The accidental, dark forest of my youth - Daniel Silliman

By the time I was a baby, crawling around the shag carpet and squalling, the Christmas trees were overgrown. By then, they didn't even look like Christmas trees.

They towered up over my parent's mobile home in a dense, black forest, and they couldn't have been decorated and displayed in any Christmas-time house, unless it was the home of extra-tall giants.

They were huge, those fir trees. The ground was covered in brown needles and broken limbs and the trunks oozed sap and stood so closely that only a boy could walk between them.

As soon as I could walk, as soon as I toddled off the porch and past the pebble box, I was enveloped in the secret, mysterious world of the woods. No one intended to grow my dark forest. It was an accident born out of federal law and private failure.

Sometime in the 1970s, my dad tried to become a Christmas tree farmer. He was the pastor of a church that owned a farm in Northern California, and he and a few others decided to grow Christmas trees. They would cut them and sell them in parking lots in town to raise money for the church.

There were a few homes on the farm, but mostly unused farm land, so they cleared the top of a hill, on the Pacific-coast farm, and planted several hundred little conifer trees.

They planted them close together, surrounding my parent's first home, and they let them grow. It was an investment. It was an opportunity. It was using what they had.

It was also a bad idea.

After a couple of years of growth, before the first cutting came, the government passed an environmental protection act. The act protected the ocean, the shore, and went more than 17 miles inland. It required permits and governmental approval for a lot of things that people used to do without asking anybody, including cutting trees.

This was meant, I'm sure, to stop redwood clear cuts to the north. It was meant, probably, to stop the suburban neighborhoods from sprouting at weed speed, to the south. It's unlikely that anyone in Sacramento or anyone in Washington ever thought about Christmas trees. I know my dad's name definitely didn't come up.

The destruction of the small business, the little church enterprise, was an unintended consequence of protecting the environment. The church absorbed the financial loss, and I don't think the members took it too badly. They just called it "The Overgrown Christmas Tree Forest," and watched it grow, grow and grow.

The trees seemed to grow closer together, squeezing out the sunlight. The field of trees grew into a forest, as each fir fought upwards for sunlight and left the floor covered in dead needles. It was an accidental forest -- and I loved it.

When I walked out of the house, as a little kid wearing a Superman shirt all summer, I was presented with the sort of woods other people only find in fairy tales.

In those mythic woods, when I was 3 and 4 and 5, you could see witches' flying monkeys perching in the trees. You could see hostile natives, bending back their bows. You could see saber-toothed tigers prowling, shaggy monsters hiding, leprechauns stashing gold, trolls hoarding children's bones and extra-tall giants trying to sniff out the smell of Englishmen's blood.

You had to carry a stick, to be safe in my woods, and there were dozens of broken branches to choose from. You had to walk quietly, careful not to snap a twig, and always remember your way home. I, of course, did all of those things, and handily, heroically, vanquished all the scary creatures before my mom rang the dinner bell every evening.

Later, after we moved away, my woods were deemed a dangerous fire hazard. Men with chain saws thinned the trees, cutting most of them down, clearing out the forest. The woods weren't there for very long and they aren't there any more.

My mysterious woods were just an accident, really. An unfortunate mistake for everyone but me.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.