Sunday, December 13, 2015

the inspectors

What's seven feet tall, weighs half a ton, and sneaks about quietly on official business?

moose wearing official inspector's regalia.
Yes, it's Alces alces, the majestic moose!

When I moved to Alaska six years ago I wanted to live in a log cabin and see moose from my window. Easier said than done. I have seen them in my yard on occasion, but more often I see their sign. They are stealthy, and though they tend to be active during the day, right now in Alaska "day" is mostly dark, so my chances of seeing them are pretty low. They are more likely to be seen at the close of summer when they boldly saunter into yards to inspect vegetable gardens, or later in the fall when hollowed-out pumpkins left on porches keep them busy overtime.

This winter began with lots of snow, leaving a deep white blanket unmarred for weeks up until the last 36 hours. Then on Saturday I looked out my kitchen window and noticed the first moose tracks.  By this morning the tracks had doubled. I decided to try to make sense of them by creating a map. Like all inspectors, they show up unannounced and stick their long noses into everything, including the path to my firewood which reposes under a tarp tied to some spruce trees, and which now bears the stamp of the cloven hoof.

As always, they left a few Proofs of Observation (see map).

inspection route awarded three Proofs Of Observation (POOs)

Sunday, October 4, 2015





Sunday, September 27, 2015

the artsy fartsy corner

for eric

graduate school

the hood

Sunday, September 20, 2015

It's Autumn and Nobody's Smiling

Many moons ago, in my late twenties, I found myself feeling isolated and deeply unhappy. I had graduated from college a few years earlier and had married my college boyfriend, but I found myself frustrated and depressed most of the time.  I turned to my diary as a sort of confessional, because I felt nobody else could really help me. Part of my problem was that I thought the misfortunes I suffered were completely out of my control, that life was meant to be “against me,” thus nobody else could truly understand my situation.  I had no awareness that my ability to control my feelings and choices could be the key to a happier life. In other words, my lack of self-awareness, my ignorance of where my own powers lay, left me feeling like a boat at the mercy of inhospitable seas.  It got so bad that I actually ran away from home.  The first time, I took all the money from the joint savings account my husband and I had, and I drove out west for 100 days, hiking in the mountains and sleeping in motels and campgrounds. The second time, I was divorced and living on my own, and I decided I’d had enough of my life again, and headed out west again for the summer.  Why I ever returned to Chicago is something of a mystery, but it probably had to do with the fact that I’d run out of money and ideas.  Once I learned that I had the power to navigate my little boat, my life began to become less of a struggle and more of an adventure.

Without these skills of navigation I doubt I would ever have landed in Alaska to study the Arctic. Sometimes I feel like pinching myself at how lucky I am.

Even so, every autumn in Fairbanks I feel myself internally bracing for an invisible storm. Not necessarily the coming of winter (although that’s surely part of it), but certainly the combination of the stress of the fall semester, the demands of my graduate program and all its attendant commitments and meetings and obligations.  Grad students at UAF who are awarded a TA assignment are expected to run two labs per week, attend all the lectures, and do all the assignments to keep up with student questions. I confess I have never looked forward to it. The only thing that gives me a sense of excitement is the idea that my data will show me something unexpected and wonderful, that it will one day be published, and that I will go on to other as-yet unknown adventures, hopefully having something to do with the Arctic.

Even so, after three years in this program, all the steps still required to earn my PhD seem as remote and untested as the steps to the summit of Everest. And some days I’m just not up for the challenge.

It’s helped tremendously to have good neighbors, people to hang out with and share a meal and some laughs and forget the frustrations of academia.  But nothing lasts forever. Recently, some my Alaskan friends have decided to leave Fairbanks to pursue other adventures.

I know that life goes on, but it is sad to see them go.

Gareth and Ryanne left last month to seek their fortune in the Lower 48. And tomorrow, Joanne is heading down to the lower 48 to work for the next eight months in Idaho and Washington. She’s sublet her cabin to yet another new face who comes and goes about her own business, and it isn’t clear if Joanne will be back in the spring to stay or to wrap things up and take off for good.

The undergraduates I’m TAing this semester will graduate and move on in a few short years, and who knows, I may even be done before they are. Right now it seems hard to imagine. There’s so much to juggle with my dissertation and the demands of the TA assignment, and I know my fellow grad students bear the same weight of their own tasks.

