Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Herd.

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.


44 comments:

  1. I always enjoy the experience of cutting our "own" tree... We make a day of it and enjoy the start of the Christmas season...

    Celebrate the Lords birth with joy! Peace on earth, Merry Christmas to all...

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  2. My Mom used to talk about going with my aunt and uncle out to cut a tree in the woods behind the house every year. Every time I hear her tell the stories it makes me we we had had that tradition. We used to support the local firehouse and buy one from them. Nice post!

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  3. A holiday tradition - new but old. Lovely stuff.

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  4. All a "Charlie Brown" Christmas tree needs is a little love.

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  5. Superb that you can just nip out back to cut your own tree - how lovely (and practical!)

    Your cabin is awesome Erin. What a perfect place to spend Christmas.

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  6. Doug - It's the way to usher the season in, for sure. A very Merry Christmas to you and your family!

    Kiwi - Ah, the Firehouse-Tree sounds like a very good tradition in and of itself. Cheers, and thanks for stopping by!

    Mike - Traditions and their evolution are fascinating creatures. Many thanks!

    John - Mine got that for sure! :)

    Chris - I feel quite pragmatic about it, and was informed by NPR on the drive into work this morning that Merriam-Webster has named "pragmatic" the word of the year. Wow, that was random of me. ;-) Thanks as always for stopping by to read, and a Merry Christmas to you!

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  7. i wish there was a 'like' button here. or better yet 'hugs and 'smooches' buttons we could use depending on how much we like your posts !
    hope you and yours have a marvelous holiday !
    marc

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  8. Marc - If I understood computer programming at all, I'd develop just such buttons. ;) A marvelous holiday season to you and yours as well....thanks!

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  9. A week and a half later I'm still paying for my manly over-estimation of Christmas tree size. Thing blew my back out. I never learn and no, it didn't fit.

    Years ago, after removing them from the house, I would set them out in the yard till all the needles fell off. Then cut it all apart to use in the fire pit out in the yard.

    Of course, SOME PEOPLE think a needle-less pine sitting in the yard is an eye-sore. I kinda like it.

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  10. Ken G - Hope your back is feeling better soon. ;) And SOME PEOPLE just need to learn to lighten up, eh? Gosh, I don't miss neighbors!

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  11. When you say "herd" I think of Treebeard from Lord of the Rings. I hope if I ever run into him, he agrees that I am not an orc either.

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  12. Erin,

    You keep taking me back to Alaska. We had access to spindly black spruce, 80 years old at 4" diameter, by snowshoe with my toddlers in a tobaggan, my wife and I got the best we could. Now we buy absurdly pruned firs. I suppose it's the thought that counts.

    Thanks, Gregg

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  13. I was listening to Yo-Yo Ma & Friends: "Songs of Joy and Peace" when I sat back down at the computer. I advanced to the instrumental song "Kuai Le" so I could listen to it while I read your post. I knew they would go together.

    Merry Christmas Erin.

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  14. JGR - For some reason, Treebeard hadn't entered my head writing this, which is strange for he is one of my favorite of Tolkein's characters. And I hope he'd treat me as a hobbit too. :)

    Gregg - Yes, the thought...and the tradition. Christmas trees remind me of being a child, and I think we all need that kind of a reminder at least once a year, preferably more. Thanks as always for reading and for your comment.

    Mr. P - That is a wonderful CD. And I'm honored my words went well with its accompaniment. Merry Christmas to you too!

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  15. Nice oxymoron.

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  16. I love the pictures you conjure up with your stories. And men plus saws should always be closely monitored!!!

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  17. Hart - Many thanks. And do you know, a certain man is right now up the canyon, unsupervised with a chainsaw? I'm failing my man/saw chaperon duties!

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  18. Having put our plastic tree together today I feel a bit cheap and tacky. I'd love to trudge through snow and lop my own, alas it would be frowned upon around these parts.

    The 'danger of sending a man' comment brought Chevy Chase to mind in National Lampoon Christmas Vacation ( a guilty pleasure and a tradition, Nicky and I insist on watching it every Christmas).

    A great tale Erin - loved it :-)

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  19. I think my earlier comment was deleted during the great Blogger deleting episode. Anyway, I love this. I used to cut my tree every year until one fell on a friend's truck.

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  20. Dave - Ah, a plastic tree still brings warmth and light into an otherwise cold and dark month. :) And Lampoons! A guilty pleasure of many! Thanks as always for your kind words and humor!

    Howard - Have I told you before I love your icon? It looks like you're wielding a sword! I chuckled over your comment and then felt bad about your friend's truck. Oy. And remind me to never let you anywhere on my property with a saw. ;)

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  21. Whew! I feel better upon 2nd read. I saw '...my dad...' and thought the story title was 'The Nerd'. Glad I misread that one. pa

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  22. Pa - Bazinga!

