Year Passing, Year Coming


It’s still a virescent world, moss soft and fern green. But not for long. A light snow is falling, turning everything white.


In the woods a brilliant, yellow Heterobasidiomycetes caught my eye. I went looking to see if anything was in bloom, and spotted it, as flashy as any summer flower. It looked like someone had spilled a jar of lemon curd in the woods.


It was a good day for friends to drop by and leave a gift of shrub, also known as a switchel. According to our friends, a shrub is a sweet and tangy syrup made by combining three basic ingredients, fruit, sugar, and vinegar. They left a bottle of homemade pumpkin pie schrub, which has been delightful to sip as a warm beverage on this snowy New Year’s Eve.


The pumpkin pie schrub was the perfect thing to drink while watching NHK’s, “Yuku-toshi, Kuru-toshi”, “Year Passing, Year Coming”, a program which visited different places around Japan as the New Year arrived. The picture is of ByoDo-In, a temple near Kyoto dating back to the 11th century.

Lab Girl

labgirlcoverI haven’t laughed so hard in a long time. Lab Girl is an autobiographical book by scientist Hope Jahren. She intermingles chapters about growing up and the challenges she faced in her career as a woman scientist, among chapters about plants, especially trees, that she has been studying for decades.

I could relate to her description of her life growing up in a Scandinavian family. My background isn’t Scandinavian, but Mennonite culture shares similarities:

… silent togetherness is what Scandinavian families do naturally, and it may be what they do best.

Throughout the book are many observations about plants and trees, such as:

There are about as many leaves on one tree as there are hairs on your head. It’s really impressive.


In order to prepare for their long winter journey, trees undergo a process known as “hardening.” First the permeability of the cell walls increases drastically, allowing pure water to flow out while concentrating the sugars, proteins, and acids left behind. These chemicals act as a potent antifreeze, such that the cell can now dip well below freezing and the fluid inside of it will still persist in a syrupy liquid form.


It is the gradual shortening of the days, sensed as a steady decrease in light during each twenty-four-hour cycle, that triggers hardening. Unlike the overall character of winter, which may be mild one year and punishing the next, the pattern of how light changes through the autumn is exactly the same every year.

In between the chapters about roots and leaves, wood and knots, and flowers and fruits, she describes hilarious scenes like the time when one of her students decided to become a veterinarian in order to work with endangered animals, only to discover during an internship at the Miami zoo, that what zookeepers mostly do is routine animal hygiene, such as applying anti-inflammatory cream to monkey genitalia. It is Hope Jahren’s description of what that student had to do that had me on the floor, laughing in stitches.

The genius of her writing is that laughing opens the mind to learn, so when she describes how scientists discovered how trees communicate with each other over long distances, you remember the details.

She ends on a somber note about what we humans are doing to this planet:

Our world is falling apart quietly. Human civilization has reduced the plant, a four-hundred-million-year-old life form, into three things: food, medicine, and wood. In our relentless and ever-intensifying obsession with obtaining a higher volume, potency, and variety of these three things, we have devastated plant ecology to an extent that millions of years of natural disaster could not. Roads have grown like a manic fungus, and the endless miles of ditches that bracket these roads serve as hasty graves for perhaps millions of plant species extinguished in the name of progress. Planet Earth is nearly a Dr. Seuss book made real: every year since 1990 we have created more than eight billion new stumps. If we continue to fell healthy trees at this rate, less than six hundred years from now, every tree on the planet will have been reduced to a stump. My job is about making sure there will be some evidence that someone cared about the great tragedy that unfolded during our age.

We’ve all witnessed this. When I used to live in Seattle, I was a member of a hiking group. Every Sunday we gathered at a Denny’s on Mercer Street, had breakfast, and headed out into the mountains for a hike in the mountains. When we decided to go for a hike in the central or northern Cascades, a highlight was getting north of Everett. Just on the other side of the Snohomish River, you drove out of urbanity and into the forest. For a long stretch, on both sides of the freeway, towering firs beckoned you into the wilderness beyond.

In 2003 or so, I was devasted when one summer, we drove north, and on the west side of the freeway, the entire forest was mowed down. It is now 250 acres of paved parking, casino, hotel, box stores, and an outlet mall.

Out of a Winter Garden


Today’s rain has washed most of the snow and ice away. Surprise, underneath the cold snow, the winter vegetables stayed as fresh as ever. The sprouting onions are as fresh as spring time green onions. There’s no need to truck in produce from far away California and Mexico.


