Requiem for a Tree
by Rachael Maddux
When my parents were first married, when it came time to get a Christmas tree, my dad would just go out into the woods somewhere and chop one down. Because he has since proven himself incapable of not watching Jeremiah Johnson any time he finds it playing on cable, that’s how I imagined he looked back then: tromping through the snow under strata of pelts, dragging the limp tree behind him. In reality it was Tennessee in the early 1980s so it was probably 40 degrees out, minimum, and he was in some puffy nylon jacket and Wrangler jeans. Anyway, after my sister and I came around my parents became interested in more family-friendly means of Christmas tree acquisition, and this is how we found Blue Goose Christmas Tree Farm.
It takes two points to make a line, and I like to think it takes about as many years to make a tradition. The first few times we made the pilgrimage to Blue Goose, I was mostly oblivious. But what soon developed was a ritual, in my mind at least, of the utmost importance, every detail sacred and vital. Every year in early December we would pack into my mom’s beige Dodge Caravan with a baggieful of sugar cookies and a thermos of hot chocolate and drive from our house in Tennessee to Lafayette, Ga., just over the state line.
After Georgia got a state lottery sometimes my dad would stop and buy scratch-off tickets and sometimes he’d win enough — $25, maybe $30 — to fully fund the tree we were on the way to get. Every year he missed the turnoff to the farm, and every year once we finally pulled into the gravel driveway we joined the line of other minivans and sedans and pickup trucks snaking their way into the farm, everyone stopping for a minute at the little gate shack where a bundled-up man who smelled like old cigarettes slipped a ticket under each car’s wiper blade and handed an orange-handled hacksaw through the rolled-down window.
The gravel drive snaked all around the perimeter of the farm, acres and acres of balsam and fir and spruce planted in rows undulating up and over the lumpy fields — little scraggly ones growing in behind the trees felled the year before, big grandfatherly ones lurking around the edges, waiting to spend their last days languishing in some vault-ceilinged foyer. On the outer perimeter, in the brush of the surrounding woods, there were occasional piles of empty gallon jugs stained greenish blue from the dye the farmers sprayed on the trees to make the needles nice when nature couldn’t manage on its own, which we did our best to ignore.
We would park and then wander the fields for what seemed like hours. From a distance all the trees basically looked the same but up close their differences were entirely evident and overwhelming. Even the most basic facts seemed to elude us once we got out there, for instance the height of our living room ceilings. “What about this one?” one of us would say. “No, that’s too tall,” another one of us would say, pointing to another on down the row. “What about that one?” Upon further inspection it would be six inches taller than the first. Or it would be too bottom-heavy, or top-heavy, or there would be a bald spot or a cowlick or the trunk would be crooked or there would be some old bird’s nest tucked between the branches, crawling with mites. Or it would be perfect, actually, but found too early in the hunt, or by a family member someone else was feeling particularly competitive with, and a complaint would have to be made up to pull us deeper into the fray.
Our hunt would end not when we found an objectively perfect tree but when all four of us were enough exhausted by the proceedings that we’d all lost the will to fabricate further protests. Once we got anywhere close to a consensus my dad would throw himself down on his hands and knees under the bottom boughs of the apparent victor, scraping at the thin trunk with the complimentary hacksaw, and one of us would snap a photo of his butt up in the air. My sister and mom and I would yell “Timber!” when the tree fell down, then follow behind as he dragged it back through the fields of its unsullied brethren. Back at the van we’d eat our snacks and pose for more photos with the tree like it was a ten point buck.
At some point my mom would usually bring up a certain conversation I’d had years ago with my preschool teacher: “Do you remember when you told Mrs. Meyers about going to Blue Goose, and she said you must mean Blue Spruce, and you got so mad?” I had been four or five at the time, the tree hunt still a recent tradition but one I was already taking quite seriously. After Mrs. Meyers corrected me she abandoned our conversation probably to go wipe someone’s feces off themselves, leaving me gobsmacked and furious. I was completely rightfully confident in my assertion and she (a grown up — a teacher, no less, the rightest kind of grown up) was completely wrongly confident in hers. She and I had been on OK terms up to that point, but I could never quite trust her again.
Did I remember? Of course I remembered.
It could be said I have a hard time letting things go.
And so this is how the tree hunt went, how it seemed it would go forever. I had few illusions about my own mortality but somehow this particular thing seemed eternal. Nothing — at Christmas, or in life — seemed possible without it.
Comorbid with my dedication to this particular ritual were very strong feelings about Christmas trees in general. Fake trees bummed me out — what was the appeal of dragging a dusty old box out of a closet, sticking its parts together the same way year after year, having this perfectly-shaped thing in your living room that looked like all the other perfectly-shaped things in all the other living rooms? The only thing worse than a fake tree was a pre-cut tree, the kind sold from little parking-lot corrals with their lonely strings of fairy lights and dyspeptic inflatable snowmen. A fake tree was a shame, but you might as well have no tree at all if you were willing to let someone else’s sawing pass as your own. (Or as your own dad’s. Every once in a while he would let my sister and I have a go with the saw, mostly to laugh at us as we took turns ineffectually heaving and straining. Santa brought us many things but never upper-body strength.) But my family and I had nothing to worry about. We were Real Tree People, and we would always be Real Tree People, and I believed our lives were better for it.