    Brk Trt - I don't think I'll see dirt dirt til the spring...

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  23. Last christmas when Emily was home, we cut down a noble fir I'd spotted earlier in the fall up the wise river. My ceiling is 10 feet, and it fit perfectly, the top had to be trimmed to accommodate the angel, circa 1935. This year I look out at palm trees here on the gulf, and wonder.
    The best to you and all of yours, my this coming year bring your heart's desire.
    Mike

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  24. Mike - That noble fir (and your 10 ft ceilings!) sounds lovely. The palms and beaches accompanying by SF Christmases were somewhat disturbing to me, and I discovered that I need seasons. Enjoy the holiday, Mike, wherever it should find you and wherever this next year may take you. Cheers to heart's desires.

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  25. Ah, glad I'm not the only one who was reminded of "Christmas Vacation" by the first couple of paragraphs. Prior to Dave Burr's comment, I was struggling on whether or not to sully this fine post with a Christmas Vacation reference. Guilty pleasure indeed. A holiday tradition at our house.

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  26. I like that your keeping and looking out for each other.It's nice you got a tree for your home.

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  27. A girl with a handsaw, a dog, and wearing Carharts...

    That's a girl out for my own heart.

    Great post.

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  28. Ty - A good laugh is a good laugh, and is appreciated! I might need to re-watch again too. ;)

    Herringbone - It is nice to find a mutual appreciation and respect in another -- human or mountain. Thanks!

    Master of Kung Fu - ha! Well yep...that's about me in a nutshell. :) Thanks as always!

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  29. You hit the nail on the head Erin..it's a great Christmas tradition that we (my family) celebrates here in Maine..two things different tho..we use fir trees and our ground is as bare as a bone once Banjo gets through with it..(well maybe Banjo doesn't get bones)..so it's as bare as the top of my head!

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  30. Jim - Hit the spot, eh? Excellent. :)

    penbayman - ha! Oh Banjo does indeed get bones, and there isn't much left of them when he's done. So your analogy stands as accurate. Enjoy your Christmas, and traditions, and a wonderful holiday to you and yours.

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  31. who needs real gravel roads when you have such a REAL tree.

    In my house there is a ridiculous 4ft tall tree my wife bought with branches made entirely of white goose biots palmered round some stiff wire-- no joke. I can't wait until she decides she doesn't like it any more-- I should get about 2.5 million prince nymphs out of it...

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  32. Brian J. - A goose biot tree? That's cool! And wouldn't last very long in my house. ;)

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  33. Brian - put me in line for some biots when the time comes.

    Ann and I have always wanted a piece of property to do just as you have; to find some simple pleasure in knowing that living on, and in some small way, off, the land can be both sustainable and rewarding. Delightful tale.

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  34. Such a post indeed chock full of imagery personal to me. Limestone gravel roads. Growing up in Omaha, being welcomed by the shape of quartz sand piles in the Loess Hills every time we entered IA was a treat. Also the thought of old farm houses makes me think of my Great Gram Sullivan's place in Clarinda. Lastly, Hank and I went to pick out another Charlie Brown tree last week. Such character those trees have. Happy Holidays.

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  35. Steve - I hope you someday find your own bit of land somewhere...and thanks, as always, for reading.

    Rhythm Rider - Omaha? Get out! I was born and spent my early childhood there. Clarinda? I rode in many 4-H shows down there! Sometimes I miss it all. Glad that you and Hank got out for a tree...and good on you for going Charlie Brown! A merry holiday season to you and yours!

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  36. Seeing that picture Erin of your snow bound house brings back fond memories of when i was but a "wee laddie" in the Highlands of Bonnie Scotland.

    Enjoy the Yuletide Festivities Erin, i hope Santa treats you well this year :)

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  37. Tom - Sounds like a lovely childhood! Ah, I hope Santa doesn't get lost in the mountains!;) The merriest of holidays to you as well!

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  38. The start of a great tradition. Made better by all the accomplices you share it with...the herd will not go to waste :-)

    Cheers!

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  39. CB TREES RULE! I sure do enjoy the NE/IA countryside and folks, but in the end....it's a great place to be from when living here.

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  40. We took a trip to the hills years ago and got our own tree, what an adventure that was! Really snowed a lot that weekend, and finding a tree that was good all the way around was a chore. Then getting it back to the Jeep was the other journey! Was fun though. Maybe next year we will do it again. But won't pick a hill next time... Ha. Loved the photos here...

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  41. Sanders - Indeed not. The herd will thrive! ;) Cheers!

    Rhythm Rider - You nailed it. I love being from there...but now I'm glad I'm here.

    FisherGirl - Sounds you had an adventure! Getting a tree that way always also cuts a story. Thanks for stopping by!

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