By the time the mighty red spruce arrives at the Capitol at the end of this month to celebrate the holidays, it will have been officially christened the People's Tree. About two weeks ago, the people came to this tiny mountain town to take their tree away.
They came with a chain saw, a double-rotor helicopter and specially formulated glue meant to freeze the tree's needles in place for the weeks of gawking to come. They brought a giant crane, 10,000 feet of nylon parachute rope and a water-filled rubber bladder to nourish the tree during its voyage north.
They came with cheerful Christmas spirit and some amusement at the time and energy it would take to haul one pretty tree from Virginia to Washington.
The holiday tree that graces the West Lawn of the Capitol each Christmas has been chosen annually from national forests since 1970, and states take turns for the honor. This year, for the first time in the history of the 34-year rotation, the tree hails from Virginia.
When forest ranger Pat Sheridan heard that the tree could come from his neck of the woods, he recalled thinking, " 'That's nice. We'll probably go and look and see if we have some candidates. Someone will pick one, and then you get it from there to Washington.'
"There's a lot more to it than that," Sheridan said.
The closest hamlet to the tree's forest home, this tiny town of 200 hosted a send-off ceremony Saturday featuring the Little Switzerland Cloggers, two choirs and 10,000 homemade cookies.
"I've heard people say it's just a tree," said Jamie Will, a logger who volunteered hours helping to get the tree out of the woods and came to bid it farewell. "But how many Christmas trees will I ever get to cut that go to the Capitol?"
The spruce has been under armed guard since a week before it was cut. By Saturday's festival, it had been bundled, shrink-wrapped and strapped to the back of a flatbed truck. It embarks Sunday on a 33-town tour of the state, during which thousands will pay homage before it pulls into Washington on Nov. 29.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is scheduled to light the tree Dec. 9, the start of its three-week tour of duty in the nation's capital.
The U.S. Forest Service, aided by the Capitol's landscape architect, conducted an intense search throughout the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests for just the right wild tree. They settled in July on the 106-year-old spruce growing not far off a lightly trod forest trail in Highland County, one of the state's least populated regions.
The red spruce -- whose wood is blushed red and whose needles are bright green -- covers much of New England but rarely grows as far south as Virginia. It can exist here only at high, cool elevations, where it appears in isolated stands, said John Seiler, professor of forest biology at Virginia Tech. Red spruces sometimes are visible across the valleys from mountaintop to mountaintop, like so many emerald-green signal fires.
Much of the forest near this tree's home was clear-cut by timber companies in the 1920s, Sheridan said -- but not the patch where the national tree stood. It has grown straight and undisturbed since 1898.
All those years of growing might explain why it's such a monster. At 82 feet, it was an especially tall specimen of the species, Seiler said. It was, in fact, a little too big for its purpose, because workers at the Capitol yearly drape a net of 10,000 lights over the holiday tree, and that bright web will cover only 65 feet.
So, after the spruce was felled on Election Day, tree experts trimmed off a full 17 feet. The excess will be carved into three-inch thick wafers, shellacked and distributed as keepsakes to those who worked on the project, Sheridan said.
The tree's minders have been working hard in other ways to ensure that it looks lovely throughout the holiday season. Spruces are well-known for their tendency to drop needles after they are cut. That, of course, would not do at all for the People's Tree.
With a little research, the forest's resident silviculturist -- or tree care expert -- Russ MacFarlane discovered that Christmas-loving humans solved this natural predicament by inventing a commercially available viscous "needle retention agent." To make sure the stuff worked, he cut six baby test spruces over the summer, sprayed them with the liquid glue and propped them up outside his Roanoke office. Sure enough, they held their needles for a full six weeks -- long enough, he hopes, to get the national tree through New Year's Day.
Days before the cutting, the Forest Service mixed the agent with water in the tank of a department fire truck and drove into the woods. Tree climbers shinnied up the tree, fire hose in tow, and from inside its canopy sprayed the clear liquid throughout.
"I'm fairly confident that we'll do okay," MacFarlane said.
Emergency plans are in place in case any of the tree's natural branches are injured in transit. Prosthetic branches have been cut from nearby trees and will be kept refrigerated for weeks. If a branch is sheared or looks limp, a replacement can be swapped in, inserted into the tree trunk using small wooden rods.
The surrounding forest is so wild that once cut, the 7,500-pound tree had to be extracted by a load-bearing helicopter, which flew 1,000 feet above the earth, dangling the tree 200 feet beneath. State troopers closed the few highways in Highland County to prevent injury in the event of an unexpected drop. The community tracked the tree's progress with telephones and ham radios and spent the afternoon with necks craned, following the odd sight of the massive flying tannenbaum.
"It's my understanding that the entire town came to a halt. Everybody was out on the street looking up at the sky," said Carolyn Pohowsky, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce.
With great care, the helicopter lowered the tree onto the county fairground. Next, Sheridan said, the tree had to be bundled just like any other Christmas tree going home from the lot on the roof of the family car. In this case, the bundling took several days and involved chains, winches and about two miles of nylon rope.
Next year, the process will start again. Officials from New Mexico, tapped to donate the 2005 tree, have been on hand throughout to learn all the tricks of the tree trade.
Those involved with the project said it will be worth all the work to see Virginia's pride on display for the rest of the country.
"I just hope it looks beautiful and people take the time to see where it comes from," Sheridan said.