Fir no reason

I, for one, am glad that Christmas is over. It has become, for SO many years now, a big bunch of hype. There was a good guy born on that day. There should be a cake baked at supper time, or something. And a song to sing. “Happy Birthday Dear Jesus.” And plenty of reverence, if you are so moved. But it doesn’t go that way.

No. We buy lots of things, and decorate wildly, like it is the Feast of the Candy Cane. Or the Elf on the Shelf. But specifically, we cut down a lot of trees, each year. We prop them up in our living rooms until they dry out, and then we drag them, kicking and screaming, out to the curb, leaving a blood trail of tinsel, and popcorn.

Douglas Firs are the most popular sort, I am told. And, that is why I write. It has an interesting past.

The Douglas Fir is named for the Botanist, David Douglas. He was born into this world okay. He came into being in the Scottish village of Scone. He grew up gardening in a nearby palace and from there, he attended some prestigious hoity-toity schools to learn all about botany and horticulture.

During the mid-1800s, he traveled to America a number of times to research, collect, and catalog the flora of the good old USofA. On his second trip, in 1824, he set out to explore the Pacific Northwest on a plant-gathering mission. And that is when he found it. The tree. The more commonly known Pseudotsuga menziesii, but all its friends call it the Douglas Fir.

It isn’t even a fir. Wrong genus. But, that’s quibbling over needles.

Anyway, he traveled back to England with his reports, back to the U.S. to explore more, and then onward to Hawaii. There, he was supposed to nudge around, and see what he could find.

One day, he went out for a little botanical exploring. Let me have a drink over at the sidebar here, for a moment. I love nature, but I am always warning my friends who like to dig around, linger, examine, and fondle nature. It isn’t safe, I tell them. I have heard too many stories about nature (and exercise) going very badly. I give you all fair warning here.

Now, back to the show.

So there was good old Dave in Hawaii. On his way up the trail, he met up with an Englishman. A guy named Ned. On the morning of July 12, 1834, Dave Douglas stopped by the hut of that guy, one Edward “Ned” Gurney to ask for directions, and ended up staying for breakfast.

Now, this guy Gurney was an Englishman.  He was about the same age as Douglas. But the two were raised on the different ends of the spectrum. It seems that Gurney was not more than a street urchin, and of course, Douglas had been surrounded by education and palace and hoopla.

Gurney had a mix up with the law at an early age and had been paying for it ever since. He had been caught stealing around three shillings worth of lead fixtures off a house.  He was getting the lead out.  So, for punishment, he was sent to the infamous Botany Bay penal colony in Australia. He got 7 years hard labor.

After that, old Ned Gurney was sent to work on a ship. He decided to get off the boat in Hawaii, and from there was able to start a new life. He became a cattle hunter. Gurney had been on the island for years by the time Douglas stopped by for breakfast.

From that point the story gets sketchy.

Who really knows what they talked about. But Douglas left Gurney’s hut, and apparently, Gurney followed him for a bit, warning him to look out for some pit traps he had dug to catch wild cattle.

Later that day, Douglas was found dead in a cattle pit. Yep. Trampled by a wild bull that had fallen into the pit on top of him. There were details about Gurney going there after Douglas had been found, and removing the body. Taking it into Hilo to some local missionaries.

But rumors spread that Douglas had been careless in flashing his money in front of Gurney. People thought that Gurney actually murdered him and tried to make it look like an accident.

The rumors followed him for the rest of his life, but he was never convicted of the crime. So yes, Dave Douglas died that day. Tromped by a wild bull. In a pit. The tragic end to a pretty good Botanist.

So, another historical “Who knew?”  I guess, the next time you hang the ornament on the Christmas tree, you will have a heart-warming tale to tell the children about the history of the Douglas-I’m-Not-Really-A-Fir.  And the angry bull.

(It is a false-hemlock by the way. Geez. It can’t even get a real genus.)


“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” — Martin Buber


“Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson


“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit