In days gone by, cutting the family Christmas tree was an annual affair. Dad and the kids went into the woods with an axe, the dog, and picked out the perfect tree. It was a picture post card moment full of snow laden branches and Pendleton shirts. The dog bounded through drifts, the kids pummeled each other with powdery snowballs, and faintly, off in the distance, tiny bells jingled. Dad pulled the tree back to the log cabin on a sled while mom readied steaming hot mugs of cocoa for everyone. You could almost feel Norman Rockwell’s brush against the canvas.
Our family wanted to harken back to these good ole days. We wanted the relive the age before rows of overpriced conifers would appear each December in rutted and muddy empty lots, starkly illuminated under sagging strings of 60-watt bulbs. Or, even worse, before we were tempted to buy one from some dismal corner in a Walmart Garden Center. We wanted to reach back to a time before commercial tree farms spent seven to ten years growing and methodically shearing a tree that would later command a $75 price tag.
So I purchased a Christmas tree permit from the Tonto National Forest for a reasonable $15 and we left for the cutting area the very next day. According to the instructions that came with the permit, any species of tree was on the chopping block, as long as it was under ten feet tall and was cut by midnight on Christmas eve.
We updated the red plaid shirts and wooden sled with Thinsulate, fleece, and a sport utility vehicle, and drove towards the town of Young, north of Roosevelt Lake. We passed pinyon pines on the way up, and if we had gone higher, we’d have seen Douglas firs, but we stopped on a fairly level spot next to an understory of perfectly-sized white fir trees. There were small patches of snow, but it was still and quiet with terrain that suited the hiking skills of a six-year- old and her very pregnant mom.
“Hey, there’s one!” my son shouted from the road, and we all scrambled up a brief slope, only to find ourselves surrounded by dozens of other candidates. We split up, and our voices echoed across the canyon as we shouted the location of another, and then another, that might be the perfect tree. Within an hour, we settled on a nine-footer and with a few strokes, felled it with a hand saw, leaving it with less than a six-inch stump as the instructions required.
We carried it back to the car, bound it tightly with spiral wraps of twine, and strapped it to the luggage rack on the roof, but not before the obligatory photo op with father and daughter kneeling proudly alongside their fresh kill.
We stopped at a campground on the way back to eat tepidly warm bean burros from a cold steel picnic table and wondered: Should we feel guilty about our modern attempt at a Hallmark moment? Wouldn’t it be more ethical to purchase a tree that was shipped from a commercial tree farm somewhere in Oregon?
As it turns out, the Forest Service thins nearly as many small trees from one forest acre to lessen the catastrophic effects of wildfire as there are Christmas tree permits sold each year in the entire Tonto National Forest. So our single tree, now fully decorated and perfuming our living room as only a freshly cut tree can do, is just a drop in the pine pitch bucket, something to feel far more good about than bad.
We’re already planning next year’s trip, and if there is more snow, we’ll probably throw in that sled. And the hot chocolate.