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: 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: Value-Added Gooseberries

September colors

Week 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spruce wood

Five-Acre Almanac: Restoration

Photo provided by Dillon Sundmark

Week 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Heard on the podcast Living Myth by Michael Meade

Five-Acre Almanac: Celebration

Week 3

Last Saturday we hosted a party and with the delta variant sweeping through town the gathering had to be held outside. Mid-August is typically a rainy time of year so we put up a few tents and hoped for the best knowing that if it rained the whole party would be a bust because nobody wants to stand around under a tent in a downpour for long.

As luck would have it, the party was perfect. It rained hard until about fifteen minutes before guests began to arrive, but then the clouds parted. The sun came out in time for dinner, and by the time the party moved down to the fire pit the skies were clear except for a haze in the air from Siberian wildfires that gave everything a dusky pink hue.

Looking west from the fire pit. Photo provided by Zach Philyaw

Of course there were other factors besides the weather that made for a lovely evening. So many friends came through for us. Besides lending moral support, they lent us coolers and grills for cooking salmon. They made a grain-free chocolate cake and enough curry to feed forty. They delivered Solo stoves and firewood so we could all stay warm. They lent us tables and sawhorses and tents and helped us set them up. They brought sushi and salads and pies and Flathead cherries from Montana. One friend schlepped over more than a dozen of the flower boxes she’s nurtured all summer from her house to ours. Another made us a keg of cider. Four played fiddle tunes into the night.

Planning a party during a pandemic is tricky on a lot of different levels. We’d originally scheduled this party for the summer of 2020 and had to cancel. We hoped it wouldn’t come to that again, but as the delta variant surged we weren’t sure that throwing a party was the best idea. There was a fair amount of self-doubt and questioning involved in making the decision of whether or not to proceed. In the end we decided against the all or nothing approach and adjusted our original plans to fit the situation. The first big change was that we decided to have the party at our house instead of at a friend’s place. Then we invited fewer people than we’d originally hoped to invite. Knowing that people needed the freedom to opt out if that was what felt best for them, we didn’t ask anyone to RSVP. We went into this party with a lot of unknowns and it was an exercise in letting go of expectations. In the end though, everything turned out just right.

The purpose of the party was to celebrate our daughter and daughter-in-law’s marriage, so love was already in the air. The combination of clear skies, low angle sun, mountains, still water, and a meadow of fireweed meant that our friends got to see what we love about this place. The flowers, the fire, and the lighting made it all feel cozy. The music brought the magic.

Photo provided by Anthony Mooney / ig:antoniogatsby

This week we had to get back to our day jobs and there was party clean-up and getting all the things we borrowed back to their rightful owners. We also had a lot of leftover salmon to deal with and had to act fast so that none of it would go to waste. Now we have 28 pints of canned salmon in the pantry and 60 salmon patties in the freezer.

The garden continued to grow while we were consumed with party planning and even though we did our best to stay caught up, there were a few things that needed our fast attention once we were able to give it. Last summer we let our garlic stay in the ground a week or two longer than what was ideal and we didn’t want to let that happen again, so on Monday Dean pulled half of our bulbs and hung them from the rafters of the garage to cure.

Keeping the vampires away. Photo provided by Dean Sundmark

The strawberries I wrote about a couple of weeks ago are still at it, and we’re trying to pick a few whenever we get the chance. The black currants are just shy of being ripe and it’s the time of year when mushrooms start popping. There are herbs I want to gather and trees I’d like to transplant and about a million other things I’d like to do before it’s too late.

Even though the last several summers have extended well into September, August still feels like a race. There’s a short window of availability for certain things and if we miss that window like we did last year with the wild blueberries, we’ll have to wait for another year.

We don’t push ourselves all summer out of fear of not having enough or because we’re driven by the concept of self-sufficiency. Our reasons for doing what we do are a bit more fundamental. Each time we sit down to a meal that includes something we’ve grown or harvested, we have context to go along with what we’re eating. We remember the hope we felt when we planted the carrot seeds, the work it took to get them to germinate, and the excitement at seeing them finally sprout. We remember the baby magpie that hung out in the compost pile next to the potato bed and the squirrel family that raided our strawberry patch every morning around the same time we had our coffee. We remember feeling giddy at seeing those first purple nettle plants of the season and awe-struck by the sun filtering through the horsetail in the bog when we hunted for boletes.

We’re not pushing ourselves as much as we’re compelled by all of the possibilities of this place. We want to know the plants, the animals, the soil, and the patterns and cycles that make them all tick. And the more we learn, the more we see that there is sustenance here that goes beyond the physical level. It’s not unlike the feeling of being on the receiving end of a friend’s kindness.

The moon over Kachemak Bay on 8/18/2021