Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lessons from a Christmas Tree

In November of 1986, my father and I went traipsing through the woods in search of the perfect Christmas tree. And no, it wasn’t for our house. My mother was afraid that live, err formerly live trees would catch fire so we always had artificial trees. (In fact I am still using an artificial tree. Hmmmm…) No, my father wanted to start farming trees. And since pines are amazingly consistent from one branch of their family tree to the next (if you will pardon the pun), he decided, rather than buying saplings, we would find a perfect pine and cultivate from seed.

Of course, we didn’t actually know what we were doing; not at the outset anyway. But we were confident that we could figure it out. So off we went through hip deep snow evaluating the symmetry of tree after tree.

After a few days, on the 20th in fact, we found what we were looking for. The tree was huge, well, tall anyway and nearly perfectly symmetric. So we set about cutting the tree down so we could access the seeds.

Now, normally when you cut a tree, you clear the trees around it so you have room to work. But, we only wanted the one. So we tried to carefully thread it between other trees as we dropped it. At one point the chainsaw got stuck in the trunk and we had to manually push the tree off the blade to get it out. (And the was a very large tree!) But, eventually we prevailed and collected the top for the pine cones. (Actually the real work was cutting the rest for fire wood and carting it back home!)

So we took the tree top back to the house and collected the pine cones. But here we realized that in a healthy tree the seeds are safely locked in the pine cone. And while it seems to be common knowledge that you open pinecones by heating, neither of us knew what temperature safely extracts the seeds so that they would grow.

But you know what? A little deductive reasoning goes a long way. Pinecone release their seeds to replant after forest fires. So, premise one: Ray Bradbury’s novel claims that books burn at 451°F. Premise two: books are mostly wood pulp. Conclusion – If we heat pinecones to 451°F we should have good healthy seeds to plant. Now I cannot tell you if we were right or wrong, only that it worked.

We placed the pinecones on a cookie sheet and placed them on the oven and waited. After a short while, the pinecones opened and the seeds fell out. We pulled the seeds out and the next day went out to plant them.

So now I know what you are thinking. You don’t plant in the winter. Why not? The seeds lay cold in the ground, until spring when the water and warmth would make them grow. Again, I cannot say if this is right or wrong only that it worked. And in spring we had little branches pushing through the ground were we planted.

For awhile we let the trees be. Then when they got to be waist high, we started trimming. My father got us a set of machete length knives. Razor sharp, and balanced like a good sword. And we would go through the woods shaping the trees into the perfect Christmas tree shape so that they would grow and fill out properly. And you know we were pretty good at it. Four swipes and a tree was properly shaped.

There were set backs that make good learning experiences. At one point my dad thought I was making fun of the enterprise and was quite hurt. For the record I wasn’t. But, it did teach me that to really be supportive the other person has to know beyond a doubt that you believe in them.

But of course people are not always supportive. And as most of us well know, no matter how much you do for people they still gravitate to selfish and insensitive. As the trees were reaching maturity, my uncle decided it was easier to cut down nearly an entire ridge to camouflage his hunting blind. My father was furious. Probably no so much at the damage as the disregard of him – and the subsequent poorly executed claim of innocence. It never ceases to amaze me how people will lie to you face and trust that you will accept it so as not risk insulting them. It was a demoralizing moment, and my father wound up letting most of what we planted go for pulp.

A few trees survived. We didn’t bother to continue shaping them. We talked about letting them go for awhile then collecting more pinecones and starting again, but life moved on. Personally I don’t think my father overcame the idea that someone would pull the rug out again. So, in the end we cut a few for use at holidays and that was that.

The last tree we cut, went up at my office. One night working late, before we turned the lights off, I caught a good shot of it on my cell phone.

So now I look at this picture and I think about my Dad, and following dreams. You can figure things out if think logically. You should actively support the people you care about. But you can’t let lack of support, even from the people you support demoralize you.

In the end, we may not have got a tree farm going. But start to finish, that last tree was something we produced together. And it has an enduring beauty that.


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