Years ago I found myself on a rocky outcrop overlooking the little North Shore community where I live. It was near the Winter Solstice and an early dusk stole across the forest below and Lake Superior beyond. Lights glowed from a few scattered homes where folks were likely making supper.
It was as though I'd stepped into the Robert Frost poem, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. Looking at a scene that largely disappeared from America half a century ago, I felt a pleasant nostalgia. Warmed inside, I turned away and started walking through a darkening forest toward home.
Truth be told, I don't like the season when the sun sets before suppertime. The short, gloomy days are an endurance test for the coming winter. Aside from a few minutes with the dogs in the early morning, about the only time I get outside during daylight hours is on the weekend. Fortunately, I have something to do. It’s time to look for a Christmas tree.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit to a most heinous crime. I am a habitual Christmas tree poacher. Nearly every year since childhood I've ventured into the woods and cut a balsam fir to celebrate the season. Officialdom frowns on such activity, though across northern Minnesota it would be take a forester named Scrooge to deny someone an 8-foot balsam.
Actually, it's pretty easy to avoid trouble when cutting a tree. Stay off private property, plantations, parks and preserves. Confine your cutting to just one appropriately sized fir or spruce. You'll even find the best places to look for a symmetrical tree are disturbed areas such as right-of-ways. The vegetation is such places is cleared occasionally anyway.
Although I keep an eye peeled for possible trees while out hunting or walking with the dogs, the ones I happen upon are either in the middle of nowhere or I forget about them when it is time to cut a tree. Once, Vikki and I watched a promising balsam grow for two years, but when it became large enough to become a Christmas tree, she didn’t want to cut it down. Fortunately, we found another tree nearby.
I get serious about finding a tree after Thanksgiving. It’s best to look for one before the trees are cloaked with snow. My tree hunts are hardly epic, usually lasting no more than a couple of hours. Still, even though there are a million of them in the woods, you can look at a lot of fir trees to find just the right one to take home. This year, I had a heck of a time finding a decent tree. Knee-deep snow inland from Lake Superior limited where I could search, because I couldn’t drive down unplowed forest roads. I trudged around in a couple of places, but headed home without finding anything more than some scraggly, lopsided firs.
Last weekend I went out again, closer to the lake where there was less snow. The dog and I looked at lots of trees, but didn’t find anything of interest other than a place where two wolves had gnawed on the remains of a deer. We didn’t locate a kill, so the venison may have originated from a road kill or the carcass of a hunter-killed whitetail. The wolf tracks were about a day old and it appeared they’d moved on.
I was about to do the same when I spied a plump balsam growing on the edge of a debris pile created by a bulldozer some years ago. Symmetrical and full, it appeared to be a perfect Christmas tree. A few quick strokes with a Swede saw was all it took to topple the fir. Hefting it over my shoulder, I hauled it to the truck.
Once home, I carefully took the tree from the truck and laid it gently on the lawn so as to not break any branches. The next step was to nip the top and the trunk so the tree would fit in the living room. Then it went inside to become the centerpiece of our Christmas celebration.
For a couple of weeks, our home will smell as fresh as the northern forest. In the evening, colored lights will twinkle with seasonal cheer. When it is time to take down the tree, the darkest days of winter will be behind us. Although the coldest days of winter are ahead, the days will be getting longer, bringing a faint, but welcome promise, of spring.
Airdate: December 17, 2010