I recently received this email from a friend who's in Belgium right now, dealing with the fall out from the Paris terrorist attacks:
"Thank you so much for your lovely blog post. As I read your exploits, I am sitting in the medieval city of Brussels, just about as far-removed from where you are as one could possibly be. I am ready and willing to do an exchange. Your pictures were gorgeous, and the calm, the quiet, the beauty, and tranquility of nature sounds so wonderful to me now.
...."All is well here, as well as can be expected in the middle of massive terrorists attacks, threats, and an extremely heightened state of security. There are heavily armed soldiers everywhere....It is an eerie feeling here, precisely as it was after 9-11.
...."just a few moments on your beach, or some time gazing off into the distances sounds so lovely and peaceful to me right now."
I want to share my beautiful part of Alaska, through pictures, with those who feel as my friend in Belgium feels when dealing with the world's blind hatred and ugliness.
Below we have a break in the weather to enjoy a day of sunshine. Is there anything more lovely, peaceful and perfect than a day on the water with the sun shining?
Half Moon Bay, about a ten minute walk from my house, when the tide is out. In the summer the tide pool at the center of the photo, is filled with starfish, hermit crabs, bullheads and sea urchins. As a child I could spend hours wading and observing this tidal life. Today, all the young people who visit do exactly the same, making up stories in their minds about the lives of the curious tidal creatures.
It's when I'm in the forest that I get a real sense of how remote we are, knowing that I am completely alone. There is a sense of vastness that can't be grasped, a sense that the wilderness goes on and on with no chance, especially at this time of the year, of bumping into another human being.
Deer. Wolves. Bears. And even a bald eagle whooshing through the forest, breaking branches with its six foot wingspan, frighteningly loud and unexpected in the massive, moss-carpeted silence of the forest.
But no humans.
The only thing to break the deep, meditative silence of the forest, other than the occasionaly blue jay, crow or squirrel, is the drip of rain off the covering canopy, or the rush of a muskeg stream, racing over raised tree roots and under mossy deadfalls in its sinuous tumble toward the sea. I can stand for hours watching the rich, dark water spill and circle every obstacle.
We live right on the Inside Passage and in the summer there is constant water traffic which uses Clarence Strait as a highway, since there are no roads. In the winter things become more quiet, partly because this strait becomes dangerous with unpredictable mood changes and severe storms. But on the nice days, everyone takes advantage and tries to get where they need to go as quickly as possible, like the troller in this photo. We hear the boats rumbling past in the night, and sometimes their halogen mastlights will fill our small inlet with a brilliant, false sunshine that travels quickly over the forest, picking out the branches in razor sharp detail before disappearing as quickly as it came.
The sunsets here, filling the vaulting sky and reflecting in the water, are always spectacular, but I have a special fondness for the quieter, subtler ones that infuse our overcast evenings. There is a sense of gentleness and comfort, as if the earth is swaddled in warm blankets, and nothing evil can penetrate.
I am forever grateful that I live here,
"....far from where people reside as aliens, places forgotten, far from the foot...." --Job 28:4
My dad called me on the VHF handheld this morning to deliver the bad news. The snow was low on the mountains and a freeze was predicted. This meant that it was time to level and drain the waterline.
Leveling the line is one of the most important chores we have to do here. Deer knock it down, or tree limbs fall on it. If there are any low spots because of these depredations, the water will collect in them and freeze. Then when we go to pump water, the rushing water will hit the ice blockage and either damage the line or, worse, blow up the pump.
So. Leveling the line wasn't optional, it had to be done.
I remember one late winter afternoon, it was already getting dark, when it started to snow heavily and a freeze was forecasted. And the line hadn't been drained. The tide was in and the skiff, for some reason, wasn't available, so I found myself balancing across a snow covered log that floated at a slant to get to shore while what little light there was departed quickly, and the snow fell more heavily. I inched across the edge of the log, holding my arms out for balance with a flashlight in my teeth, trying not to notice how easy it would be to fall in the icy black water licking at my boots.
Another time it was blowing a gale and very late at night when I got the call that the line needed to be drained. It was a beautiful, moonlit night, but it was scary being in the woods with the trees thrashing each other, creaking and cracking in the high wind. I was tensed, ready to run or dive if a limb or entire tree came crashing down.
Today, however, it was a beautiful sunny morning, if cold, and my dad said he'd accompany me to pump the water, since I'd be too tired to do that after leveling the line.
The first thing we had to do was climb over and around the pile of logs on the beach that had blocked our access to the waterline trail in the woods. My dad had two canes to help him to maneuver, and it's really something to see how much he can do despite the sciatica and problems caused by a major accident while working on a float out here.
