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: 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: 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.

**

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Small Joys

Week 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean putting all the pieces together

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Spring Equinox

Week 33

Spring Equinox was this past Sunday and for a while in the late morning after it warmed up to nearly 40 degrees, I camped out on a blue and brown thrift store afghan on a south-facing, wind-protected piece of earth in our yard. I brought my journal and my favorite mechanical pencil with me and thought I’d brainstorm ideas for this blog post, but out there in the bright sun and cool air my mind wasn’t big on ideas. It was just taking it all in. The heat of the sun against my black jacket, cool air on my face, the shimmer of light on the bay, every contour, shadow, ridge and knoll on the snow covered Kenai Mountains, the chirping squirrel in the tree behind me, neighbors hammering and sawing in their yards, a raven chortling in the distance, chickens murmuring in their pen, faint music coming from the deck where Dean was planting more seeds to fill our garden beds that are still buried in snow.

It was the kind of day like the days that make their way into my January dreams. Only this one was real.

I thought I’d sit for fifteen minutes and fill a page with ideas but instead I sat for a couple of hours and tried to list the things I noticed. Newly hatched insects floating up from the ground, last autumn’s musty smelling leaves, the cool, damp earth against the soles of my feet,  light reflecting off the crusty snow covered mountains, magpies hopping from tree to tree, eagles circling overhead, melting snow all around me, the voices of neighbors, sun on my skin, wake lines left by small boats on a glassy bay.

When I let go of having to write something meaningful and allowed myself to become an observer, I freed myself from my own busy mind.

The natural world I observed was not vying for my attention. It was not trying to sell me anything. It was not twisting facts or trying to keep secrets. It was indifferent to my place in society, my age, my education, my past. I did not feel unsettled by anything I witnessed. There was no veil of judgment between me and what was around me. No expectation.

And so here I am two days later, still unsure about where to go with this post. All I’ve got this time around is that I sat on a small dry patch of grass beneath a spruce tree for a couple of hours on Sunday and took in as much of the world around me as I could. I soaked in the sun. I filled my lungs with fresh air. I listened to the sounds of a changing season and stopped trying to make sense of things for a while. It was peaceful and it was good.

Maybe for this week that’s enough.  

Five-Acre Almanac: Brightening Sky

Week 28

So much of life is about balancing commitments and priorities, about giving a little here and taking a little there. And in taking all of that into consideration I sat down to write this week’s post last night. Today’s forecast is calling for thirty-five degrees and sun. If I were to have put all of this writing off until today I’d have put myself in a position of having to choose between spending time in the sun or spending time in front of my computer screen and it’s the time of year when the sun must win. Hands down. Anyhow, it’s probably good to mix up when I write because my mood is surely different on a Saturday evening than it is on a Sunday afternoon.

Yesterday wasn’t as sunny as today is supposed to be but the air was calm and the temperature was above freezing. I mucked out the chicken coop and made a trail through the snow to the compost pile. Our son is here for the weekend and the two of us spent an hour or so clearing stuff out of the garage. Like he has for the past few weekends, Dean worked on a plumbing project that recently made its way to the top of our home repair list.

Our repair list is long and while it used to feel overwhelming it’s finally beginning to feel less so. Not because we have loads of time on our hands but because we’re making peace with what we’re realistically able to do while still keeping our sanity. Keeping true to our priorities means we get things done at a slower pace. It means one winter we paint the living room and the next one we re-plumb the bathroom. It means our garage will get cleared out eventually, if we keep at it. It means we’ll spend an afternoon outside in the sun when we can, even if something else has to give.

Yesterday before I got busy with chores I spent a couple of hours revisiting a short story I wrote in graduate school. It’s a story that has potential but it’s never been quite right. I tucked it away for a few years and haven’t thought about it much for a while, but it popped into my awareness again this week and I started wondering if I might be ready to give it another shot. My overall mood has changed since I first wrote the story and I may be able to offer it something now that I couldn’t back when it was first written.

A few months ago I told a friend that he has a personal story so intense, so big, that he could write about it every year for the rest of his life and it would be a different story each time. Time changes us and it changes our stories. It’s impossible for me to reread old stories and blog posts without wanting to change them to fit the person I’ve become.

Writing here each week doesn’t allow me time to obsess. I write and then I post and then I have to move on. If I write too infrequently I put too much stock in each piece. I’ve put too much stock in the fiction I’ve written and in doing so I’ve scared myself away from it. It felt good to pull my story out and face it once again. I’m adding it to my long list of things to do.

