Real Trees, Real Traditions, Real Memories

December 11, 2010

Real Trees, Real Traditions, Real Memories

Horse-drawn wagons fill with expectant faces. Rosy-red noses and cheeks poke from fir-trimmed hoods or beneath New England Patriots wool caps. Snowflakes swirl and drift across neat rows of balsams growing on high windswept pastures at The Rocks.

Singing begins instinctively as the wagon lurches forward: “O’er the fields we go; laughing all the way...”  I smile. I’m back on the wagon again for Christmas.

Each December, I venture north to the Forest Society’s Rocks Christmas Tree farm in Bethlehem – even the town’s name is perfect. I help host horse-drawn wagon rides by interpreting the history of The Rocks and sharing how this unique and scenic property is managed as award-winning Tree Farm and North Country education center.

Colorful crowds of guests, more than 6,000 each year, visit The Rocks at Christmas. Visitors include out-of-state guests staying at local inns which offer a tree or wreath and a horse-drawn wagon ride package. There are NH residents and a smattering of local folks from Bethlehem and Littleton who make the short day trip up to The Rocks to select and cut their Christmas trees. Regardless of where they’re from, extended families of children, parents, grandparents, neighbors and cousins, all seem intent on enjoying the traditional wagon ride and a stroll amid 52,000 Balsam and Fraser firs from which they hope to select the perfect tree.

Alas, which one?

My perch is unique: I face backwards while riding shotgun on the wagon behind a two-horse-hitch. The guests sit astride benches and hay bales cloaked in red wool blankets. The drivers are expert teamsters: gentlemen including Bruce Streeter of Orford, and Tim Hodges of Danville VT. The soft-spoken drivers are also adept horse-loggers who work their teams twitching logs from snowy woods each winter. Drivers maintain attentive focus on their teams of Shires, Belgians or Percherons. For their part, the horses seem to enjoy pulling the rubber-tired wagons along an historic farm road that winds past a former Sawmill-Pigpen now lovingly restored and adapted as a working sugarhouse, Maple Education Center and NH Maple Museum open for tours in March.

The wagon spiel is never exactly the same. An alchemy of falling snow, sweaty horse and hay smells and smiling faces creates Christmas magic. I take my cues from the riders about how much they’d like to hear. Some rides feature strident singing as proper decorum. Other guests are curious about the history of the John Jacob Glessner family and establishment of their model working farm and the estate they named “The Rocks” for its most reliable crop. As a rule, each ride includes some contemplative silence. It’s hard to improve on the sound of horse hooves and jingling harness bells.

Tours also provide the chance to share New Hampshire’s landscape history including establishment of the White Mountain National Forest. Turn-of-the-century estate-builders like Glessner were notable leaders in the campaign for forest conservation in NH.

Today the conservation story continues. The Rocks was among the first members to join “NH Made.” The Rocks includes a holiday crafts fair that features items made by fifty local vendors. Visitors have opportunities to “buy local” while supporting the farm and surrounding community of artisans.

One less obvious story is just how “green” real Christmas trees are - not in economic terms, but in ecological ones. An acre of trees produces the daily oxygen requirement for 18 people. Christmas trees require less ground cover disturbance than other agricultural crops. Christmas trees can be grown on land that is only marginally productive for other agriculture. Today, 90% of Christmas trees are plantation-grown.

Christmas Trees are a trend for hard-working Tree Farm families. For tree growers, the crop provides an excellent source of income to pay for sustainable farming, maintenance, land improvements and taxes. Where undeveloped land pays its own way, it’s likely to remain in production; less likely to be subdivided and converted to development. Tree Farms protect water quality while providing wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities for hiking, hunting or snowmobiling. Scenery and rural culture are the very basis for New Hampshire’s White Mountains tourism economy.

Even after the holidays, real trees remain the best choice. Real trees are renewable and recyclable in most communities. Fake trees, while re-usable, are petroleum-based, non-biodegradable and are often shipped from overseas requiring more fossil fuels.

According to the National Christmas Tree Grower’s Association, “over 30 million American families celebrate the holidays with the fragrance and beauty of real trees. Real trees are a traditional part of holiday customs which engage not only our sense of sight, touch and smell, but also our sense of tradition, hope and good will.”

Christmas traditions are built gradually over many years. The best traditions never go out of style or fade away. An easy New Year’s resolution would be to join me when I’m back on that wagon again next year. Merry Christmas!

 Naturalist Dave Anderson is Director of Education and Volunteer Services for The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. His column appears once a month in the New Hampshire Sunday News.