Wednesday, December 5, 2012

An Early Autumn

Autumn is a short season here, and, in a place already rich in light and temperature dependent “now or never” opportunities, fall welcomes seasonal activities that we enjoy only this time of year.

View of home from the kayak
This summer gave clues that winter might come early, and indeed it did. By mid-August, the last fire weed flowers bloomed. That final flowering is our “old wife's tale” warning that winter is 6 weeks away and autumn is upon us. The 6 foot grasses and fireweed die back, revealing the red, yellow, and brown leaves of shorter ferns, cranberry bushes, and devil's club. The berries of the ash, elderberry, and cranberry bushes start orange and turn red and, in some cases, attain a gorgeous burgundy. The birch and aspen trees turn yellow, reflected along the lake edge, reminding me of many a Japanese screen. Over time, they shed their starry seeds and heart shaped leaves along the brown woodland paths, as though ready for a blushing bride to walk upon them. On a short shopping flight to Anchorage in late August, I saw a beautiful sight: miles and miles of yellow birch and aspen, looking, from the 500 ft vantage point of a de Havilland Beaver, like bouquets of giant daffodils as far as the eye could see.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Four Thousand Years of Christmas

Four Thousand Years of Christmas

A lot of people feel conflicted this time of year.  Because the period from Thanksgiving through Christmas to New Year’s Day involves more traditional elements than other, the sights and sounds and scents and flavors evoke our pasts more than any other season.  And depending on how you feel about the present, and on your inflated or deflated impressions of your past, I can see how people can feel conflicted and sometimes depressed! 

Today, I’d like to offer a different view of the season - one based on our Seventh Principle – the one about the interconnected web of life.  Most of us interpret that as referring to how we, as a species, interact with the rest of the natural world.  But another interpretation is to consider how we, as a contemporary culture, connect to those cultures before us.(and after us).  There is no better time of year to consider these connections than the Christmas season.  Most of the practices we engage in today connect us to people 500, 2000, and even 4000 years ago.  Looking at the season this way – as a window on long ago, shifts the focus away from our childhoods and ourselves to embrace a past much longer, deeper, and richer. 

First, I’ll talk about those celebrations that derive from ancient agricultural festivals, then I’ll talk about Christmas Day itself, and finally, I’ll talk about how the Protestants tried to ban Christmas and who you have to thank for celebrating it at all!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

#2: How Religious Were Our First Four Presidents?

#2:  How Religious Were Our Founding Fathers? The First Four Presidents and Ben Franklin

Listen to the entire sermon here.

George Washington, 1795:  “In politics, as in religion, my tenets are few and simple; the leading one of which, and indeed that which embraces most others, is to be honest and just ourselves, and to exact it from others; meddling as little as possible in their affairs where our own are not involved.  If this maxim was generally adopted, wars would cease and our swords would soon be converted into reap-hooks and our harvests be more peaceful, abundant, and happy.” 

John Adams 1812:  “There is no special Providence for us.  We are not a chosen people that I know of.  Admire and adore the Author of the telescopic universe, love and esteem the work, do all in your power to lessen ill and increase good; but never presume to comprehend.”   

Thomas Jefferson, 1819:  Were I to be the founder of a new sect, I would call them Apriarians, and after the example of the bee, advise them to extract the honey of every sect.”  
In this half of this sermon I’ll cite quotes indicating the religiosity of our first four presidents, (and Ben Franklin) but first I want to say something about the use of language and cultural references in any public discourse.

The main point of Protestantism was that each believer could and should read the Bible for himself or herself instead of relying on the interpretation of a priest.  So the religion walked hand in hand with literacy training.  I am sure that the illiteracy rate in America today is higher than it was in 1780. So while books were expensive, every home that could afford even one book owned a Bible.

Wealthier, educated people also studied and owned classic works of historians and philosophers.  So if you wanted to make a point in metaphorical language to a rich person, you might cite Cicero or Thucydides, but if you wanted to speak to a broad demographic, what was the one repository of cultural reference that the entire population recognized? The Bible. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

#1: How Religious Was Colonial America?

How Religious were our Founding Fathers?
Part 1:  The Colonies and States Themselves  (this posting)

Part 2:  The First Four Presidents and Benjamin Franklin ( a separate posting)

Listen to the entire sermon here.
In public discourse and private conversations, I hear people bandy about opinions like, “we were founded as a Christian country” to justify Christmas trees in front of City Hall and prayers at the beginning of each legislative season or “a Judeo-Christian country” to warrant the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses.  On the other hand, we also proclaim a heritage of “separation of church and state” and point out that our national Constitution is a wholly secular document, even more so than many state constitutions.   How do we reconcile the two? 

How religious were our Founding Fathers?  How religious did they want our national or state institutions to be?  Those are two separate questions, and I’ll take them in reverse order, first talking about the religious context of the colonies, and then give some quotes and context for each of our first four presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, along with Ben Franklin.  

The first point to note is that, of course the government was founded by Christians --the immigrants came from Europe, not Timbuktu.  More than Christian, though, our state and national governments were founded by Protestants.  99% of the immigrants were Protestant. 

