A Kiwi Halloween

October is nearly upon us. For me here in Aotearoa New Zealand, that means springtime planting, flowers, and lots of weeding! But for many of my readers, it means colourful autumn leaves, pumpkins, and the spooky season of Halloween. And for writers of fantasy, like me, it means story inspiration too (even if my witches aren’t always who you might expect …).

When I was a child in the United States, Halloween was one of my favourite holidays. Yes, the candy was a draw (I’ve always had a weakness for candy corn), but what I liked most was the chance to make a costume and then walk around after dark wearing it. 

Halloween imagery is all about darkness and things that go bump in the night. It’s meant to be scary, but I quite enjoy the night and all the creatures that inhabit it. 

As an interpretive naturalist in America, I led a lot of night hikes. ‘Spooky’ owls and bats are old friends I’ve had the privilege to not only observe in the wild, but teach with in classrooms and nature centres in a variety of places.

Spooky enough for Halloween?

And those nocturnal animals can be helpful. When I lived in Panama, there was a sizeable gap between the top of the walls of my mud house and the roof. At night, little bats would swoop into the house through the gap, zipping around snapping up mosquitoes. I used to lie awake at night waiting for their arrival before falling asleep, knowing they were keeping guard against the little blood suckers that wanted to disturb my rest.

New Zealand is blessed with a fabulous array of nocturnal animals. If Halloween had originated here, the icons of the season might be a bit different …

  • Kiwi—Imagine this beach-ball-sized bundle of fluff with a deadly beak spearing hapless hikers in the dark. Maybe there would be vampire kiwi.
  • Kakapō—What could be scarier than a nearly invisible nocturnal parrot with a booming voice that echoes through the night?
  • Wētā—Okay, lots of people already find these giant crickets spooky. And some of them bite. They’d be a perfect candidate for Halloween horror.
  • Owls … maybe not—The morepork and the little owl might need to up their game to be Halloween mascots. Their cute factor is pretty high, and their calls are far from scary. I’d even go so far to say that the morepork’s call is soothing.
  • Bats—Unfortunately, New Zealand’s bats are all endangered, so you’re not likely to encounter them frequently. However, they have some interesting habits that would play out well on the spooky scale. Short-tailed bats don’t hunt from the air like many other bats. Instead they scramble around on the forest floor, using their wings as legs. What’s that rustle in the undergrowth?
  • Moa—Yes, these giant birds are extinct and were probably only partly nocturnal, but maybe their ghosts or skeletons could haunt a New Zealand Halloween. Their diet was mostly plants, but I still wouldn’t want to meet up with a 3.5-metre-tall bird in the dark.

Of course, a Southern Hemisphere Halloween would have to fall in April or May, during the autumn here. We could all dress up as kiwi or moa and eat pavlova …

Welcome to the Light

We have now officially tipped over to the light half of the year. All green and growing things know it, as do the birds and the farmers and gardeners.

And for this first day in which the day is longer than the night, Canterbury’s weather has decided to celebrate—clear skies and warm sunshine with a hint of a cool breeze to remind us where we’ve come from.

A bumble bee drones by as I sit on the porch eating lunch in the sunshine. A guttural croak overhead draws my eye to a white-faced heron gliding like a modern-day pterodactyl to its nest. A jumping spider lurches across the warm pavers at my feet, leaving behind a glittering silk thread that marks her passage. Flies swirl in jerky spirals, describing their micro-territories within a cloud of lekking insects.

Days like today remind me to slow down and feel the motion of the earth.

I pluck a fresh mint leaf and chew on it. The flavour brings back summer memories of Mrs Cassel’s mint tea, sipped from frosty glasses clinking with ice. 

A bellbird whistles from somewhere in the neighbourhood. Enjoying the nectar of someone’s flowering kōwhai, no doubt. I close my eyes and remember the sound of the dawn chorus in Westland National Park.

Days like today remind me that the most memorable things in life never involve the daily grind, but only happen when we step off the treadmill and into the world.

Sitting on the porch of a tramping hut while a weka tries to steal my socks.

Fording an icy river, turquoise from glacial runoff.

Watching jumping spiders’ strange semaphore dance on the windowsill.

Biting into the first tomato of summer, warm from the garden.

Following a starfish’s slow glide across the bottom of a tide pool.

Reaching the top of a mountain to find rank upon rank of peaks stretching out ahead, begging to be summited, drawing you on to new adventures.

