Our winters are not severe, although they are tough for many people and we all look forward to warmer days. Where most of us live here, we’re not knee-deep in snow or suffering through long dark days and months, as in Scandinavia where they suffer consequent mental health issues – perhaps why Sweden hesitated to impose an early lockdown when spring had just begun.
Today there is a frost but, as the pattern goes, it is followed by warm sun. There is something to appreciate, even on a dull day. Yesterday was cloudy and cold, so we lit the fire earlier than usual, ate kumara soup and read our books. Outside the weather went from cloudy to stormy to rain with a bit of ice in it, to clear and even a bit of watery sun in the late afternoon.
I appreciate the warmth of thick woollen clothing which I couldn’t bear the thought of wearing in summer. My wool duvet, wool pillows and wool mattress cover are fabulous in winter – and summer (with one less layer of duvet). I am able to wash and hang my woolly socks and merino tops outside on the line – especially on a day like today.
Thank goodness that we are able to socialise (let’s hope it lasts). Meals out, card games and walks are great to keep my spirits up and keep me connected with friends. And between-times there’s blogging, emails, texts and phone calls – and, maybe, delightful news. Speaking of news, there’s always something thought-provoking in the daily newspaper I collect from the gate each morning.
Our Christchurch City Libraries are perhaps the best thing about our city. They are a connection point for everyone and a warm place in winter. There’s something magical about coming home with a pile of books. Walking home from the library last week, I was delighted to see the Town Hall fountain working again. I sat and enjoyed it for a while.
Over the last couple of months I have found myself taking the odd photo of something cheering. Here are some creative delights I’m enjoying this winter.
The garden is a changing source of delight.
Winter delights show me that there’s always something cheering in the cold, dark and dreariness, particularly as I have the luxury of time to appreciate it.
In the late afternoon, there’s the possibility of a contemplative winter cocktail and The Panel on National Radio.
It’s hard to say if the remaining two hens miss their mate. I was reading all sorts of reactions into their behaviour over the next couple of days, but who knows? They have continued to lay eggs as usual. Dora excelled herself with a whopper on Tuesday. I expected the hens to go off the lay in winter, but it doesn’t seem to be the case with these chooks.
They stick together a lot, as usual. When the sun is out, they find a dry spot for a dust bath by the wheelbarrow, where I keep pea straw.
I feel sorry for them in this cold weather and give them plenty to eat and treats such as sunflower seeds. They tolerate the blackbirds, sparrows and wax-eyes which fly down for left-overs from the feed trough and bowls. When I am in the garden, they like to inspect what I am doing, pulling apart raked up leaves to look for insects, and just being companionable. They like to perch on garden furniture to groom themselves or, in Dora’s case, to do her job as sentinel. Popcorn retains her position as head hen.
They can move mountains of earth, earning them the nicknames Fulton and Hogan, after the earth-moving and road construction company. The soil becomes so aerated that it has risen considerably above the level of the paving stones by the wood pile.
I’ve heard that some people turn their chickens out onto the vegetable garden before they plant. One of my chooks’ well-tilled spots looked so good that I was delighted when I found a small dome at The Warehouse. Popcorn and Dora were keen to help, of course. I distracted them with silver beet and kale leaves while I quickly planted some vegetables and secured the protective cover.
They say that people come to resemble their pets. I’m amused to see that my shorter hair cut has unleashed my natural wave into wings, giving me the look of a startled chicken!
Betty passed away peacefully overnight. She spent all yesterday in her comfy house, standing with her head under her wing. It rained most of the day so I sympathised with her. This morning the sun was shining. I went to put her in a sunny spot and found her at rest on the hay in the corner of her house.
One of three rescued hens, she seemed to be older than the other two and stopped laying some months ago. Her comb and tail had become smaller and she liked to settle in the sun while the others were busy around the garden.
Here are some happy memories of Betty Blue (she had a blue tag on one leg and is the lighter colour of the two brown birds).
