I got Covid-19 because of wildfires in Alaska.
This was just the final knot in the uncanny tangle of ironies I found myself wrapped in – by which I mean those accumulations of events that feel both weighty and off-balance, as though they should mean something a little twisted, something not quite right, even though they might of course mean nothing.
The threads in this tangle have names like climate change, Covid, wildfire, cancer, arctic. They have to do with the permeable boundaries between fact and feeling, self and landscape, inner and outer, vulnerability and refuge.
Let me explain by way of a timeline.
Fall of 2019 and early 2020
November 2019. After nearly four decades of yearning and saving for such a trip, I sign up to raft with friends down a river in Alaska’s Brooks Range and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I choose the Hulahula River for its name, its position deep in the refuge, its stretch from high peaks through foothills and across the arctic plain to the ocean.
My last several years have been unsettling, not just for toxic politics and worsening climate change: With the deaths of my parents and two younger brothers, and with the close of my career as professor, I’ve lost more of my sense of my self than I’d have thought possible. Maybe a wild and healthy landscape will reground me, help me rebalance.
But in March 2020, Covid-19 cancels everything. We reschedule our Alaska trip for 2021, when surely this virus will be history. My husband and I become rigorous Covid avoiders: To protect ourselves and others, we stay home or outdoors, wear masks, see friends only, and rarely, on Zoom.
Summer and fall of 2020
Summer 2020. We stay home in Colorado. Two large wildfires burn nearby; as their smoke covers our sky, we buy room air purifiers and shut ourselves behind closed doors. One of the fires is named East Troublesome. We prepare to evacuate more than once. No 2 a.m. call comes from the sheriff, though, as it did in 2012 when hot winds blew flames from the foothill forests out across drought-crisped pastures, stopping short of our house but leaving burnt pinecones on our roof. Sending us to take refuge in the nearby middle-school gym, that fire upended our sense of home: These were events we had not then thought to fear. Now each summer we wait for fire to find us again.
I spend my days making photo books to take with us when we have to flee: I had started copying family archives in 2012, finished scanning my parents’ thousands of slides the day before the scanner-holding library shut down for Covid, and now have time on my hands. The many photos of my parents and brothers make this work both painful and comforting.
In November 2020, a pandemic-delayed mammogram produces a call to return for an ultrasound. I’m not worried; this usually means nothing. This time it means cancer. Tests follow, visits to doctors, surgery. I fret about exposure to Covid. Waiting for one test result over the holidays, I realize my main fear is not about the tumor itself but that it will interfere with my Hulahula trip: Needing chemo will mean no Covid vaccine, and no vaccine will mean no trip.
By January 2021, I know I won’t need chemo, just radiation, and I’m elated. Driving to my first appointment with the radiation oncologist, I turn on the radio and find myself in the middle of a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. When the nurse checks my blood pressure, it takes me a minute to realize why both numbers have spiked more than 25% higher than my normal. I’d never thought such an event could occur, nor that my body could react this way.
March 2021. I finish radiation. At some point I realize that in some way none of this – tumor, surgery, radiation – is happening to me; I’m just watching from a distance. When I explain this to my oncologist, she pauses, raises her eyebrows, then says, “Well, I guess that’s one way of coping.” I get my second Covid vaccine.
I zoom into a webinar by environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth. Opening with the uncanny match between her long-Covid fever and Siberia’s record-breaking heat, melting permafrost, and wildfires, she says, “I’ve come to think that Siberia and I endure more than a coincidence in temperature” – both Covid and climate change, she explains, can be traced to economies based on extraction and consumption. As a writer, I admire her blurred boundary between the personal and the not-so-personal. It will be some months before I fully recognize that blurring in myself.
A related essay by Demuth in The Atlantic has this sub-head: “In the heat of COVID-19 and climate change, it’s too easy to forget what flourishing feels like.” In April, I read a column that suggests languishing as the emotion of the year. These words – flourishing, languishing – resonate right away, as I continue to isolate myself.
