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.

Five-Acre Almanac: Never A Straight Line

Week 9

What I write and what I want to say don’t always come together easily, and yesterday was one of those days. Yesterday I sat writing on my couch for almost the entire day, and in the end I had fewer words than I started with. I’ve made a commitment to myself to post something every week, but I don’t want to write just for the sake of writing. I want to write something I like.

Yesterday I didn’t like my writing, and it felt like I was wasting time. As the day went on I grew increasingly frustrated and I was hard on myself, and while Dean worked to get a bunch of things crossed off of our to-do list and was infinitely patient with me sitting on the couch for hours writing, I felt guilty. Late in the evening I finally gave up. I’ve learned that trying too hard is counterproductive, and I was definitely at that stage. Today I’m starting over.

One of the many things Dean accomplished when I was writing.

Today is Sunday and the sky is mostly blue with a few wispy clouds. Our daughter called and I told her of my dilemma with writing yesterday and she said I should just go outside and work on something for a while and then write about it. So that’s what I set out to do.

I’ll start from the beginning.

After coffee, and my phone conversation with Adella, and a piece of toast, I decided it was time to go outside, but first I needed to change out of my sweat pants. When I went to put on some clothes I remembered that I needed to switch over a load of laundry, so I did that. I didn’t want to take the time to fold the clothes from the dryer so instead I took them to a chair in the spare bedroom. Out the window of the spare bedroom I saw a spruce grouse in our driveway, so of course I wanted to go get a photo of it.

I slipped on some shoes, grabbed my phone and went outside. I followed the spruce grouse around and managed to get a couple of pictures, but not good ones because my phone camera isn’t the best and the grouse kept moving. When I was about to come back in the house, two of my chickens showed up. These two particular hens have been perching outside at night lately, and they were locked out of the coop. So I went to unlatch the door so they could get in for some food. While I was there it made sense to check for eggs. There were four of them.

I didn’t have a bucket, so I put two eggs in the pockets of my sweatpants. As I was latching the chicken coop door I looked down on the outside of the coop. Two days ago Dean dug up a bunch of dirt from the chicken pen to add to one of our garden beds and I looked down at some of the holes he’d dug and found a giant portobello mushroom growing in a crevice. It was huge, and I had to get it, so I spent the next five or so minutes carefully extracting it. I carried it back to the deck, set it outside so the dirt on it could dry, brought the eggs in the house and remembered that I needed to start another load of laundry.

Soil rehab: Layering up with chicken coop dirt, straw, and grass clippings.

I finally got dressed and headed outside. It made sense to start with the greenhouse since it was warm. My task was to empty all the tomato and cucumber pots into the compost bin and stack the empty pots in our garage. As soon as I set the pots on the ground outside the greenhouse, the chickens flocked to eat the fresh chickweed that was growing in them. And because the chickens were enjoying their buffet I couldn’t empty the pots quite yet so decided to find something else to do for a while.

Sauerkraut is on my list of things to make today, so I went to the front yard garden and harvested some cabbage. We didn’t get a bumper crop of cabbage this year, but we did get two excellent heads, one purple and one green. Then I went to the back garden to pull some carrots that I’ll shred into the kraut. On my way to the carrot bed I noticed our chrysanthemum plant finally looks like it’s done for the season. We bought the plant from Strictly Medicinal earlier in the summer and they told us to give it a nice deep mulch before winter. So I went to find some straw. While I was at it I thought I might as well get enough for the lavender plants.

Dean started the lavender plants from seed last spring, and seven of them survived and are doing well. But depending on our winter, they may or may not make it. In addition to mulching them, I decided to dig one up, put it in a pot, and bring it in the house for the winter. All of that required finding some soil and a pot.

I got the soil and the pot and set them on the deck. Then I went to get the straw, but before I actually got the straw I saw some tall nettle plants that I decided to cut down so that I can extract some fiber from them later when I have more time. I cut the nettle plants, found a safe place to stash them, then got the straw.

