The Nature of Perspective

We are blessed with the most kind, generous neighbors here. They’ve welcomed us in with offerings of all sorts– moral support, most invaluably– including history and context of the area and its people. Those we’ve met have driven by the place for decades, and all have deeply lamented the recent clear-cut of the long-preserved forest. Part of that forestland is ours.

It’s not contrived optimism to say that I see it differently. Of course I wish the forest were intact. I can imagine, partly by exploring neighboring woodlands, the old-growth trees and native fauna. I can envision the cool dampness, the moss and myriad mushrooms. I know that it was majestic.

But: I consider our perspective a unique boon in that what we see now is not only an incredible improvement on the gnarled hillside we met last summer; it’s an awakening. The emerging vegetation would not have been part of the forest floor. We get to enjoy a different, ever-expanding beauty.

The enmeshed branches of too-small cut timber are increasingly consumed by vine maples, wild cherry, and hazelnut trees. The deer trails through berry brambles– which will soon yield abundant delicious fruit– are lined with heady flowering clover and pineapple weed. The meadows are strewn with daisies, red clover, sky-blue forget-me-nots, and innumerable other wildflowers.

There are unfurling ferns, columbine, and more wild food than I could list, but much of which we’ve been collecting, eating, and cooking with daily. Most of the plants, in fact, are edible, from the wild strawberries to the thistles.

The ugly sporadic burn piles host the most coveted of fungi.

This story would be a different one if the forest were still here. It would be someone else’s story that we would continue; this one is all our own. Ours is a story of regrowth.


The Garden: Winter Surprises

A rather magical part of our new home is that it was clearly once a well kept, well loved place with nurtured gardens. The overgrown brambles and fallen trees add some to the mystique as spring bulbs nod through. Grape hyacinth lines a path along the creek, and new clusters of its thin leaves promise more to come.

I had seen a small patch of this bulb above emerging in January and wondered if it might be irises or lilies. On this trip, more than 100 square feet of the angular green leaves lined the top edge of the creek bank, and a neighbor gave me the exciting news that they are all tiger lilies– thousands of them!

Daffodils opened on both sides of the driveway at the end of the bridge, one cluster beside a budding rhododendron and another shrouded in weeds and brambles. I spent an hour cutting out the latter group, pushing the blackberries back to the slope toward the creek. In their wake, I discovered many more lilies, more daffodils, lamb’s ear, and other plants just appearing.

In addition to the delightful surprise of long-forgotten bulbs, I was thrilled to see my own small garden taking shape as the garlic and shallots continued to push through the mulch.

While the spring will be a time of transition and continued trips up as the move stretches out over months of packing and hauling, and as the weeks in which I’d like to be starting seed and planting peas pass,  I’m satisfied to know that already a garden is thriving at our new home.

The Weight of Things

In the end, our move will have taken almost half a year– one trip at a time, one trailer-load at a time, one month at a time. But now the essentials and most of the furniture is there, so we’ve reached the point of packaging all the little things we plan to take, and setting aside the things we don’t.

There’s an added weight to an out-of-state move over many hundreds of miles, more so now even than I remember from our move down here. We did it so lightly before, just the two of us, freshly married and exploring new possibilities. Now, we know what we’re leaving behind and mostly what lays ahead– and we recognize the void of what we don’t know.

Going through and touching each thing that makes up the tangible parts of our lives brings to mind the many miles we’ve come. It’s a unique opportunity to really see the things that surround us.

We’re trying pointedly to cut back on material “stuff.” On principle, I’m committed to that effort, but item for item I struggle to let go. Going through my daughter’s baby clothes, her Bumbo seat, her swing– we’ll need it all for the next baby, I say.

But there is a lot. Some of the clothes were barely worn. Sometimes I liked them so much that I didn’t want them to get ruined– so I rarely dressed her in them. How absurd, I recognize now. How irrational to not use something we like when she fit into it for such a fleeting time. I look at the piles of baby clothes and I can hardly believe how fast the time went, or how long the time seemed then.

The days are long but the years are short, wrote Gretchen Rubin. There are no truer words for parenthood.

I took apart my favorite piece of decor and nostalgia– old wooden cubbyholes originally mounted in my grandfather’s office, where I now work. It holds found things of all sorts, tiny pieces of art, stones and shells, the boutonnières my bridesmaids and mom and her friends all made for our wedding, the pie-topper bride and groom that I made with trimmings from my actual wedding dress, which I also made.