As for “Judeo-Christian founding", though, this was no homogenious "kumbaya" Protestantism.  The dominant Protestant denominations of the time, Puritans in the north and Anglicans in the south, vigorously and sometimes violently restricted the rights of Catholics and Jews and Protestants they did not recognize as legitimate denominations, like the Quakers, Baptists, Universalists, as well as those who professed no religion at all.   Catholics and Jews and non-theists or non-Trinitarians were refused the right to public office, to vote, and in some places, to own real estate or businesses for more than a century in 11/13 colonies and early states. 

Virginia, for a while, had a law that it would execute any Jesuit!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Northern Lights and 14 Feet of Snow

Solar storms have been active this winter, and we were alert to the possibility of seeing the aurora borealis.  At 5:45 am, Bryan awakened me to see them.  I was surprised to see how much sky they covered and how quickly they moved across it.  We bundled on jackets and hats as we shifted from the front porch to the back, and then peered up and out from the side windows, too.   The color was a pale green with an inner light.  The closest analogy I can think of, and one that seems like an unlikely oxymoron, is of a grass, hula skirt.  The biomorphic shape did indeed seem to dance, and its general shape changed as it “turned.”  But as I watched more closely, I noticed sinuous lines within the larger shape moving too.  Well worth the wakeup call (and I don't say that very often).

Our first night back this winter, the temperature dropped to +3 degrees F, but the wood stove slowly warmed the cabin, and with it, started to thaw a motley array of water containers we had partially filled with filtered lake water before the lake froze over.  Smaller bottles ensure some drinking water the second day after arrival.  Larger jugs of frozen potable water take a few days to melt.  In the meantime, we shovel snow into a pot to melt on the wood stove. 
Since snow melts to water at a 10:1 volume ratio, it takes several days to accumulate any volume significant enough to clean the cabin, laundry or ourselves very well.  So, I turn my initial attention the first two days to cooking, which makes the cabin seem warmer, just by the scent.  I made two loaves of bread and whipped up some onion dip, hummus, and sundried tomato-olive tapenade for handy snacks.  Since we don't have an indoor refrigerator, I store items that can freeze, in a cooler on the back porch (so the scavengers can't get it). Other items, like eggs, dips, and cheese, I store in the coolest corner of the cabin, which is by the front door.
View from the porch

Out house and shed foreground, shower house background

The second afternoon, we took some time out to survey the property by a snow shoe hike. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Pecking Order: Our First Flock of Chickens

The sheer number of phrases describing human interaction in chicken terms indicates the closeness and longevity of human domestication of chickens.  Even if you have never seen a live chicken, you surely recognize, and perhaps even use, terms such as “all cooped up,”  “walking on egg shells,” “pecking order,” “cock of the walk,” and even “bird brained.”


The first domesticated chickens evolved from jungle fowl in Southeast Asia.  The earliest dates  vary, according to advocates for one country or another, but at least 2500 BCE.  Surprisingly (to me), it was the fighting roosters, or cocks, that moved the practice of semi-domestication to India, and then, along the silk roads, to the Middle East, and then Rome, decades and even centuries before egg laying hens seemed like a good an idea!


The coop, the run, and the 6 chickens. Predator wire in front
We raised chickens for the first time this summer and loved it.  Their beauty and distinctive personalities made our six chickens fun pets, and their ravenous appetite for weeds, bugs, and garbage rendered them productive and valuable yard workers, as well.  Alas, we experienced with them a tragedy and some other surprises, too.  Below is a short version of our experience and a recommendation to others to consider raising chickens, if your neighborhood allow it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Life with and without Plumbing

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

Have you ever thought about how much water you use in a shower, dishwasher load, or washing machine?  What is it like living in a place where you have to think and plan and ration and filter water?  Below is our experience far from electrical and plumbing grids to get water and get ourselves hydrated and clean during Alaska's summer and winter (which offer very different water experiences). 


We don't have a well, so from May through October, we rely on lake water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking.  This involves lowered expectations, high and low technology, patience, and effort. I am now much more respectful of every woman who ventured out on a covered wagon ... or who didn't and ran a home in a fifth floor walk up on Mulberry Street, NYC, as well as many contemporaries around the world who cleverly live without plumbing today.

The first summer the cabin was built, we had sitting and sleeping furniture but not much of a kitchen.  The propane and wood stoves were in place, but the rest of the kitchen was just a plywood counter on top of two saw horses.  Washing dishes (and clothes, and ourselves) was done outside, in  two deep utility sinks on the (uncovered) back porch.  By hefting 8 gallon jugs of cold water and occasional pots of stove heated water into the sink, we got by with rather greasy dishes and hair and laundry.  We drained the gray water down into a pit we filled with rocks and a perforated 55 gallon drum. This got very old, very fast, particularly on cold and rainy days, particularly since I hadn't brought any paper plates that year! 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Heat by Wood: How Much Wood/Work/Time per Year

Many of us, particularly in cities, I think, rely on “black boxes” of magic for the conveniences we enjoy. We click a switch “over here” so that lights or heat or air conditioning or TVs turn on “over there”. When they fail to work, as they do in an era of “planned obsolescence” or a power outage, we either buy something new or enlist shaman-like experts called electricians or plumbers or auto mechanics or computer technicians to wave their magic wands.

