Respite on the Rakaia

The temperature is squatting at 37 degrees C. Body temperature. I’ve experienced hotter, but when it hits 37, it’s just hot, no way to argue it’s not.

So we headed down to the Rakaia River, just a short drive from our place.

The walk in from the settlement of Rakaia Huts is green and humid. The track is maintained only by the feet that tread it and winds through a magical scrubby forest. Non-natives brush leaves with natives, feral fruit trees share space with hydrangeas. The worst of Canterbury’s weeds coexist with a remarkable array of native shrubs and ferns—it’s the Peaceable Kingdom of the plant world.

Twenty minutes of walking through this green glade brings you to the river. The Rakaia is a braided river, so you cross and re-cross channels to reach one suitable for swimming. Down near the mouth, there are many swimming holes—deep and turquoise with suspended loess (wind-blown rock dust)—separated by sparkling riffles. We followed the river to the sea, testing each pool to find the best one.

They were all delightful, all ours for the taking, because there was no one else there.

Back home, we stayed in our wet togs until they dried, bringing the cool river with us.

In the time it’s taken me to write this blog, the temperature has risen further. The river water has long since evaporated. Now we have just the memory to keep us cool.

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.

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.

Weeding Therapy

You know it’s been a good therapy session when it leaves a clear weeding front.

I make no secret of the fact I have a weeding problem. I’ll ignore hunger, thirst and bodily pain to pull just a few more weeds—fill the wheelbarrow, finish the garden bed, never mind the cost.

But in spite of my obsession, I believe there is a place for weeding therapy, even for me.

Today, when the temperature hit a sweltering (for mid-winter, at least) 18 degrees (64ºF), I had no interest in my usual lunchtime walk. No. Today, after weeks of inactivity in the garden, I needed to weed.

I grabbed my gloves, and hove to. A sweaty half-hour later, I was refreshed and ready to get back to work.

The key to good weeding therapy (to avoid it becoming a weeding marathon) is setting limits—I give myself half an hour, and set a timer so I’ve no excuse for running over time. It helps to choose the therapy weeding job well; I go for places that have been irritating me, places that are desperate, or places where the weeds are big and easy to pull. It gives me a greater sense of accomplishment in a short amount of time, so I feel I can quit when my time is up.

And if I do quit before exhaustion, pain or hunger set in, I can return to other work in a focused state of mind, ready to bang out the next chapter or tackle the next editing job.

And the best part is that, with so much garden area here, there will always be more weeds, so therapy is always available when I need it.

Backyard Biodiversity

Craterium minutum

I know it’s been a good weekend when I arrive in my office Monday morning to find my microscope in the middle of the desk, and dirt and bits of plant material strewn about.

It means I’ve been outdoors, seeing cool stuff, identifying plants, insects, or other organisms.

Once you start looking at and identifying what lives around you, the variety is astounding. A glance at the citizen science website iNaturalist shows a pile-up of dozens of observations at our address—and those are only the species we’ve bothered to upload.  I’ve identified 58 species of weeds in the vegetable garden alone. We have half a dozen slime moulds, dozens of fungi and lichens, who knows how many insects and other invertebrates. Then, of course, there are the birds, rats, mice, stoats and other vertebrates. I’ve never bothered to make lists of anything beyond the weeds.

So here in the dark depths of winter, I’ve decided to start a comprehensive list of the biodiversity on our little acre and a half. It will take time. It will require my microscope and many Monday mornings brushing dirt off my desk. But wouldn’t it be cool to know exactly how many other species we share this patch with?

And though many of the species I’ll put on my list are ones I’ve noted many times before, I’m sure some will be new and surprising, like the beautiful slime mould, Craterium minutum my daughter found last week.

Because, the truth is, we needn’t travel far to find natural wonders. We merely need to look closely and have a sense of wonder.

Magpie Moths

It’s the time of year when one of my favourite moths emerges—the magpie moth (Nyctemera annulata). Magpie moths are in the family Arctiidae—a family including many brightly coloured day-flying moths that threaten to blur the line between moth and butterfly. N. annulata is endemic to New Zealand, though it has a closely related Australian cousin, N. amica, with which it can interbreed.

Magpie moth caterpillars eat plants in the daisy family, especially in the genus Senecio. Common host plants include groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), ragwort (Senecio jacobaea), and cineraria (Jacobaea maritima, formerly Senecio cineraria).

We have large quantities of groundsel, and a few sizeable cineraria on the property, so we always have a healthy population of magpie moths. The caterpillars are black with orange ‘racing’ stripes, and somewhat hairy.

As you can guess from their colouration, magpie moths are poisonous. As caterpillars, they sequester toxins from the plants they eat. These toxins deter most predators. The shining cuckoo, however, is apparently quite fond of magpie moth caterpillars. It avoids the poison by eating only the insides of the caterpillar, leaving the bitter-tasting exoskeleton behind.

In addition to eating weeds like groundsel and ragwort, the magpie moth is a beautiful, colourful addition to the garden. It always makes me smile.

Hawksbeard: a Cheerful Weed

We’ve had recent, much-appreciated rain, and the grass is unusually green for January. But even with the grass growth, summer is weed season in the lawn.

More specifically, summer is weed flowering season.

Some of the weed flowers are uninspiring, and merely annoying—the dull greenish flowers of plantain, for example.

Others bring a splash of colour to what is normally a bleak time in the lawn.

Hawksbeard (Crepis capillaris) is one of the more prolific colourful weeds in the lawn in summer. An annual or biennial member of the dandelion family, this plant bears small, cheery yellow blooms on tall, branched stems.

The NZ Plant Conservation Network shows hawksbeard as being naturalised in 1867 from Europe. Like its cousin dandelion, it was most likely brought to New Zealand on purpose as a food plant—it’s young leaves are edible. Like the dandelion, it is no longer valued as a food, but is considered a weed.

I will admit, the tall flower heads of hawskbeard can be annoying in the lawn. They seem to spring up overnight between mowings, and they slap against your legs as you walk through the yard. But I do appreciate their yellow blooms at a time of year when most other plants give up from the heat and drought. I have been known to use hawksbeard in flower arrangements, and their green rosettes are sometimes the only green to be found around the yard.