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Five-Acre Almanac: Hard News

Week 40

My visit to Atlanta was wonderful, but the week since I’ve been back hasn’t been the best.

The day after I got home a bear climbed into our chicken coop and killed three of our chickens, including my new hen and rooster. Dean was home when the bear broke into the coop and he managed to scare it away with some noise and light bird shot.

After the unfortunate bear encounter we sat down with a cup of tea to decompress, and that’s when we saw the news that a man has been arrested for the murder of Duffy Murnane. On an afternoon in October 2019 Duffy left her home to walk to an appointment across town and she was never seen again. For two and a half years we’ve suspected and assumed that she was abducted and murdered, but now we have information that confirms our worst fears.

The suspect worked in the assisted living apartments where Duffy lived and he was a member of our community for a few years. Duffy knew him and trusted him enough to get into a car with him.

There is some relief in knowing that a violent killer is off the streets but right now the relief is overshadowed by sadness, anger and shock over the news. And the senselessness of it all. Duffy was a kind and gentle person, quiet and observant. She was loved. Her undeserving family has been through hell. And now as new details come to light, there is a different kind of hell that many people will have to contend with.

While our town has been shaken by her disappearance, this new information brings with it a sense of betrayal. I did not know the man who was arrested, but many people I know did. He made his way into our community. He found employment. He included himself in our town’s traditions. He made friends. On the surface he came across as a decent person, but he was not.

And so here we are in the spring of the year. Finally the crocus on the west side of our house are blooming and things are greening up. The migratory birds and the seasonal workers are returning. We’re hardening off our garden plants and making plans for summer camping trips. In the midst of it all we’re trying to come to terms with this horrible thing that happened in our town. We’re holding onto the people whose lives have been randomly and unfairly impacted by a man whose inner demons defy understanding. We’re mourning the loss of our friend. We’re devastated by the pain that’s been inflicted upon so many good people.

Sometime on Friday morning the bear came back and killed five more of our chickens. And in the evening when we were trying to figure out what to do about this problem bear, it came again and nabbed one more of our birds. We yelled at it and it ran away but we knew that as long as there were chickens to be had it would keep at it. We gathered up our six remaining chickens, all of which were at least three years old and past the point of being good egg layers, and put them in cages and brought them into the house for the night. Once they were out of harm’s way we were faced with a tough decision.

I’ll leave out the details, but our twenty year run of keeping chickens ended on Saturday afternoon. We’ve lost a few hens here and there to dogs and hawks and eagles. We even had bears break into the coop to get to the chicken feed a time or two, but this bear had a taste for blood and it wasn’t going to stop. We had to make sure it wasn’t rewarded.

The bear will likely come again, but now if it does it will find an empty coop. Hopefully that will be enough to make it lose interest in our place and head back into the forest.

Losing our flock of chickens was hard, but compared to the hardships other people have to endure it was a small thing. There are bad days and then there are life altering tragedies. We’ve had a few bad days and I’m sad about the chickens, but I’ll be okay.

This morning we sat on our deck and sipped coffee under blankets and the yard seemed especially quiet without the rooster and the chicken chatter we’ve grown accustomed to hearing. This afternoon I spent a couple of hours harvesting nettle down in the elderberry grove below our house and the act of foraging felt healing, like the earth was offering me something in exchange for my loss. Now it’s the middle of the night and I’m sitting looking out my window at the full moon over the bay. Since the trees are down I can see the moon’s reflection on the water and it’s as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen.

I’m up late because I’ve written a hundred endings to this blog post and I’ve deleted them all. I’ve been thinking about Duffy and her family and nothing I can think of to say feels remotely adequate. I guess I’ve been trying to think of a way to say that even though the weight of all that’s bad in this world feels awfully heavy right now, I hope we can keep each other tethered to the beautiful things, like the full moon over the bay, like a mother’s love for her child, like small acts of kindness, like the snuggles of a beloved pet, like the way new lovers look at each other, like a blueberry bush loaded with plump berries, like a field of fireweed in full bloom. I hope we can notice all the beauty, and name it, and tip the scales.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Oh, Georgia.

Week 39

I’m spending a few days with my daughter and her wife in Atlanta, trying to rest a bit and ready myself for the demands of early summer that will be waiting for me when I get back to Homer. I’m fully enjoying my time here and doing a pretty good job of not thinking too much about the nettle I could be harvesting or the potatoes I could be planting or the holes I could be digging back at home. In reality though, it’s a decent time to be gone. The last remnants of winter will likely be gone by the time I’m back.

From the guest room I’m staying in I see Adella and Ally’s backyard garden and a wall of deciduous trees. It’s still cool enough here at night to sleep with the windows open and last night a thunder storm startled me awake and this morning I woke to a serenade of birdsong and rooster crows. You wouldn’t know that there’s a major freeway just a couple miles away or that 6.2 million other people live nearby, but it’s true.

Last night we strolled around the neighborhood for a while. We passed a grafted tree that grows plums, peaches, apricots and nectarines. We stopped a couple of times to smell the Japanese honeysuckle and again at the bridge to look down on the creek that runs the length of the neighborhood. Last spring we hopped Adella and Ally’s backyard fence to go foraging around the creek and found cleavers, turkey tail mushrooms, wild garlic, plantain, roses and dock.

While we were out walking we ran into neighbors Philip and Sylvia and their two daughters. The last time I’d seen them was at Adella and Ally’s wedding last July. Now their baby is walking and their toddler is talking. Philip takes a trash bag with him on their evening walks and was happy to report that it takes much longer to fill a bag than it used to.

This morning after coffee we looked in on the tomato plants and pole beans which are taking off as the days get warmer. The spring greens are in their prime. We pulled a couple of garlic to check on their progress. Last July when we came for the wedding I brought some comfrey root from our Alaska garden to plant here in this Georgia yard. Like our daughter, it’s adjusted just fine to this warm climate.

Had my daughter not moved here I might never have visited Georgia, but now I’m happy to have this place to return to. So much of what I love about my five acre home in Alaska is what I love about here. There are wild plants to forage, trees and birds to identify. There are seasons to track and weather patterns to learn.

The forecast is predicting a high of 88 degrees this afternoon so our big plans for the day are to sit in the shade and sip on sun tea. Later when it cools down we might head into the woods behind the house for a look around. Tonight when it starts to get dark we’ll keep an eye out for fireflies and watch the tops of the trees for bats. Mostly we’re enjoying our time together. It’s a short trip this time and it’s going by too fast.

It may look like I’m not doing much to fill these fast days, but I am. I’m busy filling my heart to its brim with this place and these two women. I’m gathering and storing and filling my reserves with all that our time together has to offer in hopes that it will sustain me through until our next visit.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Expanded view

Week 38

For the past several months I’ve spent Sundays writing and it’s been a luxury to devote one entire day a week to it, but now that the season is shifting this blog may have a bit of a personality change in order to accommodate the demands of summer. It might be a bit less lofty and a bit more earthy. It may have fewer words and more pictures. I’m not sure what it will look like exactly, but it will be fun to see where it goes.

Every winter in Alaska is a long winter, but now, thankfully, it really does feel like this one is behind us. Every day there is less snow and yesterday after coffee Dean and I ventured out to have a look around and to reacquaint ourselves with the bare ground. We pulled mulch off of our front garden beds to check on the state of the soil and saw that it’s thawed and ready for seeding root crops. We checked on the waist-high apple trees that popped up in our compost a few years ago and pruned them back a bit. We looked in on the rhodiola divisions that we planted in the fall and found that in addition to thriving they look like they somehow grew over the course of the winter. We found rhubarb bulging up red through the soil and stinging nettle growing on ground that was covered with snow just two days ago. We plotted out the spots where we’re going to plant the five apple trees that we ordered and then before coming back inside we picked some early spinach and chives to go with our scrambled eggs.

In the afternoon Dean cut down a tree in an ongoing effort to reclaim our view. I had mixed feelings about this as I tend to get attached to trees. I enjoyed watching squirrels jump from this particular tree’s branches onto the neighboring tree and I appreciated that the two trees together formed a kind of passageway from one part of our yard to another. This tree was young when the spruce bark beetle infestation that came through twenty some years ago and its very survival gave it sentimental value. I mourned the loss of the old trees, but it helped to watch the young ones that were spared grow tall and stately over time.

The view from our house disappeared so gradually as the small surviving trees grew that I didn’t notice its absence until people started commenting on it. In my mind the view was still there for us, we just had to take a thirty second walk to get to it. I didn’t feel like I’d lost anything as much as I felt like I’d gained some tall trees. But once it was pointed out to me that our view was gone I started to look for the things I could no longer see. In time I warmed up to the idea of dropping some trees.

I was on the phone with my daughter in Atlanta when the tree came down and in an instant the space inside our house was brighter, which is a benefit I hadn’t anticipated. Now I can once again see the entrance to Peterson Bay from my living room window, and Sadie Peak, and a swath of Kachemak Bay that goes from this side of the bay to the other. The tree was still healthy and beautiful though. It blocked wind and provided a barrier of privacy between our house and the development in the meadow down below. It was a part of this place.

Now its trunk has been sawed into rounds and stacked to dry. Either next winter or the following one we’ll use the wood to heat our house. Cutting the tree down was a loss and a gain. An exchange. Soon enough it will be old news but today I can’t stop looking at the space where the tree used to be. The influx of light still surprises me. The gap leaves me feeling a little bit exposed.

More trees are slated to come down but probably not for a while as gardening season is upon us. After we get back from a short trip out of Alaska next week we’ll be going full throttle around here. We’re eager to get our hands in the dirt. Eager to see green. We’re eager for company and late night fires, for songbirds and cranes. We’re eager for fishing and foraging and for getting our fill of summer so that when winter rolls around again in a few short months we’ll be eager for it too.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Eastering

Week 37

I don’t think about it much anymore, but when we bought this property we were recovering from a bad decision. Without going into too much detail I will just say that before we landed here we had a bed and breakfast in town. It all looked good on paper when we bought it and we did our best to run it for a couple of years, but we were young, we were in over our heads, and the stress of trying to maintain it and keep up with the demands of guests and two small children nearly tore us apart. We reached a point where we had to make a choice between getting a return on our financial investment by sticking it out, or count our losses before we lost more than just money.

Our daughter was born at our bed and breakfast home on Thanksgiving. It was a fast and easy birth and after our midwife and doula left, Dean and I found ourselves sitting on the couch with a newborn and a toddler and it was there in the dark hours of that early Thanksgiving morning that we decided we had to make a change. It took a while to extricate ourselves from that house and business, but when we finally did we were nothing but relieved.

When we saw this simple house on five acres of land it seemed like a place where we could begin again, and thankfully we still had enough money left to make a down payment.

There’s a lot of shame involved in losing money and it’s not something we’ve talked much about with other people. But as the story goes, we had a chunk of money from an inheritance and then we lost most of it and then we spent a lot of years of our lives beating ourselves up over those losses.

Once I took a writing workshop from Luis Alberto Urrea and he said that forgiving our former selves is one of life’s most difficult tasks, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard truer words. But I can say that it’s worth the effort it takes to do so.

Now our lives seem so sane. Our children are grown. We have steady jobs and enough time to pursue the things we love. The dreams we had when we bought this piece of property have been slow to come, but they are coming. I say all of this because sometimes the way it’s all working out still surprises me. Our grown children still seem to love us despite our imperfect parenting. While money is not growing on any of the trees we’ve got around here, we can pay our bills and afford the inevitable car repairs and winter tires. We’ve got steady jobs and friends and family members who’ve got our backs. We’ve still got each other too, which wasn’t always a given.

One of my favorite novels from the last couple of years is This is Happiness by Niall Williams. Besides being exquisitely written, it’s an homage to a simple life. It takes place in Ireland and it’s told from the perspective of a young man living with his grandparents in a small village during the time when electric lines were making their way to the rural parts of the country. There is a custom in the springtime of the year in which all of the villagers’ household belongings are taken outside and set in the yard for a good airing out in the sun. Then the empty houses are scrubbed clean. The cleaning and airing out is to prepare for the Easter holiday and the custom itself is called Eastering.

First fresh greens of 2022

We’re not quite at that stage of the game here. Our yard still has too much snow and where the snow has melted the ground is mushy. But the scene from that book stays with me. I imagine the house would smell like freshly laundered sheets and sunshine after that kind of a cleaning. And I try to imagine a life so unencumbered by stuff that it would be an easy enough task to haul all of our belongings out into the yard in an afternoon. Mostly I love the idea of letting air and sunshine work their way through all the indoor things that are prone to dust and darkness.

Retreating snow from the back garden

Journaling for me is a form of Eastering. With each entry I haul out something from inside myself that could use a little fresh air and sunlight. When it’s laid out on the page I can see the dings and the dust. More importantly I can see how small it is when it’s juxtaposed against a larger landscape. Once it’s no longer cluttered inside the shadowland of my interior self, there’s space for me to do some cleaning. Or forgiving, as the case may be.

Then, once I’ve looked at whatever it is in a different light and from a few different angles I can decide what to do with it next. I might choose to let it go or I might decide to hold onto it differently. I might file it into a new category or I might connect it to things that at one time seemed unrelated. But after each airing out I’m ready to begin again, which is what we all do. We begin, and then we begin again, and hopefully as we look at the pieces of our lives that brought us to where we are now, we’re able to offer ourselves and each other some grace.

**

Fire safety/improved view/next winter’s heat all wrapped into one job.
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Five-Acre Almanac: All These Trees

Week 36

In the summer when the plant life is in full force, certain parts of our property aren’t easily accessible. In the winter when the snow is deep and soft we tend to stick to trails. But this time of year we can get around. This morning it was clear and cold and the snow was perfect for walking on. When I went out to feed and water the chickens I didn’t intend on staying out for such a long time, but once I started walking around on top of the snow I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t have a particular mission in mind when I started meandering but soon I occupied myself with surveying the birch trees that grow around here.

Birch are the species of tree that have the longest life span in this area. We’re fortunate to have a few very old ones on our property, and a handful of younger ones that have grown tall in the protection of spruce where the ever-hungry moose have not been able to eat them. There are also dozens of small ones scattered around. Each summer these small birch trees put on new growth and each year they get munched back by the moose, but somehow they still manage to stay alive. They’re gnarly and tough and some of them are probably much older than their size would indicate. I imagine they have some sturdy roots beneath them.

An old but unprotected birch

In the book To Speak for the Trees, the author and botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger suggests that every person plant a tree a year for six years in order to bring the planet’s living systems back into balance. She also says that the trees that will offer the most in return for our efforts are those that are the longest living native species to an area. For us on the lower Kenai Peninsula that species is birch.

From my vantage point up on top of the snow I identified a few of those small moose-vulnerable birch trees that might be good ones to fence, then I checked on two that we transplanted a few years ago, one of which was only about three feet tall when I removed it from its less than ideal location just behind our house. It was small and spindly when I carefully extracted it for replanting, but it had a robust main root that ran horizontally in one direction for about seven feet alongside a cement barrier that’s part of our home’s foundation. That long horizontal root made both the digging it up and the transplanting tricky and I wasn’t sure if it would survive, but so far it has. Now it’s about seven feet tall, its main trunk is thick enough to withstand moose munching, and it has lots of new growth.

The other fenced birch tree had a precarious beginning. Three summers ago, after years of neglect, I finally got ambitious and cleaned the organic material out of our back rain gutter. Growing out of the muck was a small birch tree about four inches tall. I potted it in some soil and kept it tucked away from moose for that first winter, then the next spring we planted it in the ground, staked it with some old curtain rods, and protected it with chicken wire. Now it’s about four feet tall and in need of much more substantial fencing.

Gutter Birch

In addition to planting a native tree every year for six years, Diana Beresford-Kroeger says we should do everything we can to make sure they make it to old age. To her that means more than just taking care of their physical needs, it also means forming a relationship with them. Name them, tell their stories, she says, and I’m good with that.

There are plenty of trees around here besides the birch that have stories to go along with them. We’ve got a larch we planted on our son’s eighth birthday and the spruce tree we’ve buried our beloved pets beneath. We’ve got a mini-forest of spruce trees to the east of our garage that were knee high when we moved in but are now keeping us in fence posts and Christmas trees.

In our fenced-in back garden we’ve got four apple trees that popped up from seed in our compost pile five years ago and without any expectation of them producing fruit we transplanted them just to see what would happen. They grew to two feet tall that first summer and stalled out there until last summer when they shot up to about waist high.

We also have the cottonwood trees above our property that bald eagles roost in, and the elderberry forest down below the yurt with its fairyland hideaways. We’ve got a few mountain ash too, and a couple of willow trees that have grown tall. Alders are everywhere, fixing nitrogen and creating amazing soil.

I’m here with all of these trees. With their windbreaks and their shelter. With the habitat they create and texture they add to this landscape. I’m here with the grandmother birch and the rain gutter birch. I’m here with the ones that have grown straight and tall and the ones that have grown gnarled and twisted. I’m here with the ones that need to be trimmed back and the ones that need to be fenced. I’m here with all of these trees and they’re here with me.

Their presence is so quiet and constant and undemanding that it’s easy to take the simple way they give us what we need for granted. It’s easy to lose sight of the significance of our connection. But today I remembered to be in awe of trees for a little while.

walkable snow

Retreating snow under a young spruce

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Five-Acre Almanac: Small Joys

Week 35

It’s Sunday again, the day I’ve designated each week to write a post for this yearlong project. Facing down a blank page with the intention of sharing the words that materialize over the course of a few hours requires courage because while I’m writing about some aspect of life here on our five acres, I also want something more to come from my writing. I never know if what I’m hoping for is going to show up though, and the courage comes in trusting that something will reveal itself at some point along the way.

Writing about the work we do, the gardens we grow, the wild foods we harvest, the antics of our homegrown food experiments and our animals is the easy part. Writing from a deeper place, a place where the physical world connects to that place within me that is searching for meaning, is much more difficult.

This is all to say that this week I’m struggling to know what to write. In one hand I’m holding all the hope that this time of year brings, and in the other I’m holding sorrow. I believe that’s true for most of us. To pay attention to what’s happening in the world is to know grief. To see spring chives poking up out of the ground is to feel hope. Watching our beloved dogs grow old exposes our hearts to a tenderness that’s both beautiful and sorrowful. To have the time and ability to work on the things we find meaningful gives us deep satisfaction. Every day is a mix of small joys and deep sorrow, deep joy and small sorrows and writing this post each week becomes a balancing act where I try to lean heavy on the hope and joy but stay grounded in reality.

Earlier this week Dean and I signed up for a year-long gardening course offered by local gardener and teacher Saskia Esslinger. The way it works is that Saskia hosts a Zoom meeting once a week to talk about some aspect of gardening and a person can join the course at any point in the year. We signed up because even though we’ve been gardening for a long time now, there’s always more to learn and as we look at expanding, any efficiency we can implement now will help make this a sustainable endeavor rather than one that wears us out. Also, we get to talk about gardening and related subjects every Saturday morning for a year.

Yesterday was our first session and the topic of the day was greenhouses. We have a greenhouse, but already after just one class we have some simple improvements in mind that will likely make it better. Even if we don’t have the time to make the changes this year, we have an ideal we can work toward, which is exactly the kind of thing we were hoping for when we decided to sign up for this course.

Dean built our greenhouse off the back of our chicken coop five summers ago. He used old windows, a door one of our friends salvaged from the dump and scrap lumber from an old structure that was here when we moved in but needed to be torn down. It’s a funky little greenhouse, but I love it and now we have a place to grow a few crops that don’t typically grow outside in Alaska and a place to hang out and enjoy the view this time of year before it’s full of plants.

Dean putting all the pieces together

On Thursday I went out to check on the chickens in the early afternoon and heard something scurry up the side of the coop. I’ve suspected that an ermine has been stealing our eggs and finally my suspicions were confirmed. I rearranged a few of the laying boxes and plugged up a hole that might have been the entry point. Since then I’ve been getting four or five eggs a day as opposed to zero or one, but I’m not convinced that the ermine won’t find its way back in. They seem like smart and scrappy little creatures that would be quick to find a work-around to any obstacle that’s put in their way.

On Friday an unexpected package arrived in the mail from a friend. She sent me a chicken poster with a handwritten note explaining that she saw it hanging in a bookstore window and immediately thought of me. She asked the proprietor if they had another poster for sale but they didn’t. They did however have one they were willing to give her. She also mentioned that the poster is meant to be hung in the chicken coop to inspire the hens. I’ll get down there soon for some deep spring cleaning and muckraking and ermine-proofing and I’ll find a place to hang it then, but in the meantime I’ll keep it inside where I can see it and be reminded of my friend, and the fact that she thought of me and acted on her impulse to spread some joy.

