I had a friend many years ago who was living in a cabin in the woods with her partner and baby. One day she told me about catching up with an old friend over the phone who had said, “Wow, you are really living the dream, huh? Doing what you always wanted to do. You must be so happy.” And she was dumbstruck. “This?” She said to me, “This is the dream? I’m living it?” She related to me the frustration of not having running water, of carrying loads for the laundromat up and down the long stairs that climbed the hill to their cabin, with a baby in tow, of not living near family who could help. She didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. “I’m doing what I always wanted to do…” she murmured in wonder.

I have thought about that conversation so many times. A life, described in broad strokes, can look so amazing, so idillic. But when you hone in on the day-to-day realities, they are always the same. So many chores that need done, so many broken whatevers that need fixing, so many tense conversations about money or parenting, so much running around trying to make it all work. 

Writing for me has always been about outing those realities that we all keep hidden from public view. Dredging all the shit from under the bed and spreading it on the front lawn to air out. Especially as a modern person, taking part in this grand farce we call the internet, posting pictures of my broad strokes. Keeping it real feels vital, but it’s always been a struggle for me, balancing the real with the ideal.

Writing about yourself is hard. Writing about yourself, with any shred of honesty, when you are attempting to promote yourself as an educator is nearly impossible. Our world has a certain expectation for those who claim enough knowledge to share, and that expectation is that you have arrived. You learned your subject, past tense, and now you are an expert. There is no room for the bewilderment I still feel regularly in my own garden, after almost 30 years of learning. No room for such a vast gaping maw of knowledge as the natural world.

God help you if you aim to teach anything so broad and all-encompassing that it can be considered a lifestyle choice. Now suddenly, not only must you be an expert, you must also be living proof of the perfection of that choice. If you take my gardening class, you will soon live in a glowy bubble of harvest baskets and ladybugs and smiling children who prefer carrots to candy. 

Throughout my life I have been guided by that very image, the so called “simple life,” in which each day is filled with beauty and vibrancy, and feels like plenty. I have taken the steps implicit in the journey, and all the facts are in place: I grow most of our fresh produce in my organic garden, I cook most of our food from scratch, bake bread every week, and eat speckled-brown homegrown eggs for breakfast. I regularly put fresh flowers from the garden on our kitchen table, crouch outside quietly with my kids to watch an insect, and make gorgeous homemade pies. 

But I fear that I have arrived at the destination, and it is not what the travel brochures led me to believe. “This is it?” I murmur to myself, “I’m living it?” Because although all of those things are absolutely true, it does not paint an accurate picture of my life whatsoever. My life is complicated and hard, a chaos of contradictions and compromise. My day to day is made up of those beautiful glowy moments mixed in with a much greater proportion of very regular modern American bullshit. 

And so it is that portraying the beauty and satisfaction of keeping a garden and baking bread makes me feel like a fraud. Ever since I got back into this internet world a few months ago, I have been struggling with Imposter’s Syndrome. Who am I to talk about ‘cultivating abundance’ when I can barely get through a day without feeling the tight constriction of scarcity clawing at my neck. Scarcity of time, scarcity of money, scarcity of energy. Who am I to write a gardening guide when I can barely get my spinach to grow without bolting? Who am I to promote home cooking when my I keep my pantry stocked with corn chips and energy bars?

The world is so big, so complex, so dynamic. We are always trying to pare it down into something we can wrap our heads around, we create simplicity by putting differences at odds with one another. God vs the Devil. Heaven vs Hell. Republicans vs Democrats. A handmade life vs a consumer life. But true things do not fit into tidy, opposing categories. True things, especially living things, are vast networks of connections and complexity that we cannot hope to understand. 

And so is my life. A vast network of complexity that I will never understand. 

But here’s what I do understand. In the midst of all the regular American bullshit, the unemployment paperwork, the arguments about parenting, the hour after hour scraping the internet for shreds of meaningful community that I can’t find in real life, the corn chips and the energy bars, in the midst of all that, I get to go out to my garden and cut giant, luscious, glowing green collards for dinner. I get to wash those beautiful leaves and chop them and saute them with onions in my cast iron skillet. I get to taste that deep mineral flavor of earth and sunlight and feel, on some level, the connection all the way back to the seed I planted three months ago. 

