By TIM JONES, Contributing Writer
Long, long before Christmas as we know it was celebrated, northern European peoples were using evergreen trees, holly and mistletoe to symbolize the promised rebirth of spring in the darkest days surrounding the winter solstice. That symbolic tradition is so strong that, even today, it's hard for most people to imagine the Christmas/solstice season without a tree.
Today, of course, we have options: Plastic trees that sort of look (but certainly don't smell like) the real thing. Those perfectly formed and manicured trees that you buy in a parking lot or from a cut-your-own tree farm. And then we have what I like to call "Real Christmas Trees." Ones you find in the woods that grew there naturally.
In my opinion, Real Christmas Trees (sometimes called "Charlie Brown Trees") are the best. And, fortunately, where we live, they are abundant and just hard enough to find to make for a great family adventure.
Finding and cutting our own Real Christmas Tree has been a tradition in my household since I was a little bitty kid. Back in the "olden days" it was a family event at my maternal grandparent's farm. I remember heading out into the woods (there always seemed to be snow in those days, but maybe those are just the times I remember best) with my parents, aunts and uncles and myriad cousins. The kids were all dressed in snowsuits and we scattered like bright confetti in a windstorm to find the perfect balsam fir or spruce. At the end of the hunt, we all gathered back at the homestead for cocoa and cookies. Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? Actually, it pretty much was, because even a family as fractious as mine seemed to be able to come together around this one gathering.
These weren't at all the manicured trees you buy. The only pruning and shaping these trees had was from deer nipping at their twigs and windstorms breaking branches.
But the ones we selected were always beautiful when we put them up in the house and decorated them. Maybe that's where I first learned that "beautiful" and "perfect" are completely unrelated concepts. Not a bad lesson for a kid to learn at Christmas or any other time...
That family farm is long gone; my family has scattered. Since those long-ago days, my life has gone through periods of farmed Christmas trees, a one-year experiment with an artificial Christmas tree, and short periods of no Christmas tree at all (Bah, humbug!). But whenever there's been an opportunity to hunt for and harvest a wild tree, that's what we've done. Those were always the best Christmases with the best trees.
• 800,000 acres to look in
The White Mountain National Forest, along with all the other national forests in the Eastern region, offers $5 Christmas tree permits which allow you to roam at will over most of the national forest to find any real Christmas tree that pleases your eye.
The first challenge is to get the permit. Think of it as a hunting license. They are for sale at the National Forest Offices (http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/whitemountain/about-forest/offices/?cid=stelprdb5183498) in Campton, Lincoln, Gorham or Conway. But you have to go when the offices are open. In Conway (603-447-5448) that's Mondays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. other days. The Forest Headquarters in Campton (603-536-6100) is only open weekdays 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Gorham office (603-466-2713) does not list winter hours but, in the past has stayed open on weekends to sell Christmas tree permits, so call ahead). Permits are also available on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the White Mountain Visitor Center (603-745-3813) in Lincoln.
After you have your permit (which also functions as a day-use parking pass if you display it on your dashboard), make sure you follow all the rules or Santa may leave lumps of coal in your stocking.
First, make sure you are on National Forest land. Cutting trees on private land without permission is stealing. Be respectful if you cross private land to reach the forest.
You aren't allowed to cut a trees in or near campgrounds, picnic areas, experimental forests, wilderness areas, timber sale areas, within 100 feet of a state highway or immediately along roads, streams, hiking trails or property boundaries. But that still leaves hundreds of thousands of acres of possibilities.
Christmas trees are for personal use only, not for resale. Each family may cut one tree per $5 permit. The fun, of course, is finding the one tree that will look best in your living room.
You must use a hand saw or axe (no chainsaws permitted). No cutting trees larger than 8 inches in diameter at chest high.
Cut your tree so the remaining stump is less than 10 inches tall, and scatter remaining limbs and pack down limb piles.
Once you have your tree back to your car, be sure to affix the tag for transport.
There are a couple of things you'll need to keep in mind for a successful Christmas tree hunt. First of all, is safety.
Remember, even though we can get warm spells in late November and throughout December, it's effectively winter. You can't cut trees along roads and hiking trails, which means you have to think ahead and be prepared. Dress appropriately for the weather and take along an extra layer in case it turns colder than you anticipated. Carry a small emergency kit with you and a map and compass if you leave the logging roads. You don't want to end up lost!
If you don't know your trees, carry a pocket tree guide with you. Not all evergreens are created equal when it comes to real Christmas trees. Hemlocks look like they'd make great Christmas trees, but the short needles (on branches that look almost feathery) start falling off almost as soon as you cut them. Search until you find a spruce or balsam fir (which smells wonderful). Want a simple way to tell whether it's a spruce or a fir? Grab the end of a branch with your bare hand. As soon as you touch the needles, you'll know whether it's a "Friendly Fir" or a "Spikey Spruce." Learning more about the forest and the trees can be a fun part of your family Christmas tree hunt.