My niece (also mourning Betty’s loss) and friend found some hens running loose on the Port Hills last winter. They managed to catch two (Betty and Dora). Popcorn came from the SPCA to make a mini-flock of three. They named the hens Satay (now Dora) and Butter (Betty). The hens came to live with me in January. We have no idea how old they are. Dora and Popcorn are still laying regularly. My niece believes Betty was hit by a car at some stage which may account for her increasing frailty. She was the lowest in the pecking order, but still did well to get her share of food and treats. Now, there is just the head hen (Popcorn) and the sentinel or lookout (Dora).
Betty’s grave is under the lilac trees. I found a suitable rock – which, now that I look at it, resembles a chicken beak down, tail up. Around it I have planted fox gloves and an azalea from my beautiful sister. Winter sweet flowers add scent to the scene.
The Hens by Elizabeth Madox Roberts
The night was coming very fast; It reached the gate as I ran past.
The pigeons had gone to the tower of the church And all the hens were on their perch,
Up in the barn, and I thought I heard A piece of a little purring word.
I stopped inside, waiting and staying, To try to hear what the hens were saying.
They were asking something, that was plain, Asking it over and over again.
One of them moved and turned around, Her feathers made a ruffled sound,
A ruffled sound, like a bushful of birds, And she said her little asking words.
She pushed her head close into her wing, But nothing answered anything.
After I had cleared some creeping campanula which was taking over the barrel of polyanthus, I noticed two mushroom-like shapes emerging from the soil. On closer inspection, I decided they were puffballs. To my surprise, a day or so later they had turned into this:
Had a child’s geodesic dome toy landed there – or perhaps something from outer space? It had the look and feel of plastic. When I looked closely, I could see how it had formed out of the two “puffballs”:
In a couple of days it had crumpled and collapsed, by which time another one was emerging:
It was popping out of its pod looking like a scrunchie.
Then I recalled seeing it growing under trees at the beach and discovering that it is called a basket fungus, so I looked it up. The Maori names include tutae kehua (ghost dung) and tutae whetu (star dung). It is native to New Zealand and also found in Australia and South Africa. This site, with interesting photos, also identifies it as a buckyball stinkhorn. I didn’t sniff too hard, but any bad smell wasn’t obvious in my specimens.
I wrote a post called Inexcusable Ignorance (August 11, 2019) after observing a very delicate pale grey fungus on the lawn. It looked a little like the crowd of hattifatteners in the Moomin stories. I felt strongly the need to learn more about everyday things in the garden. Well, my head is bursting with information now. A Compendium of Collective Nouns informs me that, rather than crowd, the correct term is colony of fungi – “a batch of fungi that has grown from a single spore or cell – that is, a clonal colony.” A question on the television quiz show QI was: “What is the largest living thing on the planet?” There were the usual responses: “The blue whale”, “The Redwood tree”. The answer was a massive fungus, which must be the one referred to in A Compendium of Collective Nouns: “In the forests of Eastern Oregon, a clonal colony of the fungus Armillaria solidipes has spread across twenty-two hundred square acres, and is estimated to be twenty-four hundred years old.”
A Radio New Zealand article I found states: “There are tens of thousands of fungus species in New Zealand”. A competition to vote for the favourite fungi was run at the 32nd annual New Zealand Mushroom Foray. The basket fungus came second. The Maori term used for it in the article is matakupenga which, on looking up, I found is also a design used in Maori carving symbolising the life force between the living and the ancestors. The winner of the competition, a stunning blue fungi, appears on our $50 dollar note, I was surprised to discover. There are great pictures on the RNZ link.
The New Zealand Mushroom Foray conjures up wonderful mental images. It reminds me of the Mushroom Pickers’ Ball in the Polish book Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (who won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2018) which I have recently laughed till I cried over (surprising, as the title doesn’t suggest hilarity). I never imagined there would be a similar group here in NZ. Which all goes to show that the more you learn the more connections you make, the less ignorant you are, the more fun you have, and the more you appreciate the world and our tenuous place in it.