Living off-grid in Alaska has made me more aware of all that goes into those things I used to take for granted. The article below outlines how much labor we expend to generate heat for ourselves, and outlines comparisons to alternative heat sources enjoyed by people who don’t live in the middle of a forest.

Since passing chemistry (barely), I hadn’t given a thought to British Thermal Units. In Alaska though, as you can imagine, that concept means a lot. We produce the heat for our cabin by chopping down birch trees that we then cut, age, and stack to stoke a small but efficient wood stove. How much wood do we need? How long does that take to acquire? How long does it last? How much heat does it produce?

The measurement for wood is a cord (4 x 4 x 8 feet). For dry birch, which is the available wood of choice for heating our cabin, this volume weighs about 3000 lbs (“green” wood weighs much more, about 4500 lbs). We store about 8 cords, or 32 x 4 x 8 feet and 24,000 lbs in our “wood corral.”

Monday, August 13, 2012

Intentional Living in a Tiny Residence: Storage in a Log Cabin

Low  bookcase below window, bins below
love seats, storage behind one  
I have long admired the efficient use of space in boats, planes and RVs, so it was a fun challenge to figure out how to make the best use of our 750 square foot log cabin (16 x 24 x 2 stories), of which 584 sq ft is tall enough to stand in). How could I make it comfortable, inviting, and functional? Since so many readers viewed an earlier entry titled, ‘Furnishing a Tiny, Remote Log Cabin,” (Dec. 2011) in which I wrote about what you do see - the furnishings - I thought a companion piece  about storage might be in order. In any home or office, what you do see is only half the use of the space!   I welcome the suggestions of any readers who have made clever use of small spaces. 

Because our cabin is so small, I scrutinized every nook and cranny above, below, behind and between furniture, windows, and doors. It has been like an ongoing game. Any storage that could be hidden earned “bonus points” for problem solving. Extra points accumulated for storage in spaces where nothing else would work. To point out how tiny spaces can have great utility, see underused spaces below from 1 - 12 inches deep or wide. Doing all this yielded much more storage than I expected, and thus, a neater looking, more functional living space.

One inch deep:
Our cabin is on a little bluff, so the front porch is about 4.5 feet off the ground, yielding potential storage space beneath, accessible from two sides. Under the less visible western side, we store BBQ and gardening equipment. What’s the one inch reference? On the easy access lateral support holding up the deck’s floor, we screwed cup hooks and hammered in nails for those long cooking utensils, and farther away, my gardening hand tools, both in a “ready for use” applicable location. I say one inch here because of the space used by the hooks and nails, but since they are under the edge of the floor of the deck, they don’t actually project at all.

Use the space between furniture/appliances.

Three Inches wide:

In the 3” vertical space between the propane oven and the wooden box that covers our 55 gallon water cistern, I store all my flat cooking pans.

Use the space above a door or below a window.
Four Inches deep

• In most homes, the space above the doors (and windows) is unused. But because we live in bear country and my husband is a hunter, above each door is a gun rack projecting 4 inches, holding one rifle or shotgun. Up high, in a dark corner, these are a bit out of visual field but are accessible when wanted.  (Similarly, my father-in-law installed one shelf above his closets and kitchen doors to display collectibles and jars of dry goods)

• Three 4” deep shelves, (ranging in width from 13 – 29”) in an attractive Adirondack twig and birch design, adorn one central wall. They support vases of seasonal flowers and mugs and a birch basket of tea, sugar, and snacks for handy access. (Right now, the vase showcases columbine with mustard and broccoli flowers.)

• A woodstove requires a certain minimum space around it as a safe “hot zone.” In such a small home, that space cried out to be used, particularly during the months when we don’t heat the stove! On the wall above and behind our wood stove hangs a black metal structure intended for drying hats and mittens. It is 4” deep and 24” (top) and 36” (bottom) wide. I use it to hang pots and pot holders below and lids above.

Seven inches high:
The space beneath my bed may be a bit higher, but the bottom of the horizontal supports for the mattress leaves 7” of clearance. Under one side of the bed, I store the following in six canvass and plastic zippered, rectangular bags: his and her “city clothes” that we want to store flat, DVDs, crocheting and art supplies. Under the other side of the bed, my husband stores long gun cases with cleaning supplies inside.

Eight inches wide:
Between the sink and the cistern (both with wooden superstructures) is an 8” gap. Into the wooden frames, we screwed in about 10 cup hooks from which dangle long cooking utensils, sieves, and cooling racks that would take up too much room anywhere else. On the floor below, I store bulky baking pans, like muffins. Above this gap, and along the wall into the corner above to cistern, heavy J hooks are screwed into the log wall to support cotton net bags that dangle 5 pounds each of potatoes, onions, citrus, garlic, etc. (Note: don’t store onions next to potatoes since they "pull: moisture from them and wrinkle them).

