The ogres and the woodpile, birch-bark, whitefish stew

The cabin where I am is whitewashed inside, not dark and low-roofed like the trapper cabins you see here and there in the woods, buried in snow drifts and hung with rusting, dull-edged tools. This cabin is a woodsmoke-white inside with a good window that faces the slough, four big panes rimmed with tinsel-frost in the morning, a glittering that disappears in photographs, it is special to this ethereal plane, three-dimensional, as fluid as the seasons will allow. The outside of this cabin is rough-cut spruce, fresh and golden, the window trim is bright green. The snow makes a pure blanket in all directions from the house, a plane of light and magic from which spring the birch trees, blonde zebra-striped pillars that cut the light into bars, make a sort of grid to measure space, shed sheets of paper that I peel off with my woolen mittens, stuff into my coat to write letters on.

I know I am bad at writing letters but I promise to try. By these sheets of birch bark, I will try.

River found a bag of fur scraps at the dump in Fairbanks. Rabbit, fox, marten, coyote. Trapped in the woods, tanned, trimmed, thrown away. She keeps the scraps in a wire basket beneath the white table where we wash the breakfast dishes in a chipped enamel bowl, and I pull the basket out to stroke the scraps, try to imagine an appropriately beautiful fate for them. River says she thought once to buy the sorts of leather gloves that come in bales, trim them all in fur, sell them on etsy, but she never did it. I try to think of some sort of craft that will incorporate both the fur scraps and the birch bark, a strong and handsome talisman from the dry wintertime forests of the Interior, where all the moisture in the air is frozen safely into snow and ice and nothing will ever, ever mold- a talisman to send away to my friends in Portland to fight the musty, teeming dampness there, to see them through the spring. River says that in the summer the birch bark peels much more easily and you can make baskets from it by getting it wet and folding it into shapes, sewing the edges together with string. I want a birch bark basket to fill with cranberries in the summertime while I skip along the banks of the slough, choking on clouds of weak, sharp-tasting mosquitoes. We also plan to tap the trees for syrup, soon, we just have to learn how, which will most likely involve the internet, of all things.

We have been making, in these last few days, the most incredible sorts of log-cabin meals. I mean to start taking pictures of the food we eat so I can blog about it, because it is endlessly wonderful. Today for breakfast we ate a salad of shredded purple cabbage, celery, raisins, apples, slivered almonds and hard-boiled eggs tossed with mayonnaise and apple cider vinegar, and for lunch we had Ethiopian flatbread (injera) dipped in curried whitefish stew- a sawed-off hunk of frozen whitefish from the shed (literally, two large frozen white fish lie, blank-eyed, on the plywood shelf in the toolshed) cooked for hours on the woodstove (bones, scales and all) with some carrots, potatoes, celery, broccoli and green curry paste. We keep a glass bowl of the injera bubbling next to the stove and feed it every day, sourdough style, except instead of wheat flour injera is made with teff, which is gluten-free. River has a fifty-pound bag of said teff flour stashed under the counter, bought whole at considerable cost from the health-food store in Anchorage and dragged deep into the woods on a black plastic sled. We’ve also been pulling heavily from a bag of dried cherries bought in bulk in disguise as raisins, and River has a green thermos of tea which she adds new herbs to every few days when the flavor gets faint, mugwort and lavender fading into raspberry leaf and comfrey. All of it in melted snow water, which we cart up from the slough one pot at a time and melt on the woodstove. I drink it from a mason jar and look at the bits of trees that float in it, tiny seeds that are tossed in the wind. It tastes like wintertime, cold and milky and distilled.

In these three days I have been here we have dragged the plastic sled with the red-striped rope the three-quarters of a mile to the place where the forest has been razed, like a veritable Fern Gully, into a dirty four-mile stretch of ice and gravel, fifty feet across. Just one month ago, says River, this “road” was all birch forest, straight blonde trees in the pure white snow. But now they have cut it, they say, to drill for oil. They do not know that it is here for certain, they only like to poke around, mowing four-mile stretches of forest in the process, fifty feet wide, clogging the slough and spreading gravel over the places where the black bears sleep, mulching all the trees because they are not big enough to be worth using. It is ironic, to me, that trees, a thing that can be used for heat, are cut and mulched to look for oil, a thing that can be used for heat.

