Ugh, Christmas Tree ...

Driving to and from our mid-Ohio farm, I pass a few Christmas tree farms. This is obviously their big time of year. While cutting down one’s own tree always sounded romantic and enchanted on paper, I never actually went to a tree farm to cut down a tree. I never got why that was supposed to be so fun. You bundle your kids up, trounce out into the cold, find a tree and … what? Chop it down yourself? What am I, Paul Bunyan? A Christmastime Lizzie Borden, whacking away at a tree, just to drag its lifeless body back to my home? The kids would be too cold, I would be too impatient. All this, while there is a perfectly fine garden center five minutes from my house that has done all that work for me? No, thank you. 

Our first year of marriage, I was a wide-eyed young bride with an environmentalist’s heart. I insisted on getting a live Christmas tree, complete with a root ball so that we could plant it in our new back yard after Christmas. Trouble is, live trees are expensive, so we ended up only being able to afford a fat little midget tree that, with its root ball, weighed about 500 pounds. Our elfin, 4-foot high tree looked out of place in our living room, like a landscaper left it there by mistake. But I loved her and decorated her with care. After Christmas, we discovered that the earth was too frozen to plant her in the back yard. So she sat on our back porch, neglected and dropping needles until spring, at which time she was deader than a doornail and sat, lifeless, in our back yard for another year until we pulled her to the curb. It was pathetic; she had lived a sad, short, misspent life.

In the ensuing years, we bought a real tree from the local garden center each year and I reveled in the bright scent of pine that filled my home. The swath of pine needles and dirt on my carpet, not so much. But it was Christmas tradition, dammit. What’s a little stain on the carpet? This tradition came to a screeching halt a few years ago when we brought The Devil Tree into our home.

My daughters, husband and I had made our annual trek to the local garden center to pick out our Christmas tree. It was a terribly cold night, so we were in a hurry. “That one looks good,” my husband said. “Let’s wrap it up and bring it home.” Back home, unpacking the tree and dragging it inside, we discovered that the tree’s trunk was too fat to fit into our tree stand. So, we borrowed a saw, carved around the trunk and shoved it into the stand. That’s when we found that the tree was about one foot too tall for the room (this is not the first time this has happened in our Christmas tree history). So, we whacked off the top of the tree and shoved it into its usual place in the front window. The donning of the lights, garland, and ornaments followed until she was all dressed up for the holidays.

Later that night, as we sat down to dinner, we heard an odd schlumping sound from the living room. The tree had fallen down (not the first time this has happened). No worries … just adjust the tilt of the tree, reapply the ornaments, and off you go, little Tannenbaum.

The next morning, I came down the stairs to a spray of ornaments in the front hallway and the tree, once again, prostrate on the floor. “Oh, for Christmas sake,” I muttered to myself, wrestling the tree back into position. 

That night at dinner, there was the same schlumping sound, along with a tinkle-tinkle-tinkle of ornaments rolling down the hallway. As we wrested the tree back into place, I took a step back. “This tree has scoliosis,” I said. One look at its trunk revealed a dramatic S curve mid way that, in a human, would surely require surgery.

This ridiculous cycle repeated itself for the next few days. We’d wake each morning to what looked like evidence of a real yuletide rager: tree water spilled, pine needles and ornaments strewn everywhere, broken glass. It was a mess. Meanwhile, my husband, The Big Elf, who is quite an allergic fellow, started sneezing and wheezing more and more each day. One day, about ten days after bringing The Devil Tree into our home, The Big Elf, gasping for air, choked out, “I think I’m allergic to the Christmas tree.” “Nah,” I replied. “You always get sick at Christmastime. It’s the stress.”

 As the next few days went by, the tree continued its cycle of falling, and The Big Elf became more and more ill. It was clear. Something was rotten in Toyland. I stripped the tree of its ornaments (those that were left unbroken), left the lights on it and dragged The Devil Tree into the back yard, plugging him into the outlet outside our family room window. To keep him from falling over into the snow, I had to lean him against the window, giving him the look of a drunken relative put in an outdoor “time out,” peering in at the festivities through the window. Like the “little match girl.” Like a peeping Tom. The tree look embarrassed and forlorn, as if to say, “Sorry about all the falling, guys. And the wheezing. Really. Can I come back in now?”

 Off I went, three days before Christmas, to purchase a fine, pre-lit, fake Christmas tree. I brought her home, plugged her in, dressed her up with the ornaments that were strewn about the room and hung something called “Scentsicles” on her boughs to provide that “real pine scent.” And it was fine. Really, she was a beauty.

It turns out, in retrospect, for the first 25 years of our marriage, my husband was not sick from the stress of the holidays (not solely, anyway). He was sick from the blasted Christmas trees. Each year, I was bringing poison into our home and the poor guy suffered each year. I think the good Lord sent us The Devil Tree that year as a blatant sign: GET A FAKE TREE, YOU IDIOTS. I look back on that tree and feel bad for it. I think the tree was maybe not tumbling down as much as trying to run away all those times. It didn’t want to be, you know, the fall guy.

