Death in the Paddock

100_1931smI buried a goat today—Ixcacao, my little toggenburg. Well, I considered her little until I had to dig a hole big enough for her, and drag all 65 kg of her deadweight over to it.

I’ve found that, for most of the goats, digging their graves gives me the time and exercise I need to face the loss stoically. Usually, anyway. But each death is a blow.

There was Hebe, 9 months old, dead two weeks after I bought her. No clear cause. Just dead one morning.

Quickly following her was Hebe 2, four months old, who tore the ligaments in one of her knees. “If she were a rugby player, we’d operate on her, but…” was the way the vet delivered the verdict. I had kidded her myself at the end of a long struggle with three tangled kids. She was weak and couldn’t stand properly for the first few weeks, and I’d hand fed her until she could hold her own against her two big brothers. I held her while the vet put her down.

Hebe is the Greek goddess of youth. I should have known no goat named Hebe would live to adulthood.

There was Demeter, eight years old, who poisoned herself on green acorns, destroying her liver and causing her to waste away. She had always been a sweetheart. I sat next to her in the goat shed, stroking her head while the vet injected her.

There was Delilah, three years old, who wasted away, probably from Johnes disease. She was never particularly friendly, but I sat with her, too, when the vet came to put her down.

Ixcacao, four, went too fast for me to call in the vet. She had been off her feed a bit yesterday, which I attributed to being in season. Now, I think she must have had a tumour—she’d been looking a bit lopsided lately. And I wonder if it had been there in the spring when she delivered a dead, malformed kid. I won’t ever know, I suppose. She gave me no signs of trouble until late yesterday.

As a breeder once said to me, “If you have goats, you have dead goats.” It just goes with the territory, I suppose.

And tomorrow we will get up and carry on with another ordinary day.


2016-03-30 08.37.09 smWhen I picked it up on the beach, it was lichen-green. A fist-sized chunk of serpentine that looked all but translucent. It was almost alive.

I brought it back to the campground. As it dried, it lost some of its lustre. It lost its translucence, but remained green.

When we packed up to come home, I took the rock with me, nestled in a cup holder in the car. Leaving the humid, green West Coast, we drove up over the mountains, and back into dry, brown Canterbury.

When I picked the rock out of the car, it was frosty white, with a few sparkles of pyrite in the crevices. Dry and dead.

I think people are like that rock.

When we see them in their own “habitat”—in the place where they feel they belong—they are alive and vibrant. They show their depth and their colours. We see their full beauty.

But when we see a person in a place where they don’t feel like they belong—a place where they’re uncomfortable—they frost over. We see only their surface and little of their beauty. There may be hints—small sparkles in the crevices, if we look closely—but most of their beauty will be hidden.

I used to see this a lot, working at nature centres in the U.S. Teachers would regularly warn me about “problem” children. Kids who were nothing but troublemakers, according to the teachers.

I took special note of these children, because I learned quickly that they were likely to be my best students. Take them out of the classroom where they felt they didn’t belong, and put them in a place where they could shine, and they invariably did. They were often smart, funny, helpful, eager to engage with the subject, and bursting with questions—completely different from the sullen, disengaged, miscreants the teachers viewed them as.

I don’t think their transformation had anything to do with my teaching skills—it was simply that they were more comfortable outdoors, moving around, picking up sticks, throwing rocks. They were in their habitat, and could show their beauty. I wished the teachers could have seen their students’ transformations—most of the time, the teachers sat around drinking coffee while their students were out on the trails. I don’t think they believed me when I told them how marvellous their “problem” students were.

Take my word for it. This rock is beautiful.2016-03-30 08.40.54 sm

Fungal Forest

Entoloma hoschstetteri--the only fungus that appears on a nation's currency.

Entoloma hoschstetteri–the only fungus that appears on a nation’s currency.

Over the weekend, we went on a lovely hike from Okarito, through the bush up the hill behind the town, over to the next lagoon, and back via the beach.

