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first published in the journal Flyway


by Bruce Guernsey

           I am sitting in a one bedroom cabin made of spruce logs and heated by small chunks of birch I split in the brief light of yesterday afternoon. It is mid-December and light is diminishing everywhere in the northern hemisphere, but here, sixteen miles northeast of Fairbanks, Alaska, light is like the grapefruit I bought a few days ago: rare and precious and something you crave no matter the cost. "Who cares how expensive they are," my friend Nancy said as we pushed a cart through the produce section at the giant Fred Myers store in town. "When I first moved here twenty years ago, I didn't even like grapefruit," she laughed. "Now look." She was loading our cart with them, with some oranges and apples, too, and I was amazed at the selection of fresh fruit in the store, this far north and this time of year. But it was that big yellow fruit that people were drawn to the most, to pick up and hold.

           "They remind me the sun is shining somewhere, somewhere way south of here," Nancy said, as we drove back in the dark along the Chena Hot Springs Road. "They cheer me up." And now that I've been this far north for a few days myself, I've begun to understand that symbolism. A grapefruit is the sun itself in your hand—the same sun that now makes its low, horizontal way from southeast to southwest, six minutes more quickly each day until by the twenty-first of this last month of the year, there will be only three hours and forty-two minutes of daylight.

           Today, the sixteenth of December, it's twenty below, the coldest day so far of my winter solstice experiment to live alone in the dark. And dark it is, even at 8:25 AM on the cabin's pendulum clock, its steady heartbeat my only company. There's usually little wind in central Alaska during the winter, something I was glad to learn, because the kind of wind that I'm used to on the plains of Illinois would make this still world impossible to survive. Wind would tear at its beauty, too, as the snow, feathery-dry, balances on the branches of spruce so delicately that the wing-beat of a chickadee will set it adrift.

           The lightness of this snow has been one of my most important discoveries in the long walks I've taken on the sled dog trails nearby my cabin. The snow that hovers so precariously on boughs beside the paths I puff along is far different than that packed hard by the traffic of mushers. When there's sun enough to see my way, I follow the tracks of their wooden runners, and sometimes through the thin air, can hear the dogs far off in front of me. Or are they somewhere behind? Who can tell in this immensity of wilderness?—their distant howl reminding me of the hoot of the train that brought my father home from work in the twilight when I was a boy growing up in the suburbs. I'd wait by the door, peering through the mail slot, searching the shadows for his brisk stride up our walk. I wanted him home, though he seldom was, working late to support six kids.

           There I go again: so easily linking a moment in the present with some loneliness in my past. Sadness is a deep part of me. Its ache is forever there in my chest, a fact that I have come to accept over time and no longer dwell on its sources. "In a dark time/ the eye begins to see," wrote the poet, Theodore Roethke, and I have come to Alaska this darkest of months to find where light might be in such a time, in such a place. A century ago, prospectors by the thousands made their way here, digging and sifting the landscape for what gleams. I am doing the same.

           "It's not the cold that gets to [many Alaskans] in the winter, it's the darkness," writes Susan Ewing in her informative guide, The Great Alaska Nature Fact Book. The effect of reduced sunlight—called SAD, for "seasonal affective disorder"—is apathy and depression, most probably brought about by increased levels of the hormone melatonin in the bloodstream as the days grow shorter. One remedy is sitting under a lamp that imitates nature's big one. Perhaps eating grapefruit is another.

           Or maybe celebrating the snow itself: "winter's silver lining," as Ewing calls it. Snowfalls come in all shapes and sizes up here. For example, Barrow, the northernmost town, gets only a couple of feet, whereas Valdez on Prince William Sound gets the whole nine yards—twenty-seven feet of "the white stuff," the cliché of weathermen in the lower States. But as Susan Ewing informs us, there are some two hundred words in Eskimo dialects to describe what I have found here in central Alaska: snow as luminous as mica and nothing like the hardened stuff of winter thoroughfares back home. Instead, it graces the limbs beside the paths and reflects the first light of the late morning. Weightless and shimmering, this whiteness that's settled on the branches leads me along the trails.

