Thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to join us, you will not regret it! We are a couple ragamuffin wanderers who have planted our roots in Happy Valley, Alaska. Where we hope to “retire” in the next few years by pursuing our own passions and living our own lives instead of the dreams set forth by society.
Marlena Joy Stark was born at home on August 11. We decided to keep our pregnancy quiet, all the way up to birth, from everyone in our lives with the exception of people who actually saw us and could see my belly swelling. Marlena succeeded in surprising us as well, as I was sure she was a boy.
Her birth was wonderful and frightening in the last half hour, and she ended up being born with a broken arm. Through the uncertainty of the first couple of days, we have found ourselves into a scheduled routine. A schedule, by the hour, hangs on our refrigerator to help us manage ourselves and our kids easier. I forget less that I need to feed our delightful oldest daughter, when I am feeling lost and look at the schedule and it says “snack time….lunch….” etc.
For us I do believe that adding a second child in the mix is WAY more difficult to adjust to than having a first child…however, it could just feel that way when you’re in the middle of it.
Primrose is, naturally, the best big sister. We knew she would want to be more like a mother figure – she is always so ready to help! She caresses Marlena’s face, showers her with kisses, wants to change her diapers and always screams at me to give Marlena milk or a pacifier.
This coming Monday we take Marlena in to the doctor to see how her arm has healed. We are anticipating good news and I cannot wait to finally be able to let my baby hold my baby. Much of our stress with be greatly reduced when her arm is healed and we don’t feel the need to hover like hawks and the fragility of her arm.
The briefness of this blog post is due to Primrose’s nap time that I am using for skin-to-skin time with Marlena. Hopefully in the future, our schedule on the refrigerator will have a blocked out time for journaling.
For now, we are learning what it is like to be a family of four, thanks to Marlena.
Last night we ate dinner with a sweet lady who said, “We are ‘tiny house people.’ Our place is only 1,600 square feet, with a full basement. It can be tight.”
I had no reply.
Our home is 700 square feet, and we didn’t use the upstairs for the first two years of Prim’s life in fear of her falling to her death. So we basically lived with two large dogs, a medium sized dog, a killer cat, a dirty tank with two goldfish and two hidden snails, a host of flies we can’t seem to exterminate, and three humans in a 400 square foot space. It is hairy, sandy, and cluttered. It is perfect.
We do our best to keep up with the chores. We sweep once or twice a day, keep the dogs off the furniture, put our clothes where they belong so they don’t get too hairy, do the dishes at least twice a day, and try to find a place for everything–but still, it is certainly messy. We joke all the time that we are artists and it is an expression of our creative process. Savanna mops regularly and cleans with gloves and Bon Ami, we do our laundry in the cold water machine and hang dry them because we haven’t found space for a dryer, and we try our best to keep the books in the library. All of this takes time, energy, and regular practice. Or else it gets backed up and we all start feeling and acting stressed.
The challenge comes when you add garden chores, chicken chores, part-time work, managing a bed and breakfast, vehicle maintenance, beekeeping chores, dog walks, parenting, and marriage. We basically excluded adventure, fun and play for the parents.
So we went through a ten day excursion into the possibility of selling our home, buying a travel trailer and moving out of state. For a family that has less than a thousand bucks in the bank, the idea of selling our paid-off home for hundreds of thousands is pretty appealing. So we set a price based on the crazy market, which was four times more than we paid in 2012, and we settled on moving to Vermont, even though neither one of us has spent any quality time there. After the ten day research project, we came to the realization that we were searching for a place just like the one we already own. And what we really needed was to refocus our priorities on things other than work and duties. We needed add two things to our life: Adventure, and a bigger house. So we decided to stay right here in paradise, because it’s a lot easier to achieve adventure and a bigger house than to start all over.
While I understand that some people would see our life off-grid out in the Alaskan countryside as one heck-of-an-adventure, it has become the norm over the years. You turn on the generator to pump the well and run the toaster, and run off bears, moose, and owls with shotguns and prayers.
We are now making time for daily adventures, weekly camping trips, and seasonal excursions out of state, and to save money for an addition, so our 700 square foot home can maybe break a thousand.
Since that decision, everything has changed. We are bike riding, walking, making art, going to festivals, camping, and saying “No” to work and “Yes” to play. We reorganized the house, turned the back room into Prim’s room, and turned the loft into mom and dad’s room.
