ASHFIELD — I have no long-held Christmas traditions; growing up, I didn’t celebrate the holiday, which makes navigating December as an adult with kids tricky. When you have to stop to consider the reasons behind everything from when to hang up stockings to what to eat for Christmas dinner (goose?), existential decision fatigue sets in fast.
Creating traditions out of nothing seems to defeat the whole concept of tradition — and yet, the allure of Christmas is weirdly eternal. I don’t mind the 24-hour Christmas music or even the ornaments offered alongside the Halloween candy at CVS. But à la Charlie Brown, I also want something deeper to ground the hoopla of the holiday season, and I’m not a churchgoer.
Which brings me to Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm. A 10-acre grove of balsam fir trees in Ashfield, Pieropan sells you-cut trees; but unlike a standard tree farm, with its neat rows of bushy spruces and firs in an open field, Pieropan’s trees grow in a forest that has been coppiced, meaning that the trees are cut and allowed to regrow. The shoots from the stumps — the coppices — are then sold as Christmas trees, allowing the tree to live and produce indefinitely.
At Pieropan, customers pull up to the side of a dirt road next to the festive red-and-green wooden trailer listing prices on a chalkboard ($40 for a tree of any size, wreaths from $25-$35, $30 for hand-carved wooden spoons, $3 for balsam sachets), grab a handsaw from a nail on a tree, and start up the muddy, sometimes steep paths that wind through the grove.
The experience is heady, but also requires patience and a sense of adventure. As the Pieropan website notes, the grove is “a managed forest, and as such it is a more wild experience.” Wild is the perfect descriptor; the shoots that grow off the stumps are not pruned, so they have the crocky, natural look of, well, real trees.
The farm has been in existence since the early 1950s, when Al Pieropan, a shop teacher in the Berkshires, began planting his property with balsam seedlings dug from the side of the road on his commute out to Adams. Emmet Van Driesche and his wife, Cecilia, took over from Pieropan in 2008. Both grew up in local towns and wanted a measure of control over where they ended up living.
“When you follow a career, you have to follow where it goes,” Van Driesche, 40, said in an interview at the farm. “And we decided we wanted to live where we wanted to live. So we had to figure out a career.”
That career has proved durable enough to afford Van Driesche the flexibility of devoting his time to other pursuits, including writing books about woodcraft, and wooden spoon carving. He sells 350-400 trees at the you-cut grove each season, plus 1,000 wholesale; wreath sales number around 700 total. As a former vegetable farmer, he feels lucky to be able to tend a piece of land without the work being “so all-consuming.”
Part of his reduced burden has to do with how the trees are grown. Van Driesche has never had to spray his trees because of the practice of coppicing, which encourages “a very diverse ecosystem,” allowing different tree and plant species to grow along with the evergreens that in turn encourage a diversity of insects to keep down pests that might harm a more monoculture farm. The fact that the trees are mature, with deep established root systems, makes the threat of drought less severe. Despite its benefits and history — coppicing is the oldest form of woodland management, dating back to the Neolithic era — the practice is rare for commercial tree growers now, according to Van Driesche.
On a damp Saturday last weekend, a steady stream of customers greeted the farmer as an old friend before heading off into the woods with toddlers, voices echoing off the hillside in the fog.
Shawna Stern of Easthampton, who arrived at the grove with her three sons and spouse, has been coming to the farm to get her tree for the past five years.
Pieropan trees last the entire month, she said, looking “fine as hell” without making a pine needle mess.
“We love it,” she wrote later, via Messenger, about the tree search. “And hate it a tiny bit by the end … right before we find our tree.”
It took me and my bewildered husband, Steve — who was unprepared to saw down a tree four feet off the ground — a long time and a lot of arguing to find ours. But when we did, it was a vintage beauty: slightly angular with open, uneven branches made for popcorn-cranberry garlands and knitted mittens.
There’s really nothing that makes our tree more authentic than any other Christmas tree. Only the experience makes it different: the mud, the search, the feeling of discovery, all of which I remember now when I bask in the glow of its lights. Steve isn’t totally convinced. The tree is wonky and gangly, with some weird bits sticking out, but I think it’s … whoops, prop it up a little there on the … yes. Perfect.
Francie Lin edits the Books section at the Globe.