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Picking Tree Old Way Buoys Christmas Spirit

December 13, 1986|PATRICK MOTT

"Hey! We got a treeeeeeee !!"

It was a primal cry, a joyous yelp from the heart that carried easily over the dozens of rows of Plantation firs and Monterey and Knobcone pines that covered the hillside.

The afternoon was gray, forbidding and rainy, and not the best day to pick out a Christmas tree, but the shout and the activity it triggered couldn't be dampened. It was the absolute signal that, for one more family, the Christmas season had officially begun.

The families that trudged through the buttery mud at Erwin's Rocky Hill Christmas Tree Farm in Riverside on that recent rainy Saturday were no fair-weather Christmas revelers.

Only the Freshest Tree

They were connoisseurs for whom nothing else would do but a live, fresh Christmas tree cut before their eyes.

Every year thousands bypass the neighborhood Christmas tree lot in favor of one of the nearly 100 Christmas tree farms in the Southland that cultivate, grow and groom trees throughout the year for sale in December.

"The people feel like there's something just basically good about it," said Nina Ball, an administrator at the Erwin farm. "There's an aliveness about it. All the Northerners and the Easterners and the Midwesterners who live out here now just love it. It feels like home to them . . . to come out and pick out a tree and have it cut."

While many of the farms in Los Angeles and Orange counties are cultivated in thin strips of land, such as easements beneath high-tension electrical lines, spreads like the Erwin farm exist in open crop land. The Erwin farm, in fact, is adjacent to a citrus orchard and takes up 20 acres of hillside near Corona. The trees, of varying heights, are planted as a crop, in neat rows. For any lover of the Christmas season, the sight is striking and the smell intoxicating.

"When I was a little kid, we had a silver tree, like tinfoil, with lights, and it spun around," said Chris Foreman, a Riverside resident shopping at Erwin's among the forest of 8,000 trees. "It was the ugliest thing I ever saw. But, with this, they're supposed to be fresher and last longer and you can't beat the selection."

"And," said Foreman's wife, Colette, "it smells wonderful ."

At Erwin's, as at the dozens of other tree farms in the Southland, the sights and smells of the Christmas season somehow seem more pronounced. While Christmas carols play over an outdoor speaker system, tree cutters dressed in heavy boots, plaid shirts and parkas huddle around a small fire, waiting for the moment when another family finds, among the hundreds of growing trees, the one that is unquestionably theirs. Even the rain takes on a beauty of its own as the thick tree needles catch and hold the drops and shimmer when they are touched.

A Second Generation

"We're into our second generation of families who come out and choose and cut their own," said Bud Lyon, who owns 12 farms in Los Angeles and Orange counties and is president of California Christmas Tree Growers.

There is one category of buyer who may not find the perfect tree at a farm, Lyon said.

"Usually our trees are bigger," he said. "Anywhere up to about 17 feet. We really don't have the very small trees, the kind you'd put on your coffee table."

While some of the farms do not allow customers to cut their own trees, others equip customers with saws and show them how it's done. And there is at least one farm that caters to the would-be woodsman by not only letting him cut his own, but by turning him loose in an actual forest to do it. This haven for amateur lumberjacks is Camp O-Ongo, three miles west of Running Springs on Calif. 18 in the San Bernardino Mountains.

At Camp O-Ongo, the trees grow naturally. They are not planted in rows, but indiscriminately throughout the forested area in which the camp is located. When a tree is selected, one of the Outdoor Education staff must approve the cut--making sure it is not made too close to the ground--before the customer bites a curved saw into the trunk.

The selection process at Camp O-Ongo obliges customers to drive a short distance back into the forest, park their cars and hike in to search for their ideal tree. On a recent Saturday, K. C. Smith, his wife Kathy and their children, Jessica, 1, and K. C., 3, drove to Camp O-Ongo from their home in Sunland to tramp through the forest in a driving rain. The only one who didn't think it was worth it was Jessica, who tearfully balked at the cold.

Christmas Weather

"It doesn't seem like Christmas without the cold and the weather, though," Kathy said. "We've both lived in Reno, and we sort of miss the cold."

Accompanied by Ken Sims, an Outdoor Education staff member, the Smiths slogged doggedly over one of the wooded hillsides in the downpour, examining several trees and being urged on by the younger K. C., whose litany for the day was: "Big one! Big one!"

The Smiths' prize was a 5-foot white fir, growing in the shadow of a tall pine. Within a few seconds, K. C. the elder had cut it, shouldered it and begun the hike back through the forest, up the hillside to the car, where he lashed it to the roof.

They would drive perhaps 250 miles that day, hike through mud and puddles and over slippery inclines, get soaked almost completely through their heavy clothes and brave winding mountain roads in a rainstorm.

But back at the camp's small office, in front of a crackling fire, it felt like a holiday.

They had a tree.

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