Five-Acre Almanac: The Speed of Sound

Week 24

In the early morning hours two days ago, we woke to our dog barking. She does this when there’s a moose in the yard or when snow is falling off the roof, but on that night neither of those things happened. The rumble that woke her continued for at least half an hour and we couldn’t identify its source.

Sometimes the military performs drills over Kachemak Bay but when I looked out the window there weren’t any helicopters or lights to indicate that’s what was going on. There were no gusts of wind. It didn’t seem like fireworks. I’d read about the volcano in Tonga just before going to bed and it crossed my mind that it could be related, but I discounted that idea, not trusting that such a thing could be possible.

I learned the next morning that some kind of pressure or sound waves from the Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano located 5800 miles away are what we heard. They traveled up the Pacific and got here in the early morning hours to startle us out of our slumber. They moved through here and kept going north and a little while later they were heard in Fairbanks. And who knows, maybe they’re still moving.

There was a time when the news of the world didn’t travel faster than the speed of sound. Not too far in the distant past those rumbles in the night would have remained a mystery. But now we can watch a volcanic eruption online, in real time, nearly 6000 miles away, and when the sound of it reaches us several hours later we can connect the dots between the two events.

Anyhow, it was something new and a reminder that Earth is one place.

Today I worked on an essay I started last year about stinging nettle. It’s actually about a lot more than nettle and I put the piece aside for a year because writing a good essay is difficult. It requires a kind of attention I am seldom able to give. It requires putting to words things I don’t yet know how to say.

When I started writing my nettle essay last year I was drinking a cup of nettle tea every afternoon, but I got out of the habit. I set the essay aside. When I pulled the essay out of the folder and reread it, I instantly craved the tea.

I started drinking the tea because I’d read that it’s a healthy thing to do, but I continued drinking it because I felt that if I wanted to write about a plant then I needed to know it. Maybe I’m asking too much from a plant or maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m learning how to listen differently.

Sunset on Snow (photo by Dean Sundmark)

The other night I wish I would have listened to the rumbles differently. Now that I know what they were I wish I would have gone out into the moonlit night and given them my full attention. Maybe if I’d done so I would have entertained the idea that what I was hearing had traveled here from the volcano I’d seen on the news the night before rather than casting it aside. At the very least I’d have better descriptions of what it sounded like.

The sound itself wasn’t especially newsworthy. It was like a moose walking across the yard, or snow falling off the roof. If there hadn’t been chatter about it the next morning I might not have given it much thought. But lots of other people heard it too and it didn’t take long for word to spread that what we heard was from a volcano on the other side of the Pacific.

What might be more newsworthy than the sound we heard is the fact that we all believed the same story. We shared an experience and from what I observed there was no arguing or disgruntled banter about it. No blame or conspiracy. We all accepted that the sound we heard originated from the Tonga volcano and that it traveled through space and time to reach us in Homer, Alaska.

Having a couple of facts we could all agree on felt nice. I’d like to see us trend more in that direction.

Five-Acre Almanac: January Light

Week 23

A few weeks ago we didn’t have it in us. Just the idea of plotting out next summer’s garden and taking inventory of our seeds seemed like too much as it felt like we hadn’t fully recovered yet from the last summer season. But last night, to our surprise, it happened. We started talking about the garlic Dean planted in the fall, wondering how it’s faring out there under all that snow in the frozen ground, and soon we were sketching out garden design ideas, dogearing pages of the seed catalogs that arrived in the mail earlier this week and making a list of things we hope to grow and harvest for our business.

The way personal energy waxes and wanes with the seasons isn’t something I’ve thought much about for most of my life. Each day contains 24 hours and each week has seven days. Work starts at 9:00am each weekday whether it’s summer or winter, spring or fall. I tend to rise each morning and go to bed every night at about the same time, year round, whether we have six hours or nineteen hours between sunrise and sunset. It seems that with all the consistency we’ve created by adhering to clocks and calendars and schedules, our energy levels would also be somewhat even throughout a given year. But those arbitrary lines don’t always take into consideration our physical relationship to this planet and its cycles.

Here on the southern Kenai Peninsula on the first day of January we gain almost two minutes of daylight each day and by the end of the month that gain is up to almost five minutes. I may go to work at the same time each day and sleep for the same number of hours each night, but it feels vastly different from July when the daylight hours are going the other direction at nearly the same rate. In January my energy starts to build. In July I’m beginning to feel spent.