Eight inches deep:
We don’t have much counter space on either side of our double sink, and I hated “wasting” one side to hold an unsightly drainage pan for dishes. On line, I bought a plastic one that has extendable “arms”  that straddle most sinks and obscure most of the dishes below the lip of the sink. and when empty, it is unnoticed. I also bought a plastic “saddle” to dangle over the barrier between the two sinks to hold soap and scrubbies/sponges but the one I bought never worked well for me so I just store them in the drain pan.

Use space below a window or along a low wall.
Nine inches deep:

Low, on three walls my husband installed long shelves that are 9” deep and 12-16" off the floor. The one under the front picture window is a book shelf. If you figure that an average book is 1” thick, I can store 50 books here (spine side up for easy review from above). On the floor space below I can tuck a number of items, as well, like a birch wood bin that holds games and a laptop computer.  

On the wall between the kitchen and the loveseat area, partially obscured by a free standing, spruce storage unit, is another 6 foot shelf that supports my spice jars near the kitchen and my paper supplies at the other.  Below, I tuck small appliances, electric and manual, jugs of oils and vinegar, a trash can for paper goods and a garbage can for scraps for the animals.    

Our upstairs is built with 3.5 foot pony walls along the sides, above which the roof inclines
toward a center beam. This means that standing room for adults is limited to a central swath about 10 feet wide. How could I neatly organize 24 feet of short walls?  Along one, starting near the head of the bed, is the third long, low shelf: 9“ wide x 12 feet long and 18" off the floor. This height was chosen to partially obscure five RubberMaid bins that store dry goods, toiletries, and linens (as another house might store in pantries, linen closets, beneath a bathroom sink, or in a basement). Books line the top of the shelf with plenty of room to spare.  (We commissioned spruce dressers and cabinets to fit the other side). 

Outside, we attached a 9“ deep metal rack for drying boots (or waders) on the lateral beam that supports our elevated front deck’s floorboards. It is hidden from view by the projecting deck flooring. When not in use for boots (most of the time), we hang large BBQ racks there.

Nine inches high:
The clearance beneath the two love seats is 9”. Under the one closest to the front door is a plastic mat for storing our “inside” shoes, since we always leave our muddy or snowy boots outside on the deck. Also, under each piece is a 6 high x 15 deep x 30 wide” clear, plastic bin with a lid, small enough, given the dimensions of the love seats (about 5 ft x 3 ft), to be inconspicuous. In one I store snack foods and the herbs and spices I want nearby but don’t use every week. The other bin is awaiting a decision, but at least I know that it fits there and is unobtrusive, for whatever purpose comes to mind.

Pull furniture away from the wall to utilize space behind it.
Twelve inches deep:
• My food prep counter, which is 15 inches wide, is perpendicular to the side wall (and sink). It serves as a visual divider between the kitchen and sitting areas, and, by positioning it 12” away from the wall, it partially hides the shelf of kitchen goods described above.  From three cup hooks on the wall end of the cabinet dangle baking tools: measuring cups and spoons, a sifter, a pastry cutter, and a spatula. A wrought iron ring hang on the visible end of the sink and food prep cabinets, with kitchen and face/hand towels. (Since we don’t have an indoor bathroom, we use the kitchen sink for ablutions.) 

Twelve inches in a corner can be useful, too, for a lamp or small side table.  We brew our own beer and make wine, so we use the corner to store a carboy of whatever we are fermenting at the moment (wine or beer). It is out of the way but we can keep an eye on clarity and yeast accumulation at the bottom.  Someone else might store a hamper of children's toys or hobby supplies. 

I dangle cotton net bags full of apples and oranges over the back posts of my love seats. Someone else might store TV remotes or coasters this way. 

• Because the roof inclines above 3.5 ft high pony walls, our dressers (taller than 3.5 feet) obscure a hidden storage space behind them. This space is twelve inch deep (narrowing at the top) times the height and width of each dresser. We store a great deal there: suitcases (storing within them backpacks, duffel bags and smaller suitcases), yoga mats, bins of 25 lb bags of dry goods, and even an extra office printer. Since the dressers are 18 inches deep, we leave a cubby hole in between them and between them and the corners. In these we store our hampers, chamber pot, portable heater and propane, and a tall stack of bins holding bulky winter clothes, extra linens, and 124 lbs of freeze dried food!


• I rarely use our largest baking and broiling pans, but when I do, it is usually for a big brisket or rack of ribs cooked in the propane smoker. So I store those pans inside that appliance.

• In many homes, under stairs storage is great.  But we have a fully visible spiral staircase. How could I use that space? I bought willow creels, to function in ways that other houses would use medicine cabinets and desk or kitchen drawers for odds and ends. The creels dangle from their leather straps wrapped around the rungs of lower stairs. Similar creels sit on the front porch (carrying bug spray, binoculars, and sunglasses) and on top of each of our dressers for small personal items.

• Since floor space is at a premium, my bedroom “trash can” is actually a lidded pewter pot, on top of my dresser.

