Alaska Bread

We made bread every Friday, each person or family proofing their own dough the night or morning before the bake; one person on oven duty stoking the fire all day; and then we’d come together in the late afternoon, and the soft, wet dough used to make snakes would be rolled out long and thin and go into the oven first, taking the hottest and fastest bake of all the breads.

We’d tear the snakes into pieces, dip them in balsamic vinegar and garlic olive oil, or spread herbed butter on the light crumb and devour the warm bread as the next batches went into the oven.  Mostly it was sourdough, with many variations: added honey, cornmeal, oatmeal, seeded crusts.  Then there were the cinnamon rolls, all puffed up and golden in their tray.  And after the baking, perhaps a chicken would roast in the heat that was left, or beans, or a moose stew would slow-cook overnight.  One bake would feed the whole farm bread for a week, sometimes more.

We took turns pulling loaves out of the oven, and as the snakes disappeared a mandolin and guitar might come out, the pedals of a spinning wheel would pat up and down to the beat, and the kids’ fingers would wind and tangle in cat’s cradle; some nights homemade ice cream balanced the heat of the fire; on the edges of the season, we’d eat inside where a wood stove warmed the house.

RWS_7345 RWS_7393 RWS_7400 RWS_7392 RWS_8358 RWS_7708 RWS_7677 RWS_9639We don’t have a wood-fired bread oven here on our farm in Vermont, yet.  It’s on the long list of building projects and won’t be built until next summer (I hope it gets built next summer!).  But I do have some whole wheat flour from a farm in Berlin, just a few miles on the other side of Montpelier, and I have this day to myself and a wood stove to crank up, and a bag of yeast in the freezer.

It’s been a long time since I made bread of my own; when Edge reluctantly admitted he had to go gluten-free for health reasons, the smell of fresh baked bread made me feel a little guilty.  He assures me now I should start again, the smell won’t hurt him, as enticing as it is.

And so here I go, warming the yurt, dusting the kneading board, baking bread.


{All this bread baking happened at Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, the farm where Edge and I met.}

Alaska to Vermont: Eloping with Edge!

We made it back in a 1988 Subaru DL wagon, all the way from Alaska to Vermont with no GPS (not really a problem since we drove on the same road for half the trip) and no cruise control (a bit more of a problem since our right butt-cheeks got sore from continual pressing on the accelerator).  Besides the engine’s tendency to overheat, causing us to always have the heat on and the windows rolled down a bit, the trip was smooth–especially after buying two new tires in Whitehorse.

The day before we left Fairbanks, we decided to honor our love through marriage, so on the morning we left the Viking Lodge, we drove back through Tok and, with the town librarian and judge’s assistant as our witnesses, we said our vows and became husband and wife.

The road trip turned into our honeymoon, and as we traveled through the yukon, Jasper and Banff, Idaho, down into Southern Utah, across Colorado and Kansas, and all the way to the east, we reveled in the landscape and sank deeper into our love.

As we drove we saw birds: osprey, bald eagles, ferruginous hawks, geese, arctic tern, grouse, magpies, ravens, chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, swans, ducks, a boreal owl, peregrine falcons, gray jays, blue jays, woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, and more we left unidentified.

We saw animals: buffalo, moose, elk, caribou, deer, a black wolf, gray fox, coyotes, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and wild horses.

At night we sought out campgrounds, or took a few turns down quiet roads to hidden pull-offs where we could park for the night.  In the morning we made chai, ate granola, and packed the car again for the next leg of the journey.  Our days were casual with steady driving and spontaneous stops to look at birds, take pictures and stretch our legs.

We spent two days in Southern Utah hiking and climbing before making the final push home, aided with chocolate and maple syrup.

Now we are back in Vermont, living and working on Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park.  In the first week we have milked cows, witnessed the birthing of calves, been pooped and peed on, put up a yurt, planned our bean and corn plantings, waited out the rain so we can plow the field, and become part of the daily chore rotation.  As the season progresses, we will also be helping to develop the farm’s educational programs, sell food at markets, work in the 2-acre vegetable garden, and of course, with all this milk, we will make ice cream.

I am happy.  I am so happy.
To be living in a yurt.
To be living on a farm.
To be living with my love~

On The Road

After five days in Fairbanks, we’re on the road east.  We spent the first night in the Wrangle-St.Elias National Park, in a cabin just ten minutes off the Nebesna Road.  Here’s a little photo journal of our first day and night:

Back to Alaska

“We’re taking a train to New Jersey, flying to Alaska from there, and then driving back to Vermont,” I told my friends.

