Since we’ve been together, Dan and I have always got a real Christmas tree for our place at the holidays, usually on the first weekend of December. This year was no different in that respect. We both love the smell of evergreens, and the Christmas tree is probably one of my favourite things about the holidays. We decided not to do a gift exchange this year, since finances are tighter while our careers are in transition, opting to spend some time doing things together instead. One of the things I really wanted to do was cut our own Christmas tree.
I have this vague memory from when I was young, probably less than ten based on the haziness of the recollection, of going out with my family to a cut-your-own-tree farm and trudging through the snow looking for a nice tree. Actually, most of what I remember is sipping hot chocolate from the store after returning, and a general sense of having enjoyed the outing with my family. Perhaps the memory never happened, but in any case I have this notion about going out to cut your own tree. I persuaded Dan that this year, instead of just going down to the tree lot in town, we should take the dog and go out to the local cut-your-own farm. I could only find one in the listings for the area, with the next closest being nearly an hour away. Surely there had to be more than that, but if there were, they were being very secretive about it. So we headed down to this one.
We initially missed seeing the sign, propped as it was against the side of the building on the ground. The main sign (and presumably their main business most of the year) was for a fishing and hunting supply shop. It seemed busy, though, with well over a dozen cars parked in the lot outside. We had trouble finding a spot.
It wasn’t immediately obvious which way we were supposed to go, so Dan went in to ask someone in the store. They indicated that we should catch a ride on the horse-drawn wagon that would be leaving shortly from just outside the store. We’d seen the horses harnessed up to a long red hay wagon when we pulled up. Two beautiful black percherons, stout and powerful. I’ve always had a soft spot for draft horses, and large horses in general. If I were ever to get a horse – which I probably won’t, unless it lived at my sister’s place and I rode it when I visited her – it would be a grey thoroughbred draft cross. My favourite horse I ever rode regularly was a tall, retired grey thoroughbred gelding at the stable where I took lessons. I loved his character, and the two of us got on fabulously.
We climbed on the wagon along with a couple other families. Raven sat at our feet on a small pile of hay that had come loose from the bales. She wasn’t sure what to make of this, as the wagon bounced along over the uneven ground. Dan kept a hand on her in case she took a notion to go visit with some of the other wagon’s passengers (people are her favouritest thing, after food), but she probably would’ve been fine, so focused was she on keeping her balance, and watching the landscape roll by.
We weren’t actually taken very far, and could probably have walked there on our own in less time than it took to wait for the wagon and be driven there, but it was still fun. It’s not every day that I get to ride on a horse-drawn wagon. In fact, I can’t recall the last time. Dan commented that they ought to be charging more for their trees if they’re giving free wagon rides and free hot chocolate in the store. I suppose what they save by not having to cut the trees themselves and drive them out to a lot somewhere they can put toward these things. It was a nice touch, and I think the kids, especially, enjoyed it.
We all hopped off the wagon when it arrived at the back tree fields. The horses and wagon waited there for a bit so that people could load up their trees and have them driven back when they’d found one. I suspect for a family with kids this would be a perk, although, as I said, it wasn’t all that far. I had called ahead of coming down to make sure we could bring Raven, and the guy who answered said, “Sure! Bring your husband, too! The dog’s welcome to run around, but your husband must be leashed.” We made the mistake of letting Raven off her leash before we were sufficiently far from the other families, and she immediately dashed over to say hello to the kids. She sees other people so infrequently that while she doesn’t jump up on us anymore, we haven’t really been able to train her not to jump on others, either, and she gets so excited by new people she just can’t help herself. Fortunately the kids took it well and the family were good sports (I always worry about that).
We wandered out through the stands of evergreens. Pines were the predominant species, probably because they grow easily and quickly. Dan and I both prefer the shorter needles of spruce, so we walked past all the pines without looking at them too closely, hunting for the scattered groups of spruce trees. We examined a few in the field where we were dropped off, then moved back in the direction of the store to walk through another field. It looked like perhaps the farm hadn’t been in the habit of pruning their trees into the stereotypical Christmas tree shape, as there were a lot that would do Charlie Brown proud. Finally we spotted some good-looking trees set away from the other fields in their own little patch. Not sure if they were fair game, Dan returned to the store to ask if they were cutable. Getting the okay, we returned and walked through.