I grabbed Dean’s hori hori knife for digging up the lavender plant. I mulched the plants I’d set out to mulch and dug up one of the seven lavender plants. But before I headed back to plant the lavender in its new pot I saw the two beds we harvested potatoes from the other day. They were empty and the soil was exposed and now that we’ve changed to no-till gardening I have this thing about exposed soil and I had to cover it up. So I used the hori hori and cut down a bunch of fireweed stalks and mulched those two beds. Then I remembered to pull some carrots for the sauerkraut.

That brings me up to right now, and after spending a whole day writing yesterday I can’t afford to put much more time into this post. I’ve still got sauerkraut to make and pots sitting out beside the greenhouse that need emptying. And as you might guess, the odds are high that I’ll find something that’s not on my list that I’ll want to get done.

Mushroom, cabbage, carrots, hori hori.

Five-Acre Almanac: Mid-September

Week 7

It’s Wednesday night and finally after sitting on my couch bundled up in a blanket for an hour I decided to build a fire. There’s always some denial when the weather cools down to the point of needing a fire every day, but we crossed that threshold this week. I’m not sure if the denial is out of stubbornness, as there’s a certain amount of work in burning wood for heat and I’m not fully prepared to add that task into my daily life again, or if I’m just trying to hang on to summer as long as I can. Either way the house is cozy now with a fire crackling, and there’s comfort in knowing it won’t be frigid when we wake up in the morning.

Tonight, for the second time this week, we had trout for dinner. Last weekend Dean and Dillon borrowed a canoe and drove north to spend the day on a lake. Alongside the trout we had purple potatoes and sliced cucumber from the garden. I wasn’t expecting cucumbers, but a few pulled through for us despite the cool summer. We’ll have potatoes and carrots well into winter, but we’re in the last days of our zucchini. Clear skies are predicted over the weekend, which means we’re likely to get frost, which means we need to pick the peas, pull the green tomatoes off their vines, and pick as many of the herbs as we can and get them drying. The kale will be fine with a light frost, and the carrots will just get sweeter.

A few frosts will turn the rose hips bright red and we’ll be able to harvest them for several weeks, even after snow falls. A couple years ago I discovered that chickens love rose hips. I toss them a handful a couple times a week and hope that it gives them a healthy boost that will help them get through another long winter. Like heating the house with wood, keeping chickens through the winter in Alaska is work. It requires a bit of resolve to slog through rain, snow, and oftentimes ice in the dark for months at a time to make sure they have what they need. I find myself apologizing to them for having to be cooped up for so long and questioning my decision to keep them. Our seven year old rooster looks a little tired these days and last week one of his spurs fell off. I’m not sure what that means, but I have a feeling it means he might not have another winter in him.

There have been moments, usually around 4:00am in the middle of summer, when I’ve been frustrated by his wake-up calls. Overall though I’ve been happy to have him as part of the flock. Besides being handsome, he acts as spokesman when food runs low and crows hello when we get home from work. He sounds off when he sees one of our neighborhood eagles circling overhead or peering down from the top of a nearby spruce tree.

The nesting eagles have had their eyes on our chickens all summer. We had one close call, but so far we’ve had no eagle casualties this year. The area around the coop is better protected than it used to be now that the trees and foliage have grown in, and the chickens can easily take cover.

Unfortunately the cover didn’t protect them from the bears that came through when we were in Georgia for our daughter’s wedding. When we returned from our trip we found a door to the pen that had been torn from its hinges, eight piles of bear scat surrounding the coop, and two fewer hens than we had before we left. A neighbor told us that there had been a bear with cubs spotted walking down the road around that same time. We fully expected that they’d be back since they successfully acquired food from our place, but thankfully they haven’t returned. It would be bad for us and our chickens if they made a habit out of coming here, but ultimately it would be bad for the bears.

