Summer?

It’s been decidedly un-summer-like recently. We’ve had an exceptionally wet two weeks—there’s a puddle in the yard, Coes Ford is flooded, and weeds and mushrooms are sprouting everywhere.

Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped the strawberries. When my daughter braved the rain to pick, she found a surprising number of slug-bitten but delicious ripe fruits.

Strawberry shortcake for dessert, strawberries on my morning muesli, strawberries every time I walk through the kitchen…it must be summer!

Now, if only we’d see the sun…

Potential Realised and Unrealised

But those apricots may or may not survive the next nor-west wind. The blueberries might be eaten by the birds before they ripen. The tomatoes could be hit by herbicide overspray. The beans might be stripped by hail. A thousand disasters might befall any of these plants and destroy their promise. And sometimes those disasters do happen—hailstorms have shredded the garden, wind has stripped every tree of fruit, birds have plucked out every seedling from the ground, overspray has twisted and stunted vegetables and decimated the grapes. I can be certain of at least one disaster every year.

But every year, something goes right, and potential is realised. Maybe the hail comes with a little extra rain that helps the vegetables recover from the damage. Maybe that wind-blown fruit can be used to make chutney. Maybe the birds ignore the blueberries, and we eat them until we think we’ll turn blue ourselves. Maybe the wind is blowing the other way when the neighbour sprays, and the garden grows unmolested by agrichemicals. A thousand things can go right and lead to abundance in the garden.

I think about this a lot as I prepare my son to leave home in a few months. He’s taking his final high school exams next week and will head to university in February. For him, it’s a time of incredible possibilities, as he launches into adulthood and pursues his passions.

But he has a difficult year ahead of him—on his own for the first time, in a new city providing lots of distractions, and without his support network of friends and family around him. A thousand things could go wrong. He could focus too much on fun and fail his classes. He could focus too much on classes and become over-stressed. He could make no friends. He could make the wrong friends. He could start drinking, smoking, using drugs. 

No doubt, one or more of these disasters will happen next year. 

But I like to think that possibilities for my son are a bit like possibilities in the garden. Regardless of the disasters, some things will go right. He may make good, positive friendships. He may enjoy Friday-night partying without losing sight of his studies. If he does fail a class, it might convince him to redouble his efforts. A thousand things could go right.

In the garden and with my son, I’m preparing for things to go wrong—for potential unrealised. But I’m also preparing for things to go right. There’s an abundant harvest building up, and I can’t wait to see what it is.

Breaking up the Work

Edits and notes … tackling one at a time

I’ve neglected my blog lately. Between springtime and the end of the school year, I’ve felt like my time at the computer has been limited, and I’ve felt the need to focus on editing.

I know, most people would take any excuse to avoid editing, and I admit it can be daunting to wade through a 70,000-word first draft of a story, knowing it needs lots of work.

It’s a bit like tackling the garden in springtime. If I look at the entire garden—all 300 square metres of it (about 3200 square feet)—when it’s waist-high with weeds in September, I freak out. It’s too much to do. I think I can’t possibly clear all that area, turn all that soil, haul compost to it, and then plant it. It’s more than one person can do.

But I do it every year.

I divide the garden into 26 beds, and I make myself a weekly plan from September through November. Each week, I have certain tasks, certain beds to prepare, and I don’t let myself look at or think about everything else that needs to be done. Each piece seems doable, and since I think I can do it, I dive right in without freaking out. Bed by bed, the entire garden is cleared, turned, composted and planted. When I arrive at late November, I can look at a beautifully prepared and planted garden and think, “Wow! I did that!”

It’s the same with editing. A first draft of a novel is a horribly weedy garden—there are inconsistencies, plot holes, leaps of time that make no sense (sometimes unintended time travel, too), typos, spelling errors, grammatical errors, scenes that don’t advance the plot, scenes in the wrong places … the list of problems with a first draft could scare anyone away from editing.

