Five-Acre Almanac: Eastering

Week 37

I don’t think about it much anymore, but when we bought this property we were recovering from a bad decision. Without going into too much detail I will just say that before we landed here we had a bed and breakfast in town. It all looked good on paper when we bought it and we did our best to run it for a couple of years, but we were young, we were in over our heads, and the stress of trying to maintain it and keep up with the demands of guests and two small children nearly tore us apart. We reached a point where we had to make a choice between getting a return on our financial investment by sticking it out, or count our losses before we lost more than just money.

Our daughter was born at our bed and breakfast home on Thanksgiving. It was a fast and easy birth and after our midwife and doula left, Dean and I found ourselves sitting on the couch with a newborn and a toddler and it was there in the dark hours of that early Thanksgiving morning that we decided we had to make a change. It took a while to extricate ourselves from that house and business, but when we finally did we were nothing but relieved.

When we saw this simple house on five acres of land it seemed like a place where we could begin again, and thankfully we still had enough money left to make a down payment.

There’s a lot of shame involved in losing money and it’s not something we’ve talked much about with other people. But as the story goes, we had a chunk of money from an inheritance and then we lost most of it and then we spent a lot of years of our lives beating ourselves up over those losses.

Once I took a writing workshop from Luis Alberto Urrea and he said that forgiving our former selves is one of life’s most difficult tasks, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard truer words. But I can say that it’s worth the effort it takes to do so.

Now our lives seem so sane. Our children are grown. We have steady jobs and enough time to pursue the things we love. The dreams we had when we bought this piece of property have been slow to come, but they are coming. I say all of this because sometimes the way it’s all working out still surprises me. Our grown children still seem to love us despite our imperfect parenting. While money is not growing on any of the trees we’ve got around here, we can pay our bills and afford the inevitable car repairs and winter tires. We’ve got steady jobs and friends and family members who’ve got our backs. We’ve still got each other too, which wasn’t always a given.

One of my favorite novels from the last couple of years is This is Happiness by Niall Williams. Besides being exquisitely written, it’s an homage to a simple life. It takes place in Ireland and it’s told from the perspective of a young man living with his grandparents in a small village during the time when electric lines were making their way to the rural parts of the country. There is a custom in the springtime of the year in which all of the villagers’ household belongings are taken outside and set in the yard for a good airing out in the sun. Then the empty houses are scrubbed clean. The cleaning and airing out is to prepare for the Easter holiday and the custom itself is called Eastering.

First fresh greens of 2022

We’re not quite at that stage of the game here. Our yard still has too much snow and where the snow has melted the ground is mushy. But the scene from that book stays with me. I imagine the house would smell like freshly laundered sheets and sunshine after that kind of a cleaning. And I try to imagine a life so unencumbered by stuff that it would be an easy enough task to haul all of our belongings out into the yard in an afternoon. Mostly I love the idea of letting air and sunshine work their way through all the indoor things that are prone to dust and darkness.

Retreating snow from the back garden

Journaling for me is a form of Eastering. With each entry I haul out something from inside myself that could use a little fresh air and sunlight. When it’s laid out on the page I can see the dings and the dust. More importantly I can see how small it is when it’s juxtaposed against a larger landscape. Once it’s no longer cluttered inside the shadowland of my interior self, there’s space for me to do some cleaning. Or forgiving, as the case may be.

Then, once I’ve looked at whatever it is in a different light and from a few different angles I can decide what to do with it next. I might choose to let it go or I might decide to hold onto it differently. I might file it into a new category or I might connect it to things that at one time seemed unrelated. But after each airing out I’m ready to begin again, which is what we all do. We begin, and then we begin again, and hopefully as we look at the pieces of our lives that brought us to where we are now, we’re able to offer ourselves and each other some grace.

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Fire safety/improved view/next winter’s heat all wrapped into one job.

