Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Fond memories of helping 'Gramp' search for Grandmother Cole's Christmas tree
Editor's note: "Stacey Cole's New Hampshire: A Lyrical Landscape" has just been published and is available at select bookstores. A compilation of some of his favorite columns, the book includes the following, a reader favorite.
In winter evenings after darkness has settled into our valley and the bustle of the day has ceased, I like to spend some quiet moments sitting before the big kitchen fireplace.
How pleasant it is to watch the bluish, white-tipped flames curl upward from under a good-sized rock maple log to join the yellow-orange blaze from the soft wood kindling. The faint wisps of wood smoke, spilled surreptitiously into the room, lend a delicate tang to the evening air. Mesmerized by the flames and their crackling sounds, my mind frequently wanders to days gone by. And, when Christmas eve arrives, reminiscences of going to Oak Hill with my Grandfather Cole in search of "a Christmas tree for Grandmother" frequently come to mind.
I did so enjoy those trips to the hill when it was just "Gramp" and I. He was a spare and energetic man, constantly busy, and whenever we went to Oak Hill he seemed always to be in a special hurry. It seemed he couldn't wait to begin whatever chore that continually needed doing. In spring, it was the pasture fence that needed fixing. In summer, stray cattle had to be looked for — those that had found a weak place in the fence or hadn't shown up with the others at Sunday morning salting time. In fall, after a heavy wind storm, we hastily perambulated the fence line to make any needed repairs. Gramp's attitude was different though, when we went after Grandmother's Christmas tree. He wanted to please her and gave no appearance of caring how long it might take.
As my mind drifts back into those long-ago days, I remember my grandfather as a most unusual man. He could call by name all of the trees and wild flowers beside our path and the animals that scurried across it. He could tell when it was going to storm and when it would be clear. He could tell what bird was singing and where it might locate its nest. He knew when the hay was ready to make and when silage corn was ready to cut. He could fix broken things and make new things. I used to wonder how he knew so much and, truth to tell, I still do. It's hard to beat the old-timers when it comes to just plain knowing.
Oak Hill begins in the valley beside the river and rises until it becomes the height of land. Open pasture lay at its feet, but the rest of the hill was timbered, mostly with white pine, hemlock, maple, ash, some white oak, but mostly red oak. At the summit great oak trees used to stand, and it was from those that the hill had gained its name.
Winter or summer, whenever we visited Oak Hill, grandfather stopped at the pasture spring. The water, ice-cold even on the hottest summer's day, bubbled up and splashed its way through alder thickets on its way to the river.
Near the high ground was a wetland area where balsam and spruce trees grew. Climbing the hill, we'd pass beneath wild apple trees and see where deer had pawed the snow away to get at the frozen fruit. Grandfather used to point to things, like where a partridge had roosted the night before. He'd show me the thorn apple trees where the birds had fed on red, dried apples. Now and again a rabbit would start from under a brush heap and pound over frozen ground in search of a safer hide. I especially enjoyed arriving at the old railroad bed that bisected the hill. I liked to walk the ties and balance upon the rails. Both were removed long ago. The railroad ran east to west, dividing the hill into a top and bottom.
At the swampy area where the Christmas trees grew Grandfather always would say: "Pick out the one you think Grandmother would like, Boy." As I stood and searched with an eager but unacquainted eye, he was ready with a hint or two as to what to look for when selecting "Grandmother's tree." Finally selected, Grandfather swung the axe. It bit heavily into the tree. It was soon down. How proud I was to help drag the tree. On the way back to the wagon we'd stop and gather princess pine and hemlock boughs for decorations around window boxes and to drape beside the front door.
A trip with Grandfather for Grandmother's Christmas tree was an exhilarating adventure and one that created marvelous memories.
Oak Hill is mine now, and has been since Grandfather's passing. Currently, the old pasture is now managed by a professional forester. Early harvested hardwoods begat sprouts that are now nearly full-grown trees, many close to harvest. There remains an occasional trace of a first-growth oak stump hidden beneath the forest canopy. The pasture spring's sweet water, still is a delight to the taste.
Dying fireplace embers and fading remembrances say it's time to give the fire one last poke. Merry Christmas to all!
And, as Dickens' Tiny Tim said: "God Bless us, everyone."
Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, 03446.