Natural settings can speak to people, make them feel at home.  One of my sisters has  been attracted to oceans, another to the desert.  For me, it is forest settings that have always beckoned.

Every morning, I feel a sense of peace and gratitude as I look out my window at the mature Boreal Forest in which I live.  I regard the trees as my friends, mentors, caregivers, and benefactors.  Alive, they protect me from sun, wind, and cold; they yield nutrients and medicine, as well as beauty. Dead, they continue their beneficence, transformed into my cabin, decks, docks, furniture and fire wood.

This time of year, I watch the long blue shadows of birch and spruce trees slither across the snow and I am dazzled by the brightness of hoarfrost that coats every surface of the trees.  An occasional owl hoots or raven caws, but otherwise, our winter woods are silent and magnificent.

Almost every afternoon in February and March, my husband and I drive a snowmachine (snowmobile) and sled into the woods along trails we groomed several days before and left to harden.  Our goal is to cull 11 cords of standing dead spruce trees each year for firewood to heat our home and the outdoor soaking tub.

Sadly, our part of Alaska was infested by spruce beetles about eight years ago.  These tiny insects killed most of the mature white and black spruce throughout millions of acres.  It was very sad to cut down the three stately 85 foot trees near our cabin, but it is even worse to view the skeletal remains.  Dead trees are hazardous, too, both for fire and falling, so every year since the infestation, we pick an area, first on our property, and subsequently, on the state land that surrounds us, to cull dozens of dead trees.  They are put to good use.

Aside from the practical aspect of gathering firewood, this seasonal project generates joy, as well.  Although the beetles devastated mature trees, they did not kill the saplings.  Trees below about 10 feet tall survived the onslaught.  Every time we fell a thicket of dead ones, we find spindly young conifers below them.  Next summer, they will enjoy more sun and space to grow straight and tall and healthy.  In subsequent years, other plants colonize the clearings, too, predominantly prickly rose, elderberry, and highbush cranberry.  Hares, martens, and weasels burrow under the dead branches that clutter the forest floor.

In March, as the snow begins to soften and rot, springy alders and highbush cranberries pop up from their heavy blanket of snow, waving for a moment before they assume a vertical position for summer.

When the snow starts to recede in April, brown doughnuts of soaked earth encircle the warming trees.  My husband and I tap several birch trees for ten days before the leaves emerge, drinking the bracingly cold sap straight, as well as using it in any recipe that requires water, such as coffee, rice, and homemade wine and beer.  The clear liquid is a nutritious spring tonic, chock full of vitamin C and minerals, such as iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium.  It tastes slightly sweet and vaguely woody.  Eau de paper bag.

When the soil dries up, I wander through our property, carrying flagging tape and pruners.  I clip the broken branches of saplings and cut out trunks girdled beneath the snow line by hungry hares and voles.  With delight I flag tiny seedlings so that I will not trample or weed whack them when the fast growing wild grasses obscure them.   In subsequent years I marvel as these tiny growths add branches and height, in many cases growing out of the stumps of dead trees.

My woods are a vibrant community of the elderly and the young, the sick and the healthy.  I wander in wonder and awe.

Laura Emerson