Harvesting Christmas Trees

by Bruce Patterson, December 17, 2010

Christmas tree harvesting, helicopter style. Courtesy El Chupacabrito, via Flickr.

I’d driven down this particular beaver slide twice already this year, but never with a full trailer during a cloudburst. My brand-new, one-ton diesel, company pickup truck’s full blast windshield wipers were allowing me flickering peeks of the straight-shot clay road down below, the distant bottomlands seemingly as flat as a pond, and the road looked like a yellow-brown waterfall slicing in two a pure green munchkin Doug fir forest planted at double-arms intervals. If I slid out of control, I knew, I was going to wipe out some Christmas trees and, worse, get my truck and trailer mired axle-deep in mud. I’d also scratch the truck’s pristine paint job and maybe even give its front side and fenders some inaugural dings. Imagining such a veritable catastrophe, I could see my boss’s face lengthen and redden and then lengthen and redden some more as I bashfully spilled the beans.

Yet we were already late getting to the landing, and I couldn’t very well sit there idling at the top of the beaver slide awaiting a change in the weather. I couldn’t back out of there, either, or ignore my three soaking wet and shivering compadres huddled atop the load. The only way to take the chill off their bones was to get them back to work, and the best thing about off-loading Christmas trees was how it got your body warmed up and put the feeling back into your fingers. Then, if worse came to worst and I crashed, my body wouldn’t get hurt and we had a D-7 Cat tractor parked not two miles away that could come get us back on the road. “Better late than never,” I recited to myself while steeling my nerves.

After telling my three compadres to climb down off the load and then walk behind me down the hill, and confirming in my side view mirrors that they’d done so, I slipped my truck’s tranny into 4-wheel granny, slowly let out my clutch, eased on my accelerator to keep my wheels spinning in time and, like a beaver sliding on its belly, I slid straight down the road and arrived safely at the bottom of the hill. Breaking into a big grin the instant I got there, I patted myself on the back for a job well done and resolved, before God and without equivocation, that I’d never do that again. The best thing about a little snake of fear wiggling around inside your belly was how it wakes you up, and the best thing about gambling was winning.

They say if people could see how sausage is made they’d stop eating tube steaks, but I ain’t so sure. If folks got enough intestinal fortitude to slaver ketchup on a hot dog, then a wheelbarrow full of steaming entrails ain’t going to bother them much. Yet, it has occurred to me that if people knew how much hard labor went into providing them with their Christmas trees, then they wouldn’t whine so much about their monetary cost and, possibly, they’d look at their gussied-up seasonal living room icons in a not so rosy light.

Yet, seeing how it’s very difficult to appreciate any sort, or amount, of beauty without extending at least a little bit of that appreciation to its creator or creators, I figured I’d write this little ditty hoping for the opposite effect. Whether or not we mean to, whenever we pause to appreciate any sort of art, at once we honor the labor that went into it. That’s why, while decorating our Christmas trees, we try to do them justice. That’s why we so graciously thank our grandmas when they set out before us our Christmas feast.

Harvesting the trees represented just a small fraction of the annual operation, yet it brought the one and only payday that came the whole year. So, to have any chance of surviving as a grower and wholesaler of Christmas trees, or as a wholesaler of anything else, for that matter, your word had to be as good as gold. That meant getting your customers exactly what they wanted all lickity-split and with no excuses. If you promised your retailer the best looking Doug fir Christmas trees available anywhere at any price, they’d best be. If a retailer needed a load of trees the next morning and you promised it’d be there then, come hell or high water, it’ll be there. Because a $20 cut Christmas tree was not just worthless but a liability the day after Christmas, timing was everything.

We started harvesting the day after Thanksgiving and we worked between six and sixteen hours per day straight through until a few days before Christmas. Come rain, sleet, snow windstorm or hard freeze, like mailmen or Domino the pizza man, we delivered.

