Small Joys on a Winter’s Day - Jessica Shepherd
Late November, and winter is full upon us. Storms roll off the Pacific bringing swirling snow and bitter cold while darkness overtakes light by several minutes each day. Sea ice, rare here in south-central Alaska, undulates along the shore. I am grateful for a return to authentic winter weather – a reprieve from warming oceans and unseasonable rain. Still, the gray, abbreviated days usher in a sense of foreboding I struggle to overcome – my version of seasonal depression. But this year a new puppy counters my somber mood with his unflagging curiosity and affection.
We wake at 8:00 am as the first blush of light illuminates the southern edge of our northern world. Hal is the first to rise, fumbling in the faint light to dress. The dogs wiggle into the warm spot he’s left behind and I pull young Tavish into my arms. He goes by different names, depending on what kind of mischief he’s up to. Now, as he rests his chin on my shoulder, sighing his contentment, he’s Tavish the Snuggler. I breathe in his rich puppy scent and curl around his small warmth. This could be the best moment of my day.
When we first brought him home, at 10 weeks of age, he was so fragile I worried about him falling out of bed. Even now I run my hand over his silken head and down his fine-boned face to make sure I’m not smothering him. Three months old and all limbs, he is still more baby than not.
Over a breakfast of buttery grits and local eggs, I catch up on the news. I read aloud as Hal pours his tea, “The World Health Organization is warning that the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus poses a ‘very high’ global risk because of the possibility that it spreads more easily and might resist vaccines and immunity in people who were infected with previous strains.” I tell him about a recent post from a blog I follow. The writer’s daughter had just texted him. Her husband’s parents were found in a car in Colorado, his mother dead from Covid, his father unresponsive. Conservatives, they had foregone vaccination.
“Sounds like natural selection at work,” Hal says. He has a point, but my mind contorts the story into one with faces we know: Hal’s sister and her husband, my brother and his wife. Anti-vaxxers all. Would we think they deserve such a fate? Or would grief erase self-righteousness?
The Whirling Tavish corkscrews across the floor toward me and I scoop him up. I am keenly aware that at the rate he’s growing his lap days are numbered and I grieve that small loss. He yawns and blinks at me as I rock him like a grandchild outgrowing babyhood far too quickly.
Breakfast dishes done, I bundle up and step outside into the weak light of a raw new day. Eight inches of dry snow fell overnight and Hal is already outside clearing our solar panels. Boots crunching, I cut a path down the hill and make for the neighbors’ house. They are in Missouri for an extended stay and I’ve assumed the task of shoveling their walkway and deck.
I stop to study fresh tracks on the clean canvas of snow. A dot of fresh blood is framed by the imprint of wingtips. Dainty cat tracks add to the tale. There are no feathers, and the wingspan indicates a robin-sized bird. Did the bird snatch a hapless field mouse and the cat came after, curious, like me? Or is there one less bird in the neighborhood?
Shoveling in long swaths, gloved fingers burning from the cold, I recall lively summer evenings on this deck. Dogs milling about and drinks in hand, we shared stories and talked of music and politics until hungry mosquitos and night’s chill drove us home. The memories are bitter-sweet, as most of our neighbors have moved away or transitioned into snowbirds - retreating to warmer climes in the winter.
We love the life we’ve created here. We don’t lock the doors when we leave the house and seldom see a car we don’t recognize on the gravel roads that bi-sect this tiny subdivision. As a neighborhood, we celebrate holidays and birthdays together, visit one another in the hospital, and drive each other to the airport. But such blessings are tenuous, and loneliness marks my treks to and from this house. Increasingly, Homer attracts people in the market for a second home and our neighborhood is no exception. Adjacent trails we often walked now prohibit entry with no trespassing signs while new homes spring up where we once meandered.
We are facing the implications of growing older. How long will we physically be able to maintain the expanse of gardens and sloping lawn we’ve established over the years? Will our meager savings keep pace with inflation? And what of illness? Tentatively and for the first time, we have begun to talk of a move to town. As I walk home amid the quiet of empty houses, thoughts of leaving sit heavy on my mind and I push them away for another day, another year.
The winter birds are a solace. I fill the feeders on my return and even before I empty the cup a tiny nuthatch flies in. He is soon followed by black-capped chickadees, pine grosbeaks, and a cocky magpie. They swoop in and out in an orderly, if somewhat impatient fashion as if they follow a feeding hierarchy. Seeds inevitably spill to the ground where dark-eyed juncos gather in threes and fours to glean the leavings. If I kept better records, I’d have numerical evidence to support my suspicion that there are fewer birds than in years past. The challenges birds face around the world are horrific, from fire and dense smoke in their nesting grounds to large-scale habitat loss in their wintering grounds. Nationwide, bird populations are plummeting.
Back inside I turn on the computer to get some work done while Tavish naps. Writing from the heart about environmental issues, as I do, means coming face to face on a daily basis with one’s own grief over all we stand to lose. Humanity has exceeded the tipping point for a stable Earth due to our appetite for creature comforts in combination with our ever-growing population. Frankly, we are a cancer on this Earth.
While I generally strive for a hopeful message, my focus on ecological collapse and climate change makes hope feel insubstantial and naive. Our only prayer, short of something cataclysmic, is a worldwide recalibration of absolutely every choice we make, from the foods we eat to the number of children we have. Then I read what I’ve written and I want to soften it, to offer reasons for hope. Because hope is so much more motivating than the anguish these end-of-times seem to call for. What is the point in writing if I’m only contributing to the toxic messaging that pervades social media and undermines the democratic bedrock this country was founded upon?
