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The hands in question are indeed capable—large, square and hard as wooden mallets—and they're attached to an equally capable body. Harold may be 63 years old, but at six feet and 195 pounds he still moves with the controlled power of a young Prussian soldier. Years of exposure to the sun and wind have burnished his face to the deep red-brown of mahogany, and his movements around the farm have the surety of well-learned recitations.
The farm is of the same type and size it was when Gaetz first arrived. "We do a little of everything here," Harold says, "and it keeps us some busy. We have the animals, of course—the old and the young yoke of oxen, the chickens, the pigs, the beef cattle, the milk cow and Champ, my big Percheron. The money comes from selling off a big, well-broke oxteam as I bring my young ones along. In fact, I may sell Bright and Lion soon [in fact, they were sold five weeks ago, to be replaced by a pair of 2-year-olds also named Bright and Lion, as have been all the family's oxen since John Gaetz arrived in Nova Scotia]. They're the heaviest team I've ever had. The off ox, Lion, girts over nine feet, which means he weighs well over a ton. Of course, we sell a few beef cattle and pigs every year—them we don't eat. And we raise extra turnips and potatoes to sell, and other vegetables, too, by times, but our main money crop comes from our woodlots."
Thirty of the Gates's acres are cleared, and the rest are covered by a mixture of hardwoods, including several varieties of poplar, birch, oak, ash and maple, and softwoods, including assorted hemlocks, pines, spruces and firs. "We always cut in a cycle here," Harold explains, "so we never take more than the land can grow. We've got more wood on the place now than there was when the family came. I sell a big junk of pulpwood every year, and some firewood and saw timber, and the odd lot offence stakes every now and again. But our big cash crop for years has been our Christmas trees."
Forty acres of the Gates farm is set aside for a Christmas-tree lot, all of it now in balsam fir. The lot was created by felling the tall trees from those 40 acres for pulp or firewood so the young native fir could sprout and grow unshaded; it is maintained by cutting back the young trees and brush of other varieties so they won't crowd out or misshape the firs.
"I go into the woods in April, before the new growth starts, to do my trimming and shaping for the coming Christmas season," Harold says, "and I work there until I have to begin my later spring chores on the farm. I cut the brush back with shears and an ax, and I do most of my shaping with a long knife I made out of an old crosscut saw blade. I use it like them Indians use machetes—I cut downward and out from the center o'er the whole tree to make the branches even. Most are even by their nature, but I help 'em along a bit.
"Late in the fall I begin to cut and stack the trees beside my woods road. That would be the first week of November, and I'd not think it's a good day unless I cut and drag and stack 200 trees. Some men always cut with a chain saw, but I often still use an ax with a good sharp edge onto it. The sap from the cut fir smells fresh without all that gasoline and oil to get in the way, and it's so quiet without a saw that the woods are more interesting. Just the other day I was in the tree lot, cutting, when I heard an eagle cry, and when I looked up, I saw him dive on a rabbit. And by God if he didn't miss the rabbit on the first rush but catch him by half flying and half running along the ground. I've never seen the beat of it, and if I'd been using a power saw I'd have missed the whole thing."
After Harold has piled several hundred trees beside his narrow woods road, he'll go to the barn, take the yoke down from its peg, strap it to the heads of the oxen, lead them from the barn, hitch them to either a rubber-tired wooden wagon or, if there's snow on the ground, a double-runnered sled and drive them out to bring the trees up nearer the house where they can be picked up by the local wholesaler.
Dale Joudrey has run Scotia Best Xmas Tree Ltd. in Elmwood with the help of her two sons since her husband died in 1981. "We don't go over 30 miles or so away from Elmwood to buy," she says, "and there we're only one of the wholesalers. We hope to ship almost 50,000 trees this year of the 750,000 that come from Lunenburg County. Our peak time to ship comes from American Thanksgiving till about the 10th of December.
"Our best trees are what we call single ties. They're perfect, and we don't tie them with another tree. The ones we do tie, we bale with between two and eight trees, depending on size. We tie them by hand, and the taller they are the fewer we put in a bale. Once we're hard at it in the fall, we'll have 28 to 30 people working for us, grading and stacking and baling and loading the trucks that carry the trees down south. Some of the other shippers will go really far south, as far as Atlanta. And the demand's growing, so I guess as long as them fellows in the States have Christmas we'll send 'em down our trees."
All of which suits Harold just fine, because trees provide him with a reliable, renewable cash crop as well as a good reason to use his beloved oxen out in those quiet, sweet-smelling woods. And to a man like Harold, oxen give greater pleasure than he could ever derive from work with a machine. No doubt only someone who has raised a calf and carefully mated it, then cared for and trained it over a period of years so that it would grow from a spindly, mewling baby into half of a two-ton extension of his teamster can understand what Harold feels. And no doubt only someone who walks every day of his life on the same paths his father, grandfather and great-grandfather walked, following behind them in the dailiness of a small farm's patterns, using in the living woods cries learned from men long dead to control the power of the yoked team, can understand what it means to find a good way to live and then, by God, hew to it.