Loss

A friend sent me a fantail for my birthday. One you assemble yourself. It sat in its box for a week or two, so I took it to my nephew. He and his siblings also assembled the nano lego I was given a few Christmases ago. Apologies to the gift givers – but I did enjoy watching them being assembled!

I have another fantail which was given to me long ago and which I’m pretty sure I assembled myself. Here are the two fantails and the book I’ve been reading.

The book is fascinating – with chapters on the senses and magnetic sense and emotions of birds. It is also sad. Here’s an excerpt:

I visited New Zealand while writing this book, and when I wasn’t chasing kiwi and kakapo I took a few days off to visit Fiordland on South Island. The weather was perfect and the scenery spectacular, but the most striking aspect of this area was its auditory desolation. I have rarely been anywhere so quiet. Peaceful, yes, but this was a melancholic silence. The birds that once inhabited the forests clothing the steep-sided valleys have all been killed by the predatory stoats and weasels that the early settlers foolishly introduced. Native birdsong is absent across mainland New Zealand and made me wonder whether the introduced dunnocks, blackbirds and thrushes sing more softly in New Zealand than in their native Europe due to the lack of competition.

Some years ago I was shocked to hear that even seagulls are threatened with extinction. And our loveable kea also. Somehow, against all reason, I have collected stuffed toys of our native birds. I’m quite interested in the psychology which goes with adults having stuffed toys, and I expect it shows some emotional need. Perhaps loss and grief.

I bought this little rooster at the Otago Museum after visiting a dear friend I knew I was soon to lose to cancer. Her family had a flock of beautiful hens outside the living room window where we sat together, and somehow buying the toy held that memory. I didn’t know then that I would have my own backyard chickens several years later.

The same friend would buy me owls. Her daughter once sent me a pop-up owl card. I’ve only seen owls – moreporks – twice in the wild, although I’ve heard them when bush walking. The actual sightings were at Anderson’s Park in Invercargill when I was a child, and once at Zealandia several years ago.

Here’s my line up of native bird toys. I suspect I bought them to hold onto something I knew was precarious. The kea (right) was purchased at Aoraki Mount Cook where I was fascinated by the kea perching on the hotel railing. I have seen little blue penguins (second from left) coming in to their burrows in Oamaru. Pukeko (left) can be seen every day as you pass through Travis wetland. I heard kiwi when I was on Rakiura Stewart Island many years ago, but have otherwise only seen them in captivity. Only the moa in this line up is extinct – so far.

Piwakawaka fantails seem less at risk – for now. They flit about my backyard most days, chirping high in the trees, then swooping low and fast, catching insects.

Time travel page turners

Somehow I discovered the books of Patricia Wentworth – on a list of recommended titles somewhere, perhaps. I found I could download the ebook of her first volume of Miss Silver mysteries from the library. From the first page of the first book I was transported to 1920s London.

I have enjoyed other books set in this time period: The Verity Kent mysteries, the Maisie Dobbs series. They are historical fiction and well-researched. Jill Paton Walsh continued Dorothy L. Sayers’ books, and Ben Schott has written very entertaining Jeeves and Wooster books imitating the style of P.G. Wodehouse. Patricia Wentworth was writing in and of her own time, however, and this makes every detail authentic and intriguing: house interiors, lighting, street scenes, shops, the thick London fog, clothing, language, and manners – as in the stories of Katherine Mansfield. Furthermore, the books are well-written, with interesting and complex characters who consider and question their positions in life. This is particularly so of the women characters. Hilary Carew in the second book is my favourite. She questions her engagement (and, in fact, has just broken it off, or ‘disengaged’ as she calls it) because she finds her fiance overbearing. Her courage, humour (she has a ‘poetic imp’ in her head which makes up rhyming couplets to describe her predicaments) and determination to pursue the mystery she wants to solve, leads her into danger which she meets bravely. She is also self-aware, and the author must have had her tongue in her cheek as she wrote about her. I liked her very much.

