Five-Acre Almanac: Hard News

Week 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Oh, Georgia.

Week 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Expanded view

Week 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Eastering

Week 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First fresh greens of 2022

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

Retreating snow from the back garden

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

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

**

Fire safety/improved view/next winter’s heat all wrapped into one job.

Five-Acre Almanac: All These Trees

Week 36

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

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

An old but unprotected birch

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

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

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

Gutter Birch

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

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

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

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

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

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

walkable snow

Retreating snow under a young spruce

Five-Acre Almanac: Small Joys

Week 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean putting all the pieces together

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: The Fullness of it All

Week 34

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Spring Equinox

Week 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe for this week that’s enough.  

Five-Acre Almanac: Breakup Season

Week 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: All Things

Week 31

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

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

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

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

Burning brush in the snow

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

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

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

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

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

Hello, friends.