Food, Feelers, and Fantasy

rweissmugshotThis website is an odd mix of my interests as a writer, entomologist, naturalist, gardener, and educator. You’ll find blog posts about rural New Zealand life, links to my books, and some of my favourite recipes. Feel free to explore, drop me a line, and sign up for my e-mail list.

Equinox Excitement

Time to liberate the feet! The temperature hit 28ºC today. Hard to believe it’s that warm just two days past the equinox. I can’t complain, though—it was lovely in the garden this weekend. The only problem was that I’m still clearing the winter nettles away, so it was gumboots and jeans out there. Long about three this afternoon I called it quits and shed the protective gear for shorts bare feet—pure bliss!

I’m sure there will still be cold and wet days, there will be frost, but there’s something exciting about the changing weather at this time of year.

So a happy equinox to you all. We’ve enjoyed a taste of what’s to come here this weekend. Perhaps you’ve had summer’s last hurrah, or the first bite of autumn. Wherever you are, and whatever your weather, I hope you got out to enjoy the changes around you.

Diversity in Music

My children’s school held a showcase concert last night featuring the best of the music department.

The performances ranged from classical to jazz to swing to folk music to rock to heavy metal. Some pieces were by famous composers, others were written by the students themselves. Students dressed for their performances in clothes ranging from torn jeans and t-shirts to suits and ties and floor-length gowns.

The mood was supportive and celebratory. It recognised that the musical achievement of a student interested in heavy metal is no less than that of a student interested in classical piano. It celebrated the diversity of student achievement as well as the achievements themselves.

How different from my own high school’s showcase concerts, filled with little beyond classical and religious music, with the odd show-tune thrown in. I distinctly remember the shock in the auditorium once when a group of students not sanctioned by the school showed up and played rock-n-roll.

If you didn’t sing in choir, you didn’t sing. If you didn’t play in the marching band or the orchestra, you didn’t play. I wonder how many students decided they didn’t like music because the only music they were allowed to make was the sort they didn’t identify with. I wonder how many good musicians let their own music die because it wasn’t valued by the school and the adults around them.

My kids enjoy diverse music. Though they both play instruments, neither of them is likely to go on to become a professional musician. Still, I’m thrilled their school encourages students to explore their own music, and recognises that musical skill can be demonstrated in an ear-splitting heavy metal guitar riff just as effectively as in an operetta.

Beech Forest Hiking

I’m particularly fond of hiking in early spring. It’s not for the spring weather, which is often raw and windy, or for spring flowers, which aren’t particularly abundant in the bush. No, it’s for the lack of German wasps.

Much of the forest we hike through is dominated by beech (not the northern beech, but several species of Nothofagus). Beech is host to a fascinating ecosystem which has been invaded by non-native wasps.

Throughout much of its range, beech is infested by scale insects. The scales live in the bark of the trees, feeding on sap. Because sap is low in nutrients and high in sugar, the insects need to excrete the extra sugar. Each insect has a long anal tube through which it ‘pees’ concentrated sugar water called honeydew.

Drops of honeydew form on the tips of the anal tubes and fall to the ground, tree, trunk, and branches around the insects. The entire area ends up coated in sticky sugar.

Sooty mould grows on the sugar coated surfaces, turning trees and forest floor black, and giving the beech forest a distinctive smell. The sooty mould is eaten by a variety of insects, including moths and beetles.

But not all of the honeydew simply drops to the ground. Native birds and insects (and hikers) drink the drops of water on the tips of the scales’ anal tubes. For wildlife, honeydew is an important winter food, when flower nectar is scarce.

German wasps enjoy honeydew, too, but only in the summer.

By mid-summer, the beech forest hums with the sound of millions of wasps collecting honeydew. For me—allergic to wasp stings—it means a hike requires constant vigilance lest I grab a tree trunk for balance and end up in anaphylactic shock. But in springtime, the wasps aren’t yet out and about, and I can enjoy the sticky smell of the beech ecosystem without worry.

