Lights out for Christmas tree bound for mulcher

January 10, 2004|By ROB KASPER

I GOT AN extra dose of drama and felt a passing wave of environmental guilt last weekend as the family Christmas tree met its mulcher.

The drama began Sunday afternoon when I was still padding around the house in my slippers and jammies - OK, flannel lounging pants. I dialed 311 to find out when the Baltimore Department of Public Works crew would wheel its wood chipper into the parking lot of Polytechnic High School at Cold Spring Lane and Falls Road and start turning trees into mulch.

"Yikes!" I said, after I was told, mistakenly, that I had only about 45 minutes to get my tree to the chipper's whirling blades. It turns out that I could have waited until this weekend, when the chipper will also be in action at Poly (today and tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.).

Even though the information was wrong, it had a beneficial effect. It jolted me out of my torpor. Like a lot of folks who are slow to take down their Christmas decorations, I was having trouble admitting that the holidays were over. I had become a Christmas tree hugger. My wife had already stripped the lights and ornaments from our Douglas fir, but I was reluctant to carry it out the door. I sat around admiring the tree, even in its undecorated state. That changed when I heard that I had less than hour to feed the fir to the mulcher. Away to the window I flew like a flash to see if a car was parked behind our house. Since the kids were home from college and it was past noon, the traditional wake-up time of college-age offspring, chances were slim that either of our two cars would be available.

Sadly, "the tank" - the 11-year-old dented Ford Taurus station wagon, ideal for Christmas tree hauling - was gone. But the so-called "good car," a 1997 Toyota sedan, was there and was soon wheeled around to the front of house.

My older son and I tried to squeeze the 8-foot-tall tree into the sedan's trunk. It would not fit. I was ready to give up, to carry the tree back to the alley. There it would sit, like a large, unsightly tumbleweed, until a city crew would pick it up on the second trash collection day of the week.

While the fate of an alley tree is the same as that of one carried to the Poly lot - recycled into mulch - I prefer to accompany my tree on its final journey. Hauling the tree to the chipper has become one of those defining family rituals - like driving to a distant, muddy field to saw down the Christmas tree - that we can't shake. For better or worse (and during some of these family outings the vote would often be for worse), we are a clan that cuts and hauls its own Christmas trees.

The car's small trunk appeared to put that tradition in jeopardy last Sunday. But thanks to a sunny day and a warm-hearted neighbor, Hal Pollard, it survived. Pollard, along with his wife, Christina Myers, and their two kids, Ned and Lucy, were sitting on their front steps enjoying the unseasonably high temperatures when he saw my predicament. Quickly, he volunteered to haul the tree with his family station wagon. With the clock ticking - we now had about 20 minutes to get to Poly - we tossed the tree on the luggage rack atop his 1996 Subaru, and strapped it down, sorta, with elastic cords. We headed out, providing some amusement to fellow motorists on the Jones Falls Expressway who laughed as they passed us. I thought we were going to lose our cargo at the curve by the Pepsi sign, yet somehow, the cords held.

We made it, but just barely. The tree was working its way off the roof, and the chipping crew was about ready to call it a day when we rolled in. But as I handed the tree over to the crew, I got that "mission accomplished" feeling. This Douglas fir, which had started its life at Sewell's tree farm in Taneytown, would now end up as mulch, probably in some city park. It felt like a good "green moment."

Later in the week, however, I felt a pang of environmental guilt when I read a short article in The New York Times in which Allen Hershkowitz, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that chipping Christmas trees could have a detrimental impact because it releases carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. A better alternative, he said, was to plant a tree in the yard and decorate it. I was unable to talk with Hershkowitz, but did talk to his assistant, who told me the article accurately reflected his views.

My guilt disappeared, though, when I spoke with Mel Koelling, a professor in the Department of Forestry at Michigan State University, who dismissed the statements attributed to Hershkowitz. Koelling said that all organic matter - from lawn clippings to fallen trees in the woods - releases carbon dioxide and that it was "a stretch" to say that chipping Christmas trees had an adverse environmental impact.

Moreover, Koelling said, the overall environmental impact that growing Christmas trees has - producing oxygen, filtering the air, providing nesting sites for animals and preventing soil erosion - far outweighed any negative effects.

So after briefly wavering, I am back in the pro-chipping camp. This weekend, I encourage folks to say goodbye to their firs and feed them to the roaring chippers.

I still have some holiday lights on the back porch that should come down. But I doubt that I have the heart to do that just yet. It is too cold. A better plan, I think, is to stay inside in my jammies and, for one last weekend, admire the glowing Christmas lights.

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