Aspen Trees and Wildfires

Aspen trees are some of the most resilient trees in nature. This is for a couple of different reasons. First, their leaves are extremely aerodynamic, allowing the trees to avoid any major branch damage when the wind blows particularly hard. Their name, “quaking aspen” comes from this trait–the leaves may flutter, but the tree always stands firm. Second, their bark is thick and cold-resistant. In a stubborn show of resilience, the bark continues to grow even after the leaves have dropped and the cold has set in. Lastly, an entire aspen grove originates from a single tree. Aspens have the unusual ability to grow another tree from the roots of the first. This can be both good and bad; it is good because the aspen tree can grow quickly and without seeds, like many deciduous species require. However, it is bad because one aspen tree can quickly take over an entire forest, crowding out hundreds of unique and individual trees.  

*    * *

I am 12 years old. It’s my oldest brother’s graduation. It’s dark out and far past my bedtime, but Grandpa always has an inkling for an adventure. I guess I inherited that trait from him as I would consider myself an expert explorer. I have successfully mapped every inch of the dirt lot near my home, an impressive feat to accomplish before becoming a certified teenager. Grandpa, my little brother Dunncan, and I set off into the darkness with a lust for the unknown. We mostly just wander around the neighborhood, laughing in awe as Grandpa points at different plants, naming each in its turn. My favorite plant is the Zinnia due to its beautiful layers of petals, beautiful like the deep thinking lines across Grandpa’s forehead. 


They represent his 65 years of life like rings in the trunk of a tree. When trees experience trauma like a forest fire or a drought, the rings are smaller and darker, with little space between each one. Yet the trees always recover, leaving a permanent scar of the hardship they endured written in their rings.

Grandpa is a tree, so tall and strong. He always lifts me up with his thick trunks of arms and tells me how much he loves his “butterfly princess.” Like a tree, he can always get through pain, even the pain he endured during his bought with cancer several years back. Smiling at this thought of his strength, we head back before too late, not wanting Mom to make a fuss.


Eight months pass but not without trouble. Grandpa has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer again, but this time it is much worse. He beat cancer before, enduring over a year of chemotherapy and surgeries to remove the miasmic tumors in his neck. Now he is lying in a hospital bed for the 12th visit this month. Sometimes he can’t breathe because the tumors are suffocating him. He can’t take care of Beavus and Butthead, the two cows he adopted to live in the pasture behind his house. We feed them apples and plums from Grandpa’s favorite trees. My favorite tree, however, is in the backyard. It is a huge, sprawling weeping willow with branches that seemed to touch the sky before bending down to tickle the earth. Grandpa had started to build a treehouse in the thick branches of the tree, but the project was never completed. He had plans this summer to renovate it for his grandchildren to play in. For now it would just have to stay perched in the bends of the trunk, its graying wood creaking in the wind. Usually the willow has gorgeous flower buds lining the fragile branches, but it is still winter and the branches are bare except for a light dusting of snow. Remembering where I am, I snap back to the droning of the elderly doctor. Grandpa has stage III cancer. It isn’t impossible to beat, but the chances of it happening are very slim. It isn’t impossible to beat. It isn’t impossible to beat.

*    * *

Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. The bass drum continues to make the same repetitive rhythm as I stare out the window of my family’s SUV. This Beach Boys song has been playing on repeat for the past twenty minutes at Dunncan’s request, making the journey from our house in Wyoming to Grandpa’s house in Utah feel even longer. I finally give in, listening carefully to the lyrics of the song:

Feel the wind burn through my skin

The pain, the air is killing me

For years my limbs stretched to the sky

A nest for birds to sit and sing

But now my branches suffer

And my leaves don’t bear the glow

They did so long ago

One day I was full of life

My sap was rich and I was strong

From seed to tree I grew so tall

Through wind and rain I could not fall

But now my branches suffer

And my leaves don’t offer

Poetry to men of song.”

