Heart's Content

Tribute to a Forestry Legend: Jim Finley

A Tribute to a Friend and Colleague

Sunday morning, October 3, 2021, I learned that long time friend Dr. James (Jim) Finley lost his life Saturday morning while working in his woodlot in central Pennsylvania. Jim, a fellow forestry faculty member at Penn State University, and I collaborated on many projects during my nine years at that university (1987-96). We partnered in developing and delivering Cooperative Extension programs for the state’s 750,000 (as of 2020) individual family forestland owners, who today collectively own 12 million forested acres (70 percent of the state’s forestland). Our goal was to encourage, enable, and inspire those owners to embrace and apply the tenets and practice of informed and responsible forest stewardship.

Over my now one-half century of forestry-oriented professional life, I have never known anyone more dedicated to the applied science of forestry and better able to translate his knowledge, whether in the classroom and or on the ground, to lay forest landowners. Jim epitomized one of my own axioms: People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Jim cared!

In these Posts I often mention that Nature’s many truths and tales lie hidden in plain sight. I don’t recall Jim saying that in so many words, yet, I learned by working with him over countless hours, that he operated by that fundamental truth. Time after time, I saw Jim systematically, casually, and expertly lift the curtain to reveal a forest’s deepest secrets.

Excerpted from the Penn State Center for Private Forests website (https://ecosystems.psu.edu/research/centers/private-forests/news/remembering-jim-finley):

The Center for Private Forests at Penn State is deeply saddened to share the sudden and tragic loss of our co-founder and Council Chair Dr. Jim Finley, Ibberson Chair and Professor Emeritus of Private Forest Management and Human Dimen­sions and Natural Resources, on October 2, 2021. Jim’s decades of work informed our understanding of forests, private forest landowners, and all the people who care for the woods.

So, I dedicate this Post to my friend, one of my professional and life heroes, and already sorely missed colleague, Jim Finley:

May be an image of 1 person, nature and tree

Photo from the Pennsylvania Forestry Association Facebook page.

A Moment in Time

Regardless of how the end might come, within the forest or among people, Jim’s passing has once more reminded me that living within the moment and with (and for) the ones we love will never be more important than here and now. The forest…and life…are rich with moments of peace, tranquility, love, and beauty. Be aware that moments are flying by at 60-minutes-per-hour. Don’t let them rush past with you unaware of how precious each one is. I try to remind myself that each hike could be my last. That every embrace of a loved one may not be followed by another.

In early September 2021, I visited the 400-year-old forest at Heart’s Content Scenic Area in northwest Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Natuinal Forest. I photographed a pair of four-foot diameter forest denizens, reminding me that nothing is permanent. The massive foreground white pine is recently dead (its bark still clinging to the trunk); the hemlock behind it still thrives. Such is the continuing cycle of life and death within the forest…and among people.

Heart's Content

I saw Jim as a figurative mighty oak (or a majestic white pine or hemlock like those at Heart’s Content) in his field of forest stewardship education, standing tall, seeming permanent, always steadfast, deeply rooted, and dedicated to his overlapping professional and personal missions. However, like all trees in the forest, including the white pine above, none of us is permanent…we are all fragile and our lives are fleeting.

I can’t recall the last time that Jim and I shared a woodland hike. I had no thought about it being our last. Had we known, perhaps we would have gone a mile further. Life is fleeting and fragile…each moment precious and worth cherishing. Jim and Linda visited Judy and me in Fairbanks, Alaska in 2007, eleven years after we had departed Penn State — we’re standing below on six-feet-thick overflow ice on June 11, when we made another set of memories.


Who could have imagined that Jim, a consumate woodsman, would walk into his own woodlot that early October morning for the last time? Fate; pre-destiny for this man of deep faith? John Muir fittingly offers an exclamation point to all I have attempted to communicate with my tribute to Jim:

Savor the moments in life that make your heart glow. Chase after and find the moments that will take your breath away. In the end, it is only those milestones on life’s journey that matter.

Oh, if only I could spend one more day wandering a forest…any forest…discovering with Jim what lies hidden within.


Closing Thoughts and Reflections

Three conclusions and lessons:

  • My own connections to Nature and special people are sacred…and intertwined.
  • We should live life aware that every hug and every walk in the woods may be our last.
  • Muir: Savor the moments in life that make your heart glow. Chase after and find the moments that will take your breath away. In the end, it is only those milestones on life’s journey that matter.

I draw comfort knowing that Jim took his last breath in a place he loved, doing what he enjoyed, where he already had a lifelong spiritual connection to God.