But I didn’t keep everything. Some little rocks and knickknacks had lost their value, their memories, and I let them go. In fact, I collected them in a bowl and let my husband scatter the natural ones outside, something he surely long wanted to do. He doesn’t store emotion in physical things, and I envy him that.

One freeing aspect of a many-phased move is that each round of selecting and packing, the things I leave don’t have to be immediately thrown out or gotten rid of. I can tell myself that they’re just not coming yet. And maybe by the end, I’ll have picked out all the things I know I want and let my husband come in and take the rest while I look the other way.

Our Corner of the Earth

This was the first time since beginning this transition that returning to California felt like leaving home. Maybe it’s because this time we moved all of our treasured and most frequently used books: cookbooks, field guides, reference books on animal husbandry and gardening. Maybe it’s because the crisp, piney mountain air had begun to do its work on our lungs. Or perhaps the work we did at the property this trip began to truly make it our own.

The little house is arranged with enough furniture to fulfill most of our basic needs; enough so that we are questioning what we may simply leave behind. I still need my desk. We have yet to convert the range to propane, so we were still cooking on the induction burner and smoker. But the essentials, we found, more than supported us. The bare property, I think, with its spectacular scenery and rich potential, could keep us happy with little else.

The weather was temperate all week, with a few downpours of quenching rain. With my daughter on my back or playing in the grass, my husband and I raked more than a dozen trailer-loads of leaf mulch from under the white oak, Norway maple and sycamore trees and hauled the piles to the area we selected for our garden: a spread of field between the sheep pasture, the cluster of outbuildings, and where the house will be built.

As we sweated in the chilly air, we both felt incredulous that this is where we would toil and grow. The beauty was overwhelming.

My husband used the chainsaw to cut a fallen tree into five-foot lengths and hauled them down the mountain while I dragged and rolled down what I could. The work was hard, and only a glimpse at what we can anticipate. We left the property feeling satisfied that we’d accomplished much from our list, but we have a long, challenging journey ahead of us. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Superpowers of Stinging Nettles

Many of us have long known nettles for their bee-like sting to the ankle as we sweep by the leaves along a trail or wade into them in the corner of the yard. I was introduced to nettles when I fell into a patch while on a hike as a kid. Via tiny hollow hairs, the plant delivers a mighty sting that swells, burns and itches for hours.

Therefore my appetite was far from the first sense raised when I ever encountered one. That has decidedly changed. Now that a little winter rain has ushered in a bounty of lush wild plants, we look most enthusiastically to the ever-expanding crowd of nettles in our field.

Stinging nettles are quite easily identified, making them a great choice for novice foragers. They grow up to two or three feet tall and have paired heart-shaped, dark-green leaves with distinctly toothed edges and tiny hairs. The flowers hang down in tiny light-green clusters.

We drink nettle tea very regularly, so we run our dehydrator near-constantly when they’re in season. The drying deactivates the sting, and the tea tastes similar to green tea with a hint of honey-like sweetness. The tea turns the most robust Disney green as it steeps, and it darkens intriguingly if left to sit for long.

The nutritional and medicinal values of nettles are myriad and incredible. Historically, nettles have been used to treat urinary and prostate problems, joint and muscle pain, arthritis, anemia, hair loss, and allergies, among numerous other ailments. It’s used as a diuretic and anti-inflammatory. Nettles are loaded with iron and a multitude of vitamins and are especially valuable for pregnant and nursing women.

Nettles are very versatile as a cooked green as well. They’re excellent in pasta, prepared in the noodle dough or stuffed into ravioli with fresh ricotta. They can also be used in lieu of wilted spinach in nearly anything. I find the flavor to be better and more nuanced than spinach.

To handle and cook with nettles, they can be dipped in simmering water to deactivate the sting, then chopped, or they can simply be simmered in a pot briefly, then moved to an ice bath. A delicate plant, they do not need much cooking. And while the stems appear tough when fresh, they quickly become very tender as the leaves wilt. The plants can be wilted whole and pureed in a creamed soup topped with crumbled bacon, as we did on Sunday.

Double Yolks and Wind Eggs

Among these four chicken eggs are three yolks. Can you guess how many each contains?

Double-yolk eggs are said to occur once in about 1,000 eggs laid. I’ve found many of these elongated monstrosities over many years of collecting eggs, and there remains a certain excitement to discovering one, from spotting the enormous shell to making bets on its contents to cracking it open and winning double gold.

