O Tannenbaum, Our Tannenbaum
Growing up, my family had the same classic artificial Christmas tree every year. Those prickly fake branches, fitted into each slot, the little branches bent in every ridiculous direction. It was always a hassle to set up, trying to match every type of branch to the correct color coded slot, sometimes a piece would go missing and it would be like an incomplete puzzle – maddening – but it was our tree. A little frumpy and matted with a generation of use, but gosh darn it, it wasn't the Masta family Christmas without it.
Recently, the tree was offered to me, fresh from the basement. “Nah, we're getting a real tree this year,” I said, only a little bit regretful. My wife and I are spending our first Christmas together as a married couple and we want to start some new traditions in our family. Give me the smell of the forest, the chill of a winter draft beneath the burst of heat coming out of the air registers, the soft glow of candlelight dancing with the string lights on the tree. O Tannebaum, O Tannenbaum.
In the Bill Murray Christmas Special on Netflix, there's this dude that keeps trying to sing O Tannenbaum in a deep voice. It's very ridiculous and surreal and I haven't stopped singing the song since. I never knew that the Christmas standard, “Oh Christmas Tree,” was based on a German traditional song, an ode to the fir tree. People in pre-Christian cultures (what Christians call “pagans”) thought things that stayed green all year long – even in the deepest part of winter – must be awesome, so they brought boughs into their homes to bring luck and whatever good magic they offered to keep spirits and witches away. They even sang songs about how fantastic these trees were. Then some people decided to change the lyrics slightly, so it could be a Christmas song.
“How are thy leaves so verdant!” Yeah, we want one of those.
Of course, in order to get a real tree, we had a few options. Buy it from a local business or cut it down ourselves. Oh, any chance I get to wield a hatchet, I'm in. We'll take the wild tree, please. And it's mighty convenient that for five smackers, we could be granted the king's permission to take any tree we wanted from his royal forest.
All we had to do was drive to the USFS Ranger Station in Conway (or any other Ranger Station), pay for the permit, and go Christmas tree hunting. When we got into the station, there was a short line. Lots of people like to get their trees from the USFS. No rush, we just browsed the gift shop. I admired a gutted cooler hanging on a wall – a warning not to leave your food out lest the bears help themselves. Looked violent. Then I pawed through a copy of Lucy Crawford's History while we waited for a couple around our age to get their permit from the kindly old ranger with bushy eyebrows.
He had a stack of green permit slips and a pile of printouts with rules and tips for taking care of trees. The ranger recited his well-rehearsed spiel. We had to tie the permit slip around the tree once we tied it to our car. “It will be your first decoration,” he joked. We could pick any tree we wanted as long as it was a certain height and thickness and so far off the road or trails. The most common trees people chose were fir or spruce. We were not given any tips as to where the best trees would be, but that was quite fine with us. We were up for the hunt! All we got was a thank you, a godspeed, and a good luck.
We still needed rope, so we drove into Conway to find some. I figured since there were lots of people out here tree hunting today, we could take a back road onto the Kancamagus Highway – Passaconaway Road. Maybe we'd luck out and find a doozy in a matter of minutes. We passed Covered Bridge Campground and the woods were too thick to explore, too thin to bother, too steep to climb, or too close to the river.
We learned very quickly the biggest annoyance of Christmas tree hunting: all the best trees are right on the roadside. They would toy with us all afternoon. Looking down on us with their fluffy boughy pride. Beautiful, arrogant trees.
We never stopped on Passaconaway Road, just drove over the covered bridge and turned onto the Kanc.
Another decent idea, we thought we had, was to park at the Russell-Colbath house and hike into the woods behind it. But we saw signs that decreed our hatchets were not welcome here. Ditto at the trailhead parking lot for Hedgehog and Potash mountains. Makes sense, really. These are popular hiking trails and tourist areas and would be pretty bare and unattractive with such accessibility for tree-starved hunter-gatherers. We humans got rid of the mammoths and we can take the Douglas firs, too.
As we drove higher into the mountains, we saw people lugging trees out of the woods. Fresh kills of reasonable stature, mostly spruce and fir. Not many of these trees were of the perfection expected in a garden center selection, but there were some winners. The tree hunters were so numerous, that we became aware of other cars slowing down to consider stopping – and of ourselves doing the same. But driving conditions on the Kanc are never easy. Once we had to navigate hundreds of bicycle racers while also trying not to drive off a cliff into the Swift River. Fun!
“Ooh, how about this spot!” one of us would chime. “How about out there?” Seeing folks holding trees like trophies to be instagrammed facebooked tarped loaded strung with lights and feasted upon by yuletide eyes at every turn had me thinking of old-timey British fox hunts, Hemingway's safaris, or better yet, that scene in Planet Of The Apes when Taylor and his fellow astronauts get herded up with a pack of wild humans to avoid being shot and bagged and hung for photographs with rubber-faced gorillas.