And I guess that’s what I’m landing on today, the importance of those small joys that make up a life. Interesting classes, the kindness of friends, fun surprises, spring greens after a long winter, sitting in a warm greenhouse on a cool but sunny afternoon, solving problems, time spent pursuing passions, great conversations, beach walks, good music. These things don’t take away the sorrows of the world, but they ease them a little. They don’t give us a solution to every problem, but they point us in the right direction. If enough of us follow where those small joys lead us, maybe it will make a difference.

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Five-Acre Almanac: The Fullness of it All

Week 34

I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line Dean and I became the kind of people who have a well-stocked pantry. It makes sense here in earthquake country, in a state that gets most of its food from thousands of miles away, but we haven’t always been this way and so we’re still figuring out how to do it. Yesterday I started the project of organizing it. We try to do this every now and again to remember what all we have and to bring the stuff that’s been sitting around for a while to the front of the line. We’re realizing that there’s a fine line between having a well stocked pantry and hoarding, and we don’t want to cross that line.

The process of working on the pantry was painful, and as those kinds of jobs often go it got worse before it got better. A couple hours in and the kitchen table and counters were covered in all the things that had been on the pantry shelves, and with each item a decision had to be made. Are we really going to use that five year old rhubarb butter or is it time to give it to the chickens? That weird sauce that has the questionable ingredients in it, yes we bought it for some strange reason a few years ago but now that we know what’s in it will we ever use it? Probably not.

Between the pantry job, the disheveled nature of our house while it’s undergoing some minor remodeling and garden starts filling every horizontal surface that gets any light, the clutter nearly sent me into a state of overwhelmed-ness that bordered on despair. The fact that I’d been reading the news earlier didn’t help. The pantry job also had me going in and out of our garage which, even after a few sessions of sorting and getting rid of stuff, is still packed.

A few years back we got rid of a raft that we bought in Montana shortly after we got married. It was worn out and no longer useful but we held on to the rowing frame. The frame had been knocking about in the loft of our garage for years and we kept it even though the likelihood of us ever using it again was next to nothing. Finally a couple of weeks ago we loaded it into the back of our truck, but not before I imagined how it might be put to use for a cold frame for our garden or for a makeshift bench by our fire pit, and that revealed another problem I have which is that I feel guilty for adding more stuff to a world that’s already overwhelmed with too much stuff and in an effort to assuage my guilt over being a consumer I try to envision the potential reuses for every single thing, from used yogurt containers to old rowing frames.

Another problem with getting rid of things has to do with the stories that are attached to them, or more accurately, our perception that stories are attached to the objects we hold on to. Storing the raft and frame in our garage added nothing to the memories we have of floating the Smith River or fly-fishing our way down Rock Creek. Letting them go was not letting go of the people we used to be, as those younger versions of ourselves had already moved on. The raft and frame weren’t keeping anything alive, they were just taking up space.

We’re having a bigger dilemma trying to decide what to do with a huge collection of leather bound Franklin Mint books that once belonged to Dean’s dad who died at age 48 just a month before Dean and I met each other. Ken was a pilot for Braniff Airlines, and then after Braniff folded he and a partner started Sun Country Airlines. He valued the idea of reading classic literature but as a driven businessman he didn’t allow himself much time for that sort of thing. He told Dean that his plan was to make his way through those books once he retired.

Ken’s untimely death meant that most of those books he looked forward to reading one day were never opened. When he died they went into boxes, and then into storage, and then onto a barge that brought them to Alaska where we’ve continued the tradition of not reading them. We displayed them on our bookshelves for a while, but they weren’t the books we wanted to read so they just collected dust. Now they’re back in boxes in our garage, taking up space.

It’s good to remember that we have some choice over what’s meaningful in our lives, and that we’re allowed to change our minds and evolve and let things go when the time is right to let things go.

Yesterday I let that old rhubarb butter go, along with a half-full mystery box of croutons and bag of sorghum flour that I was never going to use. I said goodbye to the three year old box of yellow cake mix and eight jars of dried herbs that were well past their prime. Then after I got the pantry put back together and cleaned up after the project, I went outside and wandered around for a while with Dean and the dogs. We loaded the wheelbarrow with firewood and shoveled snow off the yurt deck. We checked in on the chickens and stood inside our greenhouse for a while to enjoy the extra bit of heat. I stayed out long enough to lose my sense of being overwhelmed, then I came back inside and turned on Radio Paradise and made dinner.

Sometimes I want everything to be orderly and I want it now, but the nature of this life that we’ve chosen is that it’s messy. We make repairs as we can afford them. We sort through the stuff that’s accumulated as we’re able to. We cook and make a mess of the kitchen, then we clean it up and do it all again. We reuse jars and plastic bags. We have dogs that shed. We ferment things. We grow a garden that takes over our house for about a month every spring. We put chores on hold in order to write. We make time to go for walks and practice tai chi and listen to music.

There is no future date when everything will be perfectly lined up and all the tasks will have been completed. There is just this day and the next. We’ll make a little progress in some areas and fall further behind in others. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the fullness of it all, but when I stop to take a breath I remember that we’re having a pretty good time.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Spring Equinox

Week 33

Spring Equinox was this past Sunday and for a while in the late morning after it warmed up to nearly 40 degrees, I camped out on a blue and brown thrift store afghan on a south-facing, wind-protected piece of earth in our yard. I brought my journal and my favorite mechanical pencil with me and thought I’d brainstorm ideas for this blog post, but out there in the bright sun and cool air my mind wasn’t big on ideas. It was just taking it all in. The heat of the sun against my black jacket, cool air on my face, the shimmer of light on the bay, every contour, shadow, ridge and knoll on the snow covered Kenai Mountains, the chirping squirrel in the tree behind me, neighbors hammering and sawing in their yards, a raven chortling in the distance, chickens murmuring in their pen, faint music coming from the deck where Dean was planting more seeds to fill our garden beds that are still buried in snow.

It was the kind of day like the days that make their way into my January dreams. Only this one was real.

I thought I’d sit for fifteen minutes and fill a page with ideas but instead I sat for a couple of hours and tried to list the things I noticed. Newly hatched insects floating up from the ground, last autumn’s musty smelling leaves, the cool, damp earth against the soles of my feet,  light reflecting off the crusty snow covered mountains, magpies hopping from tree to tree, eagles circling overhead, melting snow all around me, the voices of neighbors, sun on my skin, wake lines left by small boats on a glassy bay.

When I let go of having to write something meaningful and allowed myself to become an observer, I freed myself from my own busy mind.

The natural world I observed was not vying for my attention. It was not trying to sell me anything. It was not twisting facts or trying to keep secrets. It was indifferent to my place in society, my age, my education, my past. I did not feel unsettled by anything I witnessed. There was no veil of judgment between me and what was around me. No expectation.

And so here I am two days later, still unsure about where to go with this post. All I’ve got this time around is that I sat on a small dry patch of grass beneath a spruce tree for a couple of hours on Sunday and took in as much of the world around me as I could. I soaked in the sun. I filled my lungs with fresh air. I listened to the sounds of a changing season and stopped trying to make sense of things for a while. It was peaceful and it was good.

Maybe for this week that’s enough.  

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Five-Acre Almanac: Breakup Season

Week 32

Breakup is the Alaska term for when winter loses its hold. It’s when the snow and ice begin to melt and the ground begins to thaw. It’s a process that can take a couple of months and during breakup there can be beautiful blue sky days with perfect snow conditions or there can be days when it’s sleeting sideways and the streets are lined with dirty piles of mushy snow that’s melting into pools of water with no place to drain. It’s when new dips in the roads materialize overnight and driving becomes a focused exercise of avoiding potholes. Normally breakup starts toward the end of March and continues through April but this year it started in February. Now we’re all waiting to see if it’s here to stay.

Yesterday Dean started planting our garden. He started pepper, leek, marjoram, oregano, sage, marigold and sunflowers seeds that will eventually be transplanted outdoors. Last week he started goji berries, tomatoes, and spinach. I started some seeds too. Fifteen years ago when my dad died I collected wildflower seeds from the cemetery on Wilson Mesa where his ashes were scattered and brought them home to Alaska. They’ve been in a jewelry box on my dresser until last week. Now I’ve put them in a damp paper towel inside a Ziploc bag to try sprouting them knowing that even though seeds can last a long time, especially ones like these that have a hard outer shell and have evolved to grow in the harsh high country environment of Western Colorado, I might have waited too long.

We still have snow in our yard but we’re starting to see the ground again in certain places. Our two hugelkultur raised beds are completely uncovered and I hope the little knobs of rhodiola rosea I planted last fall will start to emerge. They’re the most cold hardy of plants and just might be able to withstand another bout of winter, should it decide to return.

Another sure sign of winter’s end is the eagles have been swooping about the neighborhood the way they do when it’s time for them to build a nest. Last summer a pair of bald eagles raised two eaglets in a cottonwood tree in our neighbor’s front yard but yesterday when I was out I noticed that the top half of the tree has broken off and the nest has been destroyed. It must have toppled over during one of our recent wind storms.

Wind can be a destructive force around here but our own place doesn’t seem to be as battered by it as it was when we first moved in. I can’t tell if it’s because we don’t have as many windstorms as we used to or if it’s because our trees have grown tall and we now have a windbreak. It’s also quite possible that I’ve become used to the strength of the windstorms that blow in from the Gulf of Alaska and they no longer freak me out the way they used to. One may come along on occasion that keeps me awake at night, but the wakefulness is due more to noise than it is worry over the potential destruction.

It’s been hard seeing images of all the destruction that’s happening in Ukraine. Apartment buildings destroyed, streets rendered impassable from bombings, school yards blown to bits. The physical damage cannot be compared to the loss of human dignity and life, but still I can’t help but think about what a waste it all is. All the resources and energy that went into creating what’s useful and necessary, maybe even beautiful, reduced to ruins.

I try to imagine having to leave this place behind. These five acres that we’re still paying for, that we’ve raised a family on, that we plant a garden on and harvest food from. This piece of land that because of a monthly money exchange and a few pieces of paper we can call our own. I try to imagine a bomb tearing through our roof causing the house to be uninhabitable or sinister forces moving in and taking the things we’ve worked hard for for their own. It’s happened to plenty of people throughout history. It’s happening now, just not to us.

Then I take it further and try to imagine losing the town I’ve come to call home. What if a military invaded and took over the harbor and the airport? What if they destroyed the roads we would need to drive on should we feel compelled to escape? I don’t imagine these scenarios in order to wallow in pain, but as an effort to try to identify who I would be if all the things I’ve come to identify myself with were no longer mine. Who would I be when separated from the place I call home, with no prospect for a new one?

According to Amnesty International there were 26 million refugees around the globe in 2019. Just within the past few weeks there have been another couple million added to that number. These are people who have been displaced from their homes due to violence, insecurity, food shortages and persecution, and half of them are children.

Those numbers make me feel the privilege of being a person who’s able to write about what it’s like to live on these five acres of land. Gratitude is one piece of it, as I’m thankful for my life. But there’s something more that I’m having a hard time putting my finger on, and maybe it has to do with the fact that I’ve always felt cared for. I’ve always had shelter. I’ve always had enough food. I’ve never been displaced. And because of this I’ve always trusted that things will turn out okay. How much greater a person’s trust must have to be when all the structures of their lives have been pulled out from underneath them. Does this make them feel like God or the Universe has abandoned them, or does it make them feel closer to the source of their humanity?

These are heady thoughts, which seem about right for these heady times, and for Lent, and for breakup season, while we’re waiting for something to give.

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Five-Acre Almanac: All Things

Week 31

Last weekend I got a new rooster to replace the one that died earlier this winter. His name is Rooster Chuck and he’s only the second chicken in the history of my chicken keeping that’s been given a name. He came with a hen that will hopefully be willing to sit on a clutch of eggs until they hatch. It’s been a week of negotiations in the coop as the flock reorganizes the structure of their small society. They’re sorting out the details of their hierarchy and sometimes I hear a ruckus coming from the coop, but thankfully they don’t seem to be harming each other.

Our entire chicken coop is in need of some attention. One or more of the hens has been eating eggs and I have a strong suspicion than an ermine has been weaseling itself into the coop and feasting as well. It’s been a long winter and while I’ve tried to keep up with giving them plenty of straw and making sure their water isn’t frozen, it hasn’t been easy on any of us. We’re turning a corner now though, and I’ve even been able to let them out of their pen to scratch in the duff below the spruce trees where there’s no snow. I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to sort out the troubles afflicting our flock and am open to any name suggestions for the new hen. There’s a prayer I heard a while back that concludes with the line, ‘May I do all things in love and compassion,’ and naming the chickens that will be a part of my life for the next several years seems to go along with that.

So far this weekend I’ve been doing chores I didn’t do last week when I thought I’d have time to get them done. I cleaned out the refrigerator, made some sauerkraut and started some black currant shrub. I got caught up on some paperwork. All of it was less overwhelming than it seemed last week when I needed to rest. It turns out that even chores are better when done in the spirit of love and compassion, and love and compassion are easier to access when well rested. I hope I remember this.

Yesterday when I started writing this post it was snowing outside. Today the sky is clear and I feel the need to get out there. There’s brush to burn and firewood to move, but really there isn’t a whole lot that has to be done in the yard this time of year, which gives us the perfect excuse to just sit for a while and feel the sun on our faces.

Burning brush in the snow

These are my favorite kinds of weekends. Getting things done but moving through time without deadlines or too much pressure. On days like these I imagine books I’d like to write. I think of food experiments I’d like to try. I brainstorm topics to write about for this blog. I come up with new ideas for our small business. I dream about the garden. Occasionally I make myself a cup of afternoon tea and sit in front of the wood stove and listen without distraction to whatever music happens to be playing.

Typically when I’m writing an essay or a blog post there is an expectation that the piece will all come together in some way. That the ideas and images will converge or there will be a story or a narrative arc. A beginning, a middle, and an end. Sometimes though I think all that pressure to write something tidy gets in the way of being authentic. Most of our lives is just a string of moving from one moment into the next. I think about those individual moments that make up a day, a weekend, a month, a year, a life, in the context of that prayer. May I do all things in love and compassion. All things.

Yesterday I kept that prayer in mind as I tossed out a jar of strawberry jam that had been buried in the back of the refrigerator since last spring, as I sprinkled salt over chopped cabbage and kneaded it like bread, as I brought the chickens a bucket of kitchen scraps, as I checked Twitter for breaking news, as I talked for an hour on the phone with my son.

With that prayer on my mind I sat down to write about this moment in time. This moment that I’m not being forced out of my home. This moment when my family members are safe. This moment in which I’m free to voice my opinions and plan my future. This moment in time on this sunny day with its melting snow when my most pressing task is to pull words from nowhere and string them together. This moment, when I’m both compelled by the imperative to live in love and compassion and taken by the idea that within the command there is a kind of permission.

May I do all things in love and compassion? Yes, I may. It is my choice.

Hello, friends.
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Five-Acre Almanac: This Sad World

Week 30

A good deal of my week has been spent reading about Russia invading Ukraine and trying to imagine what it would feel like to have bombs randomly dropped on your town, or soldiers in tanks driving through the streets of your city, or feeling the need to make homemade explosives in order to defend yourself. I’ve thought too, about the Russian citizens who are hearing one thing from their government and another thing from other sources and the general helplessness and confusion many of them must feel. I’ve admired those who have taken to the streets in protest, in spite of the risks they face for doing so.

What a privilege it’s been to shut it off, close my computer, and step away when it all begins to feel like too much. While a fierce battle raged in Kyiv, I made chocolate raspberry brownies. While children huddled in subways at night to stay safe from explosions above ground, I picked up another book and settled into the couch. While citizen soldiers kept vigil day and night, I allowed myself another nap.

None of this is new. It’s just easy to forget that in every moment of every day there are people who are oppressed. People who are hungry. People who are living under tyrannical leadership. People whose lives lack stability. It’s not that I don’t know this, it’s just that most of the time I don’t think about it. I go to work and know my paycheck will be deposited into my bank account every two weeks. I plant my garden and if for some reason it doesn’t grow I have no reason to fret. I read whatever books strike my fancy on any subject that interests me. I wander around these five acres of property that I call home and look at the Kenai Mountains and Kachemak Bay and am grateful for the life I have.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. I’m just trying to describe the weird phenomena of watching a war unfold in real time while munching on chips and salsa and listening to Radio Paradise. Trying to make sense of geopolitical alliances and responses in the context of history, much of which I’ve either never learned or have forgotten. Trying to figure out what to do with the weight of all the suffering and fear, with the pointlessness of it all, with all the grief.

It’s easy to identify the things that cause us grief, but we don’t always allow ourselves the opportunity to grieve. I feel like that’s what I’ve done with this week off of work. I imagined that I’d rest a couple of days and then get busy getting things done around here, but that’s not what happened. Last week I wrote that I was tired. When I finally allowed myself to rest I discovered that not only am I tired, I’m sad. I’m sad about the state of the world. I’m sad that after two years of a pandemic we’re more divided and suspect of each other than ever. I’m sad for friends who are hurting and for their kids who are hurting. I’m sad about the rapid development I see all around my town and neighborhood. I’m sad that my dogs are getting old. I’m sad about the lack of time and bandwidth I have for nurturing the relationships in my life that matter the most. I’m sad about so many things and now I’m sad about the war between Russia and Ukraine.

I’m not writing about sadness because I need sympathy. I’m not suffering from depression. I’m writing about it because I think it’s something we all need to address in ourselves. We’re afraid we’ll be overcome by it, which is a legitimate fear, but to feel sad is as much a part of being human as is being happy, and yet we tend to push the sadness away. In denying ourselves the opportunity to grieve, to feel sad, to mourn our losses, to empathize with others, we don’t allow ourselves to fully live.

Much of life is learning to hold many different things in balance, and I read this week that peace is balance. Balance is peace. So what do we do to balance out the sadness in the world? I think we stay with it. We don’t push it aside. We give ourselves the time and space we need to feel it. We love this sad world and we offer up our sadness as a prayer. Not a prayer for an answer, but a prayer as an offering. Here is this sadness. Here is this sadness. Please make something beautiful from it.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Multidimensional

Week 29

“I hope you find something to love
Something to do when you feel like giving up
A song to sing or a tale to tell
Something to love, it’ll serve you well.” –Jason Isbell

It’s Tuesday 2/22/2022 as I’m writing this and even though it’s just numbers there’s something fun about all those twos in a row. I’ve taken this week off of work in hopes of rejuvenating my spirit. It hit me a few weeks ago that I’m tired. Bone tired. Not the kind of tired that sleep can cure but the kind of tired that only the freedom to follow my whims for a while can cure. So today I’m reading and napping and writing. I’m listening to fiddle and banjo music I haven’t listened to in a long time and it’s waking something up in me that’s been tucked away, buried under layers of responsibilities and commitments and all the things I try to write but cannot properly express. John O’Donohue said, “music is what language wants to be,” and I’ve thought that a thousand times. I write because I’m a better writer than I am a musician.

This morning I came across a journal entry of mine from February, 1999. I recognized my handwriting but not a whole lot else about myself. In it I was searching for something to love. I wrote about how Dean had passions and interests that he pursued and I recognized that I needed something like that for myself.

It wasn’t long after I wrote those words that I borrowed an old fiddle from one of my coworkers and enrolled my kids in violin lessons. The three of us practiced together and while technically I was doing it for them, I found myself pulling out the fiddle after they went to school and after they went to bed. At first it was Suzuki songs, then it was Irish tunes. Then one day while driving the kids to swimming lessons I heard a segment on NPR about old-time music. That fiddle and clawhammer banjo combination was new to me, but the sound of it cut right through all the layers of my soul.

I sat in the car with the kids and listened to the rest of the radio segment before heading inside to the pool. I sat in the bleachers with other parents as the kids learned to swim and there was one mom in particular that I watched closely because her son and my son had a similar energy about them. I sensed that we’d have a few things in common and so I struck up a conversation with her. We hit it off and the next day she brought in a book for me to borrow and over that week of early morning swimming lessons we learned more about each other. One of the things I learned was that she played clawhammer banjo.

It’s funny how you don’t always put things together until after the fact, but the way that friendship came to me just when I needed it seems remarkable now. Like it was orchestrated. I needed Kate’s friendship and I needed that connection to music in my life. It was through Kate and her husband Scotty that I came to know old-time music, which became that thing I was searching for back in 1999 when I wrote that journal entry. I wanted a passion to pursue, something to capture me and give me spark, and I found it.

I immersed myself into the world of old-time music for a while and I loved it, but it wasn’t always compatible with the rest of my life. The experience of delving into something, practicing it, pursuing it, listening to it, studying it, and spending time with other people who loved it as much as I did changed me though. It added dimensions to my life that beforehand I didn’t know existed. And once a person knows about those new dimensions, they’re not something you want to live without.

