One day in spring 2022, my friend Chris Pastro mentioned that her husband had seen “something red” on some trees near Wien Library. Her comment launched me into the field, as did artist Kes Woodward, when I emailed him a question about the exotic tree plantation at UAF and he sent several unexpected replies. You never know where you’ll end up, when you tell someone what you’re trying to write about.
My ITOC project is a literary nonfiction piece called “Two Letters.” The letters are intended to be read or heard in sequence, although each letter can also stand alone: 1. Letter to the Larch Branchlets, Lovely in Their Vases, and 2. Letter to the Soldiers from Transbaikalia. My hope is that people will be intrigued to engage with the whole piece and consider it as they would an essay – an exploration of an apparent subject (larch trees in Fairbanks and Siberia) and, simultaneously, a deeper subject.
To create “Two Letters,” I spent countless hours upstairs at home, surrounded by windows and the boreal forest outdoors, reading about trees. Initially I thought my project would be about the forty-foot tall birch trees that encircle my house, because they’ve been such a refuge and medicine for me. But after about six months, the larch tree crept in, and I found myself on a delirious mission. I read scientific and not-so-scientific articles, interviews, essays, news articles, book chapters, conference proceedings, field guides, and maps. I studied photographs, drawings, and botanical illustrations by others, combed through old photos of my own, and took more photos outdoors. The more I found out, the more questions I had, and the more surprise I felt at the connections I was stumbling upon. I discovered there was no single source that consolidated all the information I wanted, and nothing that made these connections, and I ended up writing this piece.
I’m particularly grateful for the inspiration that three books provided me during this project: The Wild Iris, by Louise Gluck (poems); Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief, by Victoria Chang (hybrid of poetry and nonfiction); and Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.
I’m fortunate to have been involved with In a Time of Change since its founding in 2007. For Boreal Forest Stories, I attended nearly every ITOC Zoom session, as well as most of the field trips and special events. (I counted 31 sessions and trips in my journal notes!). None of these focused specifically on larch trees, but each of them grabbed my interest, and I know that collectively they, like my previous ITOC experiences, have had a significant effect on me as a writer and thinker.
In addition to forest ecologist Suzanne Simard’s book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, scientists whose work particularly helped me include research forester John Zasada, forest geneticist John Alden, and Russian scientist Oleg Valerievich Korsun. The opportunity to attend sessions remotely at the 2021 conference of the International Boreal Forest Research Association (BFRA) and be exposed to the research of scientists from Moscow and Krasnoyarsk regarding forests in Siberia, was unusual and special for me. And, of course, I must thank Google Translate and Yandex Translate for the tireless help they continue to offer in my efforts to translate words from Russian to English.
Carolyn Kremers writes literary nonfiction and poetry, and is a dedicated teacher and lifelong musician. Her books include Place of the Pretend People: Gifts from a Yup’ik Eskimo Village (memoir), The Alaska Reader (literary anthology), and Upriver (poetry). She designed and implemented the MFA creative nonfiction program at Eastern Washington University and taught for many years at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In 2008-09 and 2015-16, she was a Fulbright Scholar at Buryat State University in Ulan Ude, Russia. In 2019, she received a Kathryn Davis Peace Fellowship from Middlebury College to continue studying Russian. She lives in Fairbanks.