Archive for August, 2008

The Hardy Garden

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

I was startled by a noise at the window. I set the Yukon News down and leaned back in my chair for a better look. A red squirrel was frantically scratching at the window. It seemed intent on trying to get in or at wrestling with its reflected image. Or was it trying to simply get my attention, just as Lassie would bark messages to Timmy about the neighbor being in trouble? After a few seconds of window scratching the squirrel ran off. I looked out the window to see where it ran and it was then that I spied movement in my row of sweet peas.

It was the unmistakable rapid chewing of its small jaws and the large eyes set on the side of its head that betrayed the rodent thief. It was a ground squirrel, an arctic ground squirrel, otherwise known by local Yukoners as a gopher.

For years, I have exercised my ancestral programming and planted a garden. However it seems that wherever I try to plant a garden I am cursed by marauding gophers. In Minnesota my annual battle is with pocket gophers. Two Septembers ago, my total potato harvest was measured in servings rather than bushels and was consumed by Nancy and I during one special supper.

Up here, north of 60 degrees latitude, the greater nemesis has been geography. The garden sits only 10 paces from the river. This initially seemed a good thing as I could easily water the crop of produce.

A seasoned local gardener had a different spin on the river’s relationship to the garden. She told me that the cold mountain water river that passes close to my garden acts like a big air conditioner. This would be a good thing if I lived in a sweltering environment, but in a land that has frost records for each of the twelve calendar months, I might be better off converting the garden into a hockey rink.

When we arrived in May I spaded up the garden and deliberated which vegetables to plant. I queried the gardeners in the area and knowing that the summer days are rich in sunlight, but cooler in temperature, I settled for cool weather crops such as lettuces, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, kale, sweet peas, onions and potatoes. Envisioning cabbages the size of basketballs, bushels of fist-sized spuds, bouquets of crispy lettuce and spinach I rested after the planting and eagerly awaited the gardens greening.

My confidence wavered a bit on June 9th when we received about five inches of snow. Then two weeks later, when sunlight falls nearly 20 hours here, I was chatting with one of the better gardeners in the river valley. She commented, “You know your place is known for being one of the coldest spots along the river. It always freezes early down there.” A
meteorological axiom is that cold air always settles in the low areas first.

My spirits sank even further when I spied my neighbor, just uphill from us (as in higher and away from the cold river) placing hoops of clear plastic over every row of her garden . . .and keeping them there all summer long.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when my sixteen or so spud plants all, each a robust four inches tall, froze in the first week of August. Most everything else looks like it quit growing by the second week of June. I have a bonsai vegetable garden.

The only planted produce I have tasted thus far was when I plucked a nickel-sized spinach leaf as I weeded the garden. It sweetness elicited a sigh of satisfaction. Little did I realize that the remaining spinach leaves would reach maturation at the same coin size. And now it is too late to have even a tiny “Barbie meal” of spinach as the cute little plants have bolted and yellowed.

One of the primary garden “weeds” has been fireweed, which is the official wildflower of the Yukon. Which ironically is what Nancy has been delighted to pluck from the garden in its early growth to augment salads and stir fry meals. It seems we would have been better off letting the land grow what it grows best and harvest its offering.

I am eagerly awaiting the upcoming celebratory meal that will include our five heads of broccoli that have managed to survive the rigors of summer along the river. Each head measures less than two inches across and is comprised of a single broccoli floret. Count them. . .five.

Additionally, the fact that this summer has been much cooler and wetter than the average Yukon summer and even without rodent raids, I am looking at more visits to the grocery store produce area. And once again, though I am well beyond the home range of pocket gophers, I am reminded of the rigors of putting up my own food.

Now, I rush to the window every so often to catch a glimpse of the ground squirrel that is intent on converting my peas into winter fat. This little guy is the champion hibernator in North America, as it will soon shut down its system for seven months before it emerges blinking in the spring sunshine next year.

It’s likely it will spy a stubborn two-legged building a greenhouse directly over the bonsai garden site.

Imagine the likes of fist-sized spuds, basketball cabbages and armfuls of leafy spinach and . . .

River Intimacy

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

“What’s your story?” It’s a common and intriguing greeting that one often encounters here in the Yukon. It’s far more engaging than the customary “What do you do?” exchange that I was used to hearing in Minnesota. It shows a genuine interest in who I am rather than assessing my stature by my occupation.

Upon arising each day, I slowly pull on my morning clothes and equally slowly leave the house. Rounding the corner of the house I can easily hear the river. It never sleeps or rests. Perhaps in winter it will slow as the edges of its flow freeze to a stop. I am drawn to the river both for its note of reveille and for its startling wake up wash.

