Driving slowly through the Fraser firs, Phyllis tells me that this spiffy tree, with its pert, upward-turned branches and long-lasting needles colored a lush green, is the hottest seller. It’s a trend that is reflected nationally, and Christmas tree farms can’t grow them fast enough. Phyllis’s husband, Gordon, is pulling an irrigation hose among these rows now. “He never stops working,” Phyllis says of the lean, almost-white-haired man who appears and reappears from behind trees. Gordon, she tells me, started the Christmas tree farm as a hobby in 1983 to get him outdoors after his work in a tool-and-die shop. He loves his trees so much that when he has too many of one variety for the section allotted them, he plants the leftovers in a back lot he calls the orphanage.
Passing the balsam firs, Phyllis mentions that these naturally fragrant (imagine the smell of an evergreen forest in winter) trees are her favorites. When I ask why she says: “Their smell, I guess.” She pauses to crank the wheel and downshift so she can nose the truck uphill to the Douglas and concolor firs, then says, “No, I know why I love Balsams. When I was a kid and we didn’t have any money for a Christmas tree, my dad would take us kids out to the swamp and cut a balsam. It was those balsams from the swamp.” And then I remember my own balsam story. Before my blue spruce adult years in Northern Michigan, before my Scotch pine preteen and teen years in Maryland, before the two-feet-tall, poor excuse for a Christmas tree that my parents tried to pass off on me when we lived in Paris when I was 6, before all of that, there was a balsam fir every Christmas in my living room in Ypsilanti, Michigan. A balsam that dripped melted snow on the braided rug when we set it up on Christmas Eve, a balsam that scented all corners of our small house filled with my parents, grandparents, teenaged aunt and my older brother—and his Christmas toys that I always liked way more than I liked mine.
Yes, the balsam was my childhood sweetheart. And this Christmas, perhaps, it will be my new love.
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