Arrow-right Camera


Labor Pains Alone On 60 Acres, Marsha Semar’s Hands Nurse Life From The Land

Carrots and kale are snoozing in Marsha Semar’s giant, put-to-bed garden. The season’s first snow is falling.

“Summer is really external. You’re out there,” she says, nodding toward the mounds of mulch. “You start in April with a walk and a jog. By August, you’re in a sprint.

“Winter is internal. It’s for myself.”

It’s also by herself.

Marsha has lived on this remote 60 acres of land for 20 years. For the first time, she faces the rigors of a backwoods winter on her own.

Marsha and her husband, Ed, are separated. Her sons are grown and gone.

She looks toward winter with spunk, not dread. Being somewhere else would be much worse, she says.

“I cried many a tear when I thought I was leaving this place.”

Marsha counts herself among the “back-to-the-landers” who settled in Boundary County in the 1970s and ‘80s. They were idealistic young folk looking for escape from the material world.

Some couldn’t hack the shortage of money, the summers that are no more than a tease, the spring mud that swallows pickups.

Those who stuck around had a high tolerance for hard work and piecemeal paychecks. Marsha’s friend and neighbor Jan Rose describes their motivation as “a strong connection to the planet.”

“We have to go back to the simple tasks and simple living to remain grounded. That’s rich,” says Rose. “At one point I had six part-time jobs. Family and how you’re living is the priority. So you make do.”

Marsha is 43. She says about half of her friends have moved out of the hills. One of them, another newly single woman, just took a winter job caretaking a house in town.

For Marsha, the future is uncertain.

Will she get to stay here for good? Will she and her husband end up dividing the property? Is she tough enough to make it on her own?

Rose describes Marsha as a hard worker who can dig a half-ton of carrots and ton of potatoes by hand. “There aren’t many people who literally labor as hard as she does.”

But Marsha knows her limits.

She sold the draft horses because they require so much effort. She kept the angora rabbits because they don’t.

“My biggest challenge is the heavy work that I need done. I can trade, or whatever,” she says as a visiting friend hefts a heavy hammer outside.

He’s fixing the deer fence that protects her garden. His reward is a lunch of homemade vegetable soup and homemade bread slathered with homemade pesto. Dessert is cookies, not store-bought, from a glass jar.

Marsha’s 8-by-10-foot kitchen once was the entire house.

“It was insanity,” she says, recalling the family’s early years. “Leif had a little sleeping loft up there. We had a bed down here; we put it up during the day.”

Leif is 23 now. His 19-year-old brother, Kale, entered the world in that room.

“He was born in November and the only thing out there still growing was the kale,” she explains. “I found out later it’s actually a Celtic name.”

The house gradually got two more rooms and a loft. Marsha began selling the surplus from her garden.

It’s now what she calls a market garden, packed beans-to-brussels sprouts with produce. Garlic is the biggest profit maker, fetching $3 a pound in Bonners Ferry. She sells at the farmer’s market, which she helps manage, and delivers to regular customers.

She also sells flowers and fabric crafts. Weekly work at an auction house helps pay the bills. But the garden is “my labor of love,” Marsha says.

It would dwarf the garden she knew as a child, the one in her dad’s Milwaukee back yard.

She left home at 17, met her husband while hitchhiking west. For a couple of years they rented a place up Montana’s Yaak River Valley.

Soon they were looking for a spot on the “sunny side of the Purcells,” and bought their Idaho land. They cleared enough trees on a south slope to install the garden.

For 18 years, it was a dry-land operation.

Then, two years ago, a well was dug. It was a major life event for Marsha. She could irrigate. The growing season was instantly longer.

“The soil was already there. I’d been working on that soil for 18 years. The water released the nutrients.”

This summer, she got a root cellar. No more storing produce under the bed. In the new hillside tomb she’s laid to rest potatoes (Yukon Gold, Yellow Finns, Desiree, Red Gold). There are boxes of apples, bags of carrots, a bench full of cabbages.

Dried flowers litter the floor, reminders of a cellar-christening. She remembers the party as an indulgence of silliness.

“This is like a mausoleum,” she says inside the cool, concrete room. “It was Halloween. We had candles in here, a bonfire outside.”

Indoor plumbing has not been among the improvements in her life. The only water spigots are outside. The toilet is an outhouse with a woodland view.

Marsha shrugs off the lack of a shower. Most people, she says, use too much water to keep clean.

Because the Semars did little logging, there is plenty of wood to stoke the heating stove and the cooking stove.

Electricity arrived eight years ago in the form of solar panels. Says Marsha: “I wasn’t sorry to give up the kerosene lamps for 12-volt lights.”

Some people envy her lifestyle. But when they see how much effort it involves “they go phhhht,” she says, letting air out of her lungs like a deflating balloon.

She does know how to play. Marsha and her friends go cross-county skiing on Sundays. They call it going to church.

“If I’m spiritual, it’s in the sense of loving trees. My religion comes from within.”

She plants flowers among the fruit trees, just outside her windows. They bloom in such abundance that she rarely feels the need to bring a bouquet inside.

Poppy seed pods, globe thistles and wheat sheafs hang from her ceiling. They’ll end up in dried arrangements, sold at fairs along with her textiles.

She also organized a Mexican food booth at the fair, a fire department fund-raiser. At master gardener workshops, she shares her knowledge of which plants and flowers will grow in Boundary County.

Nothing is growing now.

It’s time to ski and spin wool. Time to examine life’s lessons, like the convergence of a mild November day and a friend who likes to swing a hammer.

There will be plenty of chores left to tackle when the snow melts. The sight of flowers poking up among the stepping stones will tell her that spring has arrived.

“When the crocuses bloom I say: All right. I’ve made it through the winter.” , DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 6 Color Photos

Tags: profile

Top stories in Nation/World

N. Korea, setting stage for talks, halts nuclear, ICBM tests

UPDATED: 10:03 p.m.

North Korea said Saturday it has suspended nuclear and long-range missile tests and plans to close its nuclear test site ahead of a new round of negotiations with South Korea and the United States. There was no clear indication in the North’s announcement if it would be willing to deal away its arsenal.