Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Are We Dependent, Self-sufficient, or Self-Sustaining?

One of our goals each year is to decrease our dependency on others by increasing our skills and resources.  In the city, it was convenient to pay for services and products.  Living remotely, we learn to do many things ourselves or do without.  I evaluate aspects of our life on a continuum from dependent to independent:

*Dependent on others

Given recent news reports of coronavirus and the economy, tornadoes, wildfires, and power outages, perhaps readers are applying this sort of rubric to their situations, too.

a) DEPENDENT -  I judge us as dependent on items and skills/services  we have to BUY ONCE A YEAR or more often.  These include ANY rapidly depleted products made of petroleum (fuel, plastic) metal, glass, and paper (toilet paper!!!).  We are also dependent for  foods we enjoy but cannot grow, like tropical spices, coffee, citrus.  Finally, we rely on skilled service providers occasionally, too, for skilled construction, machine repair, taxidermy.

b) SELF-RELIANT - This simply means things we do ourselves, whether it is baking bread or cutting down a tree. 

c) SELF-SUFFICIENT - I define this as having the skills and products or resources on hand that will LAST 1 to 8 or 9 YEARS, before requiring replacement/renewal. These include our wind turbine, stored food (both homemade and purchased), annual foods that I grow from seed, most electric and gas tools, chickens, honeybees. (Hens lay for 3 years before aging out, and some years our honeybees overwinter but others they all die). A low cost of living is helpful to self-sufficiency, too.

d) SELF-SUSTAINING - This is the “gold standard” of independence.  It encompasses products and resources on hand that can conceivably last FOREVER, or at least a DECADE without outside servicing or replenishment.  Examples for us include our well and lake, accessible timber for fuel and construction, perennial fruit, herbs, and vegetables (both wild and planted/domesticated for  food and home remedies), solar panels, many hand tools and some long lasting gas and electric tools.  I also include black bear meat and the rabbits that we raise for their meat, fertilizer, and fur, since a buck and two does produce as many rabbits as we want, at a frequency and time of year that we can choose (by when we mate them).  Sadly, the lake is not a self--sustaining food source.  Voracious pike eliminated the prior tasty fish and are now eating each other to such an extent that the fish are vastly depleted in both number and size. To access other fish in nearby creeks, we need to maintain trails through the woods, which we have neglected. 

DECREASING DEPENDENCE:  Over the years, it has been something of a game for me to shave off a number of products we used to buy.  In many cases, this saves money.  In others, it increases our sense of competency. For example, I finally taught myself to sew and I find it more satisfying than I expected.  Previously,  I learned how to forage for wild foods for nutrition and medicine, and to make many staples such as hygiene and house cleaning products, condiments, and bread from relatively few, cheap, and versatile staples like salt, vinegar, yeast, or hydrogen peroxide.   My husband has become a more skillful carpenter.   

One “game” I like to play is to figure out how to repurpose something that previously was used only in one season or became trash.  Six foot x 22” metal grids variously function as bean trellises, rabbit hutches, and fur/potato drying racks.  The greenhouse houses our rabbits in the winter.  Plastic sleds haul wood in winter and hay, mulch, weeds in summer.  Tin cans become whimsical yard art.  Torn flannel sheets become comfortable pajama bottoms.  Kitchen garbage feeds the animals and gardens.  In such ways, we make fewer purchases, multiply the value of resources we already have, generate less trash, and preserve money, gasoline, space, and time.

In conclusion, we are certainly much more self-reliant than we ever were when living in a city, where services and products were so convenient to buy.  Except during hurricanes and floods, I did not think much about supply chains and accessibility.  Now, I certainly do.  We have sacrificed convenience in favor of increasing competence and a quiet sort of satisfaction.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

June at a Remote Alaskan Home

June is a month of twenty hours of daylight, wildflowers, and mosquitoes.

This year, the skeeters are particularly bad - maybe because of our unseasonably rainy May.  We sleep under a bug net every summer, but this year,  I even read during the afternoon under the bug net!  The insects circle me whenever I stand still to garden or sit in the hot tub, or try to eat on the front porch.  My homemade insect repellent (vinegar with herbs) has been ineffective.  We live a pretty organic life, but this month, we are burning chemical coils anywhere we linger for pleasure or projects and spray ourselves with DEET.  Indoors, we wield battery powered tennis racquet-like bug zappers which are satisfyingly effective, but the burnt hair scent is pretty gross as we sizzle dozens of them that invade every time we open a door.  Fortunately, their period of supremacy lasts only 3 weeks or so, and is waning as I write.

