Five-Acre Almanac: Magic Lupine/Lupine Magic

Week 44

I started this writing project last August when we were in the middle of a tremendously busy summer. It seemed like a strange time to commit to a weekly post, but I did it anyhow because I felt compelled to do so. I knew it would be a challenge but I wanted to put myself to the test and see what I was meant to learn along the way.

I set a few boundaries and guidelines for my writing before I started. First, I decided to allow myself to acknowledge that our society is out of balance in my posts, but I would not dwell on those imbalances or make my posts about my opinions.

The second guideline I set for myself was to share in each of my posts something about the relationship I have with the natural world. Most of my time is spent here on these five acres, so it made sense to keep it close to home.

I also made myself a deal to not get caught up in perfectionism, which is hard. Now that I’m down to my last couple of months of writing these posts I’ve discovered that the harder I try to write the perfect post, the less happy I am with it. When I try too hard to control the direction a piece of writing wants to go, the less room there is for surprise. I know this, and yet I have to learn this over and over again.

One of the best things that’s come from committing to write every week is that I’m learning how to get out of my own way. I’m learning how to listen less to my chattering brain and more to my heart. When I’m successful with this, I’m having fun. When I’m caught up in trying to come up with a clever line or insert my own version of meaning into a piece, I grow weary of my own voice. Like everything, this takes practice, and ultimately that’s what I’m doing with the Five-Acre Almanac. I’m practicing.

It’s a writing practice, but it’s more than that.

It’s a practice in knowing myself and my surroundings. It’s a practice in finding hope. It’s a practice in seeing wonder. It’s a practice in being authentic. It’s a practice in trying to connect with people. Mostly it’s a practice in setting myself aside and allowing for something beyond myself to find its way through.

This week it’s been hard for me to set my thinking brain aside for long enough to sit down and write as I’ve been engaged in imaginary arguments with people whose minds I’m never going to change. I even considered breaking the rules I set for myself when I set out on this year-long writing project in order to make my opinions known, but then I remembered that I set those rules for reasons I can’t fully explain.

This is a practice in setting myself aside. This is a practice in embracing the quiet rather than the noise. This is a practice in trying to live above and beyond my opinions about how the world should be. This is a practice in letting the Natural World, the Way of things, God, the Divine, teach me something new.

***

Some of you who live here might remember that a few years ago there was no lupine blooming anywhere around the Kenai Peninsula. The few plants we found on our property looked shriveled and unhealthy and none of them flowered. Our neighbors commented on their absence and even in places where they were commonly found there were no blooms. But this year they exploded. They popped up unexpectedly in our garden. Roadsides are lined with them from the Homer Spit all the way up the Peninsula. Where a single lupin plant could once reliably be found, this year there are a dozen.

I wish I knew the scientific explanation of why the lupine are having such a good year and why they failed to bloom a few years back, and I’m curious to know if there is a connection between the two. What I do know is that all the conditions that allow them to thrive must have come together at once and the result has been a stunning display of every shade of purple.

There’s a form of alternative medicine that has to do with understanding a flower’s essence and it’s based on the idea that flowers have a healing vibrational energy. When I first heard about it, the idea that a flower could bring any kind of healing seemed far fetched, but that was more about me than it was the flowers. Now I think about plants differently.

Now I think that healing can come in surprising forms.

This year the lupine was so abundant that it seemed like it might be shouting to get our attention, like it was pushing its healing vibrational energy on us a bit forcefully, so I looked it up online to see what its energetic properties might be. The first thing that came up was “Lupine – Challenging the Human Soul to Greater Acts of Generosity and Selflessness.”

For two weeks, the lupine held our attention with its beauty, and that was a gift. But maybe its greater gift was something beyond its beauty. Maybe as our eyes took in all those shades of purple it was taking in something more. I like to imagine it’s possible.

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: Back in the Garden

Week 41

I’ve lived in Alaska for thirty years now but I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the way two week’s time can take us from the end of winter to fire season. May brings us from snow, to exposed dry grasses, and then to some of the warmest days of summer. At least that’s true for this year. When I came home from Atlanta two weeks ago a berm of snow three feet tall piled up behind our house and our driveway was still too mushy to drive on. Now the snow is gone and our rain barrels are nearly empty and the sign in front of the fire station on East End Road says fire danger is extremely high. It’s not an exaggeration. The days have been sunny, the afternoons windy, and it would only take one mistake to set the forest ablaze.

Three days ago there was a small wildland fire to the east of us. Before I was even home from work two tankers and a helicopter with a bucket had it under control and that evening as we worked in the garden a different helicopter flew back and forth from town shuttling a twenty-person crew to the scene. Because of the quick response, we’re breathing clean air on these hot, dry days. It’s something I don’t take for granted.

