Five-Acre Almanac: July Energy

Week 45

All week I’ve been wondering when and how I’m going to find the time to sit and write this post. Whenever I think there is going to be time, something else comes along that seems to be more urgent. The truth is that our days are packed right now and I suspect they will continue to be for the next several weeks. Our summers may be short in terms of calendar days, but those individual calendar days have an awful lot of daylight in them and Alaskans typically try to fit into three months more than what’s humanly possible.

It’s time for gardening and having guests. The strawberries are ripening and the salmon are running. Our window of time for harvesting clover, fireweed, yarrow, plantain, raspberry leaves, and pineapple weed has opened and we’re trying to get enough to fulfill the needs of our fledgling herb tea business while we can. We still have full time jobs too, and we still need to eat and sleep and clean the kitchen now and again.

If this blog is meant to be a reflection of our lives on these five acres, then this post will have to reflect the fullness of these July days. It will have to reflect the way we move from one task to the next and the way we’re propelled forward by the season’s energy.

We can do this for a while. We can tend our garden and forage for wild herbs. We can stay up late visiting with friends. We can harvest a gallon of strawberries a day and empty our herb drying rack and fill it up again. We can make a batch of kimchi so as to not waste the greens and radishes we grew. We can brew up a batch of berry wine to clear the freezer of last year’s fruit. We can go to bed late, sleep hard if we’re lucky, and wake up early to a new day full of new tasks.

One of this weekend’s tasks was preparing a space for a Quonset hut on the northwestern corner of our property. The structure has been on our neighbor’s property for about fifty years and is part of the homestead that is being cleaned up and cleared out. We’ve wanted a covered space in that area for a long time but have not been able to prioritize the expense, and so when our neighbor proposed using a big piece of equipment to lift it up and plop it down on our property it seemed like an opportunity too good to refuse. It will need a foundation and a new cover, but it’s got a sturdy metal frame. And it was a gift. It’s amazing how sometimes if we wait, the things we need will come our way.

Heavy lifting

A road will go in just above our property line sometime later this summer so a semi can come in to remove cars, school buses, boats, house trailers, a giant boiler the size of a small house, and piles and piles of stuff that the original homesteaders collected. They saw value and potential in most everything, but now it’s time for it all to move on. Watching our neighbor clear out sixty year’s worth of collected homestead treasures makes our ever-looming garage project seem minuscule in comparison.

We said goodbye to a birch tree that was felled in order to make way for the pending road. It wasn’t on our property but it’s a tree we drove and walked past almost every day and we admired it from our back window. Nobody was happy to see it go but it seems there wasn’t a way to save it. To console myself I asked permission to go visit a much older birch on the property that hopefully isn’t going anywhere any time soon. I didn’t know of its existence until just a few weeks ago, but it’s a beauty, perhaps a relative of the grandmother birch that resides at the center of our own five acres.

I don’t know how a tree witnesses the world and I don’t know how a tree remembers. But it feels to me like the old birch trees are the historians of this place. They’ve survived high winds, heavy snow loads and moose munchings. Spruce have grown, died, and rotted around them. People have drawn and redrawn property lines that determine who owns them. Countless birds have perched on their branches and squirrels and ermine have tucked themselves inside their cracks and crevices. Bears, wolves and coyotes have sauntered beneath them. Porcupines have climbed up their trunks to hide away for sleeping.

A couple of years ago I was perusing the Alaska Digital Archives and found a photo of Grewingk glacier that was taken sometime between 1896 and 1913. The ice reached all the way out into the bay at a depth that was a quarter of the way up the mountain. I suspect the old birch trees around here were already well on their way when those photos were taken.

On Sunday as heavy equipment and chainsaws made way for the new road, I found some solace in the presence of that old burled birch tree and for a few minutes I put all of our crazy July hustle aside to marvel over its long and storied existence. I didn’t stay beside it for long because there were berries to pick and tomatoes to water in the greenhouse. There were herbs to shuttle from the drying rack to the pantry and as much as I wanted to forget about the sink full of dirty dishes in the kitchen, it wouldn’t stop gnawing at me. Of course there was this overdue blog post I wanted to start writing too.

