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.

A Reason to Celebrate

“Wow! What’s the occasion?” he asked.

I shrugged. “I felt like it.”

Then I thought more about it. What’s the occasion?

The sun shone all day today.
I had a good writing week.
The kids have been helpful all day.
The snowdrops are blooming.
Pīwakawakas outside my office door.
The neighbour gave us grapefruits.
My seed order arrived in the post.
I had just enough sugar to make the icing.

Every day is a day to celebrate. Every day is a day to enjoy whatever gifts life offers, no matter how small.

Go ahead. Have some cake. Be sure to try the frosting. It’s one of my favourites:

Grapefruit frosting

Beat until smooth:
250 g (8 oz) cream cheese
1 1/2 cups confectioners (icing) sugar

Add and beat until smooth:
1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp fresh grapefruit juice
1 Tbsp grated grapefruit zest
1 tsp grated lemon zest

Spread on your favourite cake.

Learn Something New

My first skeins of mohair yarn, showing improvement from left to right.

Not long ago I learned to spin. I should have learned earlier, right after my angora goats were shorn the first time, but I looked at all that mohair and lost heart—it was too much for me to deal with. So I dropped it off at a commercial spinner.

A year later, the spinner still hadn’t spun my mohair and finally admitted they had no intention of ever getting to it, so I picked it back up and brought it home.

It was time to learn to spin.

At first I hated it. It was fiddly and frustrating. The resulting yarn, if you could even call it that, was thick and lumpy. I was set to give up on it.

But a friend who spins encouraged me to keep working on it—it’s always hard at first, she said, and that lumpy thick yarn is beautiful and artistic in its own right.

I took her advice, and kept at it. A hundred metres of thick lumpy yarn later, I suddenly found I was producing fairly consistent worsted-weight yarn. And I was enjoying it!

Learning something new is never easy. I know I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s worth repeating. We watch accomplished people at the task, and we think, “I’d like to do that.” Then we try, and our efforts are fumbling, the results uninspired. It takes determination (and often encouragement from others) to push through the initial discouragement and get to the point where you can enjoy the new skill.

I’ve tried to teach my kids that it’s worth pushing through that learning hump to gain a new skill. Sometimes I need reminding myself.

Happy New (Garden) Year!

I love the month of July; it’s the beginning of the garden year in my mind, because it’s the month I plan the garden and order my seeds. It’s been a few years since I blogged about my garden year, so I figured it was time to do it again. I unearthed this little graphic my husband helped me create a few years back, showing my annual planting and harvesting schedule. It has changed a little since then, and I notice some crops, like garlic, are missing from it, but it’s still a fairly good indication of my year in the garden.

I struggled the first few years here. Coming from the Northern Hemisphere, I had no idea when I should plant things. And the idea of growing vegetables over winter was foreign to me, too.; gardening in Minnesota and Pennsylvania is sharply seasonal. It’s seasonal here, too, but much less dramatically so.

Instead of growing a ton of spinach over the summer and freezing it for winter, I learned to simply plant small quantities regularly throughout the year, for a perpetual supply of fresh greens. Same with lettuce, chard, broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.

Today my garden year ebbs and flows, but there is never a down time in the garden. There is always something to plant, weed or pick. The end of last year overlaps with the beginning of this year, so while I plan my seed order, I’m harvesting the lettuces, broccoli, leeks and other late crops planted in the autumn, and I’m weeding the garlic and broad beans that will be harvested in the coming spring and summer.

Sometimes I miss the complete downtime of gardening in Minnesota—the winter lull when there’s no need to go out and weed in the cold. But only sometimes. The never-ending garden year here has its perks in garden-fresh vegetables year-round.

To the Beach

While all you folks in the Northern Hemisphere are flocking to be beach for a swim and some sun and sand, we are shivering down here in the dark days of winter. But that doesn’t mean we don’t go to the beach.

Research from England has found that people living by the coast have better physical and mental health than those living inland. I can certainly understand that.

Growing up three hours’ drive from the beach, I visited the ocean about once a year. My husband, raised in the midwestern US, doesn’t remember seeing the ocean until age twelve or thirteen.

Today, we live a mere four kilometres from the beach. When the wind is calm, we can hear the surf. When the wind is high, we can smell the sea. Even without research to back us up, we’ve learned to head to the beach when we’re stressed.

Our beach isn’t a white-sand swimming beach—it’s made of cobbles, and the waves pound viciously on the shore. It’s not a place to swim, nor really a place to sit for very long (those rocks get uncomfortable fast). It’s a place to walk. A place to search for wave-polished rocks in glittering colours. A place to watch sea birds, dolphins, and the occasional seal. A place to leave all the stress of daily life behind (I challenge anyone to remain stressed while watching dolphins cavorting in the waves).

