Looking Forward, Looking Back

Lots of weeds, but plenty of progress too.

I have a tendency to look forward most of the time. I do a lot of planning. I plan the garden—what needs to be done each week during spring so I can get everything planted at the right times. I write detailed quarterly plans for my writing—focusing on what tasks I need to accomplish to get the next book out and increase my audience. I’m so focused sometimes on looking ahead at what I need to do next, that I can forget to look back.

Looking ahead, I see endless to-do lists, huge tasks to accomplish, and challenges to overcome. It is unrelenting, because there is always something more on the horizon. The jobs are never complete, the list is never empty. It can be overwhelming.

From time to time, it’s worth looking back. Never mind that over half the garden is still rank with weeds—look at the beds I’ve already prepared, the seedlings already growing in many of them. Forget the unfinished manuscripts, the editing that needs to be done—look at the four books I’ve already published, the four other novel drafts completed, the dozens of short stories I’ve written.

I don’t like to dwell in the past, but occasionally it’s nice to look back and see that all my work has actually gotten me somewhere.

Don’t bite the hand

I was working on the bi-annual weeding of the gooseberries today. It’s not that the gooseberries wouldn’t benefit from weeding more than once every six months, but there’s simply a limit to my tolerance.

It’s bad enough that nettles zing me and thistle spines lodge in my gloves as I pull them out. I don’t begrudge them their attempts to stay rooted in the ground and avoid the compost pile.

But the gooseberries have no excuse for aggression. I’m weeding around them, freeing them from competition, making sure they have plenty of space, light and air.

And what do I get for my efforts?

Stab wounds, scratches, spines broken off in my hands…ungrateful plants. Haven’t they heard the saying, Don’t bite the hand that weeds you?

Springtime Sensory Overload

We often think of springtime as an explosion of colour–white, yellow, purple, and pink flowers blooming, green grass growing. But spring is more than eye candy. Springtime is a sensory feast.

Springtime is the smell of lanolin and freshly turned earth. It is the cloying scents of blooming broad beans and daffodils. It is the smell of line-dried clothes. It is cut-grass and petrol mowers.

Springtime is the sound of lambs calling to their mothers, and the mothers’ deep, chuckling replies. It is the warbling of magpies before dawn, and the harsh call of spur-winged plovers at night. It is the throbbing rumble of tractors and the barking of sheep dogs.

Springtime is the feel of thick grass between the toes, the sting of nettles on bare legs. It is gritty dirt under fingernails, and sweaty hat brims. It is the buffeting of winds and the snarl of tangled hair afterwards. It is warm sun and cool shade.

Springtime is the bitter cucumber flavour of salad burnet. It is the rich umami of artichokes. It is the earthy taste of asparagus.

And springtime doesn’t end at our physical senses. Spring is the sense of well-being, the sense that all is not yet lost. That magic still lingers, in the rhythm of the honey bee’s wingbeats and the rustle of flight feathers, in the rain of apple blossoms and the quiet feeding of a caterpillar.

Gate Sales

I picked up a kilo of honey and a lovely variegated sage plant while I waited for my son at piano lessons today. And I didn’t step into a grocery store or a nursery.

One of my favourite aspects of New Zealand life is the practice of ‘gate sales’–selling your produce at the farm gate. Gate sale setups can be elaborate, like the beautiful flower cart one of the local daffodil farms uses, or they can be simply a table or box by the side of the road. They operate on an honour system–there’s no one there to make sure you pay–you simply drop your money into a box. Theft does happen–I know from my own experience–but most people are honest.

I’ve seen all sorts of things for sale on the roadside–all manner of vegetables, eggs, walnuts, plants, honey, in-season fruits, flowers–whatever the grower has in abundance. And it’s not just commercial growers–did your lemon tree produce a spectacular crop? Sell the excess at the gate. Zucchinis out of control? Sell the them at the gate. I used to pay my entire year’s garden expenses from gate sales of whatever was extra. I’ve gotten better at planning in recent years and have two teenagers in the house now, so I don’t have the same problem with excess produce anymore.