Old and gnarly birch

Later, in my kitchen, I stood over the clean counter tops and looked out the back window at the space where the road is going to be built and where the birch tree used to be. I looked at the Quonset hut that’s now on our property and it hit me that for as long as we live here our list of things to do is going to keep growing longer. We’re never going to reach a point of having everything done because for every one thing we accomplish there are at least three more added to the queue.

Another project

As is often the case these days, I was too tired for writing at the end of the day so instead I made myself a cup of tea and sat for a few minutes before going to bed. Never in my younger years would I have predicted that one day I’d be thrilled about acquiring an old Quonset hut. I never knew that I’d find such satisfaction in growing garden vegetables or foraging for herbs. And I never imagined that I’d feel closest to God next to an old birch tree. But here I am, tired and happy.

Harvesting fireweed

Five-Acre Almanac: A Nail in the Foot

Week 43

When I got home from work on Wednesday last week I was eager to join Dean in the garden. Everything is planted now, but for a garden to thrive it needs some encouragement. Some people might not like the ongoing maintenance of gardening, but the fussing is the part I enjoy most. It’s a lot like the process of revising a piece of writing. With each visit there’s something to tweak, something new to see, some fresh insight as to what might be needed to make it better. Always there is something to learn.

Fussing over the garden is always different. It might involve checking on newly planted beds to see what’s sprouted or poking around in the soil to see if it’s dry. It might lead to picking dandelion greens and horsetail to add to the mulch mix. Sometimes it’s watering. Sometimes it’s weeding. On Wednesday evening my garden check led to plucking the tiniest of tiny slugs from my carrot and parsnip bed and plopping them into a jar of vinegar that I’ve always got nearby. I was completely consumed by the task of saving my seedlings from the destructive gastropods when I stepped on a nail. It took a few seconds for my brain to get the message of what had happened, and then another few for me to remove it from my foot.

We shouldn’t have used that old piece of wood with a nail still embedded in it to hold down the row cover that we’d draped over our sprouting beets, but we did. I shouldn’t have worn flip flops in the part of our yard where such pieces of wood are being used, but I did. I should have been more careful in how I placed the board when I moved it, but I was focused on eliminating the slugs. What a shock it was to feel my foot being impaled by a nail. What a way to be brought back from the reverie of my single-mindedness.

My first stop on Thursday morning was the Homer Medical Clinic for a tetanus shot since I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had one. After an hour and a half I left with instructions for how to care for my wound and the reassurance that I wouldn’t succumb to lockjaw. Then I hobbled around for a couple of days in a fair amount of pain, feeling perturbed all the while over my carelessness.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy putting my feet up from time to time, but I don’t like it when I’m forced to do so. Still I took the opportunity to start reading A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders. In the introduction he writes, “In Buddhism, it’s said that a teaching is like ‘a finger pointing at the moon.’ The moon (enlightenment) is the essential thing and the pointing finger is trying to direct us to it, but it’s important not to confuse finger with moon.”

1:00 am moon

The nail in the foot brought all of my garden ambitions to a halt for a few days and even though the setback was temporary it gave me cause to consider losing my ability to do the things I love to do. What if one or both of us could no longer keep up with the demands of this lifestyle that we’ve chosen? Would we be adaptable? Would we lose heart? When I read that passage by George Saunders I was reminded that everything we do and learn and try to achieve in this life is just pointing us toward the essential thing.

Already by Saturday the pain in my foot had subsided and I was able to resume making my garden rounds. My first task of the day was to collect dandelion flowers for pancakes and more syrup. My second task was to scour the upper garden for any more boards that might be lying around with nails sticking out of them.

