by David Moloney
For the last eighteen years, on the day after Thanksgiving, while still digesting and dehydrated, I sell Christmas trees at a local fresh cut tree farm: Rollie’s Farm. Owned and named after Roland “Rollie” Perron, it is the only farm left in Lowell, MA. Lowell, a former mill town turned college city, has the fourth highest population in the state. So, Rollie’s Farm is a welcomed small business. He owns fifteen acres of land and has stuffed fifteen thousand trees onto it. Rollie’s is a true throwback. The tractor ride to the fields is an old converted, pop-up camper with custom benches that serves as a wagon. Trees are sawed down by hand. We shake the trees in the rumbling Lit’l Shakee tree shaker, and rid them of pine needles, cones, abandoned bird’s nests, and papery beehives. There’s wildlife not found anywhere else in the city: a rafter of turkeys, a bald eagle, woodchucks, and evidence of a bear (scat near the tall firewood pile). The rustic farm and its bearded owner are the real draw for the thousand or so customers that return each year. They pretend, for an afternoon, they live in Vermont or upstate New Hampshire, some other part of New England not overwhelmed and tired from endless traffic and long grocery lines. City dwellers, for the most part, love being in the city, but there’s a reason why we escape north for vacations.
The extra money during holiday season is welcomed, but isn’t the sole reason we get almost the same crew back each season. We have a small twelve-man team of engineers, welders, teachers, IT salesmen and cooks. We get to dust off the long johns and escape our enclosed workspaces for frosty New England mornings, saws and sap; the hard work of hoisting big trunked trees out of wagon campers, ripping them through too-small bailers, tossing them on cars. We welcome the soreness. Infrequent contact with physical work isn’t a bad problem to have. I wouldn’t tell a person who does stone work for a living that they don’t realize how good they have it, that each morning they should prepare for a moment of enlightenment during the strenuous work, when your body performs like it was meant to.
I only see many of the guys I work with once a year for three weekends. We don’t communicate much otherwise. But there’s also something intimate in our distance. That Friday after Thanksgiving we return to the farm as if we’d been working together year round. Inside jokes carry over, hugs, ribbing, stories from workers who came and left, eccentric customers who we may banter and wonder about in years they didn’t show up for their tree. After the long day, Rollie has beers ready inside the farmhouse. We pile in, needles and all, and warm our cheeks. Over beers, we tell stories of the farm, the people we’ve lost, and the ones who are still kicking.
Rollie is going gray and there are always rumors that he plans on selling the farm so developers can cram sixty houses in place of Balsam firs. I don’t know what they’ve offered him, but I can imagine it’d be enough to cover anything he’ll make from selling Christmas trees for the rest of his life. But he values hard work, and I don’t think he can leave it.
When I first started working for him at fifteen years old, I wanted to prove I could make it on the farm. I picked corn with him at 5:30 am and then worked my shift at the vegetable stand later in the day. For a week, I took the city bus to the outer edge of Lowell, changed in the barn, and built a greenhouse. I mowed in the fields to make room for seedlings, and then planted rows of Corkbark Firs with Rollie. He wasn’t talkative, the money wasn’t great, and the work was repetitive and strenuous, but I kept coming back. I hadn’t grown up with knowledge of tools or how to work with my hands. Rollie offered a different kind of place for me. There was openness, dirt under my nails, and certain rigidness in his criticism. He wouldn’t get angry or yell. He would just tell me I was tying tomato plants wrong. Then he’d show me. Then he’d make me tie them right. It was what a fifteen-year-old boy needed, or at least what I needed. Boys won’t listen to their fathers the same way they will a coach or boss or teacher.
If I had to poll the work crew, I imagine they’d all have a similar reason for working for Rollie. Even as we age, we still yearn for rusty tractors, cut-your-own tree farms, cash only payments, offline friends,a place where you don’t feel the connected weight of the world. And there’s promising news: Rollie just ordered a thousand more seedlings.
David Moloney is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. He currently teaches writing at UMASS Lowell and Southern New Hampshire University.