Five-Acre Almanac: Small Joys

Week 35

It’s Sunday again, the day I’ve designated each week to write a post for this yearlong project. Facing down a blank page with the intention of sharing the words that materialize over the course of a few hours requires courage because while I’m writing about some aspect of life here on our five acres, I also want something more to come from my writing. I never know if what I’m hoping for is going to show up though, and the courage comes in trusting that something will reveal itself at some point along the way.

Writing about the work we do, the gardens we grow, the wild foods we harvest, the antics of our homegrown food experiments and our animals is the easy part. Writing from a deeper place, a place where the physical world connects to that place within me that is searching for meaning, is much more difficult.

This is all to say that this week I’m struggling to know what to write. In one hand I’m holding all the hope that this time of year brings, and in the other I’m holding sorrow. I believe that’s true for most of us. To pay attention to what’s happening in the world is to know grief. To see spring chives poking up out of the ground is to feel hope. Watching our beloved dogs grow old exposes our hearts to a tenderness that’s both beautiful and sorrowful. To have the time and ability to work on the things we find meaningful gives us deep satisfaction. Every day is a mix of small joys and deep sorrow, deep joy and small sorrows and writing this post each week becomes a balancing act where I try to lean heavy on the hope and joy but stay grounded in reality.

Earlier this week Dean and I signed up for a year-long gardening course offered by local gardener and teacher Saskia Esslinger. The way it works is that Saskia hosts a Zoom meeting once a week to talk about some aspect of gardening and a person can join the course at any point in the year. We signed up because even though we’ve been gardening for a long time now, there’s always more to learn and as we look at expanding, any efficiency we can implement now will help make this a sustainable endeavor rather than one that wears us out. Also, we get to talk about gardening and related subjects every Saturday morning for a year.

Yesterday was our first session and the topic of the day was greenhouses. We have a greenhouse, but already after just one class we have some simple improvements in mind that will likely make it better. Even if we don’t have the time to make the changes this year, we have an ideal we can work toward, which is exactly the kind of thing we were hoping for when we decided to sign up for this course.

Dean built our greenhouse off the back of our chicken coop five summers ago. He used old windows, a door one of our friends salvaged from the dump and scrap lumber from an old structure that was here when we moved in but needed to be torn down. It’s a funky little greenhouse, but I love it and now we have a place to grow a few crops that don’t typically grow outside in Alaska and a place to hang out and enjoy the view this time of year before it’s full of plants.

Dean putting all the pieces together

On Thursday I went out to check on the chickens in the early afternoon and heard something scurry up the side of the coop. I’ve suspected that an ermine has been stealing our eggs and finally my suspicions were confirmed. I rearranged a few of the laying boxes and plugged up a hole that might have been the entry point. Since then I’ve been getting four or five eggs a day as opposed to zero or one, but I’m not convinced that the ermine won’t find its way back in. They seem like smart and scrappy little creatures that would be quick to find a work-around to any obstacle that’s put in their way.

On Friday an unexpected package arrived in the mail from a friend. She sent me a chicken poster with a handwritten note explaining that she saw it hanging in a bookstore window and immediately thought of me. She asked the proprietor if they had another poster for sale but they didn’t. They did however have one they were willing to give her. She also mentioned that the poster is meant to be hung in the chicken coop to inspire the hens. I’ll get down there soon for some deep spring cleaning and muckraking and ermine-proofing and I’ll find a place to hang it then, but in the meantime I’ll keep it inside where I can see it and be reminded of my friend, and the fact that she thought of me and acted on her impulse to spread some joy.

And I guess that’s what I’m landing on today, the importance of those small joys that make up a life. Interesting classes, the kindness of friends, fun surprises, spring greens after a long winter, sitting in a warm greenhouse on a cool but sunny afternoon, solving problems, time spent pursuing passions, great conversations, beach walks, good music. These things don’t take away the sorrows of the world, but they ease them a little. They don’t give us a solution to every problem, but they point us in the right direction. If enough of us follow where those small joys lead us, maybe it will make a difference.

