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.

The Ghost of Christmas Trees Past

Growing up, my parents had an artificial Christmas tree. It was hauled out of the attic the weekend after Thanksgiving and assembled and decorated, ushering in the Christmas season.

I remember one year having a real tree—I loved the smell in the closed-up winter house.

When my husband and I married, we spent a few years finding our Christmas tree tradition. For the first two years, we had an eight-inch tall artificial tree in our mud house in Panama. After we returned to the US, we wanted something bigger. So we spent months making a six-foot papier-mache tree, binding on raffia needles and painting bark on the branches. It was a labour of love, and we used it until we had to move across the country, and knew it wouldn’t survive the experience. 

Then babies happened, and for a few years, our Christmas trees were real trees—there was no time or energy for creativity in those early years.

By the time we moved to New Zealand, we were settled into the parent routine enough to be creative again. And summer Christmases invited creativity. We fashioned trees out of driftwood, dead branches pruned off trees in the yard, an old fishing net, fencing wire and flax stalks, copper plumbing, live runner beans—most trees were inspired by what was lying around the property at the time.

Last year, we fashioned a DNA strand as a Christmas tree. Elegant and simple.

This year, we went for crazy, creating an architectural monstrosity from cardboard boxes.

You might wonder what the point is—wouldn’t it be easier and more, well, Christmasy to do a more traditional tree? Yes. But what is a Christmas tree for?

I view a Christmas tree as a focal point—somewhere for family to gather. Our trees have always been decorated with ornaments that have a history—maybe they were made by someone special, or given by a friend, or came from an exotic location. Decorating the tree has always been a time to celebrate the family stories behind the ornaments.

Why shouldn’t that family activity extend to making the tree itself? This year’s tree took a lot of time to make, and we spent several evenings as a whole family working on it—making a tremendous mess of the living room, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company and creativity. That’s exactly what Christmas traditions should do.

So, perhaps our trees don’t meet the traditional definition of a Christmas tree, but I think they embody the spirit of the season.

Summer?

It’s been decidedly un-summer-like recently. We’ve had an exceptionally wet two weeks—there’s a puddle in the yard, Coes Ford is flooded, and weeds and mushrooms are sprouting everywhere.

Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped the strawberries. When my daughter braved the rain to pick, she found a surprising number of slug-bitten but delicious ripe fruits.

Strawberry shortcake for dessert, strawberries on my morning muesli, strawberries every time I walk through the kitchen…it must be summer!

Now, if only we’d see the sun…

Upcoming Events!

This Saturday, 24 November, will be a great day for book lovers in Christchurch! Two great events will be running all day. I’ve teamed up with author Jo Carson-Barr, so we’ll both have a presence at each event.

Jo will be meeting readers and selling both our books at the Wham Bam Author Jam, at the Addington Raceway from 10 to 4. Lots of other authors will be there, too, from New Zealand and Australia. It’s a great chance to discover some new authors and books!

Get tickets and more info

I’ll be at the Tamariki Book Festival in Raoura Park from 10 to 3, along with a bunch of other local authors. The Festival includes readings (mine is at 10.20 am), activities for kids (including a scavenger hunt with prizes!), and opportunities for kids of all ages to do a little creative writing of their own. I’ll have live insects for kids to check out, and will talk about how I use science in my creative writing. I’ll also be selling my books and Jo’s.

Get more info about the festival

 

Trying New Recipes

Saturday was a bread oven day (see my previous post and video if you don’t know what that entails). As luck would have it, I had just checked out some cookbooks from the local library, and I had a whole bunch of new recipes I wanted to try.

On bread days I usually bake several different things, in order to make use of the ‘free’ oven heat. It can lead to some insanity in the kitchen, as I mix up more than one recipe simultaneously. Usually I stick to things I make regularly, in order to prevent mistakes.

But Saturday I threw caution to the wind and chose three new recipes to make: sticky orange cupcakes, chocolate cardamom cake, and a sort of jam and nut pie bar.

The preparation was frenetic, but I managed to keep all three recipes straight, and the results were pretty good. The orange cupcakes were the perfect consistency—so moist, they’re more nearly pudding than cake, with coarse semolina and ground nuts giving them a wonderful grit. The flavour was good, but simple. I’m already scheming to improve them next time by sweetening with honey instead of sugar, for a more complex flavour.

The chocolate cardamom cake smelled divine. It, unfortunately, went into the freezer without a taste test, but I’m looking forward to eating it and adding another cardamom-flavoured dish to my repertoire. 