In June and July, our latitude enjoys about 20 hours of daylight, so we are very active during long days.  To sleep well I wear an eye mask and outfitted our bedroom with black out draperies.  Temperatures are great - high 40s(F) at night and 60-mid-70s during the days. 

Because of the short growing season and maximum sunlight, everything grows super fast in June... whether you want it to or not.  It is like watching time lapse photography.  I love seeing the succession of wildflowers bloom, on the ground, and above, in bushes and trees.  Dwarf dogwood carpets the ground on either side of our paths.  Shy starflower peeks out from beneath shaded woodland plants.  Eye-level, the white flowers of elder and cranberry nod in a breeze.  The tallest flowers appear on ash trees that have evaded the reach of moose. I have been encouraging the growth of wild prickly roses, too, in a meadow and in between cranberry bushes.  They bloom briefly in June, followed by bright orange/red rosehips, which look like firm berries.  I harvest some elderflower for teas and wine and rose petals for salad and tea.   

All of our domestic berry plants flower in June.  The currants, haskaps (honeyberries) and saskatoons are the first to form fruit at the end of the month.  Strawberries (which I grow both in a raised bed, with mint, and as a ground cover near the lake) and raspberries follow in July.  With the extra rain we had this year, I anticipate a bumper crop, which I will can for enjoyment throughout the winter in all sorts of preparations.  Of the various melomels (honey + fruit mead) I have attempted, raspberries produce the most consistently delicious result.

Naturally, June is a busy time in the yard.  Because we free range our hens, we concoct various ways to keep them out of the garden beds and away from the haskap berries they favor.  Right now, the haskaps and apple trees are surrounded by fencing that looks like Alcatraz for plants.   This year, I wove a small wattle fence out of alder shoots around a 4 x 4 garden which required about 80 long shoots for 8 inches of fence height. 

Every summer, my vegetable gardens are hit or miss.  Some seeds are old, some plants succumb to aphids or other critters, others are wonderfully productive.  And there are always surprises. This year, several potato plants are spontaneously growing from tiny potatoes that evaded my harvesting last year and three sunflowers grew in my greenhouse from seeds dropped last fall.   Each year, I try a few new plants, among them, okra and tomatillos in the greenhouse and brussels sprouts and garlic outside. We will see how they fare.   I am particularly enthusiastic about growing tasty perennials - less work and expense.  Rhubarb and asparagus are robust and thyme overwintered this year.  My new favorite perennials are horseradish and sorrel (a leafy green with a citrusy taste).  We have added sorrel to many recent salads.  Last night, I served a sorrel pesto with goat cheese for an appetizer.   Tonight: a dip of horseradish leaf and three onions I grow here: scallions, chives, and leeks.    Perhaps because of the rain, my brassicas are being chewed to lace by little gray sluggy things.  Since that food is supposed to be FOR US, I quickly harvested a lot of it.   I really like mustard leaf pesto, I have discovered.  Other leaves I blanched and froze and then canned the broth for use in cooking this winter. 

June is also a busy month for foraging.  I let tasty lamb's quarter grow wild in my gardens because I like the nutty flavor of the leaves.  Cleavers, mint, yarrow, leaves of the berry bushes, dandelion, plantain all dry on my outdoor drying racks if it is warm and dry or in a cold oven if the weather is damp.  Over the course of a year, they find their way into food, home remedies, and shampoo.  The aggressive mosquitoes abbreviated my forays so I am a bit behind.