Dora, Betty and Popcorn keep together most of the time. Betty who has grown quite plump is not laying eggs – or not viable ones. She does not move about as much as the others, often sitting on the door mat, but is still quick to run for food or to see if I have a treat. Dora (named for the explorer) will occasionally go off on her own over the fence into the front garden – or into the house given half a chance. Otherwise, wherever you see one the others aren’t far away.
I think Popcorn is top of the pecking order, but they all get on well. I hear a bit of a kerfuffle (a perfect word for chooks) in their little house as they settle for the night. Did you know they can sleep with one eye open? How to Speak Chicken by Melissa Caughey (see last post) informed me that the chook nearest the door keeps an eye out (perhaps this is where the expression originated) for possible intruders. They rotate positions so that each chook gets to be in the middle and have both eyes closed for part of the night. This characteristic, along with their ability to melt away into the cover of undergrowth, dates back to their ancestor – the Burmese jungle fowl. They have one eye designed for close up viewing and the other for scanning the sky for potential danger.
The weekend before last, I observed them sitting in a row for their morning preening.
These rescued chickens will live out their lives here whether or not they continue to lay eggs. Having read This Chicken Life by Fiona Scott-Norman (see previous post) I am more aware of the hard life most “utility breed” chickens have, being bred and selected for their eggs and meat. Popping out an egg a day takes a toll on these hens and they do not live long – perhaps two years. If they are “broilers”, bred so large they collapse with their own weight, they only live for a number of months. I wonder if Betty is getting a little depressed, knowing she is not producing eggs and waiting for “the chop”.
This Chicken Life recommends heritage breeds for backyard flocks. They don’t lay as often but having a few more of them can compensate. Of course, if you want them to live as they really should, you need a rooster, which isn’t allowed in urban areas. Some of the chicken fanciers in the book get around this by keeping their roosters in a box or sound-proofed garage over night. The heritage breeds come in all sorts of dramatic colours and sizes (as do their eggs) and they can live to be teenagers.
The book shows how chooks bring joy and comfort to all sorts of people: the sick, the elderly, people needing mental health support, people with physical disabilities, prisoners, children who are bullied, children who are autistic, school children generally, people who rescue them, artists who paint their portraits, an actor who includes them in her comedy acts, those who photograph them in fetching poses, show them, judge them, crotchet hats for broody chooks and a woman who manufactures wheelchairs for injured birds. This woman has a trailer called a “Pull-et” for taking her chooks on holiday with her. Many say how they enjoy their backyard “chicken television” at the end of a working day. Even the Queensland Parliament has an Eggsembly of chooks which is a highlight of open days at Parliament House in Brisbane.
There is something natural, primal even, and calming about chooks.
[Quite Interesting Note: “primal” is also a word for a large feather on a bird’s wing.]
At the moment of writing, Dora, Popcorn and Betty are having dust baths together. They scratch away the damp surface to find the dry soil beneath and settle into little bowls of dust, fluffing their feathers and dozing.
It started with the installation of a bird feeder made of up-cycled materials…
This ingenious piece of engineering by my brother-in-law and nephew, consists of a cast iron industrial lamp (we think) inverted on a cut-down pole. It has been rust-proofed and varnished. Concreted in, it is here to stay and looks magnificent against the autumn colours of the wisteria. In the early morning when the sun hits it, water vapour rises from the dew-wet metal. We thought it might take a week or two for the birds to get used to it, but they have taken no time to discover the crusts of bread while the chooks, unconcerned, remain grounded below.
It continued with bird-themed gifts:
I’m feeling very spoiled and continue to be entertained by the birds visiting the feeder and by these amazing books about chicken-obsessed people. This Chicken Life is Australian and there are some horrendous accounts of fox attacks. Thank goodness we don’t have foxes in New Zealand to add to our introduced pest woes. “Like coconut on a lamington, they’re all over Australia…introduced between the 1840s and the 1870s by a conga line of utter muppets…keen to indulge in the ‘noble sport of fox-hunting’.” I worry when the chooks get into the front garden that an illegally off-the-lead dog will get them – which happened to friends’ chickens in Dunedin. The Australian patois of the book is very funny and also hits the spot about the worries of chook ownership. After a fox attack, and a period of grieving, you are advised: “…when you miss the gentle susurration of chickens bok-bok-bokking in the garden, you pull up your big farmer undies and go to the poultry auction and buy more chickens”.
