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The Before: February 2019

This summer will begin my twenty-third year in Alaska, having moved here immediately after graduating vet school back in 1997.

However, the verbs of that statement become tricky and lapse into precisely the conjugations I most dreaded in French class: future conditional, perfect continuous conditional...

"This summer would begin my twenty-third year..."

"... would have begun ...


The confusion stems from the uncertainty: Will I be here, come June of this year, or not?

The change is not in Alaska, but in me. Alaska itself is a difficult place to leave, offering an environment seldom found elsewhere in, at the very least, another American locale. Particularly appealing for a solitary-loving tree-hugger like myself are the countless acres of trails and wilderness, frequently unspoiled by the presence of even one other human voice in the duration of an hours-long hike.

Whilst traveling through the California redwoods last year, I picked up a book -- more of an essay really -- "The Tree," written by John Fowles. More commonly known for his fiction ("French Lieutenant's Woman"), Fowles expounds in "The Tree" on his experiences of growing up the son of a man who valued the trees in their small London family garden for what those trees could produce each year -- a certain breed of apple or pear, the status of creating a new flavor or hybrid -- rather than for the value of the trees themselves. And Fowles goes on to suggest that the British generally tend to value an individual tree rather than the "woods" or forest, which is to say the presence of an entire natural space full of not only trees and bushes but also the plants, animals and microfauna that live within, understory, overstory, flora, fauna. The missed value, he proposes, is in the entirety of it, the woods, rather than the love of a single tree.

Alaska excels at this precise thing. Walking along any given trail, I can expand my consciousness ever outward from wherever I'm standing without encountering anything other than whatever "the woods" might encompass. I find this exercise the closest I can come to mindfulness, as it tends to dilute my own normally tightly wound ball of self -- my preoccupations, my days' tasks -- with the serenity of the presence of a perpetual organism of Forest all around, beneath, above me as I move through it.

Still, I have been here a long time. A long time. There are few trails I walk now that are new to me (mostly thanks to the invention of the fat-tire bike, or snow bike, which tend to weave their own trails through previously untracked bog and forest in winter's ice and snow, making some of the most pleasant walking trails I've been on). Just yesterday, I decided to take a spur trail I've never taken before. No matter I didn't know its outlet, as I've walked every other trail in that area for over two decades, so the new trail was bound to spit me out somewhere familiar, even if it was somewhere other than where I'd intended. Sure enough, within about a half hour, I found myself crossing a ski trail I used to use as my hill run when I was training for a mountain race some years ago. Reoriented, I crossed over and kept going down the bike trail on the other side.

That's the other thing about living in a single place for a long time: every space has the potential to trigger memories, good or bad. The ski trail I crossed yesterday was, as I said, one I'd previously used for a particular race's training. But that same year, I'd also had a jacket stolen while I was repeating one of my runs up the hill. I'd become warm enough to remove the jacket and hang it on a tree branch, only to find it gone when I ran back down. Since the woods have always seemed a place of moral purity for me, it seemed an especially heinous violation to realize another human (bad enough) came along and took it. (I checked for days at the nearby park's lost and founds, to no avail.) -- Similarly, that same year, the local newspaper ran a story of a woman runner being chased through the woods by a crazed man carrying a small hatchet. Again with the moral purity, and the exaggerated sense of violation to think someone "like that" would use woodland space...

Regardless, all those memories, and more, flare up as I move through the local trails. The hill crest where some years ago my dog and I had a tense stand-off with a collared black bear. A different then-new trail my (now ex-)husband found for me, knowing my love of rolling hills and curves. The previously mentioned hill run with its Bench #1 and Bench #2, so designated by probably no one other than myself as a means of marking my achievement of each repeat.

Even the trees themselves, most of them more slender than a hands-width across, yet stretching thirty feet upward into the sky. Packed together creating a dense yet spindly forest. -- I'll certainly find forests again, wherever I go next, but not like these forests. And, similarly, those forests will be unlike the ones I find after that.

So as I move through the woods -- my woods -- I am filled with bittersweet thoughts, feelings, memories. There's no place quite like these Alaskan woods. But it's still time to move on.


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