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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stalking the Wily Christmas Tree: From the Archives…

We're treedThere are those difficult decisions one has to make in life. And then there’s choosing just the right Christmas tree to steer the household through the Christmas season. Last year I selected the perfect tree from Dale Reiner’s Christmas arboretum. Armed with the formidable knowledge that “there’s never two of anything,” off I ventured to attempt the impossible.

It is not easy to arrive at the appropriate mindset necessary to search for that important Christmas icon. I had intended to begin this year’s quest a month earlier, call Dale and ask if I could wander through his inventory, select and tag a tree for harvest later. That never happened, and I’m sure you’re not surprised:we defer life’s difficult decisions as long as possible.

Now I’m up against an inflexible timeline…family coming for the holidays…the pressure’s on for me to provide, provide…. But as I drive up to Reiner’s command center, I discover the lot is closed! “Open Friday, Saturday, and Sunday” the sign reads. Today is Wednesday. Who knows if I’ll even be among the living two days from now, let alone having to “get in the mood” for tree shopping again. Mumbling a few words, none in keeping with the Christmas spirit, I head back up the driveway. But just then Father Christmas smiles on me; here comes Dale in his white utility truck. He’s about to pass me by but a depleted honey jar at home jogs his memory: here’s next year’s supply about to drive off. Dale stops, backs up.

“Reiner,” I complain, “How can you make any money when your operation is closed?” (Forgetting the while that I’ve been absent from the workforce for eleven years and every day is a weekend for me.) Dale explains there’s not much demand for U-Cut trees midweek, but since I’m here, and he’s come to feed his cows, he agrees to let me have the run of the place, select a tree, and either tag it for later or haul it off today. Soon I’m armed with a bow saw heading off to do battle with a forest of fir while Dale chucks hay at his hungry beef.

Douglas fir can spurt three to five feet of growth per season, and these trees were already tall last year. Now as soon as I enter the grove, the trees shut out the winter light. I feel much like Lewis and Clark must have felt when they explored the Pacific Northwest. (But then they had a trail to follow, didn’t they? Or was it a trail they blazed?) Where the branches were shaded, ice droplets on the needles from last night’s frost sprinkled ice water on me. Once into the forest, squeezing my way between the spitting trees, I have trouble distinguishing one tree from the next. I spot one promising prospect after another but think there’s sure to be a better one a few trees further and push on. When I do, I lose track of my last prime candidate. At last I find just the right tree and am about to take the saw to it when just in time I realize what I’m about to cut is a giant bull thistle.

As I continue thrashing about, tripping over stumps of the deceased and stumbling into potholes, I remember my parting words to Dale: “If my pickup is still here two days from now, come looking for me, will you; I still should be pretty well preserved.” Dale replied, “You know, only two types of folks visit the tree farm: old timers like you and me who continue the tradition of selecting and cutting down their own trees, and young couples with children wishing to start their own Christmas tradition.”As Dale’s words echo, fade away, my memory rushes back across the years. 

Late December, 1969. Winthrop, Washington. My first year of teaching. Three or four p.m. on a snow-covered hillside above the Chewuck River. We had our one dollar tree permit, a carpenter’s saw, and most importantly, the spirit and energy of youth. And that’s what we needed to trudge upslope through shin deep snow in the dwindling light to search among the towering Ponderosa pines for that perfect fir tree. Even youthful exuberance and stamina were challenged by the vast wilderness, encroaching darkness, towering pines and slippery upslope. The firs, seeded by a few intruders, were scattered among the Ponderosa. Whenever we found a young fir, we cast a critical eye over it until at last the impending darkness forced a choice (or was it, perhaps, the fresh set of cougar tracks we had crossed earlier?). Among the massive trunks of pine our little fir appeared a dwarf, hardly more than a smudge against the snowy hillside.

Snow had begun to fall and in the glooming twilight a few easy swipes of the saw brought the little fir down. We half dragged, half rolled our prize to the road where our red VW beetle hunkered in the unplowed snow. When the tree came to rest beside the car, it was obvious our little “sapling” was not only longer than the car, but also taller. In fact if you stood on the tree side of the car, its beetle top was barely visible above the branches.Without the cathedral pines and the vastness of the countryside to trim its scale, the tree had appeared only in miniature. Now alongside the VW our tree seemed almost a grove. We wrestled it to the roof of the little red car, tied trunk to rear bumper, tip to the front and started home. The snow swirled in the headlights, and we could hardly see the road for the forest. Feeling like we were at the helm of a log truck, we rolled slowly along the unplowed road.

We returned home tired—as if we had worked a day in the woods—only to confront another challenge: our little Christmas tree would hardly fit through the front door of the house. Unless we did some serious trimming of branches and cutting of trunk, we would have to decorate our Christmas icon in the horizontal orientation like a beached whale. I went to work with the carpenter’s saw to fit the tree to living room proportions. Even when we were able to stand it upright, there wasn’t enough headroom for either angel or star. But we were young and poor, had no furniture to speak of other than a king size bed; the house was rented; and that tree filled up the small living room, made it bright, made it cozy. Who needed furniture with a house brimful of woodsy fragrance and the Christmas spirit!

Years come and years go and Christmas trees with them; however, some stand out in memory, unique in some way, special (like our Charlie Brown twisted scoliosis tree of years ago), but that Christmas and the Winthrop tree, the tree that blanketed a car and filled a house, bring a pleasant wash of memory this time of year…and so….Home from the woods

It’s a nice tree I select from Reiner’s forest, worth every ounce of honey in the quart jar I’ve exchanged for it. The only challenge now, once the tree is in the stand, is finding a place to display it. Elbowing a spot for the tree amidst all the furniture, it seems, becomes more challenging each year .   

Lost in the tree

Tree 2011

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  1. I remember a winter there in the Winthrop house. I joined you and Trecia on a sledding party at Mr. White's house. The first (and only)time I ate buffalo stew. Great sledding, and probably a great stew, but I'm no judge of buffalo.

  2. Yes,that Winthrop year brought some great times sledding, tubing--and snowshoeing. And none for weaklings, either. I remember our little Scottie Heather, whom we swaddled in a red knitted jacket, being laden down with balls of snow in her "skirts" and whiskers by the time we arrived at the overnight cabin.

    A fond memory, too, of Ken White's rustic home, the cozy fireplace, and that big plate glass window where in the warmth of his little "lodge" we could look out at the falling snow drifting, falling down and settling. And that buffalo stew? Steaming hot, flavorful and filling. I doubt buffalo stew would have tasted quite the same anywhere else.

    In retrospect: wish we would have included you in more of our adventures in those days long gone by.