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Illustration by Mike Ellis for The Globe and Mail
Illustration by Mike Ellis for The Globe and Mail

Memoir

A writer learns about life in pursuit of a Christmas tree farm Add to ...

I arrived at Fir Ever Green on a warm Sunday morning at the end of November. Judy Kappeler, who moved from Switzerland with her husband in spring, 2010, walked out of a log cabin that was half the size of our own log cabin.

She is a tall, blond woman originally from around here who has adopted an air of European reserve.

My plan was to be cunning, but as the only customer I found that my options for spying were limited. There was a price board on the cabin, above a colourful selection of saws.

“So where's your land?” she asked when my lack of cunning inspired me to tell her I was entering the Christmas tree game myself.

Her husband, Peter, a short, handsome and athletic man with bright blue eyes, arrived at the cabin. He speaks with a Swiss German accent and lacks European reserve. When Judy told him I was a budding Christmas tree entrepreneur, he looked over at my suit and my hands. “Really?”

Peter's hands were hard and sappy and dirty. I was driving north from Calgary, where I had delivered a speech. My hands looked as though I had recently delivered a speech.

“Where do you get your saplings?”

“Saplings?” Peter looked at Judy. “I climb 60, 80 feet up a tree to pull cones. I'm Swiss!”

“So there's work involved?”

Peter and Judy laughed. When I asked if the business brought in enough income for them to do it full-time, and maybe spend January in Guanajuato, they laughed some more.

“I'll show you!” Peter and I jumped into the cab of his old Chevrolet truck. He drove me across his quarter-section. He pointed out areas where porcupines had chewed on the bark.

“They do it at night. So I have to go out and kill the porcupines in the dark.”

I chose a tree with a bird's nest inside it, which would either delight or horrify my children, and cut it down. Then, on the way back to the little log cabin, I learned that Peter had to work as a landscaper and that Judy had to work as a nurse to fulfill their dream.

“Some tree farmers, from Saskatchewan, actually paint their Christmas trees.”

“Why?”

“They're more perfect. I prefer a natural tree, with candles instead of lights. But people here in Alberta, well.” Peter sounded like a Swiss German Charlie Brown. “You like artificial things.”

Back at the log cabin, I paid Judy and turned down a cup of hot chocolate. I couldn't abide cutting further into their profits. They would like to serve mulled wine to customers at an even greater expense, but the government doesn't allow such things.

On the way home, I phoned Kirk, who had been released from the hospital and weaned awkwardly off morphine, to tell him the whole idea was finished. We couldn't put Judy and Peter out of business.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Uncle Tannenbaum's.”

“Which uncle's that?”

Kirk remembered discussing his funeral at the hospital and crying a lot, but not our joint venture. I explained.

“Where would I hunt? Besides, no one's going to drive way out there for a tree. If they do, they'll jump the fence when we aren't there and cut it for free. And what are you going to do? Live there for a month, with no electricity and no plumbing, with your suits?”

“You could shoot porcupines at night.”

“Gross. And I'm not climbing anything for cones. You think I want another blood clot?”

I thought of my kids the rest of the way, my kids and death. When I arrived in Edmonton, my wife didn't understand what I was dragging into the house. For an indifferent environmentalist, there's no point killing a tree or inviting plastic to off-gas in the living room. She thought we had decided to hang lights from our aloe vera plant.

I showed her photographs of Judy and Peter Kappeler and one of me, in my suit, cutting down our tree.

My oldest daughter, who just turned 6, was briefly concerned that I had made a family of birds homeless. I invented a story about the chickadees of Guanajuato. Then the girls danced about, refused to eat, insisted on the Grinch before bed and caroled themselves to sleep. In short, I have ruinously transferred nostalgia to a new generation.

They fall asleep nightly, now, to the smell of Christmas. No cigarettes, less plastic and less whisky, but an inheritance.



Todd Babiak is a novelist and the co-founder of Story Engine, a corporate consulting company. His latest book is Toby: A Man.

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