Five-Acre Almanac: Beginning

Right now seems an unlikely time to start a new writing project. It’s August in Alaska, which means that summer is speeding downhill. It’s time for berry picking and firewood stacking, time for cleaning out anything old in the freezer and filling it back up again with this year’s harvest. But I’m going to start it anyhow.

Earlier this year Dean and I acquired a business license and started Twin Fish Gardens. It’s a home-based endeavor and the idea of it came about in 2020 when all of our routines were disrupted and we had a bit of time to assess our lives. We asked ourselves questions. What brings us joy? What are we most grateful for? How do we want to spend our days? And we imagined creating something that would allow us to live in line with the answers to those questions. We don’t have a perfect plan in place and we expect there will be some trial an error along the way. But we knew it wouldn’t happen if we didn’t start somewhere.

This writing project is a part of Twin Fish Gardens. Each week I’m going to write an account of living here on this five acres of land. There’s faith and fear mixed into this commitment, but there’s also promise.

I’ll kick it off with strawberries.

1. Strawberries

I’m starting this at 10:00pm on the first Wednesday night in August, 2021 and outside there’s a thick fog. This afternoon we had an unexpected rain and it’s because of that rain that I’m inside writing instead of outside picking strawberries. The strawberries are only here for a time and the time is now.

For the past two weeks we’ve picked twenty quarts of Sitka strawberries for our freezer and twelve pounds to trade. We’ve eaten them with abandon while picking and with a bit of sugar and cream when we’re settled back in the house before crashing into bed. We’ve shared with friends and we’ve turned a blind eye on our dogs sneaking into the patch and helping themselves. It seems like the more we pick the more they produce.

We’ve done nothing to deserve these strawberries. We’re just the recipients of a gift the previous owner planted nearly four decades ago. We don’t water them and we don’t weed them except for Dean’s occasional attempt to knock down the cow parsnip plants (locally known as pushki) so that we won’t be harmed by their photo-reactive juices when we’re down on our hands and knees, expedition style, in search of the soft pink fruits that are hiding among the horsetail and wild grasses.

We could spend our time weeding and keeping the strawberry beds orderly, but I don’t think we’d have more to show for our troubles. The way the plants are, free to do their natural berry thing in their natural berry way, seems to be working just fine. The horsetail between them offers visual protection from birds and provides them with an airy space in which to grow. The sprawling beds allow them to spread and put down roots in fresh places. They’d take over the whole place if we let them.

Strawberries are just one aspect of our garden. The snap peas are also coming on now, and after a slow start we’re finally eating broccoli and zucchini most days. The arnica Dean planted this spring has its first bloom and the wild plants we forage—fireweed, yarrow, pineapple weed, clover—are keeping our herb drying racks full. Slugs are also plentiful this year and one bed in particular has been hit hard. At this point we’ve sacrificed the kale plants around the edges in hopes that the slugs will be so enamored with them that they’ll stay away from the broccoli and cabbage.

There’s a lot we want to do around here and a limited amount of time, so we’re always looking for ways to be more efficient. The strawberries, along with the wild plants we forage, are a gift in that regard. They grow on their own and all we have to do is harvest. The same is not true for most garden vegetables. Most of the food we grow requires a lot more work and sometimes our efforts fail and our yield is much smaller than we’d hoped for.

How fortunate we are though, to live during a time when our survival doesn’t depend on whether we grow enough food. We can garden for the joy of it and if something doesn’t grow well for a season –and there’s always something that doesn’t grow well– we can either do without or buy it. This kind of freedom allows for creativity. We can try new varieties of vegetables. We can plant chamomile in between our garlic to see if it’s true that the two thrive next to each other. We can try different methods of gardening. Everything becomes an experiment and each season becomes a study. We plan for it over the winter, we plant it in the spring and then we watch and wait and learn. It requires patience and a willingness to get it wrong sometimes. But each year we do a little better. Each year we have a bit more to show for our effort.

Of course there’s more to summer than growing and foraging. We both hold full time jobs. In July we went to Georgia for our daughter’s wedding. This weekend we spent the bulk of two days at a music festival. Next week we’re hosting guests and throwing a party.