We have been through this before, and we have to continue to make the choice as a family to focus on building a memory bank full of good times rather than a bank account full of numbers. (Because as our dear friends reminded us of lately, the market isn’t doing too hot and people are losing a lot of money.)
To digress, I received an invite today for a twenty-year high school reunion in Eagle River. And while I don’t think I will make it, it was a solid reminder of the invisible passing of time that will certainly end in my death. So while I’m here, especially with a beautiful daughter who loves the heck out of me, and a gorgeous wife who I’d rather hang out with than anybody- I better enjoy it, and take the lead on a reprioritization of our values.
Our trip to Mexico in January was much needed on so many levels. We soaked in the ocean, baked in the sun, and ate tacos and street-food like Gods and Goddesses. We deepened our friendship with Primrose’s Nana and Bampa, fell deeper in love, and made time to relax and be together. Of course, we dealt with ungodly levels of litter, noise, and people– but it was overshadowed by the goodness of our time there.
While we were there, I, Papa Bear, was dead set on moving our family away from America and Alaska and relocating south of the border. The smile on my wife’s lips as she lay in her bikini on the beach, while watching our daughter run from person to person, into the surf and back out, until absolutely exhausted she passed out from overexertion.
You see, where we live here in Alaska, it’s never really hot. Yeah, we might have a couple 70 degree days during the summer, but they’re usually accompanied by hordes of mosquitoes so you really can’t get out and enjoy it without a thick coat of bug dope. And my wife has told me from the beginning how much she loves hot weather, so when we were in Mexico and I was able to see her in her element– I was hooked, I wanted it every day.
Now, there are other factors as well. Like the cost of living. For some reason, no matter how hard we work, we still are only barely able to make ends meet. It’s an odd feeling, being that we both work so freakin’ hard–for ourselves and other people–but we are always behind.
Whereas in Mexico, 1,000$ a month goes a whole-heck-of-a-lot-further.
To summarize the entire reason for this blog post is that we were super inspired while in Mexico, on so many levels. Savanna was inspired by the incredible artisans making beaded jewelry and other artifacts. So much so that she came home and seemed to have used osmosis to inherit their talent, because she is making some really cool beaded earrings now. I was inspired to write, write, and write some more, which is why I came home and published a book and am currently working on the second one.
We plan to travel to Mexico again soon, when– we don’t know yet. Will we move there? Not planning on it this week. In the meantime, Savanna is going to continue making awesome jewelry, I am going to keep writing, and Primrose is going to keep meeting people and having a good time.
Here is a link to Savanna’s Etsy page with some her earrings. Buy a set, maybe a few, support our family’s passions, and maybe our future excursions south of the border for more inspiration.
The time has come to pre-order Warflower through either Amazon or Barnes and Noble. (Links provided below) It will be released on June 1st, and I really hope that I don’t die from anxiety in the meantime.
I once played guitar and sang songs live on our local radio station, KBBI, and I was pretty darn nervous before the time arrived to go in and do it. But I made it through unscathed, and made an incredible new memory because of it.
The nerves I am dealing with now are certainly not more than what I dealt with while I was in Iraq, especially after being ambushed and then having to return to the ambush site to look for the people who ambushed us, that was definitely nerve wracking on a whole nother level. But this is an intellectual nervousness, a nervousness of exposing parts of my life story for people to read. It is terrifying on a whole new level.
I am relieving my anxiety levels by staying super active out here on the land. Non-stop movement is my cure. Planting, seeding, tilling, chicken chores, clearing, watering, building, playing with the dogs, playing with the daughter, playing with Savanna, beekeeping, spreading compost, turning compost, weeding, selling, bike riding, anything to keep from thinking.
And you know what, I’ve made it this far, and I think I’ll make it to the book release.
If you want to buy the book from me in person or from your local bookstore, understandable. I try to support local small businesses as much as possible. I will be ordering a crate of 22 on the 1st and would be happy to sell them in person.
Thank you all again so much for your continued love and support!
Fifteen years ago I scribbled the first draft of Warflower from a cabin in the Costa Rican jungle, and I have been slowly tinkering away on it ever since.
It was initially written as a way to save my life, to keep me from destroying myself after I was discharged from the Army with a heavy load of guilt from my time in Iraq. But over the years, it became so much more than a war story.
And I am so, so, so proud to say that it is almost finished and ready for people to read! I cannot express the feelings I have right now, but I can say this… with two raised fists in the air: “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
You will HOPEFULLY be able to find Warflower at your local independent bookstores, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, KDP, Apple, and Libraries, and of course sold directly by yours truly at our small Alaskan Markets.