So, welcome to the light. Step into the world and enjoy the sunshine.

A Hobbit Adventure

As a writer of fantasy and adventure novels, it’s important to me to get out and have my own adventures. My adventures provide the inspiration and the gritty details for my characters’ escapades. I especially enjoy true wilderness adventures—the less sign of human impact, the better.

view from Mt Isobel
The view from atop snowy Mount Isobel

Of course, not every adventure can be a wilderness experience. Sometimes you want some fun with a little more luxury.

My husband and I recently spent a lovely weekend in Hanmer Springs. While the town is known for its hot pools, we’re not the hot pool type. What we appreciate about Hanmer Springs is the ability to step out the front door of your holiday home, climb a mountain, and end the hike at the pub a few blocks from the holiday home.

It’s hardly a wilderness experience, especially given that Hanmer Springs is surrounded by pine plantations, rather than native bush, but on a winter weekend during the rainiest month on record, it’s just right.

Our main hike for the weekend was up Mount Isobel. This wasn’t our first winter trip to the peak, but it was the first time we’d followed the ridge from the peak in order to descend via Jollies Pass. The last time we were on Mount Isobel, the wind was so fierce, there was only enough time to race to the top, snap a photo or two, and race back down before we froze. This time was entirely different.

It snowed the previous day, so we hiked through a winter wonderland. Light wind and full sun made it a stunning hike. The snow was an easily hikeable fifteen centimetres deep on the ridge—just enough to ensure our feet and lower legs were thoroughly soaked by the end.

There was nowhere dry to stop for lunch, so we ate in short snatches standing up. That was really the only downside to what was a delightful seven-hour hike.

And when your hike ends in Hanmer village, with beer and good food on offer, and a roaring fire at the holiday home to warm your toes, it’s hard to complain about anything. I think of it as a Hobbit adventure—a bit of fun without skipping second breakfast.

Rain, Rain, Go Away …

After a rainy week, the flood has only just begun. It’s been hosing down rain for about the past ten hours, and it’s supposed to continue for the next 24. I was out in the rain a short while ago building a bridge so my chickens can get back to their coop across the lake that’s formed in their paddock. The news is full of pictures of flooded streets and swollen muddy rivers.

Excessive baking!

It’s not entirely unusual weather. Last year I spent a whole week with my year 7/8 maths students doing a lesson on isoclines with weather station data after a particularly spectacular rainstorm dumped 200mm on us in 24 hours. 

But just because we’ve experienced it before doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable. It just means we know how to cope, right?

On Saturday, I baked apple/blackcurrant pie and pumpkin cupcakes, filling the house with delicious warm aromas of cinnamon and fruit. On Sunday, I raided my fabric stash to make a sunny patchwork tote bag—not that I need another tote bag, but that’s irrelevant when it’s raining for the zillionth day in a row.

Yesterday, I banged out over 5,000 words on my current novel, bringing me within 10,000 words of typing The End. 

Today … well, today I’m watching that lake in the chook paddock, in case I have to raise the height of the bridge. But when I’m not rescuing my soggy birds, I’m pottering away at my novel, and tending to marketing and all the other unpleasant aspects of writing. I’ve also drunk endless cups of coffee and tea (and it’s not even lunchtime yet…). No doubt I’ll quit early to make a decadent dinner of comfort food, probably eaten by candlelight (because why not take advantage of short days while you can?).

Crazy tote in progress…

And of course after dinner, when it’s still supposed to be raining, I’ll no doubt curl up with one of the books I picked up in the library yesterday.

So it’s not all bad, though I do look forward to the return of the sun someday.

Matariki Hike–Tiromoana Bush Walkway

Nature pulled out all the stops last weekend for Matariki. All three days of the long weekend were stunners, with temperatures more like mid-autumn than mid-winter.

On Saturday I worked in the garden in a t-shirt, and we had all the doors and windows open for most of the day. On Sunday, with both kids home for the holiday, we headed out for a hike.

Avoiding the snowy mountains and crowded ski fields, we headed to an unlikely spot—the Kate Valley Landfill.

Well, okay, not the landfill itself, but the restoration area next to it on Transwaste land.

Tiromoana Bush Walkway wends through a patchwork of restoration planting, old paddocks, plantation forestry and regenerating bush. An active predator trapping programme has clearly done its job, and the air teems with bellbirds and pīwakawaka.