Consumers of store-bought eggs miss out on this pleasure, because in the United States commercial eggs are sorted by weight and large anomalies discarded. Even normal-sized eggs with two yolks, which do occur, are culled after “candling,” a process of shining a light though the egg to examine its yolk and look for any undesirable matter. One producer in Pennsylvania is cashing in on two-yolk-inclined chickens, selling them by the dozen.

These were our first-ever wind eggs, though, laid two days in a row undoubtedly by the same pullet. Wind eggs are yolkless oddities resulting from a reproductive glitch, as are the double-yolkers. They’re also called cock eggs, dwarf eggs, and least charmingly, fart eggs.

Both extra-large and extra-small have histories of lore surrounding them, understandably. Unlike other errors of egg formation, wind eggs and double-yolks feel delightfully lucky.

Going Home: Part 1 of the Move North

We’ve just returned from the first leg of the move to our Oregon property. The trip was a whirlwind, filled with the ups and downs that were mostly expected, some less so. We had some weather-related surprises, and I broke my finger on day-2.

When we drove up mid-day on the 28th, the highway wound along rivers and creeks so full and brown and powerful, they were washing into people’s yards and lapping at homes and outbuildings. Each of us was imagining the worst– that our bridge would be consumed, the buildings threatened, that our innocent, chortling creek might have grown into a wintertime monster.

We were relieved to discover that our creek was still blue-gray and not particularly full, even with streams across the property feeding steadily into it. If our creek ever flooded its banks, the towns below would have long since been washed away by the larger waterways.

Over the next few days, the rain stopped and temperatures plummeted into the teens. Moisture was sucked from the clay soil into towering ice formations. I spent hours each day photographing the land, the forest, the crystalized grasses and frosted leaves.

The entire place was quiet but for occasional rooster crows from a distant neighbor’s and birds in the cedar and redwood trees. We explored the outbuildings. Two small shacks were a surprise to us, clinging to the bank of the creek and buried in blackberry brambles. They appear to be cabins of the early 1900s. A large tree had crushed the one most accessible, and it and its contents had been abandoned. A chest with a broken lock contained photographs and hand-written letters with postmarks from the ’60s.

I documented everything.

One of our dogs got into a snarling scuffle with my dad’s on the second day after their breakfast. I lunged into the mix to separate them, which everyone should know (and I better than anyone thanks to prior related injuries) you never do. The dogs were both fine, not a scratch on either. I, however, did not come out unscathed: my ring finger was obviously broken between the last joint and the tip. I didn’t feel it then, thanks to the pulsing adrenaline, but I could see it clearly and I felt it soon enough! I was hindered by acute pain and a splint for the remainder of the trip.

We set the house up to be comfortable, sparsely furnished with the essentials, except for a stove since we have yet to install a gas line. We cooked on the smoker, induction burner and toaster oven: spaghetti the first night, then smoked ribs and mashed potatoes, chili, and refried bean burritos (we used the recipe I posted prior, but in lieu of water I made a broth from the rib bones, so they were not vegetarian but especially delicious!).

Every day I gathered wild greens for fresh salads: dandelion leaves, buds and blossoms, chickweed, dock, and cat’s ear, dressed lightly with olive oil and vinegar.

While we did not get any new fencing up as I’d hoped, I did get a small plot of garden turned, amended and planted with garlic and shallots. I mulched it thickly with leaves from the Norway maple, and laid branches across it (unattractively) to prevent the wind from carrying the leaves away.

On the last full day I cut immense, years-dead broken limbs from a plum tree near the house. It felt like a great accomplishment to begin restoring a tree in such poor health. I saved a beautiful abandoned bird’s nest from the snarl.

When I photographed the end result, my memory card showed an error. But I didn’t know until I began to upload on our drive home that the malfunction had deleted every file but the last eight: thousands of photos, none of which from the past ten days had been backed up.

So the second, far more painful lesson I had to relearn: back up precious work often and use multiple memory cards.

I’ve been consoling myself that my photos were not of a one-time event, no cherished memory left behind. I can take new pictures on our next trip. There may not be the unique frozen earth. The wreath I made of ivy, yellow-tipped cedar and holly and hung on our new front door may have withered. But there will be scenes and wreathes to replace those; many. There’s an entire future to play out there. A home to be built, and life to create. And plenty of time for new photographs soon enough.

Happy New Year, everyone!