Five-Acre Almanac: Week 3

Celebration

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

Montana, music and the New Year

It’s the beginning of a new year—one that will be different for sure in our family.  Dillon will be heading up to UAA in a couple of weeks and in the fall Adella will be going to high school in Montana for her junior year.  The house will be emptying out a little sooner than I had expected, at least temporarily, and anticipating that change gives me a different perspective on the present.  Suddenly spending quality time with my family feels kind of urgent, and yet I’m finding that teenagers don’t necessarily feel the same way.  I’m trying to guard against being too sentimental.

It was challenging to stay caught up with my writing in December, so one of my biggest goals for the new year is to start acting like a serious graduate student again.  I’m not so far behind that I can’t get caught up, but I have to find the time to write and then use that time wisely.  I’m not sorry that I took a break though.  I had a great visit with my mom and two older sisters earlier in the month when they came to see Homer’s version of The Nutcracker and the holidays, with everyone at home, have been great.

A little break from writing has been nice, but I’m ready to face the new year now.  I find that I’m a bit of a New Year’s geek, always getting introspective and thinking about what I want to change about my life with the change of the calendar.   I can’t decide if it’s optimism that makes me this way or if it’s chronic dissatisfaction with the status quo.  Either way, I always seem to want to try harder, tweak a few of my habits and generally work on self-improvement.

Last year was great in many regards.  I started an MFA program that I’m excited about.  I cut my sugar consumption way down.  Things are good with my family.  But I can see that I unintentionally cut back on a couple of things that bring me a lot of joy.

I went a whole summer without going camping or stepping foot in our skiff—and  summers in Alaska are way too short to not get out and enjoy the nature that’s all around.  I live in a beautiful place, with a stunning view of the mountains and the bay, but sometimes I need to leave my five acres and get out there.  That has to be a priority this year.

The other thing that I didn’t make enough time for in 2011 was music.  For the past decade I’ve made playing music a huge part of my life, and it’s one of the things that fills me up.  It gives me what I need to go about my less than exciting life of driving around, going to work, doing dishes, cooking dinner.  And as much as I love writing, it doesn’t do the same thing for me.  Music takes me out of my head.  When I get together with friends to play tunes I lighten up.  I drink a little.  I crack jokes.  When I’m alone and I work on learning new tunes it’s a lot like meditation.  My mind is clear for a while of all my responsibilities.

I love writing, and it gives me fulfillment in a different way, but it’s heady stuff.  When I’m concentrating on writing I tend to take myself a little too seriously.  I need to find a better balance.

So my hope for 2012 is to make time for music.  With it being an election year, I’m also hoping to spend less time reading the Huffington Post.  To me it seems like my time will be better-spent reading poetry, playing music and having fun with my family.  Of course I want to stay informed, but I don’t want to get worked up this time around.

I’m also anticipating a trip or two (who knows, maybe more?) to Missoula when Adella is down there.  I have nothing but fond memories of my time in Montana when I attended the U of M and although I’ll miss her terribly, I’m happy to have a reason to go back.  The mixed feelings I have about her going are eased by knowing I’ll get to visit, and by trusting that she’ll be in good hands while she’s there.

Best Wishes for the New Year to you all, and in keeping with my New Year’s wish for more music, here’s a clip of our afternoon old-time session from yesterday.  I’m playing one of the two fiddles.  (I’m the one trying to keep up.)

An Ode to Fiddle Camp

Jam (photo courtesy of Nicole Christianson)

All through September I kept having the feeling that summer couldn’t possibly be over yet.  There were a few things that didn’t happen; things that make summer feel complete.  This was the first time in the fourteen years that we’ve owned our skiff that we never launched it, which if you live in Homer just seems crazy.  We also never hosted a salmon/halibut barbeque with a campfire.  Incomplete as it may seem without those aspects of summer, the even bigger hole in the season comes from the fact that this year there was no Fiddle Camp.    And I really, really missed it.

In 2005 when I first attended Fiddle Camp I had taken a few Suzuki lessons and had picked out a few Irish tunes on my violin.  I knew I loved playing, but didn’t really have much direction, so on my first day of camp I signed up for an Irish fiddle class, a very basic bluegrass workshop and a “how to play in a band” workshop.  At the end of the day I was happy enough, I had been challenged and had plenty to work on, but then something happened that night.  I witnessed an old-time fiddle jam that changed everything.

It was music different than anything I’d ever witnessed.  Someone would call a tune and the whole group started to play.  Nobody soloed, nobody tried to outdo the next person; everyone just played the same tune together, for a long time. I noticed that after the first five or so times through a tune there was a shift in energy, it became almost meditative for the players, and the music seemed to take on a life of its own.  The melody of each tune stayed true throughout, but the driving force was the rhythm.  It’s difficult to for me to describe an old time jam, but the word “tribal” comes to mind whenever I try.

The next morning I rearranged my schedule to old-time fiddle 1, old-time fiddle 2, clawhammer banjo (even though I’d never held a banjo in my life) and Appalachian singing.  My teachers were Kirk Sutphin and Riley Baugus, so it’s safe to say I had a pretty amazing introduction to the genre.

