Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Christmas among the Family Trees

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Christmas among the Family Trees

Article excerpt

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. …

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