It’s funny how we add a lot to our to-do lists but rarely remove anything. I attribute the habit to loving life and wanting to experience so many things, but maybe it’s just a sign of too much wanting. Maybe a few hours spent in the sun will help me come up with a few things I can take off of my list.

A week ago one of the pepper plants we overwintered in the back bedroom started putting on new leaves. We’ve kept it inside to keep it from freezing and we’ve given it just enough water to keep it alive. Now it’s coming out of dormancy. In the fall Dean filled several empty chicken-feed bags with potting soil and compost so we’d have some to work with before the ground thaws. Yesterday I brought one of the bags in from the garage and put it beside the wood stove to thaw out. Today I’ll bring the pepper plant out of the back room, re-pot it in fresh soil, give it some water and put it in our south facing window where it can get plenty of sun. If all goes well we’ll be eating peppers from it in a few months.

A few months seems like a long time to wait for peppers when we could buy them fresh at the grocery store any day of the week, but being privy to a plant’s cycle of growth, production, decline, dormancy and reawakening is a pretty cool thing. I suspect we’ll appreciate those peppers more for having witnessed their journey into existence.

There’s so much more that could be said about the cycles and stages we go through in our own lives, about emerging into one thing even while we’re waiting for something else to happen. I could go on. But even as I’ve got my fingers on my keyboard I’ve got my eyes on the forecast. The clock is ticking and the sky is getting brighter.

yurt view

Five-Acre Almanac: Halfway There

Week 26

This week marks the halfway point between winter solstice and spring equinox. To me that means we’re entering phase two of winter. I needed those dark months of winter, but now I need them to be behind me. I’m ready for driving to work in the daylight and for the angle of the sun to be a bit higher on the horizon. I’m ready to get ready for summer, which is so much of what phase two of winter seems to be about. This morning over coffee Dean and I flipped through the seed packets that came in the mail and we plotted out next summer’s garden. I’m sure we’ll make adjustments when it’s actually time to plant things, but at least we’ve got something of a plan now.

This week also marks the halfway point of my Five-Acre Almanac posts. When I set out to write a post a week for a year I wasn’t bold enough to publicly announce my intentions. I wanted to give myself an out in case I wasn’t having fun or gaining anything from the process. It didn’t take long though for me to determine that this was something I wanted to do for myself.

It’s difficult to invest time in writing when there are so many other worthy demands on my weekend hours, but I like the way I feel when I’m writing. I like the way I look for things, the way I ask more questions, the way I push myself to find the most honest way to say a thing. I don’t always like the self-doubt that sneaks in or the frustration that comes when the words don’t come easily, but I like the feeling of growth that comes when I push through in spite of myself. It’s a practice.

For the first twenty-six weeks, this has been a practice in giving myself permission to write for several hours every weekend and allowing myself to buy into the notion that it’s time well spent.

It’s been a practice in trusting that the words will come even when it’s difficult to summon them. Sometimes a kombucha explosion offers itself up as easy subject matter, but more often than not I sit down to write without a plan. Even so I’ve come up with something every single time. It’s like experiencing a small miracle every Sunday.

It’s been a practice in discipline, in letting go of perfectionism, in not taking myself too seriously. Each week it’s a practice in courage.

Speaking of courage, there are still directions I’d like to go with my writing and the hope as that these Five-Acre Almanac posts will help me get there. I’d like to dive deeper. As I write about fireweed and spruce trees and collecting rocks on the beach I want it to be about more than fireweed and spruce trees and collecting rocks on the beach. As I write about turning the soil and planting carrots and digging for dandelion roots I want it to be about more than turning the soil and planting carrots and digging for dandelion roots. Whatever that more is is what I’m striving for.

In that way these Five-Acre Almanac posts have become a spiritual practice. I’m hesitant to use the word spiritual because it’s often associated with supernatural belief, but I can’t think of a better word for what this has become. I started out with an idea of writing about my relationship to this place but through the practice of committing to it I’ve learned a bit about myself. That’s been an unexpected gain from this process. The unexpected delight has been that there are people out there who read it. So if you’re reading this, I thank you. You give me the energy and incentive to keep going. It’s a true gift.