• We bought a nice big marine cooler that has been very useful in every season. In the winter, my husband stores groceries in it that we don’t want to freeze on the three hour snow machine commute from the nearest town to our cabin. Once here, we put the cooler on the back porch for frozen food accessible to us but not to hungry ravens. In the summer, we keep it in a shed to store boxes and jars of condiments and dry goods we want to keep from voles. 

Conclusions: I wonder if consumers often buy new things as a way out of other decision making, like "do I really wear/read/use the things I already own and store? Can I actually find the item I seek amidst all the crapola around it?"

A lot of satisfaction can come, for me at least, from fewer, well chosen items, like three really good kitchen knives instead of a block of poor ones, or one favorite mug that fits my hand well, or a comfortable chair or bed. Realizing this enabled me to shed quite a lot of stuff before moving out to our little cabin, and creative storage helped me enjoy a soothing rather than chaotic setting once settled in. I can look at the woods and the lake outside, and the soft sheen of the log walls and muted colors of the braided rugs inside, while making bread in my little kitchen. Nice.

Whether one lives in a large or small home, being intentional about furnishings, decorations, and storage will likely make the space more functional for you and more inviting for your visitors.

I welcome any of your clever ideas! Send them through the comment field below this entry. Thanks. –Laura Emerson

Monday, August 6, 2012

In Defense of Weeds, in and out of the garden

(I will add to this entry over time, and I welcome any of your helpful hints or comments, added anonymously or signed, in the comment section below the entry – Laura)

Weeds get a bad rap. But for the observant gardener, weeds can be a wonderful resource.

1) Many offer clues to the condition of the soil before you buy that expensive plant that will not do well where you want it.
2) Many deliver minerals to the vicinity of their growth or to your compost pile or to your pets and livestock or to you, if you choose to eat them.
3) Many have or are reported to have homeopathic benefits.

So, in defense of weeds, I offer the following evidence for five plant: chickweed, dandelions, ferns, horsetail, and yarrow:

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Permaculture: Garbage for Your Garden

The following posting is particularly written for those who don’t make compost for their gardens. Maybe you have a tiny yard or just a patio or balcony with plants on it. I understand.

Take NOTE; Take HEART: Even without composting, there are many ways that your flowers and vegetables can benefit from much of the garbage your kitchen accumulates (see alphabetical list below).
(I will add to this posting over time).

Free. Available. Non-toxic. Gets rid of garbage. What’s not to like? Give some of these a try and let me know how they work for you. I always use the banana, coffee, egg shell, and wood ash hints, and less often the others.

Banana peels: These peels decompose quickly and deliver 41% potash and 3% phosphorus to the plants around which they are buried. Roses particularly benefit. Chop the peels into little pieces and poke a few (2-3) into the ground around the roots. How easy is that! If you wish, you can freeze the peels in order to accumulate enough for a one time spring project.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Easy Recipes from a Tiny, Remote Kitchen: Appetizers (that double up for other meals)

(I welcome your comments, recipe suggestions, and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

UPDATED: See Tomato Nut tapenade and Tomato Puff Pastry at the very bottom of list.

Do you have a tiny kitchen, limited time, a bare pantry?  Perhaps the following recipes will appeal to you. 

Living a half-hour flight from a town, out in the boonies, I cook 2-4 meals a day for months at a time.  No restaurants.  No pizza take out.  As a break, my husband kindly offers to cook all day once a month (which usually means “do you want the bag of green leftovers or brown leftovers?”)

 So by the combination of frequent necessity and boredom, I endeavored to make the process of cooking easier and more interesting to me, within the constraints of a tiny kitchen and no spontaneous access to a supermarket.  My favorite recipes, such as those below, meet the following criteria: 1) few ingredients (most below use only 3-5 ingredients, not including herbs), 2) few preparation steps/bowls/space requirements, 3) ingredients that store well or expand easily for groups or large harvests of produce or fish.  4) Less than ten minutes of preparation time (other than cooking or making dough) and, in most cases, 5) versatile.  Most of the 14 recipes below include 2-5 alternatives, each, and most can be used in various ways, for example, as a dip one day, a sandwich spread later, and a sauce for meat or pasta on another occasion.   

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Mushroom Farming in the Woods

(I welcome your comments or questions, signed or anonymous, in the comment field below each blog entry.  If you would like to receive an email notification when a new item is posted, you can enter your email address where indicated on the lower right side. Alternatively, click the below image to leave me a voice message. -- Laura)
      The weather patterns of the Lower 48 and Alaska have been inverted all year.  Last winter was absolutely balmy in places like Chicago and New York, while Alaska experienced record breaking snow.  This summer is sweltering in the Continental US, but tepid here.  In fact, the first half of July has seen the coldest average in Anchorage’s recorded history (the closest major city to us): +52 degrees.
Needless to say, gardening has been disappointing in yield, size, and speed.  On yet another cool, overcast day, I thought, “Perfect mushroom weather!”  It is cool and damp and we live amidst shady woods full of an Alice in Wonderland array of mushrooms and other fungi.  However, because I don’t feel competent to forage for edible mushrooms in the woods, (and dare I say it – I don’t actually like them) I bought mushroom plugs to plant now and harvest next year for my husband.    Today was the day to start.
The entire vocabulary for mushroom farming is different from other gardening and frankly, somewhere between gross and disturbing.  Instead of buying seeds, one buys “plug spawn.” Rather than plant them, one “inoculates” a log or stump.  Instead of growing, one “incubates.”  The longer one waits to “force fruit”, the higher the “colonization.”  Doesn’t this sound like something in a Bio-Hazard laboratory?  Didn’t I see this in The Andromeda Strain? Still, boredom and yet another incipient rainfall can be a marvelous incentive to play outside with “plug spawn” so we gathered together the tools of the mushroom farmer and sauntered off to the birch tree base in the woods now bereft of the trunk that Bryan had dispatched earlier in the week.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tote Water, Chop Wood

