Man vs. nature: Clearing the chaos

by • June 5, 2015 • UncategorizedComments (0)150

Before moving to Alaska, my husband and I lived in a high-rise, where he successfully avoided any semblance of yard work. My, how times have changed. Give the guy a chainsaw, a pick ax and a propane-powered flame thrower and he is a whirling dervish of enthusiasm.

Photo by Laura Emerson Bryan Emerson gathers the detritus of the wilderness surrounding the couple's cabin.

Photo by Laura Emerson
Bryan Emerson gathers the detritus of the wilderness surrounding the couple’s cabin.

Each year at our remote home in the middle of an Alaskan forest, we amass huge piles of woodsy debris because, as Bryan points out, “this property hasn’t been cleared since the last ice age.” He is probably right. We bought the land from a homesteader who “proved it up” with a shed and then, as far as we can tell, never returned. Every year, we scratch at some little patch of woods surrounding our cabin. Maybe it will become a path, a berry thicket, or just a less-attractive zone for mosquitoes. Hip high in dead birch and alder leaves, I hack at the prickly stalks of wrist-thick devil’s club. After several days, my target area reminds me of the Maginot Line – with linear berms dozens of yards long. The forest debris is so deep that it blankets huge boughs and trunks of spruce and birch that have been hidden for decades, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

If we trip over a rotted tree, Bryan opens the bark with a pick ax to spill out the interior. Future soil. We peel off the birch bark for fire starter (excellent even when damp) and decorative projects I will get to … one day. If the tree is fresher, he pulls on his Kevlar chaps and revs up the engine of his ever-ready Husqvarna 455 chainsaw to chop the wood into useful sizes. These he hauls off, by sled in winter or wheelbarrow in summer. Resinous spruce fuels our outdoor firepit with its spicy scent. Most birch is destined for our interior woodstove (and then the ash for the gardens), but small pieces flavor the meats and fish we smoke. Alder, which can burn exceptionally hot even when green, and the pernicious devil’s club, are piled up into enormous mounds of twisting limbs. In April or May, with plenty of snow for a firebreak, we enjoy multiday bonfires.

While Bryan is hacking, hauling and burning, I am raking, lopping and pruning. It is a treat to find and free an elderberry or cranberry bush crushed low by years of heavier vegetation. Since cranberries can root again at whatever point a branch touches the earth, I often find downed trees trussed up like Gulliver by the twining plants. If I liberate the vines for upward growth in early spring, they may flower and fruit that very year.

Once some patch of soil is cleared enough for sun to warm it, successor plants arise. In dappled sunlight, the groundcovers of dwarf dogwood and starflower are lovely, and prickly rose is pretty, too. But invasive weed seeds have been waiting for just this spot of open ground, and we made the mistake of thinking some of them were pretty … at first. Tough canary grass grows 6 to 8 feet tall in summer and the rest of the year it flops, like Rapunzel’s yellow hair, over everything nearby.

Much of what grows on our property is edible. I am not a knowledgeable forager like Verna Pratt (aknps.org/pdfs/VernaPratt_HallofFame.pdf), but I am slowly learning how many of the wild plants here are delicious. Winter is a good time to look for chaga growing on the trunks of birch trees. We knock it off, let it dry, and then grind it in a coffee mill for a hot drink that tastes like a muddy coffee. In April/May, we harvest 15 gallons of birch sap in three days from four trees. At first we just used it to subtly flavor a spring beer. But now I also use it to lightly sweeten my coffee. May is the time to cook the delicate, young fireweed shoots, dandelion leaves and fiddlehead ferns. I particularly favor dandelions cooked in garlic and olive oil, served with pasta.

Early June is celebrated with sweet and aromatic elderberry flower fritters (but the birds always get all the subsequent berries). Raspberries grow as weeds, but I have trained some into slim hedges along our back path to make it easier to pluck the luscious fruit in July. For many years I wondered why my large blueberry thicket never produced any fruit – until I learned that I had lavished time and attention on a lookalike called Fool’s Huckleberry, which did indeed fool me! So I bought six blueberry bushes and planted them on a sunny, well-draining site near spruce trees, since they favor the acidic soil that our boreal forests offer. In autumn, we collect buckets of tangy, gorgeous cranberries.

Motivated by various foraging resources, I have tried and rejected other wild foods. Pungent spruce tip tea may appeal to those who like retsina wine, but it is too medicinal to me. Ditto for yarrow. Teas made from berry bush leaves lacked flavor, but wild chamomile has a gentle, pineapple taste. Rose hips are supposed to be great for you – tons of vitamin C, but prickly roses are REALLY prickly, and seeding the rose hips to utilize the limited amount of jelly surrounding them was a lot of work. I think I will wait until scurvy is an imminent concern.

For many people, including my husband, suburban yard work is a boring chore. Here though, he gets to swing dangerous tools and I discover some hidden surprise every time I rake the leaves.

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