In addition to building a fire again every day, this week also marked the beginning of headlamp season. I dusted mine off and don it daily now when I take the dogs out in the mornings. It’s still light well into the evening, but the morning darkness comes on fast this time of year and I find it a little disorienting. I’ll wake up and have no sense of whether it’s 3:00am or 6:00am. Soon enough I’ll adjust, but right now when the time between sunrise and sunset is shorter by over five minutes each day, my internal clock is a little out of whack.

Living in Alaska where the movement from one season to the next is anything but subtle, I’ve learned to take notice of how my own waxing and waning throughout the year is tied to the earth’s journey around the sun. It’s true for the plants and for all the wild animals, and so of course it’s true for us too, but it’s easy to believe that our humanness makes us immune to the forces of nature. In the springtime when we’re gaining daylight, my energy levels are surprisingly high. This time of year though I’m tired and my mood tends toward melancholy.

Maybe it’s the angle of the sun and the way it filters through the yellows and reds of autumn that makes me feel this way or maybe it’s that I’m worn out after a fast paced summer. Either way I don’t think it’s a bad thing to feel pensive. I just need to remember to be easy on myself. Do what I can and don’t expect to get it all done. Allow myself time to move slowly. Take comfort in the things we’ve accomplished.

Yesterday afternoon after a week of rain and cloudy skies, the sun broke through. I spread a fresh layer of straw in the chicken coop and washed off the potatoes that Dean harvested earlier in the week. Seeing them spread out on the table drying in the sun filled me with a kind of satisfaction that’s seldom matched, and our dinner of baked potatoes topped with stir-fried veggies from the garden gave me some comfort that I needed.

Now it’s Saturday morning. The sun is up and it’s time to get out in it. The first thing I need to do is save the potatoes I washed last night from the Steller’s Jay that’s undeterred by the blanket I covered them with. It’s flown away with two in the last ten minutes. After the potatoes are safe I’ll harvest carrots and enough greens for another batch of pesto. I’ll work on getting one of the garden beds tucked in for the season. I’ll bring a few pepper plants in the house and start picking green tomatoes. Maybe this evening we’ll build a campfire. Standing around a fire is a good way to soak it in—the colors, the crisp air, the quiet, the bigness and the wild of all that surrounds us. It’s a good way too, to feel the wild that goes along with being alive in this world, and surrender to it for a while.

Five-Acre Almanac: Value-Added Gooseberries

September colors

Week 6

We had spent our childhood running wild in the country. Like peasant children, we passed our days and nights in the fields and the woods, looked after horses, stripped the bark off the trees, fished and so on…. And you know, whoever has once in his life caught perch or has seen the migrating thrushes in autumn, watched how they float in flocks over the village on bright, cool days, he will never be a real townsman, and will have a yearning for freedom to the day of his death.” —From the story “Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov

Our friend Jane gave us a cutting from her gooseberry bush several years ago and we planted it where our rain gutter drains. It started out as a spindly little thing, but it seems to be happy in its spot and now it produces plump, juicy berries every year. Last year the chickens ate the gooseberries closest to the ground and the younger of our two dogs ate the ones that were at knee height. That left us with just a couple of handfuls, which was enough for flavoring kombucha but not much else. This year I made a point of beating the animals to the berries because I want to make a pie.

My dad had a thing for gooseberry pies. They were one of those things that he was known for, like his golden delight biscuits and his pancakes. In my memory he made the pies himself, but I don’t know if that’s true. I also don’t remember having gooseberry bushes, so the berries that went into his pies must have come out of cans. There was more to to my dad’s love for gooseberry pies than their flavor though, and I knew this even as a girl. There was a memory or a story that went along with it, maybe a longing for a time and place.

This morning I looked online for a recipe for gooseberry pie and the results led me to a short story called “Gooseberries” that was written by Anton Chekhov in 1898. In it the character Ivan Ivanovich relays the story of his brother’s longing to own property in the country.

“He used to draw a map of his property and in every map there were the same things—a) house for the family, b) servants’s quarters, c) kitchen-garden, d) gooseberry bushes.”