Without her fiance to foot the bill for lunch, Hilary finds “she would have to go and have a glass of milk and a bun in a creamery with a lot of other women who were having buns and milk, or Bovril, or milk with a dash of coffee, or a nice cup of tea. It was a most frightfully depressing thought, because one bun was going to make very little impression on her hunger, and she certainly couldn’t afford any more…Hilary found her creamery and ate her bun – a peculiarly arid specimen. There were little black things in it which might once have been currants but were now definitely fossils. Not a good bun. Hilary’s imp chanted mournfully: How bitter when your only bun/Is not at all a recent one.”

Through such characters the author shows what life could be like for a wide range of women dependent on men for money and respectability. Hilary’s situation is a stark contrast to the parallel life of a character who lives in constant fear of her husband (no tongue in cheek here). All three books’ mysteries centre on money, or the lack of, and they all involve wills. A woman having to earn her own living found herself in harsh and compromised situations in her employment, housing and in society in general. The law relating to women is also brought into question. I notice that some sites refer to these books as ‘cozy mysteries’, just as more recent fiction books about the domestic lives of women have been labelled ‘Aga sagas’. Both labels deliberately denigrate palatable forms of fiction for and by women. Jane Austen’s work still gets similarly dismissive comments. My enjoyment of these books was enhanced by the less palatable reading I had done previously, yet I was keenly aware of the serious issues Wentworth explores. Come to think of it, two such unpalatable books, Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam (see previous post Doomed) and The Silence by Don de Lillo are overbearing, like Hilary’s fiance, in that they speculate about possible futures of which we are all too well aware and they have a you-need-to-think-about-this tone – as if we haven’t – forcing it down your throat. Unpalatable.

What is unusual about these books is that Miss Silver is not the main character unlike the detective in all other crime fiction books I can recall. She is an elderly ‘enquiry agent’ who knits and takes notes as she listens to her clients who (at least in the first two books) are well into working on the mystery before she is brought in to help. A link is made with characters from the previous book who recommend her services (Miss Silver is knitting for Hilary’s baby in the third book). She offers advice, uncovers crucial evidence and becomes actively involved at times, but it is the other characters who work to solve the mystery and are central to the plot. Was the author influenced by Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple? It’s possible. Miss Marple first appeared in a short story in a magazine in December 1927, but the first novel featuring her was not published until 1932. The first Miss Silver book was published in 1928. There are 32 books in this series alone (I don’t imagine I’ll read them all) and the author wrote about 72 books in total.

The 1928 publication date astounded me. My 92 year old mother was born in 1929. Yet the book didn’t seem particularly dated in its characterisation or dialogue (unlike Mum who utters: “whacko!” and “corker” and other quaint expressions from time to time) – although, the last book in this set (published in 1939) ended with a monologue in a style which reminded me of old movies in which a man imparts wisdom. The author died in 1961, the same year her 32nd Miss Silver mystery was published. I was six years old then. I wonder if she ever imagined people would still be reading and enjoying her books so many years later – let alone reading them as ebooks with freshly designed covers. Older versions of the covers are like a journey through time in themselves.

The three books were absorbing fire-side reading over a few rainy days.

Chicken Nuggets

At a family gathering yesterday, I mentioned to my first cousin once removed that I was thinking of using this title for my next post. Her little boy (my first cousin twice removed) said solemnly, “I like chicken nuggets” – and there was the perfect intro.

While we enjoy chooks’ eggs and meat, sometimes their actions let us know that there are some nuggets of wisdom to be learnt from them. The following two nuggets don’t come from my own chooks. I’m struggling a bit to think what wisdom they offer, charming as they are. Perhaps, the early bird gets to wake Anne up demanding breakfast or look how much dirt you can move in just one day from here to there.

Nugget One: One of a friend’s hens suddenly had a brood of six chicks in tow. It turned out that the neighbour had acquired some fertilised eggs for her own broody hen. The hens continue to move freely between the two back yards and seem happy to share the raising of the little chickens.

There’s a lot to speculate about this story. How did the adoption of chicks occur? Did the broody hen lose interest? Did she hand over the incubation to the other hen just as they hatched so they imprinted on her?

Nugget Two: One of the contractors who came to my house to clean and check the solar panels on the roof last week said morosely that he used to have hens. “Oh! What happened?” I asked sympathetically. “The neighbour got a rooster,” he replied. His hens had promptly moved next door.

