Tradition had it that my dad would take my sister and I out to cut down a Christmas tree the weekend after Thanksgiving. Piling handsaws, tie downs, and ourselves into the white Ford Taurus station wagon -- we’d get on the road towards Glenwood. Down a real gravel road -- dusty and chalky and bumpy, not what they consider gravel to be out here in the West. Here, it’s a mix of sand and dirt. I’m not sure what to call it. When I first moved to Colorado I avoided many a correct road when given and following directions, because it wasn’t “gravel.” Damn literal mind.
This gravel road twisted through the Loess Hills -- once harboring the underground railroad and outlaws; now hiding quarter horses, meth labs, and acres of neatly planted rows of pines. Some farmers had figured out a profitable off-season venture -- capitalizing on big-city-people-across-the-Missouri’s delight in driving 45 minutes for the experience of sawing and strapping a pine to the roof of their SUV’s and the reminder that places with “$10 X-mas Trees. U Cut. Leave money in Coffee Can on Porch” still do exist. Plus, Iowa gasoline was always at least $0.25 cheaper. Many of my grandparent’s visit to our farm were based, I suspect, largely on my grandfather’s reading of the gas gauge.
It’s a dangerous thing though, sending a man -- more specifically, my father -- out to cut a tree which is supposed to fit into a house -- a one-hundred year old farm house with low ceilings, to be exact. Bigger must be better, and thus manliness must be measured by how much of the bottom half of the pine needs cut off before it will fit in the living room. My sister and I encouraged him though, to be honest....active imaginations visioned cathedral ceilings.....yes, that’ll fit just fine! Perhaps fresh air increases appetite of eyes as well as bellies, and it’s reported to me that this year, my mother’s eyes were the ones so curiously affected.
For years now, I’ve missed that tradition. In San Francisco studio apartments I decorated Trader Joe’s rosemary trees, which fit perfectly in my one window’s sill. But that is just not the same....lovely as rosemary is and all. I did buy a tree one year and made it fit. But that also, is just not the same.
And then last year, finally, I had land. I had rooms of my own. I had trees of my own -- and I walked with Banjo up the mountain out back and cut a small pine from a grove that needed thinning. No longer was it about finding the right shape and size to fit the house (or not) -- it was about pragmatic pruning. I’ve a mountainside to care for, and it’s good forest husbandry to cull the herd every now and again.
There is something to be said for new traditions which will someday be old, yet will die with me. I am a mountain’s keeper, and it keeps me in return. The dead wood which I have hauled off its sides, is now chopped and stacked (although I wonder why we don’t say “mauled” wood, for that is what was used, and what was done. Yet like so many other of our semantic games, we choose the tidier verb, “to chop”).
Again this year I go up the mountainside with Banjo, and Jay now too -- up until we find a duet -- and mute the louder of the voices, letting the warbly one remain to gain confidence, straighten her spine, and sing even louder. The cabin’s Christmas tree will never be straight nor full -- canyon trees are like their people -- wiry, with branches bent by the winds -- yet they’re strong, and don’t demand much. They don’t need to be perfect, they just need to keep on growing. And come what may, they will grow -- in rock cracks smaller than a #2 pencil or a roofing nail, among incorrigible soil. So I will always have Charlie Brown trees -- for the tradition has become not to seek that which will be the most beautiful for the indoors, but that which will be the healthiest for the out.
Thoreau once wrote, wood warms us twice -- as will that which our small search-party labored up through a new 14 inch blanket of thick refrigerated warmth, to find. In fact, this tree will warm me three times over: the finding and chopping this year, the splitting & stacking next fall, and finally the burning next winter.
Come January, this small pine will be laid behind the woodshed to age until next year when, perhaps, it will warm the cabin as another one of the herd is trimmed.