On Sunday I picked strawberry leaves under a pink haze of smoke from tundra fires burning in Southwest Alaska. The tinted sky changed the lighting of everything and somehow it seemed like the colors became more of themselves, the purples more purple and the greens more green. Under these conditions I checked to see if the roses in the meadow below the house were blooming yet. I gathered a pile of last year’s alder leaves from under the trees to use for mulch. I gave the apple trees and the thirstiest of our garden beds a good soak. I reseeded some peas and carrots and beans and hoped for better germination the second time around. More than once I stopped to peek under the straw that’s covering the new garden bed I made a couple of weeks ago out of layers of manure, dried grasses, cardboard, weeds that hadn’t yet gone to seed, dirt, and compost. Already it had come alive with spiders and insects and microbes. Earthworms had moved in and started the work of churning and mixing it all together, and of course there were a few slugs.

Seeing the slugs reminded me of the arch of my foot, which was feeling pretty good considering it had just been four days since I’d punctured it by stepping on that damn nail. I’d taken care of it the way I’d been instructed and I soaked it a few times in hot water infused with yarrow and now I was out in the garden again, fussing over seedlings and pulling a few weeds and checking on the progress of various plants.

Nobody would look at our garden and think that we’re people who have it all figured out, but I go to it each day like I’m its student and it’s my teacher. I do what I can to usher it toward productivity and in return it offers me beauty and delicious, nutritious food. When I pay attention it provides me with the opportunity to witness a million small miracles. It points me in the direction of what’s essential.

Five-Acre Almanac: Water and Wonder

Week 42

Yesterday as I was driving home from work there were rain clouds forming to the north of us. They looked like they had some potential, but they also looked like they might blow over. It’s normal to have long dry stretches between rainfalls this time of year, but this heat has been extraordinary. Nearly seventy degrees for days at a time doesn’t sound so hot by lower latitude standards, but it is indeed very hot for coastal Alaska.

Every gardener I’ve spoken to this week says the same thing. We need rain. And I know it’s true but I’ve loved the hot days, the ease of wearing flip flops and light cotton fabric, sipping coffee on the deck before work, having to step inside to cool off after working outside. While I’ve adjusted to the cooler, wetter climate of this place, there is a fundamental part of me I remember on hot, dry, sunny days. The part of me that fly-fished for trout in shorts and sandals. The part of me that spent hours at the local swimming pool every afternoon until thunderstorms chased us all away. The part of me that fought fires in sagebrush country and slept out under the stars.

According to the forecast it’s going to cool down again soon, which is good for the wild plants and the salmon and the cool weather vegetables and greens we’ve been nursing through this heat. Every morning and evening this week we’ve watered the garden. Not all of it every time, but in stages in order to accommodate our well. We fill a few buckets at a time and then wait a while to shower. After a few more hours have passed we’re safe to do the dishes and a load or two of laundry. We’ve made the mistake of running too much water at once and it’s a mistake we don’t want to make again.

I’ve not appreciated our well and the water it provides as much as I probably should, but this week I’ve been reminded of what a valuable resource it is. It’s allowed our carrot seeds to sprout and it’s enabled the roots of our transplants to settle into their new beds.

This afternoon I pulled the nettle that’s been air drying in our yurt and stored it away in half-gallon mason jars. I’ll keep the jars in a cool and dark place until the busy days of summer have passed. When time allows we’ll blend it with other herbs to make tea, and hopefully we’ll find people who will want to drink it.

The nettle is past its prime now but all summer there is something new to harvest. Today it was the elder flowers that have just come into bloom. Stephen Harrod Buhner writes about elder folklore in his book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers and as the story goes when a person is granted permission from the Elder Mother to harvest from the elder a certain access to the power of the plant is gained, and for those who truly understand the power of the old growth forest, a deeper awakening often occurs.

One of the most potent forces of Earth is thus activated for help in human healing. Because of the powerful beings who are touched upon in using elder, the plant has long been viewed as not only a portal for life but also for death. For the healer who uses elder all realms are accessed: life and death, male and female, secular and sacred, gentle and harsh. The plant expresses the opposites of Universe in balance within itself.

