Category Archives: what dreams

the last avocado…

avocadoThis is an avocado (Persea americana). Not a particularly large avo, not a trophy avo, true; but it was very tasty. I’d have to say more tasty than any other, ever. Why was it more exceptional than usual?

Some years ago I managed to get an agreement with my father about where I could plant my avocado tree. It was barely a sapling then – a young, grafted avocado. We sorted a space – in itself no easy task as Dad was (rightfully) very protective of the space used in his garden. I dug the hole, and we planted the tree – I planted, Dad supervised and made sure I was doing it right. The avo proceeded to go backwards for some months, and then away it went – the russet coloured young leaves growing into the lush dark green as they matured. After a few years the avo flowered and then later produced fruit.

I can remember the first fruit – small, not unlike the one in the picture above. But no avocado was ever more cherished, and it was the first of many. Very many. I used to have a bit of an arrangement with the birds who’d help me get the avos down from the top branches, in exchange for a few pecked scraps. I climbed the trees on stormy nights to enjoy the full surge of the wind and rain. I used to pile lawn clippings and other garden trimmings under the tree to build up the nutrients. I love the soft, pale creamy green flowers that open on different days, and I’d hope/wish/pray for warm days in Spring so the fruit would set. We went through quite a lot together – I spent a lot of time up in and around my avo tree. It was always welcoming and generous to me. I used to bring bags of avos for my wife to be, and future in-laws; and there was always room for another avo in my diet. My fruit of choice, and – I like to think it was the careful feeding – I believe my avos were the best flavoured ever, far and away superior to those mass produced supermarket offerings. I love avos, and as I wrote here before, I’m sure there’ll be avos in heaven, and if not, it’ll be job one for me to get some planted asap.

As my friend Marcel would observe, some scripts in my life are becoming reworked from the threads of the past. Tonight, Marica and I shared the last avo we’ll take from the tree. It was just perfect. The tree itself is fine, but I don’t imagine we’ll be able to get any of the next season’s crop. Someone else will. I hope they take good care of my friend. A true friend is one who nurtures you.

growing on with it

I was very happy to hear today that my Mum, who’s taking a break at the moment, managed to engender a visit from the local fire brigade as a result of her demonstrating how to cook scones in an electric frying pan, in the dining room. Good for you, Mum. Apparently the facility hadn’t had a fire drill in the last couple of years (!!!) and they managed to get everyone out in five minutes. Previously they’d had a false alarm in the middle of the night and things were something of a shambles. Practice makes perfect. So all’s well etc, but no news about the scones. Hey Mum – what about the scones?!

the landscape of dreams…

The other night after I’d been skyping with Marcel and discussing our respective views on architecture and houses in particular, I had a very clear dream about a very specific view of landscape. I’ll make a drawing of it over the next day or so – perhaps someone will recognise it and tell me where it is. I’m very interested, because this was where we’re going to build the house. And, if you can identify the property, you’ll get a very personal invite to the house warming (like global warming, the el niño of the 21st century, but with better drinks). Be assured, our parties are legendary.

The land is this wonderful grassy field, and it slopes gently before dropping slightly more sharply into a bay with boulders. The waves cause a particular roar with boulders, different to the sound of the ocean on a sandy beach. Around the curve of the bay and past the headland is the township – although we’re near a town, there are no other houses apparent.

It’s a beautiful place and I feel challenged by the site to design a house that really captures the spirit of the place; not to hold, but to release it to fly to even greater heights.

