Monday, Dec. 4, 2006 | In a county marked by perpetual sunshine, Alan House is winter’s caretaker.
Indeed, a bit of the frigid season lives at his House Evergreen Forest in Alpine, just a couple of miles from Interstate 8 but a world away from the daily, sunny grind.
Here, one morning soon after Thanksgiving, the clouds are dark and grey and pregnant. Hand-stenciled green trees on a wooden sign mark the driveway of House’s five-acre property. The Christmas tree farm is open for another season, and House greets visitors with a handshake, a bit of warmth in the foggy drizzle.
His hands are rough and mottled and leathery, marked with brown sunspots, fresh scabs and old scars. His fingernails are clean, but they glow yellow from years of carrying dirt beneath them.
For House, life and death are in the dirt.
He majored in soil sciences in college. Now, soil’s a bit like House’s business partner — cooperating with him to nurture hundreds of Monterey pine seedlings each year. But coaxing life from the ground hardly encompasses House’s entire relationship with dirt. He also knows something about putting life back in.
The Christmas tree farmer moonlights as the manager of the El Cajon Cemetery. He’s been employed there for more than three decades, a gig he took to help make his $47 monthly mortgage payment for his Alpine land. He started digging graves, by hand, for $2 an hour. “I was young and dumb,” he says. But it was enough to supplement the money he’d saved in his four-year stint as a soil inspector for the federal government.
He sometimes reads the newspaper for the obituaries. “Looking for my future work,” he chuckles. The mortgage is paid off now, but House still works at the cemetery, a licensed sales manager for “underground realty.”
But the tree farm is his first love. He built it from the ground up, motivated by an inexplicable “inner desire.” He guesses that desire first sprouted when he grew peas in his family’s Nestor backyard as an 8-year-old, a venture that yielded a stalk taller than his father. “I was always growing things, doing things,” he says.
His interest in science led him to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree before taking a soil quality inspection job in Escondido for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
When faced with a job transfer to Imperial County, House decided it was time to test his Christmas tree calling — and the market. He planted about 100 trees on his dad’s property in El Cajon and started selling. Finding success, he spotted the property in Alpine and bought it for about $2,500 an acre. House wrestled the farm into existence — carving it out of a ravine and hand-digging a well.
For many of House’s customers, the tree farm — and the town of Alpine — is a place remembered about once a year. They arrive in their cars or SUVs with kids and dogs and picnic lunches in tow, cut down a tree to purchase, and hop back on the freeways to head home.
But House and his handyman, Bernie Threet, live on this mountain all year. They don’t live in the San Diego of beaches and palm trees, or condos and nightlife, or freeways and box stores. They’re rooted in mountains and evergreens and bumpy roads, but they, too, cheer for the Chargers.
In the quiet forest that bears his name, House’s excited voice is surpassed in volume only by his laugh, a giggle that bubbles forth every four minutes or so. That’s about how long it takes before he interrupts himself with an anecdote, with some pressing detail to share. Thirty-eight years at the farm, and House is full of stories.
He tells of the Browns, the family that just celebrated their 30th year of patronage. He gave a tree to them for free — a gift contingent on 30 more years, he jokes. He shares a tale of a family that once tied a tree to a Volkswagen Beetle, only to lose it on the freeway and come back for another one.
The farthest a House Evergreen Forest tree has traveled is to Yuma, Arizona, as best he knows. House has even made a few tree farm customers out of families he met when they buried a loved one in the cemetery.
The whole business is quite matter-of-fact. Customers arrive in daylight hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas and choose a tree. They can either cut it down that day or mark it with a white wooden “SOLD” sign and come back for it later. Once they’ve lugged the tree out of the woods, House or Threet measures it and calculates how much they owe.
House doesn’t like the mystery of sales tax — not knowing how much something’s going to cost until a clerk computes the total — so instead of flashy $49.99-type prices, he’s added in the tax already and written it in permanent marker. The trees are $29 up to 6 feet tall, to keep it easy. But a 9-foot tree, for example, is $42.02. A 13-footer, $64.38.
His blue eyes glint when he talks about rounding down the tree’s measurement in a customer’s favor. They match the worn t-shirt he’s layered under a navy blue, plaid hooded sweatshirt. The skin on his neck and face is wrinkled but spry, stretched thin in places where the veins show through. His thin grey hair is almost entirely hidden by a dark blue San Diego Padres baseball cap, and his skinny legs are in blue jeans. His tennis shoes used to be white.
House has no children. But he’s very much a patient father when referring to the unpredictability of the trees. Some grow faster, or thicker, or wider than others. “They usually take their own route of growing,” he says.
In the northern hemisphere, tree needles grow thicker on the side facing the south, because of the direction of the sun. “The only way to get a perfect tree would be to have it on a rotating stand,” he says. “But by the time you decorate it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tree that wasn’t perfect.”
House loves even those trees best suited for display in a corner because their needles are so sparse in patches. “They’re space-savers, ‘wall trees,’” he says. “I think it’s like everything else. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Still, there are some customers — mostly women, he ventures tentatively — who insist on spending hours searching for that faultless tree. When his listener takes no offense, he loosens his guarded description, inserting hyperbolic imitations of indecisive women traipsing from tree to tree all over the farm, only to arrive back at the first tree they saw.
The farmers plan between 200 and 300 seedlings each year. In the fires that struck East County in 2003, they lost about 60 trees. The men remember evacuating House’s two horses, Frankie and Bay Mare, and shifting the tree-watering system to wet the area around the farm house, which kept it unharmed. Compared to the losses of some of his neighbors, House says it could have been a lot worse. Threet can’t resist a wry joke — “You’d think it’d go up like a Christmas tree farm,” he says.
At 65, House doesn’t think he’s anywhere near the winter of his life. He guesses the tree farm could make him a rich man if he sold it for development, but his ties to the land run deeper than the money. “If you were in for quick profit, you’d slap in concrete and asphalt,” he says. “There’s a terrific view.”
But here, in one of winter’s last hiding spots in the county, soil is not just another surface to pave over. In fact, the farm softens city calluses, breaking up paved, clinical holiday sentiments that have lost their roots.
“I guess we’re providing a little fresh air for the neighborhood,” Threet says.