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“Nope, no pine,” said the burly woman, taking advantage of the pause in heaving trees off a truck to wipe the sweat from her brow. “Fraser fir, balsam, spruce. Take your pick.”
She gestured widely to the parking lot full of trussed-up trees, their branches bound tightly to their sides. “They’re all beautiful.”
“They’ll all have holes on one side, crooked trunks, and witches’ brooms at the top,” muttered my Beloved.
“They’re not pines,” I called apologetically out the window as we drove away.
Why am I so fixated on a pine for a Christmas tree? When I was growing up, we always had a Scotch pine, but in my memory, that’s all the Scouts offered in their compound roped off in front of the little library at the centre of the village. Plump, long-needled pines that from a slight distance looked fuzzy to my myopic eyes.
Scotch pines were one of the first trees farmed for Christmas. They have that perfect Christmas-tree upside-down-ice-cream-cone shape, their branches bend gracefully, strong enough for cast-iron ornaments, they hold onto their needles long after they’re dead, and they produce unique oils that transpire through their stomata, giving off a heady fragrance unmatched by other trees. So why is finding a Scotch pine today about as easy as getting snow for Christmas?
“Balsams are weeds,” I said under my breath as we drove to a nursery where we were told by the fourth parking-lot tree-seller we might just possibly find a pine.
When I lived in the north, our property was overgrown with balsam. Short-needled, and spindly-branched, these trees sheltered our gifts for a dozen years. We’d have to fell a thirty-foot specimen to harvest a decent six-foot tree, and even then we’d have to drill the trunk to drive in extra branches. We’d set the tree up the week before Christmas and before New Year’s the floor would be a carpet of silvery green.
“Spruce is too prickly. And Fraser fir, what’s that supposed to be? Why doesn’t anyone want a pine?” Our Christmas tree expedition was turning sour, like eggnog left out on the counter too long.
“Yep, we got pine,” the ruddy-cheeked fellow said, clapping his hands together as he came out of the greenhouse. What does someone do in a greenhouse in December? I didn’t ask. I was elated: we’d found our pines.
Five trees leaned against the back wall of the nursery shed. Their bonds had been cut: their branches waved eagerly as we turned them this way and that, trying to decide. They were all lovely, full as ballerinas, elegant as sugar-plum fairies.
“This one?” my Beloved said, pulling out the fifth. I moved around to the other side to check for bald spots that a well-placed ornament couldn’t correct.
I stepped back and squinted. My glance shifted. “Are those pines, too?” I asked, pointing to a row of three trees over by the greenhouses, practically bursting out of their big black planter pots.
“Yep. Eastern white pine.”
“Like the trees that used to be all over this part of the world?” said my Beloved in wonder. “The pines they cut for sailing masts?”
“Yep. That’s the one.”
“How’s it different from a Scotch pine?”
“No difference, really. They’re both pines.. The white pine, Pinus strobus, is North American. Pinus sylvestris, the Scotch pine, is European. Grows in Scotland—probably how it got its name. The bark on a white pine is smooth, the Scotch pine is rougher, kind of grooved, that’s about it.”
When we first pulled into the nursery parking lot, while we were waiting for someone to appear, I’d wandered into one of the display rooms, where a big potted pine stood in the corner.
“I don’t suppose we could bring those inside to use as a Christmas tree, could we?”
For years, we’d talked about this: buy a potted tree, decorate it over Christmas, then plant it out in the spring. No axes. No more skeletons in the Christmas tree boneyard.
“Not a good idea,” the Garden Guru warned. “The trees are already dormant. Bring them inside and they break dormancy, so when you put them out again, they won’t survive.”
The nurseryman shrugged. “It’s so warm this year the ground isn’t hardly froze yet. Maybe just an inch. No reason you can’t bring a tree in.”
The one we laid in the back of the car wasn’t much taller than me. It grew on a slant, like a tree in a Tom Thomson painting. When we got it home, we had to put it up on a stool wedged on one side with a piece of split elm. I wrapped the elevating mechanism in a swirl of red cloth, then spent an hour picking out the nests of rusty needles clustered near the trunk. I wasn’t worried: a conifer loses a third of needles every season. When I was finished, the branches with their clusters of five, five-inch needles, looked freshly combed.
“Birds,” said my Beloved, getting into the spirit. “It’s a living tree. Let’s decorate it with birds.”
So we bypassed the glass goldfish and pirates his mother bought in the 1950s, the wooden ornaments we collected when the children were small, even some of the elegant painted globes we’d given each other in recent years. Blue jays and cardinals, flying ceramic doves, and stuffed owls made by a friend, nesting partridges, seven of them, though once there were twelve, and a magenta glass bird with a bedraggled gold-feathered tail that had graced my Christmas trees since I was a girl.
We’ve now removed these ornaments, one by one and packed them away for another year. The tree, which I sprayed with water several times a day and shifted closer to the cool window whenever we left the room, is as green and alive as the day we bought it.
The temperature outside is still unseasonably high, well above freezing, though we are a week into the new year. For the past few days, the tree has been in the front porch. Today, we moved it outside onto the front stoop, a plateau of stone big enough for all of us to stand on at once.
“Where will we plant it?” I ask as we shift it to where it is out of the wind, protected by the corner of the house. The Eastern white pine, I have discovered, it our provincial tree, just as the Scotch pine is the national tree of Scotland, the only place in northern Europe where it still grows naturally. There are still white pines growing naturally in Ontario. We’ve been to old growth stands a few hundred kilometers north of here where century-old pines too big to embrace towered 150 feet above us. The Ojibwe used to stew the cones, eat the seeds, and make a kind of bread from the white cambrial layer inside the bark—a different sort of gardening. Among the Iroquois it was called the Tree of Peace. I look at this six-foot infant and wish I could watch it rise over us, over the house, over the spreading maples and butternuts in the woods, a sustaining presence.
“We could put it by the winter garden with the rest of the conifers,” my Beloved suggests. We’ve been planting a grove there, a buffer between the garden and the next-door neighbours.
“If we do this every year, we could start a Christmas allée.”
“I like the sound of that,” he agrees. “Better than a Christmas boneyard.”
I smile, revelling in the idea a little longer, though I know it is unlikely. These shirt-sleeve Christmases come around only every five or six years, when El Niña visits the west coast. Next year we’ll be Christmas shopping again in our parkas, touques, and mittens, longing for hot chocolate by the fire to make us forget the minus twenty or thirty or forty outside.
“Let’s decide in the spring,” I say finally. “Wherever we plant it , let’s make it some place special.”