Sunday, December 21, 2014

Visiting a Minnesota Christmas Tree Farm

Charlie Brown and the passing of the 70s depressed the soulless market for artificial Christmas trees, so the annual tradition of picking a live--or rather, only recently dead--spruce, fir or pine tree is still the preferred way for the majority of American households to bring a little domestic nature home and cover it with Chinese-made plastic.

Most trees are purchased at impromptu lots adjacent to box stores and gas stations. It's not only food that comes from the supermarket. Where do they store them all year? My wife always feels there is nothing lonelier than an unpicked lot tree, destined for the wood chipper and garden mulch. So this time, we opted to get a little closer to the true source, and we visited a cut-your-own tree farm about a 30-minutes drive west of Duluth, Minnesota. It's a less wasteful American family tradition in places where the jungle isn't made of concrete.

It's good to call ahead before visiting any tree farm, especially as the season progresses and the selection is picked over. The Hilltop Tree Farm, in nearby Brookston, grows nearly every variety of fir, spruce, or pine tree common to household decoration. The farm is dog friendly, and our blue heeler Shiloh happily ran free alongside our little party while we were tramping about. We were given a saw and a sled, and the freedom to proceed in most directions of the compass. I wanted to take a longer walk, and we were pointed "that way." That was about the welcome limit of our directions.

We set off, and soon the sled--meant for the returning tree--was filled with growing boy. Parallel rows of trees and orthogonal cross-trails take away from some of the natural experience, but it's still more authentic than a parking lot, and we had fun trudging through the snow and occasionally sliding downhill. At Christmastime everyone is a critic, and we were soon debating the finer points of "fullness," symmetry and needle flexibility for a handful of likely candidates. In a few places morons clearly cut off the top half of a taller tree than they needed, amidst the sea of appropriately-scaled specimens, leaving the useless bottom half for the farmer to deal with. Natural selection hasn't worked nearly fast enough to reduce idiocy in the general population. We found a spruce of an appropriate size, and my boys made short work with the saw. I half expected the Lorax to pop out of the small stump and scold us. But the space we vacated will make room for a sapling in the spring.

The choice is made.

The tree was soon on the sled, and a seven-year-old boy could suddenly walk, a Christmas miracle. He even volunteered to pull it a half dozen yards. We only had a 10-minute walk back, and soon the tree was ready for a bit of post-consumer packaging. First up was a tool designed to vibrate off loose needles, spare change and any other unsecured detritus from the boughs of the tree, the "Shakee," a tool I suspect is just the motor from some ancient bed of a cheap, dodgy hotel with hourly rates.

The Shakee in use.
The Shakee is proof that for every first-world problem, there is a practical invention. It's like those supposed fat-melting vibrating belts used by lazy people in our magic pill culture, except the Shakee really works. Loose needles drop off precipitously...and squirrels. This doesn't negate the fact I was too lazy to pound the stump on the ground a few times myself.

The tree is then shoved bottom-first into a funnel shaped contraption, coming out the other end wrapped in cheap plastic netting a bit like a tarty stocking, ready to be tied to your car's roof rack. Christmas trees are the sole purpose of a roof rack for 95% of American's vehicles. Does the factory worker on the assembly floor in Japan ever wonder..."

                                                                                                (What is this used for?)

This tree's experience here reminds me a lot of something else, but best to keep this blog family friendly.
While the farm's hired help labored at stringing our tree sausage to the top of the car, we stopped in at the warming station to square the bill, $5 per foot (that's $16.40 per meter for enlightened persons in the rest of the world). We bought a roughly 6-foot tree; I was tolerably amused by the farmhand's eyeball estimation of height whilst observing a horizontal tree. He was obviously short-sighted.

For $4 extra, we also purchased a small bottle of Pursell's Christmas Tree Preservative, reputedly "formulated to sustain a fresher, greener and more fragrant tree through the Christmas season." I buy a bottle of similar stuff every year, and I can't help but think I'm cheerfully acquiescing to my annual dose of seasonal snake oil. After paying up we were served some hot cocoa and settled in for a bit at the warming station, which doubles as a small Christmas gift shop. I liberally helped myself to a mound of peanuts in the shell, and the kids were served candy canes. That was a highlight for my youngest boy.

Visitors also have the option to take a hay ride between rows of trees in the area nearest to the parking lot.

There are options if you don't want to walk for the perfect tree.

There is the alternative, even cheaper, option to obtain a 5$ permit from a local National Forest office to cut your own single family Christmas tree anywhere on Forest Service land (with some sensible local restrictions). Each household may obtain up to two permits per year. But the government doesn't offer a "Shakee," someone to strap the tree to your car, or a warming hut. However, I miss the days when we had access to a larger property, and my boys and I tramped far back into the still, snowy northern woods until we found the perfect tree. We'd drag it back through the snow, along with whatever bird nests were attached, and come home to our own pot of steaming cocoa.

Wherever you get your tree, every Christmas brings another year of ornamental memories, some of Chinese plastic.

The finished product.