December 24th, 2008

Cut It Yourself: The Holiday Commentary

by Philip Baruth

Announcer: Once upon a time, Commentator Philip Baruth drove out to a place where you can cut your own Christmas Tree. He will never do it again, even if you offer him a great deal of money. Here’s Philip.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #224: Cut It Yourself

I usually get my Christmas Tree in the parking lot of the bagel store near my house. The Boy Scouts set up shop there every year, and for $30 I get a lovely tree, and they’re always willing to put a fresh cut on the trunk, no questions asked. Then I transport the tree to my house, about four minutes away. My children go insane.

It’s always a satisfying experience. Brief but satisfying.

Still, Christmas is one of those times when Americans compulsively chase the dream, and so a few years back I found myself questioning my satisfaction.

Was I really as happy with my tree as I thought I was? Did Vermont, or New England as a whole, offer something intangibly better? All of this I finally reduced to the mental shorthand I use to solve knotty New England questions: WWWD — What Would Willem Do?

In this case, I had to think that Willem Lange would drive out alone into the woods with his dog and a bunch of tools, tramp through the snow and drag his own tree back to his house in East Montpelier.

Of course, that was out of the question for me. I mean, if you don’t own woods, how do you know which woods are usable woods? Even Robert Frost didn’t know for sure, which was why he wrote, “Whose woods these are I think I know.”

And Frost beat it out of those woods after only 16 lines, and he wasn’t dragging a tree when he left.

But of course there was an answer: a cut-it-yourself tree farm. Now, I should have realized that the phrase “Cut It Yourself” has more than a little bit of attitude to it, but I didn’t.

So I drove some thirty minutes on the highway, and then down a long dirt road, where an older woman in a lime-green parka standing by a little shack gave me a hand saw and pointed me out into the snow and up over a big ridge.

Tramping through the snow, I passed hundreds of Christmas tree stumps, but it never dawned on me that of course these trees were taken first because they were nearest the shack.

No, I was having such a brilliant time watching my own breath and carrying my trusty saw that I walked and walked, long after the stumps turned to actual living trees.

When I finally found the one I wanted, I started sawing, but the first few pulls told me all I needed to know: the saw was dull as dishwater. But it was a long walk back to the shed, so I pulled extra hard, for twice as long as Willem would have needed to pull.

When the tree finally fell, I had to lay down in the snow for a few minutes, but it was Christmas time, so I eventually got back up, only to realize that if the shed was too far to walk for a sharper saw, it was way too far to drag a tree through two feet of snow.

But again, I like to think of myself as a good father, so I went on. And when I finally manhandled the thing up to the side of my car, the woman in the lime-green parka nodded at the size of it. “Thirty dollars,” she said.

Now, it struck me as unfair that I’d pay the same for cutting my own as I would for a pre-cut tree at the bagel store, but I smiled and handed over the cash. “Where’s your twine,” I asked.

“Twine?” she asked.

“Twine,” I repeated.

“Ran out yesterday,” the woman said, a little defensively.

“But I’m not going to be able to buy it without twine. I’m not going to be able to get it home. Everybody gives you twine.”

“Well, this is self-serve, you know,” she said, turning grimly back to the shed, “and there’s no refunds after you cut.”

And that was that.

So I did the only thing I could: I used my belt and the shoe laces from a pair of sneakers in the trunk, and I fastened the thing to the roof as best I could. But just as I was about to pull out, the woman darted over to my window and handed me back a five-dollar bill. “For the twine,” she said.

And then I did what I like to think Willem would have done: I told her Merry Christmas.

And when the tree blew off on the Interstate somewhere just below Hinesburg, I did what I would have done: I never even slowed down, until I got to the bagel store, where they know me, and no questions are ever asked.

[This commentary aired first on Vermont Public Radio. Audio of the piece is available here.]