I want to wish you a happy winter solstice. This is an important day when you live at northern (or southern) latitudes. Some people tell me that I’m weird, but I absolutely love December in Alaska. I especially love Decembers on the Nizina River, where I live in a little off-the-grid cabin, in the middle of the Wrangell-St. Elias. There are limitations that come with this lifestyle and this time of year, but I think limitations can be healthy for creativity.
It is warmer this week, but for a while the temperature held steady around -20 degrees Fahrenheit (-29 C). It dipped down to -29 F one morning, which is the coldest that I’ve seen at our cabin. That is a normal temperature out here, but the last couple winters have been mild. Most of the year I can work out of my studio in the yurt, but I quickly realized that by the time I get a fire going and things up to a comfortable temperature, it is getting dark out, and time to head back to the house. I’ve been working out of my desk in the loft, which means that I am more limited by the size of the pieces that I can comfortably work on.
Above: Desk in the loft and a frozen yurt studio
Since we heat our house with wood, it freezes when we aren’t home. I have all my non-freezing art supplies (pens, paints, printer ink, etc.) in a tub that I bring with me wherever I go in the winter. We can only get to our house by snow machine so everything has to be able to be packed in a sled. We get our power from the sun and from generator if there isn’t enough sun. We also don’t have running water, but haul it with five gallon buckets from the river. All those things you take for granted when you live on the grid, like running water and electricity, are limited and we are always aware of how much we are using. To be honest, I enjoy how conserving resources becomes a part of the daily rhythm, like using electronics while the sun is out and can charge the batteries.
Above: Solar panels not getting a lot of sun this time of year
The days are short, but I always try to get outside and go for a walk or a ski while the sun is up. The outside world is beautiful this time of year: Snow and frost make an infinite number of patterns, the animals and birds leave stories in the snow with their tracks, the low light paints glorious sunsets, and the quiet makes me feel present (perhaps because I can hear my heart beat).
In addition to getting outside during the daylight, I try to maximize the other things I can accomplish with good light (like watercolor painting). However the nights seem to go on forever and are less structured. The dark is a good time for thinking, for writing, for visiting with friends, and for sketching out new ideas. I wrote in my last blog post about how I was interested in dormancy in the desert. This is something that also applies to winter survival in harsh climates. Recently I have been interested in looking at the seeds from plants growing up here. Seeds provide a way that plants stay dormant for the winter, or for years until the right conditions occur. I have been using a microscope attachment for an ipad so that I can view them up close.
Seed Portraits from a Sedge and Labrador Tea Plant. Each painting is 8.5 x 5.5" watercolor and colored pencil.
Once I started to look, it amazed me how many seeds there all over the place, even in winter. The birds have been devouring our highbush cranberries and the birches and alder trees are dropping tiny seeds like confetti. Last year I started painting portraits of rocks, and I am interested in doing something similar with portraits of seeds. These images are metaphors for me this time of year. I feel like I am storing my energy, holding my potential energy, and incubating thoughts and plans.
Happy Solstice and I hope you find nourishment from this time of year, wherever you may be.