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: 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.

***

Saturated (part 2 of the Anderson Bluegrass Festival experience)

(See previous post for Part 1)

On Friday morning Jay sent us on our way armed with some amazing smoked salmon and a warning to watch out for the “knuckle draggers.”  It turns out he had taken his family to the Anderson Bluegrass Festival several years before and had almost been run over in his tent by someone who went for a middle-of-the night motorized excursion, after consuming much alcohol no doubt.  Jay and his family ended up leaving the festival early.  Sherry had also warned us about the festival, saying it was a wild one.  Maybe it was the alluring weather forecast that called for clear skies and temperatures in the 80’s, but after taking heed of the warnings of our friends we decided to give Anderson a shot anyhow.   We could handle knuckle draggers, or duck out early if we felt so inclined.

We stocked up on more groceries than three women could possibly consume over the span of three days and in order to have optimal awareness before the long drive north we stopped at the Modern Dwellers Chocolate Lounge for some drinking chocolate, (like we needed an excuse.)  I was looking forward to the drive with two of my favorite ladies, to listening to all the old-time music I liked (something my family doesn’t really appreciate) and getting north of the Alaska Range to where the summertime temperatures get well above what us coastal folks are accustomed to.

Honestly, our first impressions of the festival had us a little worried.  We didn’t feel like we fit in very well.  Not a one of us sports a tattoo or has piercings in unusual places.  We didn’t bring a keg or a hula hoop or a dog.  We drove around the grounds looking for a place to camp, feeling discouraged by our options until we spotted a group of people who looked a little like us.  They were about our age, clothed, and most importantly they were playing stringed instruments rather than a boom box.  We found out they were a bluegrass band from Anchorage called Bootleg Brown and they turned out to be great neighbors.  I think they appreciated us as well.  The group that camped beside them on the other side brought a pig, not the little pet pot-bellied sort, but more of a hog; the kind that would be in a 4-H display at a county fair.  We were the neighbors without the pig, which automatically made us more favorable I think.

After getting our camp put together we headed over to the main stage.  Peter, the birthday boy from the night before, was playing with the old-time string band Lost Dog from Fairbanks.  It was a stroke of luck to get there when we did because out of the hundreds of people at the festival they were the only other old-time musicians we ran across all weekend.  We took a close look to see who they were so we would know who to track down when we wanted to play tunes later in the evening.  Kate is a great friend and a ton of fun to travel with, but I also discovered an added bonus of going to music events with Kate; she knows and remembers the names of musicians from all around the state.  It turns out she recognized the band members of Lost Dog; fiddler Thomas Hart, banjo player Pete Bowers, Kim Blair on the mandolin and Ryan Bowers on the bass.

While watching Lost Dog on the main stage it hit me that I was as warm as I’d been all summer.   It was already late in the day, around 8:00 pm, and the sun was still high in the sky and beating down on my skin.  I haven’t spent much time in the interior of Alaska but at that moment I was a convinced there was no place on earth I’d rather be.  There were a few people in the crowd I could imagine slipping into “knuckle-dragger” mode later in the evening, but I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.  For a while we were just a bunch of people reveling in the sunshine, happy to be away from the real world for a little while.