I dream about landscapes quite often, there have been three that have been frequent enough to become familiar – I know what is where, and what to expect next, and even which is the easiest way to get up a hill in one landscape. I’m not convinced about previous lives, or whether these are simply smudged memories from my childhood, or a composite of memories, wishful thinking, and photographs; but it’s nice to feel at home, even if it’s in my dreams. I’ll probably be able to afford the real estate in my dreams…perhaps.

arcadian architecture II

It’s hard to find good examples of arcadian architecture in New Zealand, and this always surprises me. Of all the places where I’d expect to find carefully designed building emerging from the landscape, sensitive integration with landscape, climate, and terrain I’m continually disappointed by the architectural mediocrity. At best we find designs that use vernacular themes – corrugated iron, chunky beams, and perhaps stone. And then a mad flurry of tussock or other grasses, a flax bush, a cabbage tree, or a spiky lancewood and bang, that’s it. Perhaps toss in a lichen encrusted artifact – a gate or trailer or something suggestive of rural and the job’s done.

But, no, I beg to differ. The job’s not done. Some how we still haven’t conveyed a message to architects that it’s bloody miserable and cold in winter. It’s baking in summer. When you shove a house up the landscape it looks like some sort of gesture of defiance, or like that beacon of hospitality in the hostility – a tramping hut on a isolated hillside. Our house makes a bit of an effort – one of the things that attracted me to it in the first place – the house in part arises from the berm of the toe of the hill. We couldn’t get over how cool it was in summer, and now, in winter, it’s not freezing beyond expectation.

I’d love to see a suburb with sympathetic houses, growing sensitively from the landscape, managing to clean some of the air and water, and generally looking more like a place to live in, sheltered with nature; rather than in spite it. And it’s not just simply some sort of koru integrated into the design. Whilst the spiral exists in nature, again, shoving this overlay doesn’t immediately turn the house into a ‘organic, flowing, back to nature’ anything. This isn’t about design 101, and those horrid pseudo-designs earnestly churned out in year 1.

Once we’ve shucked off this demand for mass produced, leaking building horrors, I believe it is possible New Zealand might become world leaders in arcadian architecture. We can take our straw bales, corrugated iron, stone, sculpted concrete, macrocarpa and douglas fir, and grow ourselves some elegant, sustainable, human scaled houses that work and age gracefully for their inhabitants, and with their environments. It might take a while, but I’m really looking forward to seeing and even better, living in some of them.

how to make a kite for matariki

image from www.sopwithproductions.comThe ultimate in one-upmanship is to cruise down the park with the kids and have a kite that flies. Or, let me put it another way – Charles Shultz absolutely knew how to show Charlie Brown’s ARGH! moments with a kite that refused to fly. You can buy kites – I’ve even done that myself, however, real oomph comes from making your own. But how do you make a kite that flies, and flies well? Sorry, Charlie, those lozenge shaped kites suck. So how, what kite is better? Ask no more, here is how to make the flying-est kite going – a sled kite. I have made dozens of these, all sizes, and they all have had one fantastic thing in common: they fly, man they FLY!!!

sled-kiteFrom my drawing here you can make them any size, so long as the ratios remain a pretty much constant 4 wide by 3 deep. I’ve made kites out of plastic rubbish bags, black garden polythene, even chip/crisp packets. You’re looking for a fairly strong plastic – cling film is probably too delicate unless the kite is small. Size matters – a large plastic rubbish bag is likely to be too big and scary for a little kid – dangerous in a strong wind with burnt or cut fingers from the string and possibly pulled and dragged along the ground. A sheet of plastic about the size of an A3 sheet of paper is a good starter size.

Cut the plastic in the hexagon shape as drawn, and cut the triangle shape out of the middle – see – that maths stuff does pay off. You need three sticks to act as spreaders – to hold the kite open. They’re not structural as in the traditional rhombus shaped kite. I’ve used bamboo garden stakes, dowelling, willow branches, rolled up sheets of newspaper, kebab sticks (for small kites), and toi-toi sticks; but my favorites have been the long straight stalks from bracken fern. It seemed to have the right amount of springiness. The sticks need to be slightly longer than the height of the kite, so that if/when the kite screams into the earth the sticks hit before the body of the kite does. More about that later.

