A walk in the woods yields more than a ‘perfect’ Christmas tree

RIPTON — This year, given the dismal rain and unseasonably warm weather, we needed a different sort of adventure for getting our family Christmas tree, so we plunked down $5 at the National Forest ranger station in Middlebury and headed into the hills.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Christmas tree program has been around for decades, according to Forest Service Public Affairs Officer Ethan Ready. This year, the State House Christmas tree was a 32-foot-tall balsam fir harvested in a section of the national forest near Hancock (there’s a 20-foot limit for the rest of us). And trees from the Green Mountain Forest have supplied the U.S. Capitol as recently as 2007.
“We have a lot of repeat customers, people whose parents used to bring them and now they’re parents and so they’re bringing the kids,” said Ready. “It’s really the experience — that old time Vermont tradition of getting out in search of that perfect Christmas tree. I think a lot of people enjoy the tradition of packing the kids in the car, grabbing a bow saw and a sled, and in a typical year trudging through the snow and getting out in the elements in search of that perfect tree.”
Ready and his own son have been hiking into the forest to find their tree for the past several years.
“This year, we picked the date and we had our permit and we went to our spot and spent a good hour and a half out in the woods,” said Ready. “We got some exercise, checked out the beaver pond, checked out this cool root on a tree that had toppled over, saw some birds, got our feet cold and wet — all the experiences you’re looking for.”
True aficionados, Ready and son, Abraham, 7, hiked around and picked out a likely tree in a likely spot last summer.
“We’ve been going to the same area in Lincoln for a few years because it yields some really nice trees,” he said. He wouldn’t divulge any further details on the location.
According to Ready, if you want a fuller, more symmetrical tree — a bit more like a tree from a tree farm or Christmas tree lot — you’ll find a place where the sun is able to reach the understory. Often a good spot can be found near a beaver pond, in a beaver meadow or in one of the NFS’ wildlife management areas that’s been groomed to be more open.
My family jammed in the car late on a Sunday afternoon, drove east of Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus and headed south on Forest Road 67. As we climbed uphill, scanning the forest on the west side of the road, where we’d been told it was legal to cut (a wilderness area begins off to the east), we suddenly realized that our studded snow tires were still in the basement. Another anomaly in this winter’s strange beginning.
In typical but very un-Thoreau-like fashion, we had to get our oldest daughter back home in time for a babysitting appointment, so the clock was ticking. And we realized, as we scanned the forest, looking for that “perfect tree,” that perfection was far more conveniently found at a tree lot.
Light is at a premium in a forest with 80-some-years of regrowth. The trees are densely packed. And most strain toward the sun. This usually results in a tall, less-bushy evergreen. Every so often, one of our daughters plaintively asked if we could just buy a tree anyway because it would be prettier and not so much like a “Charlie Brown tree.”
But despite all this, despite our foolish constraints of time and foolish schedules, our foolish list of tasks that kept us chained to the house for far too long on a perfectly beautiful day, being in the forest was a sure step out of human time and human worry into the regenerative world of nature. We stopped fretting, we started tromping, and we starting looking around and smelling and listening and seeing.
There was a light dusting of snow underfoot — miracle of miracles! Little rivulets trickled westward through the undergrowth, maybe heading toward Goshen Brook or towards the South Branch of the Middlebury River. We noticed a row of holes drilled into tree bark by some woodpecker, maybe, looking for insects. We noticed tan and green eared fungi growing out from the north side of a tree like a series of little, rounded canopies. Moss in the snow. Ferns in the snow. A large oval cavity gouged deep in a tree, where maybe deeper in some squirrel or other little animal might have a den. A  “snag” towering overhead with a diagonal gash traveling much of the length of its trunk.
We kept tromping and we found a tree: an eastern hemlock something north of 20 years old and 8-12 feet tall, that was well shaped all around. We cut the tree, dragged it through the snow, tied it on the car and drove home, where we strung it with so many lights that it sparkles like a sort of fairy tree.
We did not, however, hang our heaviest ornaments this year. Truth be told, those stayed in the box.
Talking with Ready and colleague Steve Roy, who oversees the Forest Service programs in fire management, botany, soils, and fish and wildlife for both the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes national forests, made me appreciate our tree and our all-too-fast dash through the woods even more.
According to Roy, hemlocks, though not an important tree commercially, are an important tree species in Vermont, with many ecological benefits. Hemlocks like to grow along streams, where they keep the water temperature just right for native species of fish. Even when they topple over and fall into the stream, hemlocks again create special habitat for fish and salamanders, which seek safety and refuge by hiding in the submerged roots and branches. Brook trout, especially like the microhabitat that these little hemlock-fashioned pools create.
Hemlocks benefit larger mammals, said Roy, by helping to create migration corridors and winter habitat. White tailed deer, especially, seek the protection of a canopy of hemlocks. They can stay warmer and move around better, underneath the branches where there’s less snow.
Birds, too, seek the “thermal buffer,” as Roy called it, that hemlocks provide against the winter’s cold. Overwintering birds like chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, blue jays and grouse will all seek out a warmer perch on its short-needled branches.
I described the snags I’d seen near “our” hemlock, and Roy mentioned how beneficial snags are to so many species: woodpeckers, sapsuckers, chickadees, nuthatches looking for food; birds of prey perching and looking for something warm and tasty that’s moving; squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, moles and voles looking for burrows.
The rivulets we observed, still moving and quietly gurgling through the not-yet-frozen woods, Roy referred to as “ephemeral channels,” little spider web-like feeders that provide a recharge of groundwater and eventually flow into larger perennial streams.
When I told Roy and Ready how our daughters had first doubted that nature was a good place to find a Christmas tree, Roy replied, philosophically:
“Well, nature grows them a little differently.”
Next year? I’m grabbing a topographical map and mapping out my beaver ponds and meadows and wildlife management areas now … in search of that perfect tree.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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