Wayne Reynolds remembers driving up to the Russian River from San Francisco to learn to swim in his youth.
"There would be roadside businesses selling leatherware, arts and crafts," said the co-owner of North Eagle Tree Farm, just north of Sonoma Valley on Highway 12. "But now, they're all disappearing and the land is going into vineyards."
Reynolds and his wife, Caryn Fried, have owned North Eagle—a sustainable Christmas tree forest of 7,500 conifers—for 25 years now. They are artists, who also display their pottery, paintings and bonsais in a gallery on the 3-acre property called Valley of the Moon Pottery.
With its pile of free firewood, roosters crowing next door and staff in warm plaid shirts, cozy hats and boots, it's a woodsy, friendly setting that seems iconic of Northern California—or at least the way it used to be in Sonoma County.
According to Reynolds, his operation is one of the few remaining local places where you can take the family for an outing, choose a tree and cut it yourself.
"People tell us they've come over from Napa and other parts of the county because they can't find any other place like this," he said.
Reynolds and Fried bought the property for an artistic experience out in nature. It had been an orchard and the previous owner had begun converting it to other types of trees. The couple needed help with their new venture, so about 20 years ago, they hired retired US Forest Service forester Gary Muerle.
"Caryn met him at another farm," Reynolds said. "He's a true mountain man. He's lived his whole life in the back woods. He has some real bear stories."
Muerle is 83 now. He really does have stories about "bluff charges" by black bears in the Sierras. He describes himself as "introverted" and said he wanted a "career in the wild." He's originally from Vernon, NY and refers to Germany as his family's "old country." He likes to talk about John Muir and the two of them have something in common.
"Muerle is the German form of Muir," he said. "The name still exists in the Black Forest."
So his name is prophetic? Perhaps it was his destiny to be a forester.
"I tell that to people all the time," he said.
Muerle is a UC Berkeley graduate who worked for the Forest Service in California and Oregon and "everywhere." He now volunteers in the summers at Sequoia Kings Canyon National Parks, where he has introduced a non-native species eradication program.
Reynolds said that he and Fried and Muerle have become good friends over the years.
"He comes all the way over from Walnut Creek to help us," he said.
It's a sociable atmosphere at North Eagle, where people bring their dogs dressed in Christmas attire, and they stop by the gallery for hot apple juice and candy canes after tree selection.
"People love getting among the trees," Muerle said. "We don't put the trees in rows. We interplant different species to make it more like a forest experience."
The forest offers Douglas Fir and about 10 exotic conifer species. They are irrigated to create temperate conditions.
"Normally, we get about 30 inches of rain, but last year we only had 20," Muerle said.
Reynolds likes to say that the trees are happy because he and Fried dance nude around them in the moonlight.
Do they really do that?
"No," said Fried later inside the gallery, chuckling.
They call their forest sustainable because they can harvest many Christmas trees off each tree. After a tree has been harvested partway up the trunk, it will send up offshoot branches that can also be cut as trees after a few years. (Take a look at one of the attached videos to get the idea. The sequoia in the harvest video took about eight years before it could be cut, then each offshoot takes about five years to grow big enough to cut as a tree.) Each time the tree sends up offshoots, it's called a generation. The same tree might produce five generations before losing its vigor, Muerle said.
North Eagle Tree Farm and Valley of the Moon Pottery are open daily at 6191 Sonoma Highway (Highway 12), east of Melita. Phone 707-538-2554.