Sherry Simpson and a BMW she loved to drive in New Mexico, where she moved after leaving Alaska. (Courtesy Photo / Scott Kiefer)

Sherry Simpson and a BMW she loved to drive in New Mexico, where she moved after leaving Alaska. (Courtesy Photo / Scott Kiefer)

Alaska Science Forum: Remembering a gift of observation

Consider this, a closing tribute to a modest superstar.

By Ned Rozell

“On winter mornings, just as the sun’s uncertain light slopes across the Tanana Flats, ravens fly over my log cabin on their daily commute to town. Perhaps, like me, they would prefer to remain here in the hills above Fairbanks, where temperatures are usually ten or twenty degrees warmer. But town is where the day’s work lies, where ravens and people earn their daily victuals. Dozens of the birds crest the ridges alone, in pairs, strung out in groups that punctuate the sky like ellipses. They sail over slopes covered with spare aspen and birch trees and descend on the city wedged between the frozen Tanana and Chena Rivers. Across other ridges, from other directions, hundreds of ravens are flying through the thin light to pick at the carcass of civilization.”

Ravens at a dumpster in Fairbanks at 10 below zero. (Courtesy Photo / Scott Kiefer)

Ravens at a dumpster in Fairbanks at 10 below zero. (Courtesy Photo / Scott Kiefer)

I wish I had written that. I did not.

Sherry Simpson did. One day, or more likely a series of days, she tapped into her keyboard one of the clearest descriptions of both ravens and the city of Fairbanks in winter.

Sherry died at age 60 a few weeks ago, in New Mexico.

[Much-loved writer and educator dies at 60]

She passed away from a brain tumor just a few days after doctors discovered it.

My former boss here at the Geophysical Institute once told me that Sherry was interested in this job when it came open in 1994. For some reason, Sherry ended up not applying. If she had, I would have been doing something else.

As a writing teacher at the University of Alaska Anchorage and elsewhere, Sherry gently shoved many writers to their best work. In my experience, writers improve most when challenged by good editors.

Sherry Simpson receives the John Burroughs Medal for her book “Dominion of Bears: Living with Wildlife in Alaska.” (Courtesy Photo / Scott Kiefer) 3.

Sherry Simpson receives the John Burroughs Medal for her book “Dominion of Bears: Living with Wildlife in Alaska.” (Courtesy Photo / Scott Kiefer) 3.

Sherry was one of those for me. We shared an office a lifetime ago, at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. The newsroom was an expansive space, with tiny horizontal windows near the ceiling; only the tallest could see anything but sky through them. In the air was the machine-gun fire of reporters typing on deadline.

Sherry had one of the only private offices, somewhat out of the hum. In there, she was smiley and helpful, and she found funniness in many things. And, man, could she write.

Writing is a hard thing to teach. There is structure and formula to it, and I guess some people think of those elements as they write. But Sherry advised me to just let ‘er fly. And then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Though I had not seen her in years, she is sometimes part of my routine. Once in a while, before starting a column, I read an essay of Sherry’s, to warm up my neurons. After a few paragraphs, I hear her slow, sure cadence. I try to duplicate that beat. As Bono said, every poet is a thief.

Sherry once told writer Andromeda Romano-Lax that she wrote guided more by her intuition than her intellect.

“Muddling through seems to be my time-tested strategy,” Sherry said.

This photo shows Sherry Simpson and hummingbirds at her home in New Mexico a few years ago. (Courtesy Photo / Scott Kiefer)

This photo shows Sherry Simpson and hummingbirds at her home in New Mexico a few years ago. (Courtesy Photo / Scott Kiefer)

After Sherry’s muddle was complete, the reader was left with a writer’s most-effective gift — images painted on our mind-screens:

“When daylight eases from the sky several hours later, the ravens return the same way they came, like arrows loosed toward the twilight gathering at the northern edge of the world.”

I have watched those black arrows arc out of town. And I have written about them. But when I sit at the computer for those sessions, I avoid reading Sherry’s take on the same subject. That would be like picking up the guitar and trying to play an Eddie Van Halen riff.

In addition to her skill at planting pictures in readers’ heads, the Sherry Difference included never settling for a lazy verb:

“At forty below and colder, when the rest of us are feeling pretty damn sorry for ourselves, the ravens are still out there on the mean streets, hunched atop light poles, poking through garbage bags, fluffing out feathers until they look like cranky old men in down parkas.”

Her raven story, which first appeared in Alaska magazine and endures in her book of essays “The Way Winter Comes,” is one of my favorite examples of science writing. The word science makes readers expect something hard, but Sherry entertained us into learning something.

Consider this passage, a closing tribute to a modest superstar:

“Until I moved to this small cabin on the ridge, I had somehow missed the most intriguing and mysterious thing about ravens — that daily passage from darkness into daylight and back again. The raven re-enacts the physical and metaphorical journey every northerner makes from fall into spring. Winter is literally a turning-away from the light, a tilt of the globe that spins us into the spacious territory of night. The night offers its own solace — the hard, familiar stars, the oceanic incandescence of the aurora borealis. But we measure our pilgrimage through winter in increments of sun: minutes of light lost or gained, the shifting balance between day and night.

“This much is known: At twilight the ravens are bound for roosts far beyond the city, where they settle companionably among the branches of spruce trees for the night. Think of them out there, scraps of living night rustling and shifting under a sky less black than they are.”

• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell ned.rozell@alaska.edu is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

More in News

Even as coronavirus numbers are going down and vaccines are being distributed, pandemic-related facilities like the testing site at Juneau International Airport, seen here in this Oct. 12 file photo, are scheduled to remain for some time, according to city health officials. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file)
Vaccines are coming, but pandemic facilities will remain

Testing sites and other COVID-19 operations will continue, officials say, but infections are trending down.

White House, tribes joined to deliver Alaska Native vaccines

The initiative has treated Indigenous tribes as sovereign governments and set aside special vaccine shipments.

After violent protesters loyal to President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol today, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, left, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., join other senators as they return to the House chamber to continue the joint session of the House and Senate and count the Electoral College votes cast in November's election, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Murkowski on impeachment: ‘I will listen carefully’ to both sides

As for timing, the senator said, “our priority this week must be to ensure safety in Washington, D.C.”

Has it always been a police car. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire)
Police calls for Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Juneau City Hall. The City and Borough of Juneau has distributed nearly $5 million in household and individual assistance grants since October. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire)
All housing and most personal assistance grants processed

About $5 million in aid is flowing to households and individuals in Juneau.

A child plays at Capital School Park. The park is in line for a remodel that will fix the crumbling retaining wall, visible in the background. (Dana Zigmund / Juneau Empire)
A new life is in store for Capital School Park

Public input is helping craft a vision for the park’s voter-approved facelift.

Expected heavy snow and high winds Thursday evening prompted Alaska’s Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to issue a warning of increased avalanche hazard along Thane Road. (File photo)
Avalanche risk increasing along Thane Road

Be careful and plan for the possibility of an extended road closure.

Most Read