Published in the 2021 Edition of the New Farmers Almanac “Grand Land Plan” available from Chelsea Green Books.

COVID is not far from my mind as we walk our logging trail.

Nicky has been out in the woods all morning, tromping with snowshoes, hauling a sled that’s a wooden box fastened to a set of old red skis, its runners. It’s what we use to haul jugs of water to our home and he’s repurposed it for logging. “Woodsing,” we call it, rather than logging, which sounds so industrial. Woodsing means we’re clearing a trail, getting firewood, or moving cut boughs and rotten stumps to decompose in a mound, eventually creating good growing soil.

Today we’re hauling poles to make the farm’s washstand, and we talk while we walk through dead and dying spruce. Their branches are brittle and their sap bleeds out, forming sticky mounds on alligator-skin trunks. We are small animals to these trees, one hundred years older than us, more. One was born in 1799—we know by counting its rings with a pencil point. Nicky says, “Who are we to cut them down?” I suggest that we sing to them, give them last rites worthy of the life they’ve lived, but the only tune we can come up with is “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little, Star,” which doesn’t feel quite proper but doesn’t stop us.

We haul ten-foot sections back to the barn, hooking the homemade sled to a snow machine – the Alaskan parlance for ‘snowmobile’ – that barely works. It’s worth using; the logs are heavy, their trunks still holding water as they did when they were alive. We used the tinder-dry trees for this year’s firewood. These spruce trees gave us wood to build our home and the fuel with which to heat it. I have a list of buildings our working farm needs—this washstand, a greenhouse, an animal barn, a root cellar, a cabin for when people come to stay, a tool shed, and another tool shed.

We stand in the sun, leaning sections of log up against one other, and peel their brittle, chewed bark with drawknives. Their two handles stick out at right angles with a blade between them that is only sharp on one side. As we peel, we see the black bodies of the beetles, their larvae curled into tunnels. Usually bark beetles are satisfied eating the cambium of old downed and diseased trees, but spruce bark beetles have multiplied exponentially in these last warm winters of south-central Alaska. They’re chewing away at healthy spruce, killing tall trees early, so that we are living in a forest of firewood—standing dead, ready to burst into flame.

It’s easy to vilify the spruce bark beetles, and I have seen men take delight in burning bark off stacks of downed trees with a propane torch, reducing spruce bark to ash, killing the beetles and their habitat with a pass of a flame. It’s logical to slow the beetles’ epidemic spread, and I understand the impulse to annihilate the imposer. I too have resented the insects for prematurely killing the trees that could heat our homes, build our structures. I have grieved the loss of the forest as I know it, but as I peel logs, I can’t help but talk to the beetles I strip from their burrows.

They say: “We’re breaking it all down as we chew spruce bark. We are the stewards, shifting our forests from one climate to the next. The temperatures rise, human. You caused it, but it is so much bigger than your tiny lives.”

I draw my knife against the bark. Left standing, and in the absence of fire, a red fungus will begin to eat at the dead trees’ centers, decomposing them, turning wood to soil. The rotting logs seep nutrients back into the forest, their trunks staying damp with moisture during much of these hot, climate-changed subarctic summers. The bodies of the spruce trees will nourish what grows in our new climate. But logs decomposing with mycelium aren’t what we need for building projects; the time to harvest these big, glorious, dead spruce trees is this year, maybe next. We work in the woods with an edge of hurry and all the humility we know how to give. 

I am a farmer living in the woods, and my life stays much the same. I start seedlings for the farm under fluorescent lights to be planted when the soil thaws. I teleconference, call old friends, and worry for others across the globe. I feel a tightness in my chest and it’s not sickness, but panic for the ways this pandemic widens systemic inequality. I am worried for the woman who works at the coffee shop, for my friend who cuts hair for a living.

On a walk, we see a face we recognize, a neighbor on a 4-wheeler, her sheepdog bounding near the wheels. I wave and she recognizes me. We speak of garden plans, the conditions of the snowpack, how spring might be late this year; it’s melting so slow. Our dog leaps into her lap and licks her ear, unmasking our veneer of casualness. To meet another on the path! To speak of the weather, safely six feet away. Visiting has become sacred, risky. We must trust in another’s consideration—not to sneeze, not to reach for a hug. Not to break the barriers of space that are our protection from a pandemic that so far, has not been reported in Alaska.

Seventeen days of slowing down, and I feel that I might have forgotten how to drive a car. There has come a stillness to my life, a slowing. A stillness for many of us, I think, though I am deeply aware of the ways that this pause is painful for many in the world. In the US, some strike, demanding that rent payments be halted. Shelter in place, they say, but what of the money that buys shelter? Will the people rise up by staying still, saying “Our homes are where we live, and no, we will not give you money and we will not move”?

Sixty miles east of the eastern border of Alaska, the Gwich’in community of Old Crow had to account for two uninvited visitors from the city of Quebec. They came seeking refuge from the pandemic, intending to make a new life for themselves off the land, coming with no tools and no gloves. What they brought was potential transmission of the virus to a people with limited access to health care, vulnerable elders, and the tremendous weight of a history of pandemics that decimated and traumatized their communities. Members of the Tribal government met them at the airport, proactively isolated them before they could transmit the virus, and sent them back.

Nicky’s mother calls us, and we hold up the phone to show our dog bounding through snow-covered farm fields. She lives in Anchorage, loves to ride her bike to a bakery each day, and works from a downtown office. She says, “In our very-last resort, can we come live with you? I’ll work on the farm, do lots of shoveling.” It was said with the air of a joke that wasn’t, and she says, too, “Even if we can’t drive cars anymore, we’ll walk there.”

In the petroleum-producing state of Alaska, the price-per-barrel of oil has always been the metric of prosperity, printed in news, stated on the radio, in conversation. I’ve heard discussion of this metric since I was a child. The number is always in flux, celebrated when it’s high, propped up when it’s low, a dismal measure of well-being. I imagine buying a barrel of oil myself: Is it like the barrels I use to hold rainwater? Can I use the crumpled bills in my pocket to pay? It’s down to twenty-eight dollars. I can afford that, but I’d rather have a barrel of compost. All around me, people turn to gardening. The places that sell seeds are running out, as are those who sell chicks, ducklings, the start of a laying flock. I recognize the urge to localize, to have eggs and vegetables if the grocery store doesn’t. It borders on hoarding, but I see, too, how humans want to care, to cultivate, to be closer to the earth.

This virus invites itself into each of our homes, saying “I will show you how you push each other to slow deaths, humans. I am both the creation of your exploitation and the messenger of the earth. I will grind the gears until you stop. You will look up at a sky with no airplanes in it. Look at the sun on the faces of those who you will not touch. Slow down, walk in the woods or wherever you are and learn to live in reciprocity.”