One important note: Farmed trees are pruned and shaped to a fairly uniform in height-to-width ratio. Wild trees aren't. Before you leave home on a wild Christmas tree hunt, use yourself as a ruler to roughly measure the space you have available to display a tree. Trust me, wild trees look smaller when you are in the woods, MUCH larger in your living room. The tendency is to always want to cut a tree that's much too big. I'm just shy of 6 feet and look for a tree that's about as tall as my upraised arm, and a little less wide than my "wingspan" at the base. Even so, we often end up with a tree that's a tight fit.
I can almost guarantee that if you take your family out for a day in the forest, hike around in the fresh air exploring, discovering and eventually finding and cutting that one perfect real Christmas tree for your home, that wild tree makes the most beautiful holiday decoration you've ever had.
• Managed Forests
I suppose there are people out there who would object to the notion of cutting a wild tree from a forest for the temporary pleasure of displaying it in a home at Christmas.
Reality check: The National Forests of the east are, with the exception of designated wilderness areas, carefully managed for multiple uses, including timber harvest and recreation. This is a working forest, not a museum.
Typically, you are going to find your "perfect" tree growing very close to several other trees of similar size. In harsh, Darwinian reality, those trees competing for sunlight and scarce nutrients in our poor mountain soils. Not every tree that takes root is going to survive to maturity. By removing one tree, we give its neighbors space and food to grow bigger and stronger. Regular thinning is part of good forest management.
Feel free to argue with me if you must. My email address is below.
• A Christmas tree hunt to remember
Cutting a wild tree is a tradition in our family and we make an adventure of it. We usually go in early to mid-December. Sometimes, it's just my wife "Em" and me, but in some recent years, son Justin and his lady-love Louisa have joined us. Other son Evan and his lady-love Cathy live too far away but we always invite them to be with us in spirit.
Last year, when we still lived in the deep south (near Concord) was typical. On a beautiful day in early December, we got up early, dressed in blaze orange because deer and bear season was still on, put on our hiking boots and headed north, stopping on the way for a diner breakfast, an important part of almost every outdoor road trip.
We pulled into the Forest Headquarters building in Campton, just as they opened to get our permit.
Then, the hunt began. With our DeLorme's New Hampshire Atlas (which shows forest boundaries very clearly) in hand we found a dirt road that traverses National Forest land and slowly drove along it looking for a likely spot to park and go exploring. Eventually, we found an old logging road, long disused, the entrance blocked off with large stones. Peering up the old road, we saw promising patches of green leading up onto the hillside beyond, so where we parked, grabbed the day pack with the axe, saw and emergency kit and started roaming.
A half-mile later, in a spot where gravel had been taken out of a south-facing bank to smooth a gully, we found a cluster of two dozen black spruce and balsam fir trees all about the right height. Because they were growing in a little opening, they were more uniformly shaped and a little bushier than typical forest trees.
Still we wanted to keep looking – it was fun walking on a gorgeous sunny December day – so we walked another couple of miles up, up and more up the old logging road, diverting into the woods whenever we saw a stand of evergreens. It was tough hunting. Most of the green we were seeing was hemlocks. And most of the spruces and firs we found were much too tall and/or wide for our living room We found another clump of likely candidates where a huge old spruce tree had fallen, creating another opening in the forest.
But none were better than those in that first spot. So we backtracked, and argued a bit over which tree was best. I wanted a balsam, but got outvoted by the majority who favored a nearby taller, shapely spruce.
It took only a minute or two to cut it with a sharp saw, cut off the lower branches and scatter them as directed. Then we carried it to the car, lashed it on the roof and drove home with our trophy proudly displayed.
At home, (after cocoa and cookies, of course) we brought the tree in and started decorating it. By the time we had the lights and decorations on the long December night had settled in and we could sit back and enjoy one of the most beautiful sights of the holiday season.
Now that's a Christmas tradition worth holding on to
* * *
Friendly Fir: If you aren't sure whether your perfect tree is a spruce or a fir, shake hands with it. A "friendly" Balsam fir (like this) will have soft needles, while a "spikey spruce" will feel prickly. (Tim Jones/for The Sun)
Home For Christmas: After you've found and cut your tree on the White Mountain National Forest, it's time to take it home and decorate it. No, it won't look like a farmed tree, yes it will be beautiful. (Tim Jones/for The Sun)
Hunting grounds: On the White Mountain National Forest, the trees aren't laid out in neat rows of similar sizes and shapes. You have to go search, and that's part of the fun. (Tim Jones/for The Sun)
Too tall: Even with the best of intentions, it's easy to choose a tree that's too tall or too wide. When we got this trophy home, we had to cut a couple of feet off the base. (M. Donnelly/for The Sun)
Which one? Choose carefully! Your White Mountain National Forest Christmas tree permit only allows you to cut one tree. (Tim Jones/for The Sun)
Wild Tree Shopping: One year, we found a tall tree that had been knocked down by another tree falling. We took the top home and let it live in our memories as one of our best Christmas trees ever. (Tim Jones/for The Sun)