My moods, like the weather, have been taking great swings lately as I anticipate the winter solstice and Christmas. As I’ve written before, that’s not so unusual for me at this time of year. In fact I am predictably unsettled as we pass through the darkest days of the year and the holiday season. For all my inner turmoil, I recognize I am blessed in many ways. And there is indeed much to celebrate, when I stop to reflect. Still, the unease is real. With the guidance of others, I’ve learned it is better to embrace the darkness, make peace with the shadow, rather than deny it. And so I am once again reminded of an essay I wrote several years ago when I lived on the Hillside; I’d like to share it here along with best wishes and a hope for peace and joy during the holiday season and the year ahead.
Christmas is coming: season of good cheer, season of darkness; holiday spirit, holiday blues; time of endings and fresh beginnings; overly commercialized Christian celebration, with pagan roots. Mix in winter solstice, New Year’s, the anniversary of Dad’s death, my approaching birthday and the next few weeks promise sensory overload. And, if I’m not careful, emotional disconnection.
Already my mood swings have seemed wilder than usual. Reflective of our Anchorage weather, perhaps. Blue-sky days of inner calm, blown apart by stormy lows. Meltdowns, freeze-ups. Rapid shifts, back and forth. It’s had me wondering about “the winds of change.” Wondering, too, about my connections. To people, to non-humans, to my adopted home, Alaska. Among the many wonderful gifts I received one recent Christmas was a book of paintings and poetry, called Spirit Walker. A Nancy Wood poem that immediately touched me was one titled “My Help Is in the Mountain.” It begins: My help is in the mountain/where I take myself to heal/the earthly wounds/that people give to me.
So it is with me and the nearby Chugach Mountains. Place of healing, comfort, release, rejuvenation, connection, joy. I don’t often go there in winter, and I sense this needs to change. There is magic to be found there.
• • •
Dec. 1. The thermometer outside the house reads 4° Fahrenheit at 2 p.m. Skies are blue, the air is calm, and Rusty Point—a Chugach landmark visible from my yard—is bathed in golden light. A good day to be among the mountains, to visit Chugach State Park. Walking along a forest trail, I welcome the cold as it engulfs me, presses in on my heavily clothed body, makes my wind pants stiffen and crinkle. I drink mountain air like chilled elixir, feel it swirl through my mouth, rush down my throat, cleanse my lungs. I feel it on my nose and cheeks, first as a coolness, then a tingling, a burning. The cold seeps through mittens and boots, lightly touching fingers and feet, and sends a wave of shivers through arms and shoulders. So nice, for a change, to simply be with the cold, to appreciate it.
Looking for wildlife, I see only tracks—moose, snowshoe hares, and voles—until a flock of pine grosbeaks passes overhead. I count 14 of them dipping, swooping, chirping, and wonder if they are among the group that regularly visits my feeders. Male grosbeaks are mostly red, females gray with yellow to olive-green splotches on head and rump. Robin-sized birds, they’re year-round residents of the Anchorage Bowl’s spruce forests, yet I never noticed them until setting up some feeders a few years ago. Now they add pleasure to both my home life and winter walks. Perched atop spruce trees, whistling brightly, they ornament the Hillside forest with holiday cheer. How did I miss them for so long?
Chickadees, magpies, ravens, and a small swarm of redpolls—tiny, sparrow-like birds distinguished by their black chin spots and red patches on their heads—also chatter among the trees. They, like grosbeaks, are new acquaintances of mine, welcomed guests at my feeders.
My walk now takes me into alpine tundra. Feathery clouds have drifted across the sky, but enough sunlight filters through for me to watch its changing hues on the mountains. Mid-afternoon’s soft yellows subtly yield to peach, rose and then lavender as day’s end approaches. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the sunlight dims and disappears. In its wake is a fiery sunset that casts a purplish-pink afterglow on the Chugach Range and prolongs day’s passage into night.
Ravens, returning to their nighttime roosts, are silhouetted against the evening sky. Some fly alone, or in pairs. Others come in bunches; I count 15 ravens in one group, 22 in another. The two flocks join above Blueberry Hill and the ravens engage in a swirling, spiraling winged dance. Then the dance abruptly ends and the birds resume their evening commute from city into mountains. In all, I see hundreds of the big, black birds. A local biologist has been studying their movements, but their nighttime roosting habits remain largely a mystery.
Across Cook Inlet, Mounts Redoubt and Iliamna stand dark against a blood-red sky, while below me Anchorage is a mass of shimmering lights. It’s all beautiful, all connected. Mountains, sky, forest, city. Alaska’s winter cold. Grosbeaks and redpolls and ravens. And yes, me.
• • •
Dec. 13. Ten days have passed since my last visit to the Chugach foothills. Fighting off a flu infection, I stare out my window at spruce trees, snow, and a darkening sky and try to fit the pieces together, so they again make sense. Failing to gain the desired clarity, I settle for something else: appreciation. In a time of gift giving and receiving, I appreciate the gift of nearby mountains. More than ornamented Christmas trees, Yuletide carols, or Nativity readings, they remind me, this holiday season, of the wonder in this world, my life.