Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hard work holiday

Making Christmas trees the day after Thanksgiving.

A tradition steeped in pine pitch

Over last weekend I took part in something that's become a bit of a Thanksgiving tradition during the seasonal get together at my paternal grandparent's house - harvesting Christmas trees. You see, Grandpa Carlson has been raising balsam on his back 40 for probably 20 years now, and as it turns out, he's got more trees in their prime than he can handle on his own. After all, the process of cutting, trimming, displaying, and selling each tree begins to add up quickly when you're moving several hundred of them in a month.

The plan was to arrive early on Friday morning with saws and shears in hand. However, the previous night's snowstorm kept my brothers, sister, and I at home until late morning and the roads were clear of ice and snow. By the time we arrived in Nekoosa, it was almost mid-day and the older generation had already put in a full first shift.

As we pulled up to the house, we were greeted by rows, piles, and stands of freshly cut, eight-foot tall balsam firs strewn about the yard. The piles seemed to stretch on as far as the eye could see - an endless terrain of raw Christmas product, still seeping fresh pine pitch into the chilly November sunrays.

Beyond the bountiful harvest, I could see Grandpa's truck and trailer returning from the field with another load. By the time I walked out to them, my dad and two of my uncles had already parked on the edge of the ever-expanding drop zone and began unloading the Christmas cornerstones one by one.

They tossed the trees over the edge of the trailer, rolled them over the grass, and repeated the grunting display of brawn until the truck and trailer were depleted; brow wiping ensued.

We said our hellos. However, there was more work to be done, so the most that amounted to was a series of gruff, pine-pitched handshakes, a smattering of sarcastic remarks about being late, and a single "well I s'pose," before the three of them cleared back into the cab and begrudgingly puttered back out to the field to continue the harvest.

"Ah, family get-togethers," I mused to myself and turned back to the coniferous legions awaiting further attention. After all, cutting down the trees was just the beginning. Once they'd been separated from their roots and hauled up to the yard, the bottom bows had to be trimmed off to fit into tree stands, the base of the trunk cut evenly, and then drilled into about four or five inches so they could be put on a peg to be displayed for sale. This last chore would be my occupation for the remainder of the afternoon.

Grandpa and I fired up the generator after setting it in a wheelbarrow to easily haul it and the drill it powered around the yard. After the machine had sufficient time to warm up in the cold air, I fixed the drill with the dullest 11/16ths bit I've ever seen and set to work.

Right from the start it was clear how much extra work the dull bit was going to create for me. I was on one knee, holding the horizontal Christmas tree candidate on my other knee, grasping the base of the trunk with a firm grip in my left hand and operating the drill with my right. To bore into the wood I had to lean my whole torso into the back of the drill and push the bit in - all the while trying to bore a straight canal. Drawing the bit back out excavated the mulch I was making, but the pushing force required to chew into the wood quickly began to take its toll on me.

Soon my back was getting stiff from kneeling in the same position, tree after tree, and the repeated strain had me sweating. I could drill a tree in about 10 or 15 seconds, but before long I had to remove my coat and hat to let clouds of steam roll off my back and into the November flurries.

Down each line of trees I went, with my brother Jed working ahead of me to cut the bottom limbs off and collect the lower branches to be sold in bundles of bows. My goal was to keep up with him. I figured that as long as I could maintain a steady pace behind him, we'd be finished at a decent hour before the big meal Grandma was cooking inside the house.

I put an extra glove on the ground upon which to kneel in front of each tree, then set myself sturdy, dug the bit into the center ring at the base of the trunk, and pulled the trigger. Tree after tree I did this. Line after line. The fresh cut pines had the scent of the holidays all over them. The pitch clung to everything and collected dirt to form dark, sticky, fragranced spots all over my gloves and pants. I alternated between being too hot and too cold, my back and upper arm grew weaker with each new stump, but I didn't want to quit.

I wanted to test myself. I wanted to pull my weight. I wanted to help finish the job, and I wanted to put in a few good hours of work before the feast with everyone else. I wanted to be a man in my family, and this was what men in my family are asked to do. It was that simple.

Hard work does the soul good, I believe that. And though I could have kept going with the dull drill bit, I sure was happy when a brand new one arrived fresh from the hardware store.

With a new tool, my enthusiasm was renewed, and together our group was able to knock out a good portion of the work in a few hours. We totaled 300 trees at the end of the day, and people had already begun to show up for their annual tree purchases before we were finished.

My grandmother's Thanksgiving cooking tasted all that much better after working up a decent sweat, and by the time I had the pine pitch scrubbed off my hands, I was set on a relaxing evening. We sat at the dining room table, I nursing my back, while we went around and shared stories and laughs.

Sometimes it's the simple things that make the most sense. Like a good night's sleep after an afternoon of hard work and a big, warm meal.

“The more I want to get something done, the less I call it work”
- Richard Bach

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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