The difference make sense. If summer solstice is like the full moon and winter solstice is like the new moon, then we’re in the waxing phase right now. The light is coming back. Energy is building. In January I’m feeling the healing effects of autumn’s downtime and darkness. In January the energy that July requires begins to feel possible again.

It didn’t take long last night for our conversation about this year’s garden and business plan to dip into the territory of too much. The vision we have for this place is much greater than we can afford in terms of both time and money, so part of the planning requires reigning ourselves in, coming to terms with what’s realistic and remembering that our energy in the late part of summer is not what it is in the spring and early summer. Our tendency over the last few years has been to put too many projects on our to-do list and expand in more directions than we can realistically keep up with while we both have full time jobs. Taking into consideration the waxing and waning of energy over the course of a year when planning for the future feels like hard-earned wisdom, like a preventative tonic for our sanity, like a thoughtful gift of self-care. I need to remember this when our ambitions outpace our reality.

The nice thing about January is that while we’re trending toward long days, it still gets dark at night. We can ease into this shift of energy and use it to our advantage. Based on our past experience we can anticipate what’s coming and plan accordingly. We can imagine what our days will be like in July and August and ask ourselves what we can do now that we’ll thank ourselves for later.

I think in July and August I’ll be glad I crossed a few tasks off of our overall summer to-do list. I think I’ll also be glad I took advantage of the slow, dark mornings and early evenings of winter to rest and rejuvenate. I think I’ll be thankful for any January progress we make on clearing out the garage. If I get on it, my late summer self will be glad I created a new website when the ground was still frozen.

Low sun illuminating an oft-neglected instrument.

Next year when we’re back to January again I’ll be glad for the firewood we stacked and for the potatoes we’ve stored in the pantry. I’ll be glad for summer blueberries in my oatmeal and the herbs we dried for our winter teas.

Right now I’m glad for the light’s slow return and for time on my lunch breaks to walk on the beach. I’m thankful for the constant reminders of how precarious and beautiful my life is even as the clock keeps ticking forward and the calendar days pass from one to another. We live our finite lives as earthlings juxtaposed against the perpetual cycles of light and dark, of spring-summer-fall-winter, of the waxing and waning of the moon, of the planetary orbits. Just being here and trying to make sense of it all is enough to keep me occupied for a lifetime, maybe longer. Anything else I might fit in is a bonus.

Short-lived sea otter I came across on Bishop’s Beach this week.

Five-Acre Almanac: These Things

Week 22

When I was a child I was a Missionette. Much like the more secular Girl Scouts, Missionettes wore uniforms and recited mottoes at the beginning of each of our Wednesday night meetings at the Assemblies of God church. We also earned badges for skills like ironing and babysitting that were meant to prepare us for the stages of life we were moving into. I don’t have many bible verses memorized anymore, but the few I do remember are the ones we recited weekly at those meetings. There’s one in particular that’s been on my mind lately.

Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Maybe it was the way this bible verse was presented to me in the context of Missionettes or maybe it was my inability to understand duality at that point in my life, but I interpreted this to mean that we are to dwell on what’s positive in this world and avoid thinking about all that is wrong or bad or hurtful. Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side.

But revisiting this verse now that I’m an adult who hasn’t attended church or ironed anything in years and who is trying to live fully in this world that is both terrible and wonderful, I realize that it’s not about positivity at all. Seeking what’s true and what’s honest and what’s just requires looking straight into all of it, all that’s horrible and all that’s good.

There is no set curriculum for learning how to navigate all the beautiful aspects of life alongside all the suffering. But if we want to live fully we need to figure it out, at least to some degree. If we simply escape into what makes us feel good and deny our connection to anything bad in the world, we aren’t living in truth. If we identify only with pain and hardship, or place the blame for it elsewhere, we’re not living in truth. Truth is a messy mix of it all.

Think on these things.

Going into 2022 it’s difficult not to feel the weight of the messy mix bearing down. Maybe it’s that state of heaviness that’s making me feel this way or maybe it’s the stage of life I’m moving into, but I’m craving order.

When this house became our home all of the previous owner’s belongings came with the package. He’d lived here for twenty years. We brought our belongings into the mix and now we’ve accumulated another twenty year’s worth of stuff. There’s been a steady flow of things coming and going through the years but we’ve reached the point where clutter is keeping us from using our space the way wish to use it. We’ve managed to stash most of it in our garage, but the garage is at capacity.

