Five-Acre Almanac: All These Trees

Week 36

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

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

An old but unprotected birch

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

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

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

Gutter Birch

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

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

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

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

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

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

walkable snow

Retreating snow under a young spruce

Five-Acre Almanac: 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: Here and Now

Fresh snow and low angle sun on the trail to the chicken coop.

Week 13

Yesterday when it was raining buckets outside, we cozied up our living room. We pulled all the furniture aside and vacuumed the dust and dog hair out of the corners. We took everything off the bookshelves, wiped them down and reordered all the books. We dealt with the pepper plants that had been in our south-facing window by moving some to a cool dark place where they can be dormant for a while, putting a few under a grow light to finish up, and harvesting one that was loaded with tiny hot red fruits.

We cleaned off all the horizontal surfaces, dusted off the house plants and the instruments, moved the couches around, and sorted through a bunch of old magazines. Then we pulled out an extra lamp and a few more candles. We’re in for a long stretch of darkness and my compulsion to do this deep cleaning and comfort making comes from having experienced many long winters in Alaska. Borrowing the term from the Danish, we call this time of year hygge-season and with equal measures of self-preservation and gratitude we fully embrace it.

Having a warm and snug home is something we don’t take for granted, especially since both Dean and I regularly meet people whose living situations are much more tenuous than our own. Our home is small by today’s middle class standards and it needs about a million upgrades, but when we look out at the trees being tossed about in the wind and hear the rain pelting the windows, we feel wealthy in our green-carpeted living room with our wood stove thumping and a pot of chili simmering in the dutch oven.

I read a book this week called To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest. The author, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, now in her seventies, is a renowned botanist and biochemist who went into her formal education after having first been schooled in traditional Celtic knowledge that had been passed on to her by a community of Irish relatives after both of her parents died. Much of her work as a scientist has been driven by what she learned about the natural world through stories and plantlore on the hillsides of Ireland as a young girl.

Reading the book made me wish I could go back in time and walk through wild places with my ancestors. It made me wish for long hearthside afternoons with my grandmothers and their mothers and those even further back. If I could, I’d keep a record of all the little tidbits of information they must have had about plants and people and keeping home and getting by. Plus it would be fun to know them, these random people who came together from so many different places in such a way that made my existence here and now a possibility.

I imagine my life is so very different than theirs must have been, driving thirteen miles a day to town for a job, flipping a switch to make the lights come on, buying food that was grown in one place, processed in another, and shipped a thousand miles so that I can have the convenience of not cooking something from scratch if I don’t feel like it. I’m sure the number of choices we have in our daily lives—what to eat, what to watch, what to wear, what to listen to, what to read—would overwhelm them. I wonder if they would celebrate the number of choices we have or if they’d worry about our sanity. Probably a little of both.

I like to think about the things I can still learn from those in my family that I did have the privilege of knowing. My slow moving nature came straight from my dad and sometimes when I’m moving from one task in the garden to the next I imagine his commentary and advice. When I’m at my desk writing, I think of my Grandma Acree who was studious and thoughtful and always careful with her words. When I’m looking at the jars of herbs in my pantry wondering what I’m meant to do with them all, I think of my Granddad Acree, autobody repairman by trade, who in the final decade of his very long life took a deep dive into learning about alternative healing practices and herbalism. When I’m feeling scattered and overwhelmed, I think of my Grandma Ross and the gentle way she moved through her days, grounded in her unwavering faith.

Life on Earth changes continually, but there are still a few things that our ancestors experienced that we can experience too, and it makes sense that one way to know those who came before us is to get to know aspects of the natural world that they must have known. We can watch a storm brewing the way they did. We can walk a dirt path through the forest. We can dip our toes into cold running water. We can eat some of the foods they ate.

In To Speak for the Trees, Diana Beresford-Kroeger writes that medicine men and women of ancient and modern Indigenous cultures call wild food “bush food” and they understand that when people stop eating bush food, they lose their health. Then she goes on to state that “wild foods of all kinds, from untainted, pure, genetic sources, have a phytochemical regulation system that modern science is just now trying to understand.”

Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s discussion of “bush food” confirmed to me something that feels instinctual. Food that is foraged, that is freely given from the earth, has value that goes beyond caloric intake and wonderful flavors. Wild food can serve as a link to our ancestors. It can connect us to the wild, biological, animal side of ourselves. It can restore our health on more than just a physical level.

The possibilities are enough to inspire me to get outside and pick another bucketful of rose hips and to keep adding dried nettle to every kind of soup and sauce that I make. It’s enough to keep me tossing a few wild blueberries into my pancake batter and to keep experimenting with all the wild plants we collected and dried throughout the summer. Brewing things up, trying things out and pouring through books on how to use all of these plants is the perfect thing to do now, in this season between harvest and winter solstice. With any luck we’ll have a few gifts worth giving at Christmastime. After that we’ll be looking at seed catalogs and plotting next year’s garden.

Right now though I’m not going to think about all of that. I’m going to go outside and enjoy the break in the weather, then I’m going to come in, make a cup of tea and settle in for the evening. It’s the season for settling and I’m ready.