“Fields Of Balsam”
By Robert Beck
Weaving through Christmas tree sellers on the sidewalk is a bit foreign to me. Church and shopping center parking lots were as pop-up as it got where I grew up, and sometimes getting a tree meant cutting your own. Pick a limb-saw out of the barrow and tramp out into the field to find the perfect one for you. Then drag it back. It is the most enjoyable tradition the Christmas holiday had to offer me.
It’s no secret that all of this stuff we purchase in stores and on the street comes from somewhere off the island, and it takes a lot of work to get it here. When I was a kid (does my voice sound geezer enough?), I had a job pruning a field of Christmas trees so they would grow up to be the perfect beauties that everybody expected. It was hot and scratchy work, and I would end each day removing twenty or thirty ticks. Joyeuses fêtes!
When I lived alone, I would pick a small, naturally asymmetrical tree, sometimes just a branch, to represent the holiday. It was a symbolic gesture, not an achievement test, and I liked working with the form. Some of my ornaments were handed down through the family — blown glass balls from generations past — and the few I had accumulated had specific meaning for me. They were absorbed into the family I became part of some twenty years ago. The days of a small Christmas tree in a cabin in the woods gave way to larger traditions, and even those are changing as the next generation takes its own directions.
I pass tree sellers on my way to my studio along Columbus and Broadway. The trees look the same, which I can’t say about a lot of other things from my youth. And the smell. It doesn’t just transport me to Christmas; it takes me back to trimming those trees as a kid and cutting my own in Bucks County fields when I was older. Beyond that, it reminds me of my summers in New Hampshire, and our cottage in the pine grove on the lake. All these things stop by to say hello at the holidays.
I’m not surprised a real Christmas tree is expensive. It takes time and effort to get it to that city street corner. But I’m also not surprised there is a market for them. What do drinks at a schmancy place cost? Or a show? All of these memories and more are to be had with a real tree. Now, if we could order up some snow.
See more of Robert Beck’s work and his UWS studio by visiting www.robertbeck.net And let Robert know if you have a connection to an archetypal UWS place or event that would make a good West Side Canvas subject. Thank you!
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