Once you’ve cut out the kite, tape the sticks to the kite. I’ve usually used a strong waterproof 50mm (2″) wide tape used for taping polythene ‘glasshouses’, but you could use duck/duct tape, sticking plasters, or if you’re desperate, sellotape. It’s not the best though. It doesn’t make that much difference, it’s merely there to stop the sticks falling off. If the sticks are uneven length, put the tallest stick in the middle for balance. Put a couple of layers of tape on the two outside points where the bridles are to be attached, to reinforce the corners.

The length of the bridles needs to be about three times the width of the kite – i.e. a 1 metre wide kite needs bridles 3 metres long. Again, a kite this size is much too big for a little kid, and an adult needs to handle them with care until you get used to them. Attach a bridle to each point, and then (warning: the one trick in the whole exercise) knot the two ends together, making sure both bridles are the same length – the kite must be balanced to fly superbly (it’ll still fly no matter what, but if the bridles are uneven it’ll fly to one side…)

Attach the kite bridles to the cord for flying. Personally I prefer to attach the kite using a heavy duty fishing swivel/safety pin connector so the cord doesn’t get all twisty on me, but you don’t have to. Badda-bing, you’re done. These kites won’t fly inside, but if your kite is small enough and you’re careful to avoid any nasty overhead wires, you can probably fly it in your backyard. I’ve test flown kites out the window (too lazy to go outside) and really had fun flying them from the garage roof. I can remember flying a little kite made from a metallic looking chip bag from the garage roof – it went up so high I eventually lost sight of it – truly, it was speaking to the heavens. I knew it was ok, because I could feel it tugging, fish like, on the end of my line.

Ok – time to fly. Take your kite, cord, a roll of repair tape, and some scissors down to the park. It’s ok – no, it’s cool to arrive with your kite rolled up. Attach your kite to the cord, and let some cord out. Holding the cord in one hand, juggle around and hold your kite open to the wind. If there’s so much as a gentle breeze the kite will lift away like a parachute and fly. Let more cord out. Look cool. How hard can it be? Never run with your kite unless… you’re doing if for exercise purposes.

Ok depending on factors like wind speed and kite size some things can happen and you might need to teach your kite how fly. If your kite takes off like a crazy puppy and then spirals around and around before crashing it’s probably too light for the strength of the wind. Add some weight in the form of a tail hanging from the bottom of the middle stick. I’ve used lengths of plastic, packaging tape, my jandal, my t-shirt, and branches before today. My kites sometimes looked like flying recycling (but mostly to people who didn’t have kites that flew… ;)). Use the scissors and tape to add a tail (or tails – because you can add tails from the side sticks as well), ensuring that the heaviest tail is the middle tail for balance.

I found that if I ran with the kite I could force it into mad spirals and that was fun too – the moment I stopped the kite would right itself and ‘swim’ like a carp upwards. I can remember arriving at the park with my rolled up litter and seeing a guy with a kid and the high tech tetrahedron mylar work a nasa engineer would be stunned by. I unrolled my kite, and kicked it into the air. My kite rose effortlessly. I tied it off against the fence and looked over to the guy. His kid looked at me and my kid. He smiled. The father curled back his lip with a sneer… ‘trailer trash’. Could it have been my mullet? By now I was bored and untied my kite – time to play. I walked out into the field, and then turn and ran as fast as I could, looking over my shoulder. The kite, sensing the game immediately started into the hard spirals, the cord singing under the pressure. Five spirals, and the kite crashed into the ground. I heard the guy choke back a laugh. He didn’t get the game. The kid looked surprised and disappointed. I went back and kicked my kite into the air again, let some cord out, and ran again. Six spirals later, crash! This time the guy didn’t laugh, but the kid did. Walked out even further, let out more cord, ran harder than ever. The kite roared with delight. Seven full spirals, and CRASH – with a kind of snap sound that can only mean one thing. The kid looked at me horrified and the guy laughed out loud. The kite lay on the ground, moving sadly in the breeze. I could see the kid’s sympathy, and feel the guy’s delight at my broken kite. After all, even though his kite hadn’t got off the ground, mine was just a rubbish bag, some sticks and well – litter.