Five-Acre Almanac: The Fullness of it All

Week 34

I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line Dean and I became the kind of people who have a well-stocked pantry. It makes sense here in earthquake country, in a state that gets most of its food from thousands of miles away, but we haven’t always been this way and so we’re still figuring out how to do it. Yesterday I started the project of organizing it. We try to do this every now and again to remember what all we have and to bring the stuff that’s been sitting around for a while to the front of the line. We’re realizing that there’s a fine line between having a well stocked pantry and hoarding, and we don’t want to cross that line.

The process of working on the pantry was painful, and as those kinds of jobs often go it got worse before it got better. A couple hours in and the kitchen table and counters were covered in all the things that had been on the pantry shelves, and with each item a decision had to be made. Are we really going to use that five year old rhubarb butter or is it time to give it to the chickens? That weird sauce that has the questionable ingredients in it, yes we bought it for some strange reason a few years ago but now that we know what’s in it will we ever use it? Probably not.

Between the pantry job, the disheveled nature of our house while it’s undergoing some minor remodeling and garden starts filling every horizontal surface that gets any light, the clutter nearly sent me into a state of overwhelmed-ness that bordered on despair. The fact that I’d been reading the news earlier didn’t help. The pantry job also had me going in and out of our garage which, even after a few sessions of sorting and getting rid of stuff, is still packed.

A few years back we got rid of a raft that we bought in Montana shortly after we got married. It was worn out and no longer useful but we held on to the rowing frame. The frame had been knocking about in the loft of our garage for years and we kept it even though the likelihood of us ever using it again was next to nothing. Finally a couple of weeks ago we loaded it into the back of our truck, but not before I imagined how it might be put to use for a cold frame for our garden or for a makeshift bench by our fire pit, and that revealed another problem I have which is that I feel guilty for adding more stuff to a world that’s already overwhelmed with too much stuff and in an effort to assuage my guilt over being a consumer I try to envision the potential reuses for every single thing, from used yogurt containers to old rowing frames.

Another problem with getting rid of things has to do with the stories that are attached to them, or more accurately, our perception that stories are attached to the objects we hold on to. Storing the raft and frame in our garage added nothing to the memories we have of floating the Smith River or fly-fishing our way down Rock Creek. Letting them go was not letting go of the people we used to be, as those younger versions of ourselves had already moved on. The raft and frame weren’t keeping anything alive, they were just taking up space.

We’re having a bigger dilemma trying to decide what to do with a huge collection of leather bound Franklin Mint books that once belonged to Dean’s dad who died at age 48 just a month before Dean and I met each other. Ken was a pilot for Braniff Airlines, and then after Braniff folded he and a partner started Sun Country Airlines. He valued the idea of reading classic literature but as a driven businessman he didn’t allow himself much time for that sort of thing. He told Dean that his plan was to make his way through those books once he retired.

Ken’s untimely death meant that most of those books he looked forward to reading one day were never opened. When he died they went into boxes, and then into storage, and then onto a barge that brought them to Alaska where we’ve continued the tradition of not reading them. We displayed them on our bookshelves for a while, but they weren’t the books we wanted to read so they just collected dust. Now they’re back in boxes in our garage, taking up space.

It’s good to remember that we have some choice over what’s meaningful in our lives, and that we’re allowed to change our minds and evolve and let things go when the time is right to let things go.

Yesterday I let that old rhubarb butter go, along with a half-full mystery box of croutons and bag of sorghum flour that I was never going to use. I said goodbye to the three year old box of yellow cake mix and eight jars of dried herbs that were well past their prime. Then after I got the pantry put back together and cleaned up after the project, I went outside and wandered around for a while with Dean and the dogs. We loaded the wheelbarrow with firewood and shoveled snow off the yurt deck. We checked in on the chickens and stood inside our greenhouse for a while to enjoy the extra bit of heat. I stayed out long enough to lose my sense of being overwhelmed, then I came back inside and turned on Radio Paradise and made dinner.

