Hartley Magazine

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Christmas Trees Wanted: dead or alive?

The holiday season is upon us and in the Clarke residence it shows its face with the resurrection and plugging in of the Psychedelic Christmas Tree. As a couple of old groovers, this totem has particular significance, marking our first Christmas in Iowa in a rental and not knowing a soul in the state. Dire times – which did cheer up when Himself returned from Walgreens with our tree; three feet of synthetic pine needles, the end of each branch carrying a cluster of optic fibers that, when the tree was plugged in, change colors. Twenty years later, we’re still loving it, and I’ve determined that it qualifies as a nod to biophilic interior design, despite its faux nature. We have real houseplants the rest of year, but nothing lifts our spirits like an illuminated tree. Another friend — an installation artist — has her own version of biophilic living with a tree named Bob.

Colorado artist, Cathleen Meadows, acquired her tree in 2014. Propped against a light pole, the cardboard sign indentified the branchless stump as a rare cross between a Christmas tree and Festivus pole, and invited someone to take it home. So she did…and named him Bob.
Today Bob is resplendent in Cathleen’s collection of ornaments and Christmas lights, which he wears all year long and is the eternal guest that everyone is glad to see. Courtesy of Cathleen Meadows.

Trees can improve our lives, and that of each other. The Japanese have known this for centuries; today we have ‘forest bathing’, but decades ago, tourists arriving in the country in 1868, post-Meijei Revolution, noted how ancient trees were venerated – from the stately ones growing in temple confines, to the bonsai that were dwarfed and manicured to better emphasize the perfection of the species form. Then as now, cherry trees in blossom time were most highly prized and adored. The Irish author and Western transplant to Japan, Lafcadio Hearn, whose 1904 book Kwaidan; Stories and studies of strange things in Japan, a compilation of Japanese fables, included ‘The Cherry Tree of the Sixteenth Day.’ The story is about a woman who gave her life and soul to save the child she cared for; in return she was transformed into a cherry tree that blooms only on the day of her death – the 16th day of the year.


A 16th-century Japanese screen decorated with an exceptional ink painting of pine trees by Tohaku Hasegawa indicates the spirituality invested in trees by Japanese culture.

At the start of the pandemic lockdowns much respected, read and commented on the Secret Life of Trees was published. It struck a nerve with so many of us; the world was fraying at the seams and what could we do about it? A dear, now departed, friend offered what his contribution would be for the duration – he was 90 years old at the time: “I’ll just look after my village”. A composer of international renown, his life contained more of a city, but he was meaning that his world would contract to tending his closest friendships, nurturing, and supporting those of us in his “village’. He drew this analogy from what we know now of how trees send out nutrients to their neighbors and family to strengthen and defend them against threats from pests or disease.

This is a season for giving and receiving, and it is for some also a time of loneliness and despair. And my husband and I are drawn to an organization called Growing Veterans, HQ  in Bellingham, Washington. The organization was started by a veteran turned social worker who wanted to overcome the isolation that affects so many returning vets. To do this, Growing Veterans works to create purpose and belonging by “growing food, community and each other” on their farm, where the participants grow organic produce, from hops to summer veggies, for wholesale distribution to local businesses. In return, the mutual support and comradeship volunteers find working in the the fields is what the group terms “Dirt Therapy”: As they explain on their website, “Both the soil on your hands and the sound of a friendly voice on the other side of the row have been shown to be a positive experience.” And certainly, recent science has shown that “friendly” microbes in soil are key to making gardening and farming healthy exercises for healing body and soul and for looking after your village.

©Ethne Clarke, 2023

More about London Christmas Tree Rental at https://www.londonchristmastreerental.com

Learn more about the veteran-farming that builds community and strives to save lives and donate to support their work at https://growingveterans.org/