*    * *

download-1When a forest is burned down, it is tragic for the wildlife within. Birds, deer, squirrels, and other residents flee to a neighboring ecosystem like refugees in the night. The once enchanting forest, full of life and peace, is reduced to a black, smoldering field. It is devastating.1487425_401806566620501_115821898_n Grandpa looks much like a sapling now. He is weak and frail, unable to care for himself, nearly unable to talk. His days of adventuring are over. He no longer lifts me up with his stick-turned-trunks. He cannot express how much he loves his “princess butterfly.” The aspen trees have won the fight, desolating an entire woodland, growing and quaking until they owned the monopoly of the thicket. This time he did not survive the trauma of a wildfire; his rings have stopped accumulating. I look down on the deep zinnia lines across his face, counting and memorizing each contour like a dot-to-dot. I recount the events of his life written in his face. I replay the tragedies that gave him his wrinkled complexion.   


I am the weeping willow. My treehouse is vacant and broken with the loss of the one who built it. The boards are graying and bowing, becoming weaker with every season. My hair reaches down like branches to graze his white shirt. Tears fall from my cheeks like flower petals in the fall, building a bouquet of wet patches on the funeral dressing. I lay a small peach tree branch across his chest. It was clipped from a tree that Grandpa helped plant many summers ago. Its buds protruded, interrupting the smooth bark of the young tree.


Wildfires are devastating for forests and the wildlife that resides within. But, the death of a forest does not mean the field will be barren forever. The heat from wildfires allows trees to release seeds into the soil, seeds that cannot be seen among the layers of nutrient-rich ashes. These microscopic seeds of hope are nourished by the destruction of their ancestors and eventually grow into a vast forest. Each tree that dies can give birth to dozens of strong, rooted saplings, who grow into thick, vaulting trees. The devastation of an event like this will last for a while, but a new forest will always grow back stronger to honor it.  

Heidi Zoeller is the eldest daughter of Les Young. She is married to James Zoeller and is pictured with her children (first picture left to right) Dani, Matt, Dunncan and (second picture left to right) Dunncan, Collin, Dani.


Michelle Kreczkowski is the second eldest daughter of Les Young pictured with with her husband John Kreczkowski.


Jared Young is the eldest son of Les Young, married to Tami Young (pictured). Kids left to right: Braxton, Brayden, Bryson.

Aaron Young is the youngest son of Les Young. He is pictured on the left with his wife, Lori Young. His children are Dylan (center) and Sharme (right).


Sunee Young is the third daughter of Les Young, pictured with her son, Zander.


Wyndi Young is the youngest daughter of Les Young. She is pictured with children (left to right): Jacobi, Myloh, Ele.



Shout-out Post

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.

Anaïs Nin

With only a few days left, I felt it to be appropriate to make a “short” appreciation post. I have made so many wonderful native friends here that I hope I can still keep in touch when I go back to the U.S. Disclaimer: If you travel abroad, do not expect to make awesome friends like these, they are not your average Estonians/Russians/Americans.



There is a lot to be said about this person right here. Never in my life have I met someone with so much character. One moment he can be jamming to his favorite Pink song and the next moment he can be explaining the role that the fall of the Soviet Union plays in Estonian life. There is never a dull moment when I am with Denis. This trip would not be possible without him. He organizes nearly everything we do here outside of school and he helps solve any problems that come up during our stay here. He is a teacher, a mentor, a dancer, a singer, a joker, and a great friend. He has singlehandedly made this trip unforgettable and I will miss him “from the bottom of my heart.”


Christiana is another person who surely made an impact on my experience here. Although she isn’t a native, I will make an exception. She has done do much for me and my group. Aside from writing reports and taking pictures to record our progress, she does so much more. Every little problem that comes up, Christiana deals with right away. In a way, she has been our “Mom away from home”. She represents a perfect example of what it means to be a “global citizen” and I hope one day to be as responsible and as lingually graceful as she is.


This woman has made an impact on my learning and my heart. I have always wanted a Russian babushka, and I guess my wish finally came true. I can definitely agree that all the stereotypes are true. Yes, they make you eat your body weight in food, and then bring out dessert. No, they will NOT let you out of the house with your hair wet. Yes, they are worried about you getting sick if it is the slightest bit cold out and you don’t have a parka coat to keep warm. Yes, they will love you with all their heart and then some. I am extremely blessed to have been placed in the home of such a hardworking woman. She is always making food, doing dishes, buying groceries, knitting, ironing, and cleaning without ever allowing us to lift a finger. She, like my own mother, is the perfect example of selflessness.