At dawn I’d start with a compact chainsaw equipped with a bow bar, which was shaped like one half of a round bowtie. Originally designed for cutting the limbs off logs, the bow bar came with a hook for grabbing the wood and worked just fine felling munchkin trees. We grew everything between 12 feet tall and furry little 2-foot table tops, although the bulk of our harvest was between five and eight feet tall. Since the curtain of machete-sculpted foliage reached right to the ground, first I’d use a leg to part the sea of limbs. Then I’d drop to a knee, crouch down to eyeball my target, reach in with my bow bar and cut the trunk dead level and as near to the ground as I could get. Since mud suffocates needles and kills them, one of my partners would catch the tree around the neck and carry it to the trailer without it ever touching the ground. Or, if need be, he’d toss it atop the stacks we’d built at the ends of our rows. I worked with two or three helpers, we all kept moving, but I forget what was the most trees we’d ever cut and hauled in one day. Although I’m sure it was under 400.

Once the three of us cutting crews had harvested the next day’s orders, I myself switched over to driving truck with a loading crew. One guy was the stacker and the others, including myself if the stash of trees was big enough, handed him up trees to arrange and stomp down as he pleased. The stacker was always a senior man since you didn’t want him to damage the foliage or break the top out of a tree. Because a truck and trailer held anywhere from far too few and never too many trees, pulling into the landing with a “perfect” load required a loader with plenty of experience and, of course, the right kind of muscles and a fair bit of balance and agility. Once a good friend of mine by the name of Valenti, then a green field hand just up from Central America, fell off the top of a load and—get this—landed on his head. If his skull hadn’t’ve been coconut hard and his neck thick like a bullfrog’s, I do believe he’d’ve been killed.

All of the trees were marked with two color-coded ribbons, one denoting its size and the other its grade, so when we off-loaded them each got hauled over and stacked in a bin with its own kind. I usually climbed the load to help empty the rig and—especially when the trees were sopping wet—it reminded me of kicking 120 lb. bales of alfalfa off a haystack. Rule #1: never hit your ground man, least of all with your own falling body. Rule #2: keep a hold of your hay hooks. If your ground man had to fetch one of your hooks out of a bale and toss it back up to you, then you owed him an after work roadhouse beer. Dropping both hooks cost you two beers and, if one of your bales bounced wrong and knocked your ground man’s legs out from under him so that he hit the dirt and scuffed his chin, you owed him a 6-pack plus two penalty roundhouse beers plus whatever dropped hook penalty that was applicable.

When it came to off-loading Christmas trees, Rule #1 still applied. The biggest trees we’d pivot and slide butt-first down the side of the load into the outstretched hands of a ground man. The rest we picked up and hurled. The idea was to get the tree to land like you were planting it back in the ground: butt-first and dead plumb. That way, upon impact it’d stun, instantly shed its water like a short-haired hound, and the ground man could seize it around the neck before it keeled over, thus saving himself the bending down and the picking up. But if your trees landed crooked then, like nature’s version of a slinky, they’d bounce and swing their tops any-which-way, forcing the ground men to either juke, leap, get slapped or stand back with their eyes peeled. Naturally, having to do those sorts of things got them resentful and, if your throws were too wild, real quick you’d get demoted to ground man while one of them climbed up the load to take your place and show how it’s properly done.

Once all of the next day’s trees were out of the fields and stacked in their bins, we’d switch over to loading the big trucks headed for the Bay Area. Usually working at night under floodlights, we’d make loads 16 or more feet tall and, especially when it was raining, topping them off took some doing. You’d swing a tree and pin it to the side of the load with its butt as high up as you could get it, water and needles pouring down on you, washing in under your collar and making you feel all itchy while you stood frozen waiting for somebody to reach down and pull the tree the rest of the way up so you could use your freed hands for scratching.

So it went day after day until the last order was filled and we got cut loose to enjoy the Christmas holiday. My wife and I and our two small boys were living in a single-wide trailer on a ranch with buckets full of land, most of it mountainous and forested and, with the owner’s permission, we’d wander up into the hills to cut ourselves a little wild tree to set in our living room. It wasn’t that I had anything against plantation trees—far from it. I just especially liked that particular old fashioned part of the Christmas tradition.

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