In search of a tree

Deborah Bowers

December 22, 1992|By Deborah Bowers

OUR farm used to be more productive than it is these days in yielding a Christmas tree.

Not the kind you find at the tree farms around here, or at the Jaycee stand in the mall parking lot, but a wild-looking thing, with branches sticking way out and with no symmetrical shape. It was typically large, larger in the house than it looked in the field.

As a young teen-ager, I had the chore of scouting out the tree, so each year on Christmas Eve or a day or two earlier, I'd go out, usually to the "north fields," to look over the summer's crop. Here there was an open field, too long left fallow, where pine saplings had begun to spring up alongside young poplars and maples and sassafras. Here the knee-high briers would catch my skin and scar my shoes, and mounds of honeysuckle vine made walking difficult.

It was here the whole family came one summer in the mid-1960s with shovels and wheelbarrows to help my oldest brother dig up some laurel bushes to put in his yard.

And it was here that our suburban aunt and uncle came with us for a walk one autumn, taking pictures of us in our rag-tag coats and scuffed shoes, the country kids who made long use of everything.

Sometimes I would find a tree here, or sometimes I would go to another field, below a steep slope where my father had planted a conservation stand of white pine long since too large for Christmas. If I found nothing suitable there, I would have to go to the other end of the farm, below the house, and try my luck on the hillside we could see from the kitchen window.

In these fields there were what we called red pines but what some of the locals called "bull pine" or "scrub pine." They had shorter needles, a darker color and stubby cones. These were the trees our family, and some of the neighbors, used for Christmas from the late 1940s through the 1970s, until these old fields and pastures became forests, and the pines were crowded out by maples and poplars.

Even as the fields grew into young forests, I was stubborn about our Christmas tree tradition.

There were a few years when the tree I brought home would get blank looks, and there were years when we spent the first hour in the house positioning the thing so that its best side faced out. Sometimes there was no best side.

I suppose the last year of the tradition was the year my husband and I went down the hill behind the house, settled on a spindly thing neither of us liked and took it home. My mother's blank look sent us back.

We stood on the hill and talked about going to a tree farm. Spending $30 on a Christmas tree was out of the question.

Then I got the idea to climb one of the older trees and cut off the top. I didn't feel badly about this because I knew it would grow a new leader branch before long. We found one, about 25 feet high, and I was hoisted into its rubbery branches with the limb saw in my belt. I snaked my way steadily to the top.

Nestled in the top, about six feet below the tip of the lone spire, I could feel the gentle sway and listen to the wind so close to my ears. I began tearing into the bark with the saw, pushing hard to keep the teeth on course. Perching on a limb no bigger than my arm, and with no room for leverage, I struggled with the saw through the mere five inches of trunk. Heat radiated from my face. But the moment finally came when I heaved, the trunk cracked, and the top of the tree, now a tree itself, toppled over and went crashing to the ground.

We had to work to get the trunk to fit in the stand. We had to prune back many of the branches. But when it was done, it was the most astonishing Christmas tree we ever had. It was symmetrical and full. It took up a full quarter of the living room.

At Christmas I try to remember some of the trees I brought back from the north fields -- the time I dragged one home through snow and slush and then had to leave it on the front porch for a day to beat off the caked mud.

The time I tied a ribbon with happy anticipation on an unusually well-shaped tree, and one of the neighbors took it by mistake.

I know we could start growing our own trees for Christmas, and maybe that's a project for next summer, but it wouldn't be the same.

So these days we go out and buy a tree -- like everyone else. We search in vain for a tree that looks even a little like one of our old wild ones, but no one knows what we are talking about. All the farms prune the trees mercilessly until they look like sculpted shrubs, topiary wonders with little character.

When we get them home, we have to take out some of the branches to add airy space and to get some of the ornaments into the tree's depth.

This Christmas we went up to the Pennsylvania line to a tree farm a friend had told my mother about. But I'm wondering if over the last few years a sapling has popped up in the woods and reached the right size to grace the living room. Maybe out there in a forgotten corner of the farm there's a soft wind moving through the limbs of our next Christmas' tree. Just maybe, I think.

Oh Christmas tree!

Deborah Bowers writes from northern Harford County.

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