Thursday, December 5, 2013


In my youth the way to get a Christmas tree in Otter River was to hike along the logging road around Bell Hill, descend from there into the pathless wilderness of Christmas Tree Valley, select and cut a tree, and hike out with it. Bell Hill is part of the family property in Otter River; Christmas Tree Valley is an adjacent swamp. Such terrain is now called "wetland," but if you have any agenda there other than documenting flora and fauna or monitoring water levels, it's a swamp. In December, though, with a firm frozen footing and often a nice coating of snow on the trees, the swampiness of it isn't obvious. I'm not sure we ever went down there for any reason except to cut a tree, so "Christmas Tree Valley" it was.

Most of Bell Hill is covered with beech and hemlock; the spruces for Christmas use seem to prefer the lowlands. At some late point, when we were no longer stalking Christmas trees in the wild, Dad compared notes with the owner of the abutting property and discovered that Christmas Tree Valley is not, in fact, on our land and that we had been stealing Christmas trees for years. No one was particularly concerned about it

Dad always liked to cut a tree that was grouped closely with one or two others. If we take one of these, he said, the others will grow better. If ours has a flat spot, he continued, we'll put that side next to the window. Paula and I would lobby for a free-standing tree; but if Dad had already settled on one of a clump we were overruled. We were often further dismayed that he wanted such a small tree, until experience taught us that a tree in the living room is a lot bigger than the same tree in the woods.

None of us but Dad knew exactly where Christmas Tree Valley was in relation to the rest of the world until the summer between my junior and senior years in high school when I was to be a counselor at the girl scout day camp on Bell Hill. (Ah, for those innocent days, when you could have a hundred or so of other people's kids running around your property for a couple of weeks, including swimming every day at the Otter River Pool, and ruin by personal injury lawsuit never occurred to anyone). I wanted to be able to take groups of campers on the modest hike that Dad used to do with us: along the logging road behind the hill to the end; up the hill to the right to another logging road; up that to the top; then forward to the front of the hill, which overlooks Route 68 and a good piece of Otter River. Dad walked me through that route and on the way pointed out the Horse Cemetery (deceased horses were buried there at one time) and Christmas Tree Valley. Being focused on learning and remembering where things were on Bell Hill, I then knew where Christmas trees were to be found.

My best guess is that it was the Christmas of my senior year in high school that Paula and I, deciding that our father didn't look like providing us with a Christmas tree at all soon, undertook to handle it ourselves. Booted and hatted and gloved and armed with our choice of weapons, we walked down to Bell Hill after school one afternoon.

We found the valley and selected and cut a tree without incident, but somehow, dragging this heavy and unwieldy object through the underbrush, we found ourselves unsure of the way out. The casting about that one does in the woods, hither and thither until something looks familiar, had limited appeal, burdened as we were, and we weren't eager to separate and chance losing each other. At some point I intersected with a fir-branch full of recent snow and coated my face, including my glasses. Whatever I was wearing included nothing dry and accessible enough to wipe eyeglasses on. So Paula, with her contact lenses, could see but didn't know the way, and I knew the way but couldn't see. Since we'd started sometime after three o'clock within a few days of the winter solstice, it wouldn't be long before neither of us could see much of anything.

The way out had to be uphill. We picked a piece of hillside relatively free of brush and started to climb. To our vast relief we did come upon the logging road, a good deal farther toward the street than I was prepared for. Even in near-darkness we could hardly stray off the logging road. We trudged out of the woods and toward home in, by this time, complete darkness -- our mother must have been ready to call the National Guard -- and very glad we were to see the lights of the house ahead.