Researchers point to the calming blue colour, the hypnotic sound of waves, and the cultural context of the beach to explain its calming effect. But for me its influence is more profound. Our beach is usually free of other people—on a busy day you might see four others. From the beach, it is difficult to see any sign of humans at all—the odd bit of flotsam, but not even much of that. On our beach, the world is reduced to sky, water, and rock, shared only with wildlife. It’s easy to imagine the world is in better shape than it is. It’s easy to believe the vast ocean will endure, in spite of human stupidity. It’s easy to think those rare Hector’s dolphins, which we see nearly every time we visit the beach, are actually common. For the space of time we inhabit the beach, all is right in the world.

It doesn’t last, of course, but it’s good to have that escape so close at hand.

Beautiful Brawny Barnacles

My daughter and I went for a walk on the beach after school yesterday. It was chilly, but calm, with a clear mid-winter sky and dolphins in the surf.

Washed up on the beach was a large tree stump crusted with barnacles whose colours mirrored the evening sky. The size and profusion of barnacles indicate the tree was lodged in the water for a long time before it was hurled onto our beach.

Barnacles are strange creatures. They’re crustaceans—kin to crabs, shrimp, and lobsters—but they don’t look anything like their relatives. Barnacles have given up the ability to move on their own (after a brief mobile larval stage), and instead settle down in places where the water moves around them—intertidal zones, the backs of whales and the bottoms of ships are popular barnacle real estate. Instead of having to wander in search of food, moving water carries lunch to the barnacles, and they filter it out of the water with feathery appendages called cirri.

Staying put in places where waves pound day in and day out isn’t easy. Barnacles produce a ‘glue’ that’s one of the strongest natural adhesives around. With a tensile strength of 35 N/mm2 (5000 psi), it rivals the best commercial epoxies. In a strange quirk of biology, the glue is produced by a gland at the base of the barnacle’s antennae, and so the animal is glued head-first to the substrate. Once glued to its home, the barnacle forms a ring of plates around its body to protect it (this is all that is left of the barnacles pictured here—the animals themselves have died).

There are costs to gluing oneself in place. Unlike other sessile animals like corals who release their eggs and sperm into the water for fertilisation, most barnacles rely on internal fertilisation. To reach their neighbours and manage this feat, the hermaphroditic (both male and female) animals have penises that can be 8 times the length of their bodies. Until recently, researchers thought this was the only way barnacles could reproduce, but in 2013, a study found that at least one species of barnacle (with a particularly short penis) can capture sperm from the water if it’s too far from its neighbours.

Barnacles are of human importance. They encrust ships, leading to increased drag and fuel costs. But their habit of attaching themselves to all sorts of debris can also be used forensically to track marine wildlife like whales and turtles, items from shipwrecks and airplane crashes, and marine debris. Additionally, barnacles are considered culinary delicacies in Spain, Portugal and Chile.

Beautiful and brawny, weird and wonderful, barnacles always make me smile.

Self-control … yeah, right.

Now that we’re on the upside of the winter solstice, I’ve planted my garlic—108 cloves, which should yield about 100 heads, assuming my usual success rate.

That’s absolutely too much garlic.

It’s a bad omen. I drew up my garden plan this morning—a garden roughly three-quarters the size of the one I’ve planted for the last decade. Hopefully it won’t yield 200 pumpkins and 80 kilos of pickling cucumbers next year when my teenage son won’t be around to eat them all.

But, plan or not, if I plant other crops with the exuberance with which I planted garlic today, I’ll end up with a garden every bit as big as past gardens. Some time in the next two weeks, before this year’s seed catalogue arrives, I need to get control of my gardening urge.

Wish me luck.

Backyard Biodiversity

Craterium minutum

I know it’s been a good weekend when I arrive in my office Monday morning to find my microscope in the middle of the desk, and dirt and bits of plant material strewn about.

It means I’ve been outdoors, seeing cool stuff, identifying plants, insects, or other organisms.

Once you start looking at and identifying what lives around you, the variety is astounding. A glance at the citizen science website iNaturalist shows a pile-up of dozens of observations at our address—and those are only the species we’ve bothered to upload.  I’ve identified 58 species of weeds in the vegetable garden alone. We have half a dozen slime moulds, dozens of fungi and lichens, who knows how many insects and other invertebrates. Then, of course, there are the birds, rats, mice, stoats and other vertebrates. I’ve never bothered to make lists of anything beyond the weeds.

So here in the dark depths of winter, I’ve decided to start a comprehensive list of the biodiversity on our little acre and a half. It will take time. It will require my microscope and many Monday mornings brushing dirt off my desk. But wouldn’t it be cool to know exactly how many other species we share this patch with?

And though many of the species I’ll put on my list are ones I’ve noted many times before, I’m sure some will be new and surprising, like the beautiful slime mould, Craterium minutum my daughter found last week.

Because, the truth is, we needn’t travel far to find natural wonders. We merely need to look closely and have a sense of wonder.