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With trees, bigness means a lot


WHEN hunting for a Christmas tree, you are, according to Roger Highfield, author of "The Physics of Christmas," supposed to look for a tree with a straight trunk that slips easily into the stand. You also want limbs angling upward at 45 degrees, a uniform conical shape tapering downward at 40 degrees and good needle retention.

I disagree. Who wants such a cookie-cutter, perfect tree? Gimme a tree with character.

According to Matthew Evans, the landscape architect of the Capitol, the tree to end all trees is the National Capitol Christmas Tree in Washington.

I have only seen photographs of this tree, but it is towering, about 50 feet tall. It does have a distinguished lineage. It is a Fraser fir from the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. And it looks good in photographs. But it has a secret. It required considerable cosmetic help to look so good. Extra branches were nailed to its trunk to make its body pleasingly plump.

Ha, I snickered when I learned that the "gorgeous" tree was not all natural. It had had branch-enhance- ment surgery.

Such tree sniping is common these days. It is part of the "my tree is better than your tree" behavior that many guys engage in, especially if they, like me, have recently spent several hours wrassling with the family fir.

Our clan made its annual trek to the Christmas tree farm last Saturday. Compared to previous years, the outing went smoothly. That is slight praise when you consider the catastrophic nature of our previous Christmas tree excursions. We seem to have a penchant for picking trees that don't fit in the house, or in the tree stand. That didn't happen this year.

So invoking the outlook of the late City Councilman Mimi DiPietro -- who shortly after Mount St. Helen's erupted told a national TV audience that Baltimore was a great town because "we ain't got no volcanoes" -- I surmised that since there were no disasters on this year's tree outing, it was a monumental success.

As soon as this year's tree was sawed down, people began to remark on its size.

"That's a big tree," the guy driving the tractor remarked as he, one of my kids and I lifted the Douglas fir onto the farm wagon that would carry it from the field of the Carroll County tree operation to the checkout area.

At the netter -- the device that compresses the branches and covers them with plastic netting -- another worker was worried about the size of our tree.

That tree, he said, might be too big to squeeze through the netter. He asked me if I wanted to risk breaking branches by putting the tree through the device.

I pondered the question -- to net or not to net -- but only for a second. It was a no-brainer. Always go for the netting. A compressed tree is a docile tree -- much easier to transport on top of the car and much easier to carry into the house than unruly types that are free of netting.

When we got our netted tree home, my two teen-age sons and I lugged it into the living room without incident. That is when I began to worry about the size of the tree trunk -- it looked fatter than Jabba the Hutt.

Quickly one of the kids reassured me that this year there would be no need to perform the chainsaw surgery that I had attempted, with sawdust and swear words flying, on last year's tree trunk.

The kid reminded me that our new tame-a-redwood-style tree-holder has an auger that bores into the tree high up the trunk. By grabbing the tree high on the trunk, not at the bottom, the new stand let us avoid the problem of trying to squeeze the bottom of tree into a small holder. This new tree stand might have cost me a small fortune, but it could accommodate fat tree trunks and therefore soothe my savage, sawing instincts.

In a matter of minutes, the tree was in the stand, the netting was removed and the tree branched out and remained stable. The tree was very wide, and not especially towering. One of the kids remarked that when compared to Christmas trees from previous years, "this is one of our shorter trees."

The other day I measured the tree and it turned out to be 8 1/2 feet tall and 7 feet wide. It is a tree that has a full, wide-body, Jabba the Hutt look.

This tree does not conform to precise specifications for the perfect Christmas tree set out in "The Physics of Christmas." And even with branch-enhancement surgery it could not rival the size of the National Capitol Christmas Tree.

But it looks great in our living room. It fills up the front windows, and already has garnered what I regard as the ultimate man-on-the street compliment from a passer-by.

I was watering the tree when I heard a couple of guys talking as they walked along the sidewalk past our front window. One fellow stopped, looked at the Christmas tree and said something like "That is one big-donkey tree." He really used another word for donkey, one we don't put in the newspaper.

Such praise may not count for much with the physicists of the world and with landscape architects in the nation's capital. But on the sidewalks of Baltimore, that is about as good as it gets.

Pub Date: 12/12/98

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