Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Circadian Rhythm

Boop! This might be cheating, my friend Bigs asked me a while back to write her about what it was like to live in Alaska, specifically with regards to the sun. I was feeling nostalgic this morning, so I went back and re-read it and edited it a bit JUST FOR YOU, POSTERITY. I'll apologize in advance for how overwrought and mawkishly wistful this will be. I'm not famous for being thrifty with imagery - I was raised on Tolkien. Sue me.

Anyway, living in a sun-soaked and sun-deprived environment was definitely surprising and strange. It had a very big effect on my mood, and drastically altered my daily activities. I started both the fall and spring with a fair amount of work followed by a long period of unemployment, but the kind of life I led during them could not have been more different.

Probably first and foremost was the amount of sleep I needed. During the winter I had a hard time waking up before 9 am (often I slept until 11 am), and felt exhausted by 9 pm. The world seemed to begin and end at the walls of the cabin, and so did my mentality. When the summer really got into full swing, the difference was unbelievable. I found myself easily waking up at 6 am, helping Barbara get ready for work, making tea, listening to NPR, and thinking about the day. I moved around without feeling restless, and I could sit for long periods of time without feeling listless. Just being able to see the outside drew my mind out of the cabin space and I found myself getting a lot more done mentally than I did during the whole winter. Of course, there were so many other factors available to affect my mood, like not having to worry about putting on five layers to step outside the door, and having outdoor spaces to spend time like the porch or the garden or with the chickens expanded my range of available activities when work was short.

It was really bizarre though, catching myself gardening at 11 pm and thinking it was just about dinner time. I found my sense of time in general expanded to match the amount of light available. I adjusted pretty seamlessly to a 22 hour day, and had to really make sure that I was getting in bed on time to get the 6 hours of sleep I like to have. Dinner happened at 10 pm by accident pretty often. The downside to the light was a feeling of exposure. The winter offered what was often a comforting sense of envelopment - like I could run to the outhouse naked at 7 pm and feel completely safe, clothed in darkness. If I did that during the summer - even at 2 am - there would unavoidably be someone out for a walk or picking berries who would spot me a hundred yards away in the twilight that passes for night that time of year. In more than a few ways, Barbara and I felt on display in the summer light, and we took active measures to close off the cabin a little bit with blinds and then more blinds.

Physically, I just felt more energetic and engaged during the summer. It was not at all clear to me how direct a correlation there was between the amount of positive energy I had and how much sunlight there was until winter solstice. The moment we gained 6 minutes of sunlight rather than lost it, my attitude shifted drastically for the better. By the time the days were normal length, it was a lot easier to get motivated about any activity, and where it might have taken a whole weekend of planning to prepare for an adventure during the winter, it took half an hour to whip a similar activity into reality during the summer. Nothing could replace the sun.

Winter goes beyond bleak. It reaches a level of such intense inhospitality that it feels at once ambivalent and malevolent. It was beautiful and terrible. Despite filling our cabin with bright colors, fantastic music, and delicious smells and flavors, we were completely surrounded by singularity - specific sensations drawn to their utter extreme. There was no smell in the air except the pure emptiness of the dry cold, no feeling in windless air but the seeping, invisible, deadening chill, no taste to the world but that of your own frozen breath, absolute deafening silence broken only by the doleful ravens or the occasional chorus of sled dogs or wolves, and no light to see by except the wild, monochromatic blue palette of endless dusk, barely shifting tone as the sun rolled along the horizon. Even when the sun was gone and the world went as dark as the abyss, the sky still shone with intensity. The stars did not just shine, they screamed. I could stand on the driveway and stare for hours at our galactic arm, and it became very clear why the Ursa Major is our state flag. Winter was, in effect, vividly and sensationally sensation-less. The beauty of the winter is in this. It's almost like poetry. Everything is experienced in concentrate, and everything you do is deliberate. You're not just cold, you are painfully, mindlessly cold. You're not just bored and lonely, you are soul-crushingly without purpose and hopelessly isolated. You're not just running out to the outhouse, you are taking your life in your hands.

