By Ron Smith
I. Sublime: verb, To cause to pass from the solid to the vapor state by heating.
Late March to early April in interior Alaska is, for most, a time of joy and renewed hope. Days are longer as the sun climbs higher and higher into the sky. Splitting wood is a genuine pleasure; walking the dog down hard- packed trails is a lot easier. We don’t have to bundle up like we do in winter. When I say “we,” I mean my wife and me. Murphy, the dog, didn’t bundle up…ever. Twenty or thirty below was just the same to him as 40 above. He was more or less oblivious to temperature.
Murphy was a pretty good dog. As a puppy, it only took a few days to train him to bark when he wanted out to relieve himself. Heeling was more difficult but not too bad. Retrieving came naturally to him and within a year he could retrieve grouse and drop them at my feet. Smart as he was, I had no luck in training him to poop away from the house. He made random deposits here, there and everywhere. Some were right by the house; some were further away. Most were really close. He was like a small child in this respect. That is, he would wait until the very last second to bark and, therefore, often had little time to move off into the woods.
In the dead of winter, when the snows are persistent, one doesn’t notice the accumulation of all those deposits. But, in April, the snow begins to vanish. Mind you, it doesn’t just melt into big, chilly puddles of water. Often, the snow would disappear from the yard with no visible accumulation of melted ice. The ice would, more or less, go up in smoke.
Therefore, as spring progressed from March to April, snow disappeared, revealing strata of dog turds. It was still too early for muddy breakup boots but sun-softened doggy doo could find its way onto the bottom of a boot pretty easily.
We had purchased a new television that winter and, back in the day, televisions were huge. None of these modern, flat-screen things, this monster was as deep as it was wide. The box was a good one.
“What are you going to do with that box?” Christine had asked as we unpacked the TV.
“I’m saving it for spring,” I replied.
“I’d better not see it laying around here this summer,” she countered. This last comment was borne of the knowledge that the men in the Smith lineage tend to save things. Some might call this trait “stewardship of resources.” Some might call it environmentally friendly recycling. Others might call it hoarding.
II. Sublime: verb, To convert something of inferior value into something of higher worth.
In this modern era, unwanted, used up, worn out stuff can be hauled to any of several transfer sites around Fairbanks. In these locations, environmentally friendly recyclers rip open the bags of garbage, strew it around and, basically convert something of inferior quality, your garbage, to something of higher value, their possessions. However, that is now. On the spring day I am recalling many years ago there were no transfer sites. Residential garbage had to be hauled all the way to the landfill.
The television box was to be the vehicle for hauling Murphy turds. Here was the drill: each afternoon after work I would go out in the yard with rake and shovel and remove the newly revealed stratum of dog turds. Into the box they went. I put the box on the north side of the cabin, in the shade, so the turds would refreeze in the night and stay frozen most of the day.
If I missed a day or two, the sun would destroy the snow around the turd and leave it perched atop an ice stalagmite. Unlike true stalagmites, these Alaskan stalagmites form in the sun, not down in some subterranean cave. Sun stalagmites differ from the real ones in another way; they are not vertical. The snow pinnacle forms at the angle of the incoming sun. Often, these ice projections look like long, skinny fingers reaching toward the sun. In our yard, the fingers all had nails composed of dog turds.
The destratification of dog turds in the yard took weeks. At some point we reached a dilemma. Do we wait until all the turds have been revealed and shoveled? To do so put us at risk of having the entire box thaw, soften and disintegrate. Or, do we haul the box away before it thaws and before we actually finish the job? We decided on the latter approach. Even so, the box was pretty full and very heavy. I’m glad we moved it when we did. I shoveled in the last deposit and sealed the box with transparent packaging tape.
I was feeling great about the results. I hadn’t tracked a single poop into the house, the box hadn’t thawed and we -it took both of us to lift it- had the box in the back of the truck ready for a road trip!
On the way into town, Christine asked me if we could make a stop at the Co-op Drug Store. The Co-op drugstore was located in the old Empress Theatre on Second Avenue, approximately where the 2-Street Gallery is now located. Unlike today, back then Second Avenue was the hub of Fairbanks. Lots of people frequented the businesses and you almost always saw folks you knew.
On the drive into town I mentioned that we were drawing closer to one of my very favorite times of the year, the day the aspens first open their leaves. Leaf-out provides bursts of small, translucent color that, when backlit, can’t help but make you smile after a long winter. The shade of green is so much lighter, so much livelier than the gray-green of the spruce we face all winter.
III. Sublime: adjective, lofty, grand or exalted in thought, expression or manner.
After parking in front of Co-op, we went in. I talked to a friend while Christine rounded up her purchases. We checked out and exited the building. I began to laugh.
“Are you laughing because you’re thinking of those aspen leaves?”
“Yes, partly,” I replied.
“Are you laughing because of a job well done?”
“That’s part of it.”
“Are you laughing because you love me?”
She looked at me suspiciously and asked, “Okay, what is it?”
“I’m laughing because the box is gone!”
For years I’ve wondered what became of that box. I hope the guy that took it decided to savor his acquisition, putting the box, unopened, on his coffee table, letting the anticipation build. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall, watching when he opened it, expecting a brand new television. Of course, if I’d been a fly, I would have been hovering around the box by then. I wonder if the bottom fell out of the box when he tried to carry it back outside. That would have been sublime.
Ron Smith grew up in northern Arizona, New Mexico, and desert California. He moved to Alaska fifty years ago from Miami, Florida, where he earned degrees in marine science. He retired from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1999. During his academic career he published forty-four scientific papers in the refereed literature. He is the author of three books: Interior and Northern Alaska: A Natural History, How Not to Die Hunting in Alaska, and Undeserved Punishment. He and his wife Marsha spend part of the winter in Wenatchee, Washington.