Buddha’s followers once asked him, “Master, what should we do before we attain enlightenment?”

He answered, “Tote water, chop wood.” 

“What should we do after we attain enlightenment?”

He responded, “Tote water, chop wood.”

I certainly haven’t reached enlightenment, but I am working on the other two. 

Every few days I lug 8 gallon jugs I have filled with lake water up the hill to locations near gardens, the chickens, and the burn barrel. 

Today, I started to chop wood.  I had postponed this endeavor because I was leery of my uncoordinated potential, swinging a heavy, sharp axe through the air and back toward body parts I value.  So I decided to start with something a bit less intimidating:  using a hand axe (about the size of a long hammer, but with a much heavier head) to split logs into kindling. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

How Much Do You Know About Salmon? (Fisherpeople, Cooks, and Restaurant-goers)

Below are 11 questions about salmon, some for people who fish and others for people who eat.  Which facts did you know or not know? 

1.     Match the common name of a salmon species on the left with its alternative name(s) on the right (Some have more than one match).

1.     Pink
a.    Chinook
2.     Red
b.     Coho
3.     Silver
c.     Dog
4.     King
d.     Humpies or Humpbacks
5.     Chum
e.    Sockeyes

f.     Steelhead

g.    Blackmouth

h.    Spring salmon

i.      Tyee


2.         Which of the choices above right (letters) is a trick option because it is not really a salmon but a trout, despite its sales name, Atlantic salmon?

3.         Which species can potentially live the longest?  Which has the shortest lifespan?

4.         Which two species are the most common?

5.         Which two have the highest oil content (omega 3s), and are therefore best suited to grilling, smoking, and freezing?

6.         Which have the lowest oil content and therefore may lose texture when frozen and may dry out when cooked the wrong way?

7.    Which ones have the darkest, red-orange meat (while the others can be beige-pink)?

8.    Although the species run (migrate upstream) at different times in different parts of Alaska (and elsewhere), which of the numbered options tends to run the earliest?  The latest?

9.    Which species is exported in vast quantities to Japan and may be the one you eat at a sushi bar?

10.  Which species develops the startling green head and red body when spawning in fresh water?

11.  Which species is distinctive by its vertical stripes and deeply cut tail fin?


How did you do?  For the answers and more information, enjoy the next blog entry, "Salmon Facts for Tourists, Cooks, and Restaurant-goers."

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Visitors among Other Invasive Creatures

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

Everyone who has a second home on a lake or beach or other attractive setting has stories about their visitors.  Below are some of mine. 

Like any parent who is sure that his baby is the most beautiful in the world, Bryan’s love affair with the state of Alaska and his property adventure had prompted him to invite everyone on the planet to visit us over the next few summers.   Initially, I looked forward to these visitors as a break from outdoor labor.  On the other hand, the experiences of our first few visitors soon engendered in me an intense reaction approaching xenophobia.  I came to fear an onslaught of na├»ve visitors, larded up with the same multi-faceted ignorance that we demonstrated so amply on any given day.  Given Bryan’s superlatives, what if they expected a vacation resort rather than what was really a remote homestead?  What if they regarded words like “rustic” as something that still included indoor plumbing and a gravel road to a doctor or shopping mall?  On the other hand, what if they thought they knew their way around guns and fishing hooks and fire ... because they were of a particular gender that assumes muscle memory from being a cub scouts several decades earlier or watching Discovery Channel once upon a time.

With each ensuing visitor, I adapted a planning, and packing guide – whether to encourage or discourage visitors is open to interpretation.  I also limited the number of guests to one set per month and, except for relatives, to 3 days,  after one particularly social summer when I cooked 156 person/meals (yes - I counted) for business friends of my husband (and their families) - people I had never met before and rarely seen since.  

Below are some of the "best - worst guest anecdotes." 

 (Dear Friends:  you know who you are).

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Useful Salmon Facts for Fisherpeople, Cooks, and Restaurant-goers

(Laura welcomes your comments, signed or anonymous, in the comment field below any entry)

If you find yourself confused by the variety of names associated with salmon, you are not alone.  Some terms are used interchangeably to describe the same fish.  For example, Chinook, King, and Blackmouth all refer to the same species.  Others are identified by their location, like Copper River Salmon, without reference to the species at all!  Still others are referred to as salmon but actually aren’t.  Atlantic “salmon” sold as Steelhead, is actually a trout, and Danube salmon is something else entirely.  

