Building Castles

Patrick Dougherty is a North Carolina artist who builds amazing structures from tree saplings and sticks. His works are remarkably detailed. They evoke movement with their swirling lines and often skewed shapes. They provoke thought and reflection. Most of them invite you in, to experience them inside and out. And, by nature, they are ephemeral.

I can’t help but think we’re all building stick castles. We take the materials around us–the stuff life has dealt us–and build a structure we call ‘me’. Every ‘me’ is different and detailed, and many are wonky. Every ‘me’ is in motion–ever changing as we add new materials to our structure. Hopefully our ‘me’ invites people in for a more personal experience. And, ultimately, our structures are ephemeral.

Dougherty began building his stick structures with material that happened to be available in North Carolina. When he first started building structures in other places, he brought his materials with him. Over the years, he’s discovered that suitable materials can be found nearly everywhere, and he now finds what he needs close to where he’s working.

Likewise, we start off building our ‘me’ structures with the materials around us, and as we grow, hopefully we learn what we need to create strong selves. Hopefully we learn how to find those things, no matter where life takes us. The older we get, the more refined our technique, the more efficient and skilled we are at finding materials and building ‘me’. It doesn’t mean we aren’t wonky anymore–it means the wonkiness is perhaps more deliberate, planned, and stronger than it was before.

Dougherty builds about one structure a month, and he accepts that his artworks will only last two to four years. But though the artwork itself doesn’t last, its impact lingers in the hearts and minds of those who have experienced it. May our own ‘me’ castles do the same.

A New Jumping Spider

I met a new spider today–Phidippus whitmani. This one appears not to have a common name, though a related species is known as the red velvet jumping spider.

Yesterday, I noted that the red-spotted newt uses warning colouration to tell predators it is toxic. This jumping spider uses the same sort of colouration, but in this case, the warning is a lie.

Like other members of its genus, this spider protects itself by pretending to be a velvet ant with a powerful sting. Unfortunately for this spider, who had to put up with my attentions, I wasn’t fooled, and instead was quite taken by his fuzzy red velvet.

Red-spotted Newt

I was pleased to see today one of my favourite North American animals, the red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). These colourful little salamanders have a complex life cycle that includes an aquatic larval stage, a terrestrial juvenile (eft) stage, and an aquatic adult. The terrestrial efts, like this one, are brightly coloured.

Like most bright colours in animals, the red skin and spots of the red-spotted newt are a warning. The red-spotted newt has toxic skin secretions that protect it from predators. This toxic defence gives red-spotted newts the ability to live in permanent bodies of water with fish in them, unlike many other salamanders which fall prey to fish, and rely on temporary pools.


Wool Sower Gall

Visiting America is always a rewarding experience from a naturalist’s point of view. Though New Zealand has some spectacular wildlife, it simply doesn’t have the sort of diversity one finds in North America.

This visit’s best find so far has been the wool sower gall.

This spectacular fuzzy ball, found on the twigs of white oak trees, is caused by the tiny wasp, Callirhytis seminator. The structure of the gall is reminiscent of a fluffy seed head of a plant. Small ‘seeds’ inside the fluffy exterior house wasp larvae.

Galls are fascinating structures. They are made by the plant in response to chemicals produced by an insect or mite. Galls are incredibly diverse in structure and location on the plant, but all provide food and protection to the insects or mites as they grow and develop. Essentially, the insect has hijacked the plant’s biology to create a perfect home with a built-in food source.

Gall-making evolved several times in different groups of insects and mites; it’s clearly a successful survival strategy.

But the plants aren’t entirely defenceless. In response to the gall insects, many plants produce chemicals that attract predators to eat the damaging insects.

In turn, some gall-inducing insects can turn off these chemical defences in their host plants. Host and insect are constantly evolving, each trying to get the better of the other. The galls are a spectacular result of their arms race.

Inspiration from the Past

Yesterday I had the opportunity to decipher a letter written by one of my husband’s ancestors who was in California–a gold rush immigrant–to another family member. My husband remembered listening to his grandfather read the letter to him when he was a kid. The letter was blunt and to the point: “I regrett to write to you at this late date of the death of your father…”

The letter was written five years after the death of said father, and goes on to say that the father had been in debt and the letter writer needed money to clear the debts. It is a glimpse into writing style, family dynamics, and general life in the American west in 1887.

As I transcribed the letter, which has been nearly destroyed with age, all I could think of was what a gift it was. What an incredible source of writing material, and a beautiful starting point for a story.

After I read the transcribed letter aloud, my husband began to laugh. He asked to see my latest book. That story begins with a letter telling of the death of the main character’s father…

The letter had been the prompt for the story, and was written by my husband. Until he heard the historical letter read out, he hadn’t realised what had inspired his story prompt, but the tone and pacing were almost identical.

I’ve squirreled away the transcription, and expect I will bring it out again for inspiration some day. It makes me wonder what scraps of my own life might survive the years and inspire others long after I’m gone.


New Project Possibilities

With The Dragon Slayer’s Son published and the next novel in the editing stage, I’m excited to begin work on The Dragon Slayer’s Son‘s sequel.

