Wednesday, December 3, 2008

ROANOKE | Merry foresters needled one another.

Tentatively, with arms flung open wide, Joe Francis, 3, walked up to hug the tree.

Young Joe vaguely understood that the 20-foot-tall Colorado blue spruce towering above him in his grandparents’ yard in southwest Roanoke was bound for holiday glory in Richmond.

The sky threatened snow. A grinning neighbor stopped by in slippers.

Only a Grinch could have robbed the scene’s pre-Christmas cheer.

The chain-saw-wielding state foresters had arrived in three white pickups and a big, white flatbed covered by a forest-green tarp.

They’d come because David and Dreama Huffman had invited them. The Huffmans, who know a few things about Christmas trees, had offered to donate their 36-year-old evergreen to be Virginia’s Christmas tree - destined to be lit Friday at the state Capitol’s South Portico.

The spruce had made the cut.

Evaluators had included Chris Thomsen, assistant regional forester for the Virginia Department of Forestry. He was one of several forestry types at the Huffmans’ house last week.

The family’s tree was the right height and right species, Mr. Thomsen said. And it was as full and shapely as a model for painter Peter Paul Rubens.

The Colorado blue spruce promised “good needle retention,” Mr. Thomsen said.

The Huffman family owns and runs the Spruce Ridge Tree Farm, an operation near Newport that sells Christmas trees.

David Huffman is a member of the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association. His farm donated a 12-foot Fraser fir last year for the governor’s mansion.

For this Christmas, the mansion’s Fraser fir was donated by Sue Bostic, co-owner of Joe’s Trees in Craig County and a cousin of Mr. Huffman’s.

But this year’s Virginia Capitol 20-footer came from the Huffmans’ own lawn.

“I don’t have any this tall at the farm,” Mr. Huffman said. “When they get up to 10 feet, we try to sell them.”

But why rob their yard of a fine and dandy tree given to them as a seedling in 1972 by a relative who inspired the Huffmans to become tree growers?

Well, the spruce fit the criteria, he said.

Dreama Huffman provided another explanation.

Last year, she watched as her husband started to decorate the tall tree for Christmas.

“I saw his ladder tip,” she said. “It scared me to death.”

Mr. Huffman, who will soon turn 70, did not fall, but Mrs. Huffman said it was a close enough call.

The morning’s damp chill turned cheeks red as a half-dozen foresters prepped the spruce for felling by wrapping its lower half in twine. Make that “attempting to” wrap the lower half in twine.

At first, circling counterclockwise, they tied the branches up. Then, they decided to tie the branches down.

“How many Department of Forestry employees does it take to wrap a tree?” quipped Jeanie Francis, Mr. Huffman’s daughter and three-year-old Joe’s mother.

In high spirits, the foresters smiled. It was not every day they labored to protect a tree destined for fame.

At 10:40 a.m., Matt Spencer, a forest technician, fired up his Husqvarna chain saw with its 20-inch bar and crawled beneath the spruce’s lowest branches. Seconds later, the tree fell.

Yet the spruce didn’t seem to want to leave. Estimated to weigh about a ton, the tree mightily resisted loading. It eventually gave in.

The evergreen had a few minor flaws from the start, including a gap or two between branches.

No big deal, Mr. Thomsen said, “as long as you get one good side that faces the public.

“I don’t think anybody ever wants a perfect tree.”

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