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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
It’s hard to believe that I managed to travel overseas for eight weeks with a tiny suitcase. The boot of the car and the back seat were full of all the stuff we “needed” to pack for a week!
Family conspired to give us a break at our favourite holiday spot: Lake Wanaka. It’s a long 5-hour drive, plus an hour for lunch in Geraldine, but it’s an interesting journey through farmland with snow-capped mountains to the west, past beautiful turquoise lakes and over a mountain pass. The long drive also puts distance between home and destination to make the arrival a worthwhile achievement.
We did the usual things: a walk along the lakefront to the spring and marina, pizza at The Cow, the Sunday market, a healthy juice at Soul Food, and lunch at Florence’s.
There were new experiences too. We stayed at a different place which was spacious, with a giant redwood, a stream with trout, and lovely people – some of whom we knew.
There were new discoveries as well, such as a precinct of shops and cafes, including RevologyConcept Store (experience it yourself by clicking on the hyperlink) which is all about recycling and up-cycling and repurposing.
On our last day I couldn’t believe my luck when I found a new independent bookshop in front of the Paradiso cinema. It seemed to be a discovery made possible by going about on foot.
We also tried a new cafe/wine bar, Alchemy, choosing carefully so we could see the Thursday yacht race from our table. As it happened, there was no yacht race due to the wind (cowards!), but there were two intrepid wind surfers out and the wonderful lake and mountains to look at. The food was delicious. I had a summer salad with salmon, crisp slices of fresh fennel and fried capers. Frying the capers makes them open up to reveal the flowers inside. As we were leaving we encountered a cheerful group of knitters at the back of the wine bar. They allowed me to take a photo.
The highlight of the holiday was achieving the biking challenges I had set myself. There is a cycling and walking track around the lake front from Glendhu Bay to the Clutha River Mouth. I cycled to the start of the Glendhu Bay track one morning, and to Beacon Point another morning. The fresh air, the concentration needed to keep the bike on the track, and the views were exhilarating.
I felt fully refreshed; glowing with health and positivity!
The greenhouse is proving its worth. My long tee shirts are useful for collecting tomatoes.
Pockets are okay too for a few tomatoes, but you have to be careful not to forget the collected ones – or accidentally squash them.
In the last few days the number of ripe tomatoes has increased.
Every vase has been called up to accommodate the sweet peas.
Yesterday’s ferocious nor’west wind threatened the second flush of roses, so I rescued this Blueberry Hill. These roses are all on one stem. The abutilon flowers were blown off by the wind.
Popcorn is broody again. She is all fluffed up, giving the impression of an abundance of feathers.
If there was sound with these photos, you would hear her muttering darkly about how cruel I am to shut her out of the nesting box. And she doesn’t let up.
In the wider backyard of our city, people are gathering for the Backyard Buskers’ Festival. Formerly the “World Buskers Festival”, border restrictions mean no international performers this year. A circus trio was entertaining a large crowd in the city today, and another pitch I passed was full of people waiting for the next performance.
We are not unaware of how fortunate we are to be able to live like this now. On Saturday, at a Christchurch Symphony Orchestra performance in Victoria Square, I noticed a person on a balcony of the nearby Managed Isolation hotel. A poignant reminder of how lucky we are – for now.
I’m not a big fan of house plants. In the seventies it was ‘the thing’ and I became overwhelmed by monsteras and spider plants which I lugged from flat to flat and which threatened to take over like triffids. The only two which I still have are kept in the garage. One is an aspidistra and the other a hoya. I water them sparingly, feed them rarely and may have repotted them once in forty-odd years.
Today, the hoya scent drew my attention to the flowers it still produces. Grudgingly, I have to admit they are rather lovely, dripping with nectar.
Now house plants are fashionable again and I have seen articles about house plant competitions, prices for desirable plants going stratospheric on the internet and people stealing rare plants from the botanic gardens’ hothouse.
I do enjoy the two indoor plants a former colleague gave me. They sit on my desk and are kind of cheerful and quirky.
One of my nieces has a collection of succulents on her window sill, but I’ve never really warmed to those sorts of plants – until I bought some on impulse to put in a difficult-to-pot outdoor hanging container my brother had given me. They look rather fetching – like a living picture, perhaps.
Trouble is, they are multiplying and really need dividing and replanting. I wouldn’t bring them inside, but I’ve considered making a small rockery for them – if I can find a space.