While I don’t sell much anymore, I take full advantage of those who do. I’ll even go out of my way to buy something (like honey) directly from the farm, rather than picking it up at the grocery store. Other times, the farm is much closer than the store. If we’ve run out of potatoes or eggs, all I have to do is walk to the neighbour’s place to get more. I like the idea that my money is going to the producer, and not to all the middlemen. I like fact that whatever I’ve bought has been locally produced. I like the feel of the trust inherent in the transaction. It feels good, neighbourly, and personal.

As we move into spring and summer, gate sales will be increasing. I’ll be ready, with my ’emergency’ stash of loose change in the car so I can stop and pick up whatever is fresh and at the gate today.

Equinox Excitement

Time to liberate the feet! The temperature hit 28ºC today. Hard to believe it’s that warm just two days past the equinox. I can’t complain, though—it was lovely in the garden this weekend. The only problem was that I’m still clearing the winter nettles away, so it was gumboots and jeans out there. Long about three this afternoon I called it quits and shed the protective gear for shorts bare feet—pure bliss!

I’m sure there will still be cold and wet days, there will be frost, but there’s something exciting about the changing weather at this time of year.

So a happy equinox to you all. We’ve enjoyed a taste of what’s to come here this weekend. Perhaps you’ve had summer’s last hurrah, or the first bite of autumn. Wherever you are, and whatever your weather, I hope you got out to enjoy the changes around you.

Diversity in Music

My children’s school held a showcase concert last night featuring the best of the music department.

The performances ranged from classical to jazz to swing to folk music to rock to heavy metal. Some pieces were by famous composers, others were written by the students themselves. Students dressed for their performances in clothes ranging from torn jeans and t-shirts to suits and ties and floor-length gowns.

The mood was supportive and celebratory. It recognised that the musical achievement of a student interested in heavy metal is no less than that of a student interested in classical piano. It celebrated the diversity of student achievement as well as the achievements themselves.

How different from my own high school’s showcase concerts, filled with little beyond classical and religious music, with the odd show-tune thrown in. I distinctly remember the shock in the auditorium once when a group of students not sanctioned by the school showed up and played rock-n-roll.

If you didn’t sing in choir, you didn’t sing. If you didn’t play in the marching band or the orchestra, you didn’t play. I wonder how many students decided they didn’t like music because the only music they were allowed to make was the sort they didn’t identify with. I wonder how many good musicians let their own music die because it wasn’t valued by the school and the adults around them.

My kids enjoy diverse music. Though they both play instruments, neither of them is likely to go on to become a professional musician. Still, I’m thrilled their school encourages students to explore their own music, and recognises that musical skill can be demonstrated in an ear-splitting heavy metal guitar riff just as effectively as in an operetta.

Beech Forest Hiking

I’m particularly fond of hiking in early spring. It’s not for the spring weather, which is often raw and windy, or for spring flowers, which aren’t particularly abundant in the bush. No, it’s for the lack of German wasps.

Much of the forest we hike through is dominated by beech (not the northern beech, but several species of Nothofagus). Beech is host to a fascinating ecosystem which has been invaded by non-native wasps.

Throughout much of its range, beech is infested by scale insects. The scales live in the bark of the trees, feeding on sap. Because sap is low in nutrients and high in sugar, the insects need to excrete the extra sugar. Each insect has a long anal tube through which it ‘pees’ concentrated sugar water called honeydew.

Drops of honeydew form on the tips of the anal tubes and fall to the ground, tree, trunk, and branches around the insects. The entire area ends up coated in sticky sugar.

Sooty mould grows on the sugar coated surfaces, turning trees and forest floor black, and giving the beech forest a distinctive smell. The sooty mould is eaten by a variety of insects, including moths and beetles.

But not all of the honeydew simply drops to the ground. Native birds and insects (and hikers) drink the drops of water on the tips of the scales’ anal tubes. For wildlife, honeydew is an important winter food, when flower nectar is scarce.

German wasps enjoy honeydew, too, but only in the summer.

By mid-summer, the beech forest hums with the sound of millions of wasps collecting honeydew. For me—allergic to wasp stings—it means a hike requires constant vigilance lest I grab a tree trunk for balance and end up in anaphylactic shock. But in springtime, the wasps aren’t yet out and about, and I can enjoy the sticky smell of the beech ecosystem without worry.