Wonderful Lives

Kristina and I have made an annual holiday tradition of watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” – with its message about one person’s life making a difference to so many other lives. This seems especially pertinent to me now because over the past several months so many people I was connected with passed away – including a couple of cousins, three aunts, and my blacksmithing teacher – and I’ve thought about how each of them made a difference to me and to the other people around them.

Making a difference to others isn’t just about people. In the past year Kristina and I also lost a dog and a cat, and we have often thought about the positive impacts they had in our lives.

And we ourselves have had opportunities to make a difference – not just to other people, but also to members of other species, including the hungry, sick little Siamese kitten we found at the end of our lane. We took her in, named her Loki, cared for her, and now she’s a beautiful, rambunctious member of our household.

I think we should go even further and acknowledge positive connections with all kinds of organisms, including plants. For example, Kristina and I are still benefitting from last year’s wonderful harvests from our apricot tree and our apple tree. What a great relationship – we give them some care and watering and they give us bushels of fruit!

I also feel like I benefit so deeply from wild plants and animals. I get joy from hiking or skiing in forests or deserts, and from seeing wild animals (or from just knowing they’re out there, doing the things wild animals do). And lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationships between forests and wildlife.

A few years ago while hiking in a nearby National Forest with my dad, sister, and niece, we were heading down a steep slope toward a stream. I went ahead of the others to find the best route down – and part way down the slope I came to a tall ponderosa tree that had a little flat area just downslope from it. This little flat area had a fallen ponderosa on one side of it, creating a protected area.

The area was covered with pine needles and had the look of a nice little bed, where wild animals might want to hunker down and rest. It looked like such a nice place to hang out – and I noticed evidence that something had been hanging-out there: a little bit of fur mixed into the pine needles, and a bunch of scat (apparently bear) downslope from the bed.

Life got busy and a few years went by, but I didn’t forget about the bed on that slope – and I kept thinking about putting a trail camera there for wildlife photos. Then one February day I called my dad and asked him if he’d like to go back to the area with me, and he agreed. It was a relatively snowless winter so conditions didn’t stop us from going there on Dad’s eighty-second birthday.

Dad hiked with me to the rim of the canyon and watched while I went down the slope and secured a camera to the limbs of the fallen tree next to the bed. Then I hiked back up, and Dad and I had a good hike back to the vehicle – talking and snapping photos as we went – and enjoyed the beautiful scenery as we drove down from the mountain.

The camera sat there for over a year and a half – until I came back last summer to check it, this time with Kristina. There were no bears in the photos, but what I saw was striking.

Many other animals had stopped at this little protected spot in the forest, from squirrels, to deer, to coyotes. Looking through my trail camera photos, I realized that it’s a place where many kinds of animals are able to take a little break from their busy lives and rest in a comfortable, cozy place.

I have come to call the area “the resting place” not only because animals like to stop there, but also because it’s the final resting place of a tree, dead and fallen but still making a difference to other lives by providing shelter. It’s amazing to see what a difference a couple of trees in the right location, alive or dead, can make in the lives of so many different wild animals.

So much can be lost when even the smallest piece of habitat is damaged or destroyed. I hope that generations from now that little place in the woods is still protected and offering wild animals a safe spot to rest.

As we begin this new year, and this new decade, may we humans do all we can to make life better – not only for other people, but for all of the other organisms we share this earth with; may we appreciate not only the things other people do for us, but the things all kinds of other life forms do for us and for each other; and may we always remember, as George Bailey had to realize in that timeless movie, that it truly is a wonderful life.


An elusive wildman, Homo sapiens chadii, reposing


A herd of Rocky Mountain elk, Cervus canadensis nelsoni. There are at least seven in this photo


A red squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus


Three Rocky Mountain mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus hemionus


A mule deer fawn making a bed


A mule deer fawn relaxing in bed


A mule deer buck, his growing antlers covered in velvet, checking things out


An apparently happy little mule deer fawn


A two-point mule deer buck (possibly the same buck as earlier after a month’s growth)


A young mule deer resting


An elk in a December snowstorm


A coyote, Canis latrans, checking-out the elk bed – a little over 3 hours after the photo of the elk


A bobcat, Lynx rufus, approaching the camera


The bobcat inspecting the camera


A mountain cottontail (also called Nuttall’s cottontail), Sylvilagus nuttallii


A bobcat, out and about in the middle of the day in January


A black-billed magpie, Pica hudsonia (bottom center of photo)


A pack of coyotes. One came and laid down and then the others joined it 


One coyote in the afternoon of the same day as the previous photo (a lot of snow had melted)


A coyote the day after the previous photos. Note the fresh snow at the site – and on the coyote.


A Steller’s jay, Cyanocitta stelleri (center left of photo between ground and snow)


A coyote in April


A Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel, Callospermophilus lateralis (they look like chipmunks but without the facial stripes)


An amazing woman, Homo sapiens kristinii, contemplating

Oh Christmas Tree!