So I’m taking a break from work for a week, not to get things done or cross things off my list but to remind myself of my multidimensionality. I might read and write some more. I might play music. I might even give Kate a call to see if she’d like to go for a walk. We started talking while our kids were at swimming lessons all those years ago and we haven’t run out of things to talk about yet.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Brightening Sky

Week 28

So much of life is about balancing commitments and priorities, about giving a little here and taking a little there. And in taking all of that into consideration I sat down to write this week’s post last night. Today’s forecast is calling for thirty-five degrees and sun. If I were to have put all of this writing off until today I’d have put myself in a position of having to choose between spending time in the sun or spending time in front of my computer screen and it’s the time of year when the sun must win. Hands down. Anyhow, it’s probably good to mix up when I write because my mood is surely different on a Saturday evening than it is on a Sunday afternoon.

Yesterday wasn’t as sunny as today is supposed to be but the air was calm and the temperature was above freezing. I mucked out the chicken coop and made a trail through the snow to the compost pile. Our son is here for the weekend and the two of us spent an hour or so clearing stuff out of the garage. Like he has for the past few weekends, Dean worked on a plumbing project that recently made its way to the top of our home repair list.

Our repair list is long and while it used to feel overwhelming it’s finally beginning to feel less so. Not because we have loads of time on our hands but because we’re making peace with what we’re realistically able to do while still keeping our sanity. Keeping true to our priorities means we get things done at a slower pace. It means one winter we paint the living room and the next one we re-plumb the bathroom. It means our garage will get cleared out eventually, if we keep at it. It means we’ll spend an afternoon outside in the sun when we can, even if something else has to give.

Yesterday before I got busy with chores I spent a couple of hours revisiting a short story I wrote in graduate school. It’s a story that has potential but it’s never been quite right. I tucked it away for a few years and haven’t thought about it much for a while, but it popped into my awareness again this week and I started wondering if I might be ready to give it another shot. My overall mood has changed since I first wrote the story and I may be able to offer it something now that I couldn’t back when it was first written.

A few months ago I told a friend that he has a personal story so intense, so big, that he could write about it every year for the rest of his life and it would be a different story each time. Time changes us and it changes our stories. It’s impossible for me to reread old stories and blog posts without wanting to change them to fit the person I’ve become.

Writing here each week doesn’t allow me time to obsess. I write and then I post and then I have to move on. If I write too infrequently I put too much stock in each piece. I’ve put too much stock in the fiction I’ve written and in doing so I’ve scared myself away from it. It felt good to pull my story out and face it once again. I’m adding it to my long list of things to do.

It’s funny how we add a lot to our to-do lists but rarely remove anything. I attribute the habit to loving life and wanting to experience so many things, but maybe it’s just a sign of too much wanting. Maybe a few hours spent in the sun will help me come up with a few things I can take off of my list.

A week ago one of the pepper plants we overwintered in the back bedroom started putting on new leaves. We’ve kept it inside to keep it from freezing and we’ve given it just enough water to keep it alive. Now it’s coming out of dormancy. In the fall Dean filled several empty chicken-feed bags with potting soil and compost so we’d have some to work with before the ground thaws. Yesterday I brought one of the bags in from the garage and put it beside the wood stove to thaw out. Today I’ll bring the pepper plant out of the back room, re-pot it in fresh soil, give it some water and put it in our south facing window where it can get plenty of sun. If all goes well we’ll be eating peppers from it in a few months.

A few months seems like a long time to wait for peppers when we could buy them fresh at the grocery store any day of the week, but being privy to a plant’s cycle of growth, production, decline, dormancy and reawakening is a pretty cool thing. I suspect we’ll appreciate those peppers more for having witnessed their journey into existence.

There’s so much more that could be said about the cycles and stages we go through in our own lives, about emerging into one thing even while we’re waiting for something else to happen. I could go on. But even as I’ve got my fingers on my keyboard I’ve got my eyes on the forecast. The clock is ticking and the sky is getting brighter.

yurt view
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Five-Acre Almanac: Electric Wednesday 2/2/22

Week 27

When my husband was a freshman at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana he had a friend from Kodiak, Alaska. The guy, he said, told a lot of outlandish stories. They involved ice-climbing in harrowing conditions, protecting fresh-killed deer from brown bears, being in small boats on big water, catching enough salmon in one night to fill the back of a pickup bed. At the time Dean thought his stories were unlikely, that nobody’s life was really like that. It wasn’t until we’d lived in Alaska for a few years that it occurred to Dean that his friend’s stories might be true.

The Alaskana section in the library where I work is full of books with these kinds of stories. There are whole sections on dog mushing and bush piloting, on mountaineering and homesteading in the wilderness. There are stories of people who’ve made it through whatever dangerous predicament they’ve found themselves in and plenty of stories about folks who weren’t so lucky. We’ve lived here long enough that we even have a few adventure stories of our own, like the time I had to tromp through the snow with a flashlight in the middle of the night to rescue my dog from a neighbor’s traps or the time Dean and a friend had to be towed across Cook Inlet in our 20-foot skiff in rough water.

A story is boring without some kind of conflict, without some hint of danger, without tension. That’s what was drilled into me in graduate school when I studied fiction writing. What else will get the reader to turn the page? What will get them to read the next chapter?

Dean and I have been watching Poldark, a Masterpiece Theater series from a few years ago. It takes place in Cornwall in the years after the American Revolution. The setting is stunning and the story is full of romance and drama, tension and danger, but we’re beginning to get bored. Last night we decided to skip the swashbuckling and watch Detectorists. The quiet story line and the smart, subtle humor were just right. We wanted to watch the next episode not because we were dying to know what was going to happen next but because we knew the writing was smart. We knew we’d be made to laugh and we’d be touched by some bit of tenderness we weren’t expecting. There is tension in the overall story arc, but it’s not the thing that kept us hooked.

It’s true that something needs to happen in a story. A situation needs to arise that causes a character to change. Sometimes that change comes from external forces and sometimes it comes from within. With all of that in mind, I want to tell you the story of my Wednesday.

I didn’t sleep well on Tuesday night. My mind was wound up and I was unsuccessful in my attempts to quiet it. I dipped in and out through most of the night with dreaming and waking running together until about an hour before the alarm sounded at 5:30am.

Each morning for the past fourteen days we’ve gone through a short qi gong routine called the Eight-Pieces Brocade. It takes about twenty minutes to complete and it involves six repetitions of eight different moves. It’s gentle exercise and while it’s not physically or mentally demanding it does require focus. Between the breath and the movement there’s a lot to pay attention to and I start to get the moves wrong when my mind wanders. Dean, who’s been a qi gong teacher and practitioner for years says that it can take a lifetime to master these moves, so the requirement of focus never goes away.

After my fitful sleep I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to do qi gong. I didn’t want to go to work. I was tired and the day’s demands felt like too much. I got up anyhow and fed the dogs and put another log on the fire while Dean got the coffee ready. Then we pushed the coffee table out of the way and started our qi gong practice.

All night I’d been thinking. I wasn’t worried about anything in particular. I wasn’t rehashing past mistakes as I’ve been known to do in the middle of the night. My mind was just going. I don’t know what you call that kind of state. There’s day dreaming and there’s sleep dreaming but what is it called when your mind goes all night and the thoughts aren’t fully engaged thoughts but they’re also not dreaming?

Maybe it was because my mind was finally tired of itself that for first time since we’d started doing this qi gong routine, I was fully there with it. For twenty minutes my mind was not flitting from one thing to another. By the time I was finished with it I’d completely forgotten that I’d been awake for most of the night. It’s like my mind finally got the quiet it needed.

This week the mornings were noticeably lighter, and when I went out to scrape the windshield and start the car before work on Wednesday I didn’t need a headlamp. There was a break in the clouds above the mountains where the sun was rising and I wanted to run back in the house for the camera. I always want to capture the scene but it’s never possible. The colors don’t translate. The scope of it all never really comes through. Besides, I’d have been late to work if I’d started taking photos.

In the time it took me to scrape the windows the colors in the sky had changed and by the time I’d driven to the top of our road they’d changed even further. By the time I passed McNeil Canyon school the sky was every shade of violet. Dark to the west where it was cloudy and lighter in the east. By then I was past the point of wanting to take a photo. What I wanted instead was to stop the car, stand out in the cool air and soak in all that violet. The roads were not in great shape though, and there was not a great place to pull over, and I still didn’t want to be late to work. So I kept driving. By the time I got to town the sky was gray again, but I felt charged by that violet light, by the qi gong. I’m sure the coffee had a bit to do with it too.

Everything at work was fine. I helped a man find some articles he needed. I read reviews of new books. I did the normal library circulation tasks that I do all the time. But it all felt just a little bit different. Like during the qi gong I’d done earlier in the day, my mind stayed on task. I wasn’t thinking ahead or behind.

Over my lunch break I went to Save U More to pick up a few groceries. Apples were on sale, which pretty much never happens, and they had a good deal on some nice looking grapefruit too. I’m curious to know if anyone else has had the experience of finding themselves singing along to a song they haven’t heard in over a decade while in the produce section of Save U More. It happens to me regularly and on this day the song was Eddy Grant’s 1982 hit “Electric Avenue” which is impossible to not bop along to. I bopped on through checkout, at least in my mind, and still had enough time for a walk on the beach.

The tide was coming in when I was at Bishop’s Beach and I set out walking west for ten minutes on the part where the ocean had melted the snow away on the previous high tide. The sand was firm beneath my feet and I walked along to the beat and the lyrics that were on repeat in my head.

Several yards ahead of me, dozens of crows occupied a small section of beach. I’ve been watching the Bishop’s Beach crows on my walks this winter and have witnessed them doing all sorts of things. Sometimes they loiter around until just after the tide starts to recede and then they spread out along the tide line looking to see what the sea left behind for them. And I’ve witnessed them playing on the wind on especially gusty days. I’ve seen them gathering up around bald eagles as they’re scavenging on something that’s washed up, trusting that the eagle will leave a morsel or two behind for them. But on this day I couldn’t tell what the crows were up to until I got close.

On this day about fifty crows were bathing in melt water as it spilled out of a small ravine and headed toward the ocean. They splashed and fluffed and sputtered and my presence did not bother them in the least. Their singular focus on the water was impressive and while I don’t know that I’m qualified to give name to a crow’s inner workings, from my perspective their behavior looked a lot like joy.

I walked back to my car with so many questions. Every time I go to the beach I see the crows, and except for on the coldest of days there is always some fresh water flowing toward the ocean. But this was an epic bird bath event. What was it about the water in that moment? How did their behavior influence one another? Did they all feel the need for a bath, see the water running from the melting snow and settle all together, at once, to bathe there? Or did one start the whole thing and then another and then another and then after a while what had started out as a single bird enjoying a bath turn into a whole community of crows, a whole murder of them, doing this thing together? Was it something about the temperature? Were their bellies full enough that for a while they didn’t have to think about eating? Had they experienced something that necessitated a good bath?

All I know is that those bathing crows were a part of what turned out to be a particularly good day. And it’s had me thinking about the way we move through life. Not every day starts out with a violet sky and it’s not every day that apples are on sale at Save-U-More, but most every day there is something worthy of our attention, something to be curious about. It’s not always scaling mountains or crossing rushing rivers, but that’s okay. Tension might be overrated.

heart shaped ice

The Guest House by Rumi

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Halfway There

Week 26

This week marks the halfway point between winter solstice and spring equinox. To me that means we’re entering phase two of winter. I needed those dark months of winter, but now I need them to be behind me. I’m ready for driving to work in the daylight and for the angle of the sun to be a bit higher on the horizon. I’m ready to get ready for summer, which is so much of what phase two of winter seems to be about. This morning over coffee Dean and I flipped through the seed packets that came in the mail and we plotted out next summer’s garden. I’m sure we’ll make adjustments when it’s actually time to plant things, but at least we’ve got something of a plan now.

This week also marks the halfway point of my Five-Acre Almanac posts. When I set out to write a post a week for a year I wasn’t bold enough to publicly announce my intentions. I wanted to give myself an out in case I wasn’t having fun or gaining anything from the process. It didn’t take long though for me to determine that this was something I wanted to do for myself.

It’s difficult to invest time in writing when there are so many other worthy demands on my weekend hours, but I like the way I feel when I’m writing. I like the way I look for things, the way I ask more questions, the way I push myself to find the most honest way to say a thing. I don’t always like the self-doubt that sneaks in or the frustration that comes when the words don’t come easily, but I like the feeling of growth that comes when I push through in spite of myself. It’s a practice.

For the first twenty-six weeks, this has been a practice in giving myself permission to write for several hours every weekend and allowing myself to buy into the notion that it’s time well spent.

It’s been a practice in trusting that the words will come even when it’s difficult to summon them. Sometimes a kombucha explosion offers itself up as easy subject matter, but more often than not I sit down to write without a plan. Even so I’ve come up with something every single time. It’s like experiencing a small miracle every Sunday.

It’s been a practice in discipline, in letting go of perfectionism, in not taking myself too seriously. Each week it’s a practice in courage.

Speaking of courage, there are still directions I’d like to go with my writing and the hope as that these Five-Acre Almanac posts will help me get there. I’d like to dive deeper. As I write about fireweed and spruce trees and collecting rocks on the beach I want it to be about more than fireweed and spruce trees and collecting rocks on the beach. As I write about turning the soil and planting carrots and digging for dandelion roots I want it to be about more than turning the soil and planting carrots and digging for dandelion roots. Whatever that more is is what I’m striving for.

In that way these Five-Acre Almanac posts have become a spiritual practice. I’m hesitant to use the word spiritual because it’s often associated with supernatural belief, but I can’t think of a better word for what this has become. I started out with an idea of writing about my relationship to this place but through the practice of committing to it I’ve learned a bit about myself. That’s been an unexpected gain from this process. The unexpected delight has been that there are people out there who read it. So if you’re reading this, I thank you. You give me the energy and incentive to keep going. It’s a true gift.

I imagine that as the snow melts and the ground thaws, these posts will change to fit the season. But I know better than to try to plan for that. Whatever this is meant to become it will become. Unless something unforeseen comes up I’ll bring you along with me through spring equinox and mud season, through the springtime planting frenzy and those first harvests of nettle. I’ll bring you along through the longest days of summer when the world outside our door is overwhelmingly green and the stars are nothing but a memory. I’ll take you with me into July, the month that makes me tired just thinking about it, and then we’ll head on through to the beginning of August which will complete the year. Today we’re halfway there.

I’m both daunted and excited about the prospect of sitting down to twenty six more blank pages.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Dreaming Green

Week 25

Earlier this week a young male moose was hanging out on the library grounds. For most of the day on Wednesday he was just outside our office windows in the small yard between the building and the parking lot. Completely unperturbed by cars driving past or people walking to and from the front doors of the library, he moved from one tree to the next, scraping bark off with his teeth and munching whatever branches he could reach. Between bouts of eating he’d rest for a while in the snow.

Because it got cold fast this winter and deep snow came early, it’s been a rough season for moose. The next couple of months could be especially hard on them. We’ve seen hungry moose before. Several years ago toward the end of a deep snow winter a female moose was lying down in the road not far from our mailboxes and it didn’t have the energy to get back up. We had to drive far to one side of the road for a few days to get around her, and even though we’re not supposed to feed moose, someone cut up a cabbage and set it down in front of her . The cabbage went untouched and then one day the moose was gone, probably after a phone call to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Just inside a window near the entrance of the library there is table that’s home to the Homer Seed Library. On the table is an old card catalog shelving unit that’s now being used to hold seed packets that are free for the taking, and in the spirit of gardening and growing things there are a few houseplants on the table too. Our young moose friend could see the plants and occasionally he’d wander over and push his nose against the window. Poor guy.

I’m beginning to crave green myself these days and starting to look forward to those early garden treats like spinach and miner’s lettuce and the even more abundant wild foods that so graciously grow without any effort on our part. The nettles pop up each spring and while I used to just enjoy them when they were fresh, now I treat them the way we treat salmon in Alaska. There is a window of time in which to harvest them and the hope is to get enough to last us through the winter. For a few weeks while the stinging nettle are young and tender we pick them daily and put them on the drying racks in our yurt, then we jar them up and put them on the pantry shelf. All winter we sprinkle the dried leaves into soups and stir fries and sauces. They’ve grown here for years but it was a while before it occurred to us to save them. It’s funny how sometimes a resource is right in front of you before you recognize its value.

It started with nettle, but then it was other things. Now we collect dandelion, spruce tips, fiddlehead ferns, pineapple weed, yarrow, red clover, plantain, dock, elder flowers, raspberry leaves, roses, rose hips, and fireweed. These are the wild things that grow outside our front door. If we venture a bit further there are lingonberries and blueberries, Labrador tea, mushrooms, and devil’s club. Every year I discover something new to add to the list, something that isn’t actually new at all.

People have lived here for thousands of years and they knew how to get through the long winters with what the earth provided. In that way getting to know the wild plants here has been humbling, because for most everything that our bodies need there is a plant to fit the bill. It’s changed the way I walk through the woods. It’s changed the way I eat. It’s changed the way I think about belonging.

Besides craving green from a gastronomical perspective, I’m craving green the color. The other night I fell asleep to wind and rising temperatures. I dreamed that all the snow melted to reveal a summer landscape, as though summer was just hanging out under the snow all this time. I wonder if moose dream such dreams.

I brought a book home from the library book sale a few years ago called The Book of Chakras by Ambika Wauters. Each of the chakra or energy centers in the body is associated with a color. Being new to the concept of chakras I assumed that the Heart Chakra would be associated with the color red because of the heart’s role in moving blood throughout our bodies, but according to Wauters it’s the energy center that governs “our physical supply of energy and vitality as well as the love that nourishes our spiritual existence.” Taking this into consideration, it makes perfect sense that the Heart Chakra is associated with the color green.

Aside from the spruce trees there’s not much green outside right now. The ground is snow covered and today the ocean and sky are every shade of gray. But over coffee this morning we made our seed order. We’ve got seeds soaking on the kitchen counter for sprouting and each day is longer than the day before.

I’m not sure if hope has a color, but if it does it must be green. And I think it must taste a little like nettle tea which to me tastes earthy and nourishing. It sounds like whatever music it is that wakes up that part of you that goes numb sometimes when the world seems bleak. For me that almost always includes a banjo. Like the plants that grow all around, those things that give hope are worth identifying. They’re worth thinking about and collecting. They’re worth storing up for when winter gets long.

***

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Five-Acre Almanac: The Speed of Sound

Week 24

In the early morning hours two days ago, we woke to our dog barking. She does this when there’s a moose in the yard or when snow is falling off the roof, but on that night neither of those things happened. The rumble that woke her continued for at least half an hour and we couldn’t identify its source.

Sometimes the military performs drills over Kachemak Bay but when I looked out the window there weren’t any helicopters or lights to indicate that’s what was going on. There were no gusts of wind. It didn’t seem like fireworks. I’d read about the volcano in Tonga just before going to bed and it crossed my mind that it could be related, but I discounted that idea, not trusting that such a thing could be possible.

I learned the next morning that some kind of pressure or sound waves from the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano located 5800 miles away are what we heard. They traveled up the Pacific and got here in the early morning hours to startle us out of our slumber. They moved through here and kept going north and a little while later they were heard in Fairbanks. And who knows, maybe they’re still moving.

There was a time when the news of the world didn’t travel faster than the speed of sound. Not too far in the distant past those rumbles in the night would have remained a mystery. But now we can watch a volcanic eruption online, in real time, nearly 6000 miles away, and when the sound of it reaches us several hours later we can connect the dots between the two events.

Anyhow, it was something new and a reminder that Earth is one place.

Today I worked on an essay I started last year about stinging nettle. It’s actually about a lot more than nettle and I put the piece aside for a year because writing a good essay is difficult. It requires a kind of attention I am seldom able to give. It requires putting to words things I don’t yet know how to say.

When I started writing my nettle essay last year I was drinking a cup of nettle tea every afternoon, but I got out of the habit. I set the essay aside. When I pulled the essay out of the folder and reread it, I instantly craved the tea.

I started drinking the tea because I’d read that it’s a healthy thing to do, but I continued drinking it because I felt that if I wanted to write about a plant then I needed to know it. Maybe I’m asking too much from a plant or maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m learning how to listen differently.

Sunset on Snow (photo by Dean Sundmark)

The other night I wish I would have listened to the rumbles differently. Now that I know what they were I wish I would have gone out into the moonlit night and given them my full attention. Maybe if I’d done so I would have entertained the idea that what I was hearing had traveled here from the volcano I’d seen on the news the night before rather than casting it aside. At the very least I’d have better descriptions of what it sounded like.

The sound itself wasn’t especially newsworthy. It was like a moose walking across the yard, or snow falling off the roof. If there hadn’t been chatter about it the next morning I might not have given it much thought. But lots of other people heard it too and it didn’t take long for word to spread that what we heard was from a volcano on the other side of the Pacific.