I gave my kite a little tug. A corner lifted… another little tug… a little more lifted… and then slowly my black dragon lifted off the ground shaking a little, but swimming ever upwards. I heard the kid laugh, and the guy say in an amazed tone, ‘It’s just a pile of junk!’ In reply, my kite dropped the broken stick, and having got rid of that little surplus weight, soared on higher. When I turned around there was just my kite and me in the park.

our story begins…

Buy Home is Where Your Story Begins at AllPosters.comIt’s seven pm – 19:00 hours. I’m in bed, writing, with a bottle of chilled summer ale close at hand. A moment, while I have a sip – ahhh.

I’m not in bed this early because I’m unwell, rather it’s finally time to relax and unwind a little. Today we finally finished shifting from our old house to our new home. We’ve still got plenty of sorting out to do – decluttering (my apologies to the parents and friends of St Francis de Sales – your gala is going to be filled with our unwanted stuff). And thank you to friends and family who have helped with elbow grease and fortifications to get us here, tools borrowed from Mate, and Kirsty’s grandad, and the 10,000 banana boxes from Thorndon New World. And so, now, I’m sitting in bed wearing my best fedora, having a beer, and writing – it doesn’t get better than this.

We’re very excited and happy to be in our own home; granted, some of it is partly shared with the nice people from KiwiBank – according to our solicitor, “a bank for old ladies and tree huggers”. And they – the old ladies and tree huggers – thought that apparently they could include us too. The shift has taken its toll of the three main players – Zofia, Marica and I – we’re all aching and finding bruises, cuts and scratches in places we didn’t know we had places. We have learned more about our strengths and how we work, together and apart; and what we’re like when we’re tired, stressed, hungry, thirsty – in short, when we’re ‘over this’. We kept on working until we couldn’t do it any more – and then we did more.

I guess in years to come we’ll talk at family meals about the time we moved and how this or that happened and what happened next. We will have forgotten the aches and pains, and instead remember the joys and strengths we gained. Like everyone before us, and many yet to come, we’ve waited a long time to get new home. We’ve fought and struggled to first get the money, and then make the move. But we’re there now. Thankfully there. And this is part of the start of our story, as our story begins…

flock off to birdland

neneRecently I’ve been spending more time with birds. Yes, that kind. I wrote here about quail, and previously I’ve written about gulls, ducks, blackbirds, thrushes, even sparrows have had a mention. Birds are near and dear to my heart I guess it’s fair to say, however I don’t feel I have the expertise to write dedicated to birds. The utmost authority on birds – pigeons, to be precise – has to be straight from the pigeon’s mouth – the pigeon blog. Everything else is just an opinion, this is the final word.

Then there’s the Snail’s Eye View – straight from the Snail’s mouth – writing and pix dedicated to natural history, and hosting I and the Bird #41 – I just can’t wait. I may’ve missed the deadline to submit – argh! Snail has written about an encounter with a local Cape Barren Goose. You know the ones – they’re the sumi-soft grey feathers with the candy pink legs and the almost lime green patch around the nose. What’s not to love?

So what’s that wierd duck picture here all about? That’s no duck, that’s a Nēnē (Branta sandvicensis) – the rare Hawaiian goose – and also the official bird of the state of Hawaii. I’m rather proud of this image – I know it’s a long way from being technically superb – right out on the very end of the digital zoom – but I made the photo myself back in August 2006, on Kaua’i. The Nēnē is the world’s rarest goose – numbers had dwindled down to about 30 in the 1950’s, but fortunately it has made something of a comeback to about 500 birds in the wild. When we went to Kaua’i I had expected to see some birdlife, but it was beyond my wildest dreams to see the Nēnē just lounging, catching some rays, on the edge of a taro field near Hanalei. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a very rare animal in the wild. Zoos/parks just aren’t the same. I was just stunned, and initially
thought it was a decoy