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.

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An elusive wildman, Homo sapiens chadii, reposing

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

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A red squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

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Three Rocky Mountain mule deer, Odocoileus hemionus hemionus

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A mule deer fawn making a bed

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A mule deer fawn relaxing in bed

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

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An apparently happy little mule deer fawn

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

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A young mule deer resting

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An elk in a December snowstorm

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

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A bobcat, Lynx rufus, approaching the camera

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The bobcat inspecting the camera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A coyote in April

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

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An amazing woman, Homo sapiens kristinii, contemplating

Bear Hike At Pole Creek Canyon

For our latest weekly adventure, Chad took me up to a place called Pole Creek Canyon.  We started our hike off-trail through some lovely Aspen forest, Chad pointing out bear claw marks on trees, and rocks overturned by bears looking for ants. Being pretty new to this type of hiking, that is, hiking in territory occupied by large carnivores, the bear info didn’t exactly make me feel relaxed.

Chad let me pick our direction so I took us toward a clearing, where we found a dirt road. We decided to follow the road (recently used by ATV’s, much to Chad’s dismay) through more Aspen forest. We kept waiting for the road to end, but it didn’t so we decided to leave the path and clamber up a hill, following a rocky path blazed by cattle (cow pie, anyone?).

As I emerged onto the top of the hill a beautiful vista opened up. I stood and looked around me, realizing that the mountains in every direction were all wild country. I noticed a recurrent theme to these hikes – my concern about being off trail in wild animal land would be washed away again and again by the beauty of the landscapes. I thought about the bear signs we’d seen and realized that even if there were, most certainly, bear in this area, there weren’t many and our chances of running into any were small. However, this didn’t stop me from considering my emergency bear encounter plan: sing opera, really loud.

After hanging out to do some yoga poses and take some photos on our little summit, we started walking back in the direction of our car. Chad noticed some interesting rocks, and then something even more interesting: seashell fossils in some limestone. Whoa Nelly! This was exciting stuff for me, my first wild fossil, out here in the middle of nowhere. There were actually 3 little shells in the rock. It’s mind-blowing to think of the passage of time, that this area was an ocean or inland sea millions of years ago, and that these little signs of that past epoch were still up here on this hill, revealed by ancient erosion, but untouched. And putting it into context like that, my bear fears became very, very small.

 

Read Chad’s chronicle of our hike and see his amazing photos.