Tuesday, December 6, 2011


MY FATHER AND HIS SIBLINGS PLANTED THE CHRISTMAS TREES UP BY THE CORNER CEMETERY UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF THEIR GRANDFATHER, PAYNE HEATH. I imagine Great-Dad giving stiff orders, tossing bundles of bare-root white pine seedlings into 8 piles, kneeling in the soft earth to straighten a crooked tree, bending slightly to pat one of my aunts on the head, stifling arguments amongst the kids with a firm look. I am, of course, idealizing the story, but I can clearly see the patriarch with his grandchildren in the sun on the terraced land. My great granddad was a learned man, and I’m guessing that my father inherited his love of nature and of teaching, from him. I’m sure that tree-planting day included lessons in soil make-up, tree identification, agriculture, and history. In those days, the farm had fences and hedgerows, but they, along with the terraces, were plowed under long before I arrived on the scene. Only the terraces hidden in the piney woods remain.

 My dad once told me that selling the Christmas trees was to furnish college tuition for the grandkids, and were to be harvested the year I was born. My dad was the oldest, my youngest uncles not much older than I am. Unfortunately, that was also the year Great-Dad died—he and I shared a mere six months on this planet—and the trees never got harvested. Instead they quietly grew to great heights of 40 to 50 feet.
 I remember the first time I saw them as a child. One Christmas my father brought us out to cut our tree. Perhaps they were not as tall then as they are now, maybe only 20 or 30 feet high, but to my eyes they were giants. You cut a tree, and then top it. To me it didn’t matter that the branches were crooked and showed a lot of bare trunk, or that it was not really shaped like a Christmas tree or that the needles were too limp to hold an ornament; going out in the snowy woods to cut a tree was quintessentially romantic. I think we probably did this only once when I was growing up, but when we moved out to the farm we continued the tradition.

 The piney woods were an artificial monoculture—by now they have grown into a little more diversity—but I loved them. They have an aura of an enchanted grove. Regular rows of great tree trunks curving along the terraces, dark and cool (even in summer); and dreamy, cushioned by a foot of rusty red needles, scented by sticky pine sap, it’s quiet in there. They grow so close together that the light doesn’t get in. They’re green only at the top and you feel like you’re deep in the interior of the forest. I say we are thinning them since they’re so crowded, but at the rate of one a year, I’m not sure the plot will ever be thinned by our Christmas tree habit. Along the edges the undergrowth blocks access and you have to find the secret entry. You walk back to the edge of the bean field and step carefully over the downed barbed wire, balancing the chain saw that was carefully sharpened for this ritual. Everyone looks up, craning their necks trying to see the shape of the treetop from below. You try to find one with room to fall, but even so, they usually get hung up on another tree halfway down. When that happens you cut the felled trunk again, as high as you can reach. Sometimes you have to cut the trunk three times before the top finally comes crashing down in a splash of needles and cones. Then you top it, hold it up to check the shape (though we rarely reject a tree once we’ve cut it—checking the shape is mostly ceremonial), and drag it back to the car.

 Once home we stand it in a tub of water and weight it down with bricks and stones, balancing the trunk carefully. We wrap it in garlands and strings of lights, hanging the strange ornaments we’ve collected over the years. We hang stockings by the wood stove and string up Christmas cards in all the doorways. I’d like to say that this year we had hot mulled cider and cookies, but our decorating was accompanied only by chamber music on the radio and me, reading some of the more interesting letters inscribed in the Christmas cards, explaining to Ellis who sent some of the older ones—friends we may have lost track of before he was born. I smile at the messages, the pictures, and think fondly of these friends, enjoying my annual visit.

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