So I break it into chunks, just like the garden.

I read through my novel over and over, and each time I focus on one or two problems. I start with the big ones—continuity, inconsistency, plot holes, pacing. Then I move on to smaller problems—characterisation, dialogue, action within each scene. Then I move on to even smaller problems—grammar, spelling, and regional language issues. With each reading, I focus on a subset of things, ignoring everything else.

And suddenly, editing isn’t overwhelming. It’s manageable and even enjoyable, because I can see the improvement at each step of the way, without fretting about all the work still to come.

Hence the neglected blog—when I’m having fun editing, sometimes I forget to stop and do other things.

A Weakness for Weevils

I was excited to find a new weevil on our property the other day. At least until I identified it.

Meet Otiorhynchus sulcatus—the black vine beetle—pest on a wide range of garden plants, including grapes, black currants and strawberries (all common in my garden).

I admit, I have a weakness for weevils—no matter how much of a pest they are, I think they’re cute. And this one is no exception. She’s lovely, in spite of her diet. And I’m certain she’s a ‘she’, because no males of this species have ever been found. The black vine beetle reproduces parthenogenetically, producing viable eggs without the need for fertilisation by males. 

This ability is the result of a bacterial symbiont in the genus Wolbachia. When researchers in California eliminated Wolbachia in black vine beetles (by giving the beetles antibiotics), the beetles’ unfertilised eggs were no longer viable. It’s a clever little ploy by the bacterium to ensure its own reproduction—only infected insects can reproduce, and they can do so without the trouble of finding a mate (I wrote more about this fascinating relationship in Putting the Science in Fiction and on Dan Koboldt’s Science in Fiction blog).

Another cool feature of the black vine beetle is that it is flightless. It’s not uncommon to find flightless insects and birds here in New Zealand, but it’s a little unusual to see it in invasive pests like the black vine beetle. Native to Europe, the black vine beetle is now distributed all around the world. Pretty impressive travelling for a 6 mm-long flightless insect.

Apparently black vine beetles can cause significant damage to plants. The larvae eat roots in the soil and do the most damage, particularly in potted plants, where root growth is limited. I’ve decided not to worry about them at the moment. I’ve got more damaging pests to worry about, and to be honest, I wouldn’t mind seeing them again. They are awfully cute.

Pity the One Percent

I enjoy springtime for its warmer temperatures, flowers and the opportunity to get outdoors more frequently. But it’s the bump in our standard of living that I enjoy most.

Garden excess comes early, in the form of artichokes and asparagus. Add in some home grown oyster mushrooms, spinach, leeks and herbs, and I begin to feel like we have unlimited wealth. Like we’re in the ‘one percent’.

Except, I doubt the one percent gets vegetables as fresh as ours.

And I expect they don’t have the pleasure of strolling among head-high artichoke plants, breathing in their earthy scent and picking twice as many as they need, because, well, why not?

And I know they don’t enjoy passing their excess vegetables on to the neighbours, spreading and sharing riches that cannot be saved, banked, or invested.

So I feel sorry for them, in springtime; they are so poor, and I am a queen.

Spring Babies

It’s that time of year again! The preying mantis egg case I collected in the autumn is hatching.

Because these mantids were in the warm office for half the winter, they’re early. Mantids in the egg cases outdoors haven’t yet emerged. So they need a little extra care. As the babies emerge, I transfer them to a large tank where they’ll be warm and well-fed for a few weeks while the weather improves. Eventually, I will release most, keeping only a few for use in educational programmes.

I never tire of this annual event. I love watching the newborn mantids stretch their legs and catch their first meal. And I’m always amazed that so many insects can emerge from such a small egg case. The current one, just 15 mm long, has disgorged 35 mantids so far, and only half the case has hatched. The mantids don’t all hatch at once—hatching seems to progress from one end of the egg case to the other over the course of a few days. In the wild, I suspect most of the later hatchlings are eaten by the early ones—it’s a mantid-eat-mantid world out there. It happens in my tanks, too, though I try to minimise cannibalism by spreading them out as much as possible and giving them plenty of hiding spots. I used to raise each individual in its own peanut butter jar, but that gets to be pretty time and space-consuming when there can be 70 mantids in each egg case.

