Editor's note: The following are two installments of a multi-part series by correspondent Telly Halkias throughout the rest of 2007, culminating in the lighting of the Capitol Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 5.
John Adler, a forestry contractor with Northeast Woodland Training, is used to working alone in the woods, or at least with a very small crew.
Last Friday, though, he brought along 300 of his friends deep into the Green Mountain National Forest in Somerset, Vt., to help him take down a 60-foot balsam fir that is headed to Washington, D.C., this week as the official Capitol Christmas Tree.
Six months into the project - sponsored by the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, the Green Mountain National Forest and the National Capitol Buildings and Grounds Department - the public was finally clued into the tree's identity.
With the tree's location previously a well-kept secret, the throng of officials and media made its way up the mountain and into the woods on an appropriately snowy Vermont morning. Bundled up against the cold, they tromped in ankle-deep mud for a 10-minute trek to reach the site of the official cutting.
Local organizing committee chairpersons Joanne Erenhouse and Lindy Lynch concurred that all the hard work from around the state was finally coming to fruition.
"This is so much fun, and to top it off, it's snowing, in true Vermont fashion," Erenhouse said. "I'm really amazed at how many people came up the mountain in this weather to share in the moment."
Among the crowd, which included representatives of national media outlets, were Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, who, along with the state Legislature, has touted and supported Capitol Christmas Tree 2007 from its origins earlier this spring. Hannah Teter, the U.S. gold medal snowboarder in the 2006 Winter Olympics and a Vermont native, was also on hand as the project's official spokesperson.
"This tree will bring Vermont's beauty to the nation's capitol," Douglas said.
And that journey began Nov. 19 with a day full of events, including an evening parade in Bennington, which preceded the week-long caravan to Washington D.C. Approximately 100 volunteers and committee members comprise the motorcade.
The week-long caravan, from Nov. 19-26, visits the Leeds VA hospital on Nov. 21 for a full afternoon of visits to wounded veterans. It will culminate by delivering the Capitol tree with prior visits to Bethesda Naval Hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi chose Dec. 5 as the date for the official lighting ceremony. Vermont has supplied the Capitol tree five times in its history, most recently in 1994, when the effort also was organized by the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce.
The main Christmas tree will move by motorcade, and two dozen antique Mack trucks will carry it and 80 smaller Vermont trees to Washington, D.C., where they will be distributed to VIP recipients.
"The caravan is going to be a lot of fun, and cutting the tree gets the ball rolling - finally," Lynch said with a smile while wiping the snowflakes from her face. "A lot of people all over the state have put so much work into this; it's a tremendous statement for the volunteer spirit that New Englanders bring to the table."
And for the several hours that the crowd - uncommon to those remote woods - spent celebrating the tree cutting, everyone seemed aware that they were visitors to the wilderness. Following the festivities of official speeches, caroling from Castleton State College students, and photo ops for major media outlets, the woods will be to be returned to nature, and silence.
In this light, the agenda included a reminder of the environment's vastness by the rendering of a blessing from Nanatasis (Cheryl) Bluto-Devental of Goshen, Vt., an elder of the Abenaki Indian tribe. She performed a ritual that reflected the Native American value placed on the spirituality of winter, and the sacrifice of a living member of nature that gave so much to the wilderness lifecycle during its own 55-year lifespan.
"You don't take a life without giving back," Bluto-Devental said.
The tree was then gently lowered to the ground by crews from the Central Vermont Public Service and local and federal forestry officials, who hastened to protect its branches and begin the preparation process for the upcoming caravan.
"When Speaker Pelosi throws that switch on in December and lights the tree, we are all going to remember this day," Erenhouse said.