Christmas Among the Family Trees

It's the scent, really. The lights and baubles draw the eye, kindle the season, but for me the scent of balsam fir truly means Christmas. As a child, after the cutting, soaking, and decorating ended with the massing of the presents, I used to crawl beneath the tree. Outside, the cold lay wrapped in early darkness. Inside, the whole tree warmed with its lights, and the balsam aroma, a cross of rubbed lichen, smeared pitch, and sunned bark, rose to the ceiling, then cooled and flooded to the floor. Nightly, I'd plead to sleep under the tree.

Last December, I crawled in under the tree again. There, beneath the fragrant branches, I remembered that for 20-plus years, we grew such trees, too.

Nearly 40 years ago, a late May sun warmed the mixed dirt and early weeds of a sharply furrowed field in west-central New Hampshire. My father and I carried boxes of 5-inch-high balsam seedlings. My mother and brother bore the tools: two pointed spades, a mattock, and two oversized watering cans. We were new farmers with paper title to the land.

According to a plan hatched with the county forester, we'd plant rows of the tiny trees that, in 10 years, would yield a field of firs. We wouldn't call them Christmas trees; they would be called firs, and this would be a "reforestation project." For such a project, the state of New Hampshire charged only a penny per fir. Still, according to our plan, one day we would fill a thousand living rooms with the dark green trees. And, in gratitude, a thousand New Englanders would finance my brother's and my college educations.

On that May day in our eighth and 11th years, this vision was lost on my brother and me. In the tools and boxes, we saw no escape to the cool, shady forest. We longed to play along streams, building dams upriver from unsuspecting toy villages and blowing them up with rocks or, if we had them, firecrackers. We were connoisseurs of dams and disasters. We were not young farmers. That day, however, we saw only a weedy field already hot at 9 o'clock; we saw more seedlings than we could count. We saw work.

But our parents paid us a penny for every tree we planted, and this promise kept us hunched over the ground. Starting from the northwest corner, we worked in parent-son pairs and sowed rows of little trees that stood in the bright sun like deep-green flight feathers dropped from a passing flock of birds.

In this way, we settled the field's immediate future, and, annually, we kept after the grass and brush that crowded in around the little trees. The firs grew like the citizens of any land: a population of varied shapes and heights. My brother and I grew along with them.

By the time harvest visited the trees some 12 years later, the price of education had gone up and the number of trees had declined. Still, for a few years when the average fir was about 10 feet tall, a contract with the local Lions Club yielded an annual Christmas bonus of nearly $500.

Then, suddenly, the remaining trees were too tall or too sparse to be salable, and we were the only cutters in the field, that is if you didn't count the "neighbors" who waited for a weekday in early December and slipped in to cut their trees.

THE final trees we took from the field we topped. "Topping" a fir meant climbing to a perch 10 or so feet from its tip, sawing through the tree, and toppling the upper part to the ground. Struggling up through the thick lower tree was no easy climb. The close branches and oozing pitch kept the climber off balance and uncomfortable. Then, experience taught, the landing of the fir top after cutting was crucial. If it pitched down point first, the crown snapped off, leaving no apex for a Christmas star. We built soft landing places of snow or grass just as Colonial woodsmen had fashioned beds for the long pines they felled for English masts. Felling a tree, we found, was an art.

One day, I ascended a 30-footer with these problems in mind. About 20 feet up I stopped, braced my feet, and started sawing. The saw's teeth sank in rapidly, and as I finished the cut, I pushed the treetop away from me. Then I looked at my hands. One held the saw; the other, having just cast the tree out, was empty. I tossed the saw and reached for the trunk, but already I was falling. I looked up and dropped away from the sky into the early snow. That was the last tree I took from the field.

These days, only my brother, who now lives across the road, or my father, who drives north each December, visits the field with a saw. There, my brother leaves circling tracks as he scans the high branches for a suitable top, or searches the verge for a younger fir. My father isn't as picky. To him, the trees still look thickly branched; there is always one more to cut. Last year I joined him, helping him haul out a tree for the first time since I fell from the sky eight years ago. As we flung the rope back and forth over the car, inexpertly knotting the tree in, the balsam scent and my pitchy hands summoned those times when a single tree shone for us all.

Still, when I drove south, my car's roof was vacant. Perhaps it was because the field's few shorter trees are spindly, or because the larger tops have grown out of reach. Or perhaps it was because we all live separately now, each in his own town. But I'm not sure that explains it fully.

Finally, what grows in a field given to trees is a forest, a place you walk in sun, in snow, and in memory. There, I recalled a young family in the sun planting future Christmases. There, these family trees, seeded so long ago, still gleamed in the gathering dusk.

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