I’ve been hooked on old-time music ever since. I play whenever I can; at home, with friends in town, and at festivals. But it’s not quite the same as being at camp.  Where else can I immerse myself in music for an entire week, share meals and stay up until all hours of the night with friends who share my passion?

And really it’s as much about the friends as it is about the music.  I’ve gotten used to seeing certain people every August and I missed them this year.  I missed singing hits from the eighties with Travis.  I missed hearing Eamon sing Irish ballads (and the Bee Gees) at two in the morning.  I missed Jay and Brian’s witty banter.   I missed everyone and the whole scene, especially the poignancy of Saturday night when nobody wants to go to bed because we all know it will be a whole year before we’re all together again.

Here’s hoping that Alaska Traditional Music Camp (Fiddle camp for short) will come together again someday.  My summer just wasn’t quite the same without it.  But even if it’s over, even if I have to get my music fix some other way in summers to come, I’m thankful to have been a part of it for the past five years.

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.

Saturated (part 1)

Sometimes a person reaches a saturation point.  The dampness of this coastal Alaskan summer was beginning to take its toll on my mood.  My imagination was stuck on replaying a scene that involved waking up in the morning and seeing blue sky and a yard that could be navigated without getting soaked.  I needed some sun and I wasn’t going to get it in Homer.  A field trip was in order, so my sister Marla and my friend Kate and I headed north, to the Anderson Bluegrass Festival.

There were no guarantees that the weather would be nice in Anderson, but whenever people gather to play music there is different kind of warmth that is created, a kind of heat that is a close second to that which comes from the sun, and I needed some of that as well.  Lucky for me the weekend did not disappoint on either front.

We left on Thursday afternoon and headed toward Anchorage to stay one night with our friends Jay and Sigrid, host and hostess extraordinaire.  They have an enviable way of making people feel right at home the moment you enter their presence (not just their home.)  Sigrid attended the play of one of her nieces that evening so we didn’t get to see much of her, but Jay whisked us away to a birthday party of a fellow musician and fiddle player, Peter.

Several friends that I’ve made over the past five years of attending Alaska Fiddle Camp were there, and it was great to get to see them, especially since there will be no camp this year.  After visiting for a while we found our way to the dining room that had been cleared out to make room for the purpose of playing music.  My brain was dull after the drive, and I could feel the beginnings of a headache (I should have known better than to substitute dinner with a mocha,) but thankfully my friend Sherry, another fiddle player, was there with her plethora of tunes, and between her and Peter and George, I enjoyed the luxury of just playing along without having to think too hard.  We played until just after midnight (in order to usher Peter into his 40’s) and ended the evening by passing around a gallon of raspberries that George had picked from his yard and given to Peter as a birthday gift.

It was raining again as we left the party but it didn’t really matter.  I felt content, and warm, and glad to be in Alaska among my friends.

Venturing out

It’s officially the time of year when I start daydreaming about living in New Mexico or somewhere, anywhere, where a person can leave the house without wearing ice-cleats and a headlamp.  Between the moose bedded down twenty feet from where we walk, a two inch layer of solid ice and the darkness, the most difficult part of each day can be getting up or down our driveway.   My response is that I never want to leave the house.  I would be perfectly happy to stay here.

I realize that staying home all the time is unrealistic.  Money must be earned.  Children must be driven around. Groceries must be purchased.   But I do find myself minimizing my outings during the darkest part of winter, and oftentimes I regret the commitments I’ve made that require me to leave the house.  That’s how I was feeling yesterday.  I just wanted to stay home with my computer and my books.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed another evening at home, but last night I was  reminded of why it is that I love this town, and why I stay here even when the winters start to make me a little batty.

The son of a friend of mine plays basketball on the Homer High School team and because of district funding issues the kids have to pay their own travel expenses for their games.  My friend decided to hold a contra dance after the game against Seward yesterday, with all of the proceeds going toward the team.  She and her husband asked me to play fiddle with their band for the dance.

The coach required that all the boys attend the event, and invite their friends and families, and of course girls, so they would have someone to dance with.   He told them they didn’t have to dance, but if they chose not to he would make them run 500 suicides at practice next week.   The parents of the team brought chili and cornbread and a table full of desserts, possibly to make the idea of a contra dance more appealing to the boys.  I fully expected the high school commons to be full of eye-rolling, arms-crossed teens, waiting impatiently until they could safely get out of there and onto whatever else they’d rather be doing.  But I was wrong.

At 8:00 we played our first tune, to get the kids attention mostly.  Then the first dance was called.  About twenty tentative couples made their way to the dance floor.  Before the caller finished teaching the dance the number of couples doubled.  It continued that way all evening.  Each dance seemed to have more participants than the one before.   And people kept showing up all the time; parents, friends, basketball supporters, the regular contra dance crowd.  The coach mandated the boys’ participation but he never said they had to stay until the end.  They were still going strong when we had to wrap things up at eleven.

There was much to enjoy about the evening; the food, the conversation, the mixed-age group socializing together.  I’m glad I didn’t miss it.  I’m sure I would have enjoyed staying home, getting lost in another good book, but instead I got to watch a room full of laughing people dance to the music of my own making.  I don’t think I’ll ever find a book that makes me feel as good as that.