Who wouldn’t fall for this fine fellow?
Photo credit: This Chicken Life, p87. Photo by Ilana Rose

You could draw humorous conclusions from these two stories, but I like to think that they show the simplicity of mate, procreate, and cooperate instincts and, given events in the world today (take your pick) we can learn a lot from not-so-feather-brained birds.

Addendum: To give my chooks some credit, they also flock and cooperate – more than they compete – and they provide two households with eggs. The cooperation which develops between flock and farmer is perhaps the best zoonotic effect.

Chill and warm at Crisp

This morning, after I’d walked to the medical centre for a flu shot, I stopped for a coffee at Crisp. It was excellent strong coffee and came with a jaffa on the side. Perfect.

I found a sunny corner and enjoyed my book, taking my time over the coffee. After a zero degree start to the day, it was nice to bask in the warm sun, the scarf and gloves I’d worn earlier put aside.

My book took me on a journey to the heat and unfamiliarity of the tropics. In the cafe a bossa nova track was playing, piano and double bass, giving an exotic atmosphere to the early winter morning. My shazam app identified the music as chill cafe jazz and bossa nova. I made a new “chill” playlist and contemplated how English words can have different meanings: literal and figurative, both noun and verb, more than one tense simultaneously, numerous connotations, and even opposite meanings. So I was chill in mood, and warm in temperature. Perfect.

Five make a flock

I worried that my two chooks were pining for company, particularly since Betty Blue died. A pair didn’t seem quite right. Egg production was down. Dora’s eggs were thin-shelled, broken, or missing shells altogether. Popcorn went through a couple of broody phases, and we had to buy eggs. Then she began laying her occasional eggs in a nest she made under a fern by the woodpile and, once, behind a tree. Perhaps she was unsettled by Dora’s broken eggs.

My niece was ‘all egged out’ with her three chooks, Betty, Mabel and Vera (BMV), and she and her partner want their lawn back now they have a baby. So BMV have travelled, along with their hen house, from Dunedin to my place.

Now there are five chooks at my back door waiting for treats – or for a chance to sneak inside, perhaps. And more for me to do with ‘poop patrol’ and swabbing the deck. Only Dora and Popcorn get up on the outdoor furniture. The new chooks are far too polite.

They don’t mix very well together yet, but seem to sort things out between them. Dora turns into Godzilla (or her tyrannosaurus rex ancestor) if the new chooks are near food she has her eye on or if she just feels like chasing them for fun. That’s the pecking order, I guess.

For a day or two BMV overnighted in Popcorn’s fern nest, but they sleep in their own house now. Dora and Popcorn don’t go inside the new hen house. Two of the new chooks, however, have decided that laying their eggs in Dora and Popcorn’s nesting box is a good idea. Popcorn told the whole neighbourhood about it at first, but now she happily lays her egg with theirs. That seems to be healthy flock behaviour.

Dora and Popcorn inspect the palatial hen house of the new chooks.

BMV seem to be of an even temperament and stick together, often eating out of the same small bowl at the same time – something Dora and Popcorn never do, although they are usually together as well.

When I lift the lid of Dora and Popcorn’s house, they like to hop in and scratch about in the straw.

We often have surplus eggs now, which go to my sister and her family. With two teenage boys, they use a lot of eggs. When they drove to Dunedin for the older boy’s IRB (Inflatable Rescue Boat) competition before Easter, they kindly brought the chooks back, having taken their trailer to transport the hen house, and three cat carriers for the chooks (who travelled in the car).

This cartoon from the Listener gives some idea of what an IRB competition looks like!

Here are three happy chooks enjoying the sun.

Overall, a good result: a functioning flock, in full production:

Three eggs from three new chooks. The smaller one at the back is Popcorn’s.
Rhubarb muffins made with BMV eggs.

Bring me sunshine

It’s raining at last. It was great to hear the rain bucketing down in the night on the dry garden. This morning there’s a mix of rain and sunshine and the garden looks washed, fresh and sparkling.

The chooks are sheltering on the deck where it is both sunny and dry – but only 10 degrees centigrade. Heat pump and woolly socks are on for us indoors!

Yesterday I was in the garden all day. It was warm but overcast. Then in the evening the sun appeared below the nor’west arch lighting up the trees and make the flowers glow.