What might be more newsworthy than the sound we heard is the fact that we all believed the same story. We shared an experience and from what I observed there was no arguing or disgruntled banter about it. No blame or conspiracy. We all accepted that the sound we heard originated from the Tonga volcano and that it traveled through space and time to reach us in Homer, Alaska.

Having a couple of facts we could all agree on felt nice. I’d like to see us trend more in that direction.

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Five-Acre Almanac: January Light

Week 23

A few weeks ago we didn’t have it in us. Just the idea of plotting out next summer’s garden and taking inventory of our seeds seemed like too much as it felt like we hadn’t fully recovered yet from the last summer season. But last night, to our surprise, it happened. We started talking about the garlic Dean planted in the fall, wondering how it’s faring out there under all that snow in the frozen ground, and soon we were sketching out garden design ideas, dogearing pages of the seed catalogs that arrived in the mail earlier this week and making a list of things we hope to grow and harvest for our business.

The way personal energy waxes and wanes with the seasons isn’t something I’ve thought much about for most of my life. Each day contains 24 hours and each week has seven days. Work starts at 9:00am each weekday whether it’s summer or winter, spring or fall. I tend to rise each morning and go to bed every night at about the same time, year round, whether we have six hours or nineteen hours between sunrise and sunset. It seems that with all the consistency we’ve created by adhering to clocks and calendars and schedules, our energy levels would also be somewhat even throughout a given year. But those arbitrary lines don’t always take into consideration our physical relationship to this planet and its cycles.

Here on the southern Kenai Peninsula on the first day of January we gain almost two minutes of daylight each day and by the end of the month that gain is up to almost five minutes. I may go to work at the same time each day and sleep for the same number of hours each night, but it feels vastly different from July when the daylight hours are going the other direction at nearly the same rate. In January my energy starts to build. In July I’m beginning to feel spent.

The difference make sense. If summer solstice is like the full moon and winter solstice is like the new moon, then we’re in the waxing phase right now. The light is coming back. Energy is building. In January I’m feeling the healing effects of autumn’s downtime and darkness. In January the energy that July requires begins to feel possible again.

It didn’t take long last night for our conversation about this year’s garden and business plan to dip into the territory of too much. The vision we have for this place is much greater than we can afford in terms of both time and money, so part of the planning requires reigning ourselves in, coming to terms with what’s realistic and remembering that our energy in the late part of summer is not what it is in the spring and early summer. Our tendency over the last few years has been to put too many projects on our to-do list and expand in more directions than we can realistically keep up with while we both have full time jobs. Taking into consideration the waxing and waning of energy over the course of a year when planning for the future feels like hard-earned wisdom, like a preventative tonic for our sanity, like a thoughtful gift of self-care. I need to remember this when our ambitions outpace our reality.

The nice thing about January is that while we’re trending toward long days, it still gets dark at night. We can ease into this shift of energy and use it to our advantage. Based on our past experience we can anticipate what’s coming and plan accordingly. We can imagine what our days will be like in July and August and ask ourselves what we can do now that we’ll thank ourselves for later.

I think in July and August I’ll be glad I crossed a few tasks off of our overall summer to-do list. I think I’ll also be glad I took advantage of the slow, dark mornings and early evenings of winter to rest and rejuvenate. I think I’ll be thankful for any January progress we make on clearing out the garage. If I get on it, my late summer self will be glad I created a new website when the ground was still frozen.

Low sun illuminating an oft-neglected instrument.

Next year when we’re back to January again I’ll be glad for the firewood we stacked and for the potatoes we’ve stored in the pantry. I’ll be glad for summer blueberries in my oatmeal and the herbs we dried for our winter teas.

Right now I’m glad for the light’s slow return and for time on my lunch breaks to walk on the beach. I’m thankful for the constant reminders of how precarious and beautiful my life is even as the clock keeps ticking forward and the calendar days pass from one to another. We live our finite lives as earthlings juxtaposed against the perpetual cycles of light and dark, of spring-summer-fall-winter, of the waxing and waning of the moon, of the planetary orbits. Just being here and trying to make sense of it all is enough to keep me occupied for a lifetime, maybe longer. Anything else I might fit in is a bonus.

Short-lived sea otter I came across on Bishop’s Beach this week.
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Five-Acre Almanac: These Things

Week 22

When I was a child I was a Missionette. Much like the more secular Girl Scouts, Missionettes wore uniforms and recited mottoes at the beginning of each of our Wednesday night meetings at the Assemblies of God church. We also earned badges for skills like ironing and babysitting that were meant to prepare us for the stages of life we were moving into. I don’t have many bible verses memorized anymore, but the few I do remember are the ones we recited weekly at those meetings. There’s one in particular that’s been on my mind lately.

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Maybe it was the way this bible verse was presented to me in the context of Missionettes or maybe it was my inability to understand duality at that point in my life, but I interpreted this to mean that we are to dwell on what’s positive in this world and avoid thinking about all that is wrong or bad or hurtful. Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side.

But revisiting this verse now that I’m an adult who hasn’t attended church or ironed anything in years and who is trying to live fully in this world that is both terrible and wonderful, I realize that it’s not about positivity at all. Seeking what’s true and what’s honest and what’s just requires looking straight into all of it, all that’s horrible and all that’s good.

There is no set curriculum for learning how to navigate all the beautiful aspects of life alongside all the suffering. But if we want to live fully we need to figure it out, at least to some degree. If we simply escape into what makes us feel good and deny our connection to anything bad in the world, we aren’t living in truth. If we identify only with pain and hardship, or place the blame for it elsewhere, we’re not living in truth. Truth is a messy mix of it all.

Think on these things.

Going into 2022 it’s difficult not to feel the weight of the messy mix bearing down. Maybe it’s that state of heaviness that’s making me feel this way or maybe it’s the stage of life I’m moving into, but I’m craving order.

When this house became our home all of the previous owner’s belongings came with the package. He’d lived here for twenty years. We brought our belongings into the mix and now we’ve accumulated another twenty year’s worth of stuff. There’s been a steady flow of things coming and going through the years but we’ve reached the point where clutter is keeping us from using our space the way wish to use it. We’ve managed to stash most of it in our garage, but the garage is at capacity.

Now we have to motivate ourselves to do a job that isn’t the most pleasant of jobs and nobody is offering us money or a badge to make it happen. Instead we have to imagine the garage as we want it to be and let that vision of a better, more usable space propel us forward.

We have to step into the cold, cluttered space and start sorting through every single thing that’s in there. Some of those things served us well in the past but are no longer serving a purpose in our lives. Some of those things have sentimental value. Some of those things are just junk and the trouble is not in letting them go but in hauling them away. All of them together have created a task that we’ve put off for too long.

The job is daunting, but I know there are better things ahead if we face the mess and do the work.

It’s true for our garage. It’s true beyond our garage.

It’s a new year and we might as well get started.

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Five-Acre Almanac: A Few Days After Winter Solstice

Week 21

I woke up this morning to the rumble of snow sliding off our metal roof. It’s 35 degrees out there and is predicted to get up to 43 later today. Right now, at 9:15 am, I’d still need a headlamp if I headed outside, but it’s no longer nighttime dark. The sky is foggy and slate blue. The snow is reflecting the same color but is a shade or two brighter. Water is dripping off of everything that was once covered with snow and the snow on the ground is melting into itself.

As I’m writing this I keep looking out the window and marveling at the contrast between in here and out there. Out there everything is saturated and sloppy. In here we’ve got green plants and walls the color of desert sand. We’ve got a fire in the stove and hot coffee in our mugs. We’ve got warm lights and woolen blankets.

Even though I’m venturing outside most days, it’s the time of year when the bulk of my time is indoors. I go outside to be reminded of life beyond these four walls, to be inspired by the fresh air, the beauty, and the expansiveness of it all, but I return to the softness of shelter, to the familiarity and comfort of domesticity, to slow stews and warm beverages, to books, writing, and music.

These darkest days of winter are a restorative time after the intensity of summer’s non-stop daylight. Understanding this dark time as a balancing force rather than thinking of it as a dreaded phase to endure is necessary for me, especially now that we’re past the winter solstice but still have four months of winter ahead of us. Now I can begin to track my energy’s return in step with the light’s return, even as winter continues on.

Already I sense the slightest change in direction. We’ve gone into the darkness and we’re moving out of it now. For the next month and a half it will be a slow progression, but then it will accelerate. By mid-February I’ll be astonished by how fast the days are gaining light. By March the sun will shine well into the evenings and sometimes, if there are no clouds and the conditions are just right, it will feel warm against our skin. Our friends who’ve invested in solar panels will see a dramatic uptick in their electrical production with both the intensity of the sun itself and it’s reflection off of the snow. In early April the birch, alder, and willow buds will begin to swell, the squirrels will start zipping between spruce trees and our old dogs will chase them, but perhaps not as enthusiastically as they once did. We’ll hear reports of bear tracks in the melting snow. Our driveway will thaw and for a few weeks we’ll have to walk to and from the house in our mud boots.

Some years we still have snow on the ground in early May, but even if that’s the case our garden is planted by Memorial Day. This is something we can count on, something we can plan for, something we can hold on to when winter seems impossibly long. After the garden goes in, it’s full-throttle summer for three months. It’s foraging, fishing, weeding, watering, harvesting, hiking, and camping. It’s hosting company, tending late night fires with friends, dropping dead tired into bed while it’s still bright outside and getting up the next morning to do it all again. Those three months are the yang to the yin of this darkness.

Our coffee table is covered with gardening books and soon the seed catalogs will show up in our mailbox. Already we’re thinking ahead to what we want to grow this summer and considering how we’ll fill each of our garden beds. We’re planning how we want to use our limited time off of work to maximize our summer days. But still, thankfully, there’s time for sitting in the rocking chair in front of the wood stove, time for sipping tea and listening to music. There’s time for writing and reflecting and reading. There’s time to imagine the things we long to create.

Now, a couple of hours after I first sat down to write, the fog is clearing. The low, wispy gray clouds are moving fast on the breeze and behind them the sky is brightening into shades of yellow and pink. I want to step away from my computer and move around a bit. Up until now winter has been about recovery, but now that we’ve crossed through the darkest of days everything feels possible again. It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself for thousands upon thousands of years, yet every time I experience it, it seems new. Every year it feels like a miracle.

Taken just after writing this post. 12/26/2021

*top photo taken from Bishop’s Beach on Winter Solstice

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Five-Acre Almanac: Natural Forces

Week 20

All week long I’ve been thinking about what to write for this week’s blog post. I’d assumed it would have something to do with winter solstice since that’s the predominant natural force in the northern hemisphere right now. As is normal though, I wasn’t sure how I was going to write about it. After all, what more is there to be said about the winter solstice? It’s the darkest time of year. It’s been observed and celebrated for thousands of years in one way or another. It’s a time to slow down, go inward, and embrace the absence of light.

I was thinking about all of this as I was sitting at the kitchen table last night labeling packages of a tea blend that we’d put together earlier in the day. We named this particular blend Dandecalm because it is a blend of wild chamomile and dandelion roots and it’s got a calming effect on both the gut and the emotions. And at the time, all was calm.

Dean was relaxing on the couch after a week of fighting a cold and we were listening to our go-to, deep-chill record Where the Spirit Meets the Bone by Lucinda Williams. The house was tidy and comfortable. The Christmas lights added to the coziness. Things were winding down after a full day and we were sipping herb tea and starting to think about turning in for the night and then it happened.

An explosion. Flying glass.

I hit the floor and in a flash my mind covered all the worst case scenario possibilities. Natural gas explosion (we don’t have natural gas here). Random shooter taking aim at us through our back window. Propane tank explosion. Avalanche of snow falling off the roof and breaking through the back window.

Dean jumped up from the couch and saw me on the floor and also imagined all kinds of terrible things. Once he established that I was okay he grabbed a flashlight and headed toward the back door to investigate. Once I felt reasonably sure that we weren’t under attack I picked myself up and started looking around too. Glass shards littered the floor but all of our windows were still intact. Then I noticed liquid dripping from the kitchen counter and the smell of something fruity and sour.

Kombucha.

Fermentation, it turns out, is capable of incredible destruction.

Looks benign.

Over the summer we were too busy to keep up with our kombucha, but a couple months back Dean started it up again and made a red currant/ginger blend. The SCOBY seemed weak after months of neglect and we had our doubts that it would work. Still though, he bottled it up and gave it a chance to do its thing. We checked one of the bottles a few weeks ago and it was flavorful but flat, no carbonation at all. We figured we’d have to throw it out but just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

Our house typically runs cool, hardly ever getting above the low 60s and dipping down into the mid 50s at night, but with all the snow we’ve had recently we’re experiencing a rare phase in which our house is insulated and warm. For the past couple of weeks we’ve been staying steady in the 60s at night and going as high as the low 70s during the day. These balmy temperatures may be what launched the kombucha into action. It’s hard to say for sure. But whatever the cause, we are lucky it didn’t cause us bodily harm. Had one of us been in the kitchen when its pressure could no longer be contained within the confines of its pop-top bottle, it could have been bad.

With our adrenaline fully kicked in, we spent the next hour and a half trying to clean up all the glass. We found it everywhere, in everything, and will probably continue to find small shards of it into the foreseeable future.

We laughed a lot, out of relief that it was just kombucha and not something terrible or sinister. We laughed over imagining having to explain each other’s untimely death to our friends and family under such ridiculous circumstances. We laughed over the imagined conversations with EMS had one of us needed medical attention. We laughed because out of all the dangers in this world, our close call was from a healthy fermented drink.

Maybe there’s a way I could tie winter solstice and exploding kombucha together for the purposes of this blog, but my nerves are still on edge and I’m still a little too shaken up to stretch that far. For now I’m just thankful that all the flying glass missed me. Thankful that it missed Dean and the dogs too. I’m thankful that in this world where weird random accidents happen all the time, this one turned out to be nothing more than a big mess.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Expansive

Week 19

The place on the planet where our home sits is surrounded by wild. Beyond our front door there is a small yard with our garden but beyond that is a meadow and an elderberry grove. Further still is a spruce forest that’s home to moose, coyotes, black bears, lynx, owls, ermine, squirrels, porcupines, hares, spruce grouse, owls, and a host of other small animals. Sometimes a brown bear or a pair of wolves will wander through.

At the edge of the forest directly to the south of us, a bluff drops nearly 500 feet down to Kachemak Bay. The 40-mile long arm that juts out of lower Cook Inlet and cuts a groove into the landmass of the Kenai Peninsula is the lifeblood of our community. It’s alive with fish and seabirds and marine mammals and is in a state of constant motion, keeping time with the moon’s gravitational pull.

On the other side of Kachemak Bay are the Kenai Mountains. At 3000-5000 feet, they aren’t as tall as some, but they’re steep and jagged and the light shines on them differently depending on the time of year, the time of day, whether or not it’s cloudy or clear, dry or humid. There are glaciers too, that spill down from the Harding Ice Field. We see Dixon and Portlock from here, and the iceberg dotted lake that flows out of Grewingk. We have a bird’s eye view of where the lake’s silty stream braids out of the valley and mixes into the bay.

We can’t see the Gulf of Alaska on the other side of the Kenai Mountains, but it’s with us nonetheless. It sends us warm air and high winds on occasion, and sometimes, like this week, deep snow.

Out our back yard and to the north there is a stand of cottonwood trees and more spruce. The elevation rises. There are houses and roads, a school and a fire hall, but then the land goes on and up the peninsula, over hills and through wetlands to meet the 1.92 million acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, then on to more mountains, to giant lakes, to vast expanses of boreal forest.

There’s wild above us too, in the gases that make up our atmosphere, in the moon, the planets, the stars and all the space between them. And there’s the wild below our feet. Roots, dirt, worms, mycorrhiza, rock, the earth’s mantle, its core.

It’s easy to lose awareness of all the wild that surrounds us. We go to work. We get caught up in the tasks of living. We watch television. We lose ourselves in our striving, our obligations, our desires. We’re so focused on keeping our footing that we forget where we are. And in forgetting where we are, we forget who we are.

There is beauty to all of this wild, but the beauty goes beyond what can be captured in photos or words. There is deep truth in the design and the function of the natural world, and deep truth in how the design and function inform each other to create individual systems that work together as a whole. The default of the wild is interdependence. I don’t know how to portray that sort of thing, I only know that I want to learn the way of it all. I want to live with that kind of truth. I want to remember who I am.

So I step out into the cold with my snowshoes. I walk the same trail I’ve walked a hundred times. I touch the trunk of the old birch tree on my way down the meadow. I pluck a frozen highbush cranberry and hold its bitter earthy flavor on my tongue as I tromp through the spruce and alder woods. When I reach the other side of the trees I stop and look up from the snow. The mountains, the bay, the glaciers are before me. I hear the ocean’s churning. I’m aware of the cool air on my face and the warmth inside my down jacket.

The sun is low in the sky and it casts a golden glow. For a moment I am in a state that’s somewhere between remembering and forgetting, between who I’ve been and who I am still meant to become. Everything wild that surrounds me would exist without me, but in witnessing it I become wild too. It feels like belonging.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Feeling Reflective

Bishop’s Beach 12/02/2021

Week 18:

Sometimes writers need to write about writing and so that’s the subject of this week’s post. I think it fits with the Five-Acre Almanac theme because it’s a good part of what I do here. Writing makes me go through life differently than I would if I didn’t write. In that way it’s a part of who I’ve become, not so much because of the words on the page but because of how I move through my days searching, looking for connections, asking myself questions and trusting that there will be an opening. I’ve learned that once I go through that opening there will be surprises on the other side.

I felt compelled to start the Five-Acre Almanac posts at an unlikely time. It was August and besides going to work every day I was busy with party planning and gardening. In addition to the time constraints there was also the problem of planning. I didn’t have a fully fleshed-out road map or well-defined theme. The timing was all wrong, yet there was a persistence I couldn’t ignore that was telling me to start it anyhow. And so I did.

Now I’m eighteen weeks in and enough time has passed that I can reflect on the experience of showing up and writing each week. When I started out I had a personal goal of doing this for a year, but I didn’t want to put that in writing because I wasn’t sure if I could follow through with such a commitment. I didn’t want to set myself up for failure and so instead of being specific in my goals, I remained vague about how long I would be doing this.

My determination to meet my goal of showing up here every week has been solid, and that’s new for me. I seem to be able to work through my self-doubt and trepidation in ways I haven’t in the past. That’s not to say I don’t experience both or that I’m not continually talking myself out of giving up, but there’s a drive that keeps me going. I’m working on identifying what’s fueling that drive.

Why am I doing this? Why am I staying committed to it? Why does it matter so much to me?

Writing reflects who I am more honestly than anything else in my life, at least when I’m doing it right and not falling into the trap of writing for praise or for profit. This week when I was driving into town and I was asking myself some of these questions, these words came to me:

“Your job is not to impress.”

This left me wondering, what is my job then? The answer that came to me, which might be different than the answer that comes next time, is that my job for now is to show up.

When we commit to a relationship with another person, we have no way of anticipating the hardships and joys that we’ll face with them. When we commit to a job, we don’t know all of the challenges that will arise. When we commit to any kind of practice, we don’t know what’s going to be there for us on the other side or what we’re going to learn along the way.

Writing each week for the Five-Acre Almanac is the same way. I don’t know what it is supposed to be. I don’t know what it’s supposed to become. I only know that whatever I’m meant to discover along the way will only be discovered if I show up, if I honor the commitment I made to myself when I started.

I made this evolving project a public one, which is both motivating and terrifying. Motivating because I push myself to do better than I would if I were just writing in my journal. Terrifying because my uncertainty about what this is meant to be is on display.

“Your job is not to impress.”

Then what is my job here? What is the purpose of this self-imposed, public writing practice?

It is to get better at articulating the experience of being alive. Not because my experience is any more interesting or important than anyone else’s, but because language is the gift that gets me closer to articulating the experience than anything else I’ve discovered so far. And the experience of being alive is something to behold.

So I post here every week about something I’ve seen or done or witnessed in the natural world, and I try to tie it to something that is beyond myself. But like an iceberg, the part that is seen, the part that comes through in an 800-1000 word blog post is just a tiny piece of the bigger picture. Underneath there is a mass that includes everything else I’m trying to make sense of—my family, my hopes, my fears, my trying to understand the bigness of the world and my place in it, my gratitude, my uncertainty about the future, the terrible unfairness and hardship that exists right alongside so much beauty and wonder.

I turn to the natural world with all the questions that make up the entire iceberg of my existence, and the answers reveal themselves outside of the realm of language. The Five-Acre Almanac posts are my attempt to tune myself in to whatever it is that I’m meant to learn and turn a small piece of what I discover into words that make sense. The hope is that the writing will surprise me.