CONSTRUCTION:     Summer, of course, is the time to tackle various construction projects that we have envisioned all winter.  This month, we built a 8 x 11 extension to the roof and walls of our wood corral.  We made every mistake in the book but figured out how to correct them, and remain married, too.  For some reason, the new doorway is our hens' new favorite spot for dust baths. I love seeing the five of them splayed out in shallow depressions they have dug, turning and tossing dust into their feathers and then standing to shake themselves clean.  “A day at the spa.” We also restain or repaint various buildings every few summers, and add or replace steps or banisters or shelves.  We are also, now, the proud owners of a two hole outhouse!  The second seat is not for... uh... socializing, but because, after 12 years, the pit is getting full of... sewage... under the first seat.  By cutting a second hole and wrenching out the dead root ball that blocked that side, we gain another year or two of use before we have to dig a pit elsewhere and construct a new outhouse over it.  Since our current space is part of a larger building (the back 2/3 is the food shed or pantry), we will repurpose the 4 x 8 space for storage.  

By the end of the month, the wild grasses can be five feet high - just in time to obscure the approach of bears, which we tend to see in July and August.  So when all my seedlings are doing well in the gardens, I become a whirling dervish with the weedwhacker.  I cut to ankle or shin height so I can see what plants “want” to grow in that spot, if the grass weren't so high.  In this way, I have nurtured hedges of raspberry, loose thickets of cranberry, and dense ground cover of dwarf dogwood.  More remote acres await a single cutting in late June before the seed heads form and spread a gazillion seeds.   I have finally made my peace with devil's club.  That perniciously spiky, prickly plant has well regarded medicinal value and rather attractive white flowers  followed by red berries.  If I keep it cut low, instead of cutting it out, its broad leaves retard the fast growing canary grass and other plants that I value more, like cranberry, rose, and star flower, seem to thrive in their presence.

All these tasks may sound like a lot of work, and they are, but they serve as an alternative to going to the gym or the supermarket or paying a carpenter.  For us, the trade off is an appealing one, in a lovely setting, resulting in a welcome sense of accomplishment and great appreciation for a leisurely afternoon kayak, bath, and dinner, with whatever salad greens I have gathered that day.

Friday, July 3, 2020

May at an Alaska Homestead

May is a month of dramatic transitions, from a silent, white landscape and frozen lake to the first flowers,  birdsong, and visits by gangling moose calves. Below is a summary of our activities every May.

Early in the month, the only hint of spring is the earthy brown “doughnuts” around the base of trees.  Walking through the warming snow is challenging.  The snow paths are often hard and icy in the morning, so we wear ice cleats for traction.  By mid-day, the snow is soft and sloppy, requiring snow shoes to avoid sinking deeply with each step.  Imagine wearing long snow shoes to enter an outhouse, or food shed.  Inconvenient!!!  As a result, I often try, too soon, to do without snowshoes. Alas, I sank up to my groin at the burn barrel and had to crawl out onto the surface, like a crab.

Despite all the snow, spring officially commences, in my view,  when we tap the birch trees.  Sap flow indicates that these deciduous trees recognize  spring even if we can't see it yet.  This date has varied over the years from April 2 to May 17, but is usually around May 1.  The sapping season lasts for ten days, ending when the first leaves appear. 

Some years, we collect enough sap (at least 100 gallons) to make syrup (a 1:100 ratio).  This year, however, the snow was so deep that it buried our sap lines, so we simply positioned buckets at the base of the two closest trees and collected about 10 gallons.  With half of this nutritious spring tonic, I made coffee, rice, pancakes - anything that otherwise requires water.  With the other half, I made a batch of wine.  Birch sap is only 2% sugar and lacks the mouthfeel of fruit based wines.  I add honey and dried elder flowers for flavor.  The result is thin and dry.  Not great, but a spring tradition. 

Another spring ritual is to drag the tandem kayak out from under the cabin and paddle in the shifting open leads between ice floes for a few days until the ice disappears.  For the past few years, we have been joined by one or two otters.   We see them only in fall and spring when the lake has this brief, transitional mix of ice and water.  The morning after the lake breaks, these visitors disappear.  I love to see the first reflections of the snowy mountains in the water.  So pretty.  After that, we enjoy a happy hour kayak every afternoon, with homemade wine and beer and store bought un-shelled peanuts. 

May also welcomes the return of migrating birds.  We hear and see huge V's of nomadic geese heading north.  As soon as the ice starts to break, we are visited by pairs of swans and, depending on the species, pairs and groups of ducks.  This spring, we saw a pair of sandpipers walking along an ice floe.  What wrong turn did they take????  Maybe he (?) was colorblind and didn't ask directions?   When the snow melts in our meadows and the bog at the end of the lake, we see pairs of sandhill cranes looking for something tasty to nibble. 

