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.

Five-Acre Almanac: Dreaming Green

Week 25

Earlier this week a young male moose was hanging out on the library grounds. For most of the day on Wednesday he was just outside our office windows in the small yard between the building and the parking lot. Completely unperturbed by cars driving past or people walking to and from the front doors of the library, he moved from one tree to the next, scraping bark off with his teeth and munching whatever branches he could reach. Between bouts of eating he’d rest for a while in the snow.

Because it got cold fast this winter and deep snow came early, it’s been a rough season for moose. The next couple of months could be especially hard on them. We’ve seen hungry moose before. Several years ago toward the end of a deep snow winter a female moose was lying down in the road not far from our mailboxes and it didn’t have the energy to get back up. We had to drive far to one side of the road for a few days to get around her, and even though we’re not supposed to feed moose, someone cut up a cabbage and set it down in front of her . The cabbage went untouched and then one day the moose was gone, probably after a phone call to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Just inside a window near the entrance of the library there is table that’s home to the Homer Seed Library. On the table is an old card catalog shelving unit that’s now being used to hold seed packets that are free for the taking, and in the spirit of gardening and growing things there are a few houseplants on the table too. Our young moose friend could see the plants and occasionally he’d wander over and push his nose against the window. Poor guy.

I’m beginning to crave green myself these days and starting to look forward to those early garden treats like spinach and miner’s lettuce and the even more abundant wild foods that so graciously grow without any effort on our part. The nettles pop up each spring and while I used to just enjoy them when they were fresh, now I treat them the way we treat salmon in Alaska. There is a window of time in which to harvest them and the hope is to get enough to last us through the winter. For a few weeks while the stinging nettle are young and tender we pick them daily and put them on the drying racks in our yurt, then we jar them up and put them on the pantry shelf. All winter we sprinkle the dried leaves into soups and stir fries and sauces. They’ve grown here for years but it was a while before it occurred to us to save them. It’s funny how sometimes a resource is right in front of you before you recognize its value.

It started with nettle, but then it was other things. Now we collect dandelion, spruce tips, fiddlehead ferns, pineapple weed, yarrow, red clover, plantain, dock, elder flowers, raspberry leaves, roses, rose hips, and fireweed. These are the wild things that grow outside our front door. If we venture a bit further there are lingonberries and blueberries, Labrador tea, mushrooms, and devil’s club. Every year I discover something new to add to the list, something that isn’t actually new at all.

People have lived here for thousands of years and they knew how to get through the long winters with what the earth provided. In that way getting to know the wild plants here has been humbling, because for most everything that our bodies need there is a plant to fit the bill. It’s changed the way I walk through the woods. It’s changed the way I eat. It’s changed the way I think about belonging.

Besides craving green from a gastronomical perspective, I’m craving green the color. The other night I fell asleep to wind and rising temperatures. I dreamed that all the snow melted to reveal a summer landscape, as though summer was just hanging out under the snow all this time. I wonder if moose dream such dreams.

I brought a book home from the library book sale a few years ago called The Book of Chakras by Ambika Wauters. Each of the chakra or energy centers in the body is associated with a color. Being new to the concept of chakras I assumed that the Heart Chakra would be associated with the color red because of the heart’s role in moving blood throughout our bodies, but according to Wauters it’s the energy center that governs “our physical supply of energy and vitality as well as the love that nourishes our spiritual existence.” Taking this into consideration, it makes perfect sense that the Heart Chakra is associated with the color green.

Aside from the spruce trees there’s not much green outside right now. The ground is snow covered and today the ocean and sky are every shade of gray. But over coffee this morning we made our seed order. We’ve got seeds soaking on the kitchen counter for sprouting and each day is longer than the day before.

I’m not sure if hope has a color, but if it does it must be green. And I think it must taste a little like nettle tea which to me tastes earthy and nourishing. It sounds like whatever music it is that wakes up that part of you that goes numb sometimes when the world seems bleak. For me that almost always includes a banjo. Like the plants that grow all around, those things that give hope are worth identifying. They’re worth thinking about and collecting. They’re worth storing up for when winter gets long.

***

Five-Acre Almanac: The Speed of Sound

Week 24

In the early morning hours two days ago, we woke to our dog barking. She does this when there’s a moose in the yard or when snow is falling off the roof, but on that night neither of those things happened. The rumble that woke her continued for at least half an hour and we couldn’t identify its source.