Now we have to motivate ourselves to do a job that isn’t the most pleasant of jobs and nobody is offering us money or a badge to make it happen. Instead we have to imagine the garage as we want it to be and let that vision of a better, more usable space propel us forward.

We have to step into the cold, cluttered space and start sorting through every single thing that’s in there. Some of those things served us well in the past but are no longer serving a purpose in our lives. Some of those things have sentimental value. Some of those things are just junk and the trouble is not in letting them go but in hauling them away. All of them together have created a task that we’ve put off for too long.

The job is daunting, but I know there are better things ahead if we face the mess and do the work.

It’s true for our garage. It’s true beyond our garage.

It’s a new year and we might as well get started.

Five-Acre Almanac: A Few Days After Winter Solstice

Week 21

I woke up this morning to the rumble of snow sliding off our metal roof. It’s 35 degrees out there and is predicted to get up to 43 later today. Right now, at 9:15 am, I’d still need a headlamp if I headed outside, but it’s no longer nighttime dark. The sky is foggy and slate blue. The snow is reflecting the same color but is a shade or two brighter. Water is dripping off of everything that was once covered with snow and the snow on the ground is melting into itself.

As I’m writing this I keep looking out the window and marveling at the contrast between in here and out there. Out there everything is saturated and sloppy. In here we’ve got green plants and walls the color of desert sand. We’ve got a fire in the stove and hot coffee in our mugs. We’ve got warm lights and woolen blankets.

Even though I’m venturing outside most days, it’s the time of year when the bulk of my time is indoors. I go outside to be reminded of life beyond these four walls, to be inspired by the fresh air, the beauty, and the expansiveness of it all, but I return to the softness of shelter, to the familiarity and comfort of domesticity, to slow stews and warm beverages, to books, writing, and music.

These darkest days of winter are a restorative time after the intensity of summer’s non-stop daylight. Understanding this dark time as a balancing force rather than thinking of it as a dreaded phase to endure is necessary for me, especially now that we’re past the winter solstice but still have four months of winter ahead of us. Now I can begin to track my energy’s return in step with the light’s return, even as winter continues on.

Already I sense the slightest change in direction. We’ve gone into the darkness and we’re moving out of it now. For the next month and a half it will be a slow progression, but then it will accelerate. By mid-February I’ll be astonished by how fast the days are gaining light. By March the sun will shine well into the evenings and sometimes, if there are no clouds and the conditions are just right, it will feel warm against our skin. Our friends who’ve invested in solar panels will see a dramatic uptick in their electrical production with both the intensity of the sun itself and it’s reflection off of the snow. In early April the birch, alder, and willow buds will begin to swell, the squirrels will start zipping between spruce trees and our old dogs will chase them, but perhaps not as enthusiastically as they once did. We’ll hear reports of bear tracks in the melting snow. Our driveway will thaw and for a few weeks we’ll have to walk to and from the house in our mud boots.

Some years we still have snow on the ground in early May, but even if that’s the case our garden is planted by Memorial Day. This is something we can count on, something we can plan for, something we can hold on to when winter seems impossibly long. After the garden goes in, it’s full-throttle summer for three months. It’s foraging, fishing, weeding, watering, harvesting, hiking, and camping. It’s hosting company, tending late night fires with friends, dropping dead tired into bed while it’s still bright outside and getting up the next morning to do it all again. Those three months are the yang to the yin of this darkness.

Our coffee table is covered with gardening books and soon the seed catalogs will show up in our mailbox. Already we’re thinking ahead to what we want to grow this summer and considering how we’ll fill each of our garden beds. We’re planning how we want to use our limited time off of work to maximize our summer days. But still, thankfully, there’s time for sitting in the rocking chair in front of the wood stove, time for sipping tea and listening to music. There’s time for writing and reflecting and reading. There’s time to imagine the things we long to create.

Now, a couple of hours after I first sat down to write, the fog is clearing. The low, wispy gray clouds are moving fast on the breeze and behind them the sky is brightening into shades of yellow and pink. I want to step away from my computer and move around a bit. Up until now winter has been about recovery, but now that we’ve crossed through the darkest of days everything feels possible again. It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself for thousands upon thousands of years, yet every time I experience it, it seems new. Every year it feels like a miracle.

