“Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?”*

December 13, 2009

Not for the Fair Elizabeth is the blue spruce porcupine in the front yard or the desiccated Fraser fir at the local supermarket. There’s more than a little of the Charlie Brown in my wife, and for whatever reason she always insists upon an oddball Christmas tree.

It’s a ritual.  Each year the spousal unit must be driven to reluctant feats of daring to acquire the object of this year’s artistic vision, so we plan our annual trek, most often in the late afternoon of a weekday, a stealth attack upon the wilds of Sam Campbell’s Tree Farm just outside Smiths Falls.

So at 4:00, trailer in tow, we pulled into Campbell’s in the gathering darkness.  Sam greeted us with the usual balsam fir selections, but with an unfamiliar living room to decorate this year, Bet decided that we should find and cut one ourselves.  Off we went with borrowed saw through the snowdrifts to the cedar swamp at the back of the farm.

We passed through acres of neatly trimmed spruce and scotch pine, but we were after a wild tree, and that meant a hike through surprisingly deep snow to the low land where on other expeditions I had been able to find the odd balsam among the cedars.

Turns out Bet had somehow never actually cut a balsam.  Before long we found ourselves on a well-established rabbit trail through the still depths of the cedar swamp.  She wasn’t too taken with the candidates:

“These trees are huge!”

“We can cut one down, then shorten it to whatever height you want.”

“They are all too big.  Let’s keep looking.”

At least the wind wasn’t a factor.  It was almost pleasant in there if you ignored the dead branches tearing at every move.  Bet slid through the heavy undergrowth surprisingly well, though she was getting further and further from the road.  At last she located a pair of candidates:

“How about one of these?” Surely enough, two tall but healthy balsams stood before us.

“Yep, if we trim twelve feet off the bottom of this one and about three off the top, we may just have a Christmas tree.”  In an area like this balsam have to grow up above the cedars before they can develop their foliage, so they tend to be rather tall.  I notched the trunk and cut it off.  Then we had to pull the thing down through the entangling cedars, so Bet and I each grabbed a branch and hauled.  Mine snapped, tumbling me end-over-end in the knee-deep snow.  Laughter.  A few more tugs and the tree was close enough to the ground we could shorten it.

I remember as a teenager reading an Ed Zern essay in Outdoor Life about the Swedish compass, a device a woodsman could rig up to ensure he didn’t get lost in heavy cover.  Fellow hunters Frank Green and Cliff Whaley had just let me ramble on, wide-eyed and uncomprehending, about how a woodsman could be confident he wouldn’t get lost if he just cut a 30’ sapling and pulled it along behind him as he made his way through dense bush.  Now I understood. The friction from the other branches anchored me in place and guaranteed that I wouldn’t get lost as long as I held onto this sapling.  This “compass” wasn’t going anywhere until I had cut off at least half of it.

Thanks to the rabbit trail we found the road first try and then emerged into the gale for the trek back to the truck.  Next time I’ll bring snowshoes, even in early December.  The balsam proved surprisingly hard to pull through soft snow, so I picked it up.  It wasn’t heavy, so on we went.

In fact, when we got the thing home we realized there wasn’t much tree there at all, just a frame of branches defining the space with a lot of air inside.  Still, it was symmetrical and after several trims, fitted the tall ceiling of the living room.

Bet set to work and after a day of decoration decided that the reason the tree still looked funny was the white plaster wall behind it.  In the previous house she had had dark oak panels as a backdrop, so the sketchy outline of the balsam was all she needed to fill the space.

It looks as though the oak boards I bought yesterday will soon find themselves cut into panels to make a backdrop for next year’s balsam.

*Linus, Charlie Brown’s Christmas Special.  CBS.

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