We returned to Blue Goose for something like 20 consecutive Decembers. Over time, adjustments were made: Once my sister and I were in college out of state, we began making the trip when we were home for Thanksgiving so our parents didn’t have to go alone without us. Various boyfriends were eventually invited along, too, fifth and sixth wheels bemused as tourists abroad. We got older, and so did Blue Goose. After a while, every year there were less trees, more fallow fields of old gray stumps. The old barns that sat around the property, which had always appeared to be full of the crumbled remains of even older barns, gradually sunk in on themselves. The old cigarette-smelling man handing out hacksaws was replaced by a procession of glum, scaly teenagers. Even the barely-hidden piles of empty jugs slowly disappeared under fall after fall of leaves, though they were always still there and will be forever.
And then one year, I’m not sure how it happened, but we all just came to understand that Blue Goose was no more. They never had a website; maybe my mom called to check and no one answered, or they were conspicuously absent from the newspaper’s annual and very thorough local tree-farm roundup, or it was just a feeling one of us had and passed along to the others. Either way, the slow fade was complete.
But we still needed a tree. We tried other farms: the one with the petting zoo and the mangy llamas and the decrepit ambulance rusting in the side field; the one that was basically some family’s front yard with the wild-eyed spaniels that pooped everywhere and posed in our photos like they were our own; the petting zoo, again; place with the too-nice staff and the clean new barns and the gift shop and the on-site Santa Claus. A few times we drove all the way out to some new place, parked, looked out over their sad small field of half-sized spruces, looked at each other, shook our heads and just drove home.
Our last tree hunt — two years ago, back at the petting zoo — we didn’t realize was our last. And maybe it wasn’t, not forever, just for now. The afternoon was balmy and we shrugged off our jackets. Out in the field, halfway up a hill overlooking the scrubby farm and its slumpy gray buildings, we quibbled dutifully, took photos, heckled Dad as he sawed. It was almost exactly the same as it had always been, but too much the same. It was like a Christmas pageant of our own lives, all of us starring as previous versions of ourselves who used to care just a little bit more. We were mired in an uncanny valley of holiday cheer.
Starting traditions is easy, and keeping up with them is just a matter of always doing the thing you’ve always done before. But it’s hard to call them off, and harder still to watch them die at your feet. Well before we hunted our last Christmas tree I knew one day the end would come and could easily imagine myself in some Weekend at Bernies-like situation, dragging the corpse around long after it should be in the ground. But last December, when my mom texted me a photo of my dad crouching on a Lowe’s showroom floor pretending to saw down a pre-cut spruce, it was an odd relief. Earlier this fall, when she emailed us to float the possibility of them getting a fake tree, I gave her my blessing.
I had no right to protest, anyway. A few years ago, the first Christmas we lived together, my husband and I went to Target and bought a little fake tree, a pre-lit three-footer, the largest our apartment could handle. This was no big thing for Joe, whose family had always happily employed a fake tree. In fact, the first time I ever visited his parents’ house, in the dank hot middle of July, their tree was still standing from the previous Christmas and remained so at least through the next one, at which point it was undecorated and boxed away. It has made only seasonally appropriate appearances since, and these days no one seems to remember why it ever stayed up so long in the first place.
Once Joe and I got a bigger place, I told myself, it would be different — we’d find our own Blue Goose, get our own complimentary hacksaw, cut our own real tree, and never look back (except we’d always look back, that would be half the point). The bigger place has since been got but the little fake tree remains. This was our third year of pulling it down from the closet, unfolding its branches, setting it up on a TV tray table by the front window. We have something like twelve ornaments now and it’s almost too many. And I love it. I am converted. The ours-ness is a factor, but so is the reliability of it, the increasing familiarity of adjusting its wire boughs against the weight of ornaments, of its silhouette across the room in the near-dark. If I burn a balsam candle I almost don’t miss having a real tree at all. I just have to ignore the flame — just like I ignored the empty gallon jugs of blue-green dye in the scrubby woods, and the farm workers who went down the rows each morning before the gates opened, trimming and pruning the trees into shapes worthy of our ritual whinging. Fake trees, at least, are honest in their fakery.
Joe and I haven’t quite reached the point of having put up our little fake tree so many times that it seems like we’ll never do anything except put up this little fake tree for the rest of our lives, and probably we never will. I can see too far into the future now. I know how it goes. One way or another this will die, just like everything else — will make good on the promise of impermanence that makes it worth caring about in the first place. The other night, I texted my mom a picture of our little fake tree and she texted me back with a picture of their fake big tree, both lit up and perfectly tree-shaped in that way I used to hate, more tree-shaped than any of the real ones that ever stood in their place before. Some part of me still wanted it to feel wrong, but mostly it felt right. And when Christmas is over we will put them back into their boxes, and put them back into the closet, and next year we will bring them down and do it all again, and that’s what we’ll do until we do something else.