I’ve talked with two different people in the last month who moved to Alaska to escape the smoke that seems to have become a permanent feature of summer in the western United States. It can happen here too. I hope everyone is careful over the long weekend.

I’ve barely been able to bring myself inside long enough to check my email this week, much less write a blog post. I took a couple of days off of work before the long weekend in order to spend some time in the garden. On Thursday I built a new sheet mulch bed for planting potatoes. It looks like a pile of straw, but it’s a culmination of eight buckets of chicken manure, nine cardboard boxes, seven bags of chopped cow parsnip, straw, six buckets of compost, more straw, eight buckets of soil and yet another layer of straw. I hauled it all uphill and got good and sweaty and dirty and was reminded of how much I love that kind of physical work. It’s good for my mind and it’s good for my body and when the realities of the world are intense, the physical exertion gives me an outlet for some of the energy that would just sit around and fester and keep me awake at night. I also think about what I want to write when I’m digging and hauling and raking. Sometimes my ideas make it onto the page but most of the time they don’t. Either way the writing seems to come more easily when it’s paired with physical labor.

By the end of the day today we should have this year’s garden completely planted. It will be the biggest garden we’ve grown to date and this will be the earliest it’s been in the ground. The beds we’ve worked hard to create in previous years made this year’s planting easier and now we just have to keep everything watered through this dry spell. We’re keeping most of our beds under row cover to protect the plants and to keep some of the moisture contained, but we frequently peek under to see how things look. So far most of the garden starts are doing well and the carrot and radish seeds are sprouting.

The season for stinging nettle is winding down with this heat, but it’s been a good harvest so far. I like to get as much as I can because it’s the base for many of the herb tea blends we make for our business and because we incorporate it into our meals throughout the winter. We knock ourselves out growing a garden, but nothing we can grow is as nutritious or abundant as the stinging nettle that just pops up out of the ground.

nettle spread out to dry

A couple of years back a wild black currant popped up inside our fenced garden. We’ve staked it and watered it on occasion, but other than that we’ve done very little to encourage it’s growth. Already it’s three times the size of the domestic black currants we planted four years back. It’s a reminder that the indigenous plants around here have evolved to flourish in this northern environment. We’d be smart to incorporate them into our lives and reap the benefits they have to offer.

wild black currant

The absence of chickens has been a bit to get used to. Besides missing their presence and the eggs they provided, they ate a lot of our kitchen scraps. Chickens are a part of the garden system that we’ve created around here and our plan is to give ourselves a break for a year and then design a new setup that will be safer for them and easier on us. Whatever we come up with will definitely involve an electric fence the next time around.

Today I’m off to the farmer’s market with my mom and then back to bask in our yard again for another three days. Over the long weekend we’re going to try making nettle beer from a recipe we found in the book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner, and if time allows I’m going to make some dandelion petal syrup. There’s more to do than I’ll have time to do, but this time of year is about potential. There’s so much that the earth is offering up to us and the sunny days make me feel like everything is possible.

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: 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.

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: All Things

Week 31

Last weekend I got a new rooster to replace the one that died earlier this winter. His name is Rooster Chuck and he’s only the second chicken in the history of my chicken keeping that’s been given a name. He came with a hen that will hopefully be willing to sit on a clutch of eggs until they hatch. It’s been a week of negotiations in the coop as the flock reorganizes the structure of their small society. They’re sorting out the details of their hierarchy and sometimes I hear a ruckus coming from the coop, but thankfully they don’t seem to be harming each other.

Our entire chicken coop is in need of some attention. One or more of the hens has been eating eggs and I have a strong suspicion than an ermine has been weaseling itself into the coop and feasting as well. It’s been a long winter and while I’ve tried to keep up with giving them plenty of straw and making sure their water isn’t frozen, it hasn’t been easy on any of us. We’re turning a corner now though, and I’ve even been able to let them out of their pen to scratch in the duff below the spruce trees where there’s no snow. I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to sort out the troubles afflicting our flock and am open to any name suggestions for the new hen. There’s a prayer I heard a while back that concludes with the line, ‘May I do all things in love and compassion,’ and naming the chickens that will be a part of my life for the next several years seems to go along with that.

So far this weekend I’ve been doing chores I didn’t do last week when I thought I’d have time to get them done. I cleaned out the refrigerator, made some sauerkraut and started some black currant shrub. I got caught up on some paperwork. All of it was less overwhelming than it seemed last week when I needed to rest. It turns out that even chores are better when done in the spirit of love and compassion, and love and compassion are easier to access when well rested. I hope I remember this.

Yesterday when I started writing this post it was snowing outside. Today the sky is clear and I feel the need to get out there. There’s brush to burn and firewood to move, but really there isn’t a whole lot that has to be done in the yard this time of year, which gives us the perfect excuse to just sit for a while and feel the sun on our faces.

