Letter from Birdland: This year saw the end of tree tradition

In Birdland, though it is December, we still feel the effects of the summer's drought. The piney trees I grew up with seem to have reached the end of their life.

It began as a monoculture, planted up at the corner next to the cemetery as a Christmas tree plot. I always heard it was planted by my dad and his siblings to fund their education and that they were supposed to begin harvest the year I was born. But that was the same year great grandad died, and so the trees grew to a height of 60 feet and more.

The piney woods always held a special charm for me. Deep carpets of golden needles silenced our footsteps and quieted everything else, too. A tall canopy of green filtered the light and kept any undergrowth down, so we didn't have to deal much with pricker bushes as we did in each of the other timber plots.

In the piney woods, you can still see the remains of terracing that my great-grandfather dug all over the whole farm but has since gone the way of the hedgerows and fences that used to border all the fields hereabouts.

I still remember the day I noticed for the first time that the trees grew in curving, but regular rows, the trunks like giant stalks of corn in a field. Of course they would, but I had never noticed it until I came in from the sunlight at a particular angle. Lodge Park also has a plot like that, and I think it has a proper name now, with a rustic pine-carved archway.

I can't remember what they call it. "The Olde Pine Trail," maybe? but I have always called it "The Enchanted Grove," and that's how I have always felt about our old piney woods.

Well, white pines don't last forever, and since they were all planted in the same year, it makes sense that they would live out their lives and begin to die about the same time. But the drought, upon heat wave, upon more drought did nothing to prolong their natural cycle.

For 25 years, we have cut our Christmas tree from our enchanted grove. It's not easy to fell a 60-foot tree in a tightly planted forest. I sharpen the chain saw, and we all tromp up to the corner and try to select the best possibility from below. Michael makes his cut, and the tree gets hung up on the shoulders of other trees and only falls halfway down. He cuts again as high as he can reach, and eventually a tree crashes to the ground. He cuts 8 feet or so off the top of it to drag home and put up in our living room.

The trees are overgrown and now too close together and want thinning. They're stark and bare, with sometimes 2 feet between branches. We do our best to turn the baldest part toward the wall and prop it up so it's almost straight.

The trees we cut are not going to win any prizes and I doubt that Martha Stewart would approve. But we decorate our tree lovingly, and it fills the house with gentle fragrance.

This year, though, it's a different story. We haven't had the heart to go down to the piney woods. From the house, it looks like only the cedars that grew up around the edges of the woods are green. The cedars are a little shorter than the pines, and above their heads we can see nothing but the rusty golden hue of dead pine needles.

This color we are used to seeing on the forest floor, not on the canopy. One minute I'm thinking, "they can't all be dead," but then I'm not sure I would want to cut one of the last green trees in the forest.

Old traditions die hard. After 25 years of cutting our own tree from our own woods, I'm not sure I could go buy one from a grocery parking lot; I'm not sure I could afford to cut one live from a tree farm. I keep thinking I'll go buy a small live tree for a table top and then try to keep it alive to plant in the spring. Whatever we decide, it's time to begin a new tradition, one filled with generosity and hope.

Practice beauty; prepare for peace; blessed be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She has trouble letting go of traditions, especially when they are reminders of deep connections, past and present, to people she loves. You can see photos of Birdland and read more of her writings at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Hays can be reached at letterfrombirdland@gmail.com or via snail mail care of this newspaper.

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