A new project is all about possibilities. It’s like the beginning of a long hike; I’m prepared, fresh and ready to go. The entire landscape is spread out before me. I can see my destination, way over there, miles away.

At the beginning of a project, I don’t worry about all the treacherous downhills and uphill slogging I’m going to have to do to get to the end. I just see the spectacular scenery.

I can see in detail the first part of my task, and the way seems clear, the path well-marked. I wave my hand in the direction of my ending and say, “Then I’ll go that way.”

It’s beautiful and optimistic. I know it will end.

After thirty thousand words, I’ll suddenly find myself at the edge of a cliff, with no way down to the bottom because I’ve forgotten to pack a rope. After forty thousand words, I’ll realise I should have taken a different path altogether, because the one I’ve chosen has veered the wrong way. At sixty thousand words, I’ll see my goal within reach, but there will be nothing but an impossible climb between me and it.

I know all this is to come. I’ll plunge in momentarily, but I’ll stand here just a moment longer and enjoy the view.

Going Overboard

I know people for whom to spend half an hour preparing dinner is an unthinkable chore.

I don’t understand those people.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally understand the got-home-late-from-some-after-school-activity sort of feeling. The days when we know we’ll be coming in late and hungry, I pull something out of the freezer that needs only a few minutes in the microwave.

But on ‘normal’ days, making dinner is a way to make every day special. If it takes an hour to do that, who cares? An hour spent nurturing my family is an hour well-spent, in my mind. And if, some days, that hour expands to two or three…well, I at least make sure on those days I’m making enough to put a meal or two in the freezer for when I need an instant meal.

I also don’t mind going overboard now and again on dinner, because our family has a culture of food appreciation. From an early age, the kids learned to appreciate new flavours, interesting textures, and the culinary effort it takes to create a meal. If I spend two hours making dinner, I know the people who eat it will appreciate the extra effort. I know they will recognise it as one of the ways I show my love for them–a culinary hug. As teenagers, they resist real hugs, but they love a good culinary hug. It’s not just conditioning that they thank the cook at each meal–they actually mean it.

So if I go a bit overboard sometimes…well, you can never have too many culinary hugs.

Tea Season

It’s tea season here. I don’t drink a lot of tea in the summer–coffee is my morning drink of choice–but when the weather turns colder, I enjoy tea in the afternoon and evening.

I generally avoid caffeine in the evenings, so my tea choices at that hour are somewhat restricted. I’ve never particularly liked any of the commercial herbal teas. Fortunately, there are some delightful alternatives.

My favourite is probably tea-less chai. I keep a mix of chai spices (star anise, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, chilli flakes, and crystallised ginger–all in whole form, not ground) in a jar in the cupboard, so it’s easy to toss a spoonful into the bottom of a cup for a hot spicy drink.

I’m also very fond of mint. The dried mint tea you can buy is grassy, to my taste, but a fresh sprig picked from the herb garden makes a lovely cup of tea. I particularly enjoy mint tea when I have a cold, as it seems to do a good job of soothing a sore throat and clearing sinuses.

Also available fresh from the herb garden is lemon verbena. I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of lemon verbena tea. Too much lemon-scented Pledge when I was a kid–the flavour has a bad association with furniture polish for me. But occasionally, it’s nice for a change of flavour.

My husband enjoys putting a few chunks of crystallised ginger and slices of fresh lemon in a cup for a lemon-ginger tea that far surpasses the commercial tea-bag kind.

I enjoy tea season for its variety and its fresh-from-the-garden flavours.

Coloured Cornmeal

Our beautiful Painted Mountain corn is fully dry. Today my son and I ground enough to make corn chips.

It ground quite nicely in our coffee grinder (well-cleaned, first). I was a bit disappointed to note that the interior of the kernels was white. The resulting cornmeal wasn’t the rosy colour I’d hoped. Instead it was flecked with colour–confetti cornmeal.

The resulting corn chips were delicious. Right out of the oven, the taste was reminiscent of popcorn, but fully cooled, the popcorn flavour diminished.

Were they better than corn chips made with commercial cornmeal? The jury is out. I think we need to do side-by-side taste testing to determine which is better. I suspect my family will be thrilled to oblige. We might just have to have a chip and dip party (ooh, this gets better and better).

Am I happy I planted Painted Mountain corn? Absolutely! My son is grinding the next batch of meal as I type, and we’re looking forward to trying it in all manner of dishes. Maybe the taste will be no different from commercial cornmeal, but we will know it came from our garden, and that will make it taste twice as good.

Public Service Announcement: Dragon Danger

In case you’ve been wondering, my son has created this handy guide to the dangerousness of New Zealand dragons. This should come in handy, if you are ever faced with these creatures on your travels.

Please note that, though some of these dragons pose little or no danger to humans, it is unlawful to harass or disturb native wildlife. And even the gold fairy dragon can deliver a painful bite when provoked. It’s always best to view wildlife from a distance.

Particularly when that wildlife is thirty metres long, can breathe fire, and has a temper.