It was there among the black spruce, down in the deepest nightcold. Unmistakable. A one-color aphorism inscribed in the trees. I adjusted, centered my attention, and proceeded to study those trees long and hard for many months, for many looping miles. I studied that red by touch and by tongue. I studied by sorrow, by insistence. I found heat. And I didn’t know what to make of it, for with the ebb and flow of my own fevers this much was clear: my illness was at its core also a kind of heat. Yet the black spruce, spindling their heat up into the crack of winter cold, were fine.
About the black spruce in Constance’s painting: they are flecked with red. They are flecked with flaming red paint.
I am awash when I see the painting, and tell my mother over and over to look at the red. Those trees are full of red! I say. They are!
Are they? she asks me, pleased, an interested gardener. She hasn’t spotted any red in real spruce herself; then again, she hasn’t lived in the boreal forest. But like many mothers, she knows me better than should be possible. She picked me a painting and she picked this one because she thought it might touch on my life in the interior, hook something, reel it forth.
Are black spruce really full of red? she still asks now and again, pleased, not particularly concerned about how literally or metaphorically I mean it.
Yes! I say.
Yes: I say it over, and over.
I don’t know that I found a kind of medicine during those subarctic winters. I do know that I grew quite close to a kind of tree, the black spruce, and that I missed them when I returned to the rainforest. I also know the experience feels unfinished (imbalanced), as if they gave me a gift of something elegant that I am too clumsy to properly wear. I try, though, to consider red as a serious proposition, though it is not clear what this really demands.
And so I turn to memory and think back to those winters. How the snow came each October and I skied through the frozen bogs every day to the end of April. I skied by headlamp, by moonlight, by the scrape of sun sending its brief, midday lance across the earth. Especially during an inversion. If it was too cold to breathe or blink or budge, I skied. I think now that I did it specifically to be with the black spruce, over and over, three years in a row. To hear them thinking through the coldest of it, to gather what I could of how well they fared.
That is probably how I began to see beneath the surface of things. Through all the blue of snow and shadows I saw in the black spruce something redhot, something I might now describe as redhot ease with winter, redhot ease with lunar cold, its airless clamp.
What I’m saying is: it is easy to be a black spruce out in 40 below. They really are flecked with red.
Though memory reminds me that when I first perceived their ease, again I just laughed. Copying them would be impossible. In my sick strong fragile eager confused animal body, it would be impossible to live as perfectly as a tree. This was as freeing a realization as any other, an echo of Franz Kafka: there is hope but not for us.
Still, I think of red.
Red, the heat of fire.
In the body heat can occur at a cellular level. In excess, it is inflammation.
Medical science ties inflammation to aging. We might infer that aging (cellularly understood) is a condition of increasing inflammation.
But remember: Elders carry knowledge the young cannot fathom.
This strikes me as significant. Thus, what links inflammation to wisdom? What do I mean if I say, “the red heat of the wise?”
I see Constance at a dinner party somewhere in south Douglas. West Juneau maybe. I am so eager to talk to her about the red in those black spruce. I am brimming.
That red, that red—I don’t know exactly what I say. Surely worry breaks the surface of me and I have to ask, do you remember you did that, you put red paint in with the black spruce? Of course she does. Of course she remembers flecking those trees with red.
Perhaps we talk about her seeing what I see and the happy convergence of our seeings. Perhaps we talk about thinking in colors, joining concept to sight, question to hue. Or about perceiving truths just below the skin of the day. I’m not sure anymore. I do not really remember the conversation. Constance has curly grey hair and a splashing smile. Her voice is very small and we both let things like the exuberance of dinner parties wash our words out to sea.
Those flecks of red? I’ll tell you what they are. Those flecks of red are a method. It is how a black spruce handles its heat, using it to live well winter upon winter upon winter. It is how a black spruce looks a person in the eye in order to say, This is how to live in step with good, hard cold.
Can a human body mimic the thinking of a tree? I try, I try.
The chickadees, though—they’re something else. Singing this and that at the birdfeeder in 40 below. Somehow this is possible: with their teeny black stick-legs and their teeny feathered bodies, somehow it is not only possible for chickadees to live through the winter night; it is also possible for them to chitter and flit, gamble and grouse, wheel and bicker and proclaim sudden notions. The black spruce and I, we watch in wonder, but have yet to find medicine in verbs like these. So we follow no chickadee’s line of flight. We simply hold our admiration close where it grows, one neuron at a time, until we can make an idea of it, an idea with a mind of its own, which we quickly knob into the earth and guard until it grows thick as blood, bright as conviction, healthy as nightfall.
Corinna Cook is an essayist. She spent 2018-2019 as a Fulbright Fellow in Whitehorse, Yukon, writing about art, ecology, and history. She holds a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri and is a recipient of the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation’s 2018 Literary Award.