Food, Feelers, and Fantasy

This 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.

Yard Long Red Noodle

Yard Long Red Noodle alongside scarlet runner beans.

Along with all the other heat-loving plants that did well in this summer’s garden is the bean Yard Long Red Noodle (Vigna unguiculata—the same species as cowpeas). I have never had luck with these beans here in New Zealand—they are particularly sensitive to herbicide overspray, and also prefer it hotter than our summers normally are (ideal temperature for them is 30ºC). But this year, the plants germinated slowly, which spared them the springtime overspray, and the summer was hot and wet. I can’t say they’ve thrived (we grew yard long beans in Panama, and so I know what they’re supposed to grow like), but they have managed to produce a small crop of ridiculous-looking beans. The beans aren’t exactly a yard (90 cm) long, but they’re 30 cm (12 inches) or more, and are the sort of silly crop to make everyone smile.

Their red colour is pretty in the garden, and unlike many other red or purple vegetables, they retain their colour when cooked. Good enough reasons for me to plant them, in spite of their poor performance here—a few go a long way.


Most people give little thought to earthworms. Even gardeners, who appreciate their presence, don’t spend much time considering which species of worm are present.

But species matters.

Here in New Zealand, we have about 200 species of earthworms, most of which are native. The native and non-native worms are sharply segregated by habitat—natives in native habitats, non-natives in agricultural and urban habitats. So all the worms we see in our gardens are non-native species.

When you’re used to the small to medium sized non-native worms, finding a native worm is exciting. They’re generally larger than the non-native worms—sometimes much larger. Some can grow to nearly a metre and a half (59 in) in length.

We were lucky enough to find this native worm on Mount Oxford over the weekend. I can’t positively identify the species, but it’s likely to be Octochaetus multiporus. This was a young specimen—not yet reproductive age (as evidenced by its lack of a clitellum)—but already about 20 cm (8 in) long and as thick as my pinky finger. This particular species grows to about 30 cm (12 in) long.

O. multiporus is a particularly interesting worm because it is bioluminescent and spits a bioluminescent defence compound when disturbed. On the bright sunny day we found this one, there was no hope of seeing any bioluminescence. Still, it was a great find on our walk.

Fungal Wonderland

A family hike on Saturday took us through a fungal wonderland on Mount Oxford. Everywhere we looked, it seemed, fruiting bodies were popping out. White, brown, blue, purple, red, black—fabulous diversity of species, form and colour.

My favourite of the day, however, were not the big, showy Amanita muscaria or the lurid purple Cortinarius porphyroideus, but these unassuming (and unidentifiable by us) little shelf fungi. They were growing out of the underside of a fallen log we had to duck under, and their gills made stunning, artistic patterns. Unremarkable though the mushrooms themselves were, the perspective of seeing them from below turned them into something truly special.

Amazing how a simple shift of perspective can turn the ordinary extraordinary.

Watermelons Rule

Nothing says summer like watermelon—a seasonal fruit that matures during the hottest days of the year, and doesn’t keep.

Watermelon is an unreliable crop here. Twelve years ago, when we first arrived, I was told watermelon doesn’t grow in Canterbury. I’ve planted it every year, regardless, because I can’t imagine a summer without it.

Some years we get nothing. The plants don’t grow at all, or they grow too slowly to produce mature fruit before the first frost, or they’re nailed by herbicide overspray. Some years we get a few smallish fruits that we savour as rare delicacies.

This year we are awash in watermelon. The fruits aren’t big—even the largest hasn’t reached the weight the seed catalogue says this variety should—but they’re the largest watermelons we’ve managed to grow here. And most importantly, they’re sweet, crisp and delicious. And there are lots of them!

As I sit on my office deck spitting seeds, I am reminded of the magical poem by John Tobias—Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity.

I wonder if my kids will remember this year of watermelon as Tobias wrote…

“…During that summer—
Which may never have been at all;
But which has become more real
Than the one that was—
Watermelons ruled…”

International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day. Today I’m pleased to live in the country that was first to achieve women’s suffrage—in 1893. It would not have happened without the tireless effort of many women. Kate Sheppard, who led the charge, is commemorated on New Zealand’s $10 note.

Five bills giving women the vote, the first as early as 1878, nearly passed Parliament before the 1893 bill was successful. The successful bill was backed up by a petition signed by 32,000 women. That may not seem like a lot of signatures today, but it represented one-quarter of the female population of the country. That achievement, at a time before social media, e-mail, faxes, or even decent road access to much of the country, is truly astonishing.

Of course, suffrage was only one step in the journey toward gender equality. It wasn’t until 1933 that New Zealand saw its first female Member of Parliament, and though we’ve now had three female Prime Ministers, women are still underrepresented in the government. Women still earn 9 percent less than men (though that is much better than the 18 percent difference in Australia, the UK and the US). Women still face sexism at work and in daily life. There is still much to be done.

But I am heartened by the progress that has been made. It is encouraging to see younger women and girls speaking up and speaking out, and taking for granted rights and opportunities my generation was only beginning to grasp at their age.

As a Peace Corps volunteer twenty-five years ago, much of the work I did was with women, empowering them to be leaders in their community and beyond. It is generally acknowledged in international development circles that if you empower the women, you raise the well-being of the entire community (more so than if you expend the same effort empowering men). This is every bit as true in the developed world as it is in the developing world. No society benefits from oppressing half its population.

As a high school student, I participated in a job-shadowing day. At the time, I was interested in a career in wildlife management, so I shadowed a ranger at a local wildlife management area. When I walked in the door that morning, the director crossed his arms and scowled at me.

“We don’t like girls,” he said.


Sorry to hear that. We’re here to stay.

Beach Walk

Husband: “How about we go for a walk on the beach after dinner?”

My brain: What? No. I have to write today’s blog, finish the story I was working on, tidy the office, make granola, sweep the floor, fold the laundry, weed the garden, pick tomatoes, sort the recycling…

My brain at the beach: Yeah…Whatever…Did you see this cool pebble?

Green Orb Weaver

This year has apparently been good for the green orbweb spider (Colaranea viriditas); I usually see them only rarely, but I’ve run across quite a few this summer.

These beauties are pale green with a kelly green leaf-shaped mark covering the abdomen.

As the name implies, these spiders make orb webs—the spiral-shaped webs everyone’s familiar with. Though they’re primarily nocturnal, I’ve regularly seen them hanging out in the middle of their webs during the daytime (often snacking on an insect). These sharp-looking spiders apparently like a tidy web; they rebuild their webs nightly, and the webs are always as attractive as their residents.

The green orb weaver’s main predator is the native potter wasp, which paralyses the spiders with a sting and stuffs them into its nest for its larvae to feed on. However, the green orb weaver appears to be better at hiding from potter wasps than the non-native Australian orb weaver (at least on our property). Earlier this summer, the potter wasps decided that the screw holes in the bottom of the dining room table were perfect nest holes—every one of the dozens of orb weavers they crammed into the table was an Australian orb weaver.

I enjoy finding these little green gems in the garden. They’re as beautiful as they are helpful.