By Monica Devine
I sit on my deck surrounded by a swath of white spruce trees and the sound of cold water rushing in a nearby creek. Overhead a raven makes languid circles above the trees. It speaks in a deep-throated caw and moments later another bird appears in the same loop-de-loop flight path. Four more birds gather. Finally, they break the circling and fly away in a clatter of raven-speak. I wonder where they are going.
Not far. Ravens don’t migrate along a flyaway to warmer climates; they stay put all year-round. I follow the “snowstorm of white birds”, the snow geese, that fly south from Alaska in the fall. In the spring, they breed in the Arctic tundra, then head south to coastal waters and marshes for the winter. When the geese leave, so do I, only I fly to the high desert of northern New Mexico.
I’m a baby boomer and part-time snowbird. Snowbird is actually a person, not a bird, of course.
I’m not sure if you have to leave Alaska for a specified period of time to be considered this type of bird, but I only go “outside” for 3 months at a stretch. Winter is and will forever be, in my bones. My roots are in Michigan. When we were children, we’d jump off our deck into mountains of fresh snow, completely disappearing as our mother clamored frantically to dig us out. At this point in life, I’m not concerned with shoveling snow or slipping on the ice. I dress accordingly. Katoolah ice grips are my best friend.
Retirees flock to the south; there is no doubt about it. Many make their homes in RV parks in Florida, Texas, California, Colorado…places where the sun shines an inordinate number of days per year. Many communities have come to rely on the revenue snowbirds generate; in fact, some locations are called “white cities” because the view from an airplane reveals a landscape whitewashed with the tops of motor homes. Quartzsite, Arizona is known as a “white city.” People flock there like migrating birds.
At one point, I thought I may leave Alaska for good if only to move closer to where my kids settle down. But as it turned out, they moved back here in their early thirties to start their careers and families. The only “family” my husband and I have enjoyed over the last four decades have been friends, and now many of them are leaving, following their own grown children to more sunshine-soaked places.
But leaving for good? I know I’d miss Alaska far too much.
I would be reminded while sitting in lines of slow-moving traffic with temperatures topping 100 degrees. I’d be reminded when I’d have to travel hours to cross country ski, how strapping on boards and heading out the back door was a far simpler way to freshen my lungs. Most of all, I’d miss the tundra. There’s simply no other place like it. I’d miss the million and one hikes and blueberry picking excursions on the soft spongey ground that begs you to kick back and sink into a nap, with a day-moon high in the sky and neighboring mountain peaks at your fingertips. I’d miss the hardy ground-hugging flowers, the musty smell of currants in late August, the fanciful caribou lichen that decorates rocks in alpine country. I know a lower cost of living is available elsewhere. I know early morning beach fishing in Hawaii can’t be beat. I know the ease and comfort of everyday living contributes to good overall health, but I’m not looking for easy. At least, not yet.
The first time I set foot in Abiquiu, New Mexico, I knew I was home. Is it possible to be in love with two places at once? I stayed at Ghost Ranch for a month to finish work on a book of Alaskan stories. My small casa was 2 miles from the main dining hall, and every day I’d walk there for dinner. I couldn’t take my eyes off the spell-binding, ever-changing sky, the blue mountains, the multi-colored spires and buttes, the red dirt beneath my feet. Light changes quickly in the high desert, creating shadows and colors that flutter like hummingbirds, present for a few moments, then gone. Sort of like performance art. I had to hurry to get back to my casa before the typical late afternoon thunderclouds delivered a deluge of rain. Arroyos would fill with rushing water and within hours be dried out again.
Sometimes I just can’t believe my own eyes in these landscapes. As poet Mary Oliver said: “I am a bride married to amazement. My greatest indulgences are innocent: color, shadow, light, stones, sky, sun, dirt, texture, and all sorts of creatures, both great and small. I have lost myself, dwelling in Them.”
The raven is a year-round resident of New Mexico, too. One day I climbed up to a canyon behind my casa to watch the play of light on the steep canyon walls. Ravens floated lazily on updrafts and I heard them arguing about who knows what, cackling back and forth. Black headed and ‘a looking slick, flying right along. There was a song in my mind about ravens. I shook my head, laughing, remembering one hopping atop a snow mound in the Fred Meyer’s parking lot with a bag of McDonald’s cuisine dangling from its beak. Blah, blah, blah it cawed to its buddies. Keep your claws off my dinner. Nothing scavenges or harasses better than a raven.
Therein lies my tie to both landscapes. My common denominator. The king of gossiping birds, the raven that will take a meal in whatever form it is presented. Roadkill, fruit, worms, cheeseburgers minus the lettuce, and French fries.
Atop a snow mound in Alaska. Circling a canyon in New Mexico. I’m a part-time snowbird.
With deep ties to ravens.