Sometimes the military performs drills over Kachemak Bay but when I looked out the window there weren’t any helicopters or lights to indicate that’s what was going on. There were no gusts of wind. It didn’t seem like fireworks. I’d read about the volcano in Tonga just before going to bed and it crossed my mind that it could be related, but I discounted that idea, not trusting that such a thing could be possible.

I learned the next morning that some kind of pressure or sound waves from the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano located 5800 miles away are what we heard. They traveled up the Pacific and got here in the early morning hours to startle us out of our slumber. They moved through here and kept going north and a little while later they were heard in Fairbanks. And who knows, maybe they’re still moving.

There was a time when the news of the world didn’t travel faster than the speed of sound. Not too far in the distant past those rumbles in the night would have remained a mystery. But now we can watch a volcanic eruption online, in real time, nearly 6000 miles away, and when the sound of it reaches us several hours later we can connect the dots between the two events.

Anyhow, it was something new and a reminder that Earth is one place.

Today I worked on an essay I started last year about stinging nettle. It’s actually about a lot more than nettle and I put the piece aside for a year because writing a good essay is difficult. It requires a kind of attention I am seldom able to give. It requires putting to words things I don’t yet know how to say.

When I started writing my nettle essay last year I was drinking a cup of nettle tea every afternoon, but I got out of the habit. I set the essay aside. When I pulled the essay out of the folder and reread it, I instantly craved the tea.

I started drinking the tea because I’d read that it’s a healthy thing to do, but I continued drinking it because I felt that if I wanted to write about a plant then I needed to know it. Maybe I’m asking too much from a plant or maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m learning how to listen differently.

Sunset on Snow (photo by Dean Sundmark)

The other night I wish I would have listened to the rumbles differently. Now that I know what they were I wish I would have gone out into the moonlit night and given them my full attention. Maybe if I’d done so I would have entertained the idea that what I was hearing had traveled here from the volcano I’d seen on the news the night before rather than casting it aside. At the very least I’d have better descriptions of what it sounded like.

The sound itself wasn’t especially newsworthy. It was like a moose walking across the yard, or snow falling off the roof. If there hadn’t been chatter about it the next morning I might not have given it much thought. But lots of other people heard it too and it didn’t take long for word to spread that what we heard was from a volcano on the other side of the Pacific.

What might be more newsworthy than the sound we heard is the fact that we all believed the same story. We shared an experience and from what I observed there was no arguing or disgruntled banter about it. No blame or conspiracy. We all accepted that the sound we heard originated from the Tonga volcano and that it traveled through space and time to reach us in Homer, Alaska.

Having a couple of facts we could all agree on felt nice. I’d like to see us trend more in that direction.

Five-Acre Almanac: January Light

Week 23

A few weeks ago we didn’t have it in us. Just the idea of plotting out next summer’s garden and taking inventory of our seeds seemed like too much as it felt like we hadn’t fully recovered yet from the last summer season. But last night, to our surprise, it happened. We started talking about the garlic Dean planted in the fall, wondering how it’s faring out there under all that snow in the frozen ground, and soon we were sketching out garden design ideas, dogearing pages of the seed catalogs that arrived in the mail earlier this week and making a list of things we hope to grow and harvest for our business.

The way personal energy waxes and wanes with the seasons isn’t something I’ve thought much about for most of my life. Each day contains 24 hours and each week has seven days. Work starts at 9:00am each weekday whether it’s summer or winter, spring or fall. I tend to rise each morning and go to bed every night at about the same time, year round, whether we have six hours or nineteen hours between sunrise and sunset. It seems that with all the consistency we’ve created by adhering to clocks and calendars and schedules, our energy levels would also be somewhat even throughout a given year. But those arbitrary lines don’t always take into consideration our physical relationship to this planet and its cycles.

Here on the southern Kenai Peninsula on the first day of January we gain almost two minutes of daylight each day and by the end of the month that gain is up to almost five minutes. I may go to work at the same time each day and sleep for the same number of hours each night, but it feels vastly different from July when the daylight hours are going the other direction at nearly the same rate. In January my energy starts to build. In July I’m beginning to feel spent.

