Ruins of South Jersey: The Cedar Tree

By: Dean P. Johnson

The woods we once traipsed for that Christmas prize.

GRAVELLY RUN, N.J. — There are moments in our lives that at the time are so insignificant they seem hardly worth mentioning — let alone fodder for the development of our whole being.  Yet these funny little episodes that occur in places that barely resemble their former selves can have an unmistakable imprint on who we are and what we’ve become.

Recently I drove past a small wooded area where the remnants of the Steelman-Treen Tavern used to stand in a place called Gravelly Run in Hamilton Township, Atlantic County. The tavern was built in the late 1700s and demolished in 1975.  

In the mid 1970s, behind the yellow barn that was left, there was a patch of open space surrounded by pines and oaks and sycamores. In that space, among the tall weeds, grew a good number of Atlantic white cedar trees, some in clusters of two or three, others standing alone.

For a good part of the ’70s, the owner of the land allowed my father to harvest our Christmas tree there  Yes, we had a rarely spotted, not-too-popular cedar Christmas tree. And I loved it not because it was Christmastime, but because it was a cedar.

My affinity toward cedar trees began when I was maybe in first or second grade. Our neighbor’s daughter had recently married and she and her husband were building a house somewhere along the Great Egg Harbor River.

Our neighbor invited my father out to see the progress of his daughter’s new home. I tagged along.  Tagging along with Dad on a Saturday morning was a joyful adventure for a young boy, usually ending up with a cold soda or a hot chocolate during the colder months.

My little sapling today.

As our neighbor showed my father around the construction, I wandered around the property.  As I explored, I noticed a small cedar sapling, uprooted from the digging of the foundation.  I felt a rush of sadness for the fallen little thing and a sudden sense of urgency.

I yelled for my dad who came running toward me followed on the heel by my neighbor.  What was wrong? Was I alright? Did I hurt myself around the construction equipment? Where was I bleeding?

“Look,” I said pointing.  

They stared at the limp, tilted plant as they breathed heavy.  I can only imagine now their irritation from the false alarm followed by their relief that all was well.

My neighbor smiled, tenderly scooped up the plant, pulled a rag out from behind the seat of his pickup truck, and walked me down to the river’s edge.  He dipped the rag into the water, squeezed out excess water, wrapped the sapling with the rag, and handed it to me instructing me to plant it in my backyard.  

I no sooner arrived home when I scoped out the perfect spot for my tree:  right in the middle of the back yard where it could be seen by everyone. My father gently convinced me that a better, safer spot for my cedar tree would be behind the shed, near the back fence.

I would visit my little cedar often, sitting next to it for perhaps hours, looking at it, talking to it.  I remember the day it caught up to my growth. I’ll never forget that one spring when a robin built a nest that was eye-high with me.  I was able to witness the blue speckled eggs hatching, watching the babies stretching their translucent necks anticipating their mother’s return as she waited for me to step away.  I remember the empty nest that fall, too.

There was once a discussion of using my tree as a Christmas tree.  I can’t be sure if it was simply to goad me in fun or if the suggestion was sincere.  Nonetheless, my reaction quelled any further talk on that topic.

Our Christmas trees would be cedar, but we would have to go elsewhere to find them.

In the mid 1970s, my father, older brother, and I would traipse the wilderness and hew down our own holiday centerpiece.

My mother and older brother placing garland on the cedar Christmas tree while my younger brother hangs candy canes on the branches. Circa 1973.

Wilderness may be overstating it a little. My father told us that he knew the people who owned wooded land that had open spaces peppered with cedar trees. Yes, our live Christmas trees were always cedar. No Douglas or Fraser Fir. No Balsam. No Scotch Pine. No Blue Spruce. Ours was the good old Atlantic white-cedar, a tree that no one else I knew growing up ever had. My friends would come over and say things like “That’s not a real Christmas tree,” and “Aren’t they the kind of tree that grow in swamps? Why do you have a swamp tree as a Christmas tree?”

When we would find the perfect tree, or at least a tree with three good sides and one that would go up against the wall, Dad would saw low on the trunk while we boys focused on the jolting of the evergreen foliage with each stroke to and fro, waiting to hear that first crack, then watch — as if in slow motion — the tree would give itself up and fall only to be caught by the tall grass as if they were lowering it gently to the ground.

My brother and I would often yell a victorious “Tim-berrrr!” as the tree collapsed to the ground.

We would then help carry the tree back through the woods to the truck, our hands sticky with sap.

I remember one year my Uncle Joe, my mother’s brother, came out into the woods with us.  I recall how oddly quiet it was: No rustling of the brown, remnant leaves on the oaks and sycamores.  No faint whisper of wind through the pines. The only sound was the crunch of tiny frosted heaves of dirt, muffled under each step we took. As we were getting nearer the opening where we’d find the cedars growing unimpeded, it began to snow.  The snow fell faintly at first, but only for a few short steps before it began to fall with greater density. Still no wind, the snow lay immediately, so when we reached the opening, there was more white on the ground than brown.   

How magical it was that it was snowing as we wandered through the woods seeking our Christmas prize.

For some reason, my father kept telling my brother and me to be extra quiet.  Enjoy the silence of nature, he said. After whispered debates over tree perfection, Dad was ducking under the evergreen foliage and hand sawing away. With the first crack of the falling tree I bellowed out, “Tim-ber!” which echoed through the woods, bouncing from tree to tree, mystically amplifying with each boisterous bump. My father gave me an angry you-are-in-so-much-trouble look and then whisper-yelled through his clenched teeth to shut up.  He then quickly gathered up the felled tree and walk-ran back to the truck.

An Atlantic White Cedar “ghost forest” caused by rising sea levels. Photo credit: Climate Central

I keep promising myself that one of these Christmases, I am getting a cedar tree.  But they are never in tree lots, and I don’t know of a Christmas tree farm that raises them.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that in 2013, there were 60 million Atlantic white cedar trees in New Jersey and in 2016, only 45.5 million.  The New Jersey Conservation Foundation estimates that there are now about 20,000 acres of the Atlantic white cedar forest remaining in New Jersey of the original 135-140,000 acres that existed before European settlement.  Now salt water is threatening Atlantic white cedar forests due to sea level rise. Many cedar stands near the coast died after Superstorm Sandy pushed saltwater inland in 2012. Once the Atlantic white cedar is exposed to saltwater, even for a few tidal cycles, they die, but remain standing for years because of their rot resistance creating what experts call “ghost forests,” according to Rutgers University’s Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences. So, I am hesitant to go rogue.

I never got the chance to ask my father if he really had permission from the property owners to cut down those trees.  My older brother said he doesn’t even remember the episode. But that is how I like to remember it, and I’ll keep my memory as I please because I like to think of my childhood Christmas tree tradition with my dad as something of a covert operation with a little espionage and just a hint of nutmeg.