***

Scruffy.
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Five-Acre Almanac: Temporary

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Week 17

When my children were young and the three of us spent our days at home together we had a dog named Porter. He was gentle and goofy and could not be left alone for a moment. Because he was never out of sight, we were witness to all of his antics including his attempts at hunting voles. He caught them on occasion and when he did he was as surprised by his conquests as we were. Sometimes he swallowed them whole before anyone yelled for him to let go, and if it wasn’t too late he’d open his mouth and the rodent would leap out and escape to freedom. One time though the vole dropped to the ground, dead.

Upon picking it up I discovered that the dead rodent was female, and under the thin skin of her belly there was motion. Without fully thinking it through I brought it inside, plopped it on a cutting board and performed a c-section in front of my children. This wasn’t an attempt to save the baby voles, it was a chance to see something that we don’t normally get to see.

It wasn’t until I’d extracted the babies and put them in a box with some straw that it occurred to me that I’d set my children up to watch the animals die. The kids were already attached to the tiny pink squirming bodies and were rooting for their survival, even arguing over what to name them before I realized what I’d done.

My thought was to tuck the box away and let the infant voles die while nobody was watching, but the kids wanted to keep them nearby and check on them frequently. I explained how in nature small mammals need things that only their mothers can give them and that the cow’s milk in our refrigerator was not an adequate substitute for their mother’s milk. I reminded them that the tiny creatures hadn’t even been born yet and that their hearts and lungs might not even be fully developed. I did my best to prepare them for the inevitable.

I suggested removing the mice from the box and taking them outside and finding a place for them to die in the grasses, but neither child agreed to that plan. In the end we put the box on the coffee table and for a few hours we checked on them until one by one their bodies became motionless. Then we took them outside, along with the body of their mother, and buried them.

All of this took place before Dean got home from work. When he returned and asked about their day they told him how Porter had killed the mama vole and how I had cut it open and found live babies and then we put them in a box and then after a while they all died and we buried them. It was all very matter-of-fact. They were not visibly traumatized by the experience as I’d feared they might be.

This story came back to me today seemingly out of nowhere, the way that memories often do. Maybe it’s because it’s Thanksgiving and I’m feeling nostalgic and I’m inviting the memories of those little kids to come around. They remind me of how this house has a history that’s rich in spite of its need for upgrades and improvements. Our family’s stories give our home value that transcends the real-estate market, at least to us.

Somewhere out there in our yard in the ground there’s a spot where the earth has reclaimed the cross we made out of Popsicle sticks and the voles that didn’t survive our dog all those years ago. Our beloved dogs Porter and Nyack are buried closer to the house under a big spruce tree, not far from where the crocus flowers come up each spring.

This isn’t a sad thing. There’s intimacy in having lived in a place long enough for our stories to be a part of the landscape. And there were stories here before we ever arrived on the scene. Bob and Doris, the homesteaders who moved here before there were roads and electric lines, sold these five acres to Harley and Betty who built the house and lived here for twenty years before we came along. There are those too, who must have passed through and taken shelter on this land long before any of us parceled up the place and claimed ownership.

We can draw up papers and build houses and put up fences, but it’s good to remember that our time here is temporary. Our stories may live on after we’re gone or they may be reclaimed by the earth. Either way, this land belongs as much to the people who are yet to come as it does to us. Remembering this is humbling and beautiful. It connects us to something ongoing and perpetual. It gives us a reason to question the things we’ve come to think of as normal. It allows us permission to do better.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Illumination

Week 16:

Most weeks I’m able to work from home on Thursdays. That was that case this past week which was lucky for me because the moon was full and the skies were clear and I was able to adjust my work schedule around the moonrise. All week long I’d been seeing photos of the moon on the eastern horizon against the Kenai Mountains and I had a hankering to be out there and witness its ascent myself. The moon was due to rise around 4:30pm and the sun was due to set just a little while later. I don’t know what the temperature was, but if I had to guess I’d say it was somewhere around zero.

If I could go back in time and tell my eighteen year-old self that one day I’d be a woman who would plan her day around the moonrise, eighteen year-old me would surely be worried. Tracking the moon was not the sort of thing that seemed normal to me back then and if I’d met anyone who wanted to talk to me about such things I would have thought they were wacky, possibly a little bit unhinged and spooky.

What was normal to me as an eighteen year old was an accumulation of what I’d experienced up to that point which involved small town sports, hours and hours of television sitcoms, lots of pop music, going back and forth between two blended families in two Western Colorado towns, and attending Pentecostal church services every week. Those were the things on the surface.

There were deeper things I was wrestling with too, things that didn’t add up. I’d witnessed hands-on healing, people speaking in tongues and dancing in the spirit, and had heard all kinds of biblical interpretations of current events. I’d had my heart broken already by a boy and by life circumstances and by the false notion that we are not worthy of any of the grace we’ve been given. I lived in fear of never finding love, of the impending apocalypse, of not being able to make it on my own.

I’d heard that there were women out there who concocted strange brews and gathered around fires during a full moon, but the thought of them made me nervous and so I didn’t allow them to take up any space in my imagination.

On Thursday when I made a pot of herb tea for my thermos and went outside to start a fire so that I could stay warm while watching for the moonrise, I wasn’t thinking so much about my eighteen year-old self. I was thinking instead about the practicalities of my situation. Both of my dogs were cold and wanted to go back in the house. I’d started work early that day and hadn’t yet figured out a plan for dinner. While I worked without gloves to get the paper and cardboard and kindling set up just right before I lit the match, the cold worked its way into my fingers. After the fire caught and started throwing heat I realized that from where I was standing I wouldn’t be able to see the point on the horizon where the moon was going to make its appearance.

The fire danger is low this time of year so it was fine to leave the fire in search of a better vantage point for viewing the moonrise. I tromped past the old birch tree and the chicken coop and turned north and east. I kept an eye out and soon a portion of the moon became visible. A stand of cottonwood trees stood between me and an unobstructed view, but the light was impressive the way I knew it would be.

Seeing the moon on the horizon never gets old. I love the persistent trick of the brain that makes it look bigger against the mountains than it does overhead. It’s a reminder that there are things we know to be true that can’t fully be explained. It’s a reminder that what is and what we perceive aren’t always the same thing.

While the size of the moon on the horizon might have been an illusion, my cold fingers were not. After a few minutes of moon gazing I let the short haired dog back into the house and made my way back to the fire. From there I thought about what to cook for dinner and watched the sun grow larger as it dipped toward the ocean. I warmed my hands and sipped my tea and stayed long enough to see Venus and Jupiter come to light.

It wasn’t until I was back in the house and cutting up potatoes that I thought of my eighteen year-old self. She sneaks into my awareness sometimes like a phantom and asks me to forgive her for being shallow and lost and afraid. She asks me for love and reassurance and for a reason to dream. She asks me to light the way forward, and so I do. I give her the sun and the moon and the stars. I build a fire and keep it burning.

photo by Dean Sundmark
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Five-Acre Almanac: The Rooster Years

Week 15:

Yesterday our rooster died. It happened sometime between when I brought the chickens some water around 11:00am and when I went back around 4:30 to shut them in for the night. I found him on the floor of the coop, close to the feeder, perfectly still, still warm. He lived through six Alaskan winters and didn’t have it in him to make it through another one.

In all the years we’ve kept chickens he was our only rooster. I never gave him a name and each summer around the solstice when he’d start crowing at 4:00am I’d grow weary of his voice piercing through the quiet every fifteen minutes like a persistent snooze alarm, but still I grew attached. He was beautiful to look at and the seriousness with which he took himself amused me to no end. While I don’t have any hard evidence, I think the flock was healthier with him around. He was protective and unafraid to speak his mind if the feeder ran out of food or if he spotted an intruder. His last valiant effort was in early October. I heard him sounding the alarm from a thicket of spindly spruce and when I went out to see what the ruckus was all about I found a Northern goshawk perched in the chicken pen. From his safe space the rooster sent out a warning cry that sent all the hens running for cover. With a little coaxing from Dean and I, the hawk moved on and in time the chickens found their way back to to coop. That was the end of the chickens’ free ranging for the year, and as it turns out, the rooster’s last foray out into the wild.

The year we got the rooster, which was an accident, was the same year we planted a garden in our front yard. Dean used a pile of pallets and made six 4’x4’ raised beds within feet of our front door. Although we’d gardened off and on before that, moving the garden to a location that demanded our attention was a game changer. The next year he added another three 2’x4’ beds even closer to the house. We made a temporary fish-net fence around the front yard garden to keep the chickens and the moose out, but as these things go, the temporary fence is still in place.

A couple years after the front yard garden went in, Dean built a small greenhouse off the back of our chicken coop. He used old windows and a used sauna door that our friend Robert found at the dump. In addition to creating a space for us to grow warmer weather crops, it made it so the chicken coop warms up by a few degrees on a sunny day, and it blocks the south wind that used to seep through the cracks.

The summer after the greenhouse was built, we cut a trail through the lower portion of our property. Starting from the chicken coop/greenhouse, the trail cuts downhill through a thicket of wild roses and ferns to a small spruce forest. When we first moved in, three old spruce trees dominated the area, but within two years the spruce bark beetles came through and killed them. They stood tall and dead for several years, but one by one wind storms knocked them over. Dean and our brother-in-law Joel milled one of the original old trees into lumber that we’ve used for various projects around here. The other two are slowly rotting back into the earth. Now the spruce that were young enough to survive the beetles have grown tall.

After the forested area, the trail comes out into a meadow and turns west. Those first few years after the trail was built we found morel mushrooms in the springtime in that transition zone where the forest turns into the meadow, usually on the south side of a particular small spruce tree. We haven’t been so lucky the last few times we’ve looked but like our old dog Porter who once caught a mouse and for the remainder of his days looked in the same spot every time he passed by in hopes of it happening again, we’ll probably continue to look for morels under that same tree every spring for as long as we’re able to walk the trail.

Where we once found a morel

The trail turns north toward the house again after a hundred or so yards of walking west through the meadow. It winds up through a thicket of wild elderberries that once entered feels otherworldly and is completely private. It’s protected from wind and it’s a space that could be inhabited by fairies, black bears and moose. In the years since we’ve cut a trail through, wild raspberries have moved into the edges to take advantage of the light, and as you move up the hill the stinging nettle becomes more prominent. We spend hours picking nettle along the trail in the early part of summer, and we dry it and store it in glass jars on our pantry shelves to use through the winter months.

One of many elderberry trees

Yesterday after I found the rooster lying dead on the floor of the chicken coop I came in the house and made myself a cup of nettle tea. It’s considered a tonic herb, which according to a study out of the Institute of Integrative and Complimentary Medicine in Zurich, Switzerland means that it has the ability to promote the physiological functioning of an organ system, leading to the subjective feeling of well-being of the patient treated with it.

I sat and treated myself to the hot, earthy, chlorophyll-rich tonic and thought about the rooster’s years with us. I stoked the fire and looked out at the moon, half illuminated and reflecting off the bay. I thought about the hens out there in the coop, wondering which one will claim the highest perch now that the rooster is gone. He was noisy and had a big presence and I imagine it will take a few days for them to sort out their new pecking order. It will take some time to get used to all the newfound space and quiet now that he’s gone.

Old guy
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Five-Acre Almanac: Oil to the Engine

Week 14:

Late Friday afternoon on my lunch break I took a walk on the beach. I only had twenty minutes so I set the timer on my phone for ten minutes and walked one direction until the alarm sounded, then turned back. The tide was just a foot or so below its highest point of the day and I followed the line of driftwood and seaweed that the sea had recently deposited. I’ve walked on the beach several times over the past few weeks, but most days it’s been overcast. On this particular day the sky was blue and the sun was bright and reflecting off the water. When sunlight hits your retinas it sends a signal to your brain to produce serotonin, but even without the technical explanation all that light felt like medicine.

After reading To Speak for the Trees last week I was eager to learn more from the author Diana Beresford-Kroeger and I searched online to see what was available. I found a podcast called “For the Wild” produced by Ayana Young that has Diana Beresford-Kroeger as a featured guest. The two women cover a lot of ground in the interview, but one of the asides that Ms. Beresford-Kroeger offers has to do with kelp. Those of the Fucus species she said, when rubbed against the skin, give the body a boost. This was an old Celtic traditional health practice that can now be explained in scientific terms. Bladderwrack is the common name for our local Fucus species and it has inflated bladders that are filled with a water soluble mucilaginous substance that’s loaded with all kinds of lipids, amino acids, vitamins and minerals, one of which is iodine that helps regulate the thyroid. According to Beresford-Kroeger, rubbing the substance into the skin is like “adding oil to an engine” and makes everything run more smoothly.

Strolling along the tide line with all the washed up kelp at my feet I scanned for Bladderwrack even though it’s not the right time of year for harvesting it. Most of what I saw was bull kelp (nereocystic luetkeana) that had rolled onto shore with recent storms, along with plenty of other species I’m not familiar with yet. While I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the wild plants that grow on land around here, the plants of the sea are new territory. For once my focus at the beach was not just on rocks.

Almost every time I leave the beach I’ve got one or two rocks in my pocket. I collect them for reasons that are beyond reason. Sometimes I imagine using them to border a garden bed but most often there is just a compulsion to pick them up, feel their smooth contours, admire their individuality. The concept of infinity is difficult to fathom, but the rocks on the beach in all their various shapes, colors, sizes, and compositions inch me closer to understanding. To give my attention to one rock out of the millions, billions, trillions that are available, is a study in singularity. Occasionally I try to imagine the geological and geographical journeys a rock has been on and even though I can’t really, just the trying puts time in a whole different perspective. A twenty minute walk, a work day, a week, a month, a year, a decade, a century, a millennium. For those of us that are fleshy and prone to decomposition, time is not the same thing as it is for a rock. Maybe this is why my windowsills are lined with them.

After my twenty minute walk on the beach I went back to the library to finish out my work day. When six o’clock rolled around and it was time to leave I discovered that my phone was missing. The last place I’d used it was at the beach when my ten minute alarm went off. It wasn’t quite dark yet, so I decided to head back to the beach to retrace my steps, but as I was pulling out of the library parking lot and saw the police station directly across the street I figured it wouldn’t hurt to stop in to see if anyone had turned it in.

I told the attendant at the front desk that I’d lost my phone at the beach and she asked my name. Within minutes of noticing they were gone my phone and the case I keep it in that contains various cards and my driver’s license were back in my hands.

It was a small thing in the big scheme of things, to be lucky that way. Lucky that the tide had been high when my phone fell out of my pocket, lucky that the person who found it was kind enough to turn it in, lucky that my hunch to check the police station saved me from a fruitless search at the beach.

If I’d lost my phone forever, along with my driver’s license and cards, it would have been disrupting and a hassle, but I’d still consider myself lucky. I think about this in terms of the times we’re living in. Every time I read the news or spend much time on social media I am reminded of all the ways I could spend my time fretting. But I am alive. There is always more to learn, more to consider. There are an infinite number of relationships to cultivate—with people, with plants, with the ocean, with the seasons, with the elements. The possibilities for expansion and wonder are limitless and learning to look at life this way is a kind of medicine. It’s like adding oil to the engine.

***

Photos: Sunday afternoon, unexpected brush cutting/burning/rejuvenating.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Here and Now

Fresh snow and low angle sun on the trail to the chicken coop.

Week 13

Yesterday when it was raining buckets outside, we cozied up our living room. We pulled all the furniture aside and vacuumed the dust and dog hair out of the corners. We took everything off the bookshelves, wiped them down and reordered all the books. We dealt with the pepper plants that had been in our south-facing window by moving some to a cool dark place where they can be dormant for a while, putting a few under a grow light to finish up, and harvesting one that was loaded with tiny hot red fruits.

We cleaned off all the horizontal surfaces, dusted off the house plants and the instruments, moved the couches around, and sorted through a bunch of old magazines. Then we pulled out an extra lamp and a few more candles. We’re in for a long stretch of darkness and my compulsion to do this deep cleaning and comfort making comes from having experienced many long winters in Alaska. Borrowing the term from the Danish, we call this time of year hygge-season and with equal measures of self-preservation and gratitude we fully embrace it.

Having a warm and snug home is something we don’t take for granted, especially since both Dean and I regularly meet people whose living situations are much more tenuous than our own. Our home is small by today’s middle class standards and it needs about a million upgrades, but when we look out at the trees being tossed about in the wind and hear the rain pelting the windows, we feel wealthy in our green-carpeted living room with our wood stove thumping and a pot of chili simmering in the dutch oven.

I read a book this week called To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest. The author, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, now in her seventies, is a renowned botanist and biochemist who went into her formal education after having first been schooled in traditional Celtic knowledge that had been passed on to her by a community of Irish relatives after both of her parents died. Much of her work as a scientist has been driven by what she learned about the natural world through stories and plantlore on the hillsides of Ireland as a young girl.

Reading the book made me wish I could go back in time and walk through wild places with my ancestors. It made me wish for long hearthside afternoons with my grandmothers and their mothers and those even further back. If I could, I’d keep a record of all the little tidbits of information they must have had about plants and people and keeping home and getting by. Plus it would be fun to know them, these random people who came together from so many different places in such a way that made my existence here and now a possibility.

I imagine my life is so very different than theirs must have been, driving thirteen miles a day to town for a job, flipping a switch to make the lights come on, buying food that was grown in one place, processed in another, and shipped a thousand miles so that I can have the convenience of not cooking something from scratch if I don’t feel like it. I’m sure the number of choices we have in our daily lives—what to eat, what to watch, what to wear, what to listen to, what to read—would overwhelm them. I wonder if they would celebrate the number of choices we have or if they’d worry about our sanity. Probably a little of both.

I like to think about the things I can still learn from those in my family that I did have the privilege of knowing. My slow moving nature came straight from my dad and sometimes when I’m moving from one task in the garden to the next I imagine his commentary and advice. When I’m at my desk writing, I think of my Grandma Acree who was studious and thoughtful and always careful with her words. When I’m looking at the jars of herbs in my pantry wondering what I’m meant to do with them all, I think of my Granddad Acree, autobody repairman by trade, who in the final decade of his very long life took a deep dive into learning about alternative healing practices and herbalism. When I’m feeling scattered and overwhelmed, I think of my Grandma Ross and the gentle way she moved through her days, grounded in her unwavering faith.

Life on Earth changes continually, but there are still a few things that our ancestors experienced that we can experience too, and it makes sense that one way to know those who came before us is to get to know aspects of the natural world that they must have known. We can watch a storm brewing the way they did. We can walk a dirt path through the forest. We can dip our toes into cold running water. We can eat some of the foods they ate.

In To Speak for the Trees, Diana Beresford-Kroeger writes that medicine men and women of ancient and modern Indigenous cultures call wild food “bush food” and they understand that when people stop eating bush food, they lose their health. Then she goes on to state that “wild foods of all kinds, from untainted, pure, genetic sources, have a phytochemical regulation system that modern science is just now trying to understand.”

Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s discussion of “bush food” confirmed to me something that feels instinctual. Food that is foraged, that is freely given from the earth, has value that goes beyond caloric intake and wonderful flavors. Wild food can serve as a link to our ancestors. It can connect us to the wild, biological, animal side of ourselves. It can restore our health on more than just a physical level.

The possibilities are enough to inspire me to get outside and pick another bucketful of rose hips and to keep adding dried nettle to every kind of soup and sauce that I make. It’s enough to keep me tossing a few wild blueberries into my pancake batter and to keep experimenting with all the wild plants we collected and dried throughout the summer. Brewing things up, trying things out and pouring through books on how to use all of these plants is the perfect thing to do now, in this season between harvest and winter solstice. With any luck we’ll have a few gifts worth giving at Christmastime. After that we’ll be looking at seed catalogs and plotting next year’s garden.

Right now though I’m not going to think about all of that. I’m going to go outside and enjoy the break in the weather, then I’m going to come in, make a cup of tea and settle in for the evening. It’s the season for settling and I’m ready.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Good Time

Week 12

I’ve been thinking about time this week. This started because Monday was Alaska Day, which meant that I got an extra day added onto my weekend. I spent most of the day alone at home. I wrote in my journal. I spent some time in the garden mulching and picking carrots. I even made a batch of cottonwood salve. Because the house was already clean and I’d already written my blog post for the week and I didn’t have to go to work, the day had enough space in it for me to follow my whims and do whatever I felt like doing. I even let myself imagine what my life would be like if I had more days like that. Would I squander my time if I were suddenly given more of it or would I make good use of it? And what does it mean to make good use of time?

When I was a kid it was pointed out to me more times than I care to remember that I was slow. I didn’t know how to use time wisely. I was the slowest to get the chores done, the slowest to get ready for church on Sunday mornings, the slowest to get my thoughts sorted out before speaking, the slowest one in the bathroom I shared with my older sisters. In general I was the slowest at everything and was reminded of it often. I dawdled. I lollygagged. I putzed around. It hurt to be labeled that way, especially in the context in which it was usually delivered, but it was true.