For all the years that I knew my dad, he lived in town but wanted to live in the country. Like Ivan Ivanovitch’s brother, he remembered the freedom the countryside offered and wished to return to the kind of life he’d known as a boy outside of Telluride, Colorado.

He kept as true to his dreams as he could while working full time and living in town. He and my step-mom always had a pantry full of food they’d preserved. He had two mules, Jack and Sam, and a horse named Penny at one point too. He grew squash and tomatoes and had plum and apricot trees in his yard. And he always had plans. Plans for buying a few acres where he could do more of what he was already doing. Like Ivan Ivanovitch’s brother Nikolay in Chekhov’s story, he would have liked to own a spread of land where he could plant a few gooseberry bushes of his own.

My dad visited Homer once when we lived in town. He got to see Kachemak Bay and the mountains and glaciers on the other side. I wish he could have seen where we live now though. He would have appreciated our simple house and the way our garden sits on a south facing slope to get optimal sun. He would have liked the way the trees have grown up around our chicken coop to offer natural protection from predators. He would have been as excited as we are about all of our ideas and projects and he would have offered some good advice.

The gooseberries I harvested earlier in the week are all tucked into the freezer and the pie I want to make will have to wait a while. Right now I want to be outside– partly because it’s lovely with all the changing colors and partly because winter is long and the season is headed that direction.

This weekend there’s firewood to stack and fireweed leaves to collect before they all turn red. Our neighbor’s raspberries are ripe and they’ve invited us to come pick. My mom spends summers here but will be leaving soon, so I want to get as much time with her as I can. It’s also time to dig potatoes and dry the burdock and rhodiola root we harvested last weekend.

After working at my paying job all week I look forward to the the days that allow me to wander from chore to chore according to my own schedule, and the freedom to stop and read a short story when there’s a thread I feel like following. Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” felt significant because it put to words a kind of longing my dad carried with him throughout his life that I recognized but could never fully articulate, and now it’s added a layer of value to those berries that are sitting in my freezer waiting to be transformed into a pie.

Spruce wood

Five-Acre Almanac: Restoration

Photo provided by Dillon Sundmark

Week 4

Earlier in the week I heard a sentence that I can’t stop thinking about.

*The individual soul is not separate from the conditions of the world.

I’ve done a pretty good job of hiding away from the news lately, of busying myself with work and gardening and starting a business, and living my life with the news of the world at a distance has been good. There’s a lot that’s outside of my control. Worrying and getting worked up about all the things that are far beyond my reach is not productive. But the truth is that I don’t want to live my life being oblivious to suffering, and I don’t want to hole away in my comfortable existence and excuse myself from actively trying to make the world a better place.

The individual soul is not separate from the conditions of the world.

A few years ago I wasn’t sure I believed in the concept of a soul, and even now that I do I’m not sure if I can define it. To me the word soul is just a word I use to try to describe a kind of connection I feel. For some people the word soul is loaded with religious connotations and requirements of belief. The word connection is not.

The individual soul is not separate from the conditions of the world.

The soil in our oldest garden bed in the back yard has been trying to tell us for the past couple of years that it’s not up for the job of growing great vegetables. Our use of the bed has not kept pace with its ability to renew itself, and we’ve not kept up with giving it what it needs. We’ve added mulch and compost in an effort to make it better, but whatever attempts we’ve made have not been enough.

The broccoli, kale, and cabbage we planted in it this year are stunted. Compared to those same varieties that were planted in more robust soil, they’re a fraction of the size. And to add insult to injury the slugs have moved in. Last weekend I pulled out a number of the plants and transplanted them into beds in the front yard. Already the kale looks better. Its color is more vibrant and it has new growth.

Plants are easy. Basic biology tells us what they need in order to thrive. In the case of our garden bed, we have it within our means to adjust the variables. I can give it the correct mineral and nutrient balance. I can add elements to give it the right texture, structure, and drainage. Then nature can take over and complete the job. With time and the right ingredients worms and mycorrhizae will move back in. The sun and rain will orchestrate microbial action. It will produce good vegetables again.