 The worse thing about graduate school is—hands down--the utterly disheartening look on the unsmiling faces of graduate students; these are people you pass everyday on campus who don’t look at you or speak to you. If you should dare to say “Good morning” or even just “Hi” they look as though you threw cold water on them.  These days I think about what it would feel like to drive out of Fairbanks to Delta Junction and then east into Canada, cutting south to cross over into Montana or North Dakota, or continue further on to Minnesota or Wisconsin, never looking back.  I have no idea what I’d do once I got to wherever I think I would go, but that isn’t the point. These are the days I just want to run away from the pileup of darkness and cold and grad school duties in this pressure cooker world of academia. Sometimes I worry that I am sacrificing my health and happiness for the right to be called a doctor of philosophy. But then I tell myself: if you walk away from all this work, you will have nothing to feel good about--so you might as well get those three letters after your name to compensate for all this suffering.

And then I go outside and I’m startled by the sight of a squirrel that has landed somehow in my rain barrel and drowned. I mean, it’s not like Alaska is in a drought. It’s been cloudy and rainy for the past ten days. Why did he end up in here? Squirrels are not what comes to mind when you think of accident-prone klutzbags. So what happened here, little buddy? Did you just decide to take the plunge like your lemming cousins? Was it just all too much to bear?  Or did you see a tasty-looking giant spruce cone, magnified in the lens of the water?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Love and Happiness

I just came back from a ten-day vacation in Northern California where my good friends Di Walsh and Lawr Michaels hosted me at their Lake Tahoe vacation house and their Bay Area home.

Nearly two decades ago I was introduced to Di through my sister, who recruited me to paint a likeness of a recently deceased pet of Di’s then-boyfriend.  I remember Di walking into my sister’s kitchen on a bright morning: she was funny and feisty and cheerful and I liked her immediately. Several months later at a Christmas party I was introduced to her cousin Cherie, whom I also liked immediately. Ever since, I have counted these people among my dearest friends.

Many parties later—Di’s parties at her place on the Fox River were legendary—we found ourselves going back to school getting our university education in biology: Di for her BS in Anthrozoology at UC Davis, me for a PhD in plant biology at UAF. I described Di to my Alaskan friends as “the other fifty-year-old college student.”

For eight years Di has shared her life with her partner, Lawr Michaels, a sports writer and musician, and their seven or eight animal family members, consisting of roughly equal parts canine and feline. Fittingly, they describe their household as a “pack.”

I got to be part of the pack for a few days. Everyone who knows me knows I’m not a “dog person,” and yet for some reason, several of my closest friends and neighbors are dog people. So, in order to be with them, I have had to deal with hot, fishy dog breath in my face, lots of barking and fussing, lots of dog hair, drool, nasty dog farts, and worst of all, picking up German Shepherd poo in the middle of the night because dear old elderly Mahi had an accident in the living room where I was sleeping. Di and Lawr told me I was the easiest house guest one could ask for, and I have to agree :-)

Coming home early this morning to my beloved house on Kiwi Korner, to my car Kaneesha, my pet tarantula Wata, my laughing Buddha statue and my pet cactus Bartholomew, I realized that the pack love I had been basking in at Di and Lawr’s is something I want for myself in some version or other--but I don't quite have it yet.

I see their life the way one hears a song never before played; I didn’t quite realize such notes existed, beautiful and tangled as the leashes on the side table in the living room, beautiful as the cupboards stuffed with dog treats in front of the granola and pancake mix, beautiful as the mounds of clean laundry that never seem to get put away in the tide of busy days, beautiful as the plants in the backyard garden that stand vulnerable to accidental annihilation by their large and playful four-legged children. Each night, the pack goes into the bedroom and drapes itself across the bed to watch “Family Guy” before falling asleep.  Even though this is not the way I choose to live my own life, I realize that in spending time with them I have seen the things that make life worth living. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Television Eyes

When I was an undergrad, my roommate made a comment one day as I was showing him some pictures from childhood. He looked at photos of one of my relatives from about the age of five to fifteen. When he saw the adolescent images of her he remarked:

"She has television eyes."

I compared the photos of the innocent, wide-eyed gaze of her girlhood to the teenage pictures, and it seemed that she had indeed developed a vacant stare, as if under hypnosis. Television Eyes.

These days, it seems everyone is guilty. If television was a powerfully corruptive force in the sixties, today's constant stream of real-time internet updates creates the same sort of hypnosis. Everywhere you go, you see people staring down at their hands, at their laps. Since I joined Facebook, I have been doing pretty much the same thing. I wonder what's happening to my brain, to my health, to my natural self? In a few short days I'll be marching across the tundra, needing my more ancient systems fully intact for the physical and mental challenges of weather and data sampling in the field.

