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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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.