Every night I have to go out and lock my chickens up. I’m always dead tired at the end of the day, the last thing I want to do is go outside and do one more chore. But I do it anyway, and what else would draw me out in the dusk to see the first stars breaking through the violet? What else would take me out past the nicotiana and the moonflower, breathing their secret scent into the night? Every morning I have to let them out again, and it forces me to start my day in the world for a moment, gives me a time and place to notice the way the rising sun gilds every leaf and flower in the garden with gold. And there, waiting quietly for me in a nest of straw, a perfect brown egg.

These simple acts in my otherwise life are a tiny prayer and a communion with the world. Although my harvest basket does not define or even really describe my life, it illustrates the beauty and abundance that is waiting there for me, every day, to connect with when I can. Those beautiful moments in my garden and in my kitchen may not add up to the glowy life I thought they would, but they are nevertheless real and essential, a deep and vital nourishment; they ground me, and heal me, and gild my life with joy. 

This is what I want to share. This is what I fear so many people need but don’t know how to access. This is what feels so particularly important to me about teaching “backyard homesteading” right now. Because we are all feeling the tight claw of scarcity right now, of fear and division. We all need a little healing, a little joy, and a lot of grounding. The abundance of the world is waiting quietly to for us, waiting to nourish us one perfect egg at a time.

The Evolution of a Mama

Turns out, I miss this place. I went on for many months quite happily without the computer. Working on my farm projects. Summer was banner this year, and my plate was manically full. But somewhere around July, I started to itch for writing. A place and a way to express my thoughts, to communicate all the stuff that crowds my head. Ears who care to listen.

Now, don’t go creaming yer panties, I’m not coming back here on a regular basis. But, maybe just a quickie now and then, in the laundry room.

Besides, I have some important addendums to the inherent subject matter of Apron Stringz. My life as a ‘mama who likes to get shit done’ continues to evolve, and it seems wrong to leave off when new discoveries are being made.

Not that I have come to any conclusions. As usual the farther I get into it, the more confusled I become. Certainly nothing has become clear to me, in my absence from blogging. I have not come back to share brilliant epiphanies. But that’s why you love me right? For laying bare the absolute bewilderment of life and loving?

I do have one particular thing to say, the thing that has made me come back, an admission.

For the record– it didn’t work.

This whole ‘yielding to motherhood and the inglorious work of housewifery’ thing, it didn’t work. I mean, I guess it worked for a while, gave me some peace when I needed it most. Allowed me to survive a period of intensity that otherwise might have destroyed me. I still recommend it, wholeheartedly. If you can manage it, submitting to the humble task of motherhood is a strangely liberating experience.

I just want to make sure you understand the further evolution of that story. Although I cultivated it successfully for a few years, as soon as the life-or-death necessity for submission had worn off, I abandoned it like a leaky rubber boot. I went straight back to my old ways– taking on way too much for someone with small children, trying to do it all, wanting it all with an almost debilitating lust, then beating myself up for failing on all accounts.

Part of that is just summer in Alaska. It all happens so fast. It’s winter and winter and winter, and then all of a sudden– BAM. It’s summer and it’s going to be over before you can finish even half the projects on your list, so hurry the fuck up!

But I can’t just blame summer. There’s more to the story.

Six years ago now, we had our first baby. I slowly and painfully began to set aside my own projects and passions for the all-encompassing work of motherhood. Two years into it, we moved to New Orleans, My Man went to law school, and we had our second baby. Enter the Submission Phase, blah, blah, blah. I gave up on accomplishing anything of consequence, outside of raising up two beautiful new souls. I didn’t submit easily, in fact it was emotionally akin to amputating both legs. But I did it– I put my own, separate, non-mama path on hold for a few years. I relegated my passions and what I consider my real work to ‘charming hobby’ status.

Then My Man finished school. Moving back to Alaska was something of an anti-climax because even though I was back in my own home turf, surrounded by my previous years’ work on our little property, My Man was studying harder than ever for the Bar. Time and energy were still too tight for me to take back up those passions in any meaningful capacity. So, I squelched them back down and screwed the lid on once again.

Our little backyard homestead lay in a state of dormancy, fertile soil covered in a dense blanket of weeds. It would have to wait.

My mind lay similarly neglected. After years of fighting for each little scrap, I had acquired a resident apathy. I could hardly remember what I might care to do with myself, should I ever have time to do anything in. As someone who had been vehemently motivated to do cool stuff, before I had kids, the apathy was perhaps the most disturbing thing of all.