June 2021 to June 2022
Between June 2021 and June 2022, as Covid’s delta and omicron waves slosh around the globe, I get a booster shot, then another – it’s clear by now that my age alone puts me at risk, despite being generally healthy. I continue making photo books to save in case of fire – an ancestor book, a book for each lost brother, a book of things, a book of journeys. As I’ve done for many years now, I start every day on the roller coaster of climate news, and I keep pursuing my part-time interest writing for Yale Climate Connections. I’m fighting off grief, fear, and yes, languishing, by doing something.
But those two months of June!
In 2021, I travel by paddle raft down the Hulahula River. After a dry winter and warm spring, new tundra wildflowers blast into bloom each day, until finally we can barely take a step without crushing some bright blossom with an appealing name – arctic dryad, brookfoam, woolly lousewort, weaselsnout, Lapland rosebay. The sun shines all day and all night. Hundreds of caribou, mostly males, pass us on their northward path to join the calving females on the coastal plain, where we’ll watch long lines of their ridgetop silhouettes encircling our campsite. This arctic refuge is magical.
For now, it is again protected, in its long see-saw between peril and safety: Republican presidents open it to oil companies, Democratic presidents close it. Deep in its center, despite the collapsing pingos and other results of melting permafrost, despite the many stories of a changing landscape we hear from our bush pilot and guides, I feel protected too. At some point on this river, I realize that I feel like myself for the first time in years.
Flying out, waiting between planes on the gravel runway outside tiny Arctic Village, I speak briefly with Gwich’in elder and activist Sarah James, who has driven her four-wheeler out to meet the mail plane, along with a flurry of children here to greet a new puppy. I am honored to meet this woman; fierce and eloquent in defending her land and culture, she is friendly but focused when my friend asks her what we should do to help protect the refuge.
When we pause on our way home for an afternoon with friends in Seattle, we have no idea that a killing heat wave had blasted the region only a few days earlier.
Summer of 2022
I have so loved this trip that I sign up for a second summer-solstice visit to the Arctic Refuge in 2022, this time to raft another river several drainages to the west of the Hulahula, starting high on the Marsh Fork of the Canning River and floating out onto the coastal plain.
This time the winter this far north has been snowy. Again I spend my flight staring down at the many designs of patterned ground, signs of permafrost. I spot several large patches of thermokarst, places where the ground, frozen solid for tens of thousands of years, has just this season thawed into black mudslides. Though spring is late, the flowers slow to bloom, the caribou few, the weather cool and wet, we pass miles of collapsing riverbanks, green tundra caps slumping over the permafrost they can no longer keep cold. In some of these dark slides we spot ice lenses; if we searched, we might find the bones of extinct animals. The arctic, new studies suggest, is now warming four times faster than the global average.
Walking across the notoriously unsteady tundra tussocks, I remember something a physical therapist once told me when I was worried that I was starting to fall too often. As I showed him an unsteady effort to stand on one leg, he said that wobbling is good; it works lots of little muscles and trains them to recover from lost equilibrium. Maybe, I think, maybe recovery is more powerful than stability, wobbling more useful than a balance built on stasis.
One day we find ourselves floating through miles of aufeis cliffs – walls on both sides of us, 10o or more feet high of blue and white layers of overflow ice. Good thing our guides know how to read the water, how to choose a channel that will take us safely through this broad, braided expanse, though this ice puts even our experienced pair on edge. Tiny waterfalls and splintering columns of ice needles are everywhere we look. When the ice needles collapse, they sound like distant windchimes. Big chunks boom like explosions when they calve off, and when we’re close, waves rock our rafts. It’s stunning, invigorating, and a little scary. I have never seen a color more beautiful than this blue, nor one harder to name.
Unlike the Hulahula, the Canning River is on the edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and on several days we see piles of discarded oil drums on the state-owned lands to our west. On the first of our two flights from the river back to Fairbanks, we will cross over visible lines and dynamite holes, left, we’re told, by the heavy equipment used in oil prospecting many decades ago. At home a few days later, I look up this history but find only impenetrable discussions of reflectors and tracklines: reflectors, I learn, are underground geological structures that show up on certain scans, while tracklines are all too obvious—wry new words for tumors and surgical scars.