We wondered how the trees felt about all of this. A young spruce sapling finally breaks free from the mosses and dead leaves and the other fuzzy tree babies it grew up with. “Aha!” it yells and shoots to seven, eight feet tall. It's leggy and proud, now a strapping young lad. It begins producing cones and seed, to give back to the land. Then along comes some whistling, red-hatted bro in a pair of sneakers, twirling a hatchet betwixt his fingers, chop-chop, calling “Timbahhh!” And not only does the murderer refuse to put the tree out of its misery by dipping it into a bucket of water, but he dresses it with lights and tinsel and Minions ornaments and keeps it on display to die a clown slave. The tree cries needles in shame.
I've heard trees can communicate with each other – they even share resources with each other – but we should feel lucky they can't collude and kill us all.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We pulled over to our first hunting grounds, a dirt patch under a tangled tree on the side of the road with an access trail to the Swift, covered in evergreen trees.
We had Wilder with us – he had some energy, I tell ya! – and he bounced from tree to tree, bushes, rocks, whatever. “I'll take this one, and this one, and this one,” he seemed to say, marking everything in sight with his favorite shade of yellow. We were a bit more selective than the wild one, and we strolled the woods and studied the trees.
Most of the trees in the woods were tall enough – but gangly. Too much competition: all height and no body. The black spruce can very much resemble the Charlie Brown tree, but these trees looked more like goofy, gawky teenagers than the child-like splotch of bush Snoopy might lift his leg on.
Wilder was a forest pinball and getting his leash wrapped up on everything so we decided to look elsewhere.
There are lots of overgrown fields and meadows on the Kanc and that's where a majority of people seemed to be going or coming from. So we stopped at a field that no one else was in. We hopped a log and raced into it like Dorothy and her friends took on that poppy field. We saw the emerald green in the distance, those evergreens sparkling and singing in the sun. But it was not to be, not no way, not no how. The field was filled with woody stems that had thorns and brambles on them and Wilder was doing backflips to chew them out of his fur. We got out of there pretty quick.
Something told us to forget the fields and drive into the snow-encrusted Kancamagus Pass. We saw the perfect spot where the quaint Livermore Trail begins, all evergreens all the time and a nice trail to wander down and window shop. But I couldn't u-turn in the snow, so we just kept going.
The snow pressed down the boughs of those perfect roadside trees, but the plowed muck made pulling over impossible. We looped around the Hairpin Turn. The Osceolas were ice-scarred wonders. The Greeley Pond trailhead parking area was packed, as usual. We decided to head back before we went too far.
We pulled into the unplowed Pemigawasett viewing area to see if there was any access to the woods. It was completely slathered in dark green trees. A short jaunt into these woods would provide a darned good tree, we thought. Except...we couldn't get into the woods. I poked my head in and crawled through, knocking snow all over me. Not even enough room to stand up in there. If I even found a decent tree, it wasn't getting out without being stripped bare by its jealous neighbors. Alas, we returned to the car with nothing but a sad hatchet.
We remained excited about the Livermore Trail, but a big truck took up the entire space, and we drove past, forlorn and starting to get nervous. It was three o'clock and the woods always get darker before the rest of the world.
And then it happened. We found our spot. We spied another impassable field, but a trail cut around the side and dipped into the backcountry – the seven-mile Sawyer River Trail. Just the trail we wanted. How had we missed it before?
Wilder stayed in the car this time and we hiked in a bit, then off the trail closer to the Swift River, which glided icily over the rocks. There were plenty of lone spruces here and there. They were looking better and better every few yards. Then we found our tree.
It stood about eight feet tall, the bottom foot all trunk. We would end its fight for the sun and give it something else to worry about – like, can it hold all the ornaments we bought for it? That moment came when I got to my knee and held my hatchet to the tree. Similar to many hunters, I paid homage to my kill. O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum, I sang to myself. Our tannenbaum.
In about five minutes, I cut a > into one side side then cut a – into the opposite side until the tree toppled into the notch. “Timber!” Then we each picked up one side of the tree and began carrying it toward the trail. “Hi hooo!” we sang. “Back to the car we go!” We were pretty tired by the end of that half-mile lug. But we had our tree – and yes, I posed like a warrior with my kill beside the road.
Tying it down to the car was pretty easy, especially since it only weighed fifteen pounds or so. Before long, we joined the conga line of tree-topped automobiles along the Swift River back to the land of petroleum heat and artificial lighting. A few hours later, after I cut the tree to size, we were like a couple of Swedish chefs throwing string lights and ornaments and whatever else would hang from the spruce's branches. Beautiful!
We kept Wilder at bay, too. He had his pick of trees in the forest, but this one was ours and the last thing we needed was drippy Christmas presents. Wilder behaved himself and soon learned that beneath the tree was just another place to stretch out and relax. Hmm, one of these stockings smells like treats. I wonder who it's for????