Taken just after writing this post. 12/26/2021

*top photo taken from Bishop’s Beach on Winter Solstice

Five-Acre Almanac: Natural Forces

Week 20

All week long I’ve been thinking about what to write for this week’s blog post. I’d assumed it would have something to do with winter solstice since that’s the predominant natural force in the northern hemisphere right now. As is normal though, I wasn’t sure how I was going to write about it. After all, what more is there to be said about the winter solstice? It’s the darkest time of year. It’s been observed and celebrated for thousands of years in one way or another. It’s a time to slow down, go inward, and embrace the absence of light.

I was thinking about all of this as I was sitting at the kitchen table last night labeling packages of a tea blend that we’d put together earlier in the day. We named this particular blend Dandecalm because it is a blend of wild chamomile and dandelion roots and it’s got a calming effect on both the gut and the emotions. And at the time, all was calm.

Dean was relaxing on the couch after a week of fighting a cold and we were listening to our go-to, deep-chill record Where the Spirit Meets the Bone by Lucinda Williams. The house was tidy and comfortable. The Christmas lights added to the coziness. Things were winding down after a full day and we were sipping herb tea and starting to think about turning in for the night and then it happened.

An explosion. Flying glass.

I hit the floor and in a flash my mind covered all the worst case scenario possibilities. Natural gas explosion (we don’t have natural gas here). Random shooter taking aim at us through our back window. Propane tank explosion. Avalanche of snow falling off the roof and breaking through the back window.

Dean jumped up from the couch and saw me on the floor and also imagined all kinds of terrible things. Once he established that I was okay he grabbed a flashlight and headed toward the back door to investigate. Once I felt reasonably sure that we weren’t under attack I picked myself up and started looking around too. Glass shards littered the floor but all of our windows were still intact. Then I noticed liquid dripping from the kitchen counter and the smell of something fruity and sour.

Kombucha.

Fermentation, it turns out, is capable of incredible destruction.

Looks benign.

Over the summer we were too busy to keep up with our kombucha, but a couple months back Dean started it up again and made a red currant/ginger blend. The SCOBY seemed weak after months of neglect and we had our doubts that it would work. Still though, he bottled it up and gave it a chance to do its thing. We checked one of the bottles a few weeks ago and it was flavorful but flat, no carbonation at all. We figured we’d have to throw it out but just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

Our house typically runs cool, hardly ever getting above the low 60s and dipping down into the mid 50s at night, but with all the snow we’ve had recently we’re experiencing a rare phase in which our house is insulated and warm. For the past couple of weeks we’ve been staying steady in the 60s at night and going as high as the low 70s during the day. These balmy temperatures may be what launched the kombucha into action. It’s hard to say for sure. But whatever the cause, we are lucky it didn’t cause us bodily harm. Had one of us been in the kitchen when its pressure could no longer be contained within the confines of its pop-top bottle, it could have been bad.

With our adrenaline fully kicked in, we spent the next hour and a half trying to clean up all the glass. We found it everywhere, in everything, and will probably continue to find small shards of it into the foreseeable future.

We laughed a lot, out of relief that it was just kombucha and not something terrible or sinister. We laughed over imagining having to explain each other’s untimely death to our friends and family under such ridiculous circumstances. We laughed over the imagined conversations with EMS had one of us needed medical attention. We laughed because out of all the dangers in this world, our close call was from a healthy fermented drink.

Maybe there’s a way I could tie winter solstice and exploding kombucha together for the purposes of this blog, but my nerves are still on edge and I’m still a little too shaken up to stretch that far. For now I’m just thankful that all the flying glass missed me. Thankful that it missed Dean and the dogs too. I’m thankful that in this world where weird random accidents happen all the time, this one turned out to be nothing more than a big mess.

Five-Acre Almanac: Expansive

Week 19

The place on the planet where our home sits is surrounded by wild. Beyond our front door there is a small yard with our garden but beyond that is a meadow and an elderberry grove. Further still is a spruce forest that’s home to moose, coyotes, black bears, lynx, owls, ermine, squirrels, porcupines, hares, spruce grouse, owls, and a host of other small animals. Sometimes a brown bear or a pair of wolves will wander through.

At the edge of the forest directly to the south of us, a bluff drops nearly 500 feet down to Kachemak Bay. The 40-mile long arm that juts out of lower Cook Inlet and cuts a groove into the landmass of the Kenai Peninsula is the lifeblood of our community. It’s alive with fish and seabirds and marine mammals and is in a state of constant motion, keeping time with the moon’s gravitational pull.

