What We Don’t Know

dsc_0009We headed to Tumbledown Bay today, ostensibly to try out the new snorkelling gear Santa brought us for Christmas. The water was murky and absolutely freezing, so it wasn’t exactly the best snorkelling, but it was a great day at the beach, regardless.

The seals were probably the best part of the day. There were lots of them, and they were vocal and active most of the day. A couple of them were even body surfing. They’d catch a wave and leap along with it almost all the way to the shore, then swim out and do it again. It was great fun to watch

The rock pools were great, too, as they always are. We saw some starfish, lots of snails, limpets, and chitons. I never get tired of them. In the sandier pools there were lots of marine isopods (sea slaters). I sat for a while at one pool and watched them. Some were just 3-5 mm long and the colour of sand. Some of the sandy-coloured ones had a white diamond on their backs. One, almost 10 mm long, was rusty orange with a white diamond on its back. The most spectacular was about 8 mm long, and had red and yellow markings, reminding me, oddly, of a European goldfinch.

As I sat there, I realised I had no idea whether I was looking at one species of slater with many colour variations, or twenty species.

A little research at home revealed that I’m not alone in my lack of knowledge of New Zealand’s marine isopod fauna. There are just 211 aquatic isopod species described for New Zealand. Scientists estimate that there are about eight times that many species. It’s not just the deep-water types that are poorly known, but many of the easily seen intertidal species are also undescribed. It seems these common little scavengers have been largely overlooked by science.

So the mystery remains—how many different isopods did I see today? As far as I know, no one can tell me the answer. But rather than disappointing me, the knowledge that we just don’t know excites me.

Anyone who thinks we know everything about planet Earth and the only real frontiers are in space is sorely mistaken. There is so much to be discovered, not just in exotic locations like the Amazon rainforest, but on the beaches that thousands of people visit every year, in the rivers and streams we cross daily on our way to work, even in our own back yards. There is so much about which we understand so little. The scientist in me quivers with excitement.

Did I see one species of isopod or twenty? No one knows. Doesn’t it make you want to go to the beach and peer into tide pools to find out?


New Life for an Old Rug


A new garden area with freshly laid rug weed-block. Disguised with wood chips, no one will ever know it’s there.

Nothing lasts forever. Even well-made items eventually come to the end of their useful life.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not useful…in a different way.

Rugs get hard use in our house—there’s an awful lot of traffic in a small space. Add a dose of wool moths and high UV radiation, and it’s no wonder our rugs eventually start falling apart.

But tatty wool rugs don’t need to end up in the landfill. They can serve as excellent weed-blocking mulch in the garden. They last for years and eventually simply rot away. So much nicer than the plastic weed-block that eventually breaks up and stops working, but still needs to be removed and disposed of.

And as an added bonus, out here where there is no rubbish collection, it means we don’t need to haul the old carpet to the tip.

Cabbage Overload

img_2762When my husband and I lived in Panama, we made the trek to the provincial capital, Penonomé, every week or two. The trip involved half an hour of walking to the closest bus stop, then a bumpy forty-five minute ride down the mountain in the back of a pick-up truck. It wasn’t something to do daily.

In town, we would pick up our mail, phone home, and do some shopping. In our village, we could buy rice, beans, and a few other necessities in small quantities from the little tiendas, but we could only get vegetables from town (we were nowhere close to self-sufficient in vegetables there).

With no refrigeration, and tropical heat, fresh vegetables didn’t last long. We ate well for a few days after a shopping run, but by the end of the week, we were usually down to plain rice.

The most long-lasting vegetable we had was cabbage. A cabbage might last an entire week before it was too wilted or rotted to eat. So every trip to town, we bought a cabbage, and for at least two meals a week, we ate cabbage and rice.

At that rate, in our two years of Peace Corps service, we ate about a hundred cabbages. By the time we left, we couldn’t bear to even look at a cabbage. It was several years before we considered eating one again.

Today, we enjoy about a dozen cabbages a year, most in the form of sauerkraut or coleslaw. The idea of cooking up a pot of cabbage and rice is still repulsive, but with cabbage being a year-round crop here, it’s good to be able to make use of it.

When is a zucchini not a zucchini?

img_2757The zucchinis (courgettes) started producing over a week ago, so I’ve been spending more time among the plants. I noticed that one of the varieties was behaving in a very un-zucchini-like fashion—sending rambling vines out in all directions and forming round fruits. I checked the tag and noted the variety, then looked it up in the seed catalogue. Maybe it was a weird variety I was trying out—I’ve been known to buy some strange plants.

I didn’t find the variety among the zucchinis in the catalogue, and it didn’t take long to realise what I’d done. “Squash” can be winter or summer squash, and when it came time to planting out, “Squash—Jade” sounded like a summer squash. It’s actually a huge sprawling winter squash that replaced my favourite, Kurinishiki, in the seed catalogue this year.

I don’t know whether to be thrilled or annoyed. Winter squash germination was awful this spring, and then the plants got hit by frost. But the summer squash bed escaped the frost. So instead of having none of my favourite pumpkins, I have half a dozen healthy plants. And it also means I have six fewer zucchini plants, which is most definitely a bonus, because I always plant too many zucchinis.

The problem is, they’re growing in the middle of the zucchinis, and I’m going to be tripping over the vines all summer.


The only sensible thing to do is laugh at myself and make the best of it…and write a note on the seed packet, so I don’t make the same mistake next year.

Christmas Sticky Buns

2016-12-25-07-06-02These buns are a Christmas morning tradition at our house. I would love to give you a recipe, but there isn’t one, and I’m not the one who makes them anyway. Christmas is the one breakfast each year that my husband makes. On Christmas eve, he rolls his sourdough bread dough around a festive mix of brown sugar, walnuts, currants, citron, and cinnamon. He slices the resulting log into rounds and nestles them into a baking pan. The buns rise overnight in the refrigerator, and I put them into the oven in the morning. By the time everyone else is out of bed, the whole house smells like cinnamon and burnt sugar.

My only real contribution to them is the icing—a simple mix of powdered sugar, vanilla and milk, drizzled on after they come out of the oven.

Mmmm…best Christmas breakfast ever.

When the pests are cute

img_2765A month ago, I saw a perfect little bird nest in one of the fruit trees—incredibly tidy, and woven from grass and lichen. It was so pretty, I couldn’t bear to remove it, though I knew it must be the nest of a non-native bird (that’s about all we have here). Starling and house sparrow nests get the heave-ho as soon as I find them. This one…well, I couldn’t possibly disturb something so cute.

I forgot about the nest for several weeks, but today my husband noticed it was chock-full of chicks. Five grey fluffy European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis)—so ugly they were adorable.

We don’t really need any more goldfinches, but since we don’t grow grain, they’re not much of a pest to us. These five chicks, though, will likely join the flock that descends on the neighbours’ fields in late summer. Sorry, guys. If you’d seen this cute nest of chicks, you’d understand.

Christmas Aspirations

2016-12-25-17-10-50-smAnother Christmas down. Another Christmas in which I feel like I received far better than I gave.

It’s a double-edged sword, at this time of year, to have a husband who is so good at gifts. He puts me to shame every year.

This year it was the two hand-made wooden vegetable baskets (the ones he whipped out in the last couple of days since he finished work for the year) that made me feel wholly inadequate as a gift giver. Add to that the lovely and thoughtful garden tools and kitchen equipment he bought, and I feel like I need to go back and try again on my gifts for him.

I’m not really complaining—how could I possibly complain about a husband who makes gorgeous baskets for me? But I think I need to start preparing for Christmas a whole lot earlier in order to even come close to matching his gift-giving. It is truly something to aspire to.