2021 Essay Contest Honorable Mention
Bird’s Eye View
by Keely O’Connell
It’s February now, and in Fairbanks that means the sun is coming back. The other day, two boreal chickadees lit on my windowsill and fluffed up their feathers in the pocket of wind-free south-facing light there. They fluttered and hopped like perfect clowns; the one would bop along the windowsill until it bumped into the other; that one would fix its attention on the first with its shrewd little black eyes like glossy seeds. I read the expression as injured dignity. They were like two neatly dressed portly gents practicing a slapstick routine there on the windowsill, trim and tidy, straightening their vests and glaring at each other. They seemed bent on trying out every variation on comedic outrage, and I watched until they bobbed away into the naked branches of the big birch tree at the edge of my clearing. I wondered if I should start putting out seed. I’d like them to come back.
This time of year, in Alaska, everyone pauses in the middle of errands and chores to turn toward the sunlight. If you have ever sat on the shore of a harbor at low water and watched the tide turn, you’ve seen how all the moored boats lose their sense of direction at slack water, how they bob aimlessly for a moment, higgledy-piggledy in the stillness. If you’ve seen that, then you’ve also seen how, like dogs, ears atwitch, noses lifted into some current of scent, the boats, at the moment the water begins to rise, shudder and lean back against their chains. You’ve seen how, all at once, every mooring snaps tight, every hull sways back, every boat bows at once into the rush. It’s like that here, now. We are all turning to the south, standing suddenly still in parking lots or wood yards or at south-facing windows, getting ourselves in right relation to the sun’s rising force. Me, my neighbors, even the chickadees.
I used to fly a lot. I liked to go back east and spend a week or so every summer living on my parents’ boat in the Maine coast town where I grew up. To get there, I’d hop a commercial jet from Fairbanks to Seattle, another from Seattle to Boston, and then make the last leg of the trip on a bus. Three thousand miles in less than a day. Three thousand miles of country reduced to a smudge of color peeping now and then through a gap in the clouds. Three thousand effortless, blurry, distorted miles.
I have an early memory of flying with my family over farm country and pointing out the big monochrome squares of the fields below. I thought they were states; they looked like what I’d seen on maps, and I knew I was flying high over mapped territory. As a child, I took it for granted that the land from above was carved into convenient shapes, each distinct and separate, each its own color. Matters of scale were beyond my grasp, but I had a handle on borders and the power of people to draw lines on the land. I think about it every time I’m on a commercial flight that crosses the middle of the country: All that land, broken up into digestible bits. All that land, faded and crumpled to nothing but distance to be covered as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Mostly, though, I flew north. For years, I taught in remote villages in the arctic that were only accessible to things with wings. Getting out there was a fundamentally different sort of travel. When a commercial jet takes off, it slings itself as hard and fast as it can away from the ground, tucking its wheels into its belly as if in distaste for the necessity of landing gear, or maybe land in general. The people inside commercial jets forget where they are, what they’re doing. They breathe canned air and drink bottled water and pretend that they, too, are preserved and suspended in time, not really present until the seal around the door is broken. I was used to that, so when I first climbed into a scruffy old air service commuter with graffiti carved into the cloudy plastic of its windows, I almost turned around. It felt too small to fly, too old and too dirty. There was nothing sterile or sealed about that plane, and when the engines started, they seemed too loud.
I didn’t get off, though. I stayed and held my breath as the plane rattled down the runway and didn’t fall to pieces. Somehow the thing lifted into the sky and took me with it, and I saw, for the first time, a landscape as different from those neatly delineated farm fields as anything I could imagine. North of Fairbanks, the land is marked by meandering rivers and oxbow lakes, mountains and forests and great swamps and tundras. It’s impressionistic and natural, totally untouched by the straight lines of highways and subdivisions that parcel out so much of the lower-48. It’s wilderness, and it goes on, and on, and on.
The pilots on those runs to the villages have a lot of discretion. Sometimes they’ll fly low over the valleys, sometimes they’ll fly high to stay above the weather. If they know there is wildlife in the area, they’ll go a little out of their way to give the passengers a look. Once, I got to see a pack of wolves on a bloody moose carcass in the snow. Another time, while my boyfriend puked into a potato-chip bag beside me, I pressed my face as close to the window as I could to gulp in the sight of the red and gold tundra strewn with hundreds of caribou. Their velvet antlers were as thick as willows on the mountainside that day.
