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A walk in the woods for a tree

This is a simple story about finding my Christmas tree. It wouldn't have been unusual 100 years ago when more people lived on farms and walked in the woods regularly. But these scenes from country living are less common now, so I'm sharing.

>Dec. 8

The dogs are yelping, "Walk, please, walk, walk, time for a walk!" I give in, even though I have so much to do. We all need the exercise. Besides, I've been scouting my property for weeks to decide on a Christmas tree. Today, it's about 20 degrees out there so I put on wool, the big jacket, the barn boots.

The tree decision is a big issue in my small family. My college daughter wants a groomed, professionally grown tree. I understand. But 15 years ago we planted 1,200 trees, and I'll be darned if I'm going to buy one. Yes, they're way too big and were never pruned, but there must be one that's full enough and roughly cone-shaped. (Alice calls them "Charlie Brown trees," apparently not a good thing.) Such a tree won't make a magazine cover, but with all the ornaments and memories (from Grandma to nursery school art), it'll be beautiful.

>In the woods

My dog walks are not quiet, contemplative affairs. Hunters could be out there (even though it's posted, even with near neighbors.) So I wear bright clothes, try to be very noisy -- clapping, yelling, singing. Odds of gazing on wildlife are small. The tree search has narrowed down to four spruces -- the only ones nearly small enough, and maybe we'll use just the top two-thirds. (That's OK because the bottom branches reach up, and the tree will live as a habitat tree.) I want one that is struggling in its site -- too wet an area, getting choked by the invasive multiflora rose or too close to another tree. I'll try to choose it today and go for it next week, with a saw and a daughter or a friend, preferably not in a blizzard.

There it is -- probably the one. I brush the snow but stop suddenly. There's movement near the trunk. Something small lives there in a little cluster of needles and leaves. I get closer and out pops the head of a chipmunk, who's surely thinking the world is about to end. We both freeze and make eye contact. I smile and apologize; no way would I ruin his shelter. Another tree will do. I think about all the downed trees, all the branches and hollows that won't be there for homes and shelters this season. This chipmunk is one of the lucky ones.

>Back home

I'm not a land baroness. This is just an old farm, very hard to keep up. But meeting that chipmunk eye to eye and choosing my own imperfect Christmas tree are reasons enough to try to keep it going. Happy holidays, with my wish for special blessings on the naturalists, conservationists and landowners who care for the natural world.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer and former Cornell Extension educator.

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