Five-Acre Almanac: A Few Days After Winter Solstice

Week 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five-Acre Almanac: Winter Ready

Week 11

Today has been a chicken-soup sort of Sunday. The two inches of snow that we woke up to is turning to slush in the rain and while that’s the sort of weather that’s not welcome in January, I’m just fine with it in October. Most likely we’re going to have plenty of snow for several months and I’m not in any hurry for it to pile up. Plus I’d still like to rake some leaves and dried grasses to store in the greenhouse for chicken coop bedding.

Birch tree in full yellow

Earlier this week I started making a plan for myself for the winter. I don’t typically get depressed or experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), but that’s not to say that six-month long winters aren’t hard. It doesn’t hurt to go into the season with a few intentions.

One thing I’m going to do is try to get outside every day for at least twenty minutes. I realize this doesn’t sound like much, but it can be tricky when it’s dark before and after work. And it’s so easy to be a wimp when it’s super cold, or raining sideways, or when everything is covered in a sheet of ice, or when the snow is too deep, or when it’s just gray and dreary and I’d rather be inside by the wood stove. But I always feel better with fresh air and often it’s not as bad outside as it looks like it’s going to be. And even when it is bad, I think it’s good to experience a little weather now and then. It can wake me up, shift my energy, change my mood.

Same birch, a day earlier.

The next tool I’m going to use to help me through winter is yoga. I’ve tried doing yoga in the mornings but between a cold house, demanding dogs, and a job I have to go to, evenings work best. It feels good to put on some music and stretch out on the floor in a cozy living room after a long work day, and it almost always leads to a good night’s sleep. I’ve done this for the past couple of winters and now it’s a part of the dark season I look forward to.

One of the simplest and most satisfying aspects of recent winters has been incorporating the food and herbs that we’ve grown or foraged during the summer into our daily lives. Whether it’s adding black currants to our oatmeal, drinking a cup of nettle tea in the afternoons, or simmering garlic and hot wax peppers in chicken broth for a good long time like we did today, we’re able to take in good Jing from the garden with nearly every meal. It’s satisfying and nourishing on a deep level. It keeps us feeling connected to our land during a time of year when it’s easy to fantasize about selling it all and moving down south to where winters are short and where a day’s light and darkness are more evenly balanced.

Fermenting carrots/good jing.

There are other things that help with winter. A couple of hours of standing around a fire pit with friends can reaffirm that we’re glad to live where we live. Taking Vitamin D regularly keeps us from wanting to sleep all the time. Music can change the atmosphere in the house, which is especially helpful during long, dreary stretches of being mostly indoors. And after the frenetic summer season I appreciate that winter offers time for deep dives into things more cerebral.

Midday fire in mid-October

I’ve been learning about herbs for the past couple of winters, and this year we’ve got a new one to try. Rhodiola rosea is an adaptogen which means its main medicinal purpose is to assist the body in adapting to stress. According to Beverly Grey’s informative and comprehensive book The Boreal Herbal: Wild Food and Medicine Plants of the North, it’s also supposed to help with fatigue and depression and can “bring relief to people who live in extreme climates.” In nature it grows in harsh alpine conditions and for the past four years we’ve had some that’s been growing and thriving in our dry and often-neglected hugelkultur bed. It takes a few years before Rhodiola is ready to harvest, but finally this fall it was time. We pulled its long and tentacle-like roots out of the soil, chopped it and dried it, and now for a month we’re going to engage in a little citizen science and drink a cup of it daily to see if we can see any noticeable effects.

Rhodiola rosea in a gloved hand

Rhodiola rosea’s roots are yellow and they smell like the wild Sitka roses that grow around here. The decoction that’s made from simmering the roots is rose colored with a mild citrus flavor. It’s a little dry too, like dry wine. Because it’s so tasty it would be easy to drink too much of it, which I think I might have done earlier in the week because for three nights in a row I woke up at 3:30am and had trouble going back to sleep. When I cut the amount of tea I was drinking in half I slept fine.

Learning about herbs from books is a good place to start, but I’m equally as interested in the traditions and stories that go along with them. Trying them out on myself is a lesson in paying attention to subtleties, asking questions, making adjustments, and still not knowing definitively if a specific herb is having a specific effect on me. But it seems like a good way to practice honing my intuition and getting to know specific plants. If I were truly committed to scientific testing I’d give up coffee and just drink the rhodiola tea to try to isolate its effects, but coffee is another thing that helps me through winter.

For now I’ll study the two together, and I’ll try to get enough sleep and exercise. I’ll try to consume plenty of good jing but hopefully not too much. I’ll keep showing up here every week too, because writing this feels like movement, like I’m heading somewhere new. And sharing it feels like I’m throwing out a net, gathering people to travel along with me for a while. I can’t have you all over for a cup of coffee or a pot of herb tea, but I can write you here. And when we’re done with our imaginary drinks we can put on our rubber boots and rain jackets and head out into the storm. I’d love nothing more than to show you around.

Morning tea beside the old birch, a day before the snow.

49 degrees

It’s Thursday morning and I’m moving slowly.  If I’m lucky I won’t have to leave the house today.   It’s -3 degrees outside and our 1970s-built house is struggling to hold the heat.  Yesterday when I got home from work I discovered that I’d shut the woodstove down just a little too tightly and the fire had gone out.  The house was cold—a mere 49 degrees—and I had to devote my evening to warming the place up.  Today I have the luxury of staying home.  I’ll tend to the fire; cook something slow and savory.   I’ll have time to work on my story and go for a walk and read.