The truth is that slowness suits me and it’s unfortunate that as a child I was given the message that moving through life in a lower gear was somehow bad. It means that I’ve had to learn how to make peace with this fundamental trait of mine and I’ve had to forgive myself for not being able to fit as many things into a day as some of the people around me. I’ve also had to quiet that inner voice that is always criticizing, always hurrying, always comparing. In a society that measures success in terms of productivity, I’ve had to remember that there’s value in just being.

As part of my practice of spending at least twenty minutes outside each day I’ve been taking the opportunity to sit beside the old birch tree in our yard when I have time in the mornings, or go to the beach on my lunch break, or stand out in the dark for a while and gaze at the stars. Originally my goal was to be outdoors in order to get some fresh air and to add some variety to my days during this time of year when it’s easy to spend so much time inside, but as valuable as the fresh air and change of scenery are, I’m learning that they are greatly enhanced when I place the emphasis of the experience on the being itself. The temptation is to multitask—make phone calls, exercise, write in my journal—anything to make me feel like I’m making good use of my time outside. But multitasking would only diminish the moment. What I need is to be. Where I need to be is outside. At least for a while every day.

I’ve only been deliberate about being outside for a while each day for a couple of weeks, but it’s something I’d be wise to continue. When I’m feeling hurried or overwhelmed I have a still point to reference and that still point comes to me even when I’m not intentionally trying to summon it. There’s also an unexpected sense of intimacy that comes with surrendering my thoughts and ambitions for a few moments to nature. Even when I’m alone I don’t feel alone.

Then there are the gifts that are not necessarily given as much as they are received simply because I’ve put myself in a state to receive them. Like the silence of morning before the neighborhood gets busy. Like the cool and damp air settling on my face at dawn. Like the seal that popped up to say hello a few feet away from me at Bishop’s Beach on my lunch break. Like the three shooting stars I saw the other morning because I happened to be out and looking up at the right time.

The automatic response to these kinds of gifts is gratitude, and the beauty of gratitude is that it has the ability to push aside desire. For a while I’m not thinking about the things I want to get done or the ways I wish society would change or the time I wish I had. I can’t help but think that this is how time is meant to be spent. Free of wanting, deep in gratitude.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Winter Ready

Week 11

Today has been a chicken-soup sort of Sunday. The two inches of snow that we woke up to is turning to slush in the rain and while that’s the sort of weather that’s not welcome in January, I’m just fine with it in October. Most likely we’re going to have plenty of snow for several months and I’m not in any hurry for it to pile up. Plus I’d still like to rake some leaves and dried grasses to store in the greenhouse for chicken coop bedding.

Birch tree in full yellow

Earlier this week I started making a plan for myself for the winter. I don’t typically get depressed or experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but that’s not to say that six-month long winters aren’t hard. It doesn’t hurt to go into the season with a few intentions.

One thing I’m going to do is try to get outside every day for at least twenty minutes. I realize this doesn’t sound like much, but it can be tricky when it’s dark before and after work. And it’s so easy to be a wimp when it’s super cold, or raining sideways, or when everything is covered in a sheet of ice, or when the snow is too deep, or when it’s just gray and dreary and I’d rather be inside by the wood stove. But I always feel better with fresh air and often it’s not as bad outside as it looks like it’s going to be. And even when it is bad, I think it’s good to experience a little weather now and then. It can wake me up, shift my energy, change my mood.

Same birch, a day earlier.

The next tool I’m going to use to help me through winter is yoga. I’ve tried doing yoga in the mornings but between a cold house, demanding dogs, and a job I have to go to, evenings work best. It feels good to put on some music and stretch out on the floor in a cozy living room after a long work day, and it almost always leads to a good night’s sleep. I’ve done this for the past couple of winters and now it’s a part of the dark season I look forward to.

One of the simplest and most satisfying aspects of recent winters has been incorporating the food and herbs that we’ve grown or foraged during the summer into our daily lives. Whether it’s adding black currants to our oatmeal, drinking a cup of nettle tea in the afternoons, or simmering garlic and hot wax peppers in chicken broth for a good long time like we did today, we’re able to take in good Jing from the garden with nearly every meal. It’s satisfying and nourishing on a deep level. It keeps us feeling connected to our land during a time of year when it’s easy to fantasize about selling it all and moving down south to where winters are short and where a day’s light and darkness are more evenly balanced.

Fermenting carrots/good jing.

There are other things that help with winter. A couple of hours of standing around a fire pit with friends can reaffirm that we’re glad to live where we live. Taking Vitamin D regularly keeps us from wanting to sleep all the time. Music can change the atmosphere in the house, which is especially helpful during long, dreary stretches of being mostly indoors. And after the frenetic summer season I appreciate that winter offers time for deep dives into things more cerebral.

Midday fire in mid-October

I’ve been learning about herbs for the past couple of winters, and this year we’ve got a new one to try. Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen which means its main medicinal purpose is to assist the body in adapting to stress. According to Beverly Grey’s informative and comprehensive book The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North, it’s also supposed to help with fatigue and depression and can “bring relief to people who live in extreme climates.” In nature it grows in harsh alpine conditions and for the past four years we’ve had some that’s been growing and thriving in our dry and often-neglected hugelkultur bed. It takes a few years before Rhodiola is ready to harvest, but finally this fall it was time. We pulled its long and tentacle-like roots out of the soil, chopped it and dried it, and now for a month we’re going to engage in a little citizen science and drink a cup of it daily to see if we can see any noticeable effects.

Rhodiola rosea in a gloved hand

Rhodiola rosea’s roots are yellow and they smell like the wild Sitka roses that grow around here. The decoction that’s made from simmering the roots is rose colored with a mild citrus flavor. It’s a little dry too, like dry wine. Because it’s so tasty it would be easy to drink too much of it, which I think I might have done earlier in the week because for three nights in a row I woke up at 3:30am and had trouble going back to sleep. When I cut the amount of tea I was drinking in half I slept fine.

Learning about herbs from books is a good place to start, but I’m equally as interested in the traditions and stories that go along with them. Trying them out on myself is a lesson in paying attention to subtleties, asking questions, making adjustments, and still not knowing definitively if a specific herb is having a specific effect on me. But it seems like a good way to practice honing my intuition and getting to know specific plants. If I were truly committed to scientific testing I’d give up coffee and just drink the rhodiola tea to try to isolate its effects, but coffee is another thing that helps me through winter.

For now I’ll study the two together, and I’ll try to get enough sleep and exercise. I’ll try to consume plenty of good jing but hopefully not too much. I’ll keep showing up here every week too, because writing this feels like movement, like I’m heading somewhere new. And sharing it feels like I’m throwing out a net, gathering people to travel along with me for a while. I can’t have you all over for a cup of coffee or a pot of herb tea, but I can write you here. And when we’re done with our imaginary drinks we can put on our rubber boots and rain jackets and head out into the storm. I’d love nothing more than to show you around.

Morning tea beside the old birch, a day before the snow.
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Five-Acre Almanac: Good Jing

Week 10

Last night as Dean and I sat down to dinner it hit me that I need to clarify something. I write about our garden and the food we grow so much that it’s possible I’ve given the impression that we are food purists. We’re not. Life is busy and time is limited and sometimes we just want a frozen pizza or nachos or something that doesn’t take planning or effort. That’s how it came about that we invented the “dress that somebitch up” category of dinners at our house. They’re best on Fridays and basically the recipe looks like this:

1. Pick a record to listen to and put it on. (Look for one that will lift the energy, because you usually need a boost by the end of the work week.)

2. Find a pre-made pizza crust or quesadilla makings or a bag of tortilla chips. (A slice of white bread would work in a pinch.)

3. Heat the oven. (Usually to about 400 degrees)

4. In the time it takes to heat up the oven, put together something delicious and nutritious to add to item in step 2. (The goal is to add something with good Jing* every time.) (*I’ll try to explain what I mean by Jing further down.)

5. Add the results of step 4 to what you found in step 2.

6. Bake it until it looks ready. (We’ve learned that on a Friday night it’s good to set a timer so you don’t forget about it in the oven.)

7. Pull it out of the oven. (Be sure to turn the oven off!)

8. Let it rest for 2-3 minutes. (This is a good time to clear some space at the table.)

9. Slice it. Scoop it. Put it on a plate.

10. Eat. (It’s important to comment frequently and dramatically on how delicious your food is, and how clever you are to have dressed that somebitch up.)

11. Save the dishes for morning (Because you’re done with the work week.)

12. Pick another record. (Take the energy down just a notch.)

13. Make a pot of tea. (This is an opportunity to consume more Jing!)

This is what dinner looks like almost every Friday night at our house in the darker months. It started as a way to be easy on ourselves but it’s turned into a weekly celebration. We may be tired and in need of recharging by the time Friday evening rolls around, but we’re home, and we have two days ahead of us and during those two days we can be ourselves and pursue the things we love and work on the things we care most about.

Dean’s Kombucha has good Jing!

In certain Chinese traditions like Taoism, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi, there are three energies that sustain life. They’re called Jing, Qi, and Shen, and are known as the “Three Treasures.” My husband has been practicing Qi Gong and Tai Chi for nearly a decade, and while he’s introduced me to these ancient concepts it would take a lifetime of study to truly understand them.

On a very basic level, Jing* is the essence of a thing.

Merriam-Webster defines “essence” as the basic nature of a thing : the quality or qualities that make a thing what it is.

Imagine the potential that’s contained in a blueberry seed. If that seed is given what it needs—the right amount of water, proper soil, an ideal temperature, clean air, and time, then it can transform into what it is meant to become: a blueberry bush that grows beautiful, delicious berries. That transformation is an energetic process.

Once we consume the blueberry, the energy that was contained within it is converted into our own life’s energy. According to Taoist principles, the catalyst that turns the Jing from the berry into life energy, or Qi, is love.

Jing is the building material for Qi, but love is required in order for the transformation to take place. It’s going to take a while for me to wrap my mind around this.

The third of the Three Treasures is Shen, and I’m not sure how to write about it because it has to do with things I can’t quite put to words. It’s an energy that comes from the practice of moving the Qi energy. The movement of Qi creates the pathway for a kind of alchemy that converts the Qi into something beyond life energy. That something is Shen and it’s associated with Spirit, and our souls. It has to do with being connected to the food we eat, the air we breath, the soil, and water. It has something to do with love.

All of this is to try to explain Jing, which is the essence of food, fuel of our life force, and key to discovering the Divine, and to tell you how we incorporated it into our dinner last night after an exhausting work week.

Here’s the recipe:

1. We chose the record album “uh-huh” by John Cougar Mellencamp. (I checked it out from the library!)

2. Dean pulled the cauliflower crust pizzas we’d purchased from Save-U-More earlier in the week in anticipation of Friday night from the freezer.

3. I picked some King of the North red bell peppers that are growing in our living room now that the greenhouse is put away for winter.

4. I pulled a few yellow and red tomatoes out of the box in the pantry where they’re slowly ripening.

5. I peeled and and crushed four cloves of Vietnamese red garlic.

6. I chopped up part of the portobello mushroom I found last weekend near the chicken coop.

7. I sauteed the veggies and mushroom on medium heat for five or so minutes before I added three tablespoons of Concord grape shrub that I made last year from some grocery store grapes. Then I sprinkled on a pinch of salt.

8. After all the flavors melded together I spooned it onto the frozen pizza.

9. Then I baked it at 420 degrees for thirteen minutes.

10. I pulled it out of the oven and let it sit for a few minutes. While it sat I put this week’s mail into a pile that will be sorted later. I scooped the dandelion roots that have been drying all week on our kitchen table into a jar. I moved the crock of fermenting sauerkraut from the center of the table to the side.

11. Then we sliced the pizza and ate it.

12. We agreed that it was one of the best DTSB-up dinners so far. High in flavor. High in Jing. We ate a slice or two more than we really needed.

12. When we were done we made a pot of tea. (nettle, clover, dandelion root and chocolate mint)

13. We put on another record I brought home from the library. This time it was Retrospective: The Best of Buffalo Springfield. We listened to “For What It’s Worth” three times for the lyrics and “Bluebird” twice, once for the guitar and a second time for the banjo.

We sipped our tea and changed the music a few more times. We talked about what we want to accomplish over the weekend. We decided that it’s time to get the candles out, and the copper wire lights to string around the ficus tree. We left the dishes for later.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Never A Straight Line

Week 9

What I write and what I want to say don’t always come together easily, and yesterday was one of those days. Yesterday I sat writing on my couch for almost the entire day, and in the end I had fewer words than I started with. I’ve made a commitment to myself to post something every week, but I don’t want to write just for the sake of writing. I want to write something I like.

Yesterday I didn’t like my writing, and it felt like I was wasting time. As the day went on I grew increasingly frustrated and I was hard on myself, and while Dean worked to get a bunch of things crossed off of our to-do list and was infinitely patient with me sitting on the couch for hours writing, I felt guilty. Late in the evening I finally gave up. I’ve learned that trying too hard is counterproductive, and I was definitely at that stage. Today I’m starting over.

One of the many things Dean accomplished when I was writing.

Today is Sunday and the sky is mostly blue with a few wispy clouds. Our daughter called and I told her of my dilemma with writing yesterday and she said I should just go outside and work on something for a while and then write about it. So that’s what I set out to do.

I’ll start from the beginning.

After coffee, and my phone conversation with Adella, and a piece of toast, I decided it was time to go outside, but first I needed to change out of my sweat pants. When I went to put on some clothes I remembered that I needed to switch over a load of laundry, so I did that. I didn’t want to take the time to fold the clothes from the dryer so instead I took them to a chair in the spare bedroom. Out the window of the spare bedroom I saw a spruce grouse in our driveway, so of course I wanted to go get a photo of it.

I slipped on some shoes, grabbed my phone and went outside. I followed the spruce grouse around and managed to get a couple of pictures, but not good ones because my phone camera isn’t the best and the grouse kept moving. When I was about to come back in the house, two of my chickens showed up. These two particular hens have been perching outside at night lately, and they were locked out of the coop. So I went to unlatch the door so they could get in for some food. While I was there it made sense to check for eggs. There were four of them.

I didn’t have a bucket, so I put two eggs in the pockets of my sweatpants. As I was latching the chicken coop door I looked down on the outside of the coop. Two days ago Dean dug up a bunch of dirt from the chicken pen to add to one of our garden beds and I looked down at some of the holes he’d dug and found a giant portobello mushroom growing in a crevice. It was huge, and I had to get it, so I spent the next five or so minutes carefully extracting it. I carried it back to the deck, set it outside so the dirt on it could dry, brought the eggs in the house and remembered that I needed to start another load of laundry.

Soil rehab: Layering up with chicken coop dirt, straw, and grass clippings.

I finally got dressed and headed outside. It made sense to start with the greenhouse since it was warm. My task was to empty all the tomato and cucumber pots into the compost bin and stack the empty pots in our garage. As soon as I set the pots on the ground outside the greenhouse, the chickens flocked to eat the fresh chickweed that was growing in them. And because the chickens were enjoying their buffet I couldn’t empty the pots quite yet so decided to find something else to do for a while.

Sauerkraut is on my list of things to make today, so I went to the front yard garden and harvested some cabbage. We didn’t get a bumper crop of cabbage this year, but we did get two excellent heads, one purple and one green. Then I went to the back garden to pull some carrots that I’ll shred into the kraut. On my way to the carrot bed I noticed our chrysanthemum plant finally looks like it’s done for the season. We bought the plant from Strictly Medicinal earlier in the summer and they told us to give it a nice deep mulch before winter. So I went to find some straw. While I was at it I thought I might as well get enough for the lavender plants.

Dean started the lavender plants from seed last spring, and seven of them survived and are doing well. But depending on our winter, they may or may not make it. In addition to mulching them, I decided to dig one up, put it in a pot, and bring it in the house for the winter. All of that required finding some soil and a pot.

I got the soil and the pot and set them on the deck. Then I went to get the straw, but before I actually got the straw I saw some tall nettle plants that I decided to cut down so that I can extract some fiber from them later when I have more time. I cut the nettle plants, found a safe place to stash them, then got the straw.

I grabbed Dean’s hori hori knife for digging up the lavender plant. I mulched the plants I’d set out to mulch and dug up one of the seven lavender plants. But before I headed back to plant the lavender in its new pot I saw the two beds we harvested potatoes from the other day. They were empty and the soil was exposed and now that we’ve changed to no-till gardening I have this thing about exposed soil and I had to cover it up. So I used the hori hori and cut down a bunch of fireweed stalks and mulched those two beds. Then I remembered to pull some carrots for the sauerkraut.

That brings me up to right now, and after spending a whole day writing yesterday I can’t afford to put much more time into this post. I’ve still got sauerkraut to make and pots sitting out beside the greenhouse that need emptying. And as you might guess, the odds are high that I’ll find something that’s not on my list that I’ll want to get done.

Mushroom, cabbage, carrots, hori hori.
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Five-Acre Almanac: Fireweed #1

Week 8

When it comes to writing about fireweed, I’m not sure where to start. I could start by trying to describe how in this part of Alaska it colors the hillsides in magenta from mid July through the end of August. Or I could start with how it looks right now out our back window with its rust colored leaves alongside the green of the lilac bush and the yellow of the cottonwood trees.

I could start with the week in early summer when I caught a cold and couldn’t go to work for a few days. On my days at home I collected a few of last year’s fireweed stalks that were still standing and peeled the outermost layer of their stems and worked them until I had a fine golden fiber that I made into cordage. Or I could start with the tea we’ve started making out of fermented fireweed leaves.

It makes the most sense though to start with soil. Everything starts with soil it seems, but even the soil needs to start somewhere.

Growing up in Colorado I wasn’t familiar with fireweed, and the first time I learned about it was in 1988 when I was fighting fires in Yellowstone. The other woman on my 20-person crew told me how it was one of the first plants to come up on charred ground after a forest fire. At the time I didn’t know what it looked like, but I appreciated the role it played in bringing a place back to life after so much destruction. And I liked that its name and its purpose went together so nicely.

When we first moved to Alaska and lived in Eagle River I asked a neighbor what the tall plant on the side of the road was. She told me it was fireweed and that I’d need to be vigilant about pulling it out of the flower beds on the side of my house or it would take over. Then I had a baby and was anything but vigilant about the flower beds and the fireweed took over.

Now we live in a place that’s surrounded by well established fireweed colonies. This time of year when its seeds are dispersed with the wind, it lands on any exposed soil and settles in and readies itself for sprouting after the snow is gone. It spreads under the soil too, with rhizomes, and sends up delectable shoots that we collect sometimes to add to our spring greens. Its a plant that’s tenacious in its purpose and it would reclaim the space we’ve carved out for our garden in no time at all if we didn’t work to keep it back.

Two years ago a fire raged through the Cooper Landing area further north on the Kenai Peninsula, and twice this summer I drove past and witnessed the fireweed doing its job. In early July the ground under the charred trees was covered with short fireweed plants in full bloom. The second time I drove through in late August it was a sunny day and the cottony seeds were already drifting around in the breeze. It hadn’t grown tall and it had to complete its reproduction cycle with limited support from the soil, but it did it.

Soon it will all get knocked down by snow and all those plant parts will decompose into the ash. In the spring there will be organic matter for the new batch of seeds, and because there will be a bit more for those seeds to take root in next year than there was this year, those plants may be able to grow a little taller and last a little longer, and the cycle will repeat itself.

A few years ago we started raking fireweed stalks along with other dried plant material in the spring and keeping it piled up beside our compost pile. We layered it in as we added kitchen scraps and grass clippings and whatever other green material got tossed in. In the spring we’d sift the compost and add it to our garden beds.

Two summers ago when it was so hot and the fires were burning up north, we struggled to keep our garden watered. We don’t have a water source other than a well on our property and without any precipitation our rain barrels were empty. In addition to water being scarce, our soil lacked structure and the water drained right through. All of the compost we’d gone through the trouble of sifting wasn’t doing us a lot of good.

The following winter we read up on the subject of retaining water in the soil and decided to switch up the way we garden. Since then we’ve become no-till gardening converts and we obsessively keep the soil covered. We often use fireweed as our mulch because it’s here and readily available. The new shoots that want to come up in our garden beds get broken off and incorporated into the mulch blend, and the dried stalks from previous summers act as straw.

With just that simple change in how we garden the soil’s improvement has been remarkable. A peek beneath the mulch reveals a whole decomposition party going on. Now instead of the worms doing their work several inches down, they’re right at the surface of the soil tilling it up, breaking down whatever we add, and creating a living structure that holds moisture and nutrients.

There are many ways to use fireweed and I’m excited to write more about this amazing plant in future posts, but it’s good to remember that its best gifts have little to do with how we use it and more to do with how it exists. It’s a thing of beauty in all its stages. It heals the damaged places. It works to make the world a better place, whether we’re paying attention or not.

