Monday, December 31, 2012

Digging my own grave

Digging my own grave is one of the most optimistic things I have ever done.

I took the pictures for this post months and months ago now.  And I lined them up and captioned them, and then they sat in my blogger queue to be written.  As winter came into this land of ours, it seemed increasingly too late to post.  I use this blog space, among other things, as tool for mindfulness of seasonal living.  And so it seems inappropriate to post oh-so-late like this.

But as the year of 2012 winds down, and as the world did not, in fact end with the Mayan calendar count, it seems resonant somehow to let this post mark the end of the year...

When I married my Darlin'Man, friends of ours gave us twinned birch saplings that wrapped around each other as a wedding present.  I named it the Wedded Tree.  We planted it in the muskeg and permafrost inhospitable ground at the cabin.  I made up my mind that I would not be superstitious, that if the little trees did not make it in the cold and inhospitable soil through a long and intensely cold winter; I would not take it as a doom to our marriage.  Amazingly, they survived and even grew (a lot! relatively) over a few years.

Then we bought the homestead and rented out the cabin, and I stubbornly insisted that we move the wedded tree some 20 miles and replant it.  The Darlin' Man was reasonably hesitant, resistant even, to the notion that the two of us could realistically move a tree.  But oh, I was stubborn.  And so he bought a come-along, we broke the handles of two or three shovels levering a ginormous root-ball, eventually resorted to scrabbling in cold soil with gloved hands to detach the last roots, made and impromptu sled out of old plywood and a bit of rope; and capitalized on the Darlin' Man's upper body strength, the horsepower of our big truck, and the magic of a come-along to move the tree some eighty feet and up into the back of said truck.   The we drove SLOWLY down the road, and peering out of the back window, I trepidatiously (if rather gleefully) watched the upper branches whip the powerlines crossing the road, not one but many times. 

Until eventually, we pulled into Bunchberry and drove carefully between baby orchard and fire pit to the Wedded Tree's new home:
Tree in the truck.
It sat in the back of the truck for a few days.   I spent a couple of evenings out in the yard, digging through the pitifully shallow layer of what passes as topsoil and then down into the glacial silt that our homestead sits on.  I dug through fading daylight and watched the stars come out.  As I dug, I realized that not only was I digging a hole in which to plant a tree, I was digging my own grave.  You see, I have always known that I wanted to be cremated and have my ashes put in a very special place.  As I began to dream of land and home, more than a decade ago now, I thought it would be lovely if there was a place on my own land where I could be laid to rest.  And when we talked about moving the tree to the Homestead  and were figuring out where to put it, I knew it had to be a place where a few trees could be planted.  Small ones, rowans and chokecherries, because I plan to plant a tree for each child, its placenta buried beneath.  There is an ancient middle american culture (featured in a recent National Geo article on indigenous culture and language loss -I'll have to go look it up) whose phrase used to inquire about where one is from literally translates as "where is your placenta buried?"  I love this idea of an embodied sense of place.  And as I thought more and more about this small grove of special trees, I realized that I knew where I wanted my ashes.  I want them mixed into the soil around the base of the Wedded Tree.

That weekend, the Darlin'Man and I got the tree out of the back of the truck and into the hole I had dug.  Here's hoping it survives another transplant!

Tree in the Ground
Its an optimistic act, planting a tree, digging a grave.  It is an act affirming that we will pay off the mortgage, that we will grow old together on our land, that the tree will survive and thrive, that we'll have healthy happy children who will grow into adults that will honor my burial wishes.  

Tree Planted

And so this seems the perfect post for this cusp of the year, looking into the grave and into the abundant future as I look back on the old year and welcome the new.  13 has always been my lucky number, may it herald a joyous year for all.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

An ode to the wood cutter

Darlin'Man and his wood piles.
Photo Credit : Mark Johnson

The above photo is a beautiful illustration of how our home's stead is powered through the winter.  The Darlin'Man cut down trees this spring:

 and said how much he loves me:

Then he cut the logs, and split them.

Then he built wood stacking platforms out of pallets. 

Then he stacked the 7 cords of wood, while assuring my freaking-out self that we really wouldn't run out of wood in February.

Then as the cold approached, he filled the woodbin by the house with a cord or so of wood.  And filled the stacking spots on the porch.  So all I have to do to make a fire is get wood from right outside the door or just down the porch steps.

And then every week or so, he spends some hours carting wood in a wheelbarrow, like this morning:

We are facing into January, coming out of one of the coldest Decembers on record, and are about 2 and a half cords down.

Also, like this morning, he tends to the generator: doing things like tightening belts and changing oil and filters; and tends to the batteries, filling them with distilled water and checking for corrosion on the terminals.

Sometimes I wonder what I would do without him.  More manual labor, undoubtedly.  And I'd have to learn things about the workings of mechanics which I am grateful to let him tend.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Cozy Saturday

Snowflakes for a 10 am sunrise
Photo credit: Mark Johnson

I began my day with coffee and conversation and a roaring fire.  My father has come to visit during this bridge time from the old year to the new.  He took some pretty pictures of the light through the trees, read me passages from the epidemiology textbook he's previewing for use in a course this coming semester, and suffered the affectionate attentions of a lap loving cat.
1 pm sun through the trees
Photo credit: Mark Johnson

And then I ended my day with a dinner of moose tenderloin in a honey mustard and herb marinade and herbed potatoes and greens.  And cherry pie.  And eggnog, served hot with rum and nutmeg.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thankful Thursday

Today I am thankful for the love a family I am so blessed to have remained open armedly welcomed into the bosom of.