Sometimes I want everything to be orderly and I want it now, but the nature of this life that we’ve chosen is that it’s messy. We make repairs as we can afford them. We sort through the stuff that’s accumulated as we’re able to. We cook and make a mess of the kitchen, then we clean it up and do it all again. We reuse jars and plastic bags. We have dogs that shed. We ferment things. We grow a garden that takes over our house for about a month every spring. We put chores on hold in order to write. We make time to go for walks and practice tai chi and listen to music.

There is no future date when everything will be perfectly lined up and all the tasks will have been completed. There is just this day and the next. We’ll make a little progress in some areas and fall further behind in others. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the fullness of it all, but when I stop to take a breath I remember that we’re having a pretty good time.

Five-Acre Almanac: Breakup Season

Week 32

Breakup is the Alaska term for when winter loses its hold. It’s when the snow and ice begin to melt and the ground begins to thaw. It’s a process that can take a couple of months and during breakup there can be beautiful blue sky days with perfect snow conditions or there can be days when it’s sleeting sideways and the streets are lined with dirty piles of mushy snow that’s melting into pools of water with no place to drain. It’s when new dips in the roads materialize overnight and driving becomes a focused exercise of avoiding potholes. Normally breakup starts toward the end of March and continues through April but this year it started in February. Now we’re all waiting to see if it’s here to stay.

Yesterday Dean started planting our garden. He started pepper, leek, marjoram, oregano, sage, marigold and sunflowers seeds that will eventually be transplanted outdoors. Last week he started goji berries, tomatoes, and spinach. I started some seeds too. Fifteen years ago when my dad died I collected wildflower seeds from the cemetery on Wilson Mesa where his ashes were scattered and brought them home to Alaska. They’ve been in a jewelry box on my dresser until last week. Now I’ve put them in a damp paper towel inside a Ziploc bag to try sprouting them knowing that even though seeds can last a long time, especially ones like these that have a hard outer shell and have evolved to grow in the harsh high country environment of Western Colorado, I might have waited too long.

We still have snow in our yard but we’re starting to see the ground again in certain places. Our two hugelkultur raised beds are completely uncovered and I hope the little knobs of rhodiola rosea I planted last fall will start to emerge. They’re the most cold hardy of plants and just might be able to withstand another bout of winter, should it decide to return.

Another sure sign of winter’s end is the eagles have been swooping about the neighborhood the way they do when it’s time for them to build a nest. Last summer a pair of bald eagles raised two eaglets in a cottonwood tree in our neighbor’s front yard but yesterday when I was out I noticed that the top half of the tree has broken off and the nest has been destroyed. It must have toppled over during one of our recent wind storms.

Wind can be a destructive force around here but our own place doesn’t seem to be as battered by it as it was when we first moved in. I can’t tell if it’s because we don’t have as many windstorms as we used to or if it’s because our trees have grown tall and we now have a windbreak. It’s also quite possible that I’ve become used to the strength of the windstorms that blow in from the Gulf of Alaska and they no longer freak me out the way they used to. One may come along on occasion that keeps me awake at night, but the wakefulness is due more to noise than it is worry over the potential destruction.

It’s been hard seeing images of all the destruction that’s happening in Ukraine. Apartment buildings destroyed, streets rendered impassable from bombings, school yards blown to bits. The physical damage cannot be compared to the loss of human dignity and life, but still I can’t help but think about what a waste it all is. All the resources and energy that went into creating what’s useful and necessary, maybe even beautiful, reduced to ruins.

I try to imagine having to leave this place behind. These five acres that we’re still paying for, that we’ve raised a family on, that we plant a garden on and harvest food from. This piece of land that because of a monthly money exchange and a few pieces of paper we can call our own. I try to imagine a bomb tearing through our roof causing the house to be uninhabitable or sinister forces moving in and taking the things we’ve worked hard for for their own. It’s happened to plenty of people throughout history. It’s happening now, just not to us.

