A forest hymn

Lumber arrived pink and furry. In aromatic piles it stretched across two-by-fours. Nearby the carpenters measured and drove stakes. Their hammers had a cheerful ring, quite unlike the destructive buzz of a chain saw in a nearby wood.

The boss-builder pointed to a clump of birches growing within the limits of the new foundation's lines. "Want to save that tree?"

We looked at the birch, its bark turning from the amber of adolescence to the pure white of adulthood. A few years before, we had brought the clump home from a nursery. Every spring since, we had spread wood ashes around its roots, and sprayed to control the leaf miner which like a premature autumn could turn the tender, serrated leaves brown.

"We mustm save it," my wife insisted.

So the next day a nurseryman and his assistant dug a trench around the tree and corseted its roots in burlap and ropes. Then a front-end loader picked it up and lowered it into the new hole.

Through October we watched the carpenters at work and sweated out the last phases of the frame, hoping the first snows of winter would hold off until the addition was closed in.But even November, which saw the room completed, brought no snow. Only the winds turned wintry and swept from the sea, giving the extension sounds of its own, quite different from those of the basic house. This harsh weather confined us as much as snow, and we found that just looking out at that friendly tree, full of chickadees and juncos, was a great comfort.

A week or two before December 25th, we debated whether or not we should buy a live Christmas tree. Making the decision was more vexing than it might have been. As we grow older, the joyful tasks of youth, like going out to market or nursery to choose a fir, are often measured by the amount of trouble they entail. In the end we settled for our artificial tree, hauled it from the loft of the garage, mounted it on its iron stand, and trimmed it. Ornaments left behind by another generation, now gone from our lives, gave it a satiny glow and nostalgic charm.

Yet were we fully satisfied? Something of that forest spirit, part of man's earliest religious life, was missing. That hymn which is in the fragrance of a real tree did not fill the room.

On Christmas morning we awoke early. Sleepily, as part of our usual routine, we pulled the heavy drape that covers the bay window. But on that festive day it seemed to roll back like a stage curtain. Outside stood the little birch, each of its three trunks and every branch and twig covered by a glass tube of frozen mist or dew. It glimmered jewel-like in the first lig ht of morning, a perfect carol which sang in our hearts.

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