On the other side of Kachemak Bay are the Kenai Mountains. At 3000-5000 feet, they aren’t as tall as some, but they’re steep and jagged and the light shines on them differently depending on the time of year, the time of day, whether or not it’s cloudy or clear, dry or humid. There are glaciers too, that spill down from the Harding Ice Field. We see Dixon and Portlock from here, and the iceberg dotted lake that flows out of Grewingk. We have a bird’s eye view of where the lake’s silty stream braids out of the valley and mixes into the bay.

We can’t see the Gulf of Alaska on the other side of the Kenai Mountains, but it’s with us nonetheless. It sends us warm air and high winds on occasion, and sometimes, like this week, deep snow.

Out our back yard and to the north there is a stand of cottonwood trees and more spruce. The elevation rises. There are houses and roads, a school and a fire hall, but then the land goes on and up the peninsula, over hills and through wetlands to meet the 1.92 million acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, then on to more mountains, to giant lakes, to vast expanses of boreal forest.

There’s wild above us too, in the gases that make up our atmosphere, in the moon, the planets, the stars and all the space between them. And there’s the wild below our feet. Roots, dirt, worms, mycorrhiza, rock, the earth’s mantle, its core.

It’s easy to lose awareness of all the wild that surrounds us. We go to work. We get caught up in the tasks of living. We watch television. We lose ourselves in our striving, our obligations, our desires. We’re so focused on keeping our footing that we forget where we are. And in forgetting where we are, we forget who we are.

There is beauty to all of this wild, but the beauty goes beyond what can be captured in photos or words. There is deep truth in the design and the function of the natural world, and deep truth in how the design and function inform each other to create individual systems that work together as a whole. The default of the wild is interdependence. I don’t know how to portray that sort of thing, I only know that I want to learn the way of it all. I want to live with that kind of truth. I want to remember who I am.

So I step out into the cold with my snowshoes. I walk the same trail I’ve walked a hundred times. I touch the trunk of the old birch tree on my way down the meadow. I pluck a frozen highbush cranberry and hold its bitter earthy flavor on my tongue as I tromp through the spruce and alder woods. When I reach the other side of the trees I stop and look up from the snow. The mountains, the bay, the glaciers are before me. I hear the ocean’s churning. I’m aware of the cool air on my face and the warmth inside my down jacket.

The sun is low in the sky and it casts a golden glow. For a moment I am in a state that’s somewhere between remembering and forgetting, between who I’ve been and who I am still meant to become. Everything wild that surrounds me would exist without me, but in witnessing it I become wild too. It feels like belonging.

Five-Acre Almanac: Feeling Reflective

Bishop’s Beach 12/02/2021

Week 18:

Sometimes writers need to write about writing and so that’s the subject of this week’s post. I think it fits with the Five-Acre Almanac theme because it’s a good part of what I do here. Writing makes me go through life differently than I would if I didn’t write. In that way it’s a part of who I’ve become, not so much because of the words on the page but because of how I move through my days searching, looking for connections, asking myself questions and trusting that there will be an opening. I’ve learned that once I go through that opening there will be surprises on the other side.

I felt compelled to start the Five-Acre Almanac posts at an unlikely time. It was August and besides going to work every day I was busy with party planning and gardening. In addition to the time constraints there was also the problem of planning. I didn’t have a fully fleshed-out road map or well-defined theme. The timing was all wrong, yet there was a persistence I couldn’t ignore that was telling me to start it anyhow. And so I did.

Now I’m eighteen weeks in and enough time has passed that I can reflect on the experience of showing up and writing each week. When I started out I had a personal goal of doing this for a year, but I didn’t want to put that in writing because I wasn’t sure if I could follow through with such a commitment. I didn’t want to set myself up for failure and so instead of being specific in my goals, I remained vague about how long I would be doing this.

My determination to meet my goal of showing up here every week has been solid, and that’s new for me. I seem to be able to work through my self-doubt and trepidation in ways I haven’t in the past. That’s not to say I don’t experience both or that I’m not continually talking myself out of giving up, but there’s a drive that keeps me going. I’m working on identifying what’s fueling that drive.

Why am I doing this? Why am I staying committed to it? Why does it matter so much to me?

Writing reflects who I am more honestly than anything else in my life, at least when I’m doing it right and not falling into the trap of writing for praise or for profit. This week when I was driving into town and I was asking myself some of these questions, these words came to me:

“Your job is not to impress.”

This left me wondering, what is my job then? The answer that came to me, which might be different than the answer that comes next time, is that my job for now is to show up.