Access to the beach cuts through a steep valley between limestone cliffs busy with welcome swallows. The beach is narrow and overshadowed by actively crumbling cliffs of limestone and clay—definitely not a place you want to be during a storm, but quite fascinating on the blue-sky day we enjoyed.

The hike was only about three hours long, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the beach, even on a short mid-winter day.

We had relatively low expectations of the hike when we started out, but it ended up being quite a pleasant mid-winter outing. Not very strenuous, but with enough ups and downs to be interesting, and with some intriguing landforms along the coast.

Celebrating Matariki–making new traditions

This year is the first year Matariki is an official holiday here in Aotearoa New Zealand. It’s about time. 

Matariki is the Māori New Year celebration. The holiday is named after the Matariki star cluster (also known as the Pleiades), which disappears from our night sky for a time, and reappears in late June, around the winter solstice. 

Matariki is a time to celebrate autumn’s harvest, remember friends and family who have died the previous year, and plan for the new year.

This year, my husband and I will celebrate the harvest with pizza topped with vegetables from the garden, and pie filled with fruit from our berry bushes.

I will remember my grandmother, who passed away in May, just a few days shy of her 97th birthday. Rugs braided by her hands will warm my feet during the chilly days of Matariki.

I will plan for the new year by assessing my seed stock and drawing the 2022-2023 garden map. Although I won’t plan my planting around how the stars of Matariki look when they first appear in the sky, as Māori used to (just as I never planned by Punxsutawney Phil and his Groundhog Day predictions), but I am pleased to note the sky has been crystal clear for the past few days—clear, bright Matariki stars signify an early planting season. Just as a shadowless groundhog used to make me hope for an early spring, bright Matariki stars do the same.

Celebrating Matariki feels natural and right here in Aotearoa. When the children were young, we always celebrated the winter solstice. I made special solstice cakes, decorated to celebrate darkness or welcome the soon-to-be-lengthening days. We’d give the kids little gifts—a flashlight, or some winter-appropriate craft supplies. We made candle holders and dipped beeswax candles. We had a special dinner in the light of the candles we’d made. It wasn’t a huge celebration—just something to mark the season and look forward to during the short, dark winter days.

As the kids grew older, they weren’t interested in candle making or other crafts. We still enjoyed candlelight dinners on the solstice, but most of the other parts of our celebration fell away. Now that Matariki is an official holiday, I expect some of our solstice celebration will make its way into our Matariki celebrations.

Like us, many New Zealanders will be creating new traditions this year, mapping out what Matariki looks like today, mixing traditional Māori celebrations with the myriad cultures that make up modern day New Zealand. I hope as we all move forward with our celebrations, we can resist the commercialisation that has plagued other holidays and remain focused on the deeper meanings behind Matariki and its intimate connection to the land.

Autumnal Buzz

As an entomologist, I love early autumn. Insect numbers are at their peak, and most insects are adults—their most active and visible life stage.

As a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, early autumn nights were nearly deafening with the cacophony of cricket and katydid chirps. Days buzzed with the sounds of cicadas and grasshoppers.

New Zealand is quieter, but autumn still has its distinct voices. Our katydids’ sharp ‘zit zit’ seems to echo from their favourite ake ake trees. Crickets twitter in the grass on sunny days. Cicadas and grasshoppers buzz from trees and bushes.

Bees and butterflies are particularly active on autumnal blooms. Many of our showy butterflies overwinter as adults, so they can be seen flitting about on warm days into late autumn.

Of course the clouds of invasive cabbage white butterflies on the brassicas and the German wasps swarming the compost pile aren’t terribly welcome. But still, I enjoy the leggy hum and flutter of the season.

Feathered Friend

The vast majority of the birds in our yard are non-native invasive pests—English sparrows, European starlings, blackbirds, goldfinches and song thrushes wreak havoc in the garden. They eat fruits and vegetables, dig up seedlings, spread mulch all over the lawn, and strip young plants of leaves. If I could net the entire yard to keep them all out I would.

But some of the avian visitors to our place are welcome. The fantails that flit in and out of the house snapping up flies are a delight. The silvereyes picking aphids off the trees are both adorable and helpful. And the magpies may be noisy and aggressive, but they are quite entertaining as they dive bomb the cat or squabble with each other.

The tall trees across the road from our place are home to a host of white-faced herons. They croak and grumble among the branches like modern pterodactyls, and I love to watch them winging home in the evenings, landing awkwardly before settling down for the night. 