But, here we were– back home in my chosen context, with all the things I claimed to care about around me. And that is when my greatest fear of all surfaced. What if I had just changed? What if I didn’t care about homesteading and wilderness and harvesting anymore? What then? What would I care about if not that?

This is the identity crisis which I alluded to in my few posts last summer, but never had the guts to write about. I was terrified. I had built my entire life around this homesteader dream, the possibility of it’s loss was haunting.

Our girl started kindergarten that fall. Suddenly I had just one kid again, for half of every day. The desperation of mothering two littles began to ease. I had finally settled back into Alaska. My Man passed the Bar, and started working. At long last, the 3YO began to sleep through the night and into the morning, allowing me a good night’s sleep and an hour or two of quiet solitude at the beginning of each day. I took a deep, wonderful breath.

My mind opened tentatively into that extra space, like a hermit crab poking out of it’s shell. Is it safe? Is there really room for me again?

It was at that moment in time, serendipitously, that I discovered permaculture. I was ripe and ready, it was exactly what I needed. Knowledge! Learning! Permaculture was the next step to everything I had done before I had kids– an advanced course in gardening and homesteading. I was consumed, like a hot, teenage crush. It was so exciting to be excited again. Even now, when I hear the intro song to Thomas the Train (which allowed me many an hour to sit around learning) I feel a wave of giddy joy.

And that is when I realized that I had not changed at all. I had not lost my love for all things which grow from the soil, and a life which relates to wild nature. Rather, my lust for learning had just been squashed by too many loads of laundry, I had had too many attempts to try something new crushed into the ground by a screaming toddler. I had given up.

I had tried for graceful submission, but in the end had settled into apathetic resignation. Not towards my life as a whole, but certainly towards my personal passions and ambitions.

I still believe that graceful submission would be a beautiful thing. I did hit it for small moments, and they were good and sweet. I don’t begrudge the resignation either, it is acceptable to me on a short term basis. It served me well when I needed it.

I was so thrilled to find my own spark still alive, so relieved that it was (conveniently) still flaring in the same general direction, that I hardly cared whether it had been submission or resignation or what. I flung my painstakingly acquired good mom habits out the window and set right into ignoring my kids in the name of backyard homesteading.

I weeded out three years’ worth of creeping buttercups and planted all my old garden beds. I started teaching classes, something I had always wanted to, in bread making, gardening and wild plants. I butchered, packaged and froze two black bears given me by a local guide. I started making herbal medicine. I picked gallons of wild blueberries. But, most significantly, before summer had even begun, I ordered fifty chicks and ducklings thereby turning my nice little gardens into a full fledged small farm.

I ordered the birds while there was still snow on the ground. I had spent the winter drawing up a totally awesome permaculture design for our property, and had convinced myself on paper that I could build an addition to my coop which would quadruple it’s size, before the chicks grew out of their brooder.

I had forgotten that I was in fact still a mama! You can throw the ole’ submission idea out the window, but the kids don’t seem to notice. Well, I’m sure they noticed something. Like the fact that I had stopped taking them to kid activities around town, stopped doing crafts with them, stopped reading stories in the middle of the day, and started a hell of a lot more yelling.

It wasn’t all bad. There were some absolutely amazing days, the kind of days I imagined motherhood would be– working outside building the coop, or digging in the garden; a little pack of kids ranging around between our yard and our neighbors, happily playing in the sunshine with sticks. Brilliant days, which I did have the good sense to stop and appreciate, recognizing these moments as the best of the best, what I had always hoped my life would be like.

I don’t regret my regression back into project-land. Mamas busy with projects are a good thing. But there’s busy and then there’s too busy. I do regret ordering fifty birds. What the fuck was I thinking? I could have simply doubled my flock, like a normal person, just dabbled in raising meat birds; but no, I needed to quintuple my flock so that I could put a year’s worth of birds in the freezer, and still have several different laying breeds left to trial.

The stress of all those animals under my care, inadequately housed (barely better off than factory farmed birds for a while there) gave me actual belly cramps during the month of June. I just couldn’t build fast enough. It seemed like I managed to nail up about two boards/day.

At any rate, here I am now, at the end of it. A nice big pack of roasters in my freezer, and a beautiful flock of laying hens and ducks. I am learning new things, evolving my homesteading skills, moving forward on my path again.