If soul is a word I use to describe a connection, then it’s safe to say I have the ability to facilitate the restoration of the soul of the soil in that 4×16 foot garden bed. I can only do so much though. There are laws of nature that must be followed, but there is a force, or a will of nature that I am utterly dependent upon for the restoration of the soil to be complete.

The individual soul is not separate from the conditions of the world.

A question of why is hovering around this idea of restoring the garden bed. I could add Miracle-Gro and be done with it. I could buy my vegetables from the grocery store and not concern myself with how they’re grown. But now that I’ve witnessed the actual miracle of living soil, I want to be a part of the equation that brings about its recovery. I want to eat food that is imbued with that fundamental force. Making myself a part of healing the soil enhances my feeling of connection. It puts me in touch with my soul.

The individual soul is not separate from the conditions of the world.

The next question is what does all of this have to do with the conditions of the world that feel beyond our reach? How are we to proceed when it all feels so daunting? We feel the heaviness of all that’s wrong, but are we meant to be crushed under such weight?

The statement I keep repeating is not just a statement. It’s also an equation.

The individual soul (is not separate from) the conditions of the world.

The conditions of the world (are not separate from) the individual soul.

For a while after I left religion behind I was threatened by the idea of a soul. I thought it meant I had to believe in something supernatural. Now I see soul as something that’s intricately connected to the natural order of things. It’s not separate from science. It’s not separate from the way we treat each other. It’s not separate from the goods we consume or the way we spend our time. There is no religion involved and there are no punishments or rewards outside of the rules of nature.

Out of necessity I’ve been working on the restoration of my soul for the past couple of years. I’ve had to in order to save myself from the despair the creeps in when I pay attention to the condition of the world. I’ve not been hiding away from the difficult things humanity is facing as much as I’ve been trying to understand what I’m meant to do in the midst of it all, or more accurately, who I am in the midst of it all. It’s been an intentional shift and it’s changed how I move through space and time. From the outside looking in I may not look different, but I am different. I am better.

Like the soil in my garden, when I provided the elements needed for my soul to thrive it began to take on a life of its own. I’m excited to follow where it leads.

The conditions of the world are not separate from the individual soul.

*Heard on the podcast Living Myth by Michael Meade

Five-Acre Almanac: Celebration

Week 3

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

This place, these people.

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          The temperature was dropping and a strong wind was blowing when I walked down the driveway after work on Thursday night. I am used to windstorms and cold, so I didn’t think much of it. But the gusts got louder and stronger through the night. Around 2:00am we heard one of the fiberglass panels from our greenhouse dislodge and it began to smack against the side of the house over and over again. An empty rain barrel crashed into the wall of our garage and then found its way from one side of our property to the other. It wasn’t a night for sleeping.

The next morning, the house was cold and outside the wind still blew–30mph sustained with gusts up to 60. We built a fire in the woodstove and when we opened the curtains we could see substantial sparks from the stovepipe flying through the air. The record breaking warm spell from January that had melted all of our snow was over, but the ground remained bare and vulnerable with dry grasses and brittle fireweed husks. Red flag fire warnings, standard fare for May or June, were issued in early February. Thankfully, the sparks fizzled out before they landed.

On my way to work Friday morning, gusts shook the car and blowing grit from early winter road sanding made for moments of no visibility. The pavement was littered with branches and debris. In three places I saw evidence of trees that had fallen and already been removed from the roadway. Halfway to town, a house with its roof torn and folded up on itself made my own sleepless night seem insignificant.

The wind didn’t let up all day.  In town, the library and the college lost power. Trees and power lines snapped. Roof shingles sailed through the air. Those of us who ventured out covered our heads to keep from getting dirt in our eyes and mouths. Everywhere it seemed people were on edge after having spent the night mentally holding down their homes and property.

