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Ocean Beach holiday trees get new life through woodworking

Volunteers disassemble the 2021 Ocean Beach holiday tree for repurposing by wood artisans.
(Courtesy of Ocean Beach Town Council)

For 41 consecutive years, the shores of Ocean Beach have been the backdrop to a gargantuan pine tree, decorated and lighted to commemorate the holiday season. Historically, once the holidays came to an end, many of the trees were carried away to landfills for an unceremonious demise. In recent years, however, the holiday trees have been given new life as sought-after crafting material for local woodworkers.

The tree for the 2021 holiday season was a star pine donated from the yard of Ocean Beach resident Catrina Russell. The tree began its life as an unassuming sapling, first planted on Russell’s property in the 1990s, shortly before she moved to the community.

For the record:

4:57 p.m. Jan. 20, 2022This article has been updated to reflect that although the 2014 holiday tree had been planted in Scott Mac Laggan’s yard in 1960, he did not own the property when the tree was donated.

5:44 p.m. Jan. 18, 2022This article has been updated to correct the spellings of the last names of Catrina Russell and Jess Van Arsdale.

“The sapling was only as big as me,” Russell recalled.

But as time went by, the sapling grew into an unruly behemoth. The pine developed a dramatic curve along the trunk and began to arch forebodingly over a neighbor’s house, its roots lifting up the sidewalk on Russell’s street.

Catrina Russell's star pine leans precariously over a neighboring house.
(Courtesy of Catrina Russell)

“We knew it needed to go, but we thought it was a perfect OB tree,” Russell said.

Russell’s tree was a candidate for the holiday centerpiece for three years but was a runner-up to other trees. Russell credits the removal of the fence in her front yard, making for easier removal of the tree, as the deciding factor in its selection as the 2021 holiday tree.

Ocean Beach's 2021 holiday tree is removed from donor Catrina Russell’s yard (left) and installed on the beach (right).
(Photos by Catrina Russell)

The pine’s curvature kept in the tradition of the curvy trees of years past. Each tree is held firmly in place by a concrete cylinder that acts as a kind of plug in the sand. This usually makes the trunk lean in one direction or another and has made the curvy trees a signature of the annual holiday display.

What do you know about the OB tree? It always leans to the left ... right?

Jess Van Arsdale of Chula Vista-based San Diego Urban Timber, which designs and builds furniture and functional artworks from fallen trees and other materials, said the trend to repurpose the holiday trees began about 2014.

“There was a real consciousness shift that year for replanting,” Van Arsdale recalled. “The plan was initially to use the tree [that year] for firewood. I don’t think they fully understood the long-term value of repurposing at the time.”

SD Urban Timber helped repurpose the 2014 holiday tree into a whale-themed bench that was donated to Sunset View Elementary School in Point Loma.

The 2014 Ocean Beach holiday tree was repurposed into a whale-themed bench that was donated to Sunset View Elementary School.
The 2014 Ocean Beach holiday tree was repurposed into a whale-themed bench that was donated to Sunset View Elementary School in Point Loma.
(Scott Mac Laggan)

The 2014 tree, which had been planted in Scott Mac Laggan’s front yard in Loma Portal in 1960, also was a star pine. Van Arsdale said that species of tree, as well as the special circumstances of having it planted in the beach sand, makes it sought after by woodworkers.

“Not every tree is desirable for a maker,” Van Arsdale said, “but star pines are magical.”

Star pines release a series of branches in layers, with chutes that extend branches on one plane. Van Arsdale said woodworkers seek out that kind of tree because the patterns are predictable as they turn the wood.

When plugged deep into the sand, the base of a holiday tree soaks up saltwater and minerals from the beach. The moisture it absorbs creates a process called spalting, in which fungus gets into the wood, and this growth creates unique streaking features.

The recent practice of repurposing the trees after the holidays makes for a popular event with local artisans.

Stacie Woehrle, membership chairwoman for the Ocean Beach Town Council, oversees the entire holiday tree process from acquisition to disposal or reclamation. She said the day of the tree’s disassembly has become a sort of “free-for-all.”

“It’s always a mystery who’s going to show up to claim the tree the day it comes down,” Woehrle said.

The 2021 Ocean Beach holiday tree is prepared for takedown after the holidays.
The 2021 Ocean Beach holiday tree is prepared for takedown after the holidays.
(Courtesy of Ocean Beach Town Council)

A handful of woodworkers arrived to claim the 2021 tree’s wood and branches. One of the artists plans to use the material for pyrography, a medium of etching designs into wood with fire.

Another local wood artisan who turned up was Scott DeWarns, who helped clear the branches using a cage lift. DeWarns has been reclaiming sections of the holiday tree for three years, carving the wood into artisanal bowls.

“I noticed they were throwing the tree into a dump truck [a few years ago] and it was just going to the junkyard,” DeWarns said. “I hate to see good wood go to waste. I told them to give it to me instead. I’ve cut the tree down for the last three years.”

DeWarns was a member of the Sunset Cliffs Surfing Association as a child, and he lived in Hawaii for nearly 50 years. After surfing the monstrous waves off the Pacific island state, multiple injuries left DeWarns with a broken back and a chronic disability. He said the opportunity to make something of the tree’s lumber, a process that takes as long as four months, gives him direction.

“It keeps me sharp,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but carving the wood takes away the pain. It’s like therapy for me.”

A bowl carved by Scott DeWarns was auctioned in a package with shirts at the Ocean Beach holiday auction in 2021.
(Cameron Reid)

The bowls carved by DeWarns have been donated for use in the Town Council’s holiday auction. One of the bowls made from the 2021 tree will be set aside to give to the Russell family, meaning they will be able to keep a piece of the pine that towered over their yard for years.

“This whole process was a big deal for us,” Russell said. “I love that tree, it’s got a lot of history for us. But this makes us feel better. We were able to be a part of one of our favorite things in Ocean Beach.”

Other sections of the tree will be repurposed by the city of San Diego as mulch for parks and other public areas.

The OB Town Council will begin scouting for the 2022 holiday tree in February. Would-be donors can email Woehrle at StacieIE@obtowncouncil.org to suggest trees for consideration, provided they don’t pose safety issues.


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