We found three that looked good and would do, but just as we were returning to the second one, which we’d settled on, we spotted a fourth a short distance away, tucked behind another tree so we’d missed it on the first walk-through. It had good colour, good shape, and good height (an important consideration), but when I walked around to check its other side…
…there was a bird’s nest nestled in the branches! It’s like it was meant to be. Dan sawed off the bottom, then collected the nest from the branch and handed it to me so he could drag the tree back without it getting damaged. We’re not sure what species built the nest, although an educated guess might be Blue Jay. It’s not a robin (no mud), or a catbird (no bark strips), but there are a few other species that size that would build similar-looking nests. There is a program in Ontario called the Ontario Nest Record Scheme that collects data cards from anyone in Ontario who wants to fill one out for a nest they find. It’s been running for several decades, and back in the 80s the organizers published a two-volume set of books on the characteristics of Ontario nests based on data submitted for the scheme. The descriptors for the Blue Jay (the average, of course; there are always exceptions) are primarily in evergreens, in small trees with narrow diameter trunks (4 or less inches; 10 or less centimeters), in crotches near the top of the tree, and placed near or against the trunk. This nest fits all these characteristics except it was midway up the tree, not at the top. It also says nests are bulky cups lined with plant rootlets, which this one is. So I’m thinking Blue Jay, but we won’t ever really know.
I went inside and paid for the tree while Dan secured it to the roof of the car (while I am normally not an advocate of SUV-type vehicles, Dan bought his Jeep with the intention that it may be used off-road during fieldwork; I do have to admit that it comes in handy when moving big or bulky things, and we’re appreciating the 4WD in the winter conditions on the slippery dirt road. Our next one will be electric). The nest sat on the floor between my feet. When we got home we pulled out the tree stand, sawed off an extra few inches so that it would fit without touching the ceiling, clipped a few of the branches on the backside (it must have grown during the drive home, surely, it didn’t seem that large when we cut it), gave it some water, set the nest back on the branch it came from, and are letting it settle in now before we decorate it. We had to rearrange the furniture a bit to accommodate its larger-than-expected girth. Next year we’ll have to take a measuring tape to check diameter.
After getting home and unloading the tree, we grabbed our skates and headed down to the lake for an hour or so. We had a few warm days last week, but the last couple have been below freezing and the lake in the vicinity of our little bay remains solid. There was a light dusting of snow on the ice this afternoon, but most of it is due tonight and into tomorrow. We’ll need to start shoveling our bay soon, and will be restricted to whatever area we clear, but today we were still able to skate freely on the lake. And once it started to get dark, we came back inside and curled up with a toasty mug of hot chocolate. It was a nice way to end the afternoon.
In behind the spot where we finally found our tree we noticed a field with Christmas-trees-to-be growing in it. These trees were young, perhaps only a couple years old. When we cut the base off ours I counted the rings; it was 13 years old. It’s a little sobering to consider that this tree, which has spent the last 13 years growing in that field, hosting bird families, watching the seasons pass, will spend just three or four weeks inside as our Christmas tree, and then be discarded. There was a time when people turned to fake trees instead, in part feeling that they were more environmentally friendly, less wasteful, than live trees. However, the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way now, with the general sentiment being the opposite.
Fake trees require a lot of petroleum to produce and then to ship around the world, fossil fuels that are irreplaceable and contribute to our greenhouse gas problem. Real trees, however, while they’re growing remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are generally (though not always) grown close to home, cutting down on transport fuel. The only fuel cut-your-own trees use is what you burn driving there to cut it. They are renewable, once all the trees from a field have been cleared new ones can be planted in their place. They provide homes for wildlife while they’re growing, as many species like these young habitats. And when the tree becomes old and ratty, as all Christmas trees inevitably do, real trees are biodegradable, and are often chipped into mulch, while fake ones sit for decades, not decomposing in a landfill.
Of course, the ultimate in green Christmas trees are ones with root balls still attached. These live trees spend their month in your home over Christmas, and then can be planted back out in your yard to continue growing, breathing in carbon dioxide, providing homes for animals. I don’t know of any places around Kingston that offer live trees, or that would have been my choice this year.