I enjoyed a Genesis Energy power shout (free electricity for 8 hours) on my birthday; turned up the heat pump, auto-cleaned the oven and made spicy buns.
In the evening there was spicy chocolate birthday cake, a family favourite recipe, with coffee icing and walnut sprinkles, expertly baked and decorated by my sister.
So, here I am, an old age pensioner at last and feeling quite mature! GoldCard, new driver’s licence, flu shot. All set.
I read The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G. Parry on the Kindle app on my ipad – my favourite bookshop was shut during lockdown – but I would like to have a “real” copy of it to dip into again more easily. I expected the book to be like the Jasper Fforde series which began with The Eyre Affair, in which a literary detective’s work is to put escaped characters back into their books. It is funny and fantastical by warping our known world, but The Unlikely Escape is different, superimposing or layering fiction on our “real” world. You laugh one moment and catch your breath the next.
The quotation above (reminiscent of ‘there’s a kangaroo loose in the top paddock’) comes from the first page when Rob’s brother, Charley, telephones him in the middle of the night from the university English department with a plea for help. Charley has summoned Uriah Heep out of David Copperfield and he does not want to be read back in. To remind you what Uriah is like, I found this audio of Dickens (really?) reading the part where David Copperfield meets Uriah for the first time.
In an interview with Kim Hill, the author said she chose the name Uriah Heep for the title as it is a name likely to be familiar to potential readers of the book. He is not the only character on the loose. There’s Heathcliff (with lethal weaponry), Sherlock Holmes and Dr Frankenstein (each called on for advice), Dorian Gray (expert internet hacker), Scheherazade (continually shelving in the bookshop) and various others.
I was surprised to find that H.G. Parry is a NZ author (but not surprised that she has a PhD in literature) and that the setting of her book is Wellington. To explain why I was surprised, the fictional characters who are on the loose are from Victorian to Regency English literature mainly. There are Dickens characters, and Austen and Wilde characters, as well as a fictional (i.e. made up by H.G. Parry) girl detective, from the twenties or thirties, I think. She’s a bit of a Jacinda Ardern type of character: forthright, moral and pragmatic, carefully negotiating her way around the tricky coalition of characters as she takes the lead. The particular setting is not that relevant really, as the book is about reading and how the characters we read about can inform our own lives. Perhaps, as it is the capital city, there is an implication about how we govern ourselves, settle scores and lead the way… The local references: Maui and Mahy are both internationally known, and this book is for an international market.
The book is a blast, particularly if you have studied literature and literary criticism, but just as much if you are aware of the vagaries of human nature and the different ways in which we can invent and re-invent ourselves, or if you have seen the various interpretations of the classics in tv series and film. As an example, there are five Darcys – each evidence of different ways in which readers have interpreted the character. One looks like Colin Firth. They share a house in a lane off Cuba Street. The lane is only accessible to other fictional characters (a bit like the train platform in the Harry Potter books), but it is under threat and this provides tension and action in the plot. One character is The Implied Reader who has an indistinct face. An Implied Author turns up at one point, and even Charles Dickens.
The plot is held together by a variety of contrasts and conflicts. Mainly, it is the story of two brothers. One is a 26 year old prodigy and academic who can summon fictional characters from books. The other (the first person narrator for much of the book) is a criminal defence lawyer who has almost always looked out for his younger brother. Now, he is called on to confront the family secret while hiding it from his partner, Lydia, and to take his support of his brother to a dangerous level. Uriah Heep becomes significant here as a foil to David Copperfield. I read a Guardian article which said these two characters “are a fork in the road”. Which brings up the question of how fair an author is in creating characters to make a point – Uriah Heep is perhaps justifiably aggrieved! A similar question arises as Charley and a rival summoner fight over which fictional world to impose on the real life city. So it is about academic rivalry as well. Or meeting one’s arch-nemesis. Is it imperative to impose one potentially limiting interpretation or to allow the many manifestations of fictional characters? The book argues for the latter.
