My mother has asked for fir tips, to weave into a Christmas wreath, and so this afternoon I gather a bucket and shears from the shed by the garden and head for the back woods. Crusted snow crunches. My long-haired dog lopes ahead. He knows the way (if not by scent than by something deeper in his bones).
My father’s grandfather used this land as a junkyard before selling it to my parents, who cultivated, hath mixed their labor with, weeded shards of glass from the lawn. My father’s father planted a crabapple tree the day I was born; I watch its growth to gauge my own.
There is a comfort in knowing exactly where to find a copse of fir trees. I go to the glade where we used to hunt for Christmas trees. Two of us would crouch on opposite sides of a trunk, backs arched over the rusted bow saw, feeding the teeth against brittle bark until they caught and whittled a groove (“tiiiimber”).
Fir trees are easily confusable with spruce and pine, these evergreen siblings of the north woods. Balsam Fir. Black spruce. Eastern White Pine (land of my father’s pride, pulpy air, dusty lung). You can tell them apart by the needles. And fir trees glow blue on winter afternoons.
I hold the shears to the ends of branches, clipping in a quick, precise motion. A clean cut. I try not to ask too much of any one tree, to distribute my plundering across the glade (I ask only for oxygen and clarity, nostalgia wrapped woods wanderings). The bucket fills. My dog is curious, his soft, fleshy nose scratching against needles.
We are moving deeper into the woods, up a hill I last climbed in a stinging Nor’easter, tracing the wind-buried footsteps of my brother on a circuitous route that ended in the warm light of our kitchen. I remember naked birch trees swaying, creaking, threatening to break (sentinel at the front window, hoping for the beam of a headlamp: why did you send him back out after me?).
The snow gives way to the loose, muddy earth of a streambed. I do not recognize the trees here. They grow denser; their tips are not easily clipped. The dog senses my hesitation, hangs at my side. I am realizing that for all the hours I played here, I never truly wandered that far from the house (whose woods are these I think I know…the external reflected inward or the other way around?) Old fears die slow, if at all, and I drift back to familiar terrain to snip the last few fir tips. Then the dog and I go back to the house, pausing on occasion to investigate fallen sticks.
I set the bucket on the porch, under the rocking bench, next to the barrel of chicken feed, where it will sit, untouched, until I return home in the spring.