The first section of waterline looked okay--unfortunately. It was the easiest part of the line to fix. I let my dad get ahead of me and take the turn-off to the dam. I continued following the waterline off-trail. This was the part I disliked. It was a case of constant climbing over mossy deadfalls, raised roots, up hill and down dale, switching from one side of the line to the other. All the while propping up the line to make it level.
I used whatever came to hand when the boards we'd orginally used proved too rotten to do their job. Sometimes I just stacked up fallen limbs under the line, or found a limb with a crotch in it to support the line. The problem was that once I'd leveled one section, sometimes the next section fell. Then I'd prop it up and the one I'd just done fell. Or it was no longer level, causing a high or low spot.
Back and forth, up and over and down, back and forth. I had to take rests since I have problems with low blood pressure and all the bending down made me lightheaded. But at least it wasn't snowing--or blowing. It was a good day to be outdoors in the woods.
I kept an eye out for our deer neighbor, but he was a no-show.
Toward the dam I found that the top of a dead spruce tree, limbs sticking out all over it like a porcupine, had fallen directly on the line. Fortunately it was a fairly low spot so it didn't do any damage.
I managed to lift one end--the heavy end, as it turned out, because I couldn't get to the light end--and pushed it up onto the rootward of a large, fallen cedar. I propped it up with more, thick, fallen limbs to hopefully keep it from sliding down onto the line again. It was far too long and heavy for me to actually remove from the scene of the crime. I took a picture, but unfortunately it didn't turn out. Probably because I was breathing hard from the exertion.
I heard my dad having trouble starting the pump, just as I had the last time, and hoped it was just the cold.
Back to leveling the line. When I'd lifted the tree top off, the equal and opposite reaction of that part of the line lifting knocked down some of the sections I'd just leveled. Newton and his Laws of Physics have a lot to answer for.
After my dad pumped the water for twelve minutes and turned off the pump, he drained it and the dam-end of the waterline. As he did that I backtracked through the woods and pulled the plugs--large screws--on the line in strategic low spots, back toward the tank. As I backtracked I found, to my disgust, that the line that had been perfectly level, had fallen down from the vibration of the water rushing through it.
So, I leveled it, of course.
I hung the plugs on the nearby trees so they'd be easy to get at the next time the tank needed to be filled, and squatted down to watch the water run out of the line, and stretch my calves and lower back.
It was nice to take a break.
It was such a beautiful day that after I was done and my dad was on his way home, I stepped out on the beach to soak in the sun and look at the straight-edge line of the snow on the mountains.
A white troller (commercial fishing boat with trolling poles) crossed the bay as I watched, a skiff pounded up the strait, probably on a hunting trip, and then a bright orange floatplane circled overhead, flying toward the village several miles away.
Everyone was out, taking advantage of this rare lull between November gales.
After relaxing in the precious sun for a while, I headed home to help my dad manipulate and adjust some of the large blocks of foam in my parents' float before the tide came in, and the next big storm messed them up.
The work is never done--but at least it's a nice day!
There are some who despise Brussels sprouts and have nothing good to say about them.
To quote: "Brussels sprouts! Who can hear those words without a shudder? There are many who 'claim' to love this mangy product of the vegetable garden, but they may be suffering from gustatory hallucinations." This is from an Amazon review of Brussels Sprout Crisps, chili lime flavor, by James Kenney.
I have since heard rumors that Mr. Kenney has repented of his Brussels sprout bigotry, but there are plenty more out there who continue, ceaselessly, to revile and defame this splendid sprout. There are even kids' books promoting sprout paranoia (see opening image).
They have obviously never lived in the Alaskan bush as winter closes in.
At this time of the year we are staring down the barrel of salty, blanched and mushy canned veggies which have had all their nutrients drained out them, like something straight out of a B-grade sci fi/horror movie.
This is when the cravings start.
Our bodies start wimpering and trying to go to their happy place when they see the unending line of canned product coming at them, the theme for Jaws strumming in the background.
After much forebearance and suffering in silence, the bush-body finally rebels at the treatment and clamors for something fresh and real and packed full of nourishing nutrients, something that can be stored for more than a week without losing its goodness.
In a word (okay, two words): Brussels sprouts.
It's not always Brussels sprouts. One of my all time favorite treats to snack on are frozen green beans straight out of the bag. (Don't do this at home. Always heat frozen veggies to at least 160º F. I'm a trained bush person with a stomach inured to every insult that can be flung at it.)
One winter I drooled for turnips. My dad bought me several pounds, much the same way he bought my sister in Florida a bouquet of flowers. I'm pretty sure that of the two of us I was more deeply touched and excited about my gift.
My mom found a photo of turnips in a magazine and framed it for me at the height of my turnip obsession. It now hangs next to my grandfather's old fishing lures, a symbolic, never used umbrella (nobody in the bush would be caught dead or alive using an umbrella, despite our 170-plus inches of precipitation every year) and all-essential tidebook.