Then I take it further and try to imagine losing the town I’ve come to call home. What if a military invaded and took over the harbor and the airport? What if they destroyed the roads we would need to drive on should we feel compelled to escape? I don’t imagine these scenarios in order to wallow in pain, but as an effort to try to identify who I would be if all the things I’ve come to identify myself with were no longer mine. Who would I be when separated from the place I call home, with no prospect for a new one?

According to Amnesty International there were 26 million refugees around the globe in 2019. Just within the past few weeks there have been another couple million added to that number. These are people who have been displaced from their homes due to violence, insecurity, food shortages and persecution, and half of them are children.

Those numbers make me feel the privilege of being a person who’s able to write about what it’s like to live on these five acres of land. Gratitude is one piece of it, as I’m thankful for my life. But there’s something more that I’m having a hard time putting my finger on, and maybe it has to do with the fact that I’ve always felt cared for. I’ve always had shelter. I’ve always had enough food. I’ve never been displaced. And because of this I’ve always trusted that things will turn out okay. How much greater a person’s trust must have to be when all the structures of their lives have been pulled out from underneath them. Does this make them feel like God or the Universe has abandoned them, or does it make them feel closer to the source of their humanity?

These are heady thoughts, which seem about right for these heady times, and for Lent, and for breakup season, while we’re waiting for something to give.

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: 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: 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

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.

Five-Acre Almanac: Winter Ready

Week 11

Today has been a chicken-soup sort of Sunday. The two inches of snow that we woke up to is turning to slush in the rain and while that’s the sort of weather that’s not welcome in January, I’m just fine with it in October. Most likely we’re going to have plenty of snow for several months and I’m not in any hurry for it to pile up. Plus I’d still like to rake some leaves and dried grasses to store in the greenhouse for chicken coop bedding.

Birch tree in full yellow

Earlier this week I started making a plan for myself for the winter. I don’t typically get depressed or experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but that’s not to say that six-month long winters aren’t hard. It doesn’t hurt to go into the season with a few intentions.

One thing I’m going to do is try to get outside every day for at least twenty minutes. I realize this doesn’t sound like much, but it can be tricky when it’s dark before and after work. And it’s so easy to be a wimp when it’s super cold, or raining sideways, or when everything is covered in a sheet of ice, or when the snow is too deep, or when it’s just gray and dreary and I’d rather be inside by the wood stove. But I always feel better with fresh air and often it’s not as bad outside as it looks like it’s going to be. And even when it is bad, I think it’s good to experience a little weather now and then. It can wake me up, shift my energy, change my mood.

Same birch, a day earlier.

The next tool I’m going to use to help me through winter is yoga. I’ve tried doing yoga in the mornings but between a cold house, demanding dogs, and a job I have to go to, evenings work best. It feels good to put on some music and stretch out on the floor in a cozy living room after a long work day, and it almost always leads to a good night’s sleep. I’ve done this for the past couple of winters and now it’s a part of the dark season I look forward to.

One of the simplest and most satisfying aspects of recent winters has been incorporating the food and herbs that we’ve grown or foraged during the summer into our daily lives. Whether it’s adding black currants to our oatmeal, drinking a cup of nettle tea in the afternoons, or simmering garlic and hot wax peppers in chicken broth for a good long time like we did today, we’re able to take in good Jing from the garden with nearly every meal. It’s satisfying and nourishing on a deep level. It keeps us feeling connected to our land during a time of year when it’s easy to fantasize about selling it all and moving down south to where winters are short and where a day’s light and darkness are more evenly balanced.

Fermenting carrots/good jing.

There are other things that help with winter. A couple of hours of standing around a fire pit with friends can reaffirm that we’re glad to live where we live. Taking Vitamin D regularly keeps us from wanting to sleep all the time. Music can change the atmosphere in the house, which is especially helpful during long, dreary stretches of being mostly indoors. And after the frenetic summer season I appreciate that winter offers time for deep dives into things more cerebral.