           The snow has also given me a kind of reading material. Fortunately, the print is large and easy to see in the dim light. There are the footprints of the hare, for example, nicknamed "snowshoe" for its hind feet which are so large that they land in front of its front ones when it's hopping. These giant bunnies are plentiful every ten years, and I must be here at the height of their cycle. I see their tracks newly printed each day, together with fresh ones of their mortal enemy, the lynx, its broad, soft paws like letterpress on the white page of this "book to be read," as Alaska's best poet, John Haines, has described the snow. And most obvious of all, and yet most mysterious, is the wide, rounded contour of a moose where it slept in the last twenty-four hours, now vanished. But where, I wonder? And how?—that shambling, awkward moose. How could something so huge just disappear? I look about, stare into the vastness, but see nothing.

           Because the sun never gets high enough, its rays can't penetrate to where I walk below. Instead, they run parallel to the ground, making candles of the snowy tops of spruce I look up to, penitent and believing. It's like being in a gothic cathedral, in the nave at Chartres perhaps, where the lofty columns lift your gaze to the brilliant light above, high up and holy through the stained glass. Here, too, I want to genuflect at the fire that burns at the top of these towering evergreens, but to keep from freezing, must mush myself along instead, glancing up as I go, the thick rubber of my boots squeaking irreverently through the stillness.

           But not, perhaps, as irreverent as the ravens that perch, puff, and palaver on the branches as I walk. They seem to be talking to one another, probably something about that wandering human down there. "Ke-dowk," jokes one; "ko-wulk-ulk-ulk," chuckles the other. Or so Susan Ewing tries to quote them, these iridescent intellectuals who speak more than sing. Poe's literary version has only one word it says, the famous "Nevermore," which is but three syllables compared to the five that these real birds can make, plus all kinds of inflections.

           Ravens also mate for life, something the poet probably didn't know. That these birds are together for twenty years or more adds a real poignancy to Poe's bookish poem about the loss of the lovely Lenore. Single now myself, I'm a little envious of these special creatures. When I see a pair of them, I think of some old couple chatting away on their park-bench limb, descendants both of "Dat-soon-sah," the Great Raven of Athabascan myth who created the world. Its gift was light. Black as night, the Great Raven brought us day.

           Yesterday, the weather warmed to minus fifteen, so I hiked a little farther out and emerged from the dark green boughs that line the trail into a whole forest of birch, white as the snow. The sight was dazzling and made me squint, like coming out of a matinee into the bright sunshine. I'd stepped into perfect light, not a spruce anywhere, and each trunk long and lithe, not one bent by ice storm or some playful boy climbing to the top and swinging down, as Robert Frost imagines in his poem, "Birches." Pure plumb-lines of light seemingly dropped from the sky, these trees lit the winter twilight on their own.

           The pamphlet about trees I bought in town tells me some things about the birch I didn't know. As a boy summering in New Hampshire, I called them simply "white birch," a kind of generic name. But the proper name is "paper birch," and I would use it that way, peeling off long strips and writing secret notes to hide in the stone walls, messages to the chipmunks and trolls. "Betula papyrifera," the family and genus, makes me realize that others, thousands of years ago, recognized the same thing: that like papyrus, a scroll from this tree can hold our secrets or be our letter to the world.

           "Birch" comes from the Old English word, "beorht," meaning "bright," and in Sanscrit, "bhrajate," the probable genesis of both words, means "to shine." "Spirit lights," the Inuit people call the more famous Aurora Borealis, but I wonder if they have a name for these remarkable birch forests which to me are as mysterious as those billowing pale greens and pinks I've seen several nights in a row. I've watched them change their shape like wraiths and suddenly vanish. They deserve their fame on post cards and in the slick photographic books on sale everywhere in Fairbanks. People come from all over the world this time of year to witness this incandescence, young Japanese couples especially who believe that soaking together under the northern lights at Chena Hot Springs will increase their fertility.

           Stands of birch have no such legends about them, having none of that cosmic energy. But from energy they have come: many of these groves are the result of fire from lightning that seared the land and have risen phoenix-like across this wilderness. And energy they now give out: the light from these trees—dozens and dozens of them, some up to eighty feet tall—enough to make even the most unpoetic mind believe with Frost that "earth's the right place for love."