When we commit to a relationship with another person, we have no way of anticipating the hardships and joys that we’ll face with them. When we commit to a job, we don’t know all of the challenges that will arise. When we commit to any kind of practice, we don’t know what’s going to be there for us on the other side or what we’re going to learn along the way.

Writing each week for the Five-Acre Almanac is the same way. I don’t know what it is supposed to be. I don’t know what it’s supposed to become. I only know that whatever I’m meant to discover along the way will only be discovered if I show up, if I honor the commitment I made to myself when I started.

I made this evolving project a public one, which is both motivating and terrifying. Motivating because I push myself to do better than I would if I were just writing in my journal. Terrifying because my uncertainty about what this is meant to be is on display.

“Your job is not to impress.”

Then what is my job here? What is the purpose of this self-imposed, public writing practice?

It is to get better at articulating the experience of being alive. Not because my experience is any more interesting or important than anyone else’s, but because language is the gift that gets me closer to articulating the experience than anything else I’ve discovered so far. And the experience of being alive is something to behold.

So I post here every week about something I’ve seen or done or witnessed in the natural world, and I try to tie it to something that is beyond myself. But like an iceberg, the part that is seen, the part that comes through in an 800-1000 word blog post is just a tiny piece of the bigger picture. Underneath there is a mass that includes everything else I’m trying to make sense of—my family, my hopes, my fears, my trying to understand the bigness of the world and my place in it, my gratitude, my uncertainty about the future, the terrible unfairness and hardship that exists right alongside so much beauty and wonder.

I turn to the natural world with all the questions that make up the entire iceberg of my existence, and the answers reveal themselves outside of the realm of language. The Five-Acre Almanac posts are my attempt to tune myself in to whatever it is that I’m meant to learn and turn a small piece of what I discover into words that make sense. The hope is that the writing will surprise me.

***

Scruffy.

Five-Acre Almanac: Temporary

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Week 17

When my children were young and the three of us spent our days at home together we had a dog named Porter. He was gentle and goofy and could not be left alone for a moment. Because he was never out of sight, we were witness to all of his antics including his attempts at hunting voles. He caught them on occasion and when he did he was as surprised by his conquests as we were. Sometimes he swallowed them whole before anyone yelled for him to let go, and if it wasn’t too late he’d open his mouth and the rodent would leap out and escape to freedom. One time though the vole dropped to the ground, dead.

Upon picking it up I discovered that the dead rodent was female, and under the thin skin of her belly there was motion. Without fully thinking it through I brought it inside, plopped it on a cutting board and performed a c-section in front of my children. This wasn’t an attempt to save the baby voles, it was a chance to see something that we don’t normally get to see.

It wasn’t until I’d extracted the babies and put them in a box with some straw that it occurred to me that I’d set my children up to watch the animals die. The kids were already attached to the tiny pink squirming bodies and were rooting for their survival, even arguing over what to name them before I realized what I’d done.

My thought was to tuck the box away and let the infant voles die while nobody was watching, but the kids wanted to keep them nearby and check on them frequently. I explained how in nature small mammals need things that only their mothers can give them and that the cow’s milk in our refrigerator was not an adequate substitute for their mother’s milk. I reminded them that the tiny creatures hadn’t even been born yet and that their hearts and lungs might not even be fully developed. I did my best to prepare them for the inevitable.

I suggested removing the mice from the box and taking them outside and finding a place for them to die in the grasses, but neither child agreed to that plan. In the end we put the box on the coffee table and for a few hours we checked on them until one by one their bodies became motionless. Then we took them outside, along with the body of their mother, and buried them.

All of this took place before Dean got home from work. When he returned and asked about their day they told him how Porter had killed the mama vole and how I had cut it open and found live babies and then we put them in a box and then after a while they all died and we buried them. It was all very matter-of-fact. They were not visibly traumatized by the experience as I’d feared they might be.

This story came back to me today seemingly out of nowhere, the way that memories often do. Maybe it’s because it’s Thanksgiving and I’m feeling nostalgic and I’m inviting the memories of those little kids to come around. They remind me of how this house has a history that’s rich in spite of its need for upgrades and improvements. Our family’s stories give our home value that transcends the real-estate market, at least to us.

Somewhere out there in our yard in the ground there’s a spot where the earth has reclaimed the cross we made out of Popsicle sticks and the voles that didn’t survive our dog all those years ago. Our beloved dogs Porter and Nyack are buried closer to the house under a big spruce tree, not far from where the crocus flowers come up each spring.