One annual task that we do only in April or May when there is about a foot of snow on the ground is a bonfire of huge piles of rotted logs and twisted piles of alder branches that we pile up in the meadow the prior year.  The snow is a prudent fire protection.   I choose to vary locations each year, because wherever the fire had been previously becomes home to a stunning patch of pink fireweed, which I love to see, as well as tiny birch seedlings.  Perhaps this is  our modest version of terra preta - an ancient practice of burning soil to enrich it as well as emancipating seeds, like fireweed and some spruce, that benefit from fire.

As the snow recedes, wild berry plants bounce up - cranberry, elderberry, and currants - which are the first to flower.  I prune broken branches and clear limbs that have rained down upon the plants during winter storms.  My form of “landscaping” amounts to observing which plants “want” to live here or there and encouraging those, such as currants that grow up and spill over the stumps of birch and spruce trees, fields of fireweed, woodsy paths lined with cranberry and rose bushes. 

In late May, I can finally plant the hundreds of seedlings I started indoors under grow lights.  When day time temperatures top 50,  I start transitioning them outside for increasing numbers of hours  to “harden then off” - getting them used to the wind, sun, and temperature variations outdoors.  The greenhouse soil warms up much faster than the outdoor gardens, of course, but since night time temperatures can still drop below 32 degrees in May, I monitor the forecast carefully to determine when it is safe to move the plants.  On that day, usually around May 20, I feel like a mom sending her children off to their first day of school.  I have coddled the seedlings indoors; now it is time to see how they do without me all the time.

Speaking of plants... what pollen do our honeybees and wild pollinators find before any flowers appear?  In mid-late May,  brown and green “dust” of pollen coats outdoor furniture, from the catkins on birch, alder, and sweet gale.  This are the first ingredients for the honey we will harvest in August.

Toward the end of May, a cow moose always has twin calves in the woods behind our property.  It is such a treat to see those slim, leggy youngsters trotting after her, nursing whenever she stands still to chow down.  Her favorite plants are birch, ash, and cranberry.  We are particularly cautious when walking around at this time as a defensive cow can be aggressive if startled or if she perceive a threat to herself or her progeny.

When temperatures warm up at the end of the month, we witness a rather weird three day visit by tiny gnats.  In the lee of the wind - often right next to our back door, they form an undulating, six foot column that is some sort of whirling mating ritual.  They also coat every white surface, like the propane tanks and window sills.  Suddenly, after those three days, they disappear.

May in Alaska is certainly not the lovely month of flowers that southerly climates enjoy.  But it is one of dramatic changes for us:  from white to brown to green, from silence to songs of birds, insects, and lapping water, and a shift from the fragrance of wood fires to the sweet scents of grass and flowers.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Necessity of Spring Cleaning a Wood Heated Home

I never thought I would say this, but I LOVE spring cleaning.   I actually look FORWARD to it!  Besides the deep cleaning, which is sorely needed,  I wonder if my zeal reflects a celebration of the end of winter, too.  

Heating a cabin by wood all day, every day over a LONG winter is such a dusty business.  I can easily understand why, in the “olden days”, wealthier people traded out seasonal rugs, draperies, and furniture covers. 

When the days warm up enough in May to throw windows open and thaw the drain line of the washing machine, we engage in spring cleaning, which, in our small, two room cabin, takes about three days.

WOODSTOVE:  On the first of every winter month, Bryan clears the external chimney shaft of creosote accretions.  He pushes, shoves, and rotates a long, extendable fiberglass wand attached to a stiff, round, metal brush (a chimney sweep) through an access “door” at the bottom of the outside chimney.  This process is the mechanical equivalent of reducing plaque on teeth or cholesterol in arteries.  Otherwise, the build up reduces the draft and increases fire hazard - not a desirable combination in a remote, log cabin.

