All stuffing and no tree

THIS is the yarn about the most beautiful non-Christmas tree that you never saw, but I have to start back in September with the beechnuts. The tiny triangular nuts of the beech tree must be gathered on the morning of the first fall frost. The frost bursts the burs and lets the nuts fall from the trees. You need to be there early on the right morning, else the jays and squirrels will have the nuts gathered. They're delicious little morsels but it's a chore to shuck 'em, and it's tedious to crawl around under the trees and find them under the leaves and ferns. All that aside, a double handful of shucked-out beechnuts stirred into the ''stuffing'' was a standing must for Thanksgiving and Christmas poultry.

When I was small, I asked Grandfather why so many little trees grew up in a bunch. I'd see a regular hairbrush of little trees, and then another a short distance away, but in between no sprouts. ''Squirrels,'' he said. He told me these little trees I noticed were beech trees, and each cluster was coming from a squirrel's hideaway of beechnuts. He surmised squirrels have poor memories. When frost hit the burs and squirrels came to scavenge, there would be a frantic day of tucking beechnuts away for future reference. A squirrel would make a little pocket under the leaves and scamper about, bringing nuts until he had it filled. Then he'd make another pocket. When a squirrel didn't come back to eat his cache, a pocket became a seedbed and the next year a hundred little trees would thrust up in that a spot.

So I laid that to my uses, and one year when I arrived too late I stood apart and watched the gray squirrels gather beechnuts. I filched from a couple of their hiding places and was back at the house sooner than usual with a saltbag of beechnuts for the holiday stuffings. Then there was the year I sat observing squirrels and chanced to notice a certain fir tree. I had all kinds of chances to notice this tree before, but hadn't happened to. I'd been concentrating on beechnuts, perhaps, and passed it by. But now I saw it, and it was the handsomest fir tree of my memory. It stood somewhat apart, and had room to grow straight and thick. Firs seed gregariously and need to be thinned for a stand of pulpwood. In thick woods they like to stand tall, so they don't be bushy. This one was right for our living room, and after I got my beechnuts I walked closer to it and saw that it was perfect.

Back at the house I told of my discovery. ''Wait till you see this one!'' I said. That was in September, beechnut time, and we wouldn't go to get the Christmas tree for better than two months, so we thought. Going for the tree was something we did in full Currier & Ives fashion. We made a production. If snow held off, we'd go with the tractor and trailer, but most years we'd use snowshoes and skis and drag the ''moosesled.'' A moosesled is a Maine utility vehicle that amounts to a wintertime wheelbarrow. We'd have a lunch and would build a fire to thaw it, and everybody would wander about looking for the best tree. But this year I knew right where the tree was, and since I had been boasting about its beauty since September, everybody was eager to see this paragon.

Well, when we swung the tractor up onto the beech ridge and came to the place , there was a stump. Somebody imbued with hearty Christmas goodwill had come with a saw and purloined my prize. There was never such a tree before or after, and there wasn't one that day, either. So we wandered about as in other years until we found a good one, and while I was heckled, everybody agreed we had a low-down neighbor who had interpreted the Christmas spirit awry. At Christmas dinner, somebody remarked on the beechnuts in the stuffing.

''Yes,'' I said, ''in this world, things even out. How about that poor squirrel up in the woods who claims some scalawag stole his beechnuts?''

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