Turnips will always hold a special place in my regard.
Of course there are the junky cravings, too, such as donuts. Why is it that in every TV show known to mankind someone stuffs his or her face with donuts not just once an episode, but again and again? Just as if they are evil and they know how they are torturing us out here in the bush.
The worst, for those of us in the bush watching on DVD, and unable to gain easy access to the sugary treat, are those times when an actor takes a single, arrogant bite and then throws it away.
Or that horrible, psyche-scarring moment in the Monk TV show when Stottlemeyer smashes an entire box of donuts.
Most of us haven't recovered from that sight yet. It's best not to dwell.....
We always made homemade donuts, of course, when the cravings got too intense, but it's just not the same. SURE, they're probably healthier and better tasting, but one of the most attractive things about junk food is the lack of labor needed to gorge on them.
Winter or summer, we always crave ice cream. I read a statistic that said Alaska consumes more ice cream per capita than any other state in the nation.
I've wondered if that's because ice cream is full of vitamin D, which we are deprived of receiving naturally during our long, dark winter days.
In the summer we probably consume as much as anyone else, but I bet it's in the winter we outstrip those other, sunny states.
When we were kids we had an old-fashioned, hand-crank ice cream maker that we took turns cranking. But it was still an extremely rare treat because ice wasn't a constant--remember, this is SE Alaska where even the winters are fairly temperate--and we had no way of keeping it frozen. Not to mention the inability to keep the other perishable ingredients on hand.
Besides which, it was that whole labor-intensive thing again. How we dreamed--and still do--of blithely ordering an ice cream cone in our favorite flavor with our favorite toppings and having it handed to us with majestic casualness. We can dream....
Another common craving is pizza delivered to your front door.
This craving is so powerful in the dead of winter that our bush school managed to fund fieldtrips to Juneau, Haines, Smithers (British Columbia), and even Hawaii, by successfully exploiting it.
Every winter when the storms kept people from traveling to a nearby town, and the mail planes sometimes couldn't get treats out to us in our groceries, our calculating and scheming teachers planned Pizza Overnighters. All of the students spent the night using the school kitchen to chop, grate and cook mountains of toppings, put them on prepared pizza dough and then bake them. Finally we delivered them by foot and by skiff to the drooling villagers who shelled out unbelievable, frankly extortionate, sums for the privilege of eating a home delivered pizza.
Never underestimate the power of bush food cravings in the dead of winter.
But Brussels sprouts trump all other cravings. It's the one we always keep coming back to, men, women, children and even teenagers. My nephews came to live here at the tail end of their teen years and at first, in their town-living arrogance, spurned the sprout. But it wasn't long before they, too, became obssessed.
The Brussels sprout is worth its weight in gold out here. Just yesterday my oldest brother accepted, as a fair exchange, a quart of raw Brussels sprouts for having brought my groceries over in the skiff through a howling gale and torrential downpour.
My championship of Brussels sprouts wherever I roam has brought me into contact with far-ranging fellow fans. One woman has a home in Belgium, where they have a proper respect for this sprout that was named after one of their cities. They call it the Noble Spruitje.
Here is a recipe she has consented to share.
Hasselaar's Spruitje Dish
1 pound of tiny, fresh Brussels sprouts
1/4 cup bacon or prosciutto cut into small pieces with scissors
3 Tbs unsalted butter
4 ounces of the white part of leeks, chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
cognac (for deglazing)
1 cup creme fraiche (or heavy cream)
1 cup roasted chestnuts, chopped into thirds
freshy grated nutmeg
Steam the Brussels sprouts until tender, but still green and fresh tasting. Saute the bacon (or prosciutto) in the butter until crispy and browned. Remove the meat bits to a papertowel-covered plate. Drain some of the fat. Add the leeks, shallots, garlic. Saute the veggies until soft and a bit translucent. Remove from pan and mix with sprouts.
Pour fat out of pan and deglaze with cognac. Add the cream. Stir and scrape bottom of pan until cream is bubbly and brown. Add the roasted chestnuts and season to taste with white pepper, salt and nutmeg. As soon as the chestnuts are warmed through, remove from heat.
Pour sauce over Brussels sprouts mix and stir very, very gently. Scoop onto each individual plate and sprinkle with bacon or prosciutto bits.
Now here's the most important part: Pretend that you're far off on the edge of the world, it's been storming for weeks and you haven't laid eyes on fresh produce in weeks. You're testing your teeth to see if scurvy has struck yet. Your body is fevered with cravings for anything green. Now...now take a bite of Brussels sprouts and tell me they aren't the best things you've ever eaten.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)