The elder plant is also considered to be a powerful teacher for other plants in its area or in any garden in which it is planted. In this way it is an “elder” to other medicinal plants in the gardens and fields in which it grows.”

A few years ago we made a trail that winds through the heart of the grove of elders that’s below our house. It’s where we forage for most of our nettle and if we don’t let the trail get overgrown it’s possible to dip down there later in the summer and fill a bowl with wild raspberries. Dean and I have often commented on how when we venture down into the heart of the elders it feels like we’re entering a different dimension. The trees themselves seem young and old at the same time, a gnarled up mix of living and dead branches, and together they create an atmosphere that’s shady and protective, still and private. It’s not uncommon for birds to light on branches beside us.

While I’ve always been appreciative of the elder grove and the bounty of herbs we’re able to harvest from it, it never occurred to me to ask permission before doing so. After reading some of the European folklore surrounding elder though, it seemed like the respectful thing to do. So yesterday, before I started clipping the fresh blooms from the elder trees, I took a moment to imagine a conversation with the Elder Mother.

I’m not sure if I was given her blessing to proceed or if I granted permission to myself, but asking before taking gave me an opportunity to imagine that there’s more to the elders than their biology. And while I don’t presume that the elders need anything from me, the act of asking made me consider what I might offer them in return.

Elder lore is something I would love to dive into, but that might be more of a wintertime project. Right now it’s nearly ten o’clock and time to water a few of our garden beds again. It’s a bit of work to keep up with all that we do around here, but it’s work that feels like communion. There will never be an end to the wonder of the way of it all.

Five-Acre Almanac: Back in the Garden

Week 41

I’ve lived in Alaska for thirty years now but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the way two week’s time can take us from the end of winter to fire season. May brings us from snow, to exposed dry grasses, and then to some of the warmest days of summer. At least that’s true for this year. When I came home from Atlanta two weeks ago a berm of snow three feet tall piled up behind our house and our driveway was still too mushy to drive on. Now the snow is gone and our rain barrels are nearly empty and the sign in front of the fire station on East End Road says fire danger is extremely high. It’s not an exaggeration. The days have been sunny, the afternoons windy, and it would only take one mistake to set the forest ablaze.

Three days ago there was a small wildland fire to the east of us. Before I was even home from work two tankers and a helicopter with a bucket had it under control and that evening as we worked in the garden a different helicopter flew back and forth from town shuttling a twenty-person crew to the scene. Because of the quick response, we’re breathing clean air on these hot, dry days. It’s something I don’t take for granted.

I’ve talked with two different people in the last month who moved to Alaska to escape the smoke that seems to have become a permanent feature of summer in the western United States. It can happen here too. I hope everyone is careful over the long weekend.

I’ve barely been able to bring myself inside long enough to check my email this week, much less write a blog post. I took a couple of days off of work before the long weekend in order to spend some time in the garden. On Thursday I built a new sheet mulch bed for planting potatoes. It looks like a pile of straw, but it’s a culmination of eight buckets of chicken manure, nine cardboard boxes, seven bags of chopped cow parsnip, straw, six buckets of compost, more straw, eight buckets of soil and yet another layer of straw. I hauled it all uphill and got good and sweaty and dirty and was reminded of how much I love that kind of physical work. It’s good for my mind and it’s good for my body and when the realities of the world are intense, the physical exertion gives me an outlet for some of the energy that would just sit around and fester and keep me awake at night. I also think about what I want to write when I’m digging and hauling and raking. Sometimes my ideas make it onto the page but most of the time they don’t. Either way the writing seems to come more easily when it’s paired with physical labor.

By the end of the day today we should have this year’s garden completely planted. It will be the biggest garden we’ve grown to date and this will be the earliest it’s been in the ground. The beds we’ve worked hard to create in previous years made this year’s planting easier and now we just have to keep everything watered through this dry spell. We’re keeping most of our beds under row cover to protect the plants and to keep some of the moisture contained, but we frequently peek under to see how things look. So far most of the garden starts are doing well and the carrot and radish seeds are sprouting.

