Five-Acre Almanac: The Fullness of it All

Week 34

I’m not sure when it happened, but somewhere along the line Dean and I became the kind of people who have a well-stocked pantry. It makes sense here in earthquake country, in a state that gets most of its food from thousands of miles away, but we haven’t always been this way and so we’re still figuring out how to do it. Yesterday I started the project of organizing it. We try to do this every now and again to remember what all we have and to bring the stuff that’s been sitting around for a while to the front of the line. We’re realizing that there’s a fine line between having a well stocked pantry and hoarding, and we don’t want to cross that line.

The process of working on the pantry was painful, and as those kinds of jobs often go it got worse before it got better. A couple hours in and the kitchen table and counters were covered in all the things that had been on the pantry shelves, and with each item a decision had to be made. Are we really going to use that five year old rhubarb butter or is it time to give it to the chickens? That weird sauce that has the questionable ingredients in it, yes we bought it for some strange reason a few years ago but now that we know what’s in it will we ever use it? Probably not.

Between the pantry job, the disheveled nature of our house while it’s undergoing some minor remodeling and garden starts filling every horizontal surface that gets any light, the clutter nearly sent me into a state of overwhelmed-ness that bordered on despair. The fact that I’d been reading the news earlier didn’t help. The pantry job also had me going in and out of our garage which, even after a few sessions of sorting and getting rid of stuff, is still packed.

A few years back we got rid of a raft that we bought in Montana shortly after we got married. It was worn out and no longer useful but we held on to the rowing frame. The frame had been knocking about in the loft of our garage for years and we kept it even though the likelihood of us ever using it again was next to nothing. Finally a couple of weeks ago we loaded it into the back of our truck, but not before I imagined how it might be put to use for a cold frame for our garden or for a makeshift bench by our fire pit, and that revealed another problem I have which is that I feel guilty for adding more stuff to a world that’s already overwhelmed with too much stuff and in an effort to assuage my guilt over being a consumer I try to envision the potential reuses for every single thing, from used yogurt containers to old rowing frames.

Another problem with getting rid of things has to do with the stories that are attached to them, or more accurately, our perception that stories are attached to the objects we hold on to. Storing the raft and frame in our garage added nothing to the memories we have of floating the Smith River or fly-fishing our way down Rock Creek. Letting them go was not letting go of the people we used to be, as those younger versions of ourselves had already moved on. The raft and frame weren’t keeping anything alive, they were just taking up space.

We’re having a bigger dilemma trying to decide what to do with a huge collection of leather bound Franklin Mint books that once belonged to Dean’s dad who died at age 48 just a month before Dean and I met each other. Ken was a pilot for Braniff Airlines, and then after Braniff folded he and a partner started Sun Country Airlines. He valued the idea of reading classic literature but as a driven businessman he didn’t allow himself much time for that sort of thing. He told Dean that his plan was to make his way through those books once he retired.

Ken’s untimely death meant that most of those books he looked forward to reading one day were never opened. When he died they went into boxes, and then into storage, and then onto a barge that brought them to Alaska where we’ve continued the tradition of not reading them. We displayed them on our bookshelves for a while, but they weren’t the books we wanted to read so they just collected dust. Now they’re back in boxes in our garage, taking up space.

It’s good to remember that we have some choice over what’s meaningful in our lives, and that we’re allowed to change our minds and evolve and let things go when the time is right to let things go.

Yesterday I let that old rhubarb butter go, along with a half-full mystery box of croutons and bag of sorghum flour that I was never going to use. I said goodbye to the three year old box of yellow cake mix and eight jars of dried herbs that were well past their prime. Then after I got the pantry put back together and cleaned up after the project, I went outside and wandered around for a while with Dean and the dogs. We loaded the wheelbarrow with firewood and shoveled snow off the yurt deck. We checked in on the chickens and stood inside our greenhouse for a while to enjoy the extra bit of heat. I stayed out long enough to lose my sense of being overwhelmed, then I came back inside and turned on Radio Paradise and made dinner.