Occasionally I miss those days when I just let taking the kids on an outing, doing laundry and making dinner be enough. I am still often jealous of the mamas who can sustain that kind of devotion. But I am not that mama. For me, submission was a temporary helpmate.

And for you other mamas out there who used to like to get shit done, who now feel your own passions numbed by motherhood, understand that you can submit for a few years and still resurface intact at the end of it. It might take some time to wake your mind and passions back up, but don’t be frightened by a little apathy. When the time comes, your spark will reignite.

Allow Me to (Re)Introduce Myself

The last several months have meant big changes for our family, for me personally and consequently for this space. As I consider how to re-enter this whole blogging business, I am realizing that my current life and self are rather different from what you have all come to know. Well, I am the same I suppose (more on that in an upcoming identity crisis post, months in the making), but the details are different.

Today I thought I would acquaint you with those changed details, orient you to my new/old place. My posts are bound to change a little up here in Cordova, not their spirit or intent, just their ingredients, and it would be best if you kind of knew your way around.

So, allow me to (re)introduce myself. I am Calamity Jane. I live in the big gray house at the top of the hill with the willow fence and that long row of raspberries, the totally overgrown garden beds and trashy scattering of buckets. Careful not to trip over the kids’ bikes.

This yard was almost all gravel and weeds when we moved in, in 2004. Little token patch of lawn in front, which I busted up practically on arrival. Built up dirt by hand, with river silt and peat hauled in buckets from actual bogs. There’s no topsoil here, none at all. Can’t buy it for any price. This land just barely crept out from under the glaciers.

I had a few years to throw my unbounded energy into garden building before our first babe came along in 2007. I’ve got a long way to go towards my dream of an edible Eden, but the basic framework has been laid, now it just needs to be reclaimed from three years of neglect.

Those hard won beds are now choked with buttercup and the scavenged boards I used to build them are finally rotting. I only had time to clear and plant one small bed this summer, put my energy into the perennials instead. That beautiful raspberry hedge didn’t trellis, weed and mulch itself, you know?

Speaking of perennials, there’s my prized rhubarb. It looks humble enough, straggly to be frank, but those crowns we brought back on a bush plane from some old homesteaders down the coast in Yakataga. We were there to do reforestation work, with our little girl just a babe in a wrap.

This big shed in the backyard is supposed to be my pottery studio some day, when we have an extra several thousand dollars to fix it up. And, if I can talk myself down from converting it to a barn and getting two Nigerian dwarf milking goats.

There’s the old chicken coop, it looks like a witch’s hut under all those drooping hemlock boughs. I am so excited to finally spread around my own aged chicken shit– we left just as my first “crop” was maturing. I also have a giant pile of well-aged compost, having duly done my good work years ago, before even the second baby. I feel rich. This is the stuff of dreams by my standard. When I do finally get those annual beds cleared and rebuilt– boy howdy, they are gonna grow some goodness.


Come on inside I’ll make some coffee. I make a fine cup, if I do say so myself.

Our house is nearly always a wreck, but I’ve learned not to be too embarrassed about it. Occasionally I keep it really clean, and I’m not embarrassed about that either. Sit right here at our wobbly almost-antique kitchen table, it’s the best seat in the house.

If you get a break in the clouds you’ll have a fine view of Mt. Eccles. I climbed that mountain once, alone, without really meaning to. Got stuck right at that last rocky hump, afraid to go any further but damned if I was going to stop so close to the top. Finally got my gumption up just as a thick blanket of mist rolled in, obscuring what would have been a phenomenal view. But, that’s life in a coastal temperate rainforest….

Over here’s my pride and joy– my jar shelf. Built to the exact specifications of a year’s worth of quarts, pints and half-pints. Just a token number of jars now. I’m not gonna show you the bottom five shelves which are just full of cluttery junk. I look forward to crowding that junk out with more local bounties.

“Local food” looks quite a bit different up here. Cordova is a tiny town stuck between ocean and mountains, with no farmable land whatsoever. There is not a single hoofed farm animal for hundreds of miles, there’s no place to grow hay, what would you feed them? I am one of maybe ten people who grows any kind of vegetable garden, and it is meager by anywhere else’s standard. Cabbage is a big stretch here, kale the mainstay.

