A couple of weeks ago while talking with Dad on the phone, he told me that they had gotten their Christmas tree a couple of days earlier.
“It wasn’t as easy as you are able to do,” he said. “You can just walk out your door and cut any Christmas tree you want. You have an island full of them. Us, we have to go buy one.”
The topic changed before I could tell him that it actually was not that easy. In fact this year it was challenging.
In early winter we start hiking on and off the island, because we’ve pulled the boats out for the winter. It’s an enjoyable mile walk, through the middle of the island, from our house to Drummond Island, where we park the truck and Jeep.
As Christmas approaches we begin scouting for our Christmas tree during this commute to and from work. We look for one that is appropriately sized and is sufficiently full of branches to hold ornaments and lights. Shelter Island is primarily coniferous. White cedar, white and black spruce, and balsam fir predominate. There are some tamarack, also known as larch, and a couple other varieties. For a Christmas tree I prefer the spruce. Generally it does not matter to Hugh, but he would prefer not to have a white spruce.
The other criteria for the Christmas tree is ecologically based. We look for a tree that is being crowded out by other trees and therefore will not survive very well or for very long. Or we look for one next to the trail, that has grown too large and needs pruning to keep the path clear. These reasons make it easy to justify cutting the tree down.
In certain areas there is a lack of nutrients or water, which turns the trees the color of rust or gold and they prematurely die. This year we came across a gold colored spruce. It was the right height, about eight feet, and had a decent shape. Initially I thought that might be a unique novelty to have – a gold Christmas tree. But the more I looked at it, the sicker it looked and became less and less appealing. I decided that I would leave it.
The trees that are well formed, of good height and good color are usually in the open fields or edge of the woods. But we do not cut them because they have struggled to grow. The soil is very shallow, only a few inches in most areas as the island is pure dolomite bedrock. Trees work hard to take root and thrive because of the small amount of dirt.
We want as many trees to mature as possible because along with shallow soil, heavy snow, strong wind and lack of rain can wreak havoc on our woods. A couple of times each winter we get a big heavy, wet snow. The snow clings and then freezes to branches, causing them to snap and break. Snow laden trees arch over the trails and roads, conjuring images of a Dr. Seuss picture. Unfortunately a lot of these trees do not survive; they succumb to the weight of the snow and the top snaps off or they topple over because their roots are not strong nor deep enough to hold them upright. Last March during a big wet snow a beautiful spruce fell down. It would have been great as a Christmas tree, as we’d have been able to cut off the top eight feet and leave the other twenty laying in the woods. But it happened three months too late or nine months too early.
When storms with strong winds blow, 20 − 30 miles an hour and sometimes up to 50 miles an hour, trees are often knock downed. The shallow roots are not able to withstand these forces and the trees are uprooted.
During the summer and fall, if not enough rain has fallen the shallow soil is quick to dry and become parched. Even the mildest drought can weaken the trees, allowing it to become susceptible to insects, particularly boring beetles, which then quickly kill the trees.
If a tree is doing well and is not in the way of our already established foot trail, we don’t cut it.
If it is being crowded out by other trees, it is usually scrawny, spindly or sickly.
So it is difficult to find a great Christmas tree, even on forty acres.
This is my third Christmas with Hugh on Shelter Island. The two previous years we had each scouted a couple candidates in the middle of the island. We had taken a saw and went for a half-mile walk and looked at our options. Usually the choice was obvious. Not this year. Neither of us had seen anything that caught our fancy.
Walking home one evening, I jokingly said to Hugh, “How about this one?” I pointed to a little spruce next to the trail. In ten years it might be large enough, but at the moment it was only about sixteen inches tall.
“That would be cute,” he replied.
I wasn’t serious. He was. Nope, I wanted something on which I could put more than six ornaments.
As we walked through the fields we talked about how there might be a tree in the way of a new trail we were thinking of creating. A definite option to explore.
So last week we went hunting for our tree. With saw in hand we walked the half-mile to the fields where we were going to create a new trail. For more than twenty minutes we walked around looking at trees along our proposed path. Most were firs. Those that were spruce were quite scrawny. They were definitely being crowded out by other trees. But they would not have been considered a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
We walked along the edge of the woods, looking for a decent tree that was being crowded. I didn’t need perfect and honestly knew I wasn’t going to get perfect. Decent worked for me. The tree is put in the corner of the dining room, between two windows, so it is okay if one side is misshapen or flat.
“Let’s look on the other side of the meadow.”
That is where we found the gold colored spruce, but I wanted something greener.
We walked through the meadow looking and looking. Discussing the attributes of various trees, trying to talk ourselves into one that might be good enough. Finally after what seemed an hour we found a small tree. It was just barely five feet tall. It was a little more than a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, but not much more. It was a spruce, and so Hugh was concerned that it might be a white spruce, the variety he’d prefer not to have.
“Why don’t you want a white spruce?”
“Because they smell like cat piss.”
He wasn’t trying to be vulgar, but he was right. White spruce do smell like piss. Because our tree was so short it was difficult to tell what variety it was.
It would do regardless.
A couple hundred yards down the trail we encountered a spruce that the needles looked a little bit different. They were a little skinnier and a little more needle like. The amount of needles on the branch seemed to be less dense than the spruce we had just cut. I broke a small branch off and sniffed.
I offered Hugh a smell of the branch. It smelled like cat piss. I then broke a small branch off our tree.
“I guess we got a black spruce.” It had the pleasant seasonal aroma of spruce.
Carrying it home was effortless. It was light and easy to prop up on my shoulder. This made me realize that it would not hold many ornaments and definitely not any heavy ones. My green “M’nM” ornament would be too heavy for these thin branches. Many of the handcrafted ornaments would be light enough; like the one I made out of birch bark two years ago.
I made my mental list of setting it up: We’d fill a five gallon bucket with rocks to hold it upright. Then fill the bucket with water. And wrap the bucket with the old green towels.
I thought to myself how the two strands of white lights and a dozen or so carefully selected ornaments would tastefully decorate the tree. It would be quaint.
Yes that would be nice.
When we got close to the house, with our freshly cut Christmas tree slung over my shoulder, I started to see shapely spruce trees. I pointed these out to Hugh. He made the comment that maybe some would be the right size next year. A week later, as the first major snow began to fall, out the dining room I saw more shapely trees. All possible candidates.
Yes, Dad, perhaps next year we’ll just walk out our door and cut down a tree.
Merry Christmas everyone!
What is your tree story?