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Fri December 20, 2013
Wyoming Stories: Building a Christmas tree
This holiday season, the Wyoming Public Radio news team is sharing stories about memories and traditions that stand out to them. In this piece, energy reporter Stephanie Joyce tells us about overcoming the challenge of spending Christmas on a treeless island in Alaska.
Around the country, families spend their December nights trekking to nearby forests or tree farms to cut down big, bushy evergreens for their living rooms, and pulling out Christmas decorations to adorn their branches. Houses fill up with the tangy smell of sap and the sharp bite of pine needles.
Growing up in the nation’s largest forest, the Tongass, in southeast Alaska, that had been my family’s tradition. Driving up the icy road toward the municipal ski area, faces thrust out the window into the freezing wind, searching for the perfectly-shaped tree. The sweaty back and forth of trying to get a rusty handsaw to make even a small dent in the bark.
Eventually slipping and sliding down the hill, dragging the tree behind us, and then spending hours trying to get it to stand up straight. (Yes, hours. There is a reason none of us are engineers.)
The Aleutians are in Alaska, too. But they couldn’t be more different than the place I grew up.
There are no soft snowy nights in the Aleutians in December -- the temperatures hover on the harsh borderline between snow and rain and the winds are usually howling along at 60 miles an hour.
On top of that, the Aleutians are mostly treeless. There are a few left over from when Russia owned Alaska -- small, hunchbacked trees that have spent their entire lives fighting against the gales that got the islands their nickname as the birthplace of the winds.
But cutting down an anemic old tree that somehow made it to age 200 is hardly in the Christmas spirit. It’d be like hacking up Scrooge and sticking him in the living room, under a layer of twinkle lights.
So when I drew the Christmas shift my first year reporting in the Aleutian Islands, I resigned myself to a treeless holiday. But my colleague and roommate, Alexandra, had different ideas.
When I walked into the living room one night in December, I briefly thought a major earthquake had struck while I was driving home. (Keep in mind that the Aleutians are part of the Ring of Fire, so that’s not as far-fetched as it might sound.)
The entire living room floor was awash in books. And in the middle of the pile: Alexandra.
Alexandra: Yeah, it was a complete mess.
Stephanie: What were you doing?
Alexandra: I was making a Christmas book tree…
A Christmas book tree, you ask?
Alexandra: It is a… basically a conical structure made out of books, where you lay out the books in rings on the floor and then you progressively stack smaller rings onto them, resulting in a Christmas tree-like shape. And then to make it really look like a Christmas tree you can wrap it up in Christmas lights.
Being journalists, we had plenty of material to work with… from a monster copy of Crime and Punishment, all the way down to The Little Prince.
But if standing up a tree-tree is hard… standing up a book-tree is a serious engineering problem.
Alexandra: It’s kind of like Jenga, but in reverse… Where in Jenga, you know, you take pieces out and it causes everything to fall, when you’re making a Christmas book tree, you are building up and building up, but it’s not like you’re dealing with uniform blocks… you’re dealing with books of different sizes, and shapes and weights. So it takes a lot of care, and a lot of balance to get things just right.
And, of course, being in the proper holiday spirit… the eggnog just might have come out.
But several failed attempts, and a healthy dose of whiskey later, we stood back to admire our handiwork: a mostly-upright, four-foot tall tower of books, wrapped in shining holiday lights.
A critical element was missing though: we didn’t have a star for the top of the tree. Improvising, I picked up the now nearly-empty bottle of Maker’s Mark, plopped it on top of the Christmas book tree, and gave a cheers for holiday cheer.
Traditional? Not quite. But one learns to improvise living on a remote island in Alaska.