Instead I fill (or used to, and hope to again!) our larder with sockeye and silver salmon; bear, deer and moose; salmonberries, blueberries, cranberries; chantrelle and hedgehog mushrooms; wild plant pesto and pickles. Not to mention the dumpster, the most productive form of subsistence by exponential degree. (Back where I feel comfortable going out at night, I have been dipping into The Big D again. Last week an entire case of eggs– 30 dozen. Not a single crushed or drippy edge. One day past date, and eggs last practically forever. I would rather be eating eggs from our own chickens obviously, but short of that, I will gladly accept a $90 savings on our grocery bill.)

Cordova has a year round population of 2,500 people. Stop and read that again– 2,500 people. True that in summer it swells to 4,000, but nevertheless, there are no stop lights in this town. There are no fast food joints, no box stores. We leave the keys to our car in the ignition. Kids can walk to school by themselves just like the old days. The small town feeling of it is doubled by the fact that there is no highway connecting us to somewhere else, you cannot drive in or out– you have to fly or take the ferry.

Cordova is a genuine fishing town, home the Copper River fleet. The harbor and canneries dominate the town physically, fishing dominates mentally. Coming back from New Orleans, I’ve been relishing a place so ruled by actual physical, productive work. There are some profoundly ass-backwards things about Alaska (as exemplified on an international scale by Miss Palin, thank you ma’am) but on the flip side are many truly wonderful old fashioned values. In New Orleans, particularly from our ‘safe’ mostly white upperclass neighborhood, I was beginning to wonder if these values were just gone from our country. It made me feel sad and lonely. But here I am again, among kindred! Not to say that this town is all of one mind, not at all, but generally people here place strong value on hard physical work, on practical use over aesthetics (and a consequent acceptance of dirtiness), on trust in our fellow humans, strong community, and an honestly slow pace of life.

Plenty of people here live just as they would live in any city in the US, they drive their car everywhere they go, buy all their groceries at the store, watch cable TV on the weekends and don’t think twice about the world outside their window. But a very good sized portion of people are here because they love this place and they love the rural Alaskan lifestyle. I would say most Cordovans “recreate” in the out-of-doors, if only because that’s just about all there is to do. Hiking, hunting and berry picking are all very popular and, at the very least, everyone drives out the road now and again just to lay eyes on some wilderness. Most folks in this town put up something, usually fish in the chest freezer, if not home canned jars of smoked goodness. Homemade jam is practically pedestrian. There is a salmon festival, a wild berry festival and a mushroom festival. During deer season, the attention turns to hunting. Not everyone in this town participates or even cares about this stuff, but enough people do that it is normal. In July folks on the street are talking fish and boat engines, in September they’re talking deer and firewood.


Having just said all that, it bothers me that I put a “regular American lifestyle” at odds with my supposed Cordovan one, because that is the real genius of this place– People span the whole distance. We spend the day hunting then come home and watch TV, we eat fish from the freezer with potatoes from the store, we drive our car when it rains and walk when it’s sunny. Some people are all on one end, and others are all on the other end, most of us are somewhere in the middle, but there seems to be an unusual amount of mutual respect. It’s no utopia, by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve lived in a number of small Alaskan towns and chose this one partly because the feeling of community and togetherness and acceptance is, I think, truly unique.

But this is not an unabashed love song to Cordova. Being back in this place after the extreme urban charm of New Orleans is not all peaches and cream. We do miss that steamy press of humanity, the bright garish clang of it all. Architecture, history, music, festivals, amazing restaurants, balmy weather; people in all kinds and colors. Coming here was a surreal spatial shift. Everything is just exactly the same as when we left, and I popped right back in like a puzzle piece…. But having led such a different life for three years I find it mind-bendingly weird to just ‘pop right back in.’ As an old friend said in the comments on that Where to Now post, the culture shock is much greater coming back home because I wasn’t expecting it.

The first few months were wacky, mentally. As soon as we stepped off the ferry, New Orleans felt like a black hole which couldn’t possibly have been real. But Cordova didn’t feel real yet either. I was floating in some kind of numb limbo which I am just now starting to ground out of. I’ve still got all kinds of twisty stuff going on in my mind, as you know, but at least I think that I am finally starting to feel physically here. Which is doubtlessly why I was finally able to finish this post, started over a month ago.

It’s seems a bit vain-glorious to explain my homeplace at such length, but context is everything for a girl like me. At some point in the near future, once I get a foothold on it, I am hoping to write about the emotional and psychological process of moving home. I figured you ought to understand where and what home is first. It certainly is a unique place in the world.