Because salmon formed the basis of subsistence and commercial livelihoods for centuries of people with different languages in disconnected locations, and because it is important to the mythology and agriculture of those regions as well, it is not surprising that a traveler (or restaurant-goer) may encounter such a variety of terms.  Certainly, almost every region of Alaska is well associated with this wonderful fish. I think it is smart of Alaska Airlines to paint its newest planes with a salmon, instead of the scary looking Eskimo guy.

In Alaska, some salmon is reserved for dog food (but frankly, for most of us non-connoisseurs, unused to five types of salmon, it tastes fine), while other species are considered best suited to the grill or to freezing or smoking.  Next time you see an undesignated salmon in the seafood section of your supermarket, or consider your fishing limit for harvesting vs. “catch and release,” ask about the species!  It may help you make decisions.   

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Loon, Crane, Weasel, Bear and Moose Neighbors, with Pictures

(This entry combines animal related passages that are scattered amongst prior blog entries (like Kayaking Happy Hour), with additional information and pictures of some of my favorite birds, weasels, voles, bear and moose in my yard)

Laura welcomes your comments and questions, signed or anonymous, in the comment section below any entry.)

Although I think of the pike in the lake as food, other fish, birds, and animals I tend to regard as neighbors.  And because the rapidly changing seasons rotate in and out several sets of migrating birds, I think of them as seasonal tourists.  Some I am delighted to see again, like long lost friends.  Others are more like loud, obnoxious travelers, arriving en masse and making sure that no one in the vicinity doesn't notice their arrival!   I am still unsure of many bird identifications, but let me tell you about "the regulars."  


The seagulls are obnoxious tourists.  They always nest in the stunted black spruce trees that grow in one particular location where the bog meets the far corner of the lake. They are noisy and territorial.  When the eggs are in the nest or the chicks are just learning to swim, the parents will dive bomb us like something in a Tippi Hedren movie, in which case, we maneuver the kayak out of their defended range. They aren't afraid of anything! I have even seen them work in formation to successfully, and noisily, push predatory eagles away from "their" lake. 

I am far fonder of loons, and always delighted when, in most years, a pair returns to the lake to breed and raise their babies. I love everything about those birds- their elegant black and white coloration, their haunting cry, and the way they dive and fly. They seem to play "Marco Polo" with us. They always win, since they tease us to follow them in our kayak and then dive with their strong feet, appearing a surprising distance away. I understand that their feet are so far back on their bodies that their evolutionary trade off is a gain in diving propulsion at the expense of flight take off. They are extremely noisy as their wings flap and flap against the water in a long, shallow departure. Watching the parents teach their chicks how to fly before the end of summer is nature's version of a Keystone Cops comedy.  We count the chicks as the summer progresses and mourn the losses of the slower and smaller ones.  When very small, they are vulnerable from below, to the large, predatory pike in the lake.  Beyond a certain size, they are more vulnerable from above, to eagles and other raptors that survey the lake from tall, strong white spruce trees on our property.   

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Preparation and Adaptability: "To go" bags and ID notebooks

(I welcome your thoughts, signed or anonymous, in the comment section below any blog entry)

Life is full of surprises, which is why adaptability and preparation go hand in hand to successfully navigate some of those twists and turns.  Most events do not surprise us BECAUSE they occur but rather because of when, where, how they inconveniently transpire. Below are three recommendations pertinent to anyone, anywhere: an identification notebook and “to go” bags at home and in the car. I’ve also described our emergency supplies for our snow machine, since that is our mode of transportation to the nearest town (42 miles) to buy food and supplies during the winter.    

The potential for natural disasters varies across the country, but virtually every region offers something catastrophic: Rapid departures or an inability to get home for unknown lengths of time can be caused by tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, or rain or snow storms that cause extensive damage and loss of power.  

When we lived in TX, the following preparations came in handy not only during hurricanes, but also during less obvious intrusions, like street flooding and a fire in our high-rise.  My son, who never would have made such plans, has benefited from the car supplies several times when he had car trouble. Friends and relatives around the country, on the other hand, have been stranded without supplies by various catastrophes or inconveniences.  A bit of forethought can ensure greater comfort and self-sufficiency when the immediate surroundings are in turmoil.  

ID notebook

During Hurricane Katrina, about 250,000 people evacuated the flooded areas of Louisiana and Mississippi and moved to Houston, TX.  As one of the many volunteers helping to feed and shelter them, the biggest preparedness lesson I learned was the importance of keeping identification papers in an easily retrievable location.  Many people fled without clothing, food, or medicine of course, but without identification, they could not even prove who they were, to get healthcare or bank wires or start the insurance process once they reached a safe destination.  What ID might you need that you can grab in a panic situation?

Monday, April 23, 2012

No Exit

(Laura welcomes responses in the comment field beneath each blog entry).

During 2000-2008, virtually every private company’s investment oriented PowerPoint or Private Placement Memorandum  I saw (as Compliance Officer of a boutique investment bank), concluded with a “hockey stick” graph of escalating profitability, with a liquidity event in two years.   The magic number was always 2 years, regardless of likelihood, because this is what companies thought investors wanted to hear.  I cringe when I still hear that.  The liquidity event was usually posited as an IPO (initial public offering) with an occasional alternative of being bought out by a large public company.