I am thankful for the liberty of the internet which allows me to choose to end a sentence with a preposition.    There are some sentences in which "into which" sounds very erudite.  And others that just become cumbersome.

I am thankful for holiday cheer, and food, and beautifully thoughtful presents including a kick-assedly amazing pie making accessory you may count on seeing featured in this space in the not-too-distant future.

I am thankful for my Darlin'Man. Always.

Saturday, December 22, 2012


I grew up in a nature-honoring, candle-burning family who recognized the Goddess and totem spirits; talked to trees, and took long walks in the woods as a spiritual practice.  I guess you'd call us pagans.  When we lived in the deep South and it was just NOT DONE to not go to church, we joined a Unitarian congregation where we made play houses out of refrigerator boxes during Sunday School and I vividly remember my excitement over a service about Robin Hood.  Suffice it to say that we celebrated the winter Solstice as our mid-winter holiday complete with gifts and a tree, and celebrated the equinoxes and summer solstice besides.  One of the (many) things I cherish about Fairbanks is the community wide recognition of the Soltices.  Not only are they dramatic with daylight clocking in at a grand total of 3 hours and 41 minutes on the winter solstice and darkness never really falling on the summer solstice, they mark turning points in the year.  In an agrarian, land based culture without the distractions of our entertainment technologies and bright electric lights, these turning points held great significance even in temperate climes.  Here in the far North, the land and the weather and the climate have retained the primacy of their influence on our lives, in despite of our technologies.  And so these turning points are celebrated with a street faire in the summer and an often month-long count down and much conversation culminating in evening fireworks in the winter. 

Time lapse sun as seen from campus on solstice.
Photo credit : UAF 

 I have recently started attending the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship here as I enjoy the sense of participating in spiritual community.  Last week's service was in honor of the solstice and ended with everyone singing the Beatle's "Here Comes the Sun."  On Thursday, my yoga studio celebrated the Solstice with a 108 Sun Salutation practice.  The past week or so has been a difficult one for me and some of my nearest and dearest (but it is not my story to tell), and so after exchanging gifts by candlelight, over mulled wine, with my Darlin'Man,  I took the night of the winter solstice as a sleepy and warm hibernation.  I woke up with the sun, well into the day that the clock counts, and lingered in bed with coffee and holiday bread. 

This afternoon, driving into town to spend the day with my mother and my sister; as we came into the lowland valley just down from the Homestead the sun was hovering above the hills to the southwest and the moon hung just above the hills to the southeast.  It was pretty beautiful.  As a final gift from the universe, after so long of so cold, we had 0.7 degrees at home while Fairbanks was (and is) still trapped in 40 below. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Thankful Thursday (yesterday)

Today I am thankful for the human body's tremendous capacity to heal.
I am thankful for  the ability to survive impactful traumas.
I am thankful for a smiling face.
I am thankful for my own ability to feel the intensity of emotional responses.

I am thankful for my community.  For my students, and for my teachers - even the ones with the really hard lessons.

I am thankful for this space, that it allows me to go take care of life and is still here when I come back to it.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Canadian Bacon

On Tuesday's "Talk of Alaska" radio programme on KUAC, there was a discussion of  eating wild game.  It is no surprise, in a state that has abundant salmon runs, caribou herds that number tens of thousands of individuals, moose walking down Main Street, halibut larger than a person that the consumption of wild game should be a topic of frequent conversation.  Or that in a state with so much frontier-style individualism, and a living Native heritage of subsistence, that it should be prevalent.

One caller gave a recipe for making ham out of black bear.  The following is my paraphrase of his commentary, recorded here as much for my own records as for anyone reading:  Unlike a cold cured ham such as proscuitto in the Italian tradition, where you have to have the skin left on – scalded and de-haired, he skins the bear and uses the pelt otherwise.  Then, taking each of the four legs from knee to shoulder or knee to ball-joint; brine the leg in a brine of one cup salt and one cup brown sugar per gallon of water for 10 days.  Then rinse the leg in clear water for 24 hours, changing the water for fresh every couple of hours.  This is to get all the excess salt out of the flesh.  You use the salt to cure the meat, but you don't want it staying in the finished product.  Then using a smoker, hot smoke the hams at 170 until the meat reaches a safe temperature.  Black bear carries trichamonis which is tranmissable to humans.  The bacterium dies at relatively low temperatures, but you want to be sure that the meat's internal temp raises to at least 150.  Then eat and enjoy!  He recommends thin slices bear ham on rye with mustard, or fried with eggs for breakfast. 

Take the belly fat and treat it just as you would bacon.  This is apparently where the term "Canadian bacon" comes from.  Originally, Canadian Bacon was made by frontiersfolk out of black bear, and it wasn't until civilized commercialism came along that it morphed into a different preparation of pork belly. 

Take the rest of the fat from the animal and render it down to lard, store in sealed jars to use in baking and pies.  The caller never eats pig products anymore really, only bear.  While I plan on raising pigs, at least for the next few years, and don't know if I will ever shoot a black bear; if I ever do, or if a hunter aquaintance doesn't want to eat his bear, I can guarantee that I'll be making ham!

In other news, I hear that lynx tastes like chicken.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Thankful Thursdays

Today I am thankful for breath.

I am thankful for the relative warmth of 18 below.  I am thankful that this warmth means that it is tolerable that the generator is not reliably functioning.  I am thankful that the repairman lives five miles past my house and is coming to fix it on his way home from work tomorrow. 

I am thankful for beautiful packages recieved from friends in far places. 

I am thankful for two pups who take turns warming my car seat for me while they wait for human things to be done with.

I am thankful for my students, and for my teachers.  Each and every one.

Eating Well

The Menu


Roasted bleu cheese and leek crostini with walnuts on sourdough

Proscuitto wrapped medjool dates stuffed with herbed goat cheese and fresh basil

The Meal

Herb brined Turkey stuffed with wild rice dressing

Blackened sweet potato spears with chile cream sauce and green onion garnish

Roasted Brussel sprouts with grapes and walnuts

Garlic herb biscuits

Cranberry sauce

Mashed potatoes




Apple Pie
Mocha Pecan Pie
Pumpkin Pie
Cranberry Pie
Maple Syrup Pie

Thanksgiving is kind of a big deal hereabouts.  With three women in my family who live their lives out of the kitchen, we relish the excuse to go overboard.  And while we generally prepare enough food for two to three times the number around our table, that is not precisely what I meant.  We go overboard in the planning, the preparation, the menu-conceptualizing.  This year, I contributed the pies and the bird itself (courtesy of my boss who ordered fresh turkeys for each of his employees), my mother prepared the bird and our family tradition wild rice stuffing and paired the wines, while the meal itself was the brain and love child of my sister.  This is her last year in Fairbanks, as she's going to grad school next year, and so probably the last Thanksgiving we'll get to co-cater unless one or the other of us visits in future years. 

Two weeks ago now was Thanksgiving.  This weekend, I made gallons of stock with the turkey carcass, and we've been eating soup all last week and this. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Hunkering Down

There's a husky curled up on the couch.  A husky ball is one of the coziest things there is, a world of comfort unto itself.  Nose under tail wrapped around paws.  The past week and more has brought a cold spell to the Interior, with temperatures in town reaching into the thirties and forties below zero, ice fog reducing visibility to zero in places.  Out here at the Homestead, north of town in the hills, we've mostly stayed ten to twenty degrees above the valley where the town lies.  One day last week, I came home from a twenty three below zero day to find the (relative) warmth of one point eight degrees below zero.  Mostly we've been hovering in the ten to fifteen below range.  This past weekend saw us dip to thirty below, but we are back to ten below now.  The sky out here is crystal clear and you can almost reach out to pluck the stars from the sky.  Driving into town every morning, and driving back home every evening, I encounter that invisible line of atmospheric density made visible in winter where the particulate of exhausts hangs trapped in the cold cold air.  Ice fog has some water vapor to it, it can occur entirely of water vapour in pristine areas untouched by exhaust, but within Fairbanks it is certainly primarily made of exhaust.  In the hills directly above town, you can look down at times in winter to the top of a lake of ice fog, buildings and roads entirely obscured under the cloud.  It is as though a magical barrier exists, a containment wall made of atmospheric density and the difference in molecular kinetic energy.  Cold spell, indeed.

We have moved into the downstairs of the house.  Between the cold, carpooling through long days in town to accommodate theatre schedules and yoga classes, and heating primarily with wood in a woodstove that has developed a worrisome crack it makes so much more sense to consolidate our life around said woodstove.  We have hung a curtain between the floors, and another partway down the hallway to block off the two extra bedrooms (as yet uninhabited by young humans), the studio, the library, and our bedroom.  I mourn the loss of the studio to the cold, but have been promised guiltless use of space heaters on the rare days when I actually have the handful of hours to work on a project.  There is a song by the Decemberist that has always been resonant to my darling man and me: "Crane Wife."  It is sad, as many of their songs are, but it is a beautiful love story as well.

"I forced her to weaving, on a cold loom, in a closed room, we down wove."

Well, now my loom room is cold.  We are currently sleeping on the pull out couch directly in front of the woodstove, but plan to move into the guest bedroom for the winter.  This house is large for two people.  It is a house in which to raise a family.  So this season of dark and cold, we will live in the connected kitchen/living/dining area, one small bedroom, and the bathroom.  Conveniently focusing our life and our warmth where the pipes are housed.  This has the added benefit of clearing out our bedroom area so that we can pull up the old and wretched carpeting, lay flooring, repaint, sand and finish the windowsill, and build walls and a closet.  Then build a real bed for our mattress, and move back upstairs sometime next year.  Or, you know; the next.  But for right now, there's a woman writing, a man reading, two dogs sleeping and two cats lounging within ten feet of the woodstove.  And we are warm.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

25 below

Photo credit: Rhiannon Elliot
Its official folks.  The cold is here.
This past week has seen the temperature dip into what I fondly refer to as "damn cold."
Really, there is very little difference in the twenty degrees between twenty below zero and forty below zero.  The cold changes when you hit fifty below.
The above photo is taken from the hill on which the university perches.  The smokestack is from the power plant that powers the university, and is partly why I fell in love with my man. 
"Smoke plume rises" is a poem he wrote about this view, one I had struggled to capture in its beauty and its ugly.  When I heard him speak the poem, I fell a little bit in love with the handsome stranger on the stage.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thankful Thursdays

I live in a country, where once a year, on a thursday, we all are reminded to take a moment to be grateful.  To express our thanks.  To celebrate the abundance that is already (that was always already - for my english geekery friends) present in our lives.  On the third Thursday in November, most Americans gather around a table with friends and family to give thanks (and to gorge on turkey as well.  Speaking of which, I have a forthcoming post on the feast my sister cooked.)

As a student and a teacher of yoga, I am intimately aware of the power of cultivating a practice.  The conscious practice of gratitude in my life, has the power to be transformative.  There are plenty of studies and well written persuasions I could quote, but suffice it to say that cultivating a gratitude practice, or writing a gratidude journal, can help to heal many upon many of life's stresses, ills, traumas, and aches and pains. 

And so, stealing the name (Thankful Thursday) from a dear friend, I would like to try my hand at one of these weekly blog themes... 

Today, I am thankful for being so closely in contact with my electrical power source.  There is a generator and a battery bank and solar array within feet of my house.  And so, unlike the many who have been living, unexpectedly and unprepared, without power for many days on the East Coast in the wake of Sandy; when my power system goes down and leaves us without electricity, it is immeninently manageable to fix.  And I don't have to wait on some nameless person from a faceless company to figure it out. 
Today, I am thankful for my Darling man who tends to such electrical failures with a love and patience I find it hard to muster for that which is not animate. 
Today, I am thankful for the ease and convenience of electric lighting and refrigeration and watching a decades-old taped Nutcracker performance on VHS.

Today I am thankful for my students.  And for my teachers. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Birthday Feasting Scandinavian Style

One lovely thing about having a dear dear friend who has started blogging, is that when one makes a multi-course Scandinavian feast for her fiancee's birthday, she will brag (and blog) about it FOR you.  That way, one can humbly and modestly bask in the glory of her compliments. 

Check it out!  (and while you're there, poke around and read her lovely thoughts)

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Aurora Dance Overhead

The aurora dance overhead.  Towards the cabin, I see the overlay of a picture perfect postcard:  golden light shines from the windows of a log home in the dark, bright stars, streaks of green in the sky overhead. 

My back on a snow bank he made for me.  We look up to the sky. 

Orion just above the western horizon, he strides the night sky.  To the southwest, there is near-half moon just beginning to clear the trees.  It has moved from east of south to southwest since I got home.  And to the north, hovering above the ridgeline of our roof, hangs the big dipper.  There are other constellations, writ large across the sky.  This far north, the sky is seems bigger but the scope is both smaller and enlarged.  The star clusters that I remember from my childhood as being recognizable but easy to lose amongst the vastness of the firmament, here seem as if they could step out of the sky onto land, already larger than life size.  There are other star clusters I recognize... is that Cassiopeia?  The Gemini?  I want to find the scorpion that chases Orion across the sky, the hunter being hunted.  I want to remember the details of the story of the mother who turned into a bear and was hunted by her own children.  Each constellation has a tale to tell.  At least one.  I spent many many hours reading the Classical Greek legends and stories of the constellations.  But other cultures have other names for the stars.  I wonder what stories were once told in Scandinavia, on the steppes of Siberia, here in this cold land by the first people?  Ethnoastrology.  I believe my sister once toyed with the idea of developing a dissertation on the subject. 

I breathe into the cold.  Relax within my puffy down coat and fox fur hat and watch the dance of the lights.  A tendril crosses into the big dipper, and then a wave of curtains falls through the center of the cup and slowly moves across the sky.  Suddenly the sky between the stars of the dipper is a clear dark again.  The lights move with a time and rhythm all their own.  It is slow and graceful, and yet suddenly, the patterns will have entirely shifted.  Sometimes they seem to dance beyond and behind the stars, and sometimes I would swear they are a dancing bridge I could step onto to walk into the sky.

The aurora is the deep magic of physics.  It manifests visibly and seems both so immediate and so distant.  I imagine looking at this display without the knowledge of the solar and atmospheric interplays, without an intellectual understanding of electro-magnetism, and my breath catches with awe.  It is beautiful and a bit eerie and uncanny as well.  I can well understand the native stories I have read in the archives at the Rasmusen.  The aurora is a bridge to the spirit world.  The aurora is the spirits of ancestors and the dead – do not look at it lest the spirit ghost of an enemy hurt you or get jealous of your vitality.  The aurora is the manifestation of wars between spirits, and if you know how to read them, they can tell you what the future will bring.  One year in college I took a course on Alaska Native Literature, and we read a number of traditional stories.  I wrote a paper on the shaman as a figure in stories, and in researching that paper in the stacks, I read so many beautiful stories.  And so many terse stories.  And so many chilling stories.   I read a number of different taboos and warnings against watching the aurora, and as many or more descriptions of what the aurora is.  Some said that it was only safe for a shaman to watch the aurora, for only they were strong enough or protected enough to engage with the spirit world in that way.  All I can say is that, had I lived in the time of these stories, I doubt I could keep myself from watching the lights dance overhead, no matter the danger.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Aurora Overhead

Yestermorn, in the still- night dark of the very early morning in which we drive into town now that winter has arrived,
Crossing the blueberry muskeg lowlands past the creek before the river,
There was a patch of a brightly irridescent curtain dancing in the sky above the hill.

Yesternight, in the dark night of the very late evening in which we drove home after a band rehearsal,
Coming up the hill to the homestead,
 There were bridges of magic light crossing and recrossing the sky, moving on ly ever so slightly.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Seasons of Cold

This week has seen the temperature drop to more than twenty below zero.  While some –many – areas of the country are enjoying the promise and excitement of the first snow, entering into that hovering in-between month of November and others I am sure will not see their first hard frost for a month or more, we are well into winter.  I grew up in New England, where the seasons and the months followed the kindergarten pictures fairly closely.  Spring was ushered in with grey puffy rainclouds and mud boots in March, with tulips and pasque flowers in April, with flowers galore in May.  October was a riot of gold and red and orange.  November was chilly and wet and grey.  December saw snow and decorated trees, and January was always painted in light blues and whites with crystalline snowflakes.  I'm sure you know the pictures I mean.  Living now in the subarctic, I find that living a seasonal life shakes out just a little different.  It is the first week of November and already my seasonal/mindfulness display table with its candles between the dining room and the kitchen is covered in cloths of light blue and white, with blue and white patterned origami snow cranes.  That's the "January" of the kindergarten pictures. 
Our fall this year was long and lovely.  We had a week of "September" weather, with tall grasses going to seed, sunny days and cool evenings, and the merest hint of gold in the leaves.  Then we had a week or a little more of the bright bright gold of an Interior "October" followed by two weeks of "November" with cold rain and overcast skies.  By the middle of October, the temperature hovered between five below and twenty above, and there was a coat of snow on the ground. 
Now, sitting by the warm fire with a mug of spicy mulled wine, I realize that it is no wonder that I feel the pull of the winter celebrations so strongly – I am a month into true winter dark already.  We are losing more than eight minutes of daylight each day, as we draw slowly closer to the Solstice.   The holidays are 'supposed' to start a month or a little more into wintertime.  A fellow Fairbanksan blogging friend confessed that she has been listening to Christmas music ever since Halloween.  I too, have been cueing holiday stations on Pandora or Spotify when I am alone, and poring over pictures and thoughts of holiday crafts and baking and decorating and gifting.  I have always been slightly horrified by the store displays that pull out the Fourth of July the day after Easter and Christmas even before Thanksgiving has come.  I still am, a bit.  It is blatant over-commercialization.  But in this particular instance, in this particular clime, for this particular holiday, it makes sense.  I was waiting and hoping for the holiday displays to begin even before they did.  And I feel a little impatient for the weekend after Thanksgiving to arrive so that I can pull out the box of decorations and convince the Darlin' Man to help me pick out a tree. 
I think about the psycho-social origins of winter holidays in the Northern lands.  They were based around the Solstice of course, celebrating the return of the light even before Christianity had left its birthplace in the Middle East.  Whether you celebrate the days getting longer or the birth of your savior, the last days of our calendar's December are a time of hope and renewal, even in the depths of the winter hibernation.  Many of the traditions we think of are about this renewal or rebirth.  But many of them – the mulled wine or cider, the cookies, the warming spices of ginger and cinnamon and clove, the firelight, the family, welcome wreaths, even the gifting – are also about the drawing-in and the gathering-around of the winter season.  The weather out of doors is inhospitable at best, so we create our own warmth within.  We gather with loved ones to eat and to tell stories.  Most holiday decorations have meanings associated with the religious and spiritual significance of the holidays, from the colors to the evergreens to the stars, but also by decorating the space that we live in, where we retreat to away from the winter cold, where we gather with loved ones we make that space –our home- inviting and welcoming.  We allow it to be a space of retreat and respite, a place where spirits are lifted.
Which is all a fancy and very long-winded way of saying that this year I shan't be ashamed of my intense enjoyment, and early commencement of the winter season.  

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Food in the presence of fire

(A post from Sunday - one of the joys of living off grid in the way that we do, is that the internet is a luxury, and an intentional choice, that is only available in town - before or after work, or on my space-phone...  And so you see, posts are sometimes a few days late...)

A timeless Sunday spent watching kittens watch birds through the windows, drinking coffee and reading cookbooks.  Planning winter feasts.  Soul food, this sitting in winter sunlight with the warmth of burning wood; abundance in its truest form. 

The making of a meal is not merely the preparation of ingredients, but the feeding of a person and the celebration of life.  The abundance that exists within each and every meal is easy to loose sight of.  To forget that each clove of garlic, each onion or carrot or salmon or potato is the manifestation of so many rays of sunlight, so many grains of dark earth and drops of crystal water.  To forget that the giving of food to others, serving a meal, is an act of loving service that has gone on for millennia, defining our species, connecting family and community.  To forget that each bite we take, be it quick and hurried, or in the company of others with a lit candle, is an affirmation of our own lives, of our place within the web of life, and a poignant reminder to be grateful that we have this bite to eat.  And this. 