The book is about how we read, whether or not we read, how much importance we give to the creative imagination and how powerful it can be in our lives. Margret Mahy’s The Lion in the Meadow is a recurring reference. I remember reading that there were two endings to Mahy’s story, and it is discussed in the book. The writer – and consequently the reader – suffers by repressing the imagination is the point made. And so in the end, as in Mahy’s book, the dragon remained “and nobody minded”. The Unlikely Escape finishes (slight spoiler alert – this book is about far more than the ending) with the once occasional reader, Rob, engrossed in Great Expectations at home by the fire with his brother Charley (reading The Princess Bride) and Sherlock Holmes (reading Agatha Christie) “And for a moment, the space between heartbeats, I felt I could glimpse the world Charley saw. A world of light and shadows, of fact, truth and story, each blurring into one another as sleep and wakefulness blur in the early morning. The moments of our lives unfolding as pages in a book. And everything connected, everyone joined, by an ever-shifting web of language, by words that caught us as prisms caught light and reflected us back at ourselves. ‘We changed again, and yet again,’ I read, ‘and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.'”
I’ve enjoyed the thinking this book has allowed me days after finishing it.
Being retired felt sparkly and new; full of promise. But now that we’re all retired, more or less, the shine has gone off it. After three months, and with winter approaching, would it have seemed less of an adventure anyway?
I was excited about my daily craft book, was ready to get my paperwork in order – such as renewing my driver’s licence – and had begun to keep a journal to record the turmoil of retirement. All of these have pretty much lapsed.
I promised myself the delights of movies and tv shows I’d missed while working and have enjoyed some of these on Kanopy (some funny French movies) and TVNZ OnDemand (Girlfriends – very exciting and funny), but mostly I prefer to watch tv shows about gardening or house restoration on Living and QI on UKTV.
Radio has proved to be a good companion. Favourites include Jim Mora’s Sunday morning show and Jesse Mulligan’s Afternoons. The BBC Friday Comedy is a podcast I have followed for some time. It’s especially apt at the moment, recorded from the comedians’ homes and with no studio audience laughing at every joke. I like to listen to In Our Time or Woman’s Hour to occupy my mind while cleaning the bathroom or doing other mundane tasks.
I seem to have drifted into playing Patience. On my phone and ipad to start with, until I found the cool smooth crispness of real cards far more relaxing. No annoying infomercials for miracle bras, no hints about the next move, no promises of weird rewards, no disturbing messages giving you the percentage of people you have beaten.
The online Solitaire gave me the impression that the deal was manipulated to keep you playing, to tease you along, to advertise things it has worked out you need, and that it was being judgemental about your mental acuity.
I’m using a pack of cards which features Shakespeare’s flowers and each card has a quotation from the play in which the flower is mentioned. Charming. I can play the game while I look at the garden, the sunset, passersby, the tv, or the little spider with the stripy legs which lives somewhere around my desk.
Mornings are spent with my back in the sun, reading the paper and doing the code cracker.
My favourite indoor (sometimes outdoor in a sunny spot) pastime is reading. Occasionally, I’ll add a book to my ebook library, but prefer reading “real” books (and they don’t run out of battery). That said, I still become absorbed in the e versions.
On the cards (haha) are pursuits I would like to do more. When I heard my 13 year old nephew had taken up juggling during lockdown, I remembered I had some juggling balls and dug them out. They’re a bit the worse for wear, as my dog would be poised ready to grab them if they fell – which was often. The teethmarks and duct tape repair are evidence of his enthusiasm to join in. This time round, it’s possible I may get no further than the exercise on the first page of the instruction book.
