Five-Acre Almanac: Week 7

Mid-September

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.

Five-Acre Almanac: Week 6

September colors

Value-Added Gooseberries

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Week 5

Alaska Alpine

Summer Still

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Week 4

Photo provided by Dillon Sundmark

Restoration

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Week 3

Celebration

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Week 2

Looking out

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.

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.

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.

Balancing Act

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

            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.

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.