I find myself singing Bring me Sunshine today, with its cha-cha rhythm, and playing the Morecambe and Wise version which I have added to a playlist of Make me Smile songs. When I joined Singing for Pleasure at the WEA I started a playlist of the songs we sing. Now I have several more playlists including Childhood Favourites, Drive (for long journeys), Shiver up the Spine, and even Chicken-themed songs. Every day I wake up with a song or two playing in my head.

Today’s song is apt because the sunshine can be figurative: “Bring me sunshine in your smile. Bring me laughter all the while. In this world where we live there should be more happiness, so much joy you can give to each brand new bright tomorrow…”

This couldn’t be exemplified better than by this wee chap whose photos, arriving regularly from my niece, bring a day full of sunshine!

Family

What a complicated thing a family is! I accidentally (almost) stumbled on WikiTree and went down the rabbit hole of genealogy. I’ve never been interested in family research, but I felt honour-bound to correct and complete details about my family on the site. Much of it I knew myself or could ask my mother. However, this was my father’s side of the family and none of his immediate family are still living so there’s no-one to ask. I’ll have to take a very deep breath if I decide to fill it all in, let alone begin on my mother’s side.

Family that’s right in my face is more to my taste. And there’s plenty of that to be going on with. Here’s my mum, the oldest of the clan at 92, holding the youngest aged one month (at the time of the photo). She is now a great-grandmother to this wee chap who was born on her birthday in January.

A baby brings out the best in everyone. Love overwhelms you and touches everyone in the room. On this family occasion we were celebrating two 21st birthdays and a 90th birthday. There were happy tears as births and childhoods were recalled. The 90 year-old and his late wife have always shown enormous love and nurturing to their grandchildren and now the grandchildren are doing the same with the new baby.

And this is me, a happy (fairy) godmother to my 21 year old niece and now a great-aunt! It sounds very grand. Perhaps I will work on that family tree.

Doom deferred

Someone wrote a letter to The Press recently expressing alarm at the absence of moths. They no longer fill the house if you leave a window open and the lights on at night. I waited for responses to flood in – but there was silence. Was it a “yes, we’ve noticed it too and it scares us” silence?

I wrote a blog post, “Inexcusable Ignorance” (Aug 11, 2019) expressing similar alarm about the absence of insects and our ignorance of them. Garden centres still advertise pesticides. I never use them. Famed gardener Monty Don doesn’t use sprays, saying that he lets nature do what it does to balance out life in his garden. I make a point of noticing insects in the garden now.

I found the husk (link: life cycle) of a cicada on the trunk of a pseudopanax. The second link on this caption takes you to a Ted Talk by 12 year old NZ entomologist, Olly Hills, who has written a book about cicadas.

Last week I bought a watermelon which had a beautiful pattern on it. The woman at the fruit and vege shop didn’t know what it was, so I looked it up. Turns out it is ring spot virus, previously known as mosaic virus, spread by aphids but not damaging to the fruit. The word “virus” is likely to cause alarm but, if I put my inner amateur scientist to work, it is just another symptom of how things work in nature – and I can admire the artistry of the aphids.

The book I wrote about in my last post still haunts me, but there is plenty to distract me from doom and gloom.

And a sunny spot for ‘comfort’ reading.

Doomed

I was reluctant to start reading Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam which we are to discuss next week at book group. I knew it was going to be difficult to read. Sure enough, I felt on the verge of a panic attack through most of the book – even writing about it now is accelerating my heart rate. It is the purpose of good art, I’ve heard, to make us uncomfortable and to challenge us. This book does both. Rather than warning us, it sets down the inevitability of our doom, hence my anxiety.

To put the timing of reading the book into context, we have just commemorated 10 years since the February 2011 earthquake and two years since the mosque shootings. The book reminded me of the quietness that fell over the city in both cases (apart from sirens and helicopters) as if we were all holding our collective breath, alert to danger. The fearful nights. The practised calm we had to show our students in aftershock after aftershock and in the long hours of lockdown. Alam raises the stakes in this book. At least the characters still have electricity and water in their remote and ironically detailed luxurious holiday home with its frivolously stocked refrigerator – symbolic of denial and unpreparedness – although there is a blackout in the city where they usually live, and we are given glimpses of what that implies in a city of high-rise buildings and grid-locked traffic.