The beach part was, naturally, lovely, with huge waves, trickling waterfalls down the cliffs, and a lazy seal who watched us pass.

Hygrocybe spp.--known as waxcaps--the Crayola of the fungi

Hygrocybe sp.–known as waxcaps–the Crayola of the fungi

But the real beauty lay on the forest floor. The track was like a Disney storybook forest, with colourful mushrooms everywhere. It just needed a few gnomes or fairies to be complete.

This unknown mushroom had a lovely lace petticoat.

This unknown mushroom had a lovely lace petticoat.

Lycoperdon spp--a puffball. The genus name means "wolf fart"

Lycoperdon sp.–a puffball. The genus name means “wolf fart”

Another member of the genus Hygrocybe

Another member of the genus Hygrocybe

Small Town Celebration

2016-03-26 10.31.51 smWe spent Friday and Saturday nights last week at the Okarito campground. As it happened, Saturday was Okarito’s 150th anniversary celebration. Okarito used to be a town of about 4000 people, back in the late 1800s when the West Coast gold fields were booming. The town sported a 25 hotels, 3 theatres, two banks, several general stores, and a public swimming pool, Today it has a year-round population of about 30. Most of what was once bustling streets has been reclaimed by the rainforest. There are no hotels (though many of the baches are rented as holiday homes), no banks, no pool, and the only remaining general store serves as a tiny museum and event venue seating 40. You can buy a coffee and insect repellent at the local kayak rental company.

Okarito is 30 minutes drive from the township of Franz Josef Glacier, and 3 hours from Hokitika. In the middle of nowhere, I was curious to see how many people would actually show up to the town’s 150th celebration.

It started off slow…

The festivities were scheduled to start at 9 am and run through to 10 pm on Saturday. At 9.00, there were a few people setting up in the marquis…

About 10.30, the bouncy castle was inflated, and half a dozen kids tumbled around on it. We bought a coffee from a food truck that had parked on the edge of the commons and some baked goods from some girls who had set up a table on the lawn. There was a woodworker, the local scout troupe, a few Department of Conservation staff, some locals selling second-hand goods, a knitter selling baby sweaters, a woman selling jam and goat cheese…And very few customers.

By the time the auction started, there might have been 50 visitors, most locals. A good proportion of the items up for auction were purchased by the auctioneer.

A couple of dozen people enjoyed the barbecue dinner.

When the band started playing at 7pm, there were maybe 30 people in attendance. But the music brought out a surprising number, and within half an hour, there was an audience of 125.

Most of that 125 knew one another. They were local farmers, residents, bach owners, regular visitors, and young people working the local tourism industry. Everyone knew each others’ dogs by name, and the dogs chased each other around the crowd like young cousins at the annual Labour Day get-together. It was a lovely atmosphere—more like a family reunion than a public event.

I don’t know whether the Community Association had hoped for a larger crowd, or if it exceeded their expectations. I don’t know if they made back the cost of the marquis rental. But I do know that those who were there smiled, laughed, and enjoyed the day.

Otira Valley

2016-03-25 10.41.03 smWe spent the past three days on the West Coast. On the way over the mountains, we stopped for a hike up the Otira Valley.

The track goes through stunning, diverse alpine vegetation, much of which was in seed at this time of year—lots of weird and wonderful berries to be seen! Though we were lucky to avoid being rained on ourselves, there had been recent rain, so the track was wet, and every little rivulet was running. The Otira River roared below us.

The day was moody, and low clouds shrouded the mountain tops around us.

2016-03-25 11.19.21 HDR smI love the alpine environment. One of the most wonderful things about it is that its beauty lies both in the minute plant life clinging to the rocks, and in the grand vistas—one must view the landscape at both scales to fully appreciate it. We spent our time divided between marvelling over some tiny plant, and admiring the peaks and waterfalls around us.