Nothing beats having just-picked fresh greens for a winter meal.

No Escaping Beauty


There is no escaping beauty. Sometimes it explodes in front of your face when you least expect it, like this morning when I stepped out onto the back patio and beauty flooded the sky from horizon to horizon.


There was the snow covered log, bobbing on the pond, the roll of wire turned into a work of art by yesterday’s snow, and the wooden bridge made soft and woolly by a blanket of soft snow.


Nestled away in the chicken coop, two month old chicks are in that awkward stage where at times they look like scruffy old buzzards instead of the little princesses they are.


It’s Been a Long Time


It’s been five years since the chickens have had so much snow to run around in. Most of them are new to this and would rather not. The snow fell from early morning through much of the day. Even if it is sunny this weekend as forecast, this is close enough to be a White Christmas.


Happy New Year!


Happy New Year! The calendar says New Years is still eleven days away, but today is the beginning of the new year as far as I am concerned. This morning, at 2:44 am Pacific Time, you could hear the earth creak and groan as it decided it had slept enough and it was time to start waking up. For those of us north of the equator, and especially those of us who live closer to the north pole than the equator, the days will start to get longer. Spring is just around the corner.


Today, the shadows in the northern hemisphere are longer than they will ever be. Longitudinally, I live closer to the north pole than from where I grew up, which explains why the length of day and night didn’t make much of an impression on me as a boy. Now I have a sense of sadness when the summer solstice arrives in late June and the days start to shorten. That is six months away, and until then, it’s time to be happy, happy, happy and enjoy the lengthening days. There are 193 of them to come. Plenty of days to build up enough happiness to last all the way through to the next winter solstice.

Whole Wheat Anpan – A World First?


Hmm, the an, sweet bean paste, I made brought back memories of a staple of my childhood, anpan あんパン, buns stuffed with an. Anpan are always made with the whitest, fluffiest dough imaginable.


What would anpan made with 100% whole wheat dough taste like? Let alone with the 100% whole wheat levain dough I have rising on top of the refrigerator? I’ll never know if I don’t try.


Less than a hour later, the whole wheat levain anpan are ready to try. Wow! They turned out much better than I thought they would. The slighty tangy levain bread blends well with the sweetness of the an. They turned out good enough that I have a bowl of adzuki beans soaking to make more an tomorrow. If you look closely, the beans look like they’re smiling.


Pastures of Swans


The swans are on pastures by the hundreds. Here a flock, there a flock, everywhere a flock. Swans are constantly moving in small groups from one flock to another. What is that all about? Is the grass better over there? Is the gossip juicier? Watch a flock of swans for any length of time and the questions flow nonstop.


On a Gentle Snow

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A gentle snow fell all morning. As I watched the snowflakes fall, I thought about the stories that each flake could tell. In their short lives, snowflakes have a lot of excitement. One moment they are tumbling tens of thousands of feet in the air, watching jet planes shoot by. The next moment they are swirling by flying crows’ feet. In the end they are drifting softly to the earth. What could each snowflake tell us about the sights they have seen?


The chickens are staying indoors more than not. The rosemary stems curl to stay warm, waiting for a warmer day.


Last night we watched a touching movie, Sweet Bean. The Japanese title is あん, pronounced, “An”, the sweet bean paste usually made with adzuki beans.

In the movie, 76 year old Tokue 徳江 describes how, when she is boiling adzuki beans to make an, she keeps her ear near the pot to listen to the beans. “Everything in this world has a story. You can even hear what the shadows and the wind have to say. Listening to the beans, I imagine the wind, rain, and sun the beans saw as they grew. What kind of wind blew the beans? I listen to the story of their journey,” she says.


There is a lot of truth in those words. Through the spring and summer as I tend the vegetables, it may look like nothing much is happening, but every plant that grows has a rich life. There are worms and tiny critters tickling their roots. At times they must tickle so much the plants want to laugh and scream. All day long, bees, and flies, and spiders, and thousands of other tiny insects drop by for a visit. They experience cool mists, gentle rains, and downpours. Blazing hot sunshine beats down on their leaves.

So when we take a vegetable and put it on the cutting board, there is a deep richness of experience, a long, full story for us to listen to. We just need to be open to hear it.