This article originally ran January 2013.
If you've watched a few mob movies, you understand the misery of driving around with a dead body in the trunk – you can't stop scanning the mirrors nervously for police cars, and there's an excellent chance of ruining the carpets.
As I can tell you from first-hand experience, driving through Toronto with a deceased Christmas tree isn't much better. I thought of this last week, when I noticed dozens of trees discarded by the road, triggering memories of what may have been the worst drive of my life.
It happened a few years back. The kids were still little, and we had a great Christmas. As usual, my wife wanted to hang on to our Christmas tree as long as possible. She looks upon our Christmas tree not as a disposable holiday shrub, but as a sacred object, perhaps even a member of the family. As the holiday season comes to an end, most people put their tree out with the trash. Ours remains in our living room, where my wife ministers to it with the kind of loving care that others would bring to the treatment of a terminally ill relative.
My wife doctors the tree's water supply with life-extending potions, protects it from drafts and cats, and generally acts as its advocate and round-the-clock guardian.
A typical mid-January conversation goes like this:
Me: "The tree is dead. Most of the needles are on the floor. Let's put it in the trash."
Wife: "It's not dead. The tree stays." (This is delivered with the kind of look you'd get if you brought Dr. Jack Kevorkian to finish off one of her parents.)
As this process continues, the clock ticks relentlessly away. The city of Toronto has specific times when it will collect discarded Christmas trees – and if you still have your tree in February, you're out of luck. Ours normally gets to the curb by March, after my wife finally concedes that the tree is well and truly dead, with no hope of a comeback.
This creates a serious disposal problem. I tried composting one tree, but the trunk and branches were too thick, and I realized that it would be years before they decomposed along with the banana peels and coffee grounds. For a while, I got into the habit of chopping the tree up with a hatchet and an electric saw so I could stuff the fragments into yard waste bags. It was a lot of work. Once, I was lucky enough to spot a city crew with a woodchipper in the park across from our house – I dragged our tree over, convinced the crew to throw it in, and watched my dead tree problem disappear in a couple of seconds.
Then came the year I made the mistake of hunting for a dumping ground.
It was April, and as usual, our long-dead tree was in our backyard, lying in state, so to speak. I was sick of hacking trees apart, and figured I could easily find a place to ditch this one where it could slowly decompose and return the earth, just as nature intended. How hard could it be?
The problems began when I touched the tree. Even though it was dead, there were thick globules of sap on the trunk that stuck to my hands like Superglue. As I dragged the tree toward our Honda, ossified needles exploded from it like thousands of tiny brown arrows, leaving a trail through our yard and garage.
I had lined the Honda's trunk with a black plastic tarpaulin (this reminded me of a scene from Goodfellas) but the tree's trunk pushed the plastic out of the way, so it wouldn't be helping much. Since it was considerably longer than the trunk, several feet of the trunk hung out the back. I secured the trunk lid with a bungee cord, then found some paint thinner, hoping it would dissolve the sap on my hands. This didn't work very well, so I slipped on an old pair of gloves so my hands wouldn't weld themselves to the steering wheel.
As I cruised the city, I realized that there were few places where you could ditch a full-sized Christmas tree without being noticed. I headed down to the waterfront, figuring that I could dump it near the Leslie St. landfill area. I rolled up to the locked gates in my Honda and stopped. The area was surrounded with rough bushes – our tree would decompose and nourish them. Perfect.
As I unfastened the bungee cord and lifted the trunk lid, a police cruiser rolled up behind me.
"You dumping that?" the officer asked.
"No," I replied. "Just checking the load."
I spent about 40 minutes looking for a deserted spot, but nothing seemed quite right. I didn't want a ticket for illegal dumping, and I'm actually a bit of a green freak – I needed to put the tree in a place where it could decompose and help the environment.
An hour and a half later, I found myself north of the city, cruising the country roads. The sun was down now. My headlights stabbed into the darkness. I was alone in my old Honda, imagining myself as Joe Pesci, looking for a shallow gravesite. The gloves were still on my hands, and wouldn't be coming off any time soon – the tree sap seemed to have welded them to my fingers.
I pulled up along a gravel road lined with thick evergreen forest. I cut the engine and the lights and sat in the velvety blackness of the country night. No traffic. I stepped out of the car and prepared to extricate the tree. A small yellow glow appeared ahead, then expanded into the lights of an oncoming truck. The driver stared at me as he passed.
After the truck disappeared, I waited a few minutes, then dragged the tree out of the trunk in a final spray of dead needles. I headed for the woods. The tree was as light as Styrofoam after months of drying out. All I had to do was cross a shallow ditch, and I would be in the forest.
As I stepped into the ditch, I realized I'd made a mistake. The bottom wasn't solid earth. It was the tops of what turned out to be tall aquatic plants. I sank up to my waist.
I got home some time after midnight. It took a while to get the gloves off my hands, and I had to use almost an entire bottle of pumice-laced mechanics' hand cleaner to remove the sap from my palms. I spent about four hours cleaning the car the next day, but there were still sap marks in the trunk carpet, and dead brown needles would be turning up for years to come.
This year, things were different. My wife actually allowed me to take out the tree while it was still January. With any luck, the city crews will haul it away. If not, it stays where it is, returning to the earth in my own yard. There are some drives that you only do once.
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