The season for stinging nettle is winding down with this heat, but it’s been a good harvest so far. I like to get as much as I can because it’s the base for many of the herb tea blends we make for our business and because we incorporate it into our meals throughout the winter. We knock ourselves out growing a garden, but nothing we can grow is as nutritious or abundant as the stinging nettle that just pops up out of the ground.

nettle spread out to dry

A couple of years back a wild black currant popped up inside our fenced garden. We’ve staked it and watered it on occasion, but other than that we’ve done very little to encourage it’s growth. Already it’s three times the size of the domestic black currants we planted four years back. It’s a reminder that the indigenous plants around here have evolved to flourish in this northern environment. We’d be smart to incorporate them into our lives and reap the benefits they have to offer.

wild black currant

The absence of chickens has been a bit to get used to. Besides missing their presence and the eggs they provided, they ate a lot of our kitchen scraps. Chickens are a part of the garden system that we’ve created around here and our plan is to give ourselves a break for a year and then design a new setup that will be safer for them and easier on us. Whatever we come up with will definitely involve an electric fence the next time around.

Today I’m off to the farmer’s market with my mom and then back to bask in our yard again for another three days. Over the long weekend we’re going to try making nettle beer from a recipe we found in the book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner, and if time allows I’m going to make some dandelion petal syrup. There’s more to do than I’ll have time to do, but this time of year is about potential. There’s so much that the earth is offering up to us and the sunny days make me feel like everything is possible.

Five-Acre Almanac: Hard News

Week 40

My visit to Atlanta was wonderful, but the week since I’ve been back hasn’t been the best.

The day after I got home a bear climbed into our chicken coop and killed three of our chickens, including my new hen and rooster. Dean was home when the bear broke into the coop and he managed to scare it away with some noise and light bird shot.

After the unfortunate bear encounter we sat down with a cup of tea to decompress, and that’s when we saw the news that a man has been arrested for the murder of Duffy Murnane. On an afternoon in October 2019 Duffy left her home to walk to an appointment across town and she was never seen again. For two and a half years we’ve suspected and assumed that she was abducted and murdered, but now we have information that confirms our worst fears.

The suspect worked in the assisted living apartments where Duffy lived and he was a member of our community for a few years. Duffy knew him and trusted him enough to get into a car with him.

There is some relief in knowing that a violent killer is off the streets but right now the relief is overshadowed by sadness, anger and shock over the news. And the senselessness of it all. Duffy was a kind and gentle person, quiet and observant. She was loved. Her undeserving family has been through hell. And now as new details come to light, there is a different kind of hell that many people will have to contend with.

While our town has been shaken by her disappearance, this new information brings with it a sense of betrayal. I did not know the man who was arrested, but many people I know did. He made his way into our community. He found employment. He included himself in our town’s traditions. He made friends. On the surface he came across as a decent person, but he was not.

And so here we are in the spring of the year. Finally the crocus on the west side of our house are blooming and things are greening up. The migratory birds and the seasonal workers are returning. We’re hardening off our garden plants and making plans for summer camping trips. In the midst of it all we’re trying to come to terms with this horrible thing that happened in our town. We’re holding onto the people whose lives have been randomly and unfairly impacted by a man whose inner demons defy understanding. We’re mourning the loss of our friend. We’re devastated by the pain that’s been inflicted upon so many good people.

Sometime on Friday morning the bear came back and killed five more of our chickens. And in the evening when we were trying to figure out what to do about this problem bear, it came again and nabbed one more of our birds. We yelled at it and it ran away but we knew that as long as there were chickens to be had it would keep at it. We gathered up our six remaining chickens, all of which were at least three years old and past the point of being good egg layers, and put them in cages and brought them into the house for the night. Once they were out of harm’s way we were faced with a tough decision.