During the 5th week of the program, myself and a few other kids from the group had the opportunity to volunteer at a Children’s Center. It was so great to get to know the kids, even though they spoke better Russian than I could ever hope to learn. Yara took a liking to me the first time she laid eyes on me. She is the spunkiest, energetic, and creative little girl you could ever find. I am grateful that I was able to meet her and make many great memories for this trip.


I met Vlad at the 5th of July party kind of on accident. He and Georgi were both wearing matching red bow ties and I only ended up talking to them because I didn’t want to go on the dance floor. But, later we did anyways. Vlad also took Georgi’s key to cut down balloons to give to people like a clown would at a circus. It was definitely a night to remember. We were able to hang out a few more times before he left Estonia in preparation of year abroad in America. Vlad is funny, very smart, and great at piano (although he doesn’t like to admit it). I am glad I met him, and I hope I’ll be able to meet up with him while he is in the U.S.


Wearing a red bow tie and jamming to the American music, I met Georgi at the 5th of July celebration. He, too, has an amazing sense of humor and is very smart. He finished his study abroad program in America the same time I started mine here and it was cool to hear everything he had to say about the differences between Estonia and America. He has great stories to tell and I kick myself for not having more time to hear them. Anyways, if you ever find yourself in Narva, be sure to download his new startup app, Short Walk. Hopefully expanding to more cities in Estonia, and later the world, it is an ingenious app that allows the user to select a time limit and creates a route of popular attractions that can be seen in that given time.


I actually have quite a funny story to tell  about how I met Pasha. My friends and I were sitting on the beach and talking when we noticed a lonely boy sitting all alone. So of course we began to discuss the possible reasons for this young man to be sitting all by himself. After a 5 minute conversation, I was considering going over to talk to him, but my friends strongly advised me not to. Right about this time, he had actually gotten up and wandered over. He startled us by stating that he had heard us speaking English and was wondering if we could have a conversation so he could practice his English. We ended up having a lively conversation but he had to go home for supper. Later we were able to hang out a couple more times and get to know him better. He is the wittiest, coolest, and most open Russian I have ever met. We didn’t get to enjoy too much time with him, though, because he had to go back to Russia. I will definitely miss him and his memes, but, hey, who knows, maybe one day I’ll be able to convince my parents to take a trip to Russia!

3 Weeks Down, 3 To Go

Yesterday marked the halfway point of the program. It almost feels bitter-sweet. On one hand, only three weeks until I get to see my friends and family again. On the other hand, I only get three more weeks to enjoy this beautiful country. However, I am just trying to focus on the here and now and learn everything I can. I don’t have time to go through and retell every moment of the first three weeks here, but just as a recap, here are the top six “stories” from my trip so far:

1.) Jaanipäev


This was actually a super fun event to celebrate the longest day of the year. Most of us went to Narva Castle to listen to some very interesting Russian pop/rock music, eat traditional “fair food”, and enjoy the company of the locals. Mid-way through the festivities, we all gathered around the large bundle of wood pictured above to watch the traditional dancers and listen to a passage read in Russian describing the importance of this day. If you ever decide to take a trip to Estonia during the summer, I would definitely recommend scheduling it during the Mid-Summer Festival.

2.) Baking Cookies


This may seem insignificant to mention in my top 10, but I assure you it is harder than it looks. My roommate and I REALLY wanted chocolate chip cookies. So what did we do? We went to the store to find packaged cookies or pre-made cookie dough. However, much to our chagrin, there was no such thing in any grocery store we checked. In hindsight, we should have predicted this because Estonia LOVES its healthier food options, but we really weren’t thinking that hard. Anyways, we ended up having a great adventure wandering around Prisma trying to find the ingredients when everything is written in either Estonian or Russian. In the end, we found suitable Russian substitutes, and the cookies tasted a little off from their American counterparts, but they did their duty reminding us of home.

