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Special Delivery: The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree

photo of Necktie

Something out of the ordinary happened on Black Friday. I was actually in a shopping mall, shopping for something I needed. I had every intention of joining my friends at REI in “opting out” of the day after Thanksgiving spending frenzy, but there were a few critical items I needed for my next Joy Trip. I reconciled my apparent lack of solidarity with the movement to spend more time in natural world with a purchase I made in the sincere hope of saving it.

I found what I was looking for in men’s clothing department of Macy’s at the Hilldale Shopping Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Hardly a slave to fashion, I was on the hunt for items of the appropriate size to account for the tragic weight gain I experienced since my last visit. As for color, I had hoped only to avoid the abysmal trend that favors the rustic plaid patterns of the modern lumberjack. I selected a shirt that looked, to me, closer to salmon than melon as tag insisted without conviction. Along with a simple pair of black dress slacks I picked out a seasonally inspired necktie.

While I can’t possibly take full credit for spreading the news all the way to Madison, I felt our efforts to share the message of “the Big Spruce,” or Ch’wala’ka’a as it is called by the Kenaitze People of Chugach National Forest, was beginning to resonate across a broad audience.

“That’s a festive print you’ve got there,” said the sales clerk. “I love the little Christmas trees and candy canes.”

My smile was more of a smirk than a grin as I replied, “Just trying to make the best of a bad situation. That’s the first tie I’ve bought since college.”

At that the clerk smiled slyly and said, “must be a woman involved. Let me guess, she’s dragging you to a holiday party.”

Flattered by the notion I’m still of a dating age, I chuckled and said, “no, this time it took an act of Congress.”

Intrigued now, the woman’s eyebrows raised. “OK,” she said. “You’re going to have to expand on that.”

Trying not to brag I said unemphatically, “I’m on my way to Washington D.C. to photograph the lighting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree.”

With those words the woman was rocked back on her heels. She audibly gasped with surprise and delight. “Really?!? The one from Alaska?” she asked. “Wow, how do you get a gig like that?”

How indeed…

I was excited that she apparently knew all about it. Having traveled with the People’s Tree from where it was cut in Seward, Alaska to the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol Building, it was my job to tell its story through social media. While I can’t possibly take full credit for spreading the news all the way to Madison, I felt our efforts to share the message of “the Big Spruce,” or Ch’wala’ka’a as it is called by the Kenaitze People of Chugach National Forest, was beginning to resonate across a broad audience.

Facing the world on my own terms I have constantly resisted professional assignments that might put me under the constraint of social conformity, like the control of employers that demanded a dress code.

When I think back on my career, I have to attribute a great deal of any success I enjoy today to a promise I made to myself when I graduated from college more than 25 years ago. I swore then I would never work a job that required me to wear a tie. I want to believe by defying certain professional conventions I’ve been able to define for myself an identity that affirms my insistence upon doing work that I not only enjoy, but love. Facing the world on my own terms I have constantly resisted professional assignments that might put me under the constraint of social conformity, like the control of employers that demanded a dress code.

I had spent my entire career working jobs that required, instead, the probability of getting wet or muddy or even having articles of clothing shredded in scuffle. Properly equipped with state-of-the-art outerwear, my jobs seldom hinge upon my physical appearance. Over the years I had made the occasional concessions for sport coats, spit polished boots, and pocket squares, but I had drawn a hardline on the necktie.

But, on this occasion, I decided to avoid the distraction of non-conformity. As part of my duties as photographer and storyteller for the Capitol Christmas Tree project, I was asked to sit in on several meetings with lawmakers and lobbyists at the Rayburn Senate Office Building. “These meetings require professional dress,” I was warned. The not so subtle hint was a strong suggestion to drop the casual attire of the dirtbag photojournalist and opt instead for the well-groomed appearance of a beltway bureaucrat. It was only a necktie, but the superfluous piece of cloth had always represented to me the noose from which I might be hung as yet another sacrifice on the altar of the status quo. Such a small compromise, but in the end it was certainly worth it.

I was granted access to the halls of power in Washington D.C. to discuss the prospects of future projects meant to raise awareness for the importance of protecting our public land. Through strategic partnerships between institutions of private corporations and agencies of federal, state, and local governments, it is indeed possible to create positive social change. The Capitol Christmas Tree project is a shining example of what can be accomplished when individuals work together toward a common goal with shared values for the mutual benefit of everyone. And, with minimal environmental impact and virtually no cost to the U.S. taxpayer, this 74-foot Lutz Spruce was transported more than 4,000 miles over land and sea via special delivery as a precious gift to the nation.

Without the partisan squabbling that too often defines our interactions with one another as a people, the Big Spruce can bring folks together from all walks of life to share in common the idea of peace on Earth and good will to all mankind.

Ch’wala’ka’a now stands as a brighting and shinning reminder of what is possible when we protect and preserve our natural resources. Harvested from a beautifully maintained and healthy U.S. National Forest, this tree is an ambassador of our public land to the world. The Big Spruce serves to symbolize the spirit of stewardship that has made our country great. And if we continue to cooperate, working together to build a more perfect union despite our differences which so often divide us, we can create a joyful world in which everyone can live in prosperity and happiness.

When the Capitol Christmas Tree was set alight on December 2, 2015, I felt a great swell of pride. Standing there taking pictures of the event, the fact that I wore a necktie was the least of my concerns. Though I had very little to do with the Tree’s actual delivery, I was profoundly honored to have been able to witness and document this incredible undertaking. Thousands of selfless volunteers and a dedicated paid professionals offered up their support to bring Ch’wala’ka’a into the heart of our great democracy.

The public land from which it came is the sacred ground where we must honor our commitment to protect the natural world for future generations. Without the partisan squabbling that too often defines our interactions with one another as a people, the Big Spruce can bring folks together from all walks of life to share in common the idea of peace on Earth and good will to all mankind.

By James Edward Mills

James is a freelance journalist who specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving, and practices of sustainable living. He has worked in the outdoor industry since 1989 as a guide, outfitter, independent sales representative, writer, and photographer. He is the author of the new book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors.