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.