Jordan paused for a moment and then asked, “Why?”

We all laughed at the blunt questioning in her voice.

“Well, Edge’s car and most of his stuff is still up there so we’re going to get it and visit everyone, too,” I answered.

But there’s more to it than that.  After a winter of renting a house and staying in one town, I am ready for a journey.  A week ago, as I was running in the spring afternoon, I thought about movement across the land, about travel and staying in one place.  My feet ran forward as fields melted and streams grew, and I remembered my nomadic ancestors–those perceptive, migrating people that we all come from.  What trace of them is left in me?  Is it their instincts that I feel telling me to walk, run, and to notice the world that keeps me alive?

It is a continual conflict within me: to stay in one place and know it deeply, or to travel and know the world as a great mosaic, all pieces making one place.  I like to believe that I can dig into a place even while traveling.  I like to feel that I can meet it full on, despite the brevity of time.

Terry Tempest Williams, in a talk she gave at the University of Fairbanks, said, “The most radical thing you can do is stay home.”  In this world of petroleum power, I believe this.  What do I love about staying?  Seeing the seasons through.  Working the land.  Growing my food.   The power of canning, freezing, pickling.

And this brings me back to the beginning of it all.

We have learned to celebrate agriculture and storage.

We have learned to reward ourselves with vacations.

There is a tension between these two things.

I am sitting in the Seattle Airport, waiting for a flight to Fairbanks.  In less than one day I am shooting across the country, and I will take just over two weeks to drive back.  So much oil.  And still I go.  It is a radical thing to stay home these days.  There is a lure to go far away, and since the advent of personal cars and cheap flights, we’ve all got the hook in our mouths.  There must have been a lure, too, for the nomads, to cultivate and rest through the seasons.  To stay in one place.

So I search for the convergence of these things, and I feel the churning within me as a river does when two tributaries come together.  I am going back to Alaska, back to the wild that forces you out of the car, the wild that asks your intention.  Is it to pass through, to get to the end?  Is it to discover?

I will dig into each place, meet it full on, despite the brevity of time.  My intention is to discover.

Alaska Wild

My summer of light is over.  The moon has returned to the northern sky.  In August I woke two nights in a row between 1:30 and 3:00 am and walked outside to darkness—or what darkness meant then, the deeper end of dusk—and looked up to see the moon shining like golden cream, my favorite light extending in a circle across the sky.  In my last days on the farm at the end of September, it was 9:30 pm and navy blue, it was 11:00 pm and black, it was nighttime and starry.

When school got back in session on August 18th, I started teaching classes in the garden.  One day while on a break, I heard a teacher in the faculty lounge say, “Fall is my favorite time of year because it’s dark enough to see the stars again and still warm enough to stay outside to look at them.”  All of my life I have loved summer nights for the stars and moon, and it still amazes me that people can live for months on end without this and see it as normal, but I did learn to love the unending light and all its energy.  Alaska’s nighttime has a way of breaking open, boldly renewing the world for the second time in twenty-four hours.

Now, after six months and with the return of night, I am driving home to Vermont with my friend Katie, who flew to Fairbanks to make the month-long journey back with me.  Throughout the summer I felt the pull towards the east, to know the soils, roots, rivers and mountains of my home more deeply, but Alaska draws me in now, quietly like the sway of wind in trees, like the slow then quick brilliant change from green to red in the tundra.  The wild here moves everyday across the land and sky; it knows its beauty and harshness and is calm in it.

When I first arrived in Alaska I wondered if the cities and people infringe upon or accentuate the wild, and what I have found is this: the wild is where the moose and lynx cross the paved road and keep going; it is where I take the road and then leave it.  Wild is found in the meetings of animals and people, and in the moments that hold stares without thoughts—that moment before you take out the camera and you watch, looking at each other with curiosity and wonder before going again on your own path.  Wild is everything and it is everywhere.  As I drive across the country now I see the wild extend through Canada, and down into Montana where I am now, and I know it keeps going, and I will follow it.

In the Middle

I just passed the halfway mark of my six-month contract. One part of me is thinking, “I only have three months left?” and the other part says with relief, “I still have three months left!” The garden filled in so fast, from tiny transplants to strong vegetables ready to harvest, that I still feel like I just started. Really, though, the third and last session of student gardeners starts next Monday, and then August will be here, school will start again, and September will come and happen and end my time as a School Garden Supervisor for Calypso. But, I still have three months left, and here I am already getting ahead of myself.