Tavish the Dragon-Slayer wakes from his nap and skids across the floor with his stuffed dragon, then proceeds to shake the dickens out of it. Glad for an excuse to take a break from my computer, I dress the pointers in a double layer of jackets (they have very short fur) and snap a leash on Shorty – so named because he looks like a dachshund when he’s bundled up. Recently, neighbors across the canyon shared an image of five lean coyotes, ears pricked forward and eyes all-seeing, trotting along a trail between their place and ours. Consequently, Shorty is always on a leash when we leave the property. As we set out, Arlie trotting ahead, I scan the trees for eagles who might snatch a puppy. I’ve known that to happen.
As we walk to the lower overlook and back, the sun breaks through and the world around us is suddenly luminous. The cheery transformation sends the chickadees in the surrounding trees into twittery conversation. Winter months without snow are much harder on the soul, as leaden days slide into the blackest of nights. With the sun-bright snow, I’m happy to linger and give the dogs all the time they want to examine a confusion of fresh rabbit tracks.
Back home, lunch consists of a green salad topped with canned silver salmon we pulled from the bay last summer. Some might consider us preppers – bracing for an impending catastrophe – and that’s not far from the truth. We try to create resilience in the face of what’s coming. All summer we grow and process vegetables and fill the freezer with fish. I trade labor with our farm friends for things we don’t produce like eggs, freshly processed chickens, and honey. In the fall we gather firewood and brew hard cider from our raspberries and currants. In winter we crack open jars of tomato sauce, green beans, and apple butter - summer in a jar.
I wash the dishes and listen to a report on NPR – something about migrant camps in northern France. A few days earlier, 27 migrants including children, drowned in the English Channel. In my mind’s eye, I see them flailing, screaming out to one another, and grasping at anything that floats as their deflated boat bobs beside them. I wonder at the desperation that drives a young mother to hand over her hard-won savings, step onto an inflatable raft with her babies, and set out on winter seas for a country that does not want her.
Hal and I have different reactions to these ongoing border tragedies. I respond with gut-level empathy - when children are involved I just want to hold out my arms and gather them in. So, of course, I want open borders and opportunities for all. Anything short of that seems selfish at best and, at worst, deliberately hostile. Hal, with his legal background, points out that we can’t just open the gates – the flood of the world’s desperate would overwhelm more fortunate countries. I want to argue against this reality, but find that I have no ready solution to offer. It seems no one else has an answer to this problem either, and I despair the future this portends, with a hotter, dryer climate, and ensuing food shortages.
Mid-afternoon we sweep a top hat of snow off the car and head the eleven miles into town. At the grocery store a number of shelves are empty and we ring up our food without the oats, baking chocolate, and tofu on our list. Perhaps it’s our end-of-the-road status here in Homer but the selection has been hit and miss since Covid first sent panicked shoppers out to buy up all the toilet paper back in March of 2020. I don’t really mind, as I can always make substitutions. I see it as a form of solidarity with the rest of the world who never had all the choices we take for granted. Once home, I put the food away, marveling at how little two hundred dollars buys.
The day has warmed to the mid-teens, and I set out with the pups for a walk to the mailbox. An alpine glow lends a rosy hue to the snow and the view of the bay opens up as we reach the top of the road. I stand with the dogs, our breath huffing out, enjoying the glint of late sun on the water and the twinkle of distant waves. Come summer the fields before us will be resplendent with hot pink fireweed and I am struck with a longing for t-shirt weather and endless sunlight. Shorty, who longs only to run, tugs at the leash, and we set off for the house as night gathers. He pumps his little legs to keep up with Arlie and I break into a sprint to let him have his head.
We find Hal in the front yard stringing Christmas lights on the sturdy spruce tree I planted as a sapling years ago. Fresh flakes drift down to settle like lace among the boughs. Hal loves holiday traditions. Later we will drink eggnog and compose a family letter to slip inside the cards I picked up at the store. If that’s not a form of hope I don’t know what is.
Over an early dinner of moose tacos, we watch the sunset fade from tangerine to muted amber to smokey gray. Snow is falling hard, collecting on the stairs and decks we just shoveled. Soon we will be housebound until a snowplow comes to clear the way.
Once again (and too soon) night closes around us and any comfort from the waning moon is lost amid clouds and swirling snow. Hal is already in bed when I turn out the lights, walking from room to room. Fear, like a weight on my chest, comes with the darkness. Fear of everything that will eventually undo the life we have together. Fear of a world unprepared. Tonight, I lock the doors.
If all we truly control is our outlook, my aim is to view the world through the lens of compassion. I ask myself, what one small thing can I do in order not to be a bystander? How can I help? And in that expanding darkness, the answer comes. Let me be a candle in the window against the gathering storm. Let my words be like hands held open, receptive, inclusive, comforting.
I slip into bed a little after nine. Tavish the Snuggler dives under the covers and a wave of gratitude washes over me as I gather him in. He is my joy, my reminder to savor the moment during these troubled times.
Jessica Shepherd is an Environmental Science Writer. Drawing upon a career as an environmental educator, naturalist, and writer, I now work freelance generating essays about wildlife, recreation, and food production seen through an ecological lens. By coupling scientific findings with boots-on-the-ground experiences, my goal is to engage the lay audience in a celebration of wild places and alert them to the need for meaningful action as the landscapes and seascapes around us warm. Learn more at shepherdalaska.com.