The difference make sense. If summer solstice is like the full moon and winter solstice is like the new moon, then we’re in the waxing phase right now. The light is coming back. Energy is building. In January I’m feeling the healing effects of autumn’s downtime and darkness. In January the energy that July requires begins to feel possible again.

It didn’t take long last night for our conversation about this year’s garden and business plan to dip into the territory of too much. The vision we have for this place is much greater than we can afford in terms of both time and money, so part of the planning requires reigning ourselves in, coming to terms with what’s realistic and remembering that our energy in the late part of summer is not what it is in the spring and early summer. Our tendency over the last few years has been to put too many projects on our to-do list and expand in more directions than we can realistically keep up with while we both have full time jobs. Taking into consideration the waxing and waning of energy over the course of a year when planning for the future feels like hard-earned wisdom, like a preventative tonic for our sanity, like a thoughtful gift of self-care. I need to remember this when our ambitions outpace our reality.

The nice thing about January is that while we’re trending toward long days, it still gets dark at night. We can ease into this shift of energy and use it to our advantage. Based on our past experience we can anticipate what’s coming and plan accordingly. We can imagine what our days will be like in July and August and ask ourselves what we can do now that we’ll thank ourselves for later.

I think in July and August I’ll be glad I crossed a few tasks off of our overall summer to-do list. I think I’ll also be glad I took advantage of the slow, dark mornings and early evenings of winter to rest and rejuvenate. I think I’ll be thankful for any January progress we make on clearing out the garage. If I get on it, my late summer self will be glad I created a new website when the ground was still frozen.

Low sun illuminating an oft-neglected instrument.

Next year when we’re back to January again I’ll be glad for the firewood we stacked and for the potatoes we’ve stored in the pantry. I’ll be glad for summer blueberries in my oatmeal and the herbs we dried for our winter teas.

Right now I’m glad for the light’s slow return and for time on my lunch breaks to walk on the beach. I’m thankful for the constant reminders of how precarious and beautiful my life is even as the clock keeps ticking forward and the calendar days pass from one to another. We live our finite lives as earthlings juxtaposed against the perpetual cycles of light and dark, of spring-summer-fall-winter, of the waxing and waning of the moon, of the planetary orbits. Just being here and trying to make sense of it all is enough to keep me occupied for a lifetime, maybe longer. Anything else I might fit in is a bonus.

Short-lived sea otter I came across on Bishop’s Beach this week.

Five-Acre Almanac: These Things

Week 22

When I was a child I was a Missionette. Much like the more secular Girl Scouts, Missionettes wore uniforms and recited mottoes at the beginning of each of our Wednesday night meetings at the Assemblies of God church. We also earned badges for skills like ironing and babysitting that were meant to prepare us for the stages of life we were moving into. I don’t have many bible verses memorized anymore, but the few I do remember are the ones we recited weekly at those meetings. There’s one in particular that’s been on my mind lately.

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Maybe it was the way this bible verse was presented to me in the context of Missionettes or maybe it was my inability to understand duality at that point in my life, but I interpreted this to mean that we are to dwell on what’s positive in this world and avoid thinking about all that is wrong or bad or hurtful. Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side.

But revisiting this verse now that I’m an adult who hasn’t attended church or ironed anything in years and who is trying to live fully in this world that is both terrible and wonderful, I realize that it’s not about positivity at all. Seeking what’s true and what’s honest and what’s just requires looking straight into all of it, all that’s horrible and all that’s good.

There is no set curriculum for learning how to navigate all the beautiful aspects of life alongside all the suffering. But if we want to live fully we need to figure it out, at least to some degree. If we simply escape into what makes us feel good and deny our connection to anything bad in the world, we aren’t living in truth. If we identify only with pain and hardship, or place the blame for it elsewhere, we’re not living in truth. Truth is a messy mix of it all.

Think on these things.

Going into 2022 it’s difficult not to feel the weight of the messy mix bearing down. Maybe it’s that state of heaviness that’s making me feel this way or maybe it’s the stage of life I’m moving into, but I’m craving order.

When this house became our home all of the previous owner’s belongings came with the package. He’d lived here for twenty years. We brought our belongings into the mix and now we’ve accumulated another twenty year’s worth of stuff. There’s been a steady flow of things coming and going through the years but we’ve reached the point where clutter is keeping us from using our space the way wish to use it. We’ve managed to stash most of it in our garage, but the garage is at capacity.

