The Way Winter Comes (by Sherry Simpson)

One fall in Barrow, a storm eroded bluffs along the shoreline, exposing the body of a young girl who had been frozen in permafrost for about 800 years. I went north to visit a classroom of children who had made a grave marker for her new burial site in the town cemetery, but I also wanted to see how winter arrives in the arctic. I was there in September when freeze-up started. At the time, I lived in Fairbanks. These are excerpts from the essay I later wrote, “The Way Winter Comes.”

In the north, winter is a language with its own regional dialects. The fundamental grammars of darkness and cold seem familiar enough throughout Alaska, but the idioms of climate and geography make each place exotic and difficult in its own way. In Juneau, winter stages a wet and blustery melodrama that vacillates among rain, snow, and slush. People often say this damp, above-freezing climate feels chillier than the arid, below-zero temperatures of the interior, but I have my doubts. The dry cold scrapes against me even after ten abrasive winters in Fairbanks. When fall equinox tips us into a deep well of darkness and cold, I count to myself the months of hard winter: October, November, December, January, February, March. Then I re-count them, thinking how half my life is winter.

Only a trembling rind of flesh separates us from the dark embrace of cold. Winter reminds me every moment how weak is the flesh that rides our bones, how quickly fervent blood retreats from limbs and puddles deep inside, trying to delay the chill that reaches steadily toward the heart. The body becomes a frail vessel of heat that must be shielded in a soft armor of down and wool and fur. It is a cruel science, learning how to dress properly so that sweat will not freeze me in my own damp salt, so cold will not steal fingers or toes or ears, searing them into a white deadness that will blister and blacken and swell. A delicate balance is required. The coldest I’ve ever been was in Barrow several years ago as I stood on the pack ice for a few hours, watching efforts to rescue three trapped gray whales. The cold slowly percolated from the ice through my boots into my feet, until the sensation of rising numbness twisted my stomach with nausea. When I finally thawed out, I nearly wept from pain as the cold relinquished me. That same day, another woman out on the ice fainted from overheating; she had swaddled herself too tightly and thickly.

Winter weights the year so heavily that it nearly develops a personality. Every Fairbanks summer seems akin in its radiance of heat, green, and light, but winters I recall individually. The winter a Siberian cold front mired us for two weeks in temperatures of minus-fifty and -sixty degrees. The winter a foot of wet snow dropped in September, bending and freezing the slim birches into permanent arcs. The bloody winter the moose escaped eleven-foot snowdrifts by walking along the railroad line. Summer carries you away, but winter inhabits you.

I long for reconciliation because I will spend the rest of my life in the north, never far from winter.. Winter’s beauty is not hard to locate in the rosy dream of mid-day light, in the brilliant swell and fall of the aurora, in the comfort of downy snow falling through the trees at night. But there is something deeper than beauty in the way the constancy of winter presses against me, turning flesh into a membrane that allows cold to permeate, connecting me more intimately and uneasily to the outside world than any other sensation. Winter clothes me in awareness, so I can admit that by allowing the cold and dark to seep into me just so far, far enough that my own heat and desire for life will cause me pain, I find a fierce joy. Perhaps surviving winter demands yielding some part of myself.    

The old prospectors knew what permafrost could do, and it’s said that many didn’t care to be buried in the north, where their coffins might later lunge from the ground. Today Fairbanks inters its dead on birch-covered hills where permafrost is less likely to exist. Still, it’s impossible to bury the winter’s deceased until the ground thaws enough; coffins are stored in concrete bunkers on the edge of the cemetery until spring arrives to accept the dead. Sometimes I feel the waves of frigid air cascading off the windows surrounding our bed, and I shiver thinking of the way cold must radiate through the earth. Each January, when winter air becomes something fluid that pools against the landscape, I remember to tell my husband I wish to be cremated when I die.

At the Barrow cemetery, a few students, helped by a father, dig and scratch at the earth so they can erect the grave marker. A local video crew tapes the scene. Out on the tundra, other children spin and slide and swoop like little birds. The teacher asks for a few special thoughts from those gathered. “Thank you for showing us your body,” one boy offers. “We’re sorry you died,” another suggests.

I stand there wishing I had seen the girl’s body. I wanted to see how in death she curled back into the shape she assumed in the womb. I wanted to see the way cold earth can hold and release us, perhaps more tenderly than life itself does. I suppose I wanted to see what awaits me in the future as much as I longed to understand her past.

But whether seeing her could have told me these things, I can’t say. There’s so much I don’t know about the Arctic, about Alaska, so much I’ll never know. In every direction I turn on the tundra, the compass needle bobbles and jitters, pointing only to uncertainty. I yearn for ways to bind myself to the landscape, to press closer to some essential mystery I can’t even articulate. Meanings arrive the way ice does, forming silently, congealing and crystallizing almost beyond vision until suddenly the surface shimmers and I need new words to describe what I’m seeing. Ice blink. Shuga. Brash ice. Icebound.

If there are answers, they lie somewhere in the living margin between ice and blood, between permafrost and sky. Sooner or later, flesh and land become the same. What we bury, the earth gives back. What we hide, the ocean finds. What time takes, it returns. I learned one thing in Barrow: People can be born again and again, emerging from the earth covered in rich, organic muck, here where the land ripples and convulses with ice and bone and flesh, where winter lies always just beneath the surface.

This is an original work posted by permission from the author. This work is not to be reproduced or replicated in any form without the express written consent of the author.


Sherry Simpson is the author of two collections of essays, The Accidental Explorer and The Way Winter Comes. She teaches in the creative writing programs at the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Rainier Writing Workshop. She grew up in Juneau and lived in Fairbanks before she moved to Anchorage. There’s a reason she doesn’t live in Fairbanks anymore.

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