Everyone’s heard the sensational ‘fact’ that female preying mantids eat the males after mating. It does happen, sometimes, in some species, but not as often as you might think. Mantids are creatures of instinct, and one of their most powerful instincts is to capture prey. In fact, this urge is so strong that, even when their digestive system is completely full, and they can’t actually eat anything else, they will continue to capture prey.

So it’s no surprise that a female mantid might snack on her mate, especially since she’s bigger than he is. In species where the females are significantly larger than the males, there’s a higher incidence of cannibalism after mating. Among New Zealand mantids, cannibalism at mating is rare—females are only slightly larger than males, and so the males have a good chance of fighting off the females. I’ve seen this in action in captivity—one of my females had a go at her mate, but he was every bit as feisty as she, and their tussle ended with both alive and unharmed.

My little babies won’t have to worry about mating cannibalism for a while yet, but there are plenty of other dangers out there—other predators, parasites, pathogenic fungi, freezing weather, and careless gardeners all take their toll. Of the maybe 70 mantids that will hatch from my egg case, only one or two are likely to survive to adulthood.

I’ll give my babies the best start I can, and then they’ll be on their own. Watching them now, catching gnats like pros, I think they’re well-equipped.

5 Simple Things You Can Do to Help Conserve Species

It’s Conservation Week here in New Zealand. Fittingly, one of the kōwhai trees we planted years ago has chosen this week to flower for the first time.

Conservation week is a good time to talk about backyard biodiversity. I’ve blogged more than once about biodiversity issues. It’s a topic near to my family’s heart, and something we strive to improve all the time.

Our yard is, unfortunately, home to a wide variety of non-native weeds, but it also sports native plantings (and even a fair number of native ‘weeds’). Here are just a few of the simple things we’ve done to improve the habitat value of our back yard for native organisms. You could do these, too.

  1. Plant natives instead of non-natives. Here in New Zealand this is especially important, but it’s a good rule of thumb wherever you live. Native vegetation will best support native wildlife, because they evolved together. Choose plants that provide food and shelter for local wildlife—shrubs with berries for birds and lizards to eat, dense grasses that provide hiding spots for invertebrates, and flowers that provide food for insects.
  2. Create lizard refuges. A pile of rocks or a stack of broken terracotta pot shards makes a nice refuge for lizards—the rocks and terracotta warm up in the sun, making a convenient basking spot for the lizards, and the little cracks between ensure a quick, safe get-away when predators appear.
  3. Just add water. Birds, insects, and other animals all need water to survive. Provide a bird bath, a small pond, or an attractive water feature, and you’ll find many more animals drawn to your yard.
  4. Kill non-native predators. Less important in some places, but here in New Zealand, protecting native birds and lizards requires controlling invasive predators. Trap out possums, stoats, and rats to give native birds a chance to nest successfully. Put a bell on your cat and keep it indoors around dusk and dawn when the birds are most vulnerable.
  5. Learn what you’ve got. No matter how small, your yard teems with species. Look closely, and you may be surprised at the diversity. Though our yard tends to be quite dry, we’ve discovered half a dozen species of moisture-loving slime moulds on the property. Once you know you an organism is present, you can tweak your planting and maintenance to protect and encourage it.

And that brings me back to the kōwhai tree, finally blooming. It’s not enough, yet, to attract bellbirds or tūī, across the vast stretches of agricultural land between us and the nearest populations, but someday, our kōwhai and flaxes, along with the neighbours’, may very well support a healthy population of native birds. All it takes is for each of us to care for our own backyards, and collectively we can improve the habitat for all our native species.