Funny how staying home feels luxurious these days.  When my children were small and I didn’t work away from home I was always looking for reasons to leave the house.  I needed to get out.  I rarely had time to read or write so I had to go searching for ways to stimulate my brain.  I needed to converse with other adults, go to performances and seek out activities that gave us a break from the routine of being home all the time.  I had to go away to find the space I needed in my life.

The other night I met with a group of writers at the library to discuss our projects and ambitions for the year.  My friend Bill, an elementary school teacher and poet, talked about how last year he had more time for creativity in his life with his middle child on foreign exchange and his older child at college.  He described it as having more “bandwidth.” I could relate.  I’m starting to feel the effects of more bandwidth in my own life.  Less than two weeks ago my son left for college and my sixteen-year-old daughter has taken a huge leap in self-sufficiency now that she has her driver’s license.

It’s a slow, gradual process, this gaining extra bandwidth.  It’s an hour of not driving to town and back.  It’s a night at home with my husband while Adella is gone on a DDF (drama, debate and forensics) tournament.  It’s more frequent evenings with no Netflix or television.  It’s a little less cooking, a little less cleaning.  It’s a lot less time spent waiting.

The extra bits of time are small, but they’re adding up.  There’s a part of me that feels I should be using this extra time to write more prolifically or get to work on our never-ending list of home projects that have been put on hold for the last several years, but so far that’s not what I’m doing.  So far with my extra time I’m doing a lot of wandering around, staring out the window, reading, thinking.

I have a suspicion that most people my age, especially parents, have a hard time allowing themselves much unqualified time.  I think about my friends around town.  Some of them homeschool their own children (which is a full time job with very few breaks and no pay) and yet they still manage to keep their families well fed and their houses in order.  One of them directs a nonprofit agency and spends her weekends shuffling her daughter around the state for hockey tournaments.  One wrote a book and earned an advanced degree while teaching school.  A co-worker of mine volunteers in her children’s classrooms on her days off and then at night, when the rest of her family is in bed she studies for a couple of hours.   It’s probably best if I don’t compare myself to these friends of mine who seem to use their time so efficiently. At least not right now.

In a society that measures productivity by the number of dollars earned or tasks completed, I’m falling terribly short.  I could be looking for ways to earn more money.  I could go back to yoga class or involve myself with one of the many nonprofit organizations that are doing great things for our community.  But for now, I just want to stay home.  I want the company of my dogs.  I want to walk around my property and notice all the things that go unnoticed in a hectic life.  I want to take naps and drink tea and sometimes play the same fiddle tune a hundred times until I get a certain part just right.

For now, the little bit of extra time and space in my life feels good—nourishing even, after many intense years of raising children.  Of course there are still bills to pay and debt and chores and work, but there is more space around each of those things as my children move on with their own lives.  So today my tasks are to play my fiddle, make dinner, keep a hot fire in the woodstove and finish this blog post.  Tonight I’ll spend the evening with my daughter before she heads off to Anchorage for another tournament this weekend.  I probably won’t set any productivity records or add anything of great value to this world, but for today it’s enough.  Sometimes in the middle of winter, in a poorly insulated house, it’s enough just to keep the temperature above 49 degrees.

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Venturing out

It’s officially the time of year when I start daydreaming about living in New Mexico or somewhere, anywhere, where a person can leave the house without wearing ice-cleats and a headlamp.  Between the moose bedded down twenty feet from where we walk, a two inch layer of solid ice and the darkness, the most difficult part of each day can be getting up or down our driveway.   My response is that I never want to leave the house.  I would be perfectly happy to stay here.

I realize that staying home all the time is unrealistic.  Money must be earned.  Children must be driven around. Groceries must be purchased.   But I do find myself minimizing my outings during the darkest part of winter, and oftentimes I regret the commitments I’ve made that require me to leave the house.  That’s how I was feeling yesterday.  I just wanted to stay home with my computer and my books.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed another evening at home, but last night I was  reminded of why it is that I love this town, and why I stay here even when the winters start to make me a little batty.

The son of a friend of mine plays basketball on the Homer High School team and because of district funding issues the kids have to pay their own travel expenses for their games.  My friend decided to hold a contra dance after the game against Seward yesterday, with all of the proceeds going toward the team.  She and her husband asked me to play fiddle with their band for the dance.

The coach required that all the boys attend the event, and invite their friends and families, and of course girls, so they would have someone to dance with.   He told them they didn’t have to dance, but if they chose not to he would make them run 500 suicides at practice next week.   The parents of the team brought chili and cornbread and a table full of desserts, possibly to make the idea of a contra dance more appealing to the boys.  I fully expected the high school commons to be full of eye-rolling, arms-crossed teens, waiting impatiently until they could safely get out of there and onto whatever else they’d rather be doing.  But I was wrong.

At 8:00 we played our first tune, to get the kids attention mostly.  Then the first dance was called.  About twenty tentative couples made their way to the dance floor.  Before the caller finished teaching the dance the number of couples doubled.  It continued that way all evening.  Each dance seemed to have more participants than the one before.   And people kept showing up all the time; parents, friends, basketball supporters, the regular contra dance crowd.  The coach mandated the boys’ participation but he never said they had to stay until the end.  They were still going strong when we had to wrap things up at eleven.

There was much to enjoy about the evening; the food, the conversation, the mixed-age group socializing together.  I’m glad I didn’t miss it.  I’m sure I would have enjoyed staying home, getting lost in another good book, but instead I got to watch a room full of laughing people dance to the music of my own making.  I don’t think I’ll ever find a book that makes me feel as good as that.