I picture them multiplying and taking over the garden forty years from now.
It’s Mum’s 92nd birthday today. We went to Mona Vale for high tea. Today is hot and sunny, so it was nice to be inside, but with a view of the beautiful gardens and the river and people lunching on the terrace.
We both donned our pearls for the occasion. My pearl necklace and bracelet are made from a double string of pearls which were my great-aunt Lil’s.
Speaking of greats…Mum is, as of 3.40pm today, a great-grandmother and I am a great-aunt! An amazing birthday present. That really is a treat.
Yesterday we went shopping in Kaiapoi and I was pleased to buy Mum a skirt for her birthday. It is the closest we’ve found to her beloved skirt bought for $25 from Hays many years ago. She bought two of them then, and one finally parted company with its hem the other day. The trouble has been finding a skirt with pockets. It was great to find this one, and even better that it is designed by a local company.
I took this photo to send to my sister holidaying on the West Coast, to get her approval, which speedily arrived. Isn’t technology wonderful?
After our high tea, I thought a birthday portrait of Mum might be appropriate. There are two blue velvet wing chairs in the foyer at Mona Vale.
See the little green bunnies?
We were stuffed after our generous high tea. And, from the photo at the top, I can see it must be half-rations for me now that Christmas is behind us. Clearly I’ve inherited my father’s genes.
Happy Birthday, Mum, and to your new great-grandson. There are now two of you to treat on this special day.
My first new year surprise was to discover a large, fully-formed cauliflower emerging from a mess of leaves. I’d forgotten that this is what cauliflower do: show no promise whatsoever then boom! appear like overnight mushrooms.
I planted cauliflower and savoy cabbage plants in July. I worried that they were too close together as they had to be protected under a chicken-proof dome.
As the plants grew bigger, they outgrew the dome. I improvised a barricade with bamboo stakes and sturdy bags which had held bark mulch. This proved to work, even though the chooks would jump up to peck at the leaves.
It looked as if all that would come of these plants would be leaves for the chooks to eat. The plants grew above the barricade and had long, leggy stems. Even the chooks might turn up their beaks at these disastrous leaves which were not only pecked full of holes, but spattered with poop from the birds in the nearby trees.
One cabbage was making some effort to form a heart, but the cauliflower was a delightful surprise – six months after planting.
We have now almost finished eating the first cauliflower – yes, the first. When I picked it, I discovered another one forming beside it.
Even without chickens, vegetable gardening is a challenge. We’ll never achieve self-sufficiency, but there’s something special about providing for yourself.
This title might seem back-to-front. It’s about finishing the year by planting – and looking forward to the results in the new year.
On Christmas Day my sister and brother-in-law gave me an intriguing present.
I spent a while trying to guess what it could be. It turned out to be this:
It was a thoughtful gift to allow me to grow things in the hope of keeping them safe from the hens. Before they went on holiday, the family dropped around to put it up for me.
Over the last few days I’ve been thinking about what to plant in it. Today I felt ready, but even when driving to the nearest garden centre I changed my mind, went to the supermarket first and then to a different garden outlet. I often surprise myself with a change of plan. While I was there, my sister rang and we discussed what could be planted. I went home with more than could fit in the planter. Once again, more seems possible than is actually the case. That could be a positive trait. In the end, this is what the planter looks like:
There are snow peas at the top (blown sideways by the north easterly), kale and spinach in the middle and rocket at the bottom. The idea is that these are a-leaf(or pod)-at-a-time picking plants. It’s possible I might have to plant them in the garden under a protective dome if they grow too big.
The gourmet lettuce mix and the pepper plant were squeezed into the greenhouse.
The lettuces will probably grow too big for that pot, but I like those ready-planted lettuce bowls they have at the garden centre. I’ve just made my own.
I did more in the garden than I’d planned: tidied one side of the garden shed and replanted two hanging baskets – with new linings.
I love gardening programmes. Often, in the background, you can see little pots on stakes. Why? I wondered. Are they bug traps? Nearly poking my eye out on a stake and inadvertently stabbing myself in the ribs on another were all it took for the penny to drop. Now I have a rather fetching selection of ‘potted stakes’ too.
In this photo you can see several attempts made to protect plants from my free ranging hens. Ever persistent, ever hopeful applies to both me and the chooks! So, a positive end and a positive outlook.