Will you be up for it, Television Eyes??


did somebody just say something????

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Forget Drill, Baby, Drill (at least for now)

more like Burn, Baby, Burn.
What strange planet have I landed on??

NOT mushrooms in our local soccer field--but firefighters' tents. Many people have come up from the L48 to help (Thank you guys!!)
from AK Forestry on Twitter
...another great website of current fire distribution from UAFSMOKE:

There are about 300 individual wildfires burning in Alaska right now. Most of them started in the last few days, because we've had little rain and our main forest tree, besides birch, is spruce, aka the Christmas Tree.  We have literally millions of Christmas Trees in our forests, and if you've ever shoved a dried up old spruce into your fireplace after the holidays and watched it explode into flames, you understand what a vulnerable situation we're in right now.

Since about Sunday, the sun has been blood red, and casts no shadow, the air smells like campfire smoke and is really really---REALLY--hard to breathe. It gives you headaches, and not only that---some research suggests that inhaling air polluted by particulate matter in high concentrations can lead to chronic inflammation in the brain, and (shudder!) to dementia

Since I've moved to Alaska, I've never experienced such intensely unbreathable air. If this becomes the "new normal"--hot, dry summers and a long fire season until autumn rains clear the air--I don't know how much more of this I'll be able to take.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Big Dreams on Laundry Day

Today is a lovely warm Saturday--perfect for doing the laundry. My neighbor stopped by on her way to do her own laundry and told me she had a dream about having her very own water.

Unlike me, she lives in a real dry cabin: she has to buy and haul all her water from The Fill in town.

I'm much luckier. My old belowground tank still has a few hundred gallons of tea-colored water for my weekly "Better Than Nothing" shower and daily washing of dishes. If it wasn't so old and full of sediment I wouldn't have to buy drinking water, but that's minor compared to true dry cabin living.

I told her that her dream is not a First World Dream, but a dream for the whole world. And then I went back to my laundry.

my laundry room

my washing machine (with motor partially exposed)

Saturday, May 30, 2015

strange new world

The weather is stellar in Fairbanks: crystal blue skies, gentle breezes, the smell of new birch and poplar leaves, birdsong everywhere. This can mean only one thing: everyone I know has left town for summer work in Galena, or some other rural village.  Joanne and I took a quick trip (1200 miles round trip or so) to Juneau to meet up with her sister, and then she had to go right back to work. I came home a few days ago, and it feels rather lonely right now.

Don't get me wrong. This is why I moved here: to be out in the country away from the noise and stress. But I realized I was missing everyone. And so I joined Facebook. Or rather, I decided to resurrect my long-languishing Facebook account so I could hang out online with the people I like to hang out with face-to-face (usually holding glasses rather than books).

For the first few days it was rather fun, like dropping in on a swinging party that never stops. I uploaded photos, requested friends, got friends, and in no time was snooping around on everyone's pages, liking and commenting on their photos and stuff. I quickly learned that it's best not to overdo it, and I actually ended up apologizing to a friend because I felt that the tone of my comments might have sounded more rude than teasing and playful.

Overall my nearly two weeks on Facebook have so far been great.  But I'm learning the not-so-great part is the newsfeed page. It's a constant stream of things my friends share on my timeline, which for me can be either really fun and cool and inspiring, or something I don't understand or really don't need in my life. Some of these latter ones are listed below in no particular order:

1. Videos of ridiculously cute animals. These are so addictingly and annoyingly cute, I am even guilty of sharing two of them with friends.  The ones that do me in: lambs, ponies, ducks, tiny baby pigs with wet noses, and goats (or "goatsies" as one of my friends calls them).

2. Anything containing cats.  Once upon a time, I used to love cats. But they are dominating the internet and someone has to put a stop to it. I think if we all do our part, the internet will be cat-free one day.

3. Weird, dark, sometimes gross posts full of references my younger friends obviously find hilarious. Whatever. No comprendo.

4. Causes. These are okay in moderation. Moderation.

5. Uplifting Hallmark Card-like messages.  If I had a choice? I'd rather see the weird ones.

6. Ads.  The bright side: none have been pornographic.

7. Anything clearly designed to be manipulative. 

I am so cute and wee please don't eat meeeee!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

messy floor or Divine Message?

I was doing my morning yoga and saw this (whilst downward dogging)...

Saturday, May 9, 2015

just a morning in May

In another life, I thought I wanted to be an artist, so I did all of the things I thought an artist ought to do. That is, up to a point: the point at which it becomes difficult. At that point, one has to fight in order to continue. That is where I stopped.