The occasional eye of god narrative comment gives some relief from the fearful intensity of the characters who, with no communication from outside, do not have such oversight, and also gives the reader a clue about authorial intent. It would seem that Alam allowed them electricity and water, so that the characters can reveal themselves without falling apart totally, and we can read ourselves into the situation even as onlookers. After this week’s philosophy class on Ideas and Ideology, I can recognise the tendencies, if not types, of the characters in the book: the hedonist, the profit-maximizer, the one needing control – a ‘plan’, and the self-actualizer. There is also raw emotion: fear, love for children who they are powerless to protect, grief for a life which will either end or never be the same again, and the terrible knowledge of their shortcomings. The character Clay, as his name suggests, appears to represent something both elemental and flawed. No superheroes will come to the rescue here.

Our superheroes, Jacinda Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield.

The book shows how our deepest fears about the future of humanity are well-founded. We are in the middle of a global pandemic of a sort to which we may have to become accustomed. Which will get us first, our casual disregard for our impact on nature (one consequence of which is the increased possibility of cross-over infection from wild animals to humans) or the illogical drive we seem to have to self-destruct with warfare? Or both? In the book, herds of migrating deer stand aloof and look toward the house with accusing stares. In them I can see Greta Thunberg’s “I told you so” look. The two teenage characters don’t seem to have her knowledge or drive. Both are reliant on their digital devices – although one may have more chance of survival, it seems, due to her reading of (dystopian?) fiction.

I am such a scaredy-cat, I won’t be watching the movie which is being made of this book. I haven’t watched a movie for ages, having to vet them carefully first to make sure they won’t freak me out and give me nightmares. Now, I’ve left Leave the World Behind at the library and have stocked up on comforting crime fiction in which solutions are possible and good prevails, and a book from the endlessly positive and life-affirming Anne Tyler. Is this the ‘head-in-the-sand’ behaviour Greta Thunberg warns us about? A futile effort to leave the world behind?

More palatable reading, despite the titles.

Post-script to this post: After putting myself through the torture of reading the book, I accidentally missed the book group meeting at which it was discussed. The email summing up the discussion came quite quickly and there was no sign of panic or trauma evident in the group’s responses. This puzzles me still, despite having learnt from book group that people can respond to the same book quite differently.

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths (see photo above) was entertaining, with a lot of in-jokes about writers. At one point the detective says to a colleague that he is to shoot her should she ever join a book group. I don’t regret belonging to one, however. Whole worlds have been opened to me by books which I would never have chosen to read otherwise. In Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, the main character reads romance fiction constantly until her circumstances change and she finds herself living in a small town with a largely unfunded library, its unreplenished stock consisting largely of classic novels.

Harvest season

We’re enjoying the last of the season’s vegetables from my garden.

The autumn raspberries are beginning now, however, and are best eaten straight from the canes. Bees are still all over the raspberry flowers, so there is plenty more fruit to come.

The roses are still producing their second flush of flowers – less enthusiastically than the first, but charming nevertheless. The shasta daisies are all but finished, but the Japanese anemones are at their best.

The days are often warm and calm. The evening sun stretches in through the front door.

I’ve replenished some hanging baskets to add some colour and interest – and to use up scraps of coir lining.

I splashed out on a water feature – the least kitschy one I could find!

Also on my shopping list were new gumboots and a garden hose. I spotted this sign on a door at The Portstone garden centre:

The Grow Festival is on this weekend in the Botanic Gardens. The school gardens are delightful. Each garden had helpful students ready to answer your questions and explain how each part of the garden showed what they had learnt.

Adults had been creative too, with garden designs and accessories.

There were workshops on subjects such as tree pruning, and Ruud Kleinpaste (“the bug man”) gave an impassioned talk about how each part of our environment interacts and how we can help. This reminded me of aspects of the BBC programme featuring Judy Dench and her love of trees.

The nearby cafe was offering seasonal food – barbecued corn with spicy toppings and fresh watermelon.

This is a truly delectable time of year.