I spend some portion of my day, every day, in the kitchen in front of counter and stove.  Midweek, I try to minimize the time and energy after the long drive home, and explore what all can be made with a slow cooker, and how many ways to sauté veggies quickly over pasta.  But some days, when there is nothing to do after work and 8 pm seems a reasonable dinner time, or on the weekends when I like to think that I have nothing but time, I make meals that are a celebration.  Sometimes they are simple and sometimes elaborate, but each is made with love and each is eaten at the table with a lit candle.  Most meals I make begin with the chopping of onion or of garlic, sautéed in olive oil and sometimes a bit of butter.  When I first read Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," I remember smiling in an instant feeling of kinship with her when she made the same statement about the beginnings of her family's meals.  In that rhythm of chopping and slicing and dicing the pungent beginnings of a meal, there is a space for ritual.  I am not as fast as professional chef, who dices garlic at dizzying speeds, but I am not slow either, years of daily practice have ensure a steady speed – but it is a constant speed, there is no rushing such a task, no shortcuts.  First the papery outer skin of the allium is peeled off by fingers that have learnt the trick of it, then the knife pulled from the drawer is sharpened, it slices first one way, and then another; sometimes it is accompanied by tears as it opens the heart of the allium.  Then golden oil sautees pungence into a richness and a mellowness to savor. It is followed by the dance of ingredients and boiling water, of herbs and pepper, and finally culminates in the pas de deux of meal eaten with my darling man over the flame of a candle.  The repetition of this process, day after day, becomes a ritual and an act that borders on the sacred; uniting me with my own self past and future, and with the countless men and women who have and who will eat food daily in the presence of fire.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

By the light of the moon

This morning early, as we were leaving the Homestead to go to work, my Darlin'Man checked the monitor for the electrical system...

Lo and behold, the light of the just past full moon was producing 2 volts of electricity thanks to the magic of our solar panels.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The long-overdue Chitina IN PICTURES!


Copper River at 5am

I caught a fish!  The Darlin' Man helps me pull it in (with the
ridiculously heavy steel pipe of a pole I was using)

There was a water fall across the way.
The river is full of glacial silt.


Then it got chillier, and I kept fishin'.
I may have fallen asleep in this position.

My Ma on the point just upriver.

Me and the Darlin' Man.

When the sun came out!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Homestead Eating: Pickles and a Lox Lunch

 In the interest of using up the abundance of a "family" CSA share, which goes to feed only two people daily, I've been preserving odds and ends that I don't get around to feeding to the Darlin' Man and myself for dinner.  There's a quart or two of frozen shredded zucchini, about a gallon of frozen snap peas.  A head of broccoli and another of cauliflower, some celery, all waiting in the freezer.  Monday night, I whipped up some pickles.  On the far right (in pic above) are kohlrabi pickles - its a fermented dill pickle recipe I found somewhere in the lovely blogosphere but I misremember where.  They are probably ready to go into the fridge and be eaten, nights this week have been a bit hectic with plans for the Mountain Men's hunting canoe trip this weekend, so I haven't sampled the pickles to see where the favor is at.  The next one in (the other quart jar) is a quick (or refrigerator) kolrhabi pickle recipe -with ginger and cardomom and yummy warm spices (recipe from "The Joy of Pickles").  Two of the pint jars are cucumber pickles, following a no-brine hot-water bath processing recipe also from the "Joy of Pickling" with dill and garlic.  The middle pint is the same recipe but made with the rest of the kohlrabi.  I added a splash of nasturtium vinegar to these for a little extra kick of flavor. 
lox lunch
 With the rest of the cucumber, and a few radishes, I made this open face cream cheese, lox, and sourdough sandwich for lunch.  The cucumber and radish and salmon pairs really nicely, and then as I was eating it and looking at food blogs over lunch, I ran across this recipe which uses the same flavor combo.  Which must mean I'm a gourmet, right?!?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Today's CSA share

cauliflower, purple carrots, scallions, potatoes, broccoli,
cabbage, and flowers.

Hard Frost

This morning, I woke to a house that was chilled despite the previous evening's fire.  To a yard that glittered and sparkled.  To green onions on the porch that yesterday had stood tall and proud, and today were bent over, their internal strength broken by the cold.  The parsley on the upstairs porch was in better shape, but I'll harvest it today anyway.  I'll bring in the branches of green tomatoes and fry them in cornmeal and salt and pepper, each crunchy bite will recall the sweltering Alabama okra summers of my childhood.
The frost is an invitation for me to dive in, into art and hearth, feeding the heart fires and the hearthfires that keep me, and those I love, warm through the coming cold. 
But first, the frost is a clarion call to get out into the woods, birch and muskeg both, and onto hands and knees, face close to the freezing earth and chilled fingertips plucking at deep red berries.  Lingonberries are sweetest, and their flavor the most rich, after the first hard frost.  And there's nothing like a pan of crimson tart sweet berry sauce while snow flies and air cracks with cold in the depths of January. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Great Big Stitched Postcard Swap

