Points North: Taking a Break on Christmas Day

Snowshoe Hare (Denali National Park & Preserve/Flickr)
Snowshoe Hare (Denali National Park & Preserve/Flickr)

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Christmas vacation once meant rabbits. Duluth's suburban outback where I grew up was bursting with bunnies. Cottontails inhabited backyards. Winter-white snowshoe hares thrived in the alder swamps and balsam thickets of the mini-wilderness that began where the backyards ended. We pursued both with the fervor of foxes, first with braided-wire snares and later, as adolescents, with hunting bows.

In my grade school years I'd set a dozen snares to be checked diligently every day after school, as I dreamed of being a trapper in the far north. On winter evenings, I'd read whatever I could find about the north, especially adventure stories like Farley Mowat's classic, “Lost in the Barrens.”

My favorite book, “Swiftwater,” by Paul Annixter, was about a boy growing up in the Maine woods. Tending the family trapline while his father is laid up, the boy survives a dangerous encounter with a wolverine, a scene memorably portrayed in a Disney movie based on the book called “Those Calloways.” The boy's father, who dies at the end of the book and movie when he is accidentally shot while trying to protect a flock of wild geese from unscrupulous hunters, plays a strong guiding role in his son's life. In a way, he gave me guidance, too.

Mr. Calloway sprung his traps on Christmas Eve to leave peace in the forest on Christmas Day. Enthralled with the Calloways, I did the same with my snares, lifting them away from the rabbit runs to avoid catching bunnies on Christmas. That started a personal tradition. Since age 12, I haven't hunted, trapped or fished on Christmas Day--with one exception.

Visiting my parents one Christmas, I took a walk beyond the backyard with the family husky, Smoky. Walking through a snowy, feral tract of alder and aspen, I saw a snowshoe hare crouched in its form. Careful not to startle it, I called the dog and trudged back to the house to find an old hunting bow I hadn't shot in years. Then I went back and killed the hare where it crouched with one shot. It was a good moment for a hunter, but I won't again disrupt the peace of Christmas.

Since my day is devoted to going to church, family gatherings and visiting friends, not hunting on Christmas is hardly a sacrifice. Others may have a traditional Christmas hunt or ice-fishing outing; that's fine, too. My day without hunting is a personal opportunity to pause and reflect on my place within the natural world.  Hunting is a matter of life and death. Such matters deserve thoughtful reflection.

Out in the woods, Nature knows no holiday. The wolf must eat. So must the chickadee. The only peace in the wild is a full belly. I wonder if our holiday feasts are a symbolic recognition of this ancient truth. The feast is the oldest human ceremony; the celebration of a successful hunt. Stuffed full when we push away from the table and waddle to an easy chair, we are content...and peaceful.

In a world where we are repeatedly numbed by the daily news, the concept of peace on earth and good will to men seems abstract and unattainable. But the world in the news is not the same one where we live our lives. Within the familiar surroundings of our everyday world, most of us can find comfort and joy.  If we can't have peace on Earth, perhaps we can have peace in our lives.

*****

We always have a natural Christmas tree, usually a young balsam fir brought home from the woods. This year is different. A while back, Vikki planted balsam saplings on either side of our mailbox. The tiny firs flourished, becoming two sturdy young trees. Unfortunately, officialdom frowns on trees growing so close to a county road. They had to come down. I waited until December to cut the balsams. One became our Christmas tree. The other will be given to someone.

Sometimes it's hard to cut down a tree you've planted and watched grow. But I must admit to eyeing up the balsams as eventual Christmas trees. Seeing the tree in the living room delivers a special satisfaction. Knowing the other tree will grace someone else's home brings even more.

When we were placing the tree in the stand we counted 11 wide rings in the trunk, indicating healthy, rapid growth. The balsam is the most common and least appreciated conifer in the northern forest. Although it is among the first trees to sprout after a disturbance and grows quickly, it has little commercial value. Balsams often shade and crowd out other trees that humans consider more desirable.

I'm not so sure the critters in the woods share those human preferences. The thick, shady habitat provided by balsam fir in relatively open, aspen-dominated forests is used by wildlife throughout the year. In winter, the dense cover provided by balsam thickets, groves and even individual trees are hubs of wildlife activity. Squirrels and birds feed upon balsam cones. Moose browse on balsam boughs. Other critters, from snowshoe hares to deer, take advantage of reduced snow depths beneath their sheltering boughs.
 
After Christmas, I’ll haul our tree outside and prop it up near the bird feeder. Doing so always seems to increase the avian activity around the feeder, because the birds can linger in the security of the balsam boughs, safe from shrikes and other bird predators. Long after Christmas, we and the birds will continue to enjoy and benefit from the tree.

Airdate: December 21, 2012


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