My own scars are healing well; though they’ll never be invisible, I barely notice them now. But tundra wounds heal very, very slowly. Hence the lacework of animal trails we see everywhere, paths made over decades and centuries by cliff-climbing Dall sheep and migrating caribou. And hence the brown bear tracks that a guide shows me, grizzly-sized, grizzly-shaped holes made by bears stepping in the same spots many times over – in this case on a layer of tundra now slumping over the edge of the thawing riverbank.
On this final day, we hear from our bush pilot that Fairbanks is socked in with wildfire smoke and that our planes may be delayed. From our vantage point on the coastal plain, we watch that brown cloud creep inexorably north over the Brooks Range. We fly out not through Arctic Village but through what the guides call Kavik Sue’s, a short hop to our west where an old but good gravel runway helps support one of the most isolated B&Bs anywhere. Sue Aikens, I’m just now learning, is a reality show celebrity—like Sarah James, an admirable woman. She makes us mushroom soup, shelters us from the wind and mosquitoes, and tells us stories. On one wall hangs a set of moose antlers still in their velvet; I stroke them, of course, and find them amazingly soft. To preserve them, Sue and a helper spent several weeks tending them round-the-clock, squeezing out bloody fluids.
A BBC cameraman who has been filming migrating caribou from a small helicopter tells me his boss wants footage of a calf being swept away from its mother as they swim across a river, a common enough event but tough to document. They keep flying, keep looking. “A lot of carbon getting left out here,” he says. And yes, I’ve been leaving a lot of it, too – this irony now so ubiquitous that it goes without saying, though that’s no excuse, and of course I know it, and yes, like everybody else who still cannot give up the privilege of travel to distant places, I can try to justify my actions but don’t fool myself.
Sue gives me a farewell hug as we board our plane to Fairbanks. I could probably count the people I’ve hugged since Covid arrived, but if this isolated woman isn’t safe, nobody is. From the air, smoke blanks out any views, and to see where she’s going, the pilot has to fly nearly as high as she’s allowed to in this unpressurized plane.
Back in Fairbanks, the air quality registers purple for “very unhealthy.” The hotel hallways smell smoky, and the buildings just across the street are blurred. For much of sub-arctic Alaska, this winter and spring have been dry and hot, and the season’s fires are record-breaking in both how early and how large they are. Against my better judgment, but with little practical choice, I agree to eat dinner indoors with my friends. The next day, I do the same. But I wear my N95 mask outside for the smoke as well as everywhere else I go inside where there are other people. When I fly out of Fairbanks, I can barely see the air control tower from my airplane window.
The everyday world seeps inexorably back. As I fly to Seattle, another shocking January 6 congressional hearing is underway: I watch the opening comments in the hotel lobby and read the headlines in the airport in Seattle, as yet more wounds to our democracy are revealed. I wear my mask diligently throughout the long journey home, taking it off only to gulp airplane liquids and gobble a yogurt.
And yet I’m already incubating Covid-19. Three days after I arrive home, before I’ve recovered from the soreness I earned lugging my drybag up and down riverbanks and walking over tundra tussocks, the virus aches take over, along with fever, cough, and headache. I’ve been so careful for so long, but the latest omicron variant has caught me—and on my way home from refuge.
Between naps, I catch up on the January 6th committee hearings and revisit Freud’s classic essay on the uncanny, focusing on his comments about what things qualify. Close doubles are uncanny, for instance, like Sarah James and Sue Aikens or the me who had cancer and the me who watched. So are things that should remain invisible but are revealed, like the hatred, lies, and violence behind the attack on the Capitol and the permafrost beneath the tundra. Something familiar that has become strange is uncanny, like sharing a restaurant meal with friends, a forest burnt black, the air we breathe, the climate itself. I want to add, so are things that shouldn’t be related but are, like getting Covid because of a wildfire.
Still, I’m thankful that despite the summer’s record-breaking heat, no wildfires are burning near my Colorado home, and there is no smoke in our air – at least not yet. When I have finished my daily climate-change reading and faced the grief and anger it brings, I recall my days in the arctic tundra and imagine one more return. I follow the news about the Capitol insurrection and worry about the health of my country, but I also look forward to some period of protection from Covid when I can relax into being with my friends. Some days I feel I am flourishing.
I’m giving up on the goal of steady balance. Instead, I’m practicing my wobble.
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