Last year, I ran across someone in the blogosphere who had been a part of the Great Big Stitched Postcard Swap. 
It looked like a whole lot of fun, and like a really low-pressure but motivating way to play around with the sort of art-quilting that I am always reading about and oohing and ahhing over in Art Quilting magazine.  I read- by which I mean oogle- the magazine every month since Interweave substituted my unfortunately-now-defunct-FiberArts subscription for Art Quilting.  I see projects and think to myself  "I could TOTALLY do that."  But I never do.  And prior to the other day, I hadn't ever really done any work with appliqué or raw edge fabric or fusible interfacing or or or...  Patchwork and embroidery, but both separately.  So I was psyched to come across the Great Big Stitched Postcard Swap, which would give me the reason, the motivation, and a supportive community to play with a new medium.  So sometime last year, probably around this time, I signed up to be notified of the next one.  I'd almost given up on it happening again when the time came around this year.  It totally lived up to my expectations!  It was super fun and inspiring.   We were matched up with a partner somewhere in the world with whom to swap postcards.  My post-pal Kylie, lives in Australia and has a beautiful art blog
The theme this year was "Discover."  I tossed around a number of ideas, I chatted with my Darlin' Man about maybe using birch bark... he was a fan of the idea of doing a birch bark canoe in birch bark on my postcard.  I suggested that maybe he would like to join the swap and do that card himself as I had something else in mind.  For some reason he wasn't super-psyched about that idea.  I decided that I wanted to explore "Discover" on an interior and spiritual level.  It is what I spent a month doing this summer after all!
I have prayer flags along the roof line on the upstairs porch that I see out of my bedroom window.  I was noticing them one day, and remembered the stash of worn prayer flags that I have in a trunk in my studio.  I've had prayer flags constantly up at every house that I've lived in for the past 7 years or so.  When the colors get really faded I replace them, and have been keeping the faded flags for an art quilt of some nature.  The current ones on my porch are the first ones that I have had actually disintegrate, the threads dispersing prayers on the wind.  So I decided that I would use a flag as the base layer for my postcard quilt. 

I started thinking about other spiritual depth and discovery associations, and came up with the idea of the skeletal leaf, the hills, and the spiral.  I dug through my stash to find evocative fabrics, working with the theme of this deep and creative blue.  I've been doing dreamwork and analysis the last few months as well, and am working with images of vibrant red and deep electric blue dragons and lizzards from a series of dreams.  So I figured I would explore within that blue color palate...   The diagonal strips are from an old pair of thai fisherman's pants that were made from recycled saris, the purple and gold brocade is from a bag of scraps I picked up somewhere, as is the middle hill.  The patterned cotton cloth is from my stash :-)  I used a bit of a variegated novelty yarn from a prior weaving project as a bit of trim and glitter.

I was so pleased with myself for figuring out how to free-motion embroider on my vintage sewing machine (see below), and I quilted the layers together with a variegated sewing thread.  You can just barely see where I free-motion embroidered "Discover" in the center of the quilt.  And then on top of the hills, there's a shape that reminds me of the red rock formations of Navajo land.  It was a happy accident, as it came from sewing under and between the writing spaces on the back...  But is very fitting and appropriate and really felt like it finished the peice...

I feel like I've discovered a whole new medium, and am really looking forward to exploring what I can do with cloth and thread...  and embroidery. 

I was more than a week late with sending out my postcard, so I mailed it with some Alaskan goodness to my swap pal in Australia....
And just for a bit of shameless bragging, I would like to call your attention to this lovely vintage Sears sewing machine that has served me for a a few years now.   I found her (for free!) at the transfer site.  And, her gears are all real metal, not plastic!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sacred Fish

Copper River salmon are the best fish in the world.
No. Seriously, they have the richest Omega-3 content of any fish in the world.  Not that I've personally tested every type of fish, but that's what I've read...  Its because the Copper River is such a long, and cold!, and swift!, river.  So the returning salmon swimming upstream to spawn need the fat reserves to power that long swim in the long cold swift river.  Apparently in the fish markets in Seattle you can buy "sockeye," "coho," "king," or "Copper River" salmon.  Sockeye is the same as 'red' and coho is 'silver.'  Both types have runs on the Copper River, but there is such a difference between other place's sockeye and coho compared to the Copper River that 

We went to Chitina to go dip-netting.  Dip-netting is just what it sounds like.  You have a big net on the end of a long pole, you hold the net in the water, and when a fish swims in, you pull it out.  The fist stick to the edges of the river where the (very strong) current is a bit more manageable to swim against.  You want to fish in an eddy, where the water is flowing upstream, partially because the fish like these as it makes their journey easier, and partially because it ensures that your net is open to catch the fish! 
I have perhaps never been so aware of my latissimus dorsi muscles as I am after a day of holding a net in river, and hauling out big fish... not that I'm complaining. 

I'd never been to Chitina before, or actually that entire part of the state.  It is so beautiful it is almost unreal.  Sometimes I forget just how big our state is, or just how beautiful it is.  And then I drive for 10+ hours and as I pass into the second mountain range that I drive through, my breath just catches in my throat from the immense beauty of it all. 

When I was a girl, we had a book  of Native American stories and legends from cultures across the continent about animals.  One summer I remember deciding to try to memorize them all, so that I could tell them myself to the family around the campfire when we went camping.  I never did memorize all of them, but one of my favorites from that summer was Northwest story about salmon.  I believe it was a Haida tale, but it my have been from a different Northwest culture.  (The following is entirely paraphrased and no doubt changed by my memory...)