3.) Narva Castle


This is one of my favorite excursions we have taken since I have been here. While I was in D.C. it was kind of a running joke that the castle would always be our meeting place and, although it is pretty far from our homes, it isn’t a bad idea. The interior has been renovated into a museum but still retains many of its same attributes from when it was first built during the 14th century. Surprisingly, it was mostly rebuilt after it was destroyed during World War Two. The view of Ivangorod across the river is amazing, it almost feels like you are in Russia.

4.) 5th of July American Independence CelebrationFB_IMG_1530871432414.jpg

If you squint really hard, you can find me wayyyyyyy in the back next to the Estonian flag. To be honest, when they told me we were going to have a “5th of July celebration”, I really didn’t think much of it. We met Ambassador James D. Melville Jr. and got to have a private Q&A session with him. Afterwards, I was completely blown away when I saw hundreds of locals come to the college and jam with the U.S. Air force combo band to celebrate the American exchange students. It was an absolute blast. They made “authentic” American hamburgers and hotdogs and served cold coke cola out of glass bottles. Not to mention, they lit off a beautiful firework show, while setting off a few car alarms in the process. Shout out to Denis and Narva College for all the memories and friends that I made.

5.) Tartu

Tartu was one of the most fun experiences I have had while in Estonia. We went to a monestary (pictured on the left) and toured the city (pictured on right). We also shopped at the flea market and visited a very popular cake shop/cafe that was built in the early 1900’s. Overall, it was a super fun time, and the only time this trip when I wasn’t absolutely stuffed with food.

6.) Kreenholm

We actually went here today so I don’t know if it counts as the first three weeks, but it is my blog and I do what I want with it. It was so cool to tour this place. It is a Soviet textile factory which is still in very good shape. The buildings are still fairly preserved from what it used to be like, and they are looking to turn some parts of it into a museum. My favorite part was when we were less than 40 meters from Russian with only a small river and a few barbed wire fences in our path.

Wyoming? Is that you??

***This was supposed to be posted on June 19th but I totally forgot***, as a little bit of an update, I finally arrived in Narva, Estonia on monday. I have been here for three days now, and it has been interesting. For one, Estonia looks exactly like Wyoming (pictures below). Second, it is extremely difficult to communicate with my host family in Russian. My бабушка host mother speaks very quickly with formal russian. She always wants me to eat more, and won’t accept no for an answer. I can say, however, that I have already learned so much! My classes are completely in Russian, which complicates things when we don’t understand a term and they have to try to explain it. This city is absolutely beautiful (which you’ll see in the pictures below). I will also add another post later regarding the very interesting Russian cuisine.


NSLI-Y Estonian Summer 2018

Well, I meant to post some sort of update before now, but that obviously didn’t happen. Anyways, tomorrow I leave to go to Washington D.C. to meet up with the rest of the participants. I will say, it has been quite the process applying, and now, preparing for this trip. I am extremely excited and hopefully I’ll be able to give some updates about my Estonian adventure for the next 6 weeks! Until then!


We took our last field trip to the conservatory. I loved seeing all the succulents and I even got to keep a few for my own home. It was a bittersweet moment but I am grateful for this wonderful opportunity to attend HSI and gain the memories that I have.

These flowers kinda look like broad heads.
I like the symmetry of this succulent. Also, it is a succulent ❤
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw these orange succulents!
I like the pattern on this plant.
This is another succulent that I found.
This plant had a cool spiral leaf in the middle.
I like this picture because the plant stole my hair! It is so curly!
I like the patterns in these little plants.
This is Hibiscus.
I love these little Venus fly traps!

End of HSI Post

Now that HSI is coming to a close, I realized I have learned a lot while I’ve been here. Some of the most important things I have learned from this class are; how to take decent photos, what it means to be media literate, how to keep an interesting blog, how to use different tools to make your photography better, and much, much more. My physical world class taught me a lot about the brain, how the human nervous system works, and the structures of the eyes, ears, and brain. My favorite memory from HSI is when we were doing Zumba with Keegan. We were dancing to a Bollywood song and one part of it required us to kick then squat. Ivan got a little too excited and a little too low and he split his pants! The funniest part is that none of us realized what had happened because he just kept going. It wasn’t until after we were done that Ivan told us what had happened. I will always remember this because Ivan was so chill about it even though he had a huge hole in his pants.

