The woods change dramatically in the short few miles between downtown Fairbanks and our home on a ridge overlooking the city. Dense, dark spruce forest lines the lower portions of the road that climbs from permafrost-laden Farmer’s Loop, giving way almost entirely just a few hundred feet higher to aspens and birches that grow in the south-facing, better-drained soils. As I started the steady climb on the way home one evening a few weeks ago, I was struck by the drama of the tops of the tall, dark spruces against the twilit sky.
It’s been a while since I looked hard at and thought about painting spruces against the sky, but something clicked in that moment, and I found myself musing not just on the spruces lining the way home, but on those which grow in profusion on the lower slopes of Chena Ridge, in the forest surrounding Creamers Field, and especially on those in the 2000-acre preserve of woods, ski trails, ponds, marshes, and fields that adjoin the University of Alaska campus. In memory, and soon in fact, I was back on the shore of Smith Lake in those woods, one of the places in Fairbanks I’ve most loved to paint.
Smith Lake Twilight is my latest paean to the way the descending April sun not only blasts through the tops of the spruces, filling the space just above the horizon with white light, but kindles some of the first clouds trying to form cumulus shapes above, in the lengthening days of spring.
Hard on the heels of painting Smith Lake Twilight, I received another unexpected jolt of inspiration. Dorli and I watched on DVD a terrific film made in 2010 by the great documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog and Russian director Dmitry Vasyukov, about the lives of hunters and trappers in a remote village on the Yenisei River in central Siberia. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga took us through the seasons with Russians who live in a landscape remarkably similar to our own, on a great river much like the Tanana or Yukon.
I loved seeing the villagers fish for pike, whitefish, and burbot in those rivers much as I have, and I marveled at the trapper’s patient, competent, solitary maintenance of his traplines and huts in winter, catching sables to support his family back in the village. But a couple of scenes, especially, caught my painter’s eye—twilit vistas with baroque clouds above the rivers at the change of seasons.
This week and last I’ve been in my studio, remembering just such scenes, looking south from hills above the north bank of the Tanana, and thinking that here in the North, it really is all about light.