I’ve been humming “Oh Christmas Tree” a lot this year. It started two days after Thanksgiving, when Kristina and I went to the mountains to do a little skiing. After so much time preparing food, and so much time eating food, an outdoor adventure seemed like a good idea. I knew I could use some fresh air and some exercise, and there are few things I enjoy as much as cross-country skiing.


As we prepared for our adventure I thought about the roads and wondered how drivable they would be, with the new snow from a recent storm. What I didn’t think about was that this was the weekend after Thanksgiving and everybody and their dog would be going to the mountains to cut Christmas trees for their homes. So when we drove to the canyon we found not only deep snow in the roads, but a lot of pickup trucks plowing their way through that deep snow. Normally when we go to the mountains we hardly see anybody, but this time there were people all over the place.


When I was a kid my family had real Christmas trees, but we never cut them ourselves. Instead we’d wait for school to let out for Christmas break, and then we’d go take the tree from the school my dad taught at (saving somebody else the work of getting rid of it). To this day my mom dislikes the idea of going out and cutting a live tree to briefly put in your house and then toss.


One year a woman who spoke at a Christmas church service talked about an especially beautiful little tree growing on a rugged ledge, visible from a road the woman’s family frequently traveled on, and she said each time she’d seen that tree she’d commented about how much she wanted it for a Christmas tree. She went on to say that one year her husband and sons made their way out onto the ledge and cut the tree for her and hauled it to their home. After the church service my family talked about the story and my mom insisted the woman shouldn’t have been happy about having that tree in her house, but instead should’ve been sad that she would never again see it out there on the ledge where it belonged. I agreed with Mom.


During my years as a bachelor I didn’t see the need for a Christmas tree in my house. A time or two I did put lights on a houseplant, and once I bought one of those little potted trees that you’re supposed to plant after the ground thaws – but it didn’t survive much past Christmas.

Then one year when I went to the Holly Fair, where people sell crafts, and at one of the booths I saw a bunch of old pallet boards cut and nailed together in the shape of a Christmas tree, about four feet tall, and I decided that would be my annual Christmas tree.


A few years went by, I married Kristina, and today those old boards nailed together in the shape of a Christmas tree are still doing their job. It doesn’t look like much until it’s decorated, but then it looks pretty good – thanks especially to Kristina’s idea of putting little nails on the boards to hang ornaments and lights from. It does a great job of making our little old house look festive and cheerful.


“But what about the Christmas tree smell?” you might ask, “Your little pallet tree doesn’t have that smell does it?” No it doesn’t, but I have an answer for that. Go out to the woods and find a live tree and enjoy its smell, and enjoy the fresh air around it, and enjoy the fact that it’s taking in carbon dioxide and pumping out fresh oxygen. Don’t cut it down and haul it to your house – leave it there to enjoy again the next time you visit it.


You won’t just enjoy it for a few weeks and then have to get rid of it. You can keep going back to the same tree year after year, watching it grow – winter, spring, summer, and fall. And it doesn’t have to be a tree that would fit in your house – it can be whatever size you can find in your nearby woods.


Or you can find a new tree to celebrate each year. You can have several Christmas trees, and visit them throughout the year. And you should know that when nature takes its course and a tree dies it still plays a role in the ecosystem – providing habitat for animals, and eventually putting nutrients back into the soil.


Back to our post-Thanksgiving ski adventure. Kristina and I pulled off on the side of the road. As we put on our skis and headed off through the sagebrush a few trucks went by with cut trees loaded in the back, and I noticed that some of them were ponderosas – one of my favorite species. There’s a ponderosa in a nearby canyon that’s one of my favorite trees I’ve ever met. I love to climb up into it and enjoy the view from its branches, and I love the characteristic vanilla smell of its bark. I’m so glad nobody cut it down for a Christmas tree when it was small, and I hope nobody ever cuts it down for any reason. It’s an amazing tree.


I broke ski-trail through the fresh snow, with Kristina following in my tracks, and we gradually got further and further from the road. As we wove our way through the forest we were struck by how beautiful the trees were with their blankets of new snow.


We came to a ponderosa that stood out not only because it was bigger than most of the others, but because its bark was so orange that it almost seemed to glow. I turned to Kristina and asked, “Honey, can this be our Christmas tree this year?”


Seeing this tree reminded me of a time before I met her when I’d skied alone in the mountains on Christmas Eve. I’d come to a big old spruce tree and had stopped and admired it for a while and had said to myself, “This is my Christmas tree this year.” I’d then skied out onto an open point as it got dark, looked out at the lights in the distance below, sang a few Christmas songs, and then skied back to the road.


I told Kristina about this memory as we skied around the golden-barked ponderosa, and under it’s drooping limbs that almost touched the ground in places. She agreed that we should call it our Christmas tree for this year. We skied back to our vehicle and headed home.


It’s the day after Christmas and we’re enjoying our little re-purposed pallet tree, looking so pretty on our wall with its lights and pretty ornaments. But I’m also thinking about our other Christmas tree, snug in its home in the mountains, with its glowing orange bark that smells like vanilla – and I’m still humming “Oh Christmas Tree.”