I’ll leave out the details, but our twenty year run of keeping chickens ended on Saturday afternoon. We’ve lost a few hens here and there to dogs and hawks and eagles. We even had bears break into the coop to get to the chicken feed a time or two, but this bear had a taste for blood and it wasn’t going to stop. We had to make sure it wasn’t rewarded.

The bear will likely come again, but now if it does it will find an empty coop. Hopefully that will be enough to make it lose interest in our place and head back into the forest.

Losing our flock of chickens was hard, but compared to the hardships other people have to endure it was a small thing. There are bad days and then there are life altering tragedies. We’ve had a few bad days and I’m sad about the chickens, but I’ll be okay.

This morning we sat on our deck and sipped coffee under blankets and the yard seemed especially quiet without the rooster and the chicken chatter we’ve grown accustomed to hearing. This afternoon I spent a couple of hours harvesting nettle down in the elderberry grove below our house and the act of foraging felt healing, like the earth was offering me something in exchange for my loss. Now it’s the middle of the night and I’m sitting looking out my window at the full moon over the bay. Since the trees are down I can see the moon’s reflection on the water and it’s as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen.

I’m up late because I’ve written a hundred endings to this blog post and I’ve deleted them all. I’ve been thinking about Duffy and her family and nothing I can think of to say feels remotely adequate. I guess I’ve been trying to think of a way to say that even though the weight of all that’s bad in this world feels awfully heavy right now, I hope we can keep each other tethered to the beautiful things, like the full moon over the bay, like a mother’s love for her child, like small acts of kindness, like the snuggles of a beloved pet, like the way new lovers look at each other, like a blueberry bush loaded with plump berries, like a field of fireweed in full bloom. I hope we can notice all the beauty, and name it, and tip the scales.

Five-Acre Almanac: Oh, Georgia.

Week 39

I’m spending a few days with my daughter and her wife in Atlanta, trying to rest a bit and ready myself for the demands of early summer that will be waiting for me when I get back to Homer. I’m fully enjoying my time here and doing a pretty good job of not thinking too much about the nettle I could be harvesting or the potatoes I could be planting or the holes I could be digging back at home. In reality though, it’s a decent time to be gone. The last remnants of winter will likely be gone by the time I’m back.

From the guest room I’m staying in I see Adella and Ally’s backyard garden and a wall of deciduous trees. It’s still cool enough here at night to sleep with the windows open and last night a thunder storm startled me awake and this morning I woke to a serenade of birdsong and rooster crows. You wouldn’t know that there’s a major freeway just a couple miles away or that 6.2 million other people live nearby, but it’s true.

Last night we strolled around the neighborhood for a while. We passed a grafted tree that grows plums, peaches, apricots and nectarines. We stopped a couple of times to smell the Japanese honeysuckle and again at the bridge to look down on the creek that runs the length of the neighborhood. Last spring we hopped Adella and Ally’s backyard fence to go foraging around the creek and found cleavers, turkey tail mushrooms, wild garlic, plantain, roses and dock.

While we were out walking we ran into neighbors Philip and Sylvia and their two daughters. The last time I’d seen them was at Adella and Ally’s wedding last July. Now their baby is walking and their toddler is talking. Philip takes a trash bag with him on their evening walks and was happy to report that it takes much longer to fill a bag than it used to.

This morning after coffee we looked in on the tomato plants and pole beans which are taking off as the days get warmer. The spring greens are in their prime. We pulled a couple of garlic to check on their progress. Last July when we came for the wedding I brought some comfrey root from our Alaska garden to plant here in this Georgia yard. Like our daughter, it’s adjusted just fine to this warm climate.

Had my daughter not moved here I might never have visited Georgia, but now I’m happy to have this place to return to. So much of what I love about my five acre home in Alaska is what I love about here. There are wild plants to forage, trees and birds to identify. There are seasons to track and weather patterns to learn.

