Winter Losing its Grip

When I returned a tool to the equipment hire place yesterday morning, the owner asked if I thought we’d have snow.

At school, the staff were buzzing with the possibility of a snow day. “Don’t tell the kids!” one whispered. “They’ll go crazy.”

The weather forecast is for a southerly storm to blow in on Wednesday. Depending on which forecast you look at, we might have snow to 400 metres or to near sea level.

But regardless of the forecast, it’s beginning to feel like spring.

Yesterday evening when I stepped out to close the chicken house, lambs bleated in nearby paddocks, starlings warbled in the treetops, and blackbirds fought over new territories. 

The sky was still light, though it was nearly six o’clock, and the air was soft and full of promises.

Today I am comfortable in a t-shirt, and have opened the doors and windows to warm up the house in the winter sunshine.

Whether it snows tomorrow or not, winter has lost its grip. Spring is on its way.

Vilma’s Eggplant–better late than never

I’ve blogged about Vilma’s Eggplant in the past, but it’s worth repeating a recipe this good.

This year’s eggplants took a long time to get going, and it’s only now that summer is over that they’re really giving well. But it’s never too late for Vilma’s Marinated Eggplant. This stuff could make an eggplant lover out of anyone.

Vilma was the sister of our host mother during Peace Corps training in Costa Rica. She was loud and fiery-tempered, and regularly stayed with our host family when she was fighting with her partner.

When she was with us, she cooked—glorious Italian food she’d learned to make from her partner. Her food was a flavourful gift in a house where vegetables were usually boiled to death and served plain. 

One of the most wonderful things Vilma made was thinly sliced eggplant marinated in garlicky vinegar. She’d leave a jar of it in the fridge when she left, and we would savour it for a week on our sandwiches or with our mushy, flavourless boiled vegetables.

I foolishly never asked Vilma for the recipe, but a bit of trial and error was all it took to recreate Vilma’s marinated eggplant. 

This recipe mostly fills a quart-sized jar. It keeps for a long time in the fridge and makes a lovely addition to sandwiches. Serve it on crackers for party appetisers—it’s not the prettiest food, but after one bite, none of your guests will care.

2 small to medium eggplants
1 clove garlic, crushed
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Peel eggplants and slice very thin (1-2 mm). Steam until the slices are tender and limp (but not falling apart completely). Whisk all the other ingredients together in a small bowl, and toss them gently with the hot steamed eggplant. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving (the longer the better, as the eggplant will soak up more marinade).

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 Bird in the Hand

I’ve had two funny encounters with birds recently. Two birds in-the-hand, so to speak.

A few weeks ago I was in town, doing some writing in Hagley Park, because it was a beautiful spring day. I sat down on the grass with my lunch and my laptop.

A few minutes later, I noticed a male European blackbird eyeing me up. He hopped closer, stopping when I met his gaze, but then, deciding I was no threat, sidling even closer. My lunchbox sat open between us, and I knew he was sizing it up.

Well, I don’t feed wildlife in general, and I certainly wasn’t going to feed a non-native invasive bird. Besides, I wanted to eat that lunch myself. I finished off my sandwich and started in on my apple.

The bird watched my every move. When I set the apple into the lunchbox to type, he rushed in. I clapped my hand over the box, and he backed off.

The bird was undeterred. When I brought the apple to my mouth again, he lunged for it. He flew up and took a bite out of it while I was biting the other side. His wingtips brushed my cheeks, he was so close.

Well, how could I refuse after that? I gave him the rest of the apple (which wasn’t much more than core at that point, anyway). 

But I made him work for it.

I put it back in the lunchbox, and set the box next to my leg. And that cheeky bird perched on the lunchbox and ate the rest of the apple. Other birds came to see what he had, but none were brave enough to come close, so he had it all to himself. He was terribly smug about it—quite pleased with himself, I’m sure.

My second recent bird encounter happened last weekend. My husband was mowing the lawn, and there was a fledgling magpie in the way. The magpie wouldn’t move out of the mower’s path, so I tried to shoo it away. It still wouldn’t budge, just cheeped at me, as if to say, “Yeah. What do you want?”

So I gently picked it up to pop it over the fence, out of the way. It gave one alarmed squawk, and suddenly its parents were arrowing straight for me from where they had been feeding in the neighbouring paddock. They swooped and screeched as I walked away, and I had to wave my arms over my head to avoid being pecked. The fledgeling, meanwhile, hopped away as though nothing had happened. I could almost hear him chuckling.

So, yeah, I’ve been had by two birds recently. A human in the beak is worth two in the bush, apparently.

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.