In yet another life, I found myself on the path to becoming a scientist. This time, I recognized as soon as my foot touched the path that one has to fight to continue. And so I fight every day: I fight my laziness and my self-doubt, and I tell myself, if you give up, what will you have? You can only stop fighting if you have something else worth fighting for.

Today I was supposed to work on my data. But I said to myself: it’s a beautiful spring day. Why don’t you just be a living, breathing thing today? Forget the data. It will still be there tomorrow. So I had my coffee in bed with the window wide open, watching the morning unfold.

Then a bird hit my picture window. He bounced off and landed in a spruce tree just at eye level.  I grabbed my binoculars. He was a small thing, and his mottled coloring suggested he hadn’t left the nest all that long ago. For perhaps an hour he did nothing but sit very still, and it was clear he was in shock. I fully expected him to fall dead off his perch into my yard, because when do you ever see a bird sit still?

After that first hour, he limped to a different position on the tree, more inside the canopy. Most likely because the neighborhood had begun to wake up and there were all kinds of noises: car engines, bush planes, chattering squirrels and our local raven, who I’m convinced is nosy because he (or she) always flies low past my windows as if to see what I’m up to. I thought my little friend had been spotted and it was only a matter of time before Nosy would ambush-pluck him away from his hiding place. But my friend stayed still, puffed up like a small dark-feathered ball, and seemed to be napping off and on. After another hour, he began to stir, and groomed himself meticulously, flexing every feather.  Soon enough he began plucking at the twigs, foraging for bugs. After perhaps another hour the mild sunshine began to fade and a steady breeze blew. By then he was hopping from branch to branch, looking for more bugs.  The speed of his recovery was astonishing.  It was clear he was getting ready to fly away. After one short experimental flight to another part of the same tree, he launched himself into the wind and flew away.  All that was left were four little downy breast feathers stuck to my window. Soon enough, these flew away too.

After he’d gone I realized: what a lucky fool I am! I get to decide what to fight for: artist or scientist, soldier or pacifist, mother or childless woman. He could only be a bird, and that was the only thing he could fight for. But he did so splendidly.


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Now that it's spring, don't forget to top off your car's fluids!

Don't wait until he pulls over to suck up water from dirty puddles like this poor, thirsty guy.

Monday, March 30, 2015

A Foxy Spring?

“In like a lion and out like a lamb” is how March is described. This year was no exception; two weeks ago it was bottoming out at -35 F every morning, and now at the tail end of the month temperatures are in the low 50’s. That’s an 85° difference. Which is completely insane.

Here in Fairbanks the snow has been melting in record time. Local roads are turning muddy, while the main roads are as dry as the Indiana Speedway in July; snow is avalanching from roofs onto the ground and winter trails are deteriorating, making it hard to mush and snowmachine anymore. Most people have put away their skis for the year, and I have never seen so many folks running around in tee shirts this early.

Two years ago it snowed all through April, and break-up didn’t happen until the middle of May. Are we really done with the white season this year?

Well, today I heard a fly.

I sat in shirtsleeves on my nice sunny porch enjoying a cup of afternoon tea when I saw something moving low and slow among the trees. Too slow to be a squirrel or a chickadee, I realized it was a grouse, as big as a chicken and trying hard to be stealthy. That was almost impossible; not only was she very large, she was almost black. This surprised me, because just a month ago our sportsman neighbor showed us a photo of some grouse that were as white as the snow he lined their plump little dead bodies upon. A month later, it’s still pretty white around here, and that’s normal.  But I wondered: what causes birds like grouse to change color?

Most research suggests the hormonal changes causing the shift from white to black coats (and vice-versa) is driven by day length. Other studies have shown a strong air temperature cue that causes coat-color change in some animals. The first theory could be a problem if snowmelt happens before the birds darken: then you’d have white birds running around on black ground (pursued by slobbering foxes) waiting for the days to get longer. The second theory could cause the opposite problem: warm enough to change the birds but not melt the snow, which is what I saw today.  Either way, bad for the birds and great for my neighbor (and the foxes).

As for this particular grouse, not only did she stick out like a sore thumb, I saw her break through the fragile snow crust in a clearing and slip and fall right on her tailfeathers. My heart went out to her then: first she was this wild creature moving with the noiseless fluidity born of utter caution that tasty animals must have to survive, and now she was no different from a little kid on her first skis.  I hoped a safe shelter awaited her nearby from all the nosy dogs, foxes, and gun-toting sportsman that like to prowl the neighborhood.