Tiny Signs of Life

I’ve spent most of August in Alaska, a place I have been to only once before, a place I am still learning. Valdez is a place of moody skies and epic landscapes, the mountains flowing right down to the sea and replicating themselves into the misty distance, their tops eternally wreathed in the cotton batting of low hanging clouds.

We see moose and bear scat everywhere, but the animals themselves only in the distance  – big animals that fit the landscape. The ground explodes with growth – giant towering ferns and the omnipresent pre-Cambrian-looking Devil’s Club, sometimes standing six meters tall, its great spreading leaves larger than my face, its stalks prickled with thorny red cilia that bend easily to and fro, the better to snag you with my dear. 

The broad leaves provide excellent cover for bears tunneling through the dense undergrowth for the Devil’s Club’s satanically red berries which by the way are poison for humans, but apparently are like the pomegranate seeds of the ursine class – seasonal and not to be missed. The hot pink fireweed grows tall and in great carpets of pink that flow across the low lying landscape.  

Even the silences are big and boundless. I sing as I walk or run or hike along, hits from the 80s, the words like dandelion seeds, drifting small and feathery on an infinite canvas of pale air.

It’s a working vacation with my family – setting up a Yurt on a plot of land with no plumbing and no running water, but a well and electricity, with a stove for cooking and another for wood-burning.  You can’t take a warm shower but you can bake a cake. There are all kinds of paradoxes like that when you are establishing a grid off the grid. 

If you spend too much time looking off in the moody distance, you miss a lot of life underfoot. Alaska is a land of epic vistas but at ground level it bursts with bustling, tiny life. 

One of my tasks during this time is shaping a natural staircase into the steep hillside that lies between the road and the yurt. On previous visits, brush has been cleared and trimmed, but the way is perilous with hidden roots, jutting rocks, and many inches of spongy organic matter – a combination of pine cones discarded by the squirrels, bark from trees, decomposing logs, rotting branches, fungi and ferns. The unstable sponginess of this layer hides deep holes, rocks and ungiving chunks of asphalt dumped long ago by the crews that laid the road high above, so my job will be to grade it for safe ascension and descension.  I start at the bottom, sometimes working with my daughter, sometimes alone as she chops wood, the sound of the axe ringing so clearly in the big wild stillness that I can tell from even two hundred yards away how clean her swing is, and whether she has split the log set upright on the big round stump nicely in half or dealt it only a glancing blow.

As I dig a staircase into the hillside, I think about what comes next in the story I am writing. Step by step I make my slow and deliberate ascent on both land and paper, planning two or three steps in advance.

After clearing away the organic layer, the shovel scrapes dirt. The soil is rich but  stony and unforgiving – large rocks but also splintery slabs of friable slate and shale, connected by a dense network of roots thick and thin, the mycelium. I use the shovel blade to shape risers, saving the rocks and thicker, sturdier sticks and branches to line the path where it jogs hard left and right, winding around the root systems of hundred year old trees.  

I like the work – it is physical without being taxing, requiring some thought but also allowing for plenty of daydreaming, and giving me the immediate gratification of visible proof of my effort. Sometimes I sing to notify any wandering wildlife of my presence but just as often I forget, lost in thought. There is a canister of bear spray in my pocket, and down the hill the husband totes the kind of firearm that will stop a bear, if need be, which in a place like this is not just possible but likely though we’ve seen no sign of the mama and her two cubs reportedly pestering some of the not-too-distant neighbors. 

The husband runs errands on an on-road/off-road KLR and reports a black bear sighting down by Sheep Creek, a mile away as the crow flies. It waits til he passes by – he only sees it slipping from the border of dense undergrowth on one side, and diving back in on the other when he glances behind him. Bears move with amazing quietness and delicacy for their size.

I reach a tree whose exposed, moss-covered root system will nicely incorporate into my staircase in a natural, Hobbitistic way.  I sing snatches of How Great Thou Art which seems written expressly for this landscape.

When through the woods, and forest glades I wander, 
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down, from lofty mountain grandeur
And see the brook, and feel the gentle breeze.
Then sings my soul

A movement catches my eye – a tiny puffball of a bird the exact color of bark pops out from the dark cave formed by one of the tree’s great arching roots. It hops right past me, nearly touching my boot. We have become friends this past week, or at least habituated to one another, with a scattering of sunflower seeds sealing the relationship. Now that I’m aware of it, I worry – one of its wings is clearly damaged in some way, though the h says it scurries around him as he works, confidently scavenging pine nuts and insects, apparently content.

There is a well – we pump six gallons of water a day, sometimes twice. All around it, where the fresh water spills from our containers, tender new grass shoots glow fantastically green.  A tiny spider bestrides the well top and I wonder, how in the world did you get there little guy? Perhaps it is one of those ballooning spiders, like the offspring of Charlotte Aranea Cavatica, kiting over to the surface of the well with nothing but a few gossamer threads and a puff of wind to go on.

I think about Charlotte the barn spider, friend of Wilbur the pig, as I work my way up the slope.  A friend once told me her parents skipped over the death of Charlotte, thinking it too sad. It bothered me for a long time, this willingness to change a beautiful story, a story that was meant, because it doesn’t conform with your fears of the moment. Why not just set the book aside, til it’s age appropriate? Maybe they think death is never age appropriate, though it is in fact the only fact we have. 

Maybe they were right, though, those parents. Reading of Charlotte’s death sitting alone in my favorite reading place – a harvest gold upholstered rocking chair in the burnt orange-carpeted living room of the house I grew up in – remains one of the most traumatizing moments of my life, specifically the line “No one was with her when she died.”

Until then I hadn’t thought of death much – it was just an abstraction. But after reading that line, the knowledge of death crashed into me, full and complete – or so I thought at the time (I’ve since become much wiser). I had spent the whole book worried about Wilbur’s imminent death and was not prepared for the swift and unsentimental demise of the star of the story. I cried and cried, knowing crying wouldn’t bring her back and angrily crying even more. I hated the end, I took zero solace in the baby spiders whose birth Wilbur presided over. I wanted Charlotte, alive and writing and chatting.  

I check frequently around the ground for Puffy, whose combination of tininess, fearlessness and camouflage make me a danger to him. When he shows himself, I set my spade to the side and settle down on a kind of natural seat made by the roots to watch him. I think he’d take sunflower seeds from my hand, but I have no urge to try. It is magical enough that he touches my boot occasionally, or the side of my pants.   

It is nice down here at Puffy’s level. The soft steady rain that has fallen more or less constantly these last ten days or so barely penetrates where we sit together under dense tree cover, amidst tiny unfurled ferns and miniscule mushrooms.  

Mixed in with the towering fireweed like the fancy hat of a woman making her way among the tall grasses is a tiny red poppy. I look for it every day as I make my way to a neighbor’s outhouse, a ten minute walk down a rutted dirt road, the patter of rain accompanying me. At the far end of the road, a mountain rears, dark-topped, green-robed. At my feet there is more tiny life: two baby bunnies play in the path, and let me get much closer than I expect to before disappearing into the long grasses at the side of the trail.  Nothing here is afraid of me, not even grief which has somehow pursued and found me in this wild place. An unexpected benefit of big landscapes – the sound of my sadness gets lost, insignificant. When it overtakes me I rent the solitude like a sheet; when the storm passes, a yellow warbler flits past and lands on a branch, and is joined by another, and another.  They cheerily serenade me as I walk within a few feet of their improbable brightness, like sun spots fallen to earth, and it is impossible not to smile.

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