Thank you to all of my friends and family who have supported me and believed in me along the way! I could not have done it without you.
Sitting on ripped lawn chairs, on old buoys, or on log rounds eating s’mores around a fire boiling birch water into syrup, we hear the honking of the cranes come through. Looking up to see a flock separated into two groups our daughter squeals with delight. We watch as the pass over us as they search the muskeg for a dry place to land….not yet cranes…they circle on and make their way to Homer I assume. I say, “Remember when we watched them leaving? And now they are coming back. We made it through the winter.” My husband raises a fist and lets out a “yessssss” that sounds like a sigh of relief. I love it when he does that.
We take a trip into the woods surrounding our house. Papa is on poop duty – he’s been shoveling dog poop by the bucket loads as it unthaws around the property. But our mission isn’t poop- its berries. We take with us a hand saw and pruners. I command to be taken to the overwintered cranberry hideout the two had been snacking on without me. We uncover a trove of cranberries- missed by the birds and creatures due to the overgrown and invasive azalea. We pick a spot and clear around blueberry bushes and cranberry patches. Papa had gone and marked small blueberry plants with tape days before. A couple of years ago on a nice woodland stroll, we realized we had a few bushes and decided to give them room to grow. Last year was our best year- we still are eating berries from the freezer. We didn’t realize how many small plants were out there under all the damn azalea. So every spring, when the snow melts and the plants are bare enough for us to be able to see and identify, we go to town on a spot. We all shared the sour cranberries, Primrose’s lips, cheeks, and fingers stained red. We carried the fresh cuttings to the fire to burn that baby down.
Two days ago, we ate sourdough waffles with freshly made birch syrup for breakfast and then we picked up two orders of bees. Two hives- roughly 21 thousand bees. We slept with them in the loft, a tradition because of the cold temperatures still during this time. But the following day, the sun was shining and we got them into their new homes. We all were happy to be in the wind-free sun despite the snow that is still feet high in patches. The rain today was worrisome as beekeepers- hoping they stay warm enough during the change of the season…but trudging through the mud to stick our ear to the hive, we hear the low sound of humming. The Hum of Spring.
It has finally arrived here on the Kenai.
It is easy to be swept away by wind gusts of work and necessity. To forget about the joys of life, the fun times we had as children, the useless entertainment that keeps us alive and sane. We often justify our obsession with work with statements of fear; “They are only getting half of the produce they order at the local grocery store. What if they don’t get any?” or statements of greed, “We could sell these pumpkin starts for 5 dollars, the honey for 8, birch syrup for 12, raspberry transplants for 5…” and on and on. Perhaps we use statements like, “God gave me this body to work, so I am going to use it,” or “Life isn’t about doing what you want, it’s about doing what you have to.”
Either way, our family is trying to move away from fear-based thinking by creating more of a balance between work and fun.
We pulled a kite out of the shed to fly the other day.
Savanna sprinted up and down the driveway holding the kite behind her trying to have it lift off laughing like her daughter behind her. Eventually, we found the perfect wind tunnel that lifted this big blue whale up and sent it flying.
We pulled the bikes out of the greenhouse to ride on our country road. Primrose gets so excited when she sees the bikes leaned up against the trees that she tries to put her helmet on and then literally doesn’t want to do anything besides ride. So we have been making it a priority to ride down to the creek every day to watch ducks land on water and ice melt. Dad brings a pack of Fruit Snacks for Prim, which she shares with everybody, and while we enjoy watching snow melt on the roadsides while waiting for cranes to arrive, we plan for a long bike trip in the fall/winter of 2024.
We tapped 11 trees this year with hopes of making birch syrup. It has been fun to have an excuse to walk in the woods while harvesting the sap, but it can also be exhausting when you’re tired and on baby duty. Carrying Primrose on the back and a backpack full of sap on the front while maneuvering over melting snow can be a workout. We filled a 65-gallon rainwater barrel to the tip-top and finally started boiling it down to render syrup. Let the fire begin!
Mama has been having fun using her new sourdough starter. I wish we had more pictures to share of her creations because they’ve been incredible! Waffles, pop-tarts, peanut butter cookies, bread, and soon-to-be coffee cake. I always hoped to marry a baker and I must admit, it is sweeter than I imagined.
