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: Fireweed #1

Week 8

When it comes to writing about fireweed, I’m not sure where to start. I could start by trying to describe how in this part of Alaska it colors the hillsides in magenta from mid July through the end of August. Or I could start with how it looks right now out our back window with its rust colored leaves alongside the green of the lilac bush and the yellow of the cottonwood trees.

I could start with the week in early summer when I caught a cold and couldn’t go to work for a few days. On my days at home I collected a few of last year’s fireweed stalks that were still standing and peeled the outermost layer of their stems and worked them until I had a fine golden fiber that I made into cordage. Or I could start with the tea we’ve started making out of fermented fireweed leaves.

It makes the most sense though to start with soil. Everything starts with soil it seems, but even the soil needs to start somewhere.

Growing up in Colorado I wasn’t familiar with fireweed, and the first time I learned about it was in 1988 when I was fighting fires in Yellowstone. The other woman on my 20-person crew told me how it was one of the first plants to come up on charred ground after a forest fire. At the time I didn’t know what it looked like, but I appreciated the role it played in bringing a place back to life after so much destruction. And I liked that its name and its purpose went together so nicely.

When we first moved to Alaska and lived in Eagle River I asked a neighbor what the tall plant on the side of the road was. She told me it was fireweed and that I’d need to be vigilant about pulling it out of the flower beds on the side of my house or it would take over. Then I had a baby and was anything but vigilant about the flower beds and the fireweed took over.

Now we live in a place that’s surrounded by well established fireweed colonies. This time of year when its seeds are dispersed with the wind, it lands on any exposed soil and settles in and readies itself for sprouting after the snow is gone. It spreads under the soil too, with rhizomes, and sends up delectable shoots that we collect sometimes to add to our spring greens. Its a plant that’s tenacious in its purpose and it would reclaim the space we’ve carved out for our garden in no time at all if we didn’t work to keep it back.

Two years ago a fire raged through the Cooper Landing area further north on the Kenai Peninsula, and twice this summer I drove past and witnessed the fireweed doing its job. In early July the ground under the charred trees was covered with short fireweed plants in full bloom. The second time I drove through in late August it was a sunny day and the cottony seeds were already drifting around in the breeze. It hadn’t grown tall and it had to complete its reproduction cycle with limited support from the soil, but it did it.

Soon it will all get knocked down by snow and all those plant parts will decompose into the ash. In the spring there will be organic matter for the new batch of seeds, and because there will be a bit more for those seeds to take root in next year than there was this year, those plants may be able to grow a little taller and last a little longer, and the cycle will repeat itself.

A few years ago we started raking fireweed stalks along with other dried plant material in the spring and keeping it piled up beside our compost pile. We layered it in as we added kitchen scraps and grass clippings and whatever other green material got tossed in. In the spring we’d sift the compost and add it to our garden beds.

Two summers ago when it was so hot and the fires were burning up north, we struggled to keep our garden watered. We don’t have a water source other than a well on our property and without any precipitation our rain barrels were empty. In addition to water being scarce, our soil lacked structure and the water drained right through. All of the compost we’d gone through the trouble of sifting wasn’t doing us a lot of good.

The following winter we read up on the subject of retaining water in the soil and decided to switch up the way we garden. Since then we’ve become no-till gardening converts and we obsessively keep the soil covered. We often use fireweed as our mulch because it’s here and readily available. The new shoots that want to come up in our garden beds get broken off and incorporated into the mulch blend, and the dried stalks from previous summers act as straw.

With just that simple change in how we garden the soil’s improvement has been remarkable. A peek beneath the mulch reveals a whole decomposition party going on. Now instead of the worms doing their work several inches down, they’re right at the surface of the soil tilling it up, breaking down whatever we add, and creating a living structure that holds moisture and nutrients.

There are many ways to use fireweed and I’m excited to write more about this amazing plant in future posts, but it’s good to remember that its best gifts have little to do with how we use it and more to do with how it exists. It’s a thing of beauty in all its stages. It heals the damaged places. It works to make the world a better place, whether we’re paying attention or not.

Garden bed tucked in for winter with fireweed straw on top