We go, to this “road”, for the cut trees. We are simple woodland creatures, with our plastic sled and candy-colored rope, our straightforward bowsaws and warm, genderless clothing, and we emerge from the forest and scamper to the tops of their tall stacks of cut willows, birch, spruce, piled every which way, and grab one single stick, saw merrily at it for a quarter of an hour and then pile it in the sled, drink some tea and then step into the candy-colored rope, brace it against our hips and pull the heavy sled like a pony through the snowy woods, along the snowy trail, all the way back to the cabin. They, meanwhile, roll here and there along the gravel in their tall dirt-yellow cat tractors, huge tires crunching, steel buckets scooping, trees falling, earth moving- looking down, ruddy-faced from their smeared windshields, the screeching, beeping ogres of civilization as we saw and saw with our thin metal saws, cheeks red, warm breath freezing to our scarves in the wintry cold. We take the fallen trees one stick at a time but it is never enough, and each day a huge pile is gone, turned into mulch. River flags them down, climbs the tall tractor steps to the little glass boxes that they hide in, uses the subtle coercive magic she learned as a sex worker until they are promising her no more trees turned to mulch, a better bridge across the slough, a stack of cut wood at the head of her trail every day, like an offering. Whether or not they are placating us with empty promises we have yet to see, and I stand back with her barking dog, watching the interaction from deep in my scarf.

What else? There is a sauna on River’s land, in addition to her cabin, the squirrels have eaten all the insulation but we might fix it up, I might live there. We want to get a bear somehow, we want a bucketful of bear fat to make pemmican with, to make soap. We want to build an alter to the Indian goddess Durga, the goddess of vengeance, we want to walk along the trail through the woods all the way to the next town, fifty miles, in the snow, just to see if we can do it. Although the temperature hovers around zero spring is here, and the way we know it is by the bright sun that lasts until nearly nine p.m. River has a stack of guns, weathered-looking men keep showing up on snow machines and giving them to her, guns to shoot bears, ghosts, rapists, whatever it is that they think she might need protection from, out here in the woods by herself. I don’t know how to use any of them and she promises to show me how, for practice she shoots at a plywood wiseman in a yellow robe who carries an urn of frankincense, he was part of the nativity scene that came with the land. There was a baby jesus too and she’d planned on burning him, but word got out and folks warned her against it, Alaska being a small town and all and lots of people being fundamentalist Christians. So she carted him away in her truck and left him with an impartial friend with whom he would be safe. This same friend came visiting last night with some paper packages of moose meat- it was roadkill, “dogfood”. If it’s good enough for the dog, it’s good enough for me, says River. The whitefish she eats, scavenged from a fish wheel that froze in the river, is also what’s commonly considered “dogfood” in these parts, but I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten. But maybe that’s just because every single piece of fish you might get in the Lower 48, no matter how “fresh”, “seasonal” and expensive, tastes like rancid sawdust compared to the dogfood fish of Interior Alaska. And anyway, some people just feed their dogs better here.

Tomorrow we’re going to pull the sled to the head of the trail and see if there’s a pile of wood there, left there in the night by the ogres. They can’t help being ogres, says River. They have bar tabs to pay, child support, gas tanks to fill. They’re actually nice guys, who just want jobs, and anyway it’s the native corporation that leased this land for exploratory drilling. It’s the future, it’s today, it’s tomorrow already. There is no past left. We’ll cut a few sticks with our bowsaws and pull them in the sled, and if the ogres keep mulching the piles like they have been River says she’ll hire someone with a chainsaw to come out for a day and cut it all up for her, so she can cart it in and stack it against the tall blonde cabin wall, three winter’s worth of heat for the heavy stove.

4 thoughts on “The ogres and the woodpile, birch-bark, whitefish stew

  1. I love the imagery–it almost feels like I’m in Alaska. But, please leave the bears alone! Surely you can find an alternative to bear fat….

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