The forecast is predicting a high of 88 degrees this afternoon so our big plans for the day are to sit in the shade and sip on sun tea. Later when it cools down we might head into the woods behind the house for a look around. Tonight when it starts to get dark we’ll keep an eye out for fireflies and watch the tops of the trees for bats. Mostly we’re enjoying our time together. It’s a short trip this time and it’s going by too fast.

It may look like I’m not doing much to fill these fast days, but I am. I’m busy filling my heart to its brim with this place and these two women. I’m gathering and storing and filling my reserves with all that our time together has to offer in hopes that it will sustain me through until our next visit.

Five-Acre Almanac: Expanded view

Week 38

For the past several months I’ve spent Sundays writing and it’s been a luxury to devote one entire day a week to it, but now that the season is shifting this blog may have a bit of a personality change in order to accommodate the demands of summer. It might be a bit less lofty and a bit more earthy. It may have fewer words and more pictures. I’m not sure what it will look like exactly, but it will be fun to see where it goes.

Every winter in Alaska is a long winter, but now, thankfully, it really does feel like this one is behind us. Every day there is less snow and yesterday after coffee Dean and I ventured out to have a look around and to reacquaint ourselves with the bare ground. We pulled mulch off of our front garden beds to check on the state of the soil and saw that it’s thawed and ready for seeding root crops. We checked on the waist-high apple trees that popped up in our compost a few years ago and pruned them back a bit. We looked in on the rhodiola divisions that we planted in the fall and found that in addition to thriving they look like they somehow grew over the course of the winter. We found rhubarb bulging up red through the soil and stinging nettle growing on ground that was covered with snow just two days ago. We plotted out the spots where we’re going to plant the five apple trees that we ordered and then before coming back inside we picked some early spinach and chives to go with our scrambled eggs.

In the afternoon Dean cut down a tree in an ongoing effort to reclaim our view. I had mixed feelings about this as I tend to get attached to trees. I enjoyed watching squirrels jump from this particular tree’s branches onto the neighboring tree and I appreciated that the two trees together formed a kind of passageway from one part of our yard to another. This tree was young when the spruce bark beetle infestation that came through twenty some years ago and its very survival gave it sentimental value. I mourned the loss of the old trees, but it helped to watch the young ones that were spared grow tall and stately over time.

The view from our house disappeared so gradually as the small surviving trees grew that I didn’t notice its absence until people started commenting on it. In my mind the view was still there for us, we just had to take a thirty second walk to get to it. I didn’t feel like I’d lost anything as much as I felt like I’d gained some tall trees. But once it was pointed out to me that our view was gone I started to look for the things I could no longer see. In time I warmed up to the idea of dropping some trees.

I was on the phone with my daughter in Atlanta when the tree came down and in an instant the space inside our house was brighter, which is a benefit I hadn’t anticipated. Now I can once again see the entrance to Peterson Bay from my living room window, and Sadie Peak, and a swath of Kachemak Bay that goes from this side of the bay to the other. The tree was still healthy and beautiful though. It blocked wind and provided a barrier of privacy between our house and the development in the meadow down below. It was a part of this place.

Now its trunk has been sawed into rounds and stacked to dry. Either next winter or the following one we’ll use the wood to heat our house. Cutting the tree down was a loss and a gain. An exchange. Soon enough it will be old news but today I can’t stop looking at the space where the tree used to be. The influx of light still surprises me. The gap leaves me feeling a little bit exposed.

More trees are slated to come down but probably not for a while as gardening season is upon us. After we get back from a short trip out of Alaska next week we’ll be going full throttle around here. We’re eager to get our hands in the dirt. Eager to see green. We’re eager for company and late night fires, for songbirds and cranes. We’re eager for fishing and foraging and for getting our fill of summer so that when winter rolls around again in a few short months we’ll be eager for it too.

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: All These Trees

Week 36

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

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

An old but unprotected birch

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

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

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

Gutter Birch

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

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

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

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

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

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

walkable snow

Retreating snow under a young spruce

Five-Acre Almanac: 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.