Garden bed tucked in for winter with fireweed straw on top

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Five-Acre Almanac: Mid-September

Week 7

It’s Wednesday night and finally after sitting on my couch bundled up in a blanket for an hour I decided to build a fire. There’s always some denial when the weather cools down to the point of needing a fire every day, but we crossed that threshold this week. I’m not sure if the denial is out of stubbornness, as there’s a certain amount of work in burning wood for heat and I’m not fully prepared to add that task into my daily life again, or if I’m just trying to hang on to summer as long as I can. Either way the house is cozy now with a fire crackling, and there’s comfort in knowing it won’t be frigid when we wake up in the morning.

Tonight, for the second time this week, we had trout for dinner. Last weekend Dean and Dillon borrowed a canoe and drove north to spend the day on a lake. Alongside the trout we had purple potatoes and sliced cucumber from the garden. I wasn’t expecting cucumbers, but a few pulled through for us despite the cool summer. We’ll have potatoes and carrots well into winter, but we’re in the last days of our zucchini. Clear skies are predicted over the weekend, which means we’re likely to get frost, which means we need to pick the peas, pull the green tomatoes off their vines, and pick as many of the herbs as we can and get them drying. The kale will be fine with a light frost, and the carrots will just get sweeter.

A few frosts will turn the rose hips bright red and we’ll be able to harvest them for several weeks, even after snow falls. A couple years ago I discovered that chickens love rose hips. I toss them a handful a couple times a week and hope that it gives them a healthy boost that will help them get through another long winter. Like heating the house with wood, keeping chickens through the winter in Alaska is work. It requires a bit of resolve to slog through rain, snow, and oftentimes ice in the dark for months at a time to make sure they have what they need. I find myself apologizing to them for having to be cooped up for so long and questioning my decision to keep them. Our seven year old rooster looks a little tired these days and last week one of his spurs fell off. I’m not sure what that means, but I have a feeling it means he might not have another winter in him.

There have been moments, usually around 4:00am in the middle of summer, when I’ve been frustrated by his wake-up calls. Overall though I’ve been happy to have him as part of the flock. Besides being handsome, he acts as spokesman when food runs low and crows hello when we get home from work. He sounds off when he sees one of our neighborhood eagles circling overhead or peering down from the top of a nearby spruce tree.

The nesting eagles have had their eyes on our chickens all summer. We had one close call, but so far we’ve had no eagle casualties this year. The area around the coop is better protected than it used to be now that the trees and foliage have grown in, and the chickens can easily take cover.

Unfortunately the cover didn’t protect them from the bears that came through when we were in Georgia for our daughter’s wedding. When we returned from our trip we found a door to the pen that had been torn from its hinges, eight piles of bear scat surrounding the coop, and two fewer hens than we had before we left. A neighbor told us that there had been a bear with cubs spotted walking down the road around that same time. We fully expected that they’d be back since they successfully acquired food from our place, but thankfully they haven’t returned. It would be bad for us and our chickens if they made a habit out of coming here, but ultimately it would be bad for the bears.

In addition to building a fire again every day, this week also marked the beginning of headlamp season. I dusted mine off and don it daily now when I take the dogs out in the mornings. It’s still light well into the evening, but the morning darkness comes on fast this time of year and I find it a little disorienting. I’ll wake up and have no sense of whether it’s 3:00am or 6:00am. Soon enough I’ll adjust, but right now when the time between sunrise and sunset is shorter by over five minutes each day, my internal clock is a little out of whack.

Living in Alaska where the movement from one season to the next is anything but subtle, I’ve learned to take notice of how my own waxing and waning throughout the year is tied to the earth’s journey around the sun. It’s true for the plants and for all the wild animals, and so of course it’s true for us too, but it’s easy to believe that our humanness makes us immune to the forces of nature. In the springtime when we’re gaining daylight, my energy levels are surprisingly high. This time of year though I’m tired and my mood tends toward melancholy.

Maybe it’s the angle of the sun and the way it filters through the yellows and reds of autumn that makes me feel this way or maybe it’s that I’m worn out after a fast paced summer. Either way I don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel pensive. I just need to remember to be easy on myself. Do what I can and don’t expect to get it all done. Allow myself time to move slowly. Take comfort in the things we’ve accomplished.

Yesterday afternoon after a week of rain and cloudy skies, the sun broke through. I spread a fresh layer of straw in the chicken coop and washed off the potatoes that Dean harvested earlier in the week. Seeing them spread out on the table drying in the sun filled me with a kind of satisfaction that’s seldom matched, and our dinner of baked potatoes topped with stir-fried veggies from the garden gave me some comfort that I needed.

Now it’s Saturday morning. The sun is up and it’s time to get out in it. The first thing I need to do is save the potatoes I washed last night from the Steller’s Jay that’s undeterred by the blanket I covered them with. It’s flown away with two in the last ten minutes. After the potatoes are safe I’ll harvest carrots and enough greens for another batch of pesto. I’ll work on getting one of the garden beds tucked in for the season. I’ll bring a few pepper plants in the house and start picking green tomatoes. Maybe this evening we’ll build a campfire. Standing around a fire is a good way to soak it in—the colors, the crisp air, the quiet, the bigness and the wild of all that surrounds us. It’s a good way too, to feel the wild that goes along with being alive in this world, and surrender to it for a while.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Value-Added Gooseberries

September colors

Week 6

We had spent our childhood running wild in the country. Like peasant children, we passed our days and nights in the fields and the woods, looked after horses, stripped the bark off the trees, fished and so on…. And you know, whoever has once in his life caught perch or has seen the migrating thrushes in autumn, watched how they float in flocks over the village on bright, cool days, he will never be a real townsman, and will have a yearning for freedom to the day of his death.” —From the story “Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov

Our friend Jane gave us a cutting from her gooseberry bush several years ago and we planted it where our rain gutter drains. It started out as a spindly little thing, but it seems to be happy in its spot and now it produces plump, juicy berries every year. Last year the chickens ate the gooseberries closest to the ground and the younger of our two dogs ate the ones that were at knee height. That left us with just a couple of handfuls, which was enough for flavoring kombucha but not much else. This year I made a point of beating the animals to the berries because I want to make a pie.

My dad had a thing for gooseberry pies. They were one of those things that he was known for, like his golden delight biscuits and his pancakes. In my memory he made the pies himself, but I don’t know if that’s true. I also don’t remember having gooseberry bushes, so the berries that went into his pies must have come out of cans. There was more to to my dad’s love for gooseberry pies than their flavor though, and I knew this even as a girl. There was a memory or a story that went along with it, maybe a longing for a time and place.

This morning I looked online for a recipe for gooseberry pie and the results led me to a short story called “Gooseberries” that was written by Anton Chekhov in 1898. In it the character Ivan Ivanovich relays the story of his brother’s longing to own property in the country.

“He used to draw a map of his property and in every map there were the same things—a) house for the family, b) servants’s quarters, c) kitchen-garden, d) gooseberry bushes.”

For all the years that I knew my dad, he lived in town but wanted to live in the country. Like Ivan Ivanovitch’s brother, he remembered the freedom the countryside offered and wished to return to the kind of life he’d known as a boy outside of Telluride, Colorado.

He kept as true to his dreams as he could while working full time and living in town. He and my step-mom always had a pantry full of food they’d preserved. He had two mules, Jack and Sam, and a horse named Penny at one point too. He grew squash and tomatoes and had plum and apricot trees in his yard. And he always had plans. Plans for buying a few acres where he could do more of what he was already doing. Like Ivan Ivanovitch’s brother Nikolay in Chekhov’s story, he would have liked to own a spread of land where he could plant a few gooseberry bushes of his own.

My dad visited Homer once when we lived in town. He got to see Kachemak Bay and the mountains and glaciers on the other side. I wish he could have seen where we live now though. He would have appreciated our simple house and the way our garden sits on a south facing slope to get optimal sun. He would have liked the way the trees have grown up around our chicken coop to offer natural protection from predators. He would have been as excited as we are about all of our ideas and projects and he would have offered some good advice.

The gooseberries I harvested earlier in the week are all tucked into the freezer and the pie I want to make will have to wait a while. Right now I want to be outside– partly because it’s lovely with all the changing colors and partly because winter is long and the season is headed that direction.

This weekend there’s firewood to stack and fireweed leaves to collect before they all turn red. Our neighbor’s raspberries are ripe and they’ve invited us to come pick. My mom spends summers here but will be leaving soon, so I want to get as much time with her as I can. It’s also time to dig potatoes and dry the burdock and rhodiola root we harvested last weekend.

After working at my paying job all week I look forward to the the days that allow me to wander from chore to chore according to my own schedule, and the freedom to stop and read a short story when there’s a thread I feel like following. Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” felt significant because it put to words a kind of longing my dad carried with him throughout his life that I recognized but could never fully articulate, and now it’s added a layer of value to those berries that are sitting in my freezer waiting to be transformed into a pie.

Spruce wood
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Five-Acre Almanac: Summer Still

Alaska Alpine

Week 5

The mornings are noticeably darker this week and the alder leaves and pushki are turning yellow. The fireweed blooms have topped out and their lower leaves are changing to deep red. The end of summer comes on fast around here and the sudden shift brings both a sense relief and a little sadness. There’s still a lot to do, but there’s an end in sight to the intensity of it all.

Our friend Mark who lives in Truckee, California paid us a surprise visit last week. He showed up with fresh shrimp from Prince William Sound and a box of wine. We’ve known each other since our now-grown children were babies and every time we see each other there is lots of reminiscing and catching up to do. As always, he was happy to be back in Alaska, but this time he was especially thankful to have a break from the smoky air in the Sierras.

We had a cooler gardening season this year. Certain vegetables we’ve been able to successfully grow the past few summers didn’t do so well this time around, like the dragon tongue beans that are just now flowering and the winter squash that doesn’t look like it’s going to produce anything bigger than a golf ball. There were just enough sunny weekends that I didn’t feel cheated though, and compared to the heat and smoke that so many people have to contend with, a damp and cool summer with a few clear sky breaks seems just about perfect.

I’m hoping the rain and cool air will be good for the kale plants I transplanted two weeks ago. Several years ago I went through a smoothie making phase and I loaded up on frozen spinach from the grocery store. One morning I read the small print on one of the plastic bags I pulled out of the freezer and learned that the spinach I’d purchased was grown in China and packaged in California. The distance those greens had to travel from their place of origin to my Vita-mix made me vow to do better, and the summer after that we began to grow and freeze kale. If we have a good crop we can toss it into stir-fries, soups, and smoothies throughout the winter.

There are other greens we rely on besides kale. When we first moved into our home, our neighbors Bob and Doris James gave us little tidbits of information about gardening and living out here. Bob especially liked to walk down the driveway and shout advice to me when I was out in the garden. Sometimes it felt a little like heckling, but he meant well. Anyhow, he’s the one who informed me that the chickweed I was pulling out of my carrot bed was more nutritious than anything else I was trying to grow. He told me he’d munch on it when he was out working in his potato fields to tide him over until dinner time.

Rosemary Gladstar’s book Medicinal Herbs: A beginner’s guide confirms that Mr. James wasn’t wrong about chickweed. It’s got Vitamin C, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and is good for skin afflictions. Now we add it to salads, and this week I made basil/garlic scape/chickweed pesto. I even threw in a few carrot tops for good measure. Last year for the first time I put a few jars of pesto in the freezer and when it thawed out it looked and tasted as fresh as if I’d just made it. My hope is to have even more of it this year. Now that I know I can make it out of things like chickweed and carrot tops, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Last night I went out in the rain to assess the back garden after a week of not spending much time out there. There are still a few strawberries, but if I wanted to pick them I’d have to slog through the mushy, overripe ones that now outnumber the good berries. The snap peas are as sweet as candy and prolific. We’re eating carrots liberally and trying to figure out the best plan for storing them once the time comes to pull them.

The greenhouse is a jumble of pepper, tomato, and cucumber plants. Of the three things growing in there, the peppers are doing the best. Tomatoes are coming on but they’re slow to ripen. The cucumber plants look beautiful, but they got off to a slow start and at this point there may not be enough time left in the season for them to produce.

In the spring we planted some heirloom cabbage seeds we picked up from the Homer Seed Library. They’d been mailed over from Switzerland and instead of forming a round head, they grow in a tear drop shape. They seem to be well suited for the cool summer we’ve had.

The list of things we hope to do before winter sets in is still long and our list of things to do once winter’s here is long too. That seems to be the nature of this lifestyle we’ve chosen. Sometimes we have to remember to step away from it all and see Alaska beyond these five acres.

Earlier this week I did just that and escaped to Hope with a couple of friends. It was a short trip, but it included all the elements of a perfect a vacation: A change of scenery, good company, ideal weather, amazing food, adventure, a comfortable bed, and time to read. We hiked to a mountain lake and jumped in. We saw two bears, spotted a wolf running down the mountainside, and picked buckets of blueberries. We played fiddle and banjo after breakfast and laughed over half-hearted scrabble late into the evenings.

Cold, clear water
Gentiana platypetala

Now I’m home and refreshed and it’s a three day weekend. We’ve got a wood splitter rented for the next couple days and there’s garlic and red currants to harvest. Right now we can’t see the mountains through the fog, but the forecast is calling for sun.

Summer may be on its way out, but it’s not over yet.

Dragonfly friend
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Five-Acre Almanac: Restoration

Photo provided by Dillon Sundmark

Week 4

Earlier in the week I heard a sentence that I can’t stop thinking about.

*The individual soul is not separate from the conditions of the world.

I’ve done a pretty good job of hiding away from the news lately, of busying myself with work and gardening and starting a business, and living my life with the news of the world at a distance has been good. There’s a lot that’s outside of my control. Worrying and getting worked up about all the things that are far beyond my reach is not productive. But the truth is that I don’t want to live my life being oblivious to suffering, and I don’t want to hole away in my comfortable existence and excuse myself from actively trying to make the world a better place.

The individual soul is not separate from the conditions of the world.

A few years ago I wasn’t sure I believed in the concept of a soul, and even now that I do I’m not sure if I can define it. To me the word soul is just a word I use to try to describe a kind of connection I feel. For some people the word soul is loaded with religious connotations and requirements of belief. The word connection is not.

The individual soul is not separate from the conditions of the world.

The soil in our oldest garden bed in the back yard has been trying to tell us for the past couple of years that it’s not up for the job of growing great vegetables. Our use of the bed has not kept pace with its ability to renew itself, and we’ve not kept up with giving it what it needs. We’ve added mulch and compost in an effort to make it better, but whatever attempts we’ve made have not been enough.

The broccoli, kale, and cabbage we planted in it this year are stunted. Compared to those same varieties that were planted in more robust soil, they’re a fraction of the size. And to add insult to injury the slugs have moved in. Last weekend I pulled out a number of the plants and transplanted them into beds in the front yard. Already the kale looks better. Its color is more vibrant and it has new growth.

Plants are easy. Basic biology tells us what they need in order to thrive. In the case of our garden bed, we have it within our means to adjust the variables. I can give it the correct mineral and nutrient balance. I can add elements to give it the right texture, structure, and drainage. Then nature can take over and complete the job. With time and the right ingredients worms and mycorrhizae will move back in. The sun and rain will orchestrate microbial action. It will produce good vegetables again.

If soul is a word I use to describe a connection, then it’s safe to say I have the ability to facilitate the restoration of the soul of the soil in that 4×16 foot garden bed. I can only do so much though. There are laws of nature that must be followed, but there is a force, or a will of nature that I am utterly dependent upon for the restoration of the soil to be complete.

The individual soul is not separate from the conditions of the world.

A question of why is hovering around this idea of restoring the garden bed. I could add Miracle-Gro and be done with it. I could buy my vegetables from the grocery store and not concern myself with how they’re grown. But now that I’ve witnessed the actual miracle of living soil, I want to be a part of the equation that brings about its recovery. I want to eat food that is imbued with that fundamental force. Making myself a part of healing the soil enhances my feeling of connection. It puts me in touch with my soul.

The individual soul is not separate from the conditions of the world.

The next question is what does all of this have to do with the conditions of the world that feel beyond our reach? How are we to proceed when it all feels so daunting? We feel the heaviness of all that’s wrong, but are we meant to be crushed under such weight?

The statement I keep repeating is not just a statement. It’s also an equation.

The individual soul (is not separate from) the conditions of the world.

The conditions of the world (are not separate from) the individual soul.

For a while after I left religion behind I was threatened by the idea of a soul. I thought it meant I had to believe in something supernatural. Now I see soul as something that’s intricately connected to the natural order of things. It’s not separate from science. It’s not separate from the way we treat each other. It’s not separate from the goods we consume or the way we spend our time. There is no religion involved and there are no punishments or rewards outside of the rules of nature.

Out of necessity I’ve been working on the restoration of my soul for the past couple of years. I’ve had to in order to save myself from the despair the creeps in when I pay attention to the condition of the world. I’ve not been hiding away from the difficult things humanity is facing as much as I’ve been trying to understand what I’m meant to do in the midst of it all, or more accurately, who I am in the midst of it all. It’s been an intentional shift and it’s changed how I move through space and time. From the outside looking in I may not look different, but I am different. I am better.

Like the soil in my garden, when I provided the elements needed for my soul to thrive it began to take on a life of its own. I’m excited to follow where it leads.

The conditions of the world are not separate from the individual soul.

*Heard on the podcast Living Myth by Michael Meade

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Five-Acre Almanac: Celebration

Week 3

Last Saturday we hosted a party and with the delta variant sweeping through town the gathering had to be held outside. Mid-August is typically a rainy time of year so we put up a few tents and hoped for the best knowing that if it rained the whole party would be a bust because nobody wants to stand around under a tent in a downpour for long.

As luck would have it, the party was perfect. It rained hard until about fifteen minutes before guests began to arrive, but then the clouds parted. The sun came out in time for dinner, and by the time the party moved down to the fire pit the skies were clear except for a haze in the air from Siberian wildfires that gave everything a dusky pink hue.

Looking west from the fire pit. Photo provided by Zach Philyaw

Of course there were other factors besides the weather that made for a lovely evening. So many friends came through for us. Besides lending moral support, they lent us coolers and grills for cooking salmon. They made a grain-free chocolate cake and enough curry to feed forty. They delivered Solo stoves and firewood so we could all stay warm. They lent us tables and sawhorses and tents and helped us set them up. They brought sushi and salads and pies and Flathead cherries from Montana. One friend schlepped over more than a dozen of the flower boxes she’s nurtured all summer from her house to ours. Another made us a keg of cider. Four played fiddle tunes into the night.

Planning a party during a pandemic is tricky on a lot of different levels. We’d originally scheduled this party for the summer of 2020 and had to cancel. We hoped it wouldn’t come to that again, but as the delta variant surged we weren’t sure that throwing a party was the best idea. There was a fair amount of self-doubt and questioning involved in making the decision of whether or not to proceed. In the end we decided against the all or nothing approach and adjusted our original plans to fit the situation. The first big change was that we decided to have the party at our house instead of at a friend’s place. Then we invited fewer people than we’d originally hoped to invite. Knowing that people needed the freedom to opt out if that was what felt best for them, we didn’t ask anyone to RSVP. We went into this party with a lot of unknowns and it was an exercise in letting go of expectations. In the end though, everything turned out just right.

The purpose of the party was to celebrate our daughter and daughter-in-law’s marriage, so love was already in the air. The combination of clear skies, low angle sun, mountains, still water, and a meadow of fireweed meant that our friends got to see what we love about this place. The flowers, the fire, and the lighting made it all feel cozy. The music brought the magic.

Photo provided by Anthony Mooney / ig:antoniogatsby

This week we had to get back to our day jobs and there was party clean-up and getting all the things we borrowed back to their rightful owners. We also had a lot of leftover salmon to deal with and had to act fast so that none of it would go to waste. Now we have 28 pints of canned salmon in the pantry and 60 salmon patties in the freezer.

The garden continued to grow while we were consumed with party planning and even though we did our best to stay caught up, there were a few things that needed our fast attention once we were able to give it. Last summer we let our garlic stay in the ground a week or two longer than what was ideal and we didn’t want to let that happen again, so on Monday Dean pulled half of our bulbs and hung them from the rafters of the garage to cure.

Keeping the vampires away. Photo provided by Dean Sundmark

The strawberries I wrote about a couple of weeks ago are still at it, and we’re trying to pick a few whenever we get the chance. The black currants are just shy of being ripe and it’s the time of year when mushrooms start popping. There are herbs I want to gather and trees I’d like to transplant and about a million other things I’d like to do before it’s too late.

Even though the last several summers have extended well into September, August still feels like a race. There’s a short window of availability for certain things and if we miss that window like we did last year with the wild blueberries, we’ll have to wait for another year.