I think I have changed a bit as a person since I have been here. I think I learned how to get out of my comfort zone a little and be more sociable with others. I am much nicer now, more outgoing, and I have a new appreciation for life in general. Now I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t all fun and games the whole time, there were a lot of ups and downs. However, overall I had a great experience. I am more prepared for college because I know how the dorm life works and how to make new friends when I don’t know anyone. If I were to go back and re-live HSI, I would sign up for more activities, sign up for the talent show, and try to get out of my comfort zone more often. When I get back home, I am going to tell my family and friends how much of a great time I had, how many new friends I met, and how much I learned in just three short weeks. My advice to future HSI scholars would be: Don’t be afraid to find the new you. No one here knows you and you can be whoever you choose to be. Don’t worry about trying to impress others. Do things that are outside of your box because, who knows, you might just love it! Try to make every second one to remember because you will never get another opportunity like this.

Book Banning

We read the children’s book And Tango Makes Three today in class. Basically, it is about two gay penguins that raise a baby penguin together. Right now, it is on the banned book list for exposing children to homosexuality. Some disagree with this decision because LGBT couples are becoming more and more popular and children will be exposed to it at some point anyways. I personally believe that it should not be a book for children to read as children can’t really understand things like that at an early age. The First Amendment guarantees the right to speak freely meaning that if the American Library Association wants to put out a ban on a book, they can. Their freedom of speech is just as protected as yours or mine. There are still ways to get banned books if they aren’t offered at your public library and you don’t have to agree whether the book should be banned or not. Harry Potter was a banned book for a very long time and now it has grown into one of the most famous book/movie series of all time. It is our choice to read what books we want to just as it is ALA’s choice to ban the book. Ultimately, the parent can choose what their young children can read so if And Tango Makes Three is banned at their school, if the parent really wants their child to read it, they can find other ways of acquiring that or any of the banned books.

Body Image

In my opinion, everyone’s body is unique for a reason. It is unrealistic for average people to desire to look like models, actors, and singers. The majority of the pictures and magazines you see are photo shopped anyways. The standard of beauty we see in this society is that you have to be skinny, gorgeous, and have lots of make-up to be considered pretty. The truth is, you don’t have to conform to these standards to be beautiful. Imagine a society where everyone looked like the models do on magazines. It would be so boring that no one would want to look that way anymore. We are all unique with unique features and I don’t think we should spoil that by wanting to look like someone else. You are your own beautiful and no one can control that.

Snowy Range Mountains

We took another field trip to the Snowy Range yesterday and I can agree that it was named appropriately. Even now, near the end of June, there is still several feet of snow in some places. I had a lot of fun despite how cold it was and I think I got a few really good pictures. I saw a fox but I couldn’t catch a picture of it in time. My favorite part was when Tarena and Ivan went into the frigid water to get the perfect picture. Afterwards, we went to get ice cream, which was delicious. All in all it was a fun trip for my first time in the “Snowies.”

This is a cute little beetle I found while waiting for Matthew to climb the mountain.
I also found these mushrooms while waiting for Matthew to get down from the mountain.
After waiting for nearly ten minutes for Matthew to climb this mountain, I did end up getting a pretty awesome picture of him.
This is the river that runs through the mountains and these two people decided that they wanted to walk on the melting snow!
I couldn’t decide if this was a nine or a six but I just took a picture of it being a six.
This is the broken handrail along one of the bridges over the river.
This is one of my favorite pictures I took. The yellow really stands out against the asphalt.
This is another of my favorite pictures. I’m not sure what kind of plant it is, but it is really cute!
This is another picture of the river while it was covered in snow.
This is a cool rock pathway heading down to the edge of the river.
This is another picture of the river and I added it just because I liked it.