The Shark


DSC_0035 smThe desiccated body grimaced.
Mouth agape
Spine twisted
As though frozen in mid-thrash.
Fins, resistant to shrivelling, looked too big
For the small form
Once so sleek and streamlined
Once the terror
Of small fish in the surf.
Brought to this ignominious end
By the bright tip of a hook
Hidden in some tasty morsel.
By the fisherman who reeled him in.

Diptera—the Flies

tachinid2With several thousand sheep as neighbours, it’s no surprise the house is full of flies all summer.

There are, of course, house flies, but the Dipterans don’t stop there, and not all of them are around for the sheep poo. We also have lesser house flies, crane flies, fungus gnats, midges (which I’ve mentioned before), several species of blowfly, drone flies, striped dung flies, ginger bristle flies, two species of soldier fly, robber flies, longlegged flies…and those are just some of the flies that find their way into the house.

Not all of the flies are pests, though none really belong in the house. Some are important pollinators, many are decomposers breaking down plant and animal material, some prey on pest flies, and all are food for other animals.

And, like all insects, they are inspiration for doggerel…

The order Diptera
Known as the flies
Have one pair of wings
(I tell you no lies)

They’re often seen flying
‘Round garbage and such
And generally people
Don’t like them too much.

Throwback Thursday: Panama Nights

HousePmasmI recently ran across a series of haiku I wrote by lamplight, sitting on the porch of our house in Panama many years ago. I still think they capture those evenings, full of water, wildlife, and the sounds of the village around us.

Rats’ tin nights.
Dancing rooftop rodents
Steal my sleep.

Muggy night
Love in stagnant puddle
Mud. Eep! Mud.

Evening chant for the dead.
Do they hear?

Lightning strike
Shatters bones and makes the
Cat lie low.

Frogs clatter
Loving neck deep in
Calm wet nights.

Keep a calm
Ear listening. You may
Hear trees sing.


Hedge trimming

Trimmer looming out of the early morning fog. Note the circular blade to the left--he switched to that later.

Trimmer looming out of the early morning fog next door. Note the circular blade to the left–he switched to that later.


The sound, like a helicopter crashing into a stand of trees, is unmistakable, though the first time I heard it, I had no idea what it was—a giant hedge trimmer.

Hedges are a necessity here on the windswept Canterbury Plains, and autumn is hedge trimming season.

Our hedge, hemmed in by fruit trees and the septic system, has to be trimmed by hand—a full-day job for my husband and me, and one we put off as long as we can every year.

Here's another, snapped along the roadside on the way to town.

Here’s another, snapped along the roadside on the way to town.

Our neighbours, however, have their hedges trimmed by professional hedging contractors. The hedge trimming machines they use are terrifying—giant, armoured vehicles with a long crane arm bearing any one of a number of wicked-looking cutting devices.

There are circular saw blades the size of a man, two-metre wide lawn mower blades, heavy chains that just beat the branches off the hedge. The machines must be Occupational Safety and Health’s worst nightmare. Some have an 18 metre reach, and the result is perfectly trimmed hedges the size of castle battlements.


Cape Gooseberries

2016-03-22 19.08.56 smCape gooseberries (Physalis peruviana) are not something you’re likely to find in the grocery store. The plant is native to Peru and Chile, and has been introduced into most temperate and tropical climates around the world as a fruit for home gardens. It has been only sporadically commercially grown, however.

The fruit’s flavour defies categorisation. It is like a sour grape crossed with a tomato—not entirely surprising, as it is related to tomatoes. The initial sensation is the sour, and then they leave a lingering fruity tomato flavour in the mouth.

Cape gooseberries grow reasonably well here—some years they grow too well, actually. I’m still learning how to use them and how to enjoy their odd flavour. This year we got only a handful, as I wasn’t able to water them as much as they needed in this hot, dry summer.

Their tartness goes well in jams, chutneys, pies, and fruit salads. They’re also good eaten right in the garden—the papery husk acts as a handle, so you can snack on them even with hands dirty from gardening!

In temperate climates they are an annual, though here they often overwinter, if the weather is mild. In tropical climates they are perennial.

They’re definitely a plant to try, if you’ve never grown them.