14 Nov A Gift From Our Public Land
After eight years of following the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree I often forget that not everyone has heard about it. Though the People’s Tree is harvested from a different national forest every year, the primary tenants of the story remain the same. Our goal is to educate a broad general audience on the amazing work performed by the USDA Forest Service to protect and preserve the precious natural resources of tall trees across America. Organized by the nonprofit Choose Outdoors, we put together a coalition of support among partners from the federal government, tribal communities, corporate sponsors, and nonprofit organizations to bring a gift from our public land to all the people of our nation. This year the People’s Tree, a 75-foot red spruce we have affectionately called Ruby, comes from the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.
As the official photographer and storyteller of The People’s Tree, it’s my job to create images and a compelling narrative that illustrate why this work is important to the enduring health and well being of national forests. Having made this journey from one end of the country to other each year since 2015, I’ve shared our noble adventure with literally millions of people nationwide. So, when I get an ill-informed message across our social media feeds, I have to remind myself not to take it personally.
“I SHALL NOT appreciate anything to do with a National or US Capitol Christmas Tree…,” wrote a visitor to the Joy Trip Project Facebook page, “As I see this as no different that TROPHY HUNTING… and LOSS OF HABITAT for Nature’s Creatures…”
Our efforts to harvest and deliver a 75-foot evergreen tree to the U.S. Capitol Building are regularly misconstrued to assume that we are contributing to the destruction of the environment. Others believe we are guilty of excessively spending government funds for an empty gesture of holiday inspired sentiment.
“Tax dollars spent to parade around a Christmas tree!!”, wrote another person. “Come on people this is absolutely absurd! 💯”
I’ll admit that it does sound a bit hokey. The idea of transporting a single tree of enormous size across multiple state lines to be decorated with lights and ornaments in an ostentatious display can be considered an inexcusable waste of time, money, and energy. But the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree project creates one of the few remaining holiday traditions in which every person in the United States can share. Despite its religious underpinnings, the practice of celebrating the majesty and beauty of nature through the cold dark winter months is a cultural expression of human civilization that dates to the dawn of time. Long before recorded history ancient people have brought into their homes the branches of evergreen trees to remind them of warmer days ahead with the return of spring and sunshine. In anticipation of brighter days in the future, what we now call the Christmas Tree, is a symbol of hope.
The People’s Tree stands each year to remind us of the health and resilience of our national forests. It is from these well-managed natural resources that we derive the strength of our economy through the cultivation of forest products for the sustainable construction of homes, the purification of fresh drinking water along countless streams and rivers and the sequestration of carbon dioxide, a primary contributor of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change. This annual project raises awareness for the importance of maintaining the integrity of the natural environment. Through the enthusiasm of the holiday season, we can reach people of all ages and socio-economic status to inspire their interests in becoming life-long stewards of the public land that is our duty to protect.
Every year the People’s Tree is set alight in a formal ceremony on the West Lawn of U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. by a fourth-grader chosen from the local community. This year our tree-lighter will be Catcuce Micco Tiger. The son of Katie and Catcuce Tiger, Coche is nine years old and is a citizen of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), located in Cherokee, NC. He has a six-year-old brother named Sha-li-gu-gi, which means snapping turtle in Cherokee.
Coche also has ancestry from the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. He gets his name from his dad, which is a Seminole name. Catcuce means ‘Little Tiger’, Micco means ‘Leader/Chief’ in the Creek language. At the lighting ceremony on November 29th, Coche will share the Cherokee legend of how evergreen trees like the red spruce came to be.
“When all the trees, plants, and animals were created, they were asked to stay awake to fast and pray for seven nights to honor the Creator. The first night they all stayed awake, but the second night some fell asleep; the third night more dropped out, and so on. By the seventh night, only a few were still awake. Of the animals, the owl (u-gu-gu), the panther (tsv-da-tsi), and a few others were still awake. These animals were given the power to see and go about in the dark and make prey of the birds and animals that must sleep at night. Of the trees, only the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the holly, the hemlock, and the laurel were awake to the end. The Creator gave these trees the ability to keep their leaves and stay green all year round and gave them special power to be medicine for the Cherokee people. Therefore, these trees are sacred and used for medicine by the Cherokee people to this day.”
Stewardship over natural resources is what our people have always done. As the original people of the region, we have a connection to the land and its resources that goes back to time immemorial.”
Cherokee Chief Richard G. Sneed
In recognition of the conservation practices that native people have modeled for thousands of years, the People’s Tree symbolizes the partnership between the tribal community of the Cherokee and agencies of public land management, including the USDA Forest Service. On our stop in the town of Cherokee, Richard G. Sneed, the 28th Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians signed with regional forester Ken Arney, a proposal under the Tribal Forest Protection Act to cooperatively restore 500 to 1,000 acres of land each year through 2028.
“Stewardship over natural resources is what our people have always done. As the original people of the region, we have a connection to the land and its resources that goes back to time immemorial,” said Chief Sneed. “The input and stewardship of our people will ensure that resources like white oak for basket making and medicinal plants will be protected, managed, and maintained for use by future generations of Cherokees.”
This agreement, Sneed said, demonstrates what can be accomplished when government agencies work with tribal nations to inform best practices while simultaneously respecting the knowledge and ancient traditions of native people. Through the holiday season this spirit of cooperation is symbolized by the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. When citizens and managers of public land work together, we can collectively define principles of conservation that reflect our shared values. The People’s Tree is a demonstration of our intent as a nation to leave behind a natural environment that will sustain life on our planet for centuries yet to come.