Even after I moved out of the bush and into Fairbanks, I thought of Fairbanks as a jumping-off point, a temporary base camp, and took every opportunity to fly back out to the north. Over years of skiing and hiking and boating and snowmachining, I’d fallen in love with the lands around the villages where I’d taught, and flying over had become a game and a memory exercise. I’d spend the airborne hours tracing the snowmachine trails from one village to the next, picking out the old burns full of standing dead trees where I’d cut firewood, the sandbars and clearings where I’d camped. There’s the Yukon, I’d think to myself, face pressed to the window, and now the Chandalar. There’s the lake where we shot two caribou, and there’s that long stretch of tundra that’s so bumpy it looks like bubble wrap in low snow years. Now Marten Lake, Bob Lake, Browngrass Lake, all in succession, Wind River, Smoke Creek, Dachanlee, Nitsìi Ddhàa. I had my own mental map, marked up and scuffed and labeled with a mishmash of English names and Gwich’in names and my own landmarks and place names: Wolf Camp, Christmas Lake, First Kiss Ridge.
It wasn’t the feeling of flying itself that I loved, it was the sense of intimacy with a powerful thing at rest. When I’m on the ground, I have to tackle every bend in the river, deal with every inconvenient tree limb clawing across my trail. Whether I like it or not, I’m in it. There are bugs and rapids and bears and icy creeks and all kinds of dangerous and strange things, and there are berries to pick until my back aches, and caribou to butcher until my hands are so cold I have to warm them between the hide and the still-hot carcass. And that’s part of what I’m after. I love the ferocity of those things, the discomfort that makes me bare my teeth, and the uncertainty about whether I’m grinning or grimacing. Being on the ground is an adventure. But flying over the north country is a like watching something wild and powerful in sleep: I look down on it, and I can see its glossy fur rising and falling over its deep chest, and I know that its mouth is sharp and fast, but for a moment it is nothing but gutwrenchingly beautiful, curled soft below me and vulnerable at rest; I can trace with my eyes the achingly fine curve of a claw that, on waking, might easily tear a hole in my heart.
Because of the pandemic, I haven’t flown for almost a year. Grounded, I’ve had to come to terms with this place in ways I didn’t expect. I’ve held Fairbanks at a distance since I first got to Alaska. Maybe it’s because at first it was just a place to buy groceries and see the dentist before hopping the plane to a world that felt more real. For those years, as far as I was concerned, Fairbanks was nothing more than a one-stop-shop for the not-so-fun chores of keeping a remote life going. A sort of scaled up strip mall. It was leaving Fairbanks, the moment the wheels and the runway parted, that gave me the real rush. Even after I moved here, it was the leaving that did it for me.
Now though, it’s the chickadees at the window. I find myself pacing in indoor circles, waiting for the vernal equinox harder than I ever did when I lived in the Arctic. I find myself half-wanting to track the shadows on the floor, to make marks to trace the lengthening days, but I don’t quite know why, or what I’d be counting up to or away from. It’s not that I feel trapped exactly, not like all the people in the big lower-48 cities who can’t even go for walks under trees, but after years of living in villages where I could walk out the door and into truly wild country, even this little city feels uncomfortably crowded. I am fidgety, unaccountably irritated.
The wilderness isn’t far away, but getting to the really wild places – bear trails, caribou blood, white water – requires getting in the car and sitting and driving to a trailhead somewhere. That separation feels unnatural, and I resist it. I think it’s the tidiness of it, the committee-sanctioned flavor of the whole thing: people to the left of the line, wild things to the right, mixing permitted only in locations sponsored by the BLM and the NFS. I want to scramble it all together somehow, or live outside it, but I am where I am, so I grind my teeth together and pace.
I’ve been dealing with that since I moved out of the bush, though; the thing that’s really changed is that this year, grounded by travel restrictions and common sense, I haven’t been able to get a periodic wilderness fix. There’s been no living on a boat in midcoast Maine in midsummer, no winter solstice camping in ANWR where the sun never breaks the horizon. I haven’t had a door that opens onto the water or the wild to step through, and there’s been no migrating like a crane, surveying landscapes from a bird’s eye view and picking and choosing seasons and stops to suit my desires. Is it a fix of wilderness I’m craving? The rush of snowmelt carrying grinding pans of ice? Or is it a fix on wilderness? That moment when my scuffed mental map slides over the landscape below the plane’s wings and locks into place and the whole thing feels knowable somehow? Thoughts like these keep me fidgeting in my hot, itchy stasis through the long winter nights, listening to the passing cars and the planes that roar overhead after takeoff from Fairbanks International just a few miles away.