All in all, we are doing a decent job this year striking a balance. We are marking off days on the calendar for camping trips and festivals, prioritizing the things we love (other than work, because we LOVE farming and working with the land), and being reminded everyday by our daughter’s excitement that we must make it a point to have fun every day.
Until next time, remember to have fun out there, and leave a comment below to let us know ways that you have fun.
Darkness and slowing down are the main themes for Alaskan winters. A time of year to nestle in and cozy up to the wood burning stove, watching movies, reading, and sipping hot liquids. We really distanced ourselves from life outside our bubble. We still socialized, still got outdoors, and even went on vacation for an entire month to Mexico…..aaahhhh Mexico.
Our daughters first trip out of the country was warm and welcoming and she was greeted by kisses, hugs, and lots and lots of snacks from strangers who wanted to take her picture and hold her. In a very short summary, she is a social Mariposa who brings a smile to every heart she encounters. She is brave, adventurous, and can hang with the big dogs. She is the best travel buddy, the greatest road dog (well tied with her father, which is NO DOUBT where she gets it from).
I will have to make an entire different post for our trip there, so for now, I will continue on through the winter to our current happenings.
Every year we are surprised by the April snow that falls. Currently, our daughter is napping in our bed, my husband is substitute teaching at the high school 40 miles away, and I am taking a break from my beading project. We tapped 11 Birch trees on April Fools Day and we are in the process of collecting what looks to be hundreds of gallons of water when its all said and done. Every few hours the bags on the verge of overflowing, need to be emptied. Thankfully there is the three of us here, my husband, brother-in-law, and myself to do this, otherwise, this could have been a bigger endeavor than we anticipated! One particular morning when Primrose was not having a nap, I dressed us in our snow gear, put her in her carrier on my shoulders, carried the backpack full of empty jars are on my chest and set out in knee deep snow to empty the bags in time, taking 45 minutes to take care of the 4 trees on the north slope of our property. Those are the trees that produce the best. We emptied out one rain barrel and have started filling it. Bob mentioned that it won’t rain for some time, and even though he is right, I think he forgot that we bought a high tech, bad ass water filter last summer and have been drinking our well water. However, it is still a different taste from freshly fallen rain.
It’s hard to believe that my extended family who live in the lower 48 are currently sending me pictures of them and their children outdoors in t-shirts drinking cold sugary drinks, visiting parks, and soon will hunt Easter eggs in the green grass while we are still sipping on rosehip and spruce tip tea to keep the sniffles away as the snow continues to fall. The temperatures vary now between 20s and low 40s daily so it seems odd and different to my intuition and knowledge to start seeding plants. Planting with the moon cycle has made our life a little smoother and our house less explosive of plant life. We have given up our dinning table to host 14 flats of baby seedlings, that on nice and sunny days we “do the shuffle”- taking the flats to greenhouse in the morning and bringing them in at night. Primrose likes the chore of pushing the cart of flats, won’t go in the greenhouse (she is the hardiest one of us, thinking it too warm), but rides back to the house in the cart to get more.
In just a few short weeks we will be getting our 2 hives of honey bees, and a few weeks after that we will be living with 38 more chickens (these ones for meat) and 4 turkeys.
It sometimes is hard to believe that spring will ever get here, and that summer will blossom and we will have any plants growing on this white earth. But for now, we just keep reading Wendell Berry – getting inspired about our family farm, and growing in all the ways we dream of.
The other day I decided I was going to start telling people that my parents died in a plane crash while delivering medical supplies in the Congo. My father was a pilot and my mother a doctor and they had created a non-profit organization back in the 70s that was their life’s work. They lived and died serving others.
The truth is, my dad died when he was 61 from heart failure, 98 percent of his arteries were clogged, and my mother died at 56 from cancer. My dad was a part time taxi driver who lived in the woods in a car with solar panels on top, and my mother was a Safeway clerk who lived in trailers and apartments. They were hard working people who struggled since birth to get by and do right. And while I am not trying to erase their stories, I am trying to find some form of understanding as to why they died so young, and to find another answer to the question that is so often asked.
How did your parents die?