This Christmas season has been a little busier than most, so I was thankful that all I had to do was drag our fake Christmas tree out of storage and plug it in. As of Christmas Eve, it is still not decorated (there’s still time!). But it has not fallen over and looks swell in our front window. It stands straight and true, just like a Nutcracker soldier. And, my husband can breath, which is also nice. 

Walking in the Woods

My husband, The Woodsman, has dragged me on walks in the woods a few times since we acquired this farm property. The first was a few years ago. We went trudging through the woods throughout our property, looking for … I’m not quite sure what. At one point we were visited by a pileated woodpecker, which was dramatic. These birds look straight up tropical and otherworldly with their bright red and blue coloring. They are about the size of an adult forearm and have that distinct cackle, reminiscent of the old Woody Woodpecker cartoons. So, that was cool.

On we trudged that day, this time in the woods behind our house. There, deep in the woods, we came across an ancient garbage dump where we unearthed some random tin boxes and old glass bottles that looked like a traveling salesman of yore had sold someone some elixirs or potions. Who were those people that lived here? What were their maladies? Indigestion? Snoring? Gas? Lactose intolerance? Who knows … those bottles are now vases for my kitchen windowsill and I think of their original owners whenever I fill them with wildflowers.

Another walk in the woods was in the early springtime. The Woodsman was set on finding morel mushrooms. I know exactly nothing about foraging and frankly, the whole thing scares me. I’m terrified of finding what I think are benign mushrooms only to find myself tripping for days or, you know, dead. So, we wisely enlisted the help of our farm neighbor, Johnny Cash, to keep us from danger. (Johnny knows everything about darned near everything about the great outdoors). We pecked and poked our way through the woods that spring day. I was getting more and more exasperated and bored until I noticed the beauty of the woods in springtime. Ferns and mosses pushed optimistically through the warming earth and the ground was coming alive with vernal energy. Johnny instructed us to keep an eye out for morels at the base of trees. “They look like a dog’s pecker,” he shouted through the stillness of the trees. “Oh, God,” I muttered to myself. “What the hell am I doing? I don’t want to find these infernal mushrooms now.” 

“I think what we need is a good rain and then they’ll poke up,” he advised. Unfortunate wording.

We never did find morels that day, but a few days later, after a good soaking rain, Johnny reported that the morels did, you know, poke up out of the ground. He sent us a photo of some. They are oddly beautiful … if you push that dog wiener image out of your mind.

A morel mushroom poking through the forest floor

A morel mushroom poking through the forest floor

Ginseng plant, berries and all.

Ginseng plant, berries and all.

Recently, The Woodsman was hell-bent on going on a ginseng hunt. It seems ginseng season in Ohio starts on September 1st and goes until December 1st. I was vaguely aware that ginseng has some health benefits. A quick Google search revealed that it is believed to boost energy, lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reduce stress, promote relaxation, treat diabetes, and manage sexual dysfunction in men. And, it’s quite valuable, too. A pound of dried ginseng goes for about $500 to $600. “Ok, you’ve got my attention,” I thought. “Let’s find some ginseng.”

So, off we went, The Woodsman, our daughter, Fauna, home for a break from graduate school and me. “We’re looking for a low plant with five leaves that has a little cluster of red berries in the center,” The Woodsman instructed. Trouble is, that describes a lot of plants on the forest floor, except for those telltale berries. We trounced into the woods, stopping every now and then to survey the ground, arms akimbo, when all of the sudden, about five minutes into our hunt, Fauna turns around and says, “Oh, isn’t this one right here?” There it was, the elusive ginseng plant, exactly matching its description. “Well, this is going to be easier than I thought!” I exclaimed. 

We promptly dug around the perimeter of the plant and gently unearthed it, per our googled instructions, plucking and replanting the red berries into the soil. “Onward!” I shouted. “Let’s find that ginseng. Mama needs a new pair of shoes!”

We trudged on for about an hour, poking and searching … finding nothing. We relocated to another section of the woods and, just like she was born to do this, Fauna found another patch. “She’s the ginseng genius! That grad school is already paying for itself!” I shouted as we gently dug those roots up, too. But by then, the oppressive heat of the day started to get to us, and the intermittent rewards were just not enough to keep us going. “It’s hotter than the Devil’s balls,” I said, quoting our esteemed farm worker and aspiring poet, Wonder Woman. (What is it about the woods that evokes off-color metaphors?)

All in all, we netted four meager ginseng roots. I think that will pay for maybe one cheap shoe for mama. But it was instructive and, when Fauna found the prizes, thrilling for a short while. 

As I write, The Woodsman is receiving two shiny new tree stands to install in the woods for the upcoming deer hunting season. Unlike the pedestrian tree stands he has now, which look like old-fashioned ski lifts, these babies look like tiny houses in the air, featuring a roof, a door, and some windows. I fear The Woodsman may take up permanent residence in one. But, given his tendency for snoring, it might not be all bad. He, his ginseng and morel mushrooms might be very happy together out there.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have morels and ginseng to seek

And miles to trudge in the stifling heat

For other random stuff to eat

(With apologies to Robert Frost)

Ginseng root, found!

Ginseng root, found!