Springtime Adventure–Mt. Oxford

I’ve been AWOL from the blog for a couple of days. I have a good excuse, though. Friday I raced from 5.30 am to 7 pm to do two days worth of work in one day. I managed to plant out all the peas, lettuce, and spinach, cleaned the house, baked cookies, did a bunch of writing and editing…

It was all in preparation for taking the entire day off yesterday to go for a hike.

We had a lovely day hiking to the top of Mt. Oxford. It was a long day, too, by any measure—7 1/2 hours of hiking, 31,700 steps (according to the phone’s health app), 20 km, and over 1 km elevation from carpark to peak.

Starting from a honey bee farm, the track climbs through beech forest and into subalpine tussock. Yesterday the hike had everything—snow, mud, sun and rain, wind. The lichens were especially exuberant, as was one particular rifleman (a tiny bird, for those of you unfamiliar with NZ fauna) who shot through the trees with such abandon, it smacked me in the face. It was the perfect springtime adventure.

Te Wiki o te Reo Māori

Aotearoa–land of the long white cloud

Tēnā koutou!

It’s Te Wiki o te Reo Māori—Māori Language Week.

My grasp of te reo is poor. I know a few phrases, a smattering of words, a couple of waiata (songs). But I’m always eager to pick up new vocabulary and phrases. I love languages. They speak to a culture’s values, and reveal some of its history.

I also enjoy finding the similarities between languages—phrases and sayings that reveal truths that transcend culture and geography.

For example, check out these Maori proverbs:

E mua kaikai, e muri kai huare.
Early arrivals have the pick, but late comers may only get spittle.
Doesn’t that remind you of ‘The early bird gets the worm’?

Waiho ma te tangata e mihi, kia tau ai.
It would be better to let others praise.
Sounds like ‘Don’t blow your own horn’ to me.

Mauri mahi, mauri ora; mauri noho, mauri mate.
Industry begets prosperity (security); idleness begets poverty (insecurity).
Bears a striking resemblance to ‘Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’.

He manako te koura i kore ai.
Crayfish are scarce when they are expected.
To me, that says ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch’.

Have a great week everyone!

Haere rā!

Living With Earth

Coes Ford–open…just.

Nature is bigger than we are.

That’s been clear from world events the past few weeks—flooding in Indonesia, earthquake in Mexico, multiple hurricanes in the Atlantic.

We can pretend the natural world doesn’t affect us. We can do our best to engineer human structures and our daily lives so that, most of the time, we forget we are an integral part of Earth. But I think this is a terrible mistake.

On my way to and from town every day, I cross the Selwyn River. Normally, I do this at a spot called Coes Ford.

The Selwyn River floods. It’s simply part of the hydrology and ecology of the river. The low bridge over the Selwyn at Coes Ford acknowledges flooding. The bridge was never meant to allow passage over the river during a flood. It was meant to survive floods intact, and provide passage during low water.

The ford has been closed for several weeks, but reopened yesterday. The bridge itself is still underwater, but it’s passable.

To me, there is something right and good about an infrastructure that acknowledges the forces of nature and doesn’t try to control them. It is good for us to accept that, while we have great influence, we are not masters of the planet. At Coes Ford, we will be inconvenienced by floods. This is part of the natural order. It is part of what it means to live here. And if we are inconvenienced by floods, we will notice when the pattern of flooding changes. We will feel that something is amiss. Hopefully, we will do something about it. It’s not a coincidence that when the Selwyn stopped flooding and dried up last summer, the focus of the worry was at Coes Ford—that’s where the locals understand the river’s pulse the best.

If we are separated from the rhythms of the planet, we won’t notice when something is wrong, locally or globally. When we are separated from the rhythms of the planet, we may not notice problems with our life-support system until it is too late. Separated from, and ignorant of the rhythms of the planet, it’s easy to deny that there are any problems.

And so, I embrace the inconvenience of Coes Ford. I thank the engineers who chose to accept the Selwyn River for what it is. I hope that, as human technology advances, we continue to remember our interdependence on the natural systems of Earth. We must live with the earth, not on it.