Am I Weird?

Stepping into my office the other morning, I had a moment of clarity, in which I saw my desk as a stranger might.

It was pretty scary.

The most obvious thing was the computer. Okay, that’s normal. But that’s where normality ended.

Strewn around the computer there were papers. There were notes for a non-fiction book proposal that included calculations for the intrinsic rate of increase of pea aphids, notes about parthenogenic reproduction, and a list of potential titles, many of which included the word ‘alien’. There were also a smattering of papers and notes from the workshop I attended last weekend, a note about my son’s shoe size, and the beginning of a short story set in New Zealand’s not so distant future.

That’s not too weird, though the story is a little bizarre…

Making a lump under the papers were three D&D dice. I use them for my students–they can roll the dice to choose a random writing prompt from the list of 500 prompts I’ve made for them. Honestly, I don’t roll the dice to see if a character lives or dies in a story (though that could be fun). The dice sit on my desk between classes because they’re fun to roll around in my hands while I’m thinking.

Well, that’s not too strange…

Also on the desk was a stem of the storksbill I’d blogged about the day before. It was still there, though I should have thrown it on the compost when I was done with it. It was interesting to look at…

And nearby was the Weeds of New Zealand book that I’d used for reference when blogging about the storksbill. I’d gotten sidetracked after the blog post was written, and spend a good half an hour perusing information about weeds. I left it sitting out because, you know, everyone needs a weed book on their desk.

And here’s where the tableau on the desk got…um…interesting…

Two dead bumblebees nestled together near one corner of the computer. They’d been there for days–ever since I found them on the floor and noticed that one of them had a drop of venom on her stinger. I put it under the microscope at the time for a photo shoot, but then kept the bees on my desk as…as…well, for no good reason really, other than that I enjoyed looking at them, especially as their parasites (mites) started to abandon their dead hosts and crawl all over my desk, questing for a new bee.

That’s not weird, right?

Over on the other side of the computer was a dead German wasp in a plastic bag. She was in the bag because I’d just taken her out of the freezer. Um…yeah. She was clearly a queen looking for a good nesting site (and she was a non-native pest that I’m deathly allergic to), so when I found her in the house, the only sensible thing to do was to kill her. But there was no point in wasting her. I popped her into the bag and into the freezer to kill her without damaging her, thinking I’d pin her later and keep her for teaching.

That’s definitely not weird. Everyone stores bugs in the freezer, right?

And thankfully out of sight inside a folded piece of paper was the dead mosquito I’d brought back from Auckland because it was a species I don’t see much of here, and when I saw it land on my ankle to bite me, I thought it would be a good specimen to keep.

Weird?

*Sigh*

It was definitely time to clean the desk before someone came to visit.

Storksbill

Continuing my springtime obsession with weeds…

Most of my weeds are most weedy in the vegetable garden. That’s where my tolerance is lowest and the weeds’ damage is worst. In fact many of the plants I consider weeds in the vegetable garden are quite welcome in the paddock—yarrow, clover, plantain, and nearly all the grasses. And in the lawn, I don’t worry about weeds at all—as long as it’s green and can be mowed, it works for me as lawn.

But there are a few weeds that are worse in the paddock and lawn than in the garden.

Musky storksbill (Erodium moschatum) is one of them. In the vegetable garden, the weed is aggressive and quick-growing as you would expect from a weed, but it’s pretty easy to pull out. It doesn’t resprout easily from the root, and doesn’t send out underground runners. It seeds prolifically, but the seedlings are easy to deal with along with all the other weeds.

In the paddock, however, it’s a different story. Theoretically, it’s a fine fodder plant when young, but once it sets seed, it can start causing trouble.

The long spiky fruits that give the plant its common name can work their way into animals’ flesh. I have, fortunately, never had to deal with storksbill fruits stuck in any of my goats, but it’s not something I ever want to have to do.

Keeping the storksbill out of the paddock requires constant vigilance. The plants grow quickly, and seem to go from tiny rosette to fully fruited overnight. And because I can never catch them all, for every one plant I pull, two seem to grow in their place.

In the lawn, those spiky seeds form just below mower height (instead of at about 50 cm like they do elsewhere), making barefoot walking in the heavily infested parts of the lawn an excessively exciting experience.

All in all, as weeds go, it’s not the worst. I can’t say I appreciate its charm, because it doesn’t really have any. It doesn’t appear to have any particular use (and I suspect it arrived here accidentally), but the seed heads do have a weird goofiness to their look that I have to admire while I yank them out of the ground.

Spring Cuteness

‘Tis the season for growth and new life.

Unfortunately, that means lots and lots of weeds, birds nesting in the shed (and pooing on the car), and slugs multiplying like mad (and decimating the newly-planted lettuces).

But it also means the occasional cuteness overload, like this guy.

This newly-fledged magpie has been hanging out in various locations around the yard as he learns how to get around and hunt for himself. He’s quite tame at the moment, and you can even give him a little scratch without him fluttering away. I’m sure it won’t be long before he’s dive-bombing the cat with his cohort of teenage magpie thugs, but at least for now, he’s terribly cute.