The pace of gardening in Alaska is faster than in Vermont. Even though it may take a little longer for the ground to thaw in the spring, and the winter sets in sooner in October, once the temperature creeps up, the garden is off to a sprint. The farmers at Calypso often do late night planting, starting at 11:00 or midnight, and sometimes going until 2:00 a.m. because the weather is perfect and the light stretches out. At the school gardens it’s different, as we do most of the planting with the students who work from 3:00-6:00 p.m. My garden, at Hunter Elementary School, is hot. Surrounded by pavement and pebble-filled playgrounds and with no trees for shade, the heat radiates all around the garden and encourages the plants to grow fast, as if there was an individual sun over each vegetable. Some veggies want to bolt because of this, and part of everyday is just walking around the garden observing, snapping off flowers from the tatsoi and the beets, and deciding whether or not the broccoli can hold on for another day.

The students only work Monday-Thursday, so the rest of the week is my time to be at the garden alone. I am thankful to have a volunteer come on Sundays, so I do have one full day off, and lately the rains have set in on the weekends, giving me a break from watering, but I still like to spend time on Saturdays when the streets are a bit quieter, doing some work. Last weekend, a man walked up to the fence to compliment the garden and asked, “What are you doing here on a Saturday?”

“Oh, I’m just checking on everything—doing some weeding,” I replied. The garden doesn’t take a break on weekends like the students do; it grows through the constant sun, unfailing and steady. Even in the shock of transplant, which causes the outer squash leaves to yellow and wilt, the center continues to expand out and up, offering new green into the world.  I respond to the light, too, gaining energy by just being outside.  Unlike being at home in Vermont, I don’t know it’s late by looking at the sky, and instead I’ve learned to pay more attention to my body and stay in tune with how I’m feeling so I don’t overrun myself too much.  There have been weeks when I wake up early each day to run, then bike the ten miles to the garden and work before the students arrive, then spend three hours with them before biking home.  I always think it will be sustainable, but my energy wears out after four days of this schedule, and I remember there is a reason the plants go to seed so quickly here: even though the light gives energy, it can also stress and it signals the need to flower, reproduce, and cycle back into the soil, just as I crash and need to catch up on sleep once all my energy reserves have been spent.  When I think of home, what I miss most are the cool evenings fading into nights spent around campfires that light up the darkness.

This first half of my job has gone by quickly, and I know the second half will as well, and then I will make my way back to Vermont, if only for a short while.  I’m still on the no-plan plan, but as the time gets closer, I feel the pull for green mountains and family.  Until then, I will continue to follow the energy as it moves, and be here, thankful for the sunlight and all it grows.

School Gardens and Social Change

Earlier this spring when I was doing outreach for the EATinG program, I found myself annoyed and disappointed with the language used to encourage students to volunteer.  In each classroom I visited, the main motivation used was the fact that volunteering can be used as a resume booster and a way to put you above others in the competitive world of college and job applications.  It seems as though it isn’t enough to say you can help your community, and as a result volunteering becomes an act only to propel oneself onto something better, rather than an act to better one’s community and environment.

On one hand I wonder, is it so bad to do a good thing for personal gain?  After all, creating a stronger, healthier community does have positive affects on the individual, and perhaps one will go on to enjoy volunteering for reasons other than resume building.  On the other hand I wonder, what it is that creates a society that so often views acts done without the motivation of personal gain as unusual or as something to be put off for when we have more time, which we never seem to have.

As I was growing up, my parents took my brother and I to nursing homes to pass out Christmas presents, involved us in “Green Up Day” every spring, and enrolled us in a school with classes that emphasized community service.  I learned through doing that interacting with my community in a positive way is fun, and a desire to help grew in me because of that.  Now I want to teach my students the importance of serving one’s community and environment, and the value of giving without the expectation of receiving.

On Monday I held a discussion with my student gardeners called “Charity versus Change,” a workshop from the Food Project’s Growing Together, by Greg Gale.  I wrote the words “charity” and “social change” on the blackboard and asked the students to call out words that come to mind for each category.  They had no problem with charity, shouting out things like helping, donating, sharing and giving.  When we switched to social change, they fell silent, with one girl throwing out the word donating again.  I helped them along by explaining how charity is an act done by a person of greater wealth for a person of lesser wealth, and is often a singular event that must be repeated in order to have a lasting effect, whereas social change is altering policies and laws in order to create a community that operates on equality, inclusion, and diversity.  It’s like the saying “give a person a fish and he/she will eat for one day, teach a person to fish and he/she will eat forever.”  Giving a fish is charity, and teaching to fish is change.

