A few days before Christmas we went to our favorite farm market and chose our Christmas tree. I like to get one which still has a few reminders, entangled in its branches, of the place where it grew—perhaps a few dry grass strands, or something like that. Once, there was a bird’s feather, and I chose that tree immediately.
There are hundreds of trees to look at and consider. They are arranged by species, and we usually pick a Fraser Fir. The trees are lined up by size along walls and fences at the farm, and since our tree is always a big, tall one, we go to the end of the line to look at the candidates. One by one my husband picks them up around the trunk, and stands them up straight for me to view. I just look for those little grasses, or some other reminder that the tree once grew in a place.
The farm, which sells thousands of trees in the Christmas season, gets them from growers in Nova Scotia, Michigan, Oregon, and North Carolina. On Christmas tree plantations, firs, for instance, take six to twelve years to reach room-size height, like our tree. They are pruned every year to form the desired tapering shape, and the growers pay very close attention to their health. Each tree might be examined and tended more than thirty times before it is cut and readied for its first journey.
Some of the nascent Christmas trees make a long, long journey—as far away as Caribbean nations, or Central America, or even across the oceans to Europe or Australia! I like to think of those traveling trees carrying some tiny gifts from their home fields, gifts that will be delivered in mysterious silence in someone’s home. A strand of dry grass, a bit of lichen, the scent of winter air.
Our tree, though, would have been carefully inspected (there are state or province standards for Christmas trees, having to do with their form and general health), cut down, and first brought to the shaker. Workers put the butt of our tree into a holder on the shaker, turn on the switch, and the shaker vibrated our tree vigorously to shake off loose needles.
Next, our tree got baled in the baler, fed through a short tunnel-like affair that wrapped it from tip to butt in plastic netting, so that its branches were cuddled close to its trunk, to keep them safe.
It turns out that there are quite a few companies, around North America, which make shakers and balers. One place, Howey Tree Baler Corp., in Merritt, Michigan (population 548), has been making this equipment since 1967. You can choose from its eleven models of balers and five kinds of shakers. In Tacoma, Washington, the Kirk Company has been in business since the 1920’s, growing trees and making shakers and balers. A local one, here in New England, is Kelco Industries, in Milbridge, Maine, where they also will sell you a wreath-making machine, along with other useful things. They’ve been there in Milbridge for fifty-nine years.
Anyhow, our tree, snugly baled, was next loaded onto a truck along with its companions, and driven along the highways to arrive at our farm market. It seems your tree-selling business can order up half a truckload of trees, or a whole truckful, or just a small portion of a load. What a pleasant thing to haul, Christmas trees. I bet the truck cab smells good.
So I chose our tree, briefly untrammeled there at the market from its netting. After we picked it, it got baled again so we could load it on the roof of our car and carry it home.
It really was a perfect tree, this year. We secured it in its holder and I didn’t even have to find its best face, as it seemed perfectly symmetrical. I took my time decorating it, leaving it just as it was for a couple of days, filling our whole house with its incomparable, somehow nostalgic scent. It drank a couple of quarts of water every day. Then on one day I put on the lights, the next day all the garlands, handmade over the years, and finally the glass ornaments, collected over my lifetime and even in my parents’ lifetimes.
We only keep our tree up for two weeks. During that time it drank thirstily every day, and intrigued but never hosted the family cat, and continued to stand there, breathless, in our living room, holding its branches out, so still, for us to rejoice in.
I am always mindful that our Christmas tree could have lived for 150 years, if it had not been given as a gift to us. So I try to treat it with reverence.
So came the day to divest the tree of its decorations, packed carefully away for another tree to come. Our community invites us to put the discarded trees out on the sidewalk; they are collected, mulched, and redistributed to be used by anyone who needs some ground cover in the spring. I never do that, though.
Instead, our tree travels one more time, out to our deck. We carry it out, big red tree holder and all, and install it in a corner of the deck, well-secured so it does not blow over.
Then our birds take over the Christmas tree. They use it as a good hiding place from which to launch their flights to the nearby feeders and the heated water. It’s mostly house sparrows, this year, I notice, but in other years there have been many kinds of birds welcoming this delightful addition to the deck landscape. The sparrows fly in, land in our tree, survey the scene from safely within it, and flutter to feeders, water, or ground to take sustenance.
The tree stays remarkably green, out there in the cold and snow. Around about the first day of spring, though, I will take it on its last journey, to a local Audubon sanctuary, where I will leave it in the depths of a forest.
There, of course, it will begin its life anew, as its present form will slowly vanish in decay, and its substance will return to the earth in which it began. Thus life passes into life, and the journey, really, is endless.
Your journey, too, you know.