The German woods are sick - and the Germans are sick at heart about it.

Ranger Bernd Reissmann plucks a fallen beech branch from the frosty floor of Vogelsberg Mountain, whose 16,800 acres of woods northeast of Frankfurt are the domain of his state forest office.The beech stems are curved and arthritic looking, a sign of stunted growth. Ozone and nitrogen and sulfur oxides from smog cause the leaves to shrink, the stems to turn upward like claws.

And the fabled Tannenbaum fir have disappeared entirely from the state forest inventory, sickened by smog, then chewed to death by bark beetles.

In Bavaria, the fir population has shrunk by half in 25 years. In Baden-Wuerttemberg's Black Forest, half the fir trees are badly damaged.

Practically all the old beeches in Reissmann's woods are sick. So are the old spruce. Across Hesse, the central German state where the Vogelsberg is located, only 4 out of every 100 trees over 60 are healthy.

The sick woods hasn't meant fewer Christmas trees. European Union agreements to cut food production have led to a boom in fir plantations on fallow farmland in Germany.

The average Christmas fir is 10 or 20 years old - too young, generally, to have been seriously damaged by any of the tree plagues haunting Germany.

What worries Germans is the condition of their fabled woods.

Germany is one of the most forested lands in Europe, with 30 percent of its area in timber. But 38 percent of trees older than 60 are seriously damaged, according to an annual government survey released this month.

And the number of damaged trees has doubled since 1984, when the first federal inventory was conducted.

"It's pretty depressing to see the woods get worse and worse," said Ulrike Hoefken of the environmentalist Greens party.

This summer, the Hesse environment minister, ordered a statewide speed limit to lower ozone levels. The Greens want a nationwide gasoline tax, using the funds to increase rail traffic, reduce auto use and help save the trees.

"The grove is the center of their whole religion," the Roman historian Tacitus wrote of the Germans 2,000 years ago. "It is regarded as the cradle of the race and dwelling-place of the supreme god to whom all things are subject and obedient."

The Brothers Grimm saw the forest as the symbolic preserve of German culture. "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Hansel and Gretel," their most famous fairy tales, are set amid deep, silent firs.

The forest is even linked to German grouchiness.

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"The German is deep, like the forest," Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, Germany's leading pollster, said in a recent interview. "He doesn't go in for superficial chitchat."

When the government puts out its annual Damaged Forest Report, moans of woe go up from the Greens and other tree-huggers. But the theme of the dying woods is something of a German perennial.

Meanwhile, Reissmann has noticed something odd about his woods. The more the spruce needles turn yellow and fall off, the faster the trees seem to grow.

Reissmann calls it the "doping effect." The nitrogen and sulfur that damage the needles work as fertilizers in some soil, such as the rich loam of the Vogelsberg.

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