I imagine that as the snow melts and the ground thaws, these posts will change to fit the season. But I know better than to try to plan for that. Whatever this is meant to become it will become. Unless something unforeseen comes up I’ll bring you along with me through spring equinox and mud season, through the springtime planting frenzy and those first harvests of nettle. I’ll bring you along through the longest days of summer when the world outside our door is overwhelmingly green and the stars are nothing but a memory. I’ll take you with me into July, the month that makes me tired just thinking about it, and then we’ll head on through to the beginning of August which will complete the year. Today we’re halfway there.

I’m both daunted and excited about the prospect of sitting down to twenty six more blank pages.

Five-Acre Almanac: Dreaming Green

Week 25

Earlier this week a young male moose was hanging out on the library grounds. For most of the day on Wednesday he was just outside our office windows in the small yard between the building and the parking lot. Completely unperturbed by cars driving past or people walking to and from the front doors of the library, he moved from one tree to the next, scraping bark off with his teeth and munching whatever branches he could reach. Between bouts of eating he’d rest for a while in the snow.

Because it got cold fast this winter and deep snow came early, it’s been a rough season for moose. The next couple of months could be especially hard on them. We’ve seen hungry moose before. Several years ago toward the end of a deep snow winter a female moose was lying down in the road not far from our mailboxes and it didn’t have the energy to get back up. We had to drive far to one side of the road for a few days to get around her, and even though we’re not supposed to feed moose, someone cut up a cabbage and set it down in front of her . The cabbage went untouched and then one day the moose was gone, probably after a phone call to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Just inside a window near the entrance of the library there is table that’s home to the Homer Seed Library. On the table is an old card catalog shelving unit that’s now being used to hold seed packets that are free for the taking, and in the spirit of gardening and growing things there are a few houseplants on the table too. Our young moose friend could see the plants and occasionally he’d wander over and push his nose against the window. Poor guy.

I’m beginning to crave green myself these days and starting to look forward to those early garden treats like spinach and miner’s lettuce and the even more abundant wild foods that so graciously grow without any effort on our part. The nettles pop up each spring and while I used to just enjoy them when they were fresh, now I treat them the way we treat salmon in Alaska. There is a window of time in which to harvest them and the hope is to get enough to last us through the winter. For a few weeks while the stinging nettle are young and tender we pick them daily and put them on the drying racks in our yurt, then we jar them up and put them on the pantry shelf. All winter we sprinkle the dried leaves into soups and stir fries and sauces. They’ve grown here for years but it was a while before it occurred to us to save them. It’s funny how sometimes a resource is right in front of you before you recognize its value.

It started with nettle, but then it was other things. Now we collect dandelion, spruce tips, fiddlehead ferns, pineapple weed, yarrow, red clover, plantain, dock, elder flowers, raspberry leaves, roses, rose hips, and fireweed. These are the wild things that grow outside our front door. If we venture a bit further there are lingonberries and blueberries, Labrador tea, mushrooms, and devil’s club. Every year I discover something new to add to the list, something that isn’t actually new at all.

People have lived here for thousands of years and they knew how to get through the long winters with what the earth provided. In that way getting to know the wild plants here has been humbling, because for most everything that our bodies need there is a plant to fit the bill. It’s changed the way I walk through the woods. It’s changed the way I eat. It’s changed the way I think about belonging.

Besides craving green from a gastronomical perspective, I’m craving green the color. The other night I fell asleep to wind and rising temperatures. I dreamed that all the snow melted to reveal a summer landscape, as though summer was just hanging out under the snow all this time. I wonder if moose dream such dreams.

I brought a book home from the library book sale a few years ago called The Book of Chakras by Ambika Wauters. Each of the chakra or energy centers in the body is associated with a color. Being new to the concept of chakras I assumed that the Heart Chakra would be associated with the color red because of the heart’s role in moving blood throughout our bodies, but according to Wauters it’s the energy center that governs “our physical supply of energy and vitality as well as the love that nourishes our spiritual existence.” Taking this into consideration, it makes perfect sense that the Heart Chakra is associated with the color green.

Aside from the spruce trees there’s not much green outside right now. The ground is snow covered and today the ocean and sky are every shade of gray. But over coffee this morning we made our seed order. We’ve got seeds soaking on the kitchen counter for sprouting and each day is longer than the day before.

I’m not sure if hope has a color, but if it does it must be green. And I think it must taste a little like nettle tea which to me tastes earthy and nourishing. It sounds like whatever music it is that wakes up that part of you that goes numb sometimes when the world seems bleak. For me that almost always includes a banjo. Like the plants that grow all around, those things that give hope are worth identifying. They’re worth thinking about and collecting. They’re worth storing up for when winter gets long.

***

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.