Summer drenched the world in dramatic contrast to the winter. Our garden spilled from its confines with vibrant colors, and the woods burst to life. First the little, white dwarf dogwood flowers poke through the snow, followed soon after by the bluebells and alpine azaleas. Then the wild raspberries, the low-bush and high-bush cranberries, and the wild roses all erupt into life. Neon blue bird vetch carpets the willows and alders while the wild geranium, irises, twinflower, and western columbine fill the spaces in between. The birches and aspen explode with new leaves, and the black and white spruces shake off their deep emerald winter coats and ring themselves with electric green shoots of new growth. Soon the fireweed, which has been growing in dense patches wherever there is open ground, springs into action, setting whole fields on fire with millions of pink flowers, smoking with puffy white seed clusters that float off in the breeze. The air is heady with the earthy cinnamon perfume of tundra spices: labrador tea, crowberries, mountain bell heather, and a hundred different mosses and lichens. One breeze might be acrid with the smell of fermenting high-bush cranberries, and another might bring the carroty scent of cow parsnip. Then come the wild bilberries, which are like what blueberries wish they could be but never dreamed possible. Every meal is packed with wild berries, and littered with edible wildflowers. Everything bursts at the seams in a screaming, frenzied symphony of living as the plants tug at their roots to soak in every last drop of sun. The summer is as explosive in flavor as it is in color. The long sunlight causes the plants to go into overdrive - carrots push themselves out of the ground, surging with super loaded sugars, broccoli grows dark and rich, and tastes every bit as complex and savory as a bite of steak. The chickadees, loons, arctic ground squirrels, snowy owls, black-billed magpies, woodpeckers, jays, and tree frogs all return from the south or come out of hiding to join the ravens and wolves in filling the days and nights with their cacophony. It's a tapestry of unique sensory input that can take whole afternoons to soak up correctly, and finding an ideal place to pitch a hammock or a good bed of tundra to lie on where this can be accomplished is not at all difficult.

Coming from the winter, almost sterile in its harshness and castigating extremity, the summer is practically obscene with its sumptuousness and opulence - an orgy of sensation. Everything in Fairbanks exists in extremes. The life, the light, the people, the temperature, even the land itself... Leaving that world behind for the relatively tame environs of the lower 48 felt like walking out of Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and back into the bleached grey streets of industrial London. I had been coloring with the 128 pack crayon box with the built in sharpener, and I was back to working with the 8 pack with the missing orange. The regularity of the hours and return of nighttime was immediately striking as we drove south through Canada. The closer we got to civilization, the more desaturated the landscape became. Of course, I've been living in not-Alaska for the overwhelming majority of my life, and it was not too difficult to get back into the rhythm of a normal night/day light cycle, but I found myself missing the sun's asymptotic games with the horizon pointedly. I remember being honestly shocked to see the moon for the first time in months somewhere in British Columbia. I was very glad to see the stars again too, but they weren't Fairbanks stars, and I would have traded both stars and moon to have the sun back in my evenings for a bit longer. It was the intersection of a cornucopia of environmental factors that made Fairbanks resonate so deeply with me, but probably none had so direct an impact on my psychological well-being as the sun did.

There is no word that I know of that can accurately capture the specific type of warmth and vitality of our sun's light, and I have felt it nowhere as powerfully as I did during my time in Alaska.

Monday, April 4, 2011


I'm trying to imagine the life of this can of pumpkin while I twist the handle on the can opener. I watch the words “Best by: Apr 2005” spin counterclockwise on the lid to the can opener's munching. I'm not sure I can even guess when this pumpkin must have been canned to have passed its best-by date six years ago. I picture the pumpkin as a waxy young gourd, growing up in an era where canning is kind of a new thing to the world of food - off-white and eggshell are the in-vogue kitchen colors. I try to imagine the shock and confusion, the soft hiss of decompression, the light beginning to spill in, Beck playing Hot Wax very loudly in the background to welcome it back to the world. How different the bright blues and pastel red, gold, and greens of my kitchen must look to the pumpkin. I do not envy it. Soon it’ll be muffins, so it goes.

The muffins turn out dry, stillborn from the oven. I have a bowl of Cheerios while I wait for them to cool and then wrap them in cheery green cellophane without removing them from the muffin tin. It’s 7 pm and I wonder what the mailbox is up to. I emerge from my house with about the same viscosity as the pumpkin from the can, punctuating each of my actions with wider, more dramatic swinging motions than necessary. Giving the mundane activities in my day this kind of energy lends them an element of grandiosity that they otherwise might lack.