Danger! Keep out!

I was driving to town with the kids this afternoon, and we got to talking about dreams. After concluding that dreams were seriously weird, and even more so considering they come from inside our heads, I said, “Yeah. A brain isn’t a place you want to go walking around alone in after dark.”

To which my daughter’s response was, “I don’t think I’d want to go wandering around there at any time.”

And it struck me that there lies the crux of being an introvert. We go walking alone in our brains, in spite of the fact it’s not a nice neighbourhood.

We go walking alone there, where anything could jump out at us, and probably will. We walk through alleys smelling of rats and urine, where all the stupid things we’ve ever said slouch in shadowy doorways drinking out of bottles in brown paper bags.

We walk through busy thoroughfares where our own doppelgangers repeat every public embarrassment we’ve ever committed over and over and over without pause.

We walk into brightly lit rooms where we are handcuffed and a poised and confident extrovert asks probing questions about why, exactly, we decided to wear our “Nerd is the new Sexy” t-shirt to the bar on Saturday night.

We step out onto the street, thinking the way is clear, and the bus carrying every one of our personal inconsistencies and incompetencies runs us down.

We pass a parked car with tinted windows, and the door opens. Out steps our younger self. She looks us up and down and sighs. “I thought by now you’d have done something with your life.” She rolls her eyes and stalks off.

We walk past a tall chain link fence topped with razor wire. On the other side is the hitchhiker we didn’t pick up last August, the crying child we didn’t comfort two years ago, the Salvation Army bell ringer we didn’t empty our pockets for on December 23, 1989.

The mind is the seedy place we introverts are drawn to in the dead of night, when the happy extroverts are tucked safely in bed or walking brightly lit streets with a crowd of friends. It’s a bad neighbourhood, but it’s our own, and maybe we think we can fix it up if only we visit it frequently enough.

 

Making Connections with Children’s Stories

Brian Falkner discussing his publishing journey.

I’m in a rainy Auckland this weekend at the Storylines Children’s Writers and Illustrators Hui. There are over a hundred writers and illustrators here this weekend, from people who have yet to start writing their first book to the venerable Joy Cowley, who has published so many stories over her long career she’s lost count of them.

Some curious observations:

The vast majority–probably 80%–of the participants are middle-aged women, parents of teens and adult children.

Another 10% is composed of younger women.

Most of the women are writers, though some are illustrators.

Only about 10% are men, and at least half the men are illustrators.

So why are most participants middle-aged women? Is it that a workshop like this appeals more to that demographic? Is it because that demographic has a greater ability to take off for a weekend to attend a workshop (both because of finances and because our children are old enough to stay at home alone)? Why aren’t more of the women illustrators?

My unscientific and haphazard look at how we all arrived at this place reveals a preponderance of teachers and former teachers in the group (which would partly explain the preponderance of women). Not surprising, perhaps. We have spent more time with children than others, and have an affinity for children and the books they read. Maybe we want to write the books we wish our students had read? Some, like the wonderful David Riley, who produces books about Pacific island heroes, write the books his students are desperate to read.

However we’ve gotten here, all of us share the goal of making emotional connections with children through stories and books. It is inspiring to hear the creative and diverse ways in which New Zealand authors are doing that.

 

Spring Weeds–Dock

Springtime is weed season, and there are plenty in my garden–57 species at last count.

I grumble about weeds, but I also find them fascinating. Weeds are the opportunists, the survivors, the tough and persistent plants of the world. Some have been spread accidentally, through virtue of their mobile, sticky, or tough seeds, but many more have been introduced on purpose. They are plants we once considered useful, and it is our changing values that make them weeds today.

So I’ll be introducing some of my weeds over the next few weeks as they sprout and flower and generally annoy me. We’ll start today with a weed I love to hate–broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius).

Dock isn’t my worst weed. Not by a long shot. But it is persistent. Deep, branching taproots make it a struggle to pull out, and with each plant able to produce up to 60,000 seeds a year which can remain viable in the soil for up to 50 years, there is an unending supply of new plants. Still, dock struggles to compete with established plants, so it’s mostly a weed of disturbed soil.

The goats absolutely love it, so I can’t complain there. Dock is high in magnesium, phosphate, and potassium, and the tannins in the leaves can help prevent bloat in ruminants. Any dock I pull out of the garden goes directly to the goats.

It is likely dock was brought to New Zealand (from its native Europe) on purpose in the mid-1800s. Though the leaves are high in oxalates, which can irritate the stomach and bind to calcium, potentially leading to calcium deficiency, the plant was regularly eaten like spinach. It was also used to treat a variety of ailments, from coughs to cancer.

Dock often grows side by side with stinging nettle and, like many nettle associates, it can supposedly cure nettle stings. I’ve used dock for this purpose, and can attest that it seems to help, but then so does just about any fresh leaf rubbed on nettle stings.

I wouldn’t want to fight dock on a large scale–it scoffs at most herbicides, easily survives mowing, and can resprout from pieces of root left in the soil after ploughing–but for me, it’s a manageable weed that even has some utility.