To outline all the reasons I have long thought that going public early is a bad idea and an expensive mistake for small companies is another article for another day.  But here, I will outline why and how  small private companies are shut out from public capital, and what I think the liquidity options are in the near future for companies worth less than $50 mm.  

Initial Public Offerings  (IPOs)
The number of IPOs and their funding totals have declined as both the age and value of the companies has risen, raising the bars for companies considering this access to capital.  Statistics vary in frustrating ways for something that should seem so easily measurable, so consider the two following scenarios that follow the same trend line, but with different numbers. 

The first is documented in an informative RR Donnelly speech in March, 2012:  One long standing bar is that since 2003, the majority of those that launched IPOs were previously funded by more than $10 mm of venture capital. (So companies that haven’t already raised any outside capital might refocus their attention to growth first). Another is that the age of companies going public has risen from the rather ridiculous youth of 3-4 years in 2000-2002 to a more sensible 6-9 years of records, as was the norm in prior decades. The number of IPOs in each of the past three years has been about 100 – 150, raising $41-44 billion, far below the frothy years epitomized by 2000, with 446 deals raising $108 billion.  But even with this reduction in the number of deals, to companies presumably older and “field tested,” from 2004 to date, a sobering 22- 39% have not hit their offering price, despite heavy and expensive lifting by those companies’ marketing, PR, IR staffs and hired investment bankers.  They didn't mention the ones that withdrew after starting the process.
The second scenario, here gleaned from the excellent charts and graphs of of Greenwich CT, but that I have read elsewhere, too, shows much less volume. They count a measly 53 US IPOs in 2011, a precipitous plunge not only from 125 the prior year, but from a high of 486 in 1999. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of IPO withdrawals has increased in the past three years, from 48 to 52 to 67 last year.  (Did RR Donnelly use the start-out-the gate number?) The Jan-April withdrawals in 2012 are even with those in 2011.  The dollar volume raised by the IPOs differs, too.  These sources cite $97 billion in 2000 declining to $36 billion last year.  Both sources agree that the average age of companies making an initial public offering have aged, but the Renaissance numbers are MUCH OLDER than the others.  They identify the average age as 10 years in 2000, 15 last year, and 27 years old for those so far this year. 

GrowThink points out that the number of US IPOs since 2001 remain lower than the 1980s.    
The final barrier to entry is the value of the companies.  This is tough to assess, because pre-money valuations are usually described by those wanting to attract the money to prove the valuations!  Not a very virtuous circle.  But it appears that the market is not particularly interested in companies worth less than $50 mm and certainly not those less than $20 mm.  

Entrepreneurs who want to say, "we should go public" should instead do their homework to research and analyze the trend line and the differences cited here, before being swept into enthusiasm by service providers who will be paid no matter what happens once the bell rings. This summary doesn't even address the costs of going public and staying compliant, year after year, which is another topic to scrutinize carefully. 

My black and white recommendation is that if your company is pre-revenue, pre-breakeven, or even pre-$20 mm valuation, don't even think about an IPO. Doing so derails far too many companies from focusing on legitimate expenditures of time and money to grow market share, customer base, or profit margin. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Local News: What Does it Reveal about Alaska?

(Laura welcomes comments through the comment field below each blog entry)

Whenever we travel, I love reading the local newspapers.  Each town and region has its own points of pride and subjects of division and derision from which a visitor or new resident can learn a great deal. Note the organization, relative coverage and topics featured repeatedly in its newspapers.  Such news can help to entrench or eclipse assumptions about the place. Clearly, Alaska thinks of itself as different from the rest of the US, as reference to “Outside” and “the Lower 48” indicate.  In several ways, this is very true.   

 What do the Alaska newspapers reveal about life up here?  To me, the primary impression from the Anchorage Daily News is one of a fully embraced outdoor lifestyle.  By way of example, consider this:  the “Outdoors” section of the on-line version ( includes the following permanent sections:  Bears, Excursions, Fishing, Iditarod, Mushing, Skiing, Snowmachining,  and Wildlife.  Readers are invited to submit photographs and there are whole galleries devoted to cabins, the aurora borealis, and “around Alaska.” By contrast, the Houston (Texas) Chronicle ( doesn’t even have an Outdoors section.  The only regular outdoor activity addressed is gardening).    

Two years ago, somebody or other surveyed Anchorigians regarding their satisfaction in living there.  Over 90% said that the setting contributed to their satisfaction.  Aside from the obvious fact that Anchorage’s setting, between the Chugach Mountains and the Cook Inlet, is one of the most visually stunning in America, the paper makes clear that residents enjoy its terrain, resources, and weather.  Everyone I meet in Alaska is happy to be here.   (By contrast, what might the percentage be in many other places?  Most people I know in Houston, TX, for example, say they live there “for the job” and plan to leave.  Complaining about some aspect of the city is a ‘warm up topic” at just about any gathering.)    I must say, it is nice to get away from the whiners!