Every summer, the people of the Salmon would leave their lodges in the oceans and put on their salmon fish cloaks and would  run up the rivers to the spawning ground.  The People would catch the salmon and dry and smoke it to support them through the winter.  They would return the bones to the river, so that when the bones reached the great lodge of the salmon people in the ocean, the salmon people could continue their lives, having left their salmon fish cloaks with the People.  There was a little girl who lived in a village on the banks of the river.  One day, her mother cooked salmon for dinner, and after the meal was over, her mother wrapped all the bones up in the fish skin and gave it to her daughter to put back into the river.  The little girl started towards the river, but along the way she got distracted by a game the village children were playing.  She placed her bundle down on the ground, deciding that she would come back for it as soon as the game ended.  When she came back to the salmon bundle, it was open and the bones were scattered on the ground.  "oh well," she thought as she gathered the spilt bones and ran to the river.  She gave the bones and skin back to the river and ran back to her mother's house.  The next year, as the salmon were running toward the spawning ground, a handsome lame stranger came to the village and claimed the girl as his promised bride.  When the village heard the stranger's story and realized he was the salmon who was missing a bone, they gave the couple wedding presents and sent the girl off to live in the great salmon lodge in the bottom of the sea.  She was very scared, but when she arrived she found that the lodge was just like the great lodge at home, that the village had a spring for fresh water just like at home, and that the women cooked with bentwood boxes and cedar baskets, just like at home.  The stranger and the girl fell very much in love, for he was a skilled craftsman with a tender heart.  Because he was missing a bone, he could no longer put on the salmon skin cloak and swim up river every summer, but every summer for the rest of her life the girl would put on her cloak and swim up river.  When she passed her home village she would jump as high as she could, so look over the bank and see her family.  Later, the couple's children would swim the river every summer with their mother.  And that is why the People and the People of the Salmon are family.

I remember liking the story as a girl because it was about a girl who had a grand and transformative adventure (and married a handsome stranger!) and also because it was about salmon.  Today, I love the story for the way it speaks of respect and interdependence.  Though the bones of the Chitina salmon are likely to end up composted for my garden rather than returned to the river, I enact my respect by using every part of the fish.  We did leave the guts for the gulls and the river, but the tails have gone to make quarts of salmon stock, the heads sit in bags in the freezer to boil for food for pups through the winter, the spines and ribs of filleted fish are likewise in the freezer waiting to become soup.  Of course, there are fillets and steaks, and a couple of whole fish for feast days as well.  That, and I learned the Zen-master art of the salmon fillet:

The Darlin'Man was resistant to filleting the fish at all, for fear of wasting precious salmon.  He had a good point, if we were to judge based on the couple of fish he and I tried to fillet down at the river.  We probably got barely a third of the meat off in the fillets.  So we packed the catch in ice, and decided to process them at home.  The Darlin'Man stayed as Summit to help his folks with a hot (running!) water installation, while mom and I packed the fish to Fairbanks.  We spent all night and half the next day (with a long nap!) in a companionable kitchen dance while I wielded knife and she worked the vaccuum packer.  I learned that an impeccably sharp knife is the first step to Zen-fillet success.  And then, it is just a matter of placing your eyes at the tip of the blade of the knife, and slowly riding along the ribs.  My last carcasses probably had barely a tablespoon's worth of flesh left on bone...  

A (translated) third century Toaist Chinese text reads:

Prince Wen Hui's cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand,
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee,
The ox fell apart
With a whisper,
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
Rhythm! Timing!
Like a sacred dance,
Like "The Mulberry Grove,"
Like ancient harmonies!

"Good work!" the Prince exclaimed,
"Your method is faultless!"
"Method?" said the cook
Laying aside his cleaver,
"What I follow is Tao
Beyond all methods!

When I first began to cut up oxen
I would see before me
The whole ox
All in one mass.
After three years
I no longer saw this mass.
I saw the distinctions.

"But now I see nothing
With the eye.  My whole being
My senses are idle.  The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line,
By the secret opening, the hidden space,
My cleaver finds its own way. 
I cut through no joint, chop no bone. 

"There are spaces in the joints;
The blade is thin and keen:
When this thinness
Finds that space
There is all the room you need!
It goes like a breeze!
Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years
As if newly sharpened!

"True, there are sometimes
Tough joints.  I feel them coming,
I slow down, I watch closely,
Hold back, barely move the blade,
And whump!  the part falls away
Landing like a clod of earth.

"Then I withdraw the lade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work
Sink in. 
I clean the blade
And put it away."

Prince Wen Hui said,
"This is it! My cook has shown me
How I ought to live
My own life!"


 (qtd. from John Kabat-Zinn's "Wherever you go there you are: mindfulness meditation in everyday life.")

 I may not yet be as masterful as Prince Wen Hui's cook, but his way with ox and cleaver is one that I discovered on my own with knife and salmon.  I look forward to my practice next summer when next the people of the salmon don their fish cloaks and swim upstream!  Meanwhile, the freezer is stuffed to the gills (pun intended) with best salmon in world.