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Pining for the Good Old Tree Days

December 25, 1985|MIV SCHAAF

A big tree, we have to get a tree to hit the ceiling--"What's more important for Christmas than a big tree?," says Gia, and I feel the same, but holy smokes, the prices. The truck drivers bringing trees down from Washington this year were snowed in up there, says a San Gabriel Christmas tree lot man. They had to be paid for every day they were stuck up there, he says, so every time another load comes down the prices go up. I'll say they do. It is not easy to find a 12-foot tree and if you do find one you'd need a second mortgage to buy it.

I am a Christmas tree nut. We spent days, sleeting afternoons, freezing nights in Michigan visiting every Christmas tree lot in Lansing before we found a tree that was bushy enough and that would hit the ceiling. We all went--my father, mother, twin brother and I--and we all had to inspect each tree from every side in every possible light and wait until a unanimous decision was arrived at before we bought a tree.

I was, so to speak, tempered by those Christmases past, 30 years of them, then I went West and discovered to my horror that the Christmas trees that showed up in California were not at all the fat, bushy ones of my childhood, but skinny, undernourished things with so few branches I could lift them myself. A proper Christmas tree, the kind we grew up with, took two strong men to lift.

The funny thing was that my father had Christmas trees, two or three thousand of them. He was the state forester of Michigan and it is largely due to his efforts that Michigan remains so green. He decided what to grow as seedlings in the various state nurseries, where to plant, where to thin, where to burn, where to cut, what to sell to lumber companies. As a matter of fact, out of curiosity (oh, call it research if you want to be pedantic about it) he planted different kinds of pine trees on his own farm, rows and rows of them to learn more about their growing habits. This farm, officially named Valley View but always called by his name for it, Bally Hoo, was an hour and a half's drive north of Lansing. We'd go there often in the spring and summer, and while he inspected all his pine children we'd run around, pick arbutus or marsh buttercups and generally run wild.

It was absolutely unthinkable for us to cut one of his pines for a Christmas tree. But every spring we'd walk the low hills and cries of anguished discovery would pierce the skies--"Marcus, someone's cut four trees here!" "Father, they stole that big tree near the old oak stump!" "Oh no, the best blue spruce is gone!"

Blue spruce was, I think, father's favorite pine. They are thick and heavy and when we were born he planted two seedlings--one for Marc, one for me--up at Higgins Lake and every summer we were measured against them to see how his children had grown.

This year I looked at one Christmas tree lot after another--Nobles, Scotch, firs, Norway pines, Silver Tips, Grandeuys, Douglas firs, Bull pines, Plantation, Monterey--nothing to suit. Off to Claremont for Gia to move out of her dorm room first and to look for a tree second (actually the priorities were reversed). "There's a lot, Mother." "But they're all little." We get out to look anyway. "That one's a perfect tree," Gia says. "Too bad it's growing next (to?) the sidewalk."

But it isn't, it just looks fresher. It's huge, it's fat and it's different.

No other decision possible; we have a 12-foot spruce tree from Michigan that hits the ceiling.

I forgot to tell you--the last winter before father died, Railway Express came to my apartment in Westwood. "We have a--uh, parcel for you," one burly man said. "Yeah," said the other. It took both of them to haul it up the stairs. It lay there on the floor all hand-sewn up in burlap sacks, heavy, filling the whole room with that heavenly odor. It was a blue spruce, the one and only tree father, then in his late 70s, had gone out and cut from his own farm.

May your Christmas be merry and filled with thoughts as beautiful as blue spruce trees.

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