Midday fire in mid-October

I’ve been learning about herbs for the past couple of winters, and this year we’ve got a new one to try. Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen which means its main medicinal purpose is to assist the body in adapting to stress. According to Beverly Grey’s informative and comprehensive book The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North, it’s also supposed to help with fatigue and depression and can “bring relief to people who live in extreme climates.” In nature it grows in harsh alpine conditions and for the past four years we’ve had some that’s been growing and thriving in our dry and often-neglected hugelkultur bed. It takes a few years before Rhodiola is ready to harvest, but finally this fall it was time. We pulled its long and tentacle-like roots out of the soil, chopped it and dried it, and now for a month we’re going to engage in a little citizen science and drink a cup of it daily to see if we can see any noticeable effects.

Rhodiola rosea in a gloved hand

Rhodiola rosea’s roots are yellow and they smell like the wild Sitka roses that grow around here. The decoction that’s made from simmering the roots is rose colored with a mild citrus flavor. It’s a little dry too, like dry wine. Because it’s so tasty it would be easy to drink too much of it, which I think I might have done earlier in the week because for three nights in a row I woke up at 3:30am and had trouble going back to sleep. When I cut the amount of tea I was drinking in half I slept fine.

Learning about herbs from books is a good place to start, but I’m equally as interested in the traditions and stories that go along with them. Trying them out on myself is a lesson in paying attention to subtleties, asking questions, making adjustments, and still not knowing definitively if a specific herb is having a specific effect on me. But it seems like a good way to practice honing my intuition and getting to know specific plants. If I were truly committed to scientific testing I’d give up coffee and just drink the rhodiola tea to try to isolate its effects, but coffee is another thing that helps me through winter.

For now I’ll study the two together, and I’ll try to get enough sleep and exercise. I’ll try to consume plenty of good jing but hopefully not too much. I’ll keep showing up here every week too, because writing this feels like movement, like I’m heading somewhere new. And sharing it feels like I’m throwing out a net, gathering people to travel along with me for a while. I can’t have you all over for a cup of coffee or a pot of herb tea, but I can write you here. And when we’re done with our imaginary drinks we can put on our rubber boots and rain jackets and head out into the storm. I’d love nothing more than to show you around.

Morning tea beside the old birch, a day before the snow.

Five-Acre Almanac: Good Jing

Week 10

Last night as Dean and I sat down to dinner it hit me that I need to clarify something. I write about our garden and the food we grow so much that it’s possible I’ve given the impression that we are food purists. We’re not. Life is busy and time is limited and sometimes we just want a frozen pizza or nachos or something that doesn’t take planning or effort. That’s how it came about that we invented the “dress that somebitch up” category of dinners at our house. They’re best on Fridays and basically the recipe looks like this:

1. Pick a record to listen to and put it on. (Look for one that will lift the energy, because you usually need a boost by the end of the work week.)

2. Find a pre-made pizza crust or quesadilla makings or a bag of tortilla chips. (A slice of white bread would work in a pinch.)

3. Heat the oven. (Usually to about 400 degrees)

4. In the time it takes to heat up the oven, put together something delicious and nutritious to add to item in step 2. (The goal is to add something with good Jing* every time.) (*I’ll try to explain what I mean by Jing further down.)

5. Add the results of step 4 to what you found in step 2.

6. Bake it until it looks ready. (We’ve learned that on a Friday night it’s good to set a timer so you don’t forget about it in the oven.)

7. Pull it out of the oven. (Be sure to turn the oven off!)

8. Let it rest for 2-3 minutes. (This is a good time to clear some space at the table.)

9. Slice it. Scoop it. Put it on a plate.

10. Eat. (It’s important to comment frequently and dramatically on how delicious your food is, and how clever you are to have dressed that somebitch up.)

