Trees are hot this time of year. The natural, non-denominational motif graces all things festive – holiday cards and decorations, wrapping paper and cookies. And of course, there is the most significant duty that awaits the coniferous tree, at least so far as humans are concerned: taking its place protecting the gifts. Ceremoniously bedazzled with ornaments, bows and lights, the tree is a celebratory reminder of the peace and generosity of the holiday season.

My personal tribute to the beauty of trees is partly why I posted today’s photo (above.) A section of the forest near my house had been cleared by loggers, and its residue burned. Fresh trees were planted in place of the tall ones that were felled. I was surprised to discover that the saplings found all they needed to nurture themselves underneath the blackened soil.

But there’s another reason the photo seemed apropos. People have been asking me why nine-year-old Calli Vanderaa’s story resonated with so many people (Girl rescues tortured puppy from inner-city war zone, Dec. 14.) Every day I come across stories that are riveting and inspiring. But Calli’s tale had more power than usual. It took hold and gathered up life and found momentum of its own. As they say in the wordsmith business, this story had legs.

When I was leafing through my photos, I realized the above shot explains why Calli’s voice was heard so clearly above the din and pomp of the holidays. There is the obvious correlation between the tree and Jessie, the seven-week-old pup Calli rescued from the dumpster. Jessie and her littermates had been placed in a box and set on fire. Calli heard Jessie’s cries. She was the lone survivor of this cruel, destructive act, a miracle dog pulled from tragic circumstances.

But this tree also reminds me of Calli. It is more striking and radiant than one you would
find in a dense, healthy rainforest because it has survived in spite of
the harsh elements that constantly tried to wear and tear it down.

In the midst of a barren city slum landscape overrun with gangs, drugs, and poverty, the tender sapling named Calli stayed strong and kept growing taller, driven by her own compass and her own compassion. Despite all that has been done to her – she’s been shot, fought, and verbally abused – she kept her inner light burning bright. She exhibited humanity when the situation demanded it.

We see so much ugliness every day, and much of that is the natural human response to how we’ve been treated. We spew unkindness because of the injustices perpetrated on us. Putting aside their difficult living conditions, Calli and her father extended themselves beyond an existing and overwhelming list of responsibilities to rescue (and keep) a creature who is more innocent, helpless and needy than themselves.

I am often struck when people say to me, “How can we worry about animal issues when humans are suffering? Shouldn’t all the money go to humans? Isn’t helping animals diverting money from the more important human causes?”

Calli’s story shows that this is not the case. By stimulating people to consider the human-animal bond, we help people and animals. Nurturing a creature more helpless than ourselves, watching them thrive under the care of gentle hands, taps into our human drive to save.

And just watch what happens. Other people will come out of the woodwork to be part of the saving. The inspiration and hope that springs from heroic human acts keeps the world turning. Until we start considering love and compassion and doing the right thing as an infinite resource, not a finite one, things will never get better — for us or the animals.

Jessie changed Calli’s life. That tiny, soot-covered pup left for dead in the garbage bin boosted her self-esteem, and showed her that people in Winnipeg and beyond do care about her family and their well-being. Jessie gave Calli a mission and a purpose.

She poured her love into her dog, and Jessie grew and bloomed like a beautiful garden. Or a forest of trees.

And this act of humanity gave Calli someone she will cherish throughout her childhood. A friend beside whom she can weather the world, even when it’s unkind.

Calli’s dad Corey (with pup Jessie) is overwhelmed by the gifts generously bestowed on his family by readers. This photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Free Press and Phil Hossack.