This isn’t a sad thing. There’s intimacy in having lived in a place long enough for our stories to be a part of the landscape. And there were stories here before we ever arrived on the scene. Bob and Doris, the homesteaders who moved here before there were roads and electric lines, sold these five acres to Harley and Betty who built the house and lived here for twenty years before we came along. There are those too, who must have passed through and taken shelter on this land long before any of us parceled up the place and claimed ownership.

We can draw up papers and build houses and put up fences, but it’s good to remember that our time here is temporary. Our stories may live on after we’re gone or they may be reclaimed by the earth. Either way, this land belongs as much to the people who are yet to come as it does to us. Remembering this is humbling and beautiful. It connects us to something ongoing and perpetual. It gives us a reason to question the things we’ve come to think of as normal. It allows us permission to do better.

Five-Acre Almanac: Illumination

Week 16:

Most weeks I’m able to work from home on Thursdays. That was that case this past week which was lucky for me because the moon was full and the skies were clear and I was able to adjust my work schedule around the moonrise. All week long I’d been seeing photos of the moon on the eastern horizon against the Kenai Mountains and I had a hankering to be out there and witness its ascent myself. The moon was due to rise around 4:30pm and the sun was due to set just a little while later. I don’t know what the temperature was, but if I had to guess I’d say it was somewhere around zero.

If I could go back in time and tell my eighteen year-old self that one day I’d be a woman who would plan her day around the moonrise, eighteen year-old me would surely be worried. Tracking the moon was not the sort of thing that seemed normal to me back then and if I’d met anyone who wanted to talk to me about such things I would have thought they were wacky, possibly a little bit unhinged and spooky.

What was normal to me as an eighteen year old was an accumulation of what I’d experienced up to that point which involved small town sports, hours and hours of television sitcoms, lots of pop music, going back and forth between two blended families in two Western Colorado towns, and attending Pentecostal church services every week. Those were the things on the surface.

There were deeper things I was wrestling with too, things that didn’t add up. I’d witnessed hands-on healing, people speaking in tongues and dancing in the spirit, and had heard all kinds of biblical interpretations of current events. I’d had my heart broken already by a boy and by life circumstances and by the false notion that we are not worthy of any of the grace we’ve been given. I lived in fear of never finding love, of the impending apocalypse, of not being able to make it on my own.

I’d heard that there were women out there who concocted strange brews and gathered around fires during a full moon, but the thought of them made me nervous and so I didn’t allow them to take up any space in my imagination.

On Thursday when I made a pot of herb tea for my thermos and went outside to start a fire so that I could stay warm while watching for the moonrise, I wasn’t thinking so much about my eighteen year-old self. I was thinking instead about the practicalities of my situation. Both of my dogs were cold and wanted to go back in the house. I’d started work early that day and hadn’t yet figured out a plan for dinner. While I worked without gloves to get the paper and cardboard and kindling set up just right before I lit the match, the cold worked its way into my fingers. After the fire caught and started throwing heat I realized that from where I was standing I wouldn’t be able to see the point on the horizon where the moon was going to make its appearance.

The fire danger is low this time of year so it was fine to leave the fire in search of a better vantage point for viewing the moonrise. I tromped past the old birch tree and the chicken coop and turned north and east. I kept an eye out and soon a portion of the moon became visible. A stand of cottonwood trees stood between me and an unobstructed view, but the light was impressive the way I knew it would be.

Seeing the moon on the horizon never gets old. I love the persistent trick of the brain that makes it look bigger against the mountains than it does overhead. It’s a reminder that there are things we know to be true that can’t fully be explained. It’s a reminder that what is and what we perceive aren’t always the same thing.

While the size of the moon on the horizon might have been an illusion, my cold fingers were not. After a few minutes of moon gazing I let the short haired dog back into the house and made my way back to the fire. From there I thought about what to cook for dinner and watched the sun grow larger as it dipped toward the ocean. I warmed my hands and sipped my tea and stayed long enough to see Venus and Jupiter come to light.

It wasn’t until I was back in the house and cutting up potatoes that I thought of my eighteen year-old self. She sneaks into my awareness sometimes like a phantom and asks me to forgive her for being shallow and lost and afraid. She asks me for love and reassurance and for a reason to dream. She asks me to light the way forward, and so I do. I give her the sun and the moon and the stars. I build a fire and keep it burning.

photo by Dean Sundmark

Five-Acre Almanac: The Rooster Years

Week 15:

Yesterday our rooster died. It happened sometime between when I brought the chickens some water around 11:00am and when I went back around 4:30 to shut them in for the night. I found him on the floor of the coop, close to the feeder, perfectly still, still warm. He lived through six Alaskan winters and didn’t have it in him to make it through another one.