It is an odd question, I have found, in that when people find out my parents are dead they do not ask about who they were, what they did, what were their hobbies and passions, what books they read, where they lived, and all of the questions that somebody may ask about a person who is still alive… they always want to know how they died, and that be the end of the conversation. Which doesn’t leave a lot of room for honoring my ancestors, telling their stories, and feeling proud of who they were and what they accomplished in their lives. So I figure, if I tell people they died in a plane crash in Africa, people will want to know more…
But the truth is, after almost 6 years since my mother’s passing I still find it difficult to talk about it. Sometimes I will tell my daughter about her grandmother and I will begin to weep because I miss her so much. I will tell her, “Multiple times I went to your grandmother’s apartment and found strangers sleeping on her living room floor because they did not have a place to sleep for the night. Your grandmother would use her days off to bring people in need food, clothing and money. People who were too anxious or proud or high to line up at food banks and ask for assistance. Your grandmother would spend all day driving people to and from Anchorage because they did not have a car or they were too afraid to drive. Your grandmother…” And then I have to stop because I begin to miss her so bad I well up.
Sometimes I tell my daughter, Primrose, about her grandfather but I don’t what to say because I didn’t know him at all, so I stick to the facts. “Your grandfather could grow a beard down to his chest and could box with the best of them. Your grandfather loved to read and write poetry just like your daddy. He studied the Bible and loved God with all of his heart. Your grandfather was a tough man who didn’t feel deserving of love, so he gave and received love in the only way he knew how, from a distance.” And then I come to a stop, not because I have tears, but because I don’t really know what more to say.
Savanna, my wife, decided that we would celebrate Did de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) this year by creating an altar in the living room with our deceased ancestors. We have an unidentified skull covered in geraniums, a few candles, artifacts from our ancestors and pictures to honor them. We light candles and burn incense every day in honor of them. I pray to them, thanking them for what they did for our family and ask God to help me honor them and to honor our future ancestors. It has been a very healing experience, to look at their pictures and remember them instead of allow them to recede into the blackness of the past.
I bring this all up not because I am sulking over people not asking me questions about my parents or because I feel like I’m missing out on not having parents who are alive to hold their grandchild and support my family, although there are certainly slivers of those buried deep in my heart. I am writing about this because I helped a 79 year old neighbor butcher, pluck and clean 7 chickens yesterday and death is on the mind.
My neighbor, Mr. Harold Kerchner, with his knobby, arthritic hands, false teeth and radiant eyes of pure gold, taught me a life long skill yesterday that I will hopefully continue to use and pass on to my daughter. He used a machete, two nails and a log- a boiling pot, two metal buckets and a plastic one for heads, feet, necks and feathers. A young calf watched, unstartled. Chickens in crate did not panic, crow or peck as he opened the crate with one knobby hand, grabbed a bird’s feet while pinning back its wings and set its neck between the nails, stretching out the neck. “Thwack!” Off with its head. He gently set the chicken on the ground until all 7 were lined up by the pot.
He said, “My daddy used to hang the birds by their feet by little lassos on the wall and he could come up behind them with his thumb and put it right through the back of their neck, killing them instantly. I never saw a more ethical way of killing a chicken.”
Wet snow fell. A half inch on ground from previous night. 9:30 am, cold, October morning. We could see our breath, the cows breath, and the steam boiling from the pot of water.
He dunked the birds for less than 10 seconds in the steaming pot then gently set them on an old chicken feed bag on the ground as I took to plucking. He talked about his family, all farmers from Missouri, and how his parents lived into their late 80s and 90s and how his own siblings are in their 80s. He and his wife moved up here to live off grid in the late 70s, their son and daughter live on our same road with their families, they spend time with each other every single day. They are real time farmers, no doubt, as we have seen over the past two years since they moved here with their tractors, trucks, animals, and keen ability to build, clear, plant, and give to their neighbors. Every time Harold gives advice or talks about something regarding to farming he starts by saying, “Now I don’t know much about all this, but what they say is…” They are kind, funny, hard working people who don’t waste time with unnecessary words and unnecessary action.
When finished plucking, I watched him cut and clean two birds before I started cutting. The warmth of the bird felt comforting on my cold hands. We took the cleaned birds inside the house to quarter. I arrived home at 11:30 to a smiling wife and happy daughter. Savanna’s smile grew even bigger when she saw two cleaned birds in my hands, and it continued to grow throughout the day when she made chicken barley soup for dinner that filled the house with a good smell of country comfort and filled my belly with goodness. Life is good.
While I certainly was not a country boy, I am a country man, and I am honored to be learning from people who have lived the country life for generations. Perhaps in learning from them I can not only gain self reliance, sustainability, security and friendship; perhaps I can honor my ancestors of the past and the future, and be willing to rewrite my past and recreate my future.