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: 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.

Five-Acre Almanac: This Sad World

Week 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Multidimensional

Week 29

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Brightening Sky

Week 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

yurt view

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

Week 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

heart shaped ice

The Guest House by Rumi

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

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Halfway There

Week 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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