Around noon, although it couldn’t be seen falling from the sky, cold, wispy, dry snow started to appear in the mix of blowing debris. After a few hours it began to accumulate unevenly—still bare ground in exposed places, but a few inches against buildings and in protected places. Finally, before we went to bed on Friday night, the wind stopped as abruptly as it had started the night before. I slept in the comfort of silence and a fresh blanket of snow.

***

             Everything that Friday was—violent, dusty, dark, edgy, uncertain—Saturday was not. The storm had passed, the skies were clear. The voice on the radio reminded me that we’re gaining five minutes of daylight a day.

I drank my coffee and had two productive hours of schoolwork in a sunlit room. Then I dug out my Mardi Gras beads and drove into town to watch the winter carnival parade. The parade doesn’t change much from year to year, but still I go. I love its silliness and its familiarity. It’s the town’s way of not taking itself too seriously. And yesterday, the day after the town felt like it was going to blow to pieces, everyone was relieved and festive and ready to have a good time.

Seeing friends at the parade led to an impromptu get-together of playing old-time fiddle tunes for a couple of hours in the afternoon. Later in the evening, we went to see the Irish band, Lunasa, at the high school. The place was packed and musicians played tirelessly and flawlessly for two solid hours.  After the show, we stopped at the Down East Saloon to enjoy Cajun music and one more showing of the Bossy Pants Brass Band that had marched in the parade. People were costumed and sparkly. The dance floor was sweaty and packed.

When we got home at midnight, I sat for a while and looked out the window at the stars. I thought about my day and how many friends I’d seen and caught up with. I thought about the way this town is molded by its crazy weather and its silly traditions. I thought about how I get weary of living here sometimes with the coastal climate, the distance from the rest of the world, the sameness, year after year. But then one sunny, musical day with a parade comes along and any bad thought that’s ever entered my mind about living here is gone as abruptly as the windstorm.

I went to bed with my mind still in motion. I could still see my friends’ children dancing to Lunasa’s hop jigs and reels. I could still hear the old time fiddle tunes I’d played in the cozy living room of my friend’s house. I could still see familiar faces parading through the middle of town—some on bikes, some on floats, some walking alongside their decorated farm animals.  I could still feel the rhythm of the Cajun two-step I’d danced with my husband and a hundred other friends.  When I finally fell asleep, I was thinking of all of us in this one place, all of us weathering every storm.

Something to Say

You’d rather write about the charming side of your town, and for the most part you do.  But this week your town has shown its not-so-charming side.  Two brothers aged eighteen and twenty were arrested for sexual assault.  A number of other young people are afraid that they might be next because they were at the party where the alleged assault took place—with cameras in hand.  A young person was victimized; his life altered.  And so you want to write about your town and what it’s going through because people are shaken up about it.  But where do you start?   Your children are the same age as these children.  They’ve known some of them since preschool.

You want to write about the mother you spoke to today whose fourteen-year-old daughter was groped at her first high school dance, a place you’d expect her to be safe.  You want to write about how strange it is, adolescence.  How that window of time between trading Pokemon cards and being hormonally charged is so small, so small that you barely have time to catch your breath.  You want to talk about this terrible thing that happened in your town like it’s an isolated incident but this is nothing new and your town is not unique.  You write about your town and you write about every town and a culture that has allowed it to go on and on and on.  You write about how it was going on when you were in middle school and the boys chased you at recess and knocked you onto the grass and stuck their hands up your shirt and you write about it now because back then you didn’t tell anyone because you had it in your mind that it was just playful playground fun—even though it didn’t feel like fun to you.

You want to write about all of this and more, but putting it in words is difficult.  The thoughts are coming from so many different places and what you need to do is set the thoughts aside for a while and write from that place in your gut that’s holding it all in.  You want to write and you don’t want to write because it’s going to take you places you’ve been avoiding.  It’s going to take you places that you’ve held in secret for about thirty years and it’s going to make you feel vulnerable because somehow you still have it in your head that it was your fault, that you put yourself in a bad situation and so ultimately you are responsible.  You hate feeling vulnerable.

