When i first came to Alaska, i felt claustrophobic in the forest, trapped by scrawny, frizzled spruce trees and dense shrubs that blocked the sky, the horizon. Escaping the taiga was the main reason i jumped then at the opportunity to live and work at or above treeline, where i felt like i could see, move, and breathe easier. I’d always felt uneasy surrounded by too much green, too many shadowed things. The tundra felt enough like the desert–is enough like the desert–to become a home. A few winters here have cured me of the idea that the forest is a green place; green is, rather, something that happens, a brief and showy event, superficial and somewhat overwrought. We anthropomorphize the “lazy willow,” whose leaves turn to yellow by the end of July, finding the whole endeavor not worth the effort. Dig your fingers in and find cold in the earth, wet and blackened. That black, the shadows, the texture and chromatic departure from the gray scale that trees offer, became more like a shelter than a cage. Sometimes the horizon is too much to take in uninterrupted. Becoming a forest dweller caught me by surprise.
A cloudless April weekend in Nome felt uncomfortably bright, and on Monday when i woke to gray skies and haze, i felt a tension i hadn’t recognized dissipate. L said this was the brightest time of year, maybe even the brightest days, when the light is back and the snow isn’t gone yet. I wanted to say how do you stand it, the view from her kitchen table out over the tundra and then the ocean, glaring white, beating in the window, sunlight like some growing spilled thing, creeping into cracks and around the curtain. Not used to it, i felt so small, and so irrelevantly visible in that land-and-seascape. In the days i was there, the warmth started its work on a small hill just outside the window, and while L worked i gravitated to its darkness. I lay with my book and her dog, face against the dried brown lichens, some familiar, some not. The air wasn’t much above 30˚, if at all, but the hill gathered warmth from every direction, and before i fell asleep i noted the heat distorting the air, radiating up from the dark patch of tundra.I think we crave a certain balance, and what might seem like extremes do balance over time. I’ve had several conversations recently about how manic and exhausting the people seem who have just arrived from somewhere else, and, conversely, how withdrawn and dull the rest of us must seem to them. This must be, in part, about light. Who wouldn’t be a little manic around the light if it didn’t follow the dark, if you just showed up in it with no opposite extreme?