The other pursuit is playing the piano. The piano has become a piece of furniture for family photos, boxes of cutlery too good to use and delicate tea cups. I have lost the muscle memory of many of the pieces I used to rattle off (I’m talking about music – the tea cups don’t rattle at all, surprisingly), but others I can stumble through. Fittingly, Beethoven’s Farewell to the Piano is manageable. He’s a bit of a show-off though, old Beethoven, not even easing up in a final piece. There are some big stretches for normal hands and the middle section has four flats and lots of accidentals. The inscription inside the book of music is: “Christmas 1971” signed by my music teacher, Mrs I M Lennon.
Best of all, perhaps, I enjoy my garden. The chooks keep me company out there, inspecting sweepings for tasty bugs.
Sometimes the light on plants is just right and I get a photo like this one to share, use as a screen saver and blog about. This chrysanthemum, which I won in a Friday raffle at work last year, was in a small pot and not looking very promising, so I popped it into the edge of the vegetable plot just a few weeks ago. It grew like crazy and had to be staked and tied to keep it from flopping over the little lime tree beside it.
This previously unassuming plant could be a metaphor for things to come when there is a time to step out of our confining bounds, flourish in fertile ground, grow and shine.
Let’s start with a tiny egg. What had popped into the nesting box and produced this?
Some research told me that these tiny eggs are called, variously, wind eggs, fart eggs, fairy eggs and witch eggs. Here’s my delightful source.
Another cutie pie thing landed on my kitchen window the other night.
It may have a limb missing, but with the help of my sister and brother in law, we identified it as a katydid. I’ve seen a few in the garden and found a dead one inside the house.
I noticed something strange happening to the swan plants. I thought a dandelion clock had latched onto the plant, but my sister told me it is the swan plant producing its fluffy seeds and this is how the plant got its name.
People across the country stood out at the gate to remember Anzac Day this year. Mum went out before 6am, and I joined her in case she fell into the garden in the dark. We heard a bugle call nearby. Later, I saw creative art work adorning fences, such as this one I photographed on a walk to St Albans Park.
Our display was a little more modest, and there were real poppies in the garden. I made Anzac biscuits and there a few left today in the RSA biscuit tin.
Today, I came across these two trinket boxes which my uncle had sent home from Egypt where he was stationed in 1942. Inside was a letter he had written on tissue-thin paper.
Here is his grave at Cassino in Italy, photographed with my cousin and his wife last year.
My brother thinks it is poignantly fitting that my uncle, who was an accountant, died on the last day of the financial year.
Shakespeare’s tragedies, performed during his lifetime, would end with a boisterous dance to cheer up the audience, and so we remember important people – and the little things which are given to lift our spirits. My boisterous dance, is simply to recount that, as we began our dinner tonight, there was a thud of something hitting the floor. I looked at Mum to see if she’d lost her knife again, but she was firmly gripping both knife and fork. She reached down and retrieved the top set of her dentures which had shot out when she found the cauliflower too hot. As Mum would say, “Happy days!”
On a final endearing note, take a look at this thank you video made by Laura Mucha for the people who help us, which I found on Poetry Roundabout this morning.
When, on drawing the curtains in the morning, I see the tree next door glowing as if it is on fire, I know it’s going to be a lovely day. I lie in bed and look at it and feel inspired. Today it seems to be an especially good omen for the first day of Alert Level 3.
Then it is no hardship to get up and plan the day. A little bit of “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” is evident on my study window, with late roses a memory of summer.
On the kitchen window sill are the casualties of the last couple of days’ gusty winds glowing in the sunlight.
At either end of the vegetable plot, chrysanthemums are beginning to do their thing.
First job is to check the chooks, clean out their house, and pick up after them as they amble about the garden. I’ve found myself humming Abba’s Super Trouper song as I do this, but with different words:
Today the super pooper chooks are gonna find me
Shining like the sun (super pooper)
Scratching, having fun (super pooper)
Making lots of number twos
Super pooper smells are gonna hit me
But I won’t feel blue
‘Cause it’s what they do
On the deck and in the garden too.
It’s ambiguous who is doing the shining, scratching and making – but you know it’s the chooks, right?