And sometimes, those nights, I hear moose hooves clopping across the paved road forty yards from my window. Sometimes I hear owls. In the next two months, I’ll hear the calls of the first sandhill cranes returning to the north. Already, I hear the chickadees chirping, those days when they come by to inspect my compost pile.
Grounded, without the aerial view I favor, my ears have sharpened and my sense of natural timing has found a rhythm. My eyes are only ever about sixty inches above the ground, and the spruce trees and birches in my yard tower over my head. My world has become three-dimensional, if smaller than it was before, in the same way that a river looks calligraphic and graceful from above, like a series of arcs across a page, but from the water’s surface you can’t see over the banks at all. Bends and sandbars matter, distant mountains don’t. And the names of those mountains matter less.
My home is on a trail near the edge of a pasture where the University of Alaska grazes herds of musk oxen and reindeer in rotation. It’s beautiful, expansive and green in summer, a great place to watch the northern lights in winter. And the animals seem happy. The musk oxen have a big plastic barrel to play with and they roll it along the fenceline on summer nights. Before I knew what it was, the hollow thunking sound alarmed me, but after a few resounding bonks curiosity got the best of me. I grabbed my bear spray, stepped barefoot onto the deck, and walked to the edge where the pasture fence is just visible through the trees. In the dim light of an Alaskan summer’s witching hour, I made out the shaggy outline of a musk ox there, butting a plastic barrel with his bony, Pleistocene head.
I deliberately built a yurt here instead of a cabin so that I’d be able to hear through the walls and make use of natural light. I placed the yurt as far from the driveway as I could so that I’d have to walk a little way every day through the trees, and I opted for a wood stove instead of gas or electric heat because I like myself more when I have to chop firewood. I wanted to engineer things so that, if I had to be in Fairbanks, at least I’d be as close to the real world as I could get. I had no idea, when I made those decisions, how much they would come to matter.
This will be my second spring on this land. Last year, at the very beginning of quarantine, the snow from the pasture melted and ran almost knee deep through the bottomland behind my outhouse, so I had to wear rubber boots to get from the driveway to my front steps. “Musk Ox Poop Creek,” my friends called it, but I prefer “Yaranga Creek,” after the Chukchi’s yurt-like reindeer-hide homes. This year, I will know to expect it. By next year, I’ll have built a bridge.
And I know, now, what I need to know to build that bridge. I’ll cut spruce trees in the spring when the sap is running in the cambium so that the bark peels off in long strips. Some I’ll mill into boards, some I won’t, and all of these, planks and poles, I’ll set to dry out of the rain in the long daylight hours of midsummer. Later, when Yaranga Creek is bone dry, I’ll dig down into the forest floor to sink posts in the loess layer, that five-foot-wide stratum of fine, dusty soil between the sod above and the permafrost below.
So maybe it’s not completely correct to say that this pandemic year has restricted my movements and forced me from a two- into a three-dimensional world. Maybe it’d be more true to say that I’ve learned a little of a fourth dimension, too, caught the edge of it at least; that I can see shadows of the way this three-dimensional place moves through time. I notice it in ways that I haven’t bothered to notice any of the other places I have lived before: the permafrost, the Pleistocene, the sap run, the angling sun, and the time it takes for a fresh-milled plank to dry. Maybe my impulse to trace the arc of the sun across the spruce boards of my floor isn’t so much a matter of marking a complete year of this grounding as it is a matter of inscribing some permanent evidence of my intimacy with this place and time. That I have been grounded.
So I will start by putting out seed for the chickadees, and when they come to visit me again, I will be glad to see them. Like me, they do not migrate. Like me, they are grounded in this place, subject to whatever changes happen here. And maybe, while the chickadees bask in the new light on the windowsill, and I let it fall through the glass onto my face, I’ll think about how we refer so casually to aerial images as “from a bird’s eye view.” I’ll wonder what a bird’s eye view is, indeed, if the bird in question is a boreal chickadee instead of a crane.
And I’ll wonder whether the ptarmigan I see sometimes on the trail have learned to grasp the edge of the fourth dimension; wonder whether it helps that their feathers change with the seasons. And I will try to imagine what they feel when the spring sun glares full on them and draws their faces, with the rest of ours, to the south. Do they feel some version of the migratory tug that the geese and ducks feel when the seasons change? Does something inside them, triggered by the sun, urge them to shift, not away from their place, but with it, instead, as it passes through time?