We don’t push ourselves all summer out of fear of not having enough or because we’re driven by the concept of self-sufficiency. Our reasons for doing what we do are a bit more fundamental. Each time we sit down to a meal that includes something we’ve grown or harvested, we have context to go along with what we’re eating. We remember the hope we felt when we planted the carrot seeds, the work it took to get them to germinate, and the excitement at seeing them finally sprout. We remember the baby magpie that hung out in the compost pile next to the potato bed and the squirrel family that raided our strawberry patch every morning around the same time we had our coffee. We remember feeling giddy at seeing those first purple nettle plants of the season and awe-struck by the sun filtering through the horsetail in the bog when we hunted for boletes.

We’re not pushing ourselves as much as we’re compelled by all of the possibilities of this place. We want to know the plants, the animals, the soil, and the patterns and cycles that make them all tick. And the more we learn, the more we see that there is sustenance here that goes beyond the physical level. It’s not unlike the feeling of being on the receiving end of a friend’s kindness.

The moon over Kachemak Bay on 8/18/2021
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Five-Acre Almanac: Looking Out

Week 2

We have a big view from our property. When we stand on the edge of our meadow we can see nearly all of Kachemak Bay. We see mountains and ice fields and islands. We see where the river from the Grewingk Glacier spills into the ocean and when the sun is right we can see the way the silty water moves and disperses with the tides. The lights of the Homer Spit jut out into the bay, reminding us that in the distance there is a whole busy world of harbor life,restaurants, and gift shops.

When we moved here twenty-some years ago we could enjoy our big view from the picture window in our living room, but that’s changed. Nowadays most of what we see when we look out our south-facing window is green, at least this time of year.

A vegetable garden is directly in front of our house beside a small lawn, beyond that is a semi-wild area of raspberries, roses, and alders. Just to the south of all of that are several spruce trees that survived a bark beetle infestation that swept through the lower Kenai Peninsula in the mid 1990s. These days to fully appreciate our big view we have to go outside and take a short stroll down one of the paths we’ve carved out of the green zone that’s grown up between our house and the meadow below.

When the spruce bark beetles came through and killed all the mature spruce trees in their wake, we treasured the young trees that survived. Now those that were just a few feet tall back then have grown to create their own forest ecosystem, right in our view. The obstruction doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers other people, partly because I know that the panorama is just a few yards away, and partly because the forest gives us privacy and a protective barrier from noise and wind. And I won’t lie, I’ve become attached to a few of those trees, which I suppose is what happens when you watch a thing grow for a couple of decades.

Fire safety is on our minds though, and it demands that we start thinning some of our trees. Identifying the ones that need to go isn’t easy. How do we preserve the privacy and protection that the trees provide and still open it up enough to keep our house safe if a fire were to sweep through? Which of our favorites can we keep? The spruce bark beetles didn’t discriminate between the mature trees. They killed them all. I appreciate that I can be a bit more selective.

A few of the spruce have grown tall in precarious places. Removing them is going to require some fancy chain saw work and good planning so they won’t fall on our chicken coop or our garden. Most importantly I want to protect he grandmother birch tree that grows in the center of our five acres. I don’t know how old it is, but it was old when the original homesteader first got here. It’s the heart of this place, and my heart would break in two if a spruce tree fell on it.

Last winter we dropped one of the more straight forward spruce trees, one that wouldn’t harm anything in its fall. Now it’s stacked and drying. Just that one tree going down made a difference in our view and the extra light from the cleared space is a noticeable change. More light is a good thing, for my psyche and for our gardens. I’m just hoping we can strike the right balance between open and protected.

These days I gaze out the back window more often than the front window. There aren’t any bodies of water or mountains to look at in that direction, but there’s a stand of cottonwood trees in the distance where a family of bald eagles has built a nest, and right now the fireweed is blooming. The prayer flags we hung on our pea fence earlier in the spring have faded but everything else is brilliant. The orange nasturtiums against the fireweed against the bright white yarrow against a backdrop of green is like a magnet. My eyes are drawn to all that color. It feels nourishing the way sun on my skin feels nourishing in April. I’m taking it in while I can and trying not to mourn its absence before it’s even gone.

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Five-Acre Almanac: Beginning

Right now seems an unlikely time to start a new writing project. It’s August in Alaska, which means that summer is speeding downhill. It’s time for berry picking and firewood stacking, time for cleaning out anything old in the freezer and filling it back up again with this year’s harvest. But I’m going to start it anyhow.

Earlier this year Dean and I acquired a business license and started Twin Fish Gardens. It’s a home-based endeavor and the idea of it came about in 2020 when all of our routines were disrupted and we had a bit of time to assess our lives. We asked ourselves questions. What brings us joy? What are we most grateful for? How do we want to spend our days? And we imagined creating something that would allow us to live in line with the answers to those questions. We don’t have a perfect plan in place and we expect there will be some trial an error along the way. But we knew it wouldn’t happen if we didn’t start somewhere.

This writing project is a part of Twin Fish Gardens. Each week I’m going to write an account of living here on this five acres of land. There’s faith and fear mixed into this commitment, but there’s also promise.

I’ll kick it off with strawberries.

1. Strawberries

I’m starting this at 10:00pm on the first Wednesday night in August, 2021 and outside there’s a thick fog. This afternoon we had an unexpected rain and it’s because of that rain that I’m inside writing instead of outside picking strawberries. The strawberries are only here for a time and the time is now.

For the past two weeks we’ve picked twenty quarts of Sitka strawberries for our freezer and twelve pounds to trade. We’ve eaten them with abandon while picking and with a bit of sugar and cream when we’re settled back in the house before crashing into bed. We’ve shared with friends and we’ve turned a blind eye on our dogs sneaking into the patch and helping themselves. It seems like the more we pick the more they produce.

We’ve done nothing to deserve these strawberries. We’re just the recipients of a gift the previous owner planted nearly four decades ago. We don’t water them and we don’t weed them except for Dean’s occasional attempt to knock down the cow parsnip plants (locally known as pushki) so that we won’t be harmed by their photo-reactive juices when we’re down on our hands and knees, expedition style, in search of the soft pink fruits that are hiding among the horsetail and wild grasses.

We could spend our time weeding and keeping the strawberry beds orderly, but I don’t think we’d have more to show for our troubles. The way the plants are, free to do their natural berry thing in their natural berry way, seems to be working just fine. The horsetail between them offers visual protection from birds and provides them with an airy space in which to grow. The sprawling beds allow them to spread and put down roots in fresh places. They’d take over the whole place if we let them.

Strawberries are just one aspect of our garden. The snap peas are also coming on now, and after a slow start we’re finally eating broccoli and zucchini most days. The arnica Dean planted this spring has its first bloom and the wild plants we forage—fireweed, yarrow, pineapple weed, clover—are keeping our herb drying racks full. Slugs are also plentiful this year and one bed in particular has been hit hard. At this point we’ve sacrificed the kale plants around the edges in hopes that the slugs will be so enamored with them that they’ll stay away from the broccoli and cabbage.

There’s a lot we want to do around here and a limited amount of time, so we’re always looking for ways to be more efficient. The strawberries, along with the wild plants we forage, are a gift in that regard. They grow on their own and all we have to do is harvest. The same is not true for most garden vegetables. Most of the food we grow requires a lot more work and sometimes our efforts fail and our yield is much smaller than we’d hoped for.

How fortunate we are though, to live during a time when our survival doesn’t depend on whether we grow enough food. We can garden for the joy of it and if something doesn’t grow well for a season –and there’s always something that doesn’t grow well– we can either do without or buy it. This kind of freedom allows for creativity. We can try new varieties of vegetables. We can plant chamomile in between our garlic to see if it’s true that the two thrive next to each other. We can try different methods of gardening. Everything becomes an experiment and each season becomes a study. We plan for it over the winter, we plant it in the spring and then we watch and wait and learn. It requires patience and a willingness to get it wrong sometimes. But each year we do a little better. Each year we have a bit more to show for our effort.

Of course there’s more to summer than growing and foraging. We both hold full time jobs. In July we went to Georgia for our daughter’s wedding. This weekend we spent the bulk of two days at a music festival. Next week we’re hosting guests and throwing a party.

Extended, uninterrupted time for the things we love isn’t going to materialize out of nowhere. We have to do what we can and give up a few of the things that aren’t in line with the direction we want to go. Mostly we have to let go of perfection. I’ve written this post over a few days, between stints in the garden, in the mornings before work, fifteen minutes before bed. I’ve picked away at this the way I’m picking all those strawberries, a little at a time.

It’s more satisfying than television. It’s more uplifting than Twitter.

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Reminders

            Friday afternoon on my lunch break I drove to Bishop’s Beach. Lucky for me a car was pulling out of my favorite parking spot just as I arrived. Sometimes, especially on a sunny day, I like to sit beside the ocean and eat my lunch and listen to podcasts on my break. This time I had trouble getting the app to work on my phone, so I ate my burrito in silence and watched the beach scene unfold around me.

             A mom and her son scoured the trail that led from the beach to the parking lot for something they’d lost. A man in a wetsuit loaded his surfboard into the back of his truck and beside him three kids in matching jackets with their arms spread into imagined wings chased seagulls. A couple navigated their way over the rocky part of the beach with walking sticks.

            Behind the parking lot, on one side of the public pavilion a group huddled close to a fire. On the other side a man I know from the library juggled setting up his barbecue grill with shooing away crows and one bold and persistent bald eagle.

            When I finished eating I ventured out into the cold. My jacket was warm enough and I had good boots, but my hat didn’t fully cover my ears.

            I walked east from the parking lot until I reached the part of the beach where the water flows through on the high tide to fill Beluga Slough. I kept my eyes peeled for rocks as I went. I know there are people who don’t look for rocks when they go to the beach, but for me it’s automatic. The way one of our dogs has to howl whenever she hears howling, I have to look for rocks whenever I walk the shoreline.

            I found a good rock, a candidate for keeping, and carried it with me for a while until I found another. And I did this a few more times, having to make a choice about which one to keep with each new find. Finally I found the rock I wanted to bring home with me. It wasn’t the most beautiful rock of the day, but I chose it because it’s got an amber hue to it, like the pegs on my fiddle.

            Satisfied with my beach gift, I plunked myself down on a driftwood log for while. I lined up the rocks from my pockets beside me and sorted them by size. For a few minutes I was just a person with rocks on a driftwood log on a beach on a breezy, brilliant Friday afternoon in March. For a while I wasn’t striving for anything. I wasn’t scheming about what to write or how to write it. I wasn’t planning anything for the future. I wasn’t considering all the ways Dean and I need to make our lives run more efficiently so we can fit in all the things we want to do.

            Ambition is a fine thing to have, but it can make for a noisy headspace: so many problems to solve, so many ideas to consider, so many pros and cons to weigh. It was good to let it all go away for a time and let myself be taken by the sound of the waves, the cold air on my exposed skin, the brilliant light, the sea of sand and rocks and seaweed at my feet, the enormity of it all.

            Soon enough I could no longer ignore my cold ears, but before I packed up my rocks and headed back to my car, a friend walked by and we talked for a few minutes. She and I used to attend fiddle camp for a week every August. There we learned the same tunes and made the same friends and we sipped whiskey together around a few all night campfires. She loved old-time music the way I loved old-time music and seeing her reminded me of those fiddling days and of the old violin that hangs on my wall and how for me it has what the ocean has, which is the ability to make all the chatter in my brain quiet down for a while, but only when I give it my attention.

            The car was warm when I returned, and quiet too, away from the roar of the breakers and the gulls and the wind. I examined my haul of rocks one more time. I sipped what was left of my coffee. The mom who’d been searching for something with her son strode past my car carrying a toy dinosaur, which must’ve been the object they’d been looking for.

            Just outside my car other beach goers came and went, dogs retrieved sticks and parents tucked their children into puffy jackets. The birds that’d been scavenging on the ground earlier were now creatures of the wind. The crows dipped and dived, allowing the gusts to knock them every which way. Further above, three eagles found a current to ride and they circled higher and higher. I admired their effortlessness and the ease with which they climbed.

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Balancing Act

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            Today’s the Spring Equinox and here in Homer the sun rose at 8:07am and will set at 8:21pm which, in terms of daylight, is about as balanced as we’ll be until September. From here until the summer solstice it’s power up time. Each day will be a little longer than the previous one. There’s a sense of anticipation and a readying for summer’s intensity. We’re not there yet, but we know it’s coming.

            Spring isn’t really the right word for this time of year in Alaska. We’ve made it through the dark days but it’s still winter. Our garden beds are buried under four feet of snow and the nighttime temperatures are still dipping down into the single digits. And we still have to get through April.

            There’s very little about April that is pleasant: The snow melts. Our driveway turns to mush. All of the things strewn about our yard that were buried under snow emerge and remind us of all the unfinished projects we still need to attend to. In April my reserves of inner fortitude that have thus far gotten me through winter are nearly depleted. It’s a good time of year for deep cleaning the house, for starting a daily yoga routine to get in shape for gardening, and for getting creative with using what’s left in the freezer and pantry.

            Last year’s expanded garden brought us through winter nicely. There’s scarcely been a day this winter when we haven’t consumed something that we grew, foraged, or harvested ourselves. My younger self wouldn’t have thought that such things would be cause for delight, but they are. Joy for me is closely tied to the satisfaction in seeing something through from start to finish. Whether it’s a cabbage started from seed, transplanted, tended, harvested, and fermented into sauerkraut, or a piece of writing that starts as a vague idea and is wrestled with, rearranged, pruned down, and then finally presented. 

            Now we’re down to the last package of frozen kale in our freezer, and two small winter squash, a handful of garlic bulbs, a few varieties of potatoes that are beginning to sprout, and four jars of kraut in our pantry. We’ve still got several packages of halibut that my step-dad caught for us last summer when we were too busy to get our boat in the water, salmon that is unfortunately starting to show early signs of freezer burn, three chickens that our neighbors raised, and beef that we bought from Otto Kilcher that was nourished from grasses at the head of Kachemak Bay. We have berries too—red and black currants, blueberries, raspberries, and lingonberries—that we use primarily for flavoring kombucha or adding to smoothies.

            There’s a cycle, an art, a rhythm to food and herb preservation and storage that I’m just beginning to understand. My compulsion is to hold on to things, but food doesn’t last forever and it’s meant to be eaten. Having a nearly empty freezer at the beginning of summer is a good thing but it requires a bit of faith that we’ll be able to get what we need to fill it up once more before winter rolls around. Having relied on grocery stores for most of my life, this is a new way of thinking about food. It seems that culturally we’re nervous about anything being depleted, whether it’s our bank accounts, our freezers, or our energy. There’s a balance though, between adequate storage and hoarding. And there’s something to the idea of letting energy, in whatever form it takes, flow.

            My husband and I talk frequently about how fortunate we are. Unlike people from the not-too-distant past, we get to enjoy the literal fruits of our labor for fun. If we decided to take a break from gardening for a year we’d be just fine. We can and still do go to the grocery store. We even buy produce from other local growers to fill in the gaps of our own harvest. But we choose to make growing, harvesting, foraging, processing and storing food a major focus of our lives because we find it meaningful. It demands that we pay attention to the seasons, the soil, and the patterns of nature. It requires flexibility, as no two seasons are exactly alike. It provides us a constant sense of wonder. Sometimes, when time runs out before we get everything done or if something fails to grow, we have to surrender.

           On a small, close-to-home, and affordable scale, providing food and herbs for ourselves gives us what climbing mountains and rafting rivers used to give us in the earlier days of our marriage. In this way, we’ve moved into a new season. While there’s still a desire for wilderness adventure, we’re finding this intimacy with our five-acres fulfilling and awe-inspiring in its own way. The more we recognize the abundance we have here, the more abundance is revealed to us. We’re sometimes overwhelmed.

            Of course we still have to get through late winter. We have to be patient while the snow melts. We’ll likely have to endure a few more snow storms, and then rain, and then the season of not being able to drive to the house while we’re waiting for our driveway to dry up.

             It’s not surprising that this is the time of year when my writing is most prolific. My energy is growing but I can’t quite put that energy into the outside endeavors yet. Once summer is here, after breakup, I’ll be busy. I’ll be picking wild herbs. I’ll be raking dried grass for mulching the garden beds. I’ll be transplanting the starts that are beginning to take over all the available window space in our house. I’ll be sowing the carrot, beet, radish, turnip, and parsnip seeds. I’ll be watering, weeding, tending the chickens and working with Dean to repair and build the infrastructure that will give our gardens long-term sustainability. I’ll be going full speed until September.

            Until that descent back toward winter, there will scarcely be any time for actual writing. I’ll still be gathering ideas though, and jotting them down in my journal. While I’m immersed in the physical labor that will fill our pantry and freezer for another year, I’ll have hours of quiet, contemplative time to connect those ideas into something coherent.

            I don’t consider myself a food writer, but writing and the work of growing, gathering, and putting food aside for winter are closely intertwined for me. They support, inform, and compliment each other. They feed my body and my soul in similar ways. One gives me the opportunity to dig in the dirt and immerse myself in this beautiful place that I live. The other allows me the opportunity to take what I’ve been given and turn it, tend it, and condense it into something I can share.

            And now after writing this, I realize that I can even think of April as a gift. It’s that last big inhale before the race. It’s my last burst of writing for a while. It’s a time to start recharging my internal batteries.

            Balance is a difficult thing to achieve. It’s different for every person and it’s different in Alaska than it is in other places. Here the vernal equinox can be a challenging time for sure, but the energy it offers is palpable. Tune into it. Find a way to use it to your creative advantage. And hang in there for a couple more months. Soon enough we’ll be waist deep in green.

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Oceanside

            Last Monday I had a half hour to spare after I dropped my husband off at work and before I had to start my workday at the library. The air was calm and the light was breaking so I decided to go for a walk on the beach. There’s a long list of reasons why I love living here, but one of them is that there might be four feet of snow at our house, but a twenty-five minute drive into town can deliver me to a snowless, sandy beach.

            I don’t go to the beach as often as I should. When I’m in town I’m usually focused on my job or running errands, but when I do take the time to go I never regret it. Living near the ocean is a gift, and every time I spend time walking its shores I see something or find something or feel something that gives me spark. Some of the offerings are physical objects: rocks, driftwood, fossils, beach glass, or some trinket that’s rolled ashore from someplace far away.

            Some of the sea’s offerings are physical but not in the form of objects. Growing up in the Rocky Mountain West, it wasn’t until I moved to a coastal community that I experienced the salty sea air and the way the ocean, even a cold, northern ocean, stores heat and exudes it ever so slightly. When I’m near it, I feel the moisture on my face. It’s nourishing and enlivening, and it holds an essence that cosmetic companies have been trying to replicate and bottle but can’t in reality even come close to.

            Other gifts go deeper, beyond the physical realm. On a calm day, the sound of the lapping waves can lull me into a tranquil state. On a stormy day, the rolling water reminds me of my smallness, my vulnerability, my dependence on dry land and shelter. The ocean, whether calm or rough, offers perspective.  

            When I walked the beach on Monday morning before work, it felt something like waking up after a deep sleep. In this part of Alaska we’re emerging from winter’s darkness now, gaining several minutes of daylight each day and I’m sure that was a part of it. But the feeling of emergence I felt and carried with me throughout the day is one I’m trying to hold on to, and study, and remember.

            When I left the beach on Monday morning my jacket pockets were full of rocks, my lungs and my skin felt nourished by the salty sea air, but my soul had been given a gift as well. I left feeling like I’d connected to something magnificent, and that magnificence reminded me that we have it within us to emerge from whatever it is that keeps us stifled, unfeeling, and afraid. We have the right to feel hopeful about the future of our planet. We are capable of creating a better existence for ourselves and for each other.

             It was a lot to take away from a walk on the beach.

            For reasons I don’t entirely understand we’ve made truth a difficult thing to grab ahold of lately. We can pick and choose our news to fit just about any belief we want to hold. But even though it seems slippery at times, truth is a gift that nature can give us. We just have to look for it in places we’ve become unaccustomed to looking. We have to listen in ways we’ve forgotten how to listen. And we have to expand our imaginations through a lens of renewal rather than exhaustion.

            Thirty minutes at Bishop’s Beach on a Monday morning reminded me of all of that. When the chatter of media and a busy life are sure to distract me, I’ll try to remember the gifts I found there, the truths the ocean revealed. The rocks in my coat pocket can act as a physical reminder, like a rosary to bring me back into focus. A slow, deep breath can bring me back to the stillness of that morning’s slack tide. I’ll try to take inward the jolt of gratitude and expansiveness I felt beside the water’s edge. As within so without, as above so below. 

            I’ll write it down to remember the experience, to cement it into my existence. And I share a fragment of it here, hoping it will inspire you to step into a place or a state of being that reminds you of life’s gifts and of what love feels like, and that there is more for us, always more, for as long as we’re here.