They rarely give our yard a second glance, but for the past week, a young heron has taken a liking to our porch and front garden. 

There’s something wrong with him. I say that not because of his interest in our porch—it is a nice place to hang out—but because his legs are oddly splayed and he wobbles when he walks. Still, he seems to be holding his own, and he has no trouble flying out of range of the cat when he comes stalking. It’s possible his flight is impaired as well, and that’s why he’s foraging close to home in our garden. Or maybe he’s discovered our soil has lots of worms to offer. Either way, I wouldn’t mind if this bird stuck around.

From Haast to Haast Pass

My husband and I spent the past four days on the West Coast. I was helping him with some field work involving a lot of bush bashing on steep slopes.

The trip also involved a lot of driving–all the way from Greymouth to Haast, and then over to Wanaka before heading north again. It being the West Coast, the road crossed many creeks, each one named by a small road sign. After a particularly waterway-rich stretch of highway, where  we crossed a creek every 50 metres or so, we began to note ALL the creek names. At some point I began writing them down—they were strangely poetic.

I’ve taken a section—State Highway 6 between Haast and Haast Pass—and have written a poem that uses each creek name, in order starting in Haast, and evokes South Westland. The creek names are the only words capitalised.

you swish through the Grassy paddock
to take a Snapshot,
then fossick for Greenstone
on the beach amidst the strewn blossoms
of southern rata, that seasonal Myrtle
Harris says brings out the colour of
your eyes when he tucks a bloom behind your ear.

ankle deep in the Glitterburn
on a tuesday that sparkles with gold
you fire a text to Roy and Joe,
knowing they are stuck in Dismal london,
while you grow Dizzy trying to track
the flitting movement of a tomtit
in the undergrowth, its Gun Boat grey
blending into the shadows, white breast
winking like a Cron command,
Dancing to its own irregular beat.

and deep in the forest, the Roaring Swine
fill the Gap in the silence and find
the Chink between birdsongs.

your Cache of wonder sits at the Depot,
its Square Top a fitting seat
for Orman,
the Imp with Mossy eyes.
his Eighteen Mile hike on Gout swollen feet
has not dampened his spirits.
he recites MacPherson’s translations,
mixing the ancient gaelic with
lines you’re certain came from Douglas adams.

the Serpentine path you wander tumbles
over boulders soft with moss like grandma Evans’ arms
when she would pull you into those hugs you
hated as a teen, when you and your cousin Chelsea
walked the tired streets of town—
three blocks, then Pivot to retrace
the entirety of main street—hoping
for some excitement.

now it is Solitude you crave.
as Douglas said—space is Big—
surely there is enough of it that you
can carve out your own piece of it
here, among the ancient footprints
of Moa, tangled in a Briar,
imagining Haast eagles soaring overhead.

Diana would have been your goddess,
in this wilderness of rain where The Trickle
of water is more like a roar and
liquid is a Cutter of stone.

you would stay here for decades
like Robinson crusoe, study the
ants at your feet as though you
were e. o. Wilson.

instead you Cross the river
and stand dripping and shiny
as a nugget of gold on the other side.

Guerrilla Art

We spent a night in Wanaka last week before our tramping trip. While wandering around town looking for a likely spot for dinner, we came across some poems stuck onto a bridge railing. 

Like a Banksy painting, the poems were certainly not ‘legal’ and were no doubt frowned upon by the local authorities. But also Banksy-like, they made passersby smile and think.

Years ago, when my husband and I lived in State College, Pennsylvania, we regularly took our walks in the agricultural fields near the edge of town. Along the path, shortly after leaving the neighbourhood, someone had installed a tiny section of sidewalk. Embedded in the concrete was the poem ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’ by Shel Silverstein. There was no indication of who had installed the poem, and it was tucked away beside the field as though it had been surreptitiously installed in the dead of night. 

There are municipally sanctioned examples of Guerrilla art—art that appears in unlikely places. The poetry among the rocks along Wellington’s waterfront is one example. But there’s something particularly delightful about the non-sanctioned art—the amazing sand sculptures people create on the beach, the sidewalk chalk drawings that proliferated during lockdown, the splash of graffiti on train cars. It’s an expression of life and spirit, a proclamation of something uniquely human, a statement about human lives.

I think we all could use a little more guerrilla art in our lives. Thanks to the Brownston Street Bard for your lovely contribution. May the ink continue to flow from your pen.