Now I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds, said Krishna to both Arjuna on the battlefield and Robert Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project. These words, for not entirely obvious reasons, rattled around my head yesterday as I wandered the trails behind the University of Alaska, Fairbanks with a long stick. My purpose, among other things, was to knock the snow from all the nearby spruce trees as I walked. A childish pleasure, admittedly, but with gunmen on the streets of Paris and the Far North falling apart due to climate change, I felt a specific need to flee to the woods. The forest, after all, cares not a whit for our human vanities, and on a good day you can forget you have any ties to the human world.
I’m back on the UAF campus in the Tanana Valley because I happen to be madly in love with a lady in the MFA creative writing program up here. The experience has been something of a Fairbanks redux for me. I formerly lived in the Golden Heart City for ten years, starting with my college days here at UAF. Then came the good job I was promised by my high school counselors if I majored in something other than art. This phase of my life was truncated by a move overseas to a far sunnier place, then a move back to my home ground of Cook Inlet. I must confess that I was not precisely thrilled to come back for more 40 below winters. I’d been here, done this, and bought the t-shirt. For a surfer like myself, Fairbanks is just too far removed from Mother Ocean for comfort. Going too long without smelling the sea salt leaves you feeling like one of your major organs isn’t functioning properly.
Thankfully, love is a powerful force in the world. Cook Inlet is where my heart resides, but it has been nothing short of delightful to reacquaint myself with my old forest haunts: The big stands of aspen and white spruce, the peeling of birchbark in May, the gold leaves of September and the ruffed grouse hunting that comes with it. The minty taste of dry cold air on the tongue and the blue of the sky reflected on the surface of the snow. The hills between Fairbanks and Nenana are still my very favorite stretch of forest anywhere in the world. There’s lots to eat here—blueberries, crowberries, the aforementioned ruffs. Fairbanks still has the irksome tendency to consider itself the center of the universe, but then most every town does that. Beauty abounds in this world, and the Tanana Valley has more than its fair share.
One of the great pleasures of being here has been getting to interact with a completely different community of writers, many if not most of whom are MFA students. I should have been an art student, but I hated English classes with a passion. At twenty years of age I wanted to work in the woods looking for old bottles and arrowheads, so I studied archaeology. Twenty years later, as the significant other of a member of the English department, I get all the fun of hanging out and talking about books and writing, but with none of the responsibility.
But today is not about hunting and wild fruit, nor books and English degrees. It’s about childish fun in the face of the onslaught of the madness that dominates our world, to say nothing of the difficulties of trying to make a life in the arts in a country that seems to consider my calling little more than a childish indulgence.
I walk along the narrow footpath, my hood pulled up. This is not a trail of memory, just a path in the woods. I never spent any time on these specific trails when I lived here before, but now with an apartment on campus, they’re the closest available woods. Over the trail hangs a tall slender black spruce, bent over like a wedding bower from the weight of the accumulated snow. It might be the fabled portal to another dimension, perhaps a world where a democratic socialist who understands hunting as a way of life can be elected president. Sadly, it’s just a tree bent over the trail. Two firm whacks of my stick brings the snow cascading to the ground in a series of muffled thumps. It’s a delicate dance to keep from getting a splash of frozen water crystals down my face. Water, cries the marooned surfer, water everywhere and not a drop to paddle out in.
It would be the most impotent of sentiments to say that campus has changed so much since the mid-nineties, but the dry bite of the November cold surely hasn’t. Nor has my pleasure at reading animal tracks in the snow. Knocking mounded snow off of spruce boughs is still as much of a cheap thrill as it was when I was a nine year old samurai warrior, about the time reading and books became the dominant features of my life.
PLEASE DO NOT WALK ON THE SKI TRAILS, says the sign. I’ve never been very good with rules in the forest. I smack the sign with my stick, saying “Please do not ski on the walking trails, bitches.” The raven in to top of the nearby tree watches the hairless ape, deep in marginal territory for his frail species, his progress across the earth marked by cascades of falling snow and the upspring of newly unburdened boughs.
Kris Farmen is a novelist, historian, and award-winning journalist whose books include Weathered Edge, Turn Again, and The Devil’s Share. He is a semi-regular contributor to The Anchorage PRESS, and his work has also appeared in Alaska magazine, Mushing, Russian Life, and The Alaska Dispatch News, among others. Blue Ticket, his new novel, will be released in early 2016. He divides his time between Homer, Fairbanks, and Anchorage.