I knew this could be a difficult workshop for them—one girl is going into eighth grade while the other four are going into seventh, and I didn’t know what kind of community service experience they have had—but I wanted to challenge them to think about and understand the broad affects of this school garden and their work in it.  Since the garden started in 2009, vandalism at Hunter Elementary has sharply dropped.  Last summer there was only one instance of suspected vandalism, which turned out to be kids catching ladybugs in the garden late at night, and this summer there has been none.  As a result, the sense of community pride has soared.  Everyday passersby stop to compliment the garden, ask what’s growing, or just say hello, and our Thursday farm stand had people lining up before we opened for business this week.  Most importantly, though, this school garden has increased access to local, fresh food while teaching students the values and skills of organic growing, selling produce, and making community connections.

After we defined charity and social change, I asked each student write down their talents and passions and then identify ways they could use these things to create positive change.  As we went around the circle, the girls talked about using the internet to connect with others; drawing flyers to post around neighborhoods to create awareness about an event or issue; writing speeches, stories, or articles; teaching others how to rock climb and learn to interact with the environment in new ways, thus increasing an appreciation for the natural world.

We ended the discussion with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Everybody can be great.  Because everybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.  You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.  You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.  You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace.  A soul generated by love.”

I told the students, “This garden is an incredible thing to have in the community, and you are making it grow.  You could be doing anything this summer, and maybe this is just a way for you to make some money, but despite the reason you chose to be a student gardener, the fact that you are working here is making a difference, and you can feel great about that.”

Maybe they will go on to volunteer later in the summer, after their four weeks of work are up.  Maybe they won’t.  But at least they have heard it from me: their work matters, the food they grow and eat and sell matters, and this small piece of land in Fairbanks has transformed from an unused lot to a place of learning and growing because of them and all the teachers, community members, and Calypso farmers who support it.

Green is Here

Green has popped and exploded through the landscape.  The tree buds transformed into leaves in just a few days, and now they fill in the forest, covering fallen logs and dips in the earth.  Wild roses and bluebells encroach onto the trails, and soft white puffs float down from the cottonwoods, sticking to the leaves, ground, dogs, pant-legs, and shoes.

As the hills and mountains liven up, so does the garden.  All the light is speeding the plants’ growth: radishes doubled in size in two days, chinese cabbages have incredibly full leaves, and bunching onions are ready to harvest this week.  We’ve planted close to 500 bed feet, and still there is more room and many more vegetables and flowers to sow.  It’s hard to stay on the computer long enough to type a blog when there is so much to do in the garden.  Today is our first harvest, and the kids will sell produce at our farm stand and set aside veggies for CSA members.  After months of preparing, planting, watering and weeding, the garden is filled in and I am so excited to eat fresh greens!

When I’m not at the garden, my life has been filled with adventure, climbing, running, biking, slack-lining, and occasional down-time.  As tiredness set in last night, Edge said he needed to take a nap and I said, “I need more than a nap!”  “There’s only naps in Alaskan summer,” he said, and it sure seems that way.  The light keeps me up late and wakes me up early, and the vegetables (and the weeds) only speed up their growth, but I’m not complaining.  The deep green of yukina savoy and spinach, the smell of bunching onions, and the crunch of chinese cabbage make up for the lack of sleep, and at the end of the day what is better than fresh food and a cool bright summer night?

Opening Light

Farm time, real time, no time, all the time.  Time is–what?  It flows so many ways here.  When I am at the school everything runs on a schedule; there are bells and lessons and meetings that happen when they are planned.  When I am at the farm time is more abstract.  It moves loosely; 5:00 could mean 6:30, 12:00 could be 1:00, or 6:00 could be 8:00.  Even so, everything is moving.  Fields are being prepped, planted, and watered; goats are being milked, ewes are giving birth; people are moving across the terraced land, cultivating.  Then there are days when time disappears altogether.  When I am running, climbing, or whenever I am outside and forget that darkness does not settle in at night anymore.

Last Sunday I went rock climbing and we spent the night in a cave called the lizard’s eye partway up the granite tor.  The light kept us climbing until 9:30, and as we sat cuddled in our sleeping bags, dusk slowly came and floated on into midnight.  How is it that after so many months of meditating on darkness, of moving through my own darkness, that I am now in a place of so much light?

Before I traveled to New Zealand this past fall, I talked to my mom about loss and the breakup I was experiencing.  She had known something was different for a while.  “You had begun to lose your whole-heartedness,” she told me.  There was a friction in my movements that held me back and a tiredness that dulled my smile.