Burning brush in the snow

These are my favorite kinds of weekends. Getting things done but moving through time without deadlines or too much pressure. On days like these I imagine books I’d like to write. I think of food experiments I’d like to try. I brainstorm topics to write about for this blog. I come up with new ideas for our small business. I dream about the garden. Occasionally I make myself a cup of afternoon tea and sit in front of the wood stove and listen without distraction to whatever music happens to be playing.

Typically when I’m writing an essay or a blog post there is an expectation that the piece will all come together in some way. That the ideas and images will converge or there will be a story or a narrative arc. A beginning, a middle, and an end. Sometimes though I think all that pressure to write something tidy gets in the way of being authentic. Most of our lives is just a string of moving from one moment into the next. I think about those individual moments that make up a day, a weekend, a month, a year, a life, in the context of that prayer. May I do all things in love and compassion. All things.

Yesterday I kept that prayer in mind as I tossed out a jar of strawberry jam that had been buried in the back of the refrigerator since last spring, as I sprinkled salt over chopped cabbage and kneaded it like bread, as I brought the chickens a bucket of kitchen scraps, as I checked Twitter for breaking news, as I talked for an hour on the phone with my son.

With that prayer on my mind I sat down to write about this moment in time. This moment that I’m not being forced out of my home. This moment when my family members are safe. This moment in which I’m free to voice my opinions and plan my future. This moment in time on this sunny day with its melting snow when my most pressing task is to pull words from nowhere and string them together. This moment, when I’m both compelled by the imperative to live in love and compassion and taken by the idea that within the command there is a kind of permission.

May I do all things in love and compassion? Yes, I may. It is my choice.

Hello, friends.

Five-Acre Almanac: Multidimensional

Week 29

“I hope you find something to love
Something to do when you feel like giving up
A song to sing or a tale to tell
Something to love, it’ll serve you well.” –Jason Isbell

It’s Tuesday 2/22/2022 as I’m writing this and even though it’s just numbers there’s something fun about all those twos in a row. I’ve taken this week off of work in hopes of rejuvenating my spirit. It hit me a few weeks ago that I’m tired. Bone tired. Not the kind of tired that sleep can cure but the kind of tired that only the freedom to follow my whims for a while can cure. So today I’m reading and napping and writing. I’m listening to fiddle and banjo music I haven’t listened to in a long time and it’s waking something up in me that’s been tucked away, buried under layers of responsibilities and commitments and all the things I try to write but cannot properly express. John O’Donohue said, “music is what language wants to be,” and I’ve thought that a thousand times. I write because I’m a better writer than I am a musician.

This morning I came across a journal entry of mine from February, 1999. I recognized my handwriting but not a whole lot else about myself. In it I was searching for something to love. I wrote about how Dean had passions and interests that he pursued and I recognized that I needed something like that for myself.

It wasn’t long after I wrote those words that I borrowed an old fiddle from one of my coworkers and enrolled my kids in violin lessons. The three of us practiced together and while technically I was doing it for them, I found myself pulling out the fiddle after they went to school and after they went to bed. At first it was Suzuki songs, then it was Irish tunes. Then one day while driving the kids to swimming lessons I heard a segment on NPR about old-time music. That fiddle and clawhammer banjo combination was new to me, but the sound of it cut right through all the layers of my soul.

I sat in the car with the kids and listened to the rest of the radio segment before heading inside to the pool. I sat in the bleachers with other parents as the kids learned to swim and there was one mom in particular that I watched closely because her son and my son had a similar energy about them. I sensed that we’d have a few things in common and so I struck up a conversation with her. We hit it off and the next day she brought in a book for me to borrow and over that week of early morning swimming lessons we learned more about each other. One of the things I learned was that she played clawhammer banjo.

It’s funny how you don’t always put things together until after the fact, but the way that friendship came to me just when I needed it seems remarkable now. Like it was orchestrated. I needed Kate’s friendship and I needed that connection to music in my life. It was through Kate and her husband Scotty that I came to know old-time music, which became that thing I was searching for back in 1999 when I wrote that journal entry. I wanted a passion to pursue, something to capture me and give me spark, and I found it.

I immersed myself into the world of old-time music for a while and I loved it, but it wasn’t always compatible with the rest of my life. The experience of delving into something, practicing it, pursuing it, listening to it, studying it, and spending time with other people who loved it as much as I did changed me though. It added dimensions to my life that beforehand I didn’t know existed. And once a person knows about those new dimensions, they’re not something you want to live without.

So I’m taking a break from work for a week, not to get things done or cross things off my list but to remind myself of my multidimensionality. I might read and write some more. I might play music. I might even give Kate a call to see if she’d like to go for a walk. We started talking while our kids were at swimming lessons all those years ago and we haven’t run out of things to talk about yet.