Now we have to motivate ourselves to do a job that isn’t the most pleasant of jobs and nobody is offering us money or a badge to make it happen. Instead we have to imagine the garage as we want it to be and let that vision of a better, more usable space propel us forward.

We have to step into the cold, cluttered space and start sorting through every single thing that’s in there. Some of those things served us well in the past but are no longer serving a purpose in our lives. Some of those things have sentimental value. Some of those things are just junk and the trouble is not in letting them go but in hauling them away. All of them together have created a task that we’ve put off for too long.

The job is daunting, but I know there are better things ahead if we face the mess and do the work.

It’s true for our garage. It’s true beyond our garage.

It’s a new year and we might as well get started.

Five-Acre Almanac: A Few Days After Winter Solstice

Week 21

I woke up this morning to the rumble of snow sliding off our metal roof. It’s 35 degrees out there and is predicted to get up to 43 later today. Right now, at 9:15 am, I’d still need a headlamp if I headed outside, but it’s no longer nighttime dark. The sky is foggy and slate blue. The snow is reflecting the same color but is a shade or two brighter. Water is dripping off of everything that was once covered with snow and the snow on the ground is melting into itself.

As I’m writing this I keep looking out the window and marveling at the contrast between in here and out there. Out there everything is saturated and sloppy. In here we’ve got green plants and walls the color of desert sand. We’ve got a fire in the stove and hot coffee in our mugs. We’ve got warm lights and woolen blankets.

Even though I’m venturing outside most days, it’s the time of year when the bulk of my time is indoors. I go outside to be reminded of life beyond these four walls, to be inspired by the fresh air, the beauty, and the expansiveness of it all, but I return to the softness of shelter, to the familiarity and comfort of domesticity, to slow stews and warm beverages, to books, writing, and music.

These darkest days of winter are a restorative time after the intensity of summer’s non-stop daylight. Understanding this dark time as a balancing force rather than thinking of it as a dreaded phase to endure is necessary for me, especially now that we’re past the winter solstice but still have four months of winter ahead of us. Now I can begin to track my energy’s return in step with the light’s return, even as winter continues on.

Already I sense the slightest change in direction. We’ve gone into the darkness and we’re moving out of it now. For the next month and a half it will be a slow progression, but then it will accelerate. By mid-February I’ll be astonished by how fast the days are gaining light. By March the sun will shine well into the evenings and sometimes, if there are no clouds and the conditions are just right, it will feel warm against our skin. Our friends who’ve invested in solar panels will see a dramatic uptick in their electrical production with both the intensity of the sun itself and it’s reflection off of the snow. In early April the birch, alder, and willow buds will begin to swell, the squirrels will start zipping between spruce trees and our old dogs will chase them, but perhaps not as enthusiastically as they once did. We’ll hear reports of bear tracks in the melting snow. Our driveway will thaw and for a few weeks we’ll have to walk to and from the house in our mud boots.

Some years we still have snow on the ground in early May, but even if that’s the case our garden is planted by Memorial Day. This is something we can count on, something we can plan for, something we can hold on to when winter seems impossibly long. After the garden goes in, it’s full-throttle summer for three months. It’s foraging, fishing, weeding, watering, harvesting, hiking, and camping. It’s hosting company, tending late night fires with friends, dropping dead tired into bed while it’s still bright outside and getting up the next morning to do it all again. Those three months are the yang to the yin of this darkness.

Our coffee table is covered with gardening books and soon the seed catalogs will show up in our mailbox. Already we’re thinking ahead to what we want to grow this summer and considering how we’ll fill each of our garden beds. We’re planning how we want to use our limited time off of work to maximize our summer days. But still, thankfully, there’s time for sitting in the rocking chair in front of the wood stove, time for sipping tea and listening to music. There’s time for writing and reflecting and reading. There’s time to imagine the things we long to create.

Now, a couple of hours after I first sat down to write, the fog is clearing. The low, wispy gray clouds are moving fast on the breeze and behind them the sky is brightening into shades of yellow and pink. I want to step away from my computer and move around a bit. Up until now winter has been about recovery, but now that we’ve crossed through the darkest of days everything feels possible again. It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself for thousands upon thousands of years, yet every time I experience it, it seems new. Every year it feels like a miracle.

Taken just after writing this post. 12/26/2021

*top photo taken from Bishop’s Beach on Winter Solstice