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Arts & Culture

A Public Story About A Private Gift (Rebroadcast)

Sean Hurley, NHPR

When reporter Sean Hurley heard that one of his neighbors was giving away Christmas trees, he wanted to find out more about this local charity. And what he found was that this man's very public act, letting people wander over his property to pick out and cut down one of the Christmas Trees, was also very private. This story won Second Place in the 2007 Best Feature category from the New Hampshire Associated Press Broadcasters Association.

When I first spoke to Harry on the phone I could tell he wasn’t entirely comfortable with the idea of my coming to do a story on the way he celebrates Christmas. “I don’t want to be set up on a pedestal,” he said. But after assuring him on the phone that there would be no pedestals and no heroes, he reluctantly agreed to meet with me. So upon arriving, I wasn’t too surprised to hear that he’d had second thoughts:

HP: Hi, how you doing? SH: Good, how you doing? HP: Did you get my message? SH:: Oh, no I didn’t. HP: Yeah, I said I wasn’t interested… SH: Oh, I’m sorry. HP: No - not a problem. I thought it was someone coming to get a tree. I was just coming out to help them.

I wasn’t sure if the interview was over as Harry explained his misgivings…

"I don’t need any limelight. I’m an easygoing guy and secondly I don’t want to have 20 people coming up here that are freeloaders."

Harry’s secret forest of beautiful Christmas trees will not be made available to the public at large. But then - who are the trees for?

"The trees I give away are to mostly to single working moms and people that can’t afford a tree…and that’s what I do."

Harry spreads the word about his trees by means of a little sheet that he distributes to the local pubs and taverns –

"So I basically tell anyone that is employed there if they can come get a tree, they can. They don’t hang it on a wall, cause I asked them not to, cause I don’t want just everybody coming up and getting trees."

Harry lives right on the edge of the wilderness. Behind his yard is the old fashioned world of mountains and rivers and trees. There’s about a foot of snow and it’s very cold, maybe 10 degrees, as we walk the 50 yards or so to the stand of Christmas trees. They’re set out on the open expanse to one side of the house.

SH: So now how many people have you had come out to cut down trees so far? HP: I think probably about 15 people have been here already this year. And I had a hundred trees and it’s dwindling down. What I want to do is get rid of all of em so I can plant so more trees. SH: And what kind of trees are these? HP: Mostly balsam firs. That’s a regular Christmas tree. There’s a few spruce in here. They’re all around, I’m gonna say, 8 years, 9 years. They grow about a foot a year. SH: Does that mean the taller ones are getting more light? HP: I don’t know what it is, but what’s interesting is people like small ones.

Harry brushes snow from the limbs of a small tree and jounces its plumage to show it in its best light. It’s striking and strange that these trees are of such wildly different heights and vitality. And they’re all about the same age. Some are 2 foot tall and waiting for Charlie Brown to show up and have pity – other 10 foot beauties show off their perfect isosceles shape and density.

It should be said here that Harry isn’t specifically Christmassy in his charity. He gives food away too. As I arrived, he was working on some sour dough bread to be taken down later to some women in town. In the summer, too, Harry has several gardens and though he harvests for himself, there is plenty left over.

"In the summer I give a lot of food away…and then I get to a point where I just back my truck up, open the back up and I have bags there and I’ll say there’s a free market out there…and mostly the women go running out cause they know the value more than some single guy sitting there drinking a beer…"

I had seen a sheet of paper taped to the garage door and a box of some kind on the driveway and I asked Harry about these.

"I have a saw down here with twine and scissors and it basically just says 'Go cut a tree and please bring the saw back for the next family and Merry Christmas.'"

As we walk back down to the house Harry makes it clear that he gets something from his giving.

"I had some lady, I didn’t even know her…and she came down to the bar the other day and she said 'I really appreciate what you did…' She said, 'I wouldn’t have a tree otherwise…' So that made me feel good."

And that’s all there is to it, I think. That’s enough for Harry. Which is why he’s so reticent about my doing a story about him – about this. Because nothing else need be added here. The circle of giving and receiving is complete without any need for observation. And in a way, I think, Harry is letting me do this story - for me. I didn’t come here needing a tree. I came here needing a story. And that’s what he gave me. Thank you Harry - and Merry Christmas!