When I was seven years old, my parents opened the Woodbine Christmas Tree Farm, composed of a seven-acre plot on the border of Carroll County, Maryland. As a child, I would play in the fields until I knew them in the way we know intimate memories. Summers included firefly hunts and hide-and-seek, autumn was chilly walks and bonfires, winter was – and is – the selling season.
The tree farm is more than a space occupied with a seasonal business, it is my home. Our house rests on a slight raise over the fields. The windows of my mother’s bedroom stare out at the spot where deer appear from the woods in the summer and thread their way through the evergreens, grey spots in the verdant growth. Year-round we have the green fields to tread and tend and admire.
There is more than a season to Christmas trees and the annual ritual of “choose and cut” carried out each December. The year is filled with marks of tree care, from spring shearing to summer mowing, traversing the fields in the John Deere, performing acrobatics around the saplings (and I have mown down more than my fair share). The summer and fall also offer opportunities for thinning the diseased trees or shaping the plump ones.
When we first opened, we grew two types of trees: the perennial favorite Douglas Fir and the less popular Scotch Pine. The pines soon developed a fungus from whence falling needles and rotting bark ensued. Now we must cut our own trees down in the autumn off-season when we see their needles drop, and we burn them in the back patch. The woodsmoke adds an appropriate scent to the air, when the whole scene is on fire with chlorophyll. While it is disappointing to burn a dying tree and the fungus has made the fields thin, our firs grow on, unaffected among newer spruce specimens, keeping the farm going.
Shearing is my father’s job, each tree shaped personally by means of a machete. It takes about two weeks on and off to do all the trees, my father out swinging for about two or three hours a day, before or after work. He wears construction yellow shin-guards, grooved with the evidence of wrong swings. I don’t know how he cuts them so nonchalantly. A few strokes and the gangly mass of off-shooting limbs is formed like a topiary into a teardrop.
A good tree has a straight trunk. Curves at the base or in the center will make the tree lopsided in the stand and cause an added grievance to holiday frustration. When the trees grow on an incline, we have to be careful, because that’s what causes the trunk curvature, but our fields inevitably incline towards the forest and we encounter a number of angle-cut stumps come January that have to be trimmed into the ground. The round disc of a trimmed stump is the best potpourri I know of, fresh beads of sap forming around the rings and clotting in the chill. I keep them in my room or put them around the house in terra-cotta dishes until it smells as if the sap runs in the very walls.
We used to have a tiny book on Christmas trees, complete with scientific names and diagrams, and I would hover over it every year committing to memory which tree to recommend for this or that specified desire. I know pines aren’t as sturdy as spruce and have a tendency to be too sappy, but their fragrance is more pervasive. Spruce are sturdy and prickly, good for heavy ornaments, and blue spruce have a fine silver tinge to them that one cannot help but marvel at in the brown of winter. Fir trees are flexible but strong, soft-needled, and my favorite tree, if I am permitted trade partiality.
When you buy your tree, regardless if it balled and burlapped, fresh cut or from a lot, do you know about the life of that five or six foot specimen? (Much less a larger one for the cathedral ceilings.) We can’t grow 12-foot trees in part because shearing and shaping becomes unwieldy, but also because discerning customers choose them long before they reach such heights.
We purchase our saplings from a commercial nursery in western Maryland. They arrive at the house in a big cardboard box with a green tree logo on the side, wrapped tightly together in moisture-retentive plastic and packed like sapling sardines. We separate them into individual pots, packing them with dark, rich soil. They are only about a hand’s length tall at this point and wispy, newly green. The pots sit outside for a few months, sometimes a year, before spring plants them in the thawed ground.
It takes about five years for an evergreen to root to the point where substantial growth begins. The five or six foot trees, the heights that are most popular, are about ten (depending on the species). The trees we sold the year I was ten had been planted the spring I was still wrapped in my mother’s womb. I had run through them, hid and camped and built forts on their perimeter. The trees we sell now were planted when I was ten. They stood to watch me through high school, watch me leave for college, watch as the apple tree came down and the cicadas arrived, as the old shed was toppled and the garage built. I’ll admit I think of them as sentient, sometimes.
After they are cut, they are dragged up to the car park, bailed in plastic netting, and secured onto truck or trunk or roof. It’s not exactly hard to say goodbye. The truth is we raise trees to cut them down, which I suppose is not what one wants to think about come holiday season. Sometimes it’s sad to think that the whole time we are enveloped in our chilly holiday cheer there is this dead tree between us, more like an end to life than a beginning.
But who is to blame? We plant, we raise, we cut, we mulch, we plant and on again. Our own tree goes through the mulcher every year, coming out releasing the last of its beautiful scent into the winter air as it gets spread around the property, in field or garden or flowerbed.
There’s a lingering guilt to the tree farm now that I’ve grown up to the fact that we raise trees, these wonderful sturdy symbols of vitality, only to cut them down. In those terms it seems a bit grotesque, no? The counterpoint, I suppose, is the tree in the window frosted with lights, or even the sweet-scented mulch spread in the fields, or the tiny saplings springing up from the cardboard box, or the community of customers and woodsmoke and pine.
I love tree farming. It is the hallmark of the season. We are not holiday-oriented as a rule, our only décor being candles and evergreen clippings. There is no fat Santa in the yard or 24/7 holiday radio, instead there is a mug of coffee and a green apron and the cold air outside on weekends. There is talk of the neighborhood or the season, where people are from, how long they have searched for a tree. I suppose this kind of immediate and open fellowship is what the holidays should be decorated with.
That, and a tree.