In all the years we’ve kept chickens he was our only rooster. I never gave him a name and each summer around the solstice when he’d start crowing at 4:00am I’d grow weary of his voice piercing through the quiet every fifteen minutes like a persistent snooze alarm, but still I grew attached. He was beautiful to look at and the seriousness with which he took himself amused me to no end. While I don’t have any hard evidence, I think the flock was healthier with him around. He was protective and unafraid to speak his mind if the feeder ran out of food or if he spotted an intruder. His last valiant effort was in early October. I heard him sounding the alarm from a thicket of spindly spruce and when I went out to see what the ruckus was all about I found a Northern goshawk perched in the chicken pen. From his safe space the rooster sent out a warning cry that sent all the hens running for cover. With a little coaxing from Dean and I, the hawk moved on and in time the chickens found their way back to to coop. That was the end of the chickens’ free ranging for the year, and as it turns out, the rooster’s last foray out into the wild.

The year we got the rooster, which was an accident, was the same year we planted a garden in our front yard. Dean used a pile of pallets and made six 4’x4’ raised beds within feet of our front door. Although we’d gardened off and on before that, moving the garden to a location that demanded our attention was a game changer. The next year he added another three 2’x4’ beds even closer to the house. We made a temporary fish-net fence around the front yard garden to keep the chickens and the moose out, but as these things go, the temporary fence is still in place.

A couple years after the front yard garden went in, Dean built a small greenhouse off the back of our chicken coop. He used old windows and a used sauna door that our friend Robert found at the dump. In addition to creating a space for us to grow warmer weather crops, it made it so the chicken coop warms up by a few degrees on a sunny day, and it blocks the south wind that used to seep through the cracks.

The summer after the greenhouse was built, we cut a trail through the lower portion of our property. Starting from the chicken coop/greenhouse, the trail cuts downhill through a thicket of wild roses and ferns to a small spruce forest. When we first moved in, three old spruce trees dominated the area, but within two years the spruce bark beetles came through and killed them. They stood tall and dead for several years, but one by one wind storms knocked them over. Dean and our brother-in-law Joel milled one of the original old trees into lumber that we’ve used for various projects around here. The other two are slowly rotting back into the earth. Now the spruce that were young enough to survive the beetles have grown tall.

After the forested area, the trail comes out into a meadow and turns west. Those first few years after the trail was built we found morel mushrooms in the springtime in that transition zone where the forest turns into the meadow, usually on the south side of a particular small spruce tree. We haven’t been so lucky the last few times we’ve looked but like our old dog Porter who once caught a mouse and for the remainder of his days looked in the same spot every time he passed by in hopes of it happening again, we’ll probably continue to look for morels under that same tree every spring for as long as we’re able to walk the trail.

Where we once found a morel

The trail turns north toward the house again after a hundred or so yards of walking west through the meadow. It winds up through a thicket of wild elderberries that once entered feels otherworldly and is completely private. It’s protected from wind and it’s a space that could be inhabited by fairies, black bears and moose. In the years since we’ve cut a trail through, wild raspberries have moved into the edges to take advantage of the light, and as you move up the hill the stinging nettle becomes more prominent. We spend hours picking nettle along the trail in the early part of summer, and we dry it and store it in glass jars on our pantry shelves to use through the winter months.

One of many elderberry trees

Yesterday after I found the rooster lying dead on the floor of the chicken coop I came in the house and made myself a cup of nettle tea. It’s considered a tonic herb, which according to a study out of the Institute of Integrative and Complimentary Medicine in Zurich, Switzerland means that it has the ability to promote the physiological functioning of an organ system, leading to the subjective feeling of well-being of the patient treated with it.

I sat and treated myself to the hot, earthy, chlorophyll-rich tonic and thought about the rooster’s years with us. I stoked the fire and looked out at the moon, half illuminated and reflecting off the bay. I thought about the hens out there in the coop, wondering which one will claim the highest perch now that the rooster is gone. He was noisy and had a big presence and I imagine it will take a few days for them to sort out their new pecking order. It will take some time to get used to all the newfound space and quiet now that he’s gone.

Old guy