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Minor marvels

February 1, 1984



A tree grows in Yakushima - but it's something of an imposter. The bear that roams Hatfield, however, is the real McCoy. Seems the tree, a kind of cedar called ''jomon,'' had been passing itself off as between 6,300 and 7,200 years old. Not so, says a persnickety new study. It's really only 2,200 years old - still impressive to those of us who couldn't keep a poinsettia going through January. Had it been the older figure, the world's oldest tree would have moved, so to speak, to Yakushima, Japan. Instead it stays put in California, where it's a 4,900-year-old bristlecone pine that answers to the name Methuselah.

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The bear also has a name: Freida. Whether she answers to it is not known.

Neither is it understood why she's not hibernating, the way all good bears except Goldilocks's three friends are supposed to in winter. Instead she's been strolling aimlessly through the western Massachusetts town of Hatfield like a teen-ager in search of a mall.

An expert calls her ''an urbanized bear,'' a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. If she doesn't soon put her stocking cap on she's going to be a ruralized bear: They'll take her up into the hills in hopes she'll settle down there for a long winter's nap.

Bears, it seems, are like halfway houses. Everybody thinks they're a good idea - ''but not in my neighborhood.''