In my worn, duct-taped slippers, I step carefully onto the two water-sculpted boulders that have become familiar steps. Crouching over the clear river, I cup its chilly waters in my hands. Three times, always three times, I splash the arrested river onto my face to wash away the night. The only towel I use is the morning air. I like the lingering freshness.

This is the beginning of a daily ritual that will continue as I head back into the kitchen and brew a pot of coffee from river water toted up to the house.

Two days ago, Nancy and I loosely tied three bunches of dried spruce logs together just up stream a couple of hundred yards from our house. One at a time, we guided the rafts of firewood over the fast flow to the dock, next to the morning face washing boulder, where we pulled mightily to spin them into an eddy where we could untie them and hoist them onto the bank. Though we were wet to our thighs, it was fun and challenging. It felt good to do the work and know that we had gathered several days worth of winter heat without having to use any gasoline to transport or cut them.. I had hand cut them with a 36-inch bow saw before Nancy and I lugged them to the river’s edge.

At day’s end, like others where sweat and dirt were involved, I hung our portable solar shower in the sunshine against the log wall of the house. The shower bag is made of heavy plastic. It is clear on one side and black on the other to better absorb the sun’s heat and heat up the river water. I laid the bag out in the full sun earlier in the day. Now the water was hot and this day will end the same way it began with a baptism of river water. Only this time the water will linger and soothe me rather than briskly wake me.

We wash and rinse our dishes in a pair of plastic basins set in the stainless steel sink. We sometimes wash dishes twice a day, but often only once. And when we are finished we carry the dishwater outdoors and cast it over the garden or a dry piece of lawn. In doing so we lessen the frequency that the septic cleaning truck will have to come and suck out our holding tank. Not only will this save us money, but also it will hasten the process of returning the water to the perpetual water cycle where it will return, as rain and snow, refreshed, clean and available.

Becoming intimate with a place begins with engaging fully and becoming more sensorial with it. Research has shown that our brain’s amygdala will better lock in to moments if we can do so with multiple stimuli. I feel the chill and softness of the river’s water, I hear its lively rushing over the rocks, I am mesmerized by its hypnotic dance and the sweet taste carries a winter’s freshness. Each impression creates a steppingstone for an indelible memory.

Living next to a river has made me become more fully engaged with water. Though my body is made up of nearly 70% water, I, like most people, take it for granted. Though I might read dire warnings by global scientists and hydrologists of increased human strife due to the lack of potable freshwater for millions and millions of people, I confess that I don’t linger over such proclamations when I can simply turn a faucet on or step outside to pause besides a tireless river of clear, wonderful water.

If in fact I am mostly water, couldn’t I argue that my relationship with water tells me about my relationship with myself? Simple. Treat the water well and it will reciprocate and treat me well.

I am adequately buffered from thirst, rich in freshwater. Intellectually I know that water is a finite resource. We cannot make any more water. No matter if the human population of the planet was one million or six and a half billion, the earth has always had this much water. And hydrologists are predicting that the demand for fresh water will likely double in approximately thirty years.

Recently we returned from a two and a half week canoe trip on the Wind River in the northern Yukon. I have never traveled on such a transparent or fast river. It seemed as if we floated over a kaleidoscope of the most colorful and patterned stones. At one point, during a riverside lunch, Kurt, a dear artist friend, was gazing out at the river. He could not put his finger on the color of the river as the current and sky’s reflection made a mockery of any one-color scheme. Finally he quietly said, “It’s the color of clear.”

I like that gauzy definition. It was perfect in that it is impossible to define anything so changeable as a rushing river whose flow can be altered by a paddle stroke, a shifting boulder, a tipping tree or a blue sky suddenly tippled with advancing rain clouds.

The water clarity of the flow that passes our house in the Watson River, is very clear in late summer after the spring runoff carries away the annual load of runoff sediments. Not surprising, that very clarity has made me more aware of my intimate relationship with water. Consequently, I am more keenly aware of my personal relationship with water.

I am practicing using my own personal “water filter” in making everyday purchases in my own life. When shopping, we use a number of factors in making our final choice. We “filter” out price factors, contents used, appearance and so on. Regarding water, we should ask ourselves, “How was water used in the production of this product?” Or if we don’t know the water story, we should begin to learn it and apply that knowledge in our life. Sometimes the water story will make my choice easier.

Change is never easy and it is particularly less likely to happen in our daily lives if our health or wallet’s girth is not threatened. In regarding water quality and consumption habits it might be easier to change if you look at a child, yours or someone else’s and wonder what their relationship with water might be. Try looking into a mirror or better yet into a still pool of water and asking your reflection, “What’s your story. . .what’s your water story?

I need to go watch the river.