We wait until spring to tackle the top of the chimney and the stove and chimney inside.  For the former, Bryan climbs a steep, two story ladder with a gizmo he created out of a paint roller rod that he uses to chip away the hard, black creosote buildup that clings to the wire mesh “throat” beneath the “cap” at the top of the chimney.  This project is a bother.  Friends have told us that they have torn out the mesh.  Bryan has clipped, with tin snips, what he can reach from the back - about 1/3 of the circumference, so at least on that side, there is nothing for the creosote to cling to.  Meanwhile, I brace the bottom of the ladder while wearing a hard hat against a hail like storm of small, hard, sharp creosote that rains down on the back deck, and me.  This noise scares the chickens nearby!

After that rather daunting task is completed, we move indoors.  First, we remove the 23 gallon aluminum tank above the wood stove that heats water all winter long.  Then, we shovel out as much ash as we can from the firebox.  (Cold ash is mixed with the chickens' hay as a desiccant that reduces odor and kills mites, and, in spring/fall, I ladle some into garden soil.)  Next, we use our shop vacuum to clear out the nooks and crannies in the brick fuel box and the seams of the stone “surround” beneath the stove.  After that, Bryan unscrews the 4 foot metal chimney pipe that rises from the woodstove to a 90 degree joint that pierces the back wall. He hauls his piece outside to shake and scrape out the creosote.  Meanwhile, inside, I use a large, long handled spoon to scoop out what I can from the 90 degree “elbow” and then deploy shop vac attachments, as far as I can reach.  Between the two of us, we remove about 5 gallons of winter build up that would otherwise clog the chimney. 

Once he re-installs the interior chimney pipe, I vacuum the floor and clean the stove.  The stove's grimy window clears easily with a vinegar soaked rag.  The stone “surround” is tougher.  Soap and baking soda are clearly not up to the job of removing a winter's accumulation of sticky ashy/sooty coating.  TSP is my “go-to” product. On hands and knees, I scrub, rinse, scrub, rinse the stones and then burn a lot of very dirty rags.  Every few years, I re-blacken the stove with a product designed for that purpose.  This is probably the easiest spring cleaning endeavor.  I simply wash the stove with soapy water, let it dry, and then buff in the blackening agent, which coats any rust and stains.  Later,  I fire up the stove to “cure” it.  It looks as good as new.

The wood stove  is step 1.  Step 2 finds me cleaning EVERY SURFACE in the cabin that the stove has dirtied every time we opened the door to add logs to the fire, which is frequent in winter!  Once the drain line thaws for the washing machine, I wash every small rug that will fit.  I beat and hose clean the biggest one.  Some years I wash every drapery.  This year I tried vacuuming all but the dirtiest. Then I leave all cushions and rugs outside overnight (which I do occasionally, anyway, to pick up the clean scent of fresh air, grass, and flowers).  Ummm, I inhale deeply as I write that. 

Besides the fabrics, all vertical, horizontal, and diagonal surfaces have accumulated a tacky layer of soot, too, even though I clean lightly throughout the winter.   With a series of damp rags, I go over EVERYTHING- the log walls, furniture, lamps, windows, sills, books on bookshelves, handles on drawers - even the mason and herb jars on storage shelves. 

Finally, of course, I wash the floor, several times, with mixtures of soapy water and vinegar.


Thursday, April 9, 2020

Chainsawing Hundreds of Dead Spruce Trees (Sad)

Sadly, the majestic spruce trees throughout the boreal forests of Southcentral Alaska have been decimated by an infestation of spruce beetles.  Beetle killed trees are easy to spot.  Their needles turn rusty brown and then drop, littering the snow.  The bark, too, turns redder than normal and sheds in shaggy patches like a mangy dog.  These dead trees are not only an eyesore but a potent fire hazard.

Low on wood at winter's end!
On our property, we have culled 30 - 40 trees each year for three years. Most of the stricken trees are mature.  (The tallest dead ones we cut down were above 80 feet).  For some reason, the young saplings seem to be spared, perhaps because they have a higher concentration of turpines to discourage insects.   As a result, our woodsy setting is changing.  The good news is that, with more space and light between trees, the woods are less damp, harboring fewer mosquitoes.  The bad news is that spruce grouse and squirrels are disappearing along with their habitat. I so miss the calm cooing of mother hens leading their little ones on a march across the yard, and the aerobatic antics of squirrels climbing spruce trees with mushroom caps too large for their mouths.