Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On Winter's edge

I write on Sunday, October 9, Fairbanks, Alaska. It is 2:30 p.m.

The gilded, slanting sunlight angles through trees casting long shadows. The sun's rays fall on dark umber, shriveled leaves that have already begun to decay. The height of fall color came a month ago, around Labor Day. The trees have been bare for two weeks.

The first snow was in the forecast for this weekend, but it never came. It’s a good thing because no one seems quite ready for the onset of winter.

“The hammer is about to drop,” said one acquaintance.

After a while one doesn’t ask what folks are doing this weekend or next. Everyone is “getting ready for winter.”

And winter in Fairbanks is something one had better prepare for.

Laying up wood, bringing out skis, hanging up bikes, hauling out heavy-duty, warm boots and parkas, putting on snow tires, making sure the car is equipped with blankets — just in case.

Cleaning out the garage to make room for the intrepid cars and trucks. The yard gets raked and mowed one last time. Mulch and compost is spread to cloak garden and lawn.

One acquaintance was replacing his headlights with higher-beamed ones that can pick out a moose farther down the road. Braking distance, like shadows, lengthen in winter. A moose can do major damage. Early detection can save fenders, windshields and, yes, lives.

Rob hopes the moose he hit last year survived its encounter with his car. “I think the damage was kept to his knee,” he says with a shrug of uncertainty.

Flashlights need checking. New batteries are in order. Cross-country skiers will strap miner’s headlights around their balaclavas.

For all the concern about lack of light on dark days, one friend told me that the darkest time is now, in October, before the luminating snows fall. Snow and its crystals catch and scatter light on short days blessed by long, lingering dawns and dusks.

“It’s a kind of gloaming,” she says in awe of both the horizon's light and the ancient word for it. “The blues are almost greens in the distance to the north.”

And she is not referring to the crazed dancing of the blue-green Northern Lights, though she might have been.

On this day during our walk on the frozen mud of soon-to-be ski trails, the light reflects from the bone whiteness of the birch forest that surrounds us.

In another month, the temperatures, now in the low 50s during the day and mid-twenties at night, can drop to 30 below. January averages 10 below zero.

Before Fairbanks began to feel the effects of global warming, minus 50 was possible. Today the permafrost thaws in summer. Some houses built on the once solidly frozen saturated soil are sinking. The growing season now starts in May and lasts to early October. It has folks worried.

Beyond the physical preparations for winter are mental adjustments.

Fourteen-year-old Sarah Walling-Ball, already practicing soccer indoors in a school gym on a crisp, cold Fairbanks afternoon, puts it bluntly. “Good-bye to happiness. Hello to eight months of toughing it out.”

These early October days are “borrowed time” that will end with a sudden snap — and certainly the inevitable shortened days. On this very day, Fairbanks loses seven minutes of sun exposure.

Each year, Sarah's’ mom, Cathy Walling, plans a winter retreat to the south to hearten her. Hawaii and even Australia call. “It’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity,” she says of trips to southern summer sunshine.

Before and after these far-away trips, she takes vitamin D and puts herself under a special light box to ward off Seasonal Affective Disorder.

She especially feels the loss of energy on these shortening October days. Once, she used to fight the fatigue by staying busy. Now, she says, she honors and surrenders to Earth’s call to hibernation.

She knows she is not alone. Winter bonds the people of Fairbanks, otherwise known for their political differences. It’s a communal “hunkering down” in which each person is ready to protect anyone endangered by the cold.

“We really need each other. If the car breaks down at 40 below, it’s a matter of life and death. Strangers stop and help.”

It’s a time for creativity too — drawing, writing, painting, spinning wool. Much of the art is communal — knitting, quilting, reading in book groups, singing. A group of play readers perform five times each year. Three of those five presentations are in winter.

A theater troupe is rehearsing “MacBeth,” a chilling tale that warms with truth for a cold clime.

Come what come may, Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.

Postscript: I am back in Portland now. I left Fairbanks early yesterday morning. On our way to the airport, the forests and roads were lightly frosted in the brittle morning. As I looked out the car window at the gray landscape, I sensed a land and people at one in the seasons and seasonings of time.

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