Sometimes I want everything to be orderly and I want it now, but the nature of this life that we’ve chosen is that it’s messy. We make repairs as we can afford them. We sort through the stuff that’s accumulated as we’re able to. We cook and make a mess of the kitchen, then we clean it up and do it all again. We reuse jars and plastic bags. We have dogs that shed. We ferment things. We grow a garden that takes over our house for about a month every spring. We put chores on hold in order to write. We make time to go for walks and practice tai chi and listen to music.

There is no future date when everything will be perfectly lined up and all the tasks will have been completed. There is just this day and the next. We’ll make a little progress in some areas and fall further behind in others. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the fullness of it all, but when I stop to take a breath I remember that we’re having a pretty good time.

Smith River, Montana

I didn’t spend much time with my dad.  At age thirteen I moved away from his house to live with my mom in another town.  And although my dad was a great guy, one of the nicest people you’d ever meet, he wasn’t great at keeping in touch.  And as I became an adult I wasn’t the best with that sort of thing either.  Sometimes we saw each other only once every year, and as my kids got older and traveling became more cost prohibitive, our visits were even less frequent.  I did always call him on his birthday though, and now that he’s gone I miss picking up the phone and having a nice, long conversation with him every year on November 21st.   We’d talk about his garden, his plans for the future (he always had a plan), and often times we’d reminisce about the time we floated the Smith River in Montana.

Dean and I had been married for one year when my dad drove from Grand Junction to Missoula for a visit.  When we asked him if he’d like to go rafting with us he sounded a little reluctant but then said he was game to try anything once.  I interpreted that to mean that he wasn’t crazy about the idea, but he didn’t want to say no.  Dean and I latched on to that “try anything once” statement and planned a four day rafting trip.

My dad was an outdoorsy guy, but he went about battling the elements very differently than Dean and I did.  Let’s just say that his savvy came from more of a cowboy/huntsman place, whereas Dean’s and mine came from more of a backpacking, rock-climbing, REI catalog kind of place.  It made for some educational moments on both our parts.  My dad learned that while oiled cotton canvas might keep you dry should you get caught in a brief rain storm, it’s not really meant for rafting.  Dean and I learned the nuances of fly-fishing for brown trout, and discovered that expensive gear really isn’t the key to catching more fish. While Dean could read the river and keep us out of harm’s way (for the most part), my dad could identify all the plants along the banks.

When our yellow rubber raft began to fill up with water on day two of our trip, my Dad didn’t panic or get stressed out.  If he was worried at all he covered it well by cracking jokes and telling stories of his own youthful misadventures.  At one point when we were trying to identify where the leak was coming from my dad held up his two pointer fingers about six inches apart and said, “I can’t see the tear in the bottom of the raft, but I think it must be about this long.”  I asked him how he knew and he said, “Well there’s a fish about that size swimming around my boots.”

It became clear after a very short time that no amount of bailing was going to get us anywhere, so we looked for a good spot to pull over and repair the raft.  Dean had planned ahead for this sort of thing and had purchased a repair kit before the trip, but the patches that came with the kit were way too small for the gash that we found once we emptied out the raft and turned it upside down on the gravel bar.  To make matters worse, we realized we had forgotten to pack a roll of duct tape, something we had learned on an earlier trip to never leave home without.  When Dean resorted to patching up the raft with year-old, used duct tape that had been wrapped around the handle of one of the oars, my dad expressed a little concern, by saying, “You go ahead and work on that.  I’ll start praying.”

Other highlights of the Smith River raft trip include coming around a bend in the river and seeing a black bear cub standing on a boulder that jutted out over the water.  We were silent and still as it watched us float past.  I also remember my dad’s excitement at seeing a huge bush of ripe red currants.  He insisted that we pull the raft over and pick them for a few minutes so he could make currant syrup for our pancakes the next morning.

We also spent a lot of time building huge campfires in an attempt to dry out my dad’s gear because even though our dry bags were superior for keeping the sleeping bags dry, he insisted on wrapping up his belongings in his Australian oilskin duster.  He did have a bit of a stubborn streak.

When my dad came to visit Dean and I in Montana all those years ago we could have easily hung around the house the whole time or just taken a few sight-seeing drives, but instead we shared an adventure. Those four days of eating around a campfire, sleeping under the stars and floating down the Smith River have given me a lot of comfort over the past few years.