           But sometimes it is not, and like the poet, I have found that "I'd like to get away from earth awhile," and once tried to do so for real. I was in Greece and sunlight was everywhere that April morning, but I didn't notice. Hurt by love, I simply did not wish to be. So I stepped out into the traffic, into the frenzy of honking and tires squealing that suddenly became as silent as it is here. The inner calm I felt at that moment I had never experienced before, nor have I since. "Death, death, death, death," Walt Whitman heard inside him as he walked along the shore as a child, "the low and delicious word death," and now I'd heard it, too, and found it as soothing.

            Good thing the Greeks are such inventive drivers, dodging one another on the road, because I made it to the other side where I heard the horns again, the tires, and the word "malaka" from the irate cabbies who had saved my life, though they didn't know it. To them I was just another masturbating loser (a rough translation of "malaka"), and perhaps I was, so self-involved as to try to kill myself. But the peace I felt, that peace—what a lure it was.           

           Despite my Catholic upbringing, I have learned that hell is not a place, anymore than heaven is. Greece and Alaska: literally day and night, but the inferno was within me then, many years ago, and it didn't matter what my melatonin level was, there in sunny Greece. And here I am now finding something holy in this darkened world where the mucus in my nose freezes instantly when I step outside and where my beard has become a brilliant spider web of ice when I come back in after my walk. "Hoarfrost," that's called, when the air's simply too cold to hold any moisture and so water vapor condenses onto any surface it can find, like windows or my face. For a frozen moment I am Tennyson or Whitman with their flowing, frosty beards of wisdom. Or perhaps Santa Claus, who also finds joy in dark December and this far north.

           I'm not much of a fan of Christmas lights, but my experience here has taken me back to a time when those lights meant something. The chamber of commerce in my home town actually awards prizes to the most garish displays of illuminated rooftops, plastic reindeer, and Jesus-in-neon. Sadly, Charleston, Illinois, like much of the country, has come to celebrate style over substance, the fate of every tradition once its origin is forgotten, which seems to be the case, I hear, in the shabby town of North Pole, south of Fairbanks on the Richardson Highway.

           There you have "Santa Claus Lane," full of all the ornamental trappings of the solstice. What a shame, because Nancy tells me that such tawdry displays are rare. Instead, I have witnessed their pagan genesis: the very darkness itself and set against it, a simple string of tiny lights perhaps, candle-like around a doorway. Nothing fancy, nothing showy. That's because encounter here is actual; the cold will kill. What a symbol it is, that solitary light along an empty roadway. "We are here," it says. "We are alive."

           This indelible image of the single, simple light must account for the importance of the roadhouse in Alaskan history. There are not many of them left, alas. Holiday Inns and other such corporate giants have moved here, too, and their neon signs, together with the false gold of McDonalds' arches, ignite the night sky in downtown Fairbanks to white out the stars and northern lights. In the base camp town of Talkeetna, however, and at the junction of the Richardson and Denali Highways, the roadhouse truly keeps the porch light on for you, not just the empty words of a television commercial. Since most travel before the car and plane occurred in winter, the roadhouse would provide a modest bed and board to dog-sled teams who must have seen its warmth from far off, just as the modern traveler to central Alaska in December can glimpse from the jet's window a moment of light in all that dark: someone's homestead down there and nothing else but wilderness near.

           But off in the distance, down the snowbound dirt road that leads to that home, what's this, making its slow way through the afternoon night? The school bus! That land-bound bush plane with its treasure from Fairbanks, the light on its roof flickering and flashing. When I see one lumber along the Hot Springs Road, turn and disappear into the tunnel of some unmarked lane, I become a young parent again, checking my watch, worried the bus is ten minutes late. Black ice, a dead battery: anything could happen this time of year. And then to see it come over the hill—oh, yellow, yellow, home safe is the school bus! The color of daffodils, it melts the dark no matter how cold.

           It's time to stoke the stove. I open the fire box slowly, stir the coals and lay in some kindling: branches, sticks, and any chips from yesterday's splitting that I brought inside. Next, I stack the smaller logs, carefully at an angle to let the fire breathe as I blow, then I take a deep breath and blow again until we seem to be breathing together, the fire and I—the heat, the glow, now part of me: this glowing heat, the raven's gift. "Thank you, my night-feathered friends," I say aloud, and kneeling, roll a big log on as the sun comes up, touching with light the wicks of the trees.

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