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Field Notes: Cedar joy in life

Field Notes: Cedar joy in life

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It’s July 25: Five months till Christmas Day. Four-and-a-half till Hannukah. And just four swift-flying months till Thanksgiving.

That’s when many beleaguered Americans — exhausted from a year of constant contention, disease, job losses, broiler heat waves and political wars — will with relief put up a green tree, some Christmas lights or Hannukah décor, grateful to welcome again the hope of life, peace, goodwill among all.

No need to wait, however. Now is a great time to recall some way to serve the greater life of all, not squabble and destroy stuff.

That’s the good news three old scrappy, jolly, buoyant, bird-adorned eastern red cedar trees have been whispering to me all summer.

Living part time among these green giants, I feel amazed joy at their ever-changing but constant messages of generosity, merriment and hospitality.

They speak in sun-smoked breezes of cedar incense, walls of thick blessed shade and birdsong, and the ancient greeny-black doorways they open to cool blue mountains receding into a twilit sky. They speak of eternal things beyond words.

In the night darkness of July, they are holiday-lit with winking fireflies and ancient faraway stars. On a misty dawn, they’re adorned with light-filled raindrops or globes of dew, and white garlands of glistery spider web.

A Virginia joy

The eastern red “cedar,” native to this half of the United States, is actually the Virginia juniper — called “cedar” by the first English arrivals at Roanoke Island, in the 1500s, who were awed by the majestic old growth trees there.

The tree today is often scorned by landscapers, partly because of its common, uncomplaining presence around old farms, roadsides, hedgerows, denuded shale banks and streams alike.

It also can host cedar-apple rust, though I’ve known many a mountain resident with old healthy apple and cedar trees alike, who’ve never had a problem with rust.

But the unoffended brave cedar can fill so many gaps, repair so much human damage and replace so much of the wildlife habitat we’ve razed around us, it’s worth appreciation.


For one thing, it can survive weather extremes and much of the wasteland-scaping we generate these days.

When a natural or unnatural disaster hits the land — an extreme fire maybe, or some mindless human “project” that has blitzed a habitat of every succession stage, rain-absorbing leaf-litter sponge, topsoil, canopy, the whole works — the red cedar is among the most helpful “first responders” in raising the dead back into vertical life.

It can withstand heat, drought and flood, blizzards and wind, pollution, climate change and the invasive pests that have decimated our native hemlocks, certain pine and oak species, ash and various nut trees.

It’s also blessedly salt tolerant. Few people realize that the dump-loads of driveway/sidewalk/parking-lot chemicals they pile on to melt three flakes of snow, mean the nearby trees, plants and streamlife into which the salty water finds its way, suffer from a saline environment they can’t survive.

Letting the agreeable cedar uptake some of this runoff helps other species around it and far downstream.

Tree of life

The cedar is also a lifeboat, in itself, to many wild species whose homes and food sources are constantly being razed or poisoned at this time.

The female tree proffers thick harvests of little mountain-blue berries (made of tiny cones), food essential to our Appalachian ecosystems where it has helped keep thousands of years of cedar waxwings, foxes, turtles, possums, quail — indeed entire food chains — alive through cold winters.

In our time, the dense protective green arms of a cedar, also, have helped many a grouse, bobwhite and even turkey survive harsh cold and wind in otherwise denuded landscape. In spring, they provide much-needed cover to nests full of eggs or iddy-biddy hatchlings.

The Cherokees loved the cedar. They found healing forces in the berries and fronds, and felt the tree’s pink-hearted fragrant wood spoke live wisdom from their deceased ancestors.

Mountain settlers here also felt life’s endurance in the cedar, often calling it “the graveyard tree” — and, of course, “the Christmas tree.”

Seasoned naturalist Bob McKinney of Teas, near Sugar Grove, wrote me about the cedars of his childhood.

“Back in the day, us po folks (and some not so po) would trek to the fields, roadsides and powerlines to harvest our Christmas trees about a week before the grand holiday — no 3-month lead-up back then!”

He recalled, “Our church at Teas usually had a giant red-cedar tree that had the entire building smelling magnificently. I cannot smell red-cedar without thinking Christmas in the long, long ago.”

So it is that the past reaches toward future life, through the heart of the living today — the heart of a human, the green of a tree, the goodwill that would heal our exhausted world.

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