The jam and nut pie bars? I had just one bite of them before the rest went into the freezer. I think the jury’s still out on them. They certainly need some work. Both look and taste were marginal, and I suspect it wasn’t a good idea to attempt them on a bread day—a little more care would have gone a long way, at least on look. 

That’s two out of three that I think are keepers—not bad for three new recipes, made up simultaneously. Though, for my own sake, I don’t think I’ll bake three new recipes on a bread day again.

Potential Realised and Unrealised

But those apricots may or may not survive the next nor-west wind. The blueberries might be eaten by the birds before they ripen. The tomatoes could be hit by herbicide overspray. The beans might be stripped by hail. A thousand disasters might befall any of these plants and destroy their promise. And sometimes those disasters do happen—hailstorms have shredded the garden, wind has stripped every tree of fruit, birds have plucked out every seedling from the ground, overspray has twisted and stunted vegetables and decimated the grapes. I can be certain of at least one disaster every year.

But every year, something goes right, and potential is realised. Maybe the hail comes with a little extra rain that helps the vegetables recover from the damage. Maybe that wind-blown fruit can be used to make chutney. Maybe the birds ignore the blueberries, and we eat them until we think we’ll turn blue ourselves. Maybe the wind is blowing the other way when the neighbour sprays, and the garden grows unmolested by agrichemicals. A thousand things can go right and lead to abundance in the garden.

I think about this a lot as I prepare my son to leave home in a few months. He’s taking his final high school exams next week and will head to university in February. For him, it’s a time of incredible possibilities, as he launches into adulthood and pursues his passions.

But he has a difficult year ahead of him—on his own for the first time, in a new city providing lots of distractions, and without his support network of friends and family around him. A thousand things could go wrong. He could focus too much on fun and fail his classes. He could focus too much on classes and become over-stressed. He could make no friends. He could make the wrong friends. He could start drinking, smoking, using drugs. 

No doubt, one or more of these disasters will happen next year. 

But I like to think that possibilities for my son are a bit like possibilities in the garden. Regardless of the disasters, some things will go right. He may make good, positive friendships. He may enjoy Friday-night partying without losing sight of his studies. If he does fail a class, it might convince him to redouble his efforts. A thousand things could go right.

In the garden and with my son, I’m preparing for things to go wrong—for potential unrealised. But I’m also preparing for things to go right. There’s an abundant harvest building up, and I can’t wait to see what it is.

Breaking up the Work

Edits and notes … tackling one at a time

I’ve neglected my blog lately. Between springtime and the end of the school year, I’ve felt like my time at the computer has been limited, and I’ve felt the need to focus on editing.

I know, most people would take any excuse to avoid editing, and I admit it can be daunting to wade through a 70,000-word first draft of a story, knowing it needs lots of work.

It’s a bit like tackling the garden in springtime. If I look at the entire garden—all 300 square metres of it (about 3200 square feet)—when it’s waist-high with weeds in September, I freak out. It’s too much to do. I think I can’t possibly clear all that area, turn all that soil, haul compost to it, and then plant it. It’s more than one person can do.

But I do it every year.

I divide the garden into 26 beds, and I make myself a weekly plan from September through November. Each week, I have certain tasks, certain beds to prepare, and I don’t let myself look at or think about everything else that needs to be done. Each piece seems doable, and since I think I can do it, I dive right in without freaking out. Bed by bed, the entire garden is cleared, turned, composted and planted. When I arrive at late November, I can look at a beautifully prepared and planted garden and think, “Wow! I did that!”

It’s the same with editing. A first draft of a novel is a horribly weedy garden—there are inconsistencies, plot holes, leaps of time that make no sense (sometimes unintended time travel, too), typos, spelling errors, grammatical errors, scenes that don’t advance the plot, scenes in the wrong places … the list of problems with a first draft could scare anyone away from editing.

So I break it into chunks, just like the garden.

I read through my novel over and over, and each time I focus on one or two problems. I start with the big ones—continuity, inconsistency, plot holes, pacing. Then I move on to smaller problems—characterisation, dialogue, action within each scene. Then I move on to even smaller problems—grammar, spelling, and regional language issues. With each reading, I focus on a subset of things, ignoring everything else.

And suddenly, editing isn’t overwhelming. It’s manageable and even enjoyable, because I can see the improvement at each step of the way, without fretting about all the work still to come.

Hence the neglected blog—when I’m having fun editing, sometimes I forget to stop and do other things.