Extended, uninterrupted time for the things we love isn’t going to materialize out of nowhere. We have to do what we can and give up a few of the things that aren’t in line with the direction we want to go. Mostly we have to let go of perfection. I’ve written this post over a few days, between stints in the garden, in the mornings before work, fifteen minutes before bed. I’ve picked away at this the way I’m picking all those strawberries, a little at a time.

It’s more satisfying than television. It’s more uplifting than Twitter.

A Break

My last blog post was on April 22nd, two days after the oil platform Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.  At that point I was writing one or two essays a week for the History of Psychology class I was taking, and that particular blog post was a way for me to escape the pressures of my class for a couple of hours. I noticed the headline about the oil platform sinking and eleven crewmen missing on that day as I was researching school lunches but honestly my mind was on other things and I didn’t give it much thought.

I took a break from journaling and blogging late in the semester in order to finish the term paper for my class. And in my attempt to stay focused on the task at hand I didn’t pay much attention to the news, but on May 6th, the day I submitted my final project, I heard that the oil leak in the Gulf was spewing close to 25,000 barrels a day, a much bigger number than the 1000 barrels it had been estimated at in the beginning.  The burden of a semester’s worth of deadlines was gone and I could finally think about the trip to Colorado I was leaving for the next day, but that number, twenty-five thousand, stayed with me.

My sister and I flew out of Anchorage on Saturday, May 8th.   The route took us over Prince William Sound where twenty-one years before, the Exxon Valdez spilled 257,000 barrels of crude oil.   When that spill occurred I was three years out of high school, at a time in my life when keeping up with current events was the last thing on my mind.  But I had this dream of moving to Alaska and I watched the spill unfold on television with a heavy heart.  What I didn’t understand at the time was that the images of oiled sea birds and otters were only a small part of the story; the lost livelihoods, the damaged ecosystems, the profound hopelessness experienced by those affected, those are the stories that aren’t as easy to cover in a headline, or with a picture.

I spent my first day in Colorado, Mother’s Day, at my step-mom’s house.  Three of my five sisters were there along with four nieces and a nephew.  She prepared for us a delicious meal of shrimp scampi and just before we sat down to dinner we checked CNN and found out that BP’s first attempt to cap the spewing oil with a containment dome the day before had failed.  If I’ve done my math right, the Deepwater Horizon had already surpassed the Exxon Valdez in the number of barrels of oil leaked by Mother’s Day.  But unlike an oil tanker with a finite capacity, nobody knows how much oil can escape from a hole that is drilled 18,000 feet into the ocean floor.   Nobody knows how many fishing families will be put out of business, or how the Gulf of Mexico’s sustainable shrimp industry will fare, but it doesn’t look promising.

I didn’t follow the news much for the next ten days or so.  I knew the oil was still flowing into the ocean but thinking about it couldn’t change a thing, so I went about enjoying my time with my mom and my sisters.   It’s a powerless feeling to care about something and really not be able to do anything tangible to remedy the situation.

I returned from Colorado a little over three weeks ago.  Since then I’ve resumed my normal life, which is mellower in the summertime.   With the kids out of school I’m able to sleep a little later, and the extra daylight after I get off of work allows me to get outside and work in the garden in the evenings.  The peas and beets are beginning to sprout already, and potatoes and carrots will soon follow.  So far all of the green vegetables that we transplanted seem to be surviving, so maybe this will be a good gardening year.  Hopefully by the time I’m harvesting vegetables this fall the technology to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico will have been found and put into use.

I still check the headlines every day to see if there is any good news at all in the Gulf of Mexico.   I haven’t heard any yet and it’s been about fifty days since the initial explosion.  It’s a sobering thing to know that we can cause so much harm; that the advantages of our technology can at times be outweighed by the damage it can unleash.  I feel it’s a problem that must be recognized and considered with each advance that is made, but out of self-preservation I can’t let myself get overwhelmed by things that go so far beyond my own control.  I can’t stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico but I can tend my garden, my family and my soul.  I can get back to writing and I guess that’s better than doing nothing.