I am laughing again now.  It almost came as a surprise when it returned, that deep-belly jitter that welled up and exploded out of me, but now it comes almost every day.  Here in Ester, Alaska, I have found this immense feeling of openness and space to grow in, and after all the stages of contraction, expansion, loss and gain I’ve gone through in the last year, I feel I am finally ready to meet this new space without expectations, but with the honesty and openness within myself.

In the garden, on the farm, at my house, on rock climbs and along trails through the woods, I soak happiness up and hold it in an open palm, wanting to experience it just as deeply as I experienced sadness.  In these moments I smile with my whole being.

Maple Syrup Meditation

The farther away from Vermont I get, the more maple syrup I consume, as if it might pump green mountains and maple trees through my body.  At home the syrup was a treat with occasional weekend brunches; during my four years at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, I was always stocked with a gallon jug, but still I never poured it onto food more than once a month or so; Now here in Alaska, maple syrup makes it way into my breakfast at least four times a week: in oatmeal, yogurt, on pancakes.  I’ve even put it in my morning chai.  When I first arrived in Ester, I held off on making pancakes until the package from my mom arrived with the quart of maple syrup made by my friend’s dad, Smitty.  When two big boxes showed up at Calypso Farm, I excitedly brought them home and cut them open.  Inside I found books, climbing gear, a daypack, peace flags and mail, but no syrup!  I could picture the exact spot in the kitchen where it sat in Vermont.  By that time I didn’t want to wait weeks for another package, so I broke down, went to the store, and bought the maple syrup at Fred Meyers (only, of course, because they carry Vermont maple syrup).  It cost $14.00 for twelve ounces of grade B.  I’m usually a grade A medium amber girl, but when in a place far away from maple trees and syrup production I’m not picky.

Smitty’s syrup arrived on Thursday, and it’s a good thing since I’m down to only a few more ounces of the store-bought stuff!  What do people in Alaska do without this sticky, thick golden sweetness?  Although there is the option of fake syrup with “maple” flavoring (many of these products don’t actually contain any real maple), some people tap birch trees.  Before coming here, the thought of birch syrup never crossed my mind—it takes 100 gallons of birch sap to make one gallon of syrup, as opposed to the maple ratio of 40:1—but with the plethora of birch trees, it only makes sense.

When Tom and Susan first bought the land that would become Calypso Farm and Ecology Center, they lived in a yurt without a large holding tank for water, and no driveway to drive five gallon jugs up, so in the spring when the sap started running, they tapped trees and had so much sap that they used it for drinking and cooking.  “I tried doing the dishes with it one time, but it didn’t quite do the trick!” Tom laughed.

Inspired by a birch tapping presentation we went to at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), Colby set up a bucket on one of the trees in our backyard.  For the past week, the sap has been flowing and we’ve emptied the four-quart bucket four times; two of those days it was overflowing before we had the chance to empty it.  Since it requires so much sap to make birch syrup, and because it must be heated at a lower temperature for a longer amount of time than maple sap due to its lower sugar content, we aren’t going to attempt to make it.  Birch sap is a delicious drink with a subtle sweetness nonetheless.

As maple syrup continues to be a staple in my diet, we’ll see how long my supply lasts.  I admit that I hold Vermont’s syrup to be the absolute best, and am therefore reluctant to buy it from another state or from Canada, but it sure puts a kink in my effort to eat local (it is in fact possible to get all meat and most produce Alaska-grown).  There are always justifications for my indulgence—I ride my bike to work, I don’t have running water, I keep my house on the lowest possible heat setting, I grow most of my own food—so these must balance it all out, right?

It’s harder to look at what it will take to balance out the carbon emissions from the airplane I flew to get to Alaska, or the environmental costs of materials it took to make my car, computer, iPod and cell phone.  As I write this, I feel the need to say that I don’t have a television, as if this might convince me whole-fullness or neutrality.  What can I do to bring myself to a balance?  Or is there no action to take but noticing, living in awareness and allowing each moment to move as it does?

I can pour maple syrup on my oats and feel connected to Vermont, or I can run on gravel roads in Alaska and feel how my legs move the same here as they do anywhere.  I can hear birdcalls, smell pine needles soaking on the ground during spring thaw, lose my thoughts in the wind that pulls my ponytail and settle in the stillness that asks only for me to be present.

In this world with all of its intricacies and connections, all of its turbulence and calm, is it wrong to eat so much of one thing if it must be shipped so far?  All I can do to find the answer is listen to the energy that propels me to run, which also asks me to sit, be quiet, be open.