You’re going to say things about boys that have most likely grown in to decent human beings, stellar community members, charitable donors to their local nonprofits.  But you decide to write it now because it’s the only way you can express what’s going on inside of you when you hear about these two young men who have been arrested for sexual assault.

You knew boys like those boys in your school days.  They were the kids the teachers liked.   They were the kids you liked.  They played basketball and football.  They were witty and popular and you wanted their attention so badly.  And so when they gave it to you it felt like a privilege.  You with the crooked teeth, that lived on the wrong side of town, that had a step-father who wouldn’t talk to you and a father who never called wanted the attention of those boys and when they gave it you certainly didn’t want to tell them no.  And so they asked you to hang out with them after school one day and you said yes and it never occurred to you that you’d be the only girl.  And you went with them anyhow because you didn’t know not to trust them.  You went to one of the boys’ houses a few blocks from school.  His dad was home and so you went instead into their camp trailer that was parked in their front yard.  You don’t remember much about the camp trailer, just being shoved down on a little folding bed, and someone undoing your pants and another someone pulling them off your legs and there was laughing and you didn’t know you were crying until you felt the tears running down the side of your face and one of them put his head to your privates and said things and did things that in your naivety you never knew were things to do and the humiliation was more than you could bear and so when it was over you laughed along with them and pretended it was no big deal and then you walked home, alone and ashamed.  At home you ate dinner and watched Three’s Company with your mom and your little sister and your silent step-dad.  You talked on the phone with your friend for a while and you never said a word about what happened because you thought somehow you should have seen it coming.  You should have known not to go with them.  You should have been smarter.  You should have been prettier because the boys probably didn’t do that to the prettiest girls.  You should have, you should have, you should have and it never even occurred to you until several years later that the should-haves weren’t yours to own.

And so you want to write about your town and what it’s going through, because what your town is going through is a terrible thing.  But it’s been going on for ages.  The humiliating, the bullying, the assaulting, the tricking, the teasing, the hurting.  All of is has been going on in varying degrees in every town.  Your town is not unique.  The actions the two boys in your town have been accused of are not so uncommon.  What’s uncommon is their being called on it.  Victims blame themselves.  They try to protect their dignity and even their assailants with silence because the assailants are the good guys; they’re popular, the teachers like them, they make your town look good on the playing field.  But silence is more terrible than truth.   It perpetuates the belief that it’s okay.  It’s okay to rape a girl if she’s wearing a short skirt.  It’s okay to mess with the drunk kid.  It’s okay to tease the kid with a learning disability.  It’s okay to shame a girl for having sex.  It’s okay to shame a boy for not having sex.  It’s okay to beat up the gay kid.  It’s okay to pull the pants off the girl who was stupid enough to follow you into the camp trailer.

It has to end somewhere.  At some point you have to say enough.  It’s not okay.  And sure, what your town is going through is a difficult thing, but it’s necessary. It’s breaking the pattern of silence.

You write about it now, not because you want attention or sympathy.  You write about it now because there is this hope that by not brushing a society’s dark secrets aside, by saying something, by doing something, you’ll make a difference. You write about it now because when you were thirteen you couldn’t articulate the truth of the matter:  it’s not okay to hurt someone, grope someone, touch someone without consent even if they’re passed out drunk, even if they’ve flirted with you, even if they’ve wandered off with you.  You write because you hope for a future where open communication reigns and where victims don’t feel responsible for the actions perpetrated against them.  You write because there should be no excuses and no free passes when it comes to harming another human being.  You write, not because you have any answers, but because you have something to say.  You believe that when it comes to teaching respect and dignity we all have something to say.

Speaking of Chicken….

It seems that chicken is all over the news this week, and things are no different here at the Sundmark household.  Monday evening when we came home from work we discovered carnage in our yard.  The security of our chicken tractor—the one that got us through last summer with 25 healthy birds—had been breached.  Some kind of critter, most likely a dog, had broken the fiberglass greenhouse siding off of one side and proceeded to slaughter seven of our chicks.  The others went in to a state of shock and huddled together in a corner.  The ones on the bottom of the pile suffocated.  All together we lost fifteen of our chickens.

