Five-Acre Almanac: Temporary

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Week 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Illumination

Week 16:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

photo by Dean Sundmark

Five-Acre Almanac: Oil to the Engine

Week 14:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Never A Straight Line

Week 9

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

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

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

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

I’ll start from the beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mushroom, cabbage, carrots, hori hori.

Five-Acre Almanac: Fireweed #1

Week 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Garden bed tucked in for winter with fireweed straw on top

Five-Acre Almanac: Mid-September

Week 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Value-Added Gooseberries

September colors

Week 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spruce wood

Five-Acre Almanac: Summer Still

Alaska Alpine

Week 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cold, clear water
Gentiana platypetala

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

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

Dragonfly friend

Five-Acre Almanac: Restoration

Photo provided by Dillon Sundmark

Week 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Heard on the podcast Living Myth by Michael Meade

Five-Acre Almanac: Celebration

Week 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo provided by Anthony Mooney / ig:antoniogatsby

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

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

Keeping the vampires away. Photo provided by Dean Sundmark

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

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

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

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

The moon over Kachemak Bay on 8/18/2021