbors, and this familiar yet special woodland, I turn and retrace my steps back up the trail.

As I do, two thoughts begin playing in my head. First, I will again add an ornament or two of mine to this spruce. Second, I’ll do my part to keep this new tradition alive. If, some December, the tree goes undecorated, I will come in the dark of night and place my own gifts upon it. Then I will light a candle or two and bask in their soft glow, knowing that the tree will brighten dark mid-winter days and, maybe, other lives.

Epilogue: I’m happy to report the tree has been decorated again this year; my friend William and I savored its ornamented presence on a recent hike through the woods, while also accompanied by my enthusiastic canine walking companion, Coya, who showed great patience while we admired the tree, now nearly twice the height it was when first decorated years ago.

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