By the time the mighty red spruce arrives at the Capitol this month to celebrate the holidays, it will have officially been christened the People's Tree. Almost 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 a 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 for the butt to nourish the tree during its voyage north.
They came with cheerful Christmas spirit and a bit of amusement at the time and energy it would take to haul one pretty tree from Virginia to Washington.
The national 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 the tree could come from his neck of the woods, he said 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."
Now, he said he knows "there's a lot more to it than that."
The spruce has been bundled, shrink-wrapped and strapped to the back of a flatbed truck. Sunday, the truck and its cargo will drive out of this tiny town of 200 near the tree's forest home and embark on a 33-town tour of the state before it pulls into the District on Nov. 29. On the night of Dec. 9, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is scheduled to light the tree and start its three-week tour of duty in the nation's capital.
The U.S. Forest Service, aided by the landscape architect of the Capitol, 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.
According to scientists, the red spruce -- whose wood is blushed red but whose needles are bright green -- covers much of New England but rarely grows as far south as Virginia. It can exist in this region only at high, cool elevations, where it grows in isolated stands, said John Seiler, professor of forest biology at Virginia Tech. Red spruce trees sometimes are visible across the valleys from mountaintop to mountaintop, as if they were emerald-green signal fires.
Much of the forest near the tree's home was clear-cut by timber companies in the 1920s, Sheridan said. But not the patch where the Capitol's tree grew; it has grown straight and undisturbed since 1898.
At 82 feet, it is an especially tall specimen of the species, Seiler said. It is, in fact, a little too big for its purpose. The net of 10,000 lights that workers at the Capitol will drape over the holiday tree measures only 65 feet.
So, after the tree was felled on Election Day, it was lowered to the forest floor, where tree experts trimmed off 17 feet. That excess will be carved into three-inch thick wafers, shellacked and distributed as keepsakes to those have worked on the project, Sheridan said.
The tree's minders have been working hard in other ways to ensure it looks the part through the holiday season.
Spruces, for instance, are known for their tendency to drop their needles after being cut. That would not do for the People's Tree.
With a little research, the forest's silviculturist (resident tree care expert), Russ MacFarlane, discovered a commercially available "needle retention agent." To make sure the stuff worked, he cut six baby spruces over the summer, sprayed them with the liquid glue and propped them up outside his Roanoke office. They held their needles for a full six weeks -- long enough, he hopes, to get the National Tree through to New Year's Day.
Days before the cutting, the Forest Service mixed the agent with water in a tank of one of the department's firetrucks and drove into the woods. Tree climbers shimmied up the tree, fire hose in tow, and from inside its canopy sprayed the clear liquid all around.
"I'm fairly confident that we'll do okay," MacFarlane said.
There are plans, too, in case any of the tree's branches are injured in transit. Prosthetic branches have been cut from nearby trees and will be kept refrigerated for weeks. If a branch on the People's Tree is sheared or looks limp, a replacement can be swapped in. The surrounding forest is so wild that after the tree was cut, it could not be hauled off by land. Instead, 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, in case the chopper accidentally lost the tree. The community tracked the tree's progress with telephones and ham radios, and residents spent the afternoon with necks craned, watching the odd sight of a 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 Highland County Chamber of Commerce.
The helicopter lowered the tree at the county fairground. Next, Sheridan said the tree had to be bundled, much in the same way one of its smaller cousins would leave a sales lot on the roof of a family car. In this case, though, the bundling took several days, and involved chains, winches and about two miles of nylon rope.
The Capitol tree will come from New Mexico next year, and officials from that southwestern state have been on hand throughout to learn the tricks of the tree trade.
Those involved with the project said it will be worth all the work to see the Virginia tree 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.