I know that eating local food isn’t going to save the world, but it’s a cause our family has decided to put some effort toward.  For us it means growing a garden or buying from local growers.  It means harvesting salmon, buying beef from our local cowboy, and raising our own chickens for both eggs and meat.  After the slaughter we found in our yard on Monday it looks like next winter we’ll have fewer chicken dinners.

There are plenty of foods I’m not willing to give up in order to eat a strictly local diet and so we spend a great deal of money on food that comes from places much warmer than Alaska.  I’m a big fan of apples, for example, and I have a weakness for the Rugged English Cheddar cheese that Save-U-More carries.  In fact Save-U-More is full of surprises, including an aisle of Trader Joe’s foods and an extensive organic produce section.  It’s a goofy grocery store with its bizarre layout and its incessant rearranging, but for the most part it keeps the foodies in Homer happy.

For the size of our town we have a good selection of restaurants and cafes as well.  Back in the day when we ran a bed and breakfast we had a guest one time that expressed surprise that a few of our nicer restaurants stayed open through the winter.  I tried to explain that in Homer people have priorities that might not be the same as in other parts of the country.  We may only buy a new pair of jeans every two or three years, and we may drive a Subaru that can only be entered through the passenger side door (true story) but we’ll spend good money on good food.  A few of our higher end restaurants have survived when Arby’s and Burger King couldn’t make a go of it.

And so it’s safe to say that after living in Homer for eighteen years I’m no expert on fast food.  I eat at the local Subway once every couple of years, and I haven’t stepped inside the local McDonalds since my niece worked there several years ago.  When I go to Anchorage there are so many great places to choose from that fast food doesn’t even cross my mind.  What all of this is getting at is that I’ve never eaten at a Chick-Fil-A, and I never will.  I wouldn’t have even if Dan Cathy had never made his statement in opposition to gay marriage, or if the company had never donated millions of dollars to organizations like the Family Research Council.

When I came home on Monday to find a bunch of dead chickens in my yard I had the realization that something I thought was secure was in fact very vulnerable.  I feel the same way today after seeing photos from around the country of crowds of people lining up to eat at Chick-Fil-A’s.  I thought we were moving beyond homophobia, but I see that we have a long way to go.  I believe that for some people eating at Chick-Fil-A this afternoon was a matter of showing support for our first amendment rights, but I don’t think that was the true motivation of most.

I’m in the fortunate position of having a diverse group of Facebook friends.  They cover most sides of any political issue and this whole Chick-Fil-A thing is no exception.  One of my friends stated in a thread that people were just taking a stand for Godly values by showing their support for Chick-Fil-A.   A couple of people on this thread even evoked the old saying, “hate the sin but love the sinner.”  It shows me that to them today’s turnout for chicken sandwiches wasn’t about first amendment rights.  It was about speaking out against homosexuality.  What I want to point out is that hating the “sin” in this case is synonymous with hating “the sinner,” because it’s not a matter of deciding to be gay; it’s a matter of being gay.  And that hatefulness, no matter how it’s framed, is disheartening.

A line from a John Gorka song comes to mind sometimes when I feel overwhelmed by the way humans build up walls and divisions between one another… We are here to love each other, that is all…

I know it’s only a line to a song and that it’s not realistic to think that this world will ever be a place where all people show love to one another all the time.  But the truth is that we all have the capacity for love on an individual level.  Every day lives are changed and attitudes are changed; every day individual worldviews are changed because one person somewhere decides to imagine the world from another person’s point of view.

We’re a diverse bunch, us humans.  Some of us will raise our chickens ourselves, some of us want ours served with a side of waffle fries.  Others of us would never think of eating a chicken.  The reality though is that we all get hungry.  Our differences are lower on the scale of importance than the things we have in common.  Let’s focus less on the ways we fill ourselves up, and more on the fact that we all need food.