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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 ...

My brother and I grew up with an artificial Christmas tree. The bent branches were colour-coded and fit into a crooked six-foot pole. My parents hosted holiday parties in our little house and more than one man we had been taught to call Uncle had fallen into it.

Over the years, our broken tree absorbed the smell of these parties. It would puff out in a cloud of perfect expectation when we opened the old box.

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If someone could manufacture, mix and bottle the scent of rye whisky, cigarette smoke and the marriage of hot bulb and green plastic without giving me cancer, I would sit and huff it in dark rooms from Dec. 24 to Jan. 2.

We didn't have religion, but we did have the tree.

Our father died young just after Christmas one year, within months of several others who had populated those parties: a grandfather, a grandmother, an uncle, an aunt. A tree, it turns out, lacks a quality of reassurance a prophet or a god might provide in a season of funerals.

In our extended family, the usual things happened with vacation property that had been happily shared before the deaths of patriarchs and matriarchs. It could suddenly not be shared and my mother, brother, and I found ourselves with $60,000 from liquidated real estate.

It was not nearly enough money to replace what we had lost: a cozy cabin by a prairie lake. Something intelligent like paying off debt or investing in oil companies did not occur to us.

“Dad would want us to buy land,” my brother, Kirk, wrote in an e-mail. At the bottom of the message there was a blurry photograph of a forest.

While I'm pleased forests exist, I had no great urge to own one. Kirk lives in Edmonton, but he has diverse interests that include shooting huge animals on a weekend.

“It's a log cabin on 80 acres. Land.”

I heard Duddy Kravitz's grandfather, who had at some point in high school melded with my own grandfather: A man without land is nobody.

What about a man without indoor plumbing?

Kirk picked me up in his truck and we drove to our land, 120 kilometres northeast of Edmonton. It was a real log cabin: a box with a healthy layer of mouse droppings on the cold floor and a couple of windows stuffed with fibreglass insulation. There were antlers on the wall and some grey mattresses stacked in a loft. The single light, powered by a generator, flickered woozily. It seemed a terrific place to stab someone.

I didn't want to buy it, but Kirk was correct about our father. He had grown up on a farm and longed to return.

That fall, my brother had a knee operation and developed a blood clot. It travelled from his leg to his lungs and sent him to the hospital with a massive pulmonary embolism. Several doctors told him he had nearly died and for a couple of weeks he was on a lot of morphine; it made him alternately bewildered and sentimental. I visited him every day and he made me write down the songs he wanted me to play at his funeral. Only one of them was any good.

Outside the hospital room, some men were stringing Christmas lights on an artificial rooftop pine tree. I had been looking for a way to direct the subject away from death.

“You know what we have to do?”

“I'm not changing the songs. Those are the goddamn songs.”

“What did Dad like more than anything?”

“Revenge.”

“Apart from that?”

When our father was 17, he stuck his left arm into a farm implement and lost it. He moved to the city a one-armed man but he never gave up his agricultural dreams. I knew precisely what we had to do to honour our father, renew our connection with Christmas, stop talking about funeral ballads and make a pile of cash.

Next thing we knew, both of us were sobbing with the curtain closed around the bed.

I started working on our business plan: Uncle Tannenbaum's Christmas Tree Farm.

It takes seven to 12 years to grow a soft-needled, aromatic balsam fir. There would be some start-up costs, of course, and I would have to find a sapling supplier.

The leading cut-your-own Christmas tree farm in Alberta is 16 kilometres from the autobahn-like Queen Elizabeth II Highway that links Edmonton and Calgary: Fir Ever Green Tree Farm.

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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