How to bring home a living Christmas tree — By the Way column

I had not really thought this through. I realized it up on the ridge on Vermont Route 9, two hours before the snowstorm, with tree in the back seat. 

I was looking across a field to the Pleasant Valley Tree Farm, up above Bennington, Vt. I had decided I’d like a Christmas tree this year — and I wanted a living tree. But upright, this one stands almost as tall as I am. I had never appreciated before the solid mass of a balsam fir.

It was beautiful up there on the ridge, with a clear view to the Green Mountains and the Taconics. Families were crowding around the workaday barn and rows of cut trees, and out past them I could see the fields begin, stands of young evergreens against the straw-gold winter grass. 

I’ve never had my own tree before. I’ve always celebrated the holidays with my family in Connecticut, and the ritual of the tree has centered there too. 

It has its own kind of magic. We would go out to a local farm on a winter morning to walk through the fields, my parents, my brother and sister, all of us tangling joyfully over what kind and how tall. It felt like the first step in the anticipation of the season. 

The ground would be half-frozen, the bare brush spiked with seed pods, and we walked through tall grass between the young trees, measuring their heights with our bodies. 

We always wanted a real tree. The scent and the sap were the whole point for us, the feel of the bark and the needles, and the snow melting off as you helped to carry the tree up the hill. We were bringing an evergreen inside at the solstice — keeping a bit of green and living wood through the cold days. The sweet-sharp tang of pine and fir makes the holidays real.

But my family has spread out now. My sister and brother-in-law, and my brother and sister-in-law, have young children, and this year we will spend the holidays with my sister on the West Coast. It will be beautiful out by the Pacific, but for the first time, we will not be gathering at the old New England clapboard house where I grew up. And for the first time I have a house of my own. So I thought, I’ll find a tree of my own.

We have more than half a dozen tree farms in the Berkshires. Some will cut trees for you. Some will hand you a saw and let you walk through the fields to cut your own, and maybe warm you with hot chocolate when you troop back. Each has its own range of kinds of trees, firs, spruces, pines.

Some also have wreathes and swags and kissing balls, or farm shops with maple syrup and beeswax candles, or the scarlet sweep of a row of winterberry bushes at Windy Hill. 

Pleasant Valley drew me up here because they have a few trees in pots. Along with a house now, I have a bit of earth, and I thought, why not learn how to keep a tree alive all winter and plant it in the spring?

And here they were, sitting in the lea of the building, a young thicket of fir trees apparently thriving in the freezing air. I chose a balsam, and two hefty guys in their 20s wrestled it down to my car. And then I realized … My dad has a pickup truck. I had blithely set out to get a tree in a Saab 93 sedan. I hadn’t begun to think about transportation.

They levered the tree into the back, and canted sideways it just about fit. But as the tree and I headed south through historic Bennington, past white clapboard houses 300 years old, I mulled over the next step.

I’m five feet tall. With its root ball and a five-gallon bucket of earth frozen rock-solid, my tree may weigh 150 pounds. Without two burley guys — or an ox team or block and tackle — I was going to have to get it out of the car. And into the house.

Bringing a tree home turns out to be a solid proposition. I sorted out the physics problem with gravity, a local hardware store and a hand cart. And I’m imagining now what Douglas Adams could do with those ingredients. Or Calvin & Hobbes. It seems fitting — holidays have an element of infinite improbablility drive in them, or a transmogrifier and a whole slew of cardboard boxes. An element of serendipity. 

As the balsam fir and I eased in through the front door together, it was just beginning to snow. 

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