11. Save the dishes for morning (Because you’re done with the work week.)

12. Pick another record. (Take the energy down just a notch.)

13. Make a pot of tea. (This is an opportunity to consume more Jing!)

This is what dinner looks like almost every Friday night at our house in the darker months. It started as a way to be easy on ourselves but it’s turned into a weekly celebration. We may be tired and in need of recharging by the time Friday evening rolls around, but we’re home, and we have two days ahead of us and during those two days we can be ourselves and pursue the things we love and work on the things we care most about.

Dean’s Kombucha has good Jing!

In certain Chinese traditions like Taoism, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi, there are three energies that sustain life. They’re called Jing, Qi, and Shen, and are known as the “Three Treasures.” My husband has been practicing Qi Gong and Tai Chi for nearly a decade, and while he’s introduced me to these ancient concepts it would take a lifetime of study to truly understand them.

On a very basic level, Jing* is the essence of a thing.

Merriam-Webster defines “essence” as the basic nature of a thing : the quality or qualities that make a thing what it is.

Imagine the potential that’s contained in a blueberry seed. If that seed is given what it needs—the right amount of water, proper soil, an ideal temperature, clean air, and time, then it can transform into what it is meant to become: a blueberry bush that grows beautiful, delicious berries. That transformation is an energetic process.

Once we consume the blueberry, the energy that was contained within it is converted into our own life’s energy. According to Taoist principles, the catalyst that turns the Jing from the berry into life energy, or Qi, is love.

Jing is the building material for Qi, but love is required in order for the transformation to take place. It’s going to take a while for me to wrap my mind around this.

The third of the Three Treasures is Shen, and I’m not sure how to write about it because it has to do with things I can’t quite put to words. It’s an energy that comes from the practice of moving the Qi energy. The movement of Qi creates the pathway for a kind of alchemy that converts the Qi into something beyond life energy. That something is Shen and it’s associated with Spirit, and our souls. It has to do with being connected to the food we eat, the air we breath, the soil, and water. It has something to do with love.

All of this is to try to explain Jing, which is the essence of food, fuel of our life force, and key to discovering the Divine, and to tell you how we incorporated it into our dinner last night after an exhausting work week.

Here’s the recipe:

1. We chose the record album “uh-huh” by John Cougar Mellencamp. (I checked it out from the library!)

2. Dean pulled the cauliflower crust pizzas we’d purchased from Save-U-More earlier in the week in anticipation of Friday night from the freezer.

3. I picked some King of the North red bell peppers that are growing in our living room now that the greenhouse is put away for winter.

4. I pulled a few yellow and red tomatoes out of the box in the pantry where they’re slowly ripening.

5. I peeled and and crushed four cloves of Vietnamese red garlic.

6. I chopped up part of the portobello mushroom I found last weekend near the chicken coop.

7. I sauteed the veggies and mushroom on medium heat for five or so minutes before I added three tablespoons of Concord grape shrub that I made last year from some grocery store grapes. Then I sprinkled on a pinch of salt.

8. After all the flavors melded together I spooned it onto the frozen pizza.

9. Then I baked it at 420 degrees for thirteen minutes.

10. I pulled it out of the oven and let it sit for a few minutes. While it sat I put this week’s mail into a pile that will be sorted later. I scooped the dandelion roots that have been drying all week on our kitchen table into a jar. I moved the crock of fermenting sauerkraut from the center of the table to the side.

11. Then we sliced the pizza and ate it.

12. We agreed that it was one of the best DTSB-up dinners so far. High in flavor. High in Jing. We ate a slice or two more than we really needed.

12. When we were done we made a pot of tea. (nettle, clover, dandelion root and chocolate mint)

13. We put on another record I brought home from the library. This time it was Retrospective: The Best of Buffalo Springfield. We listened to “For What It’s Worth” three times for the lyrics and “Bluebird” twice, once for the guitar and a second time for the banjo.

We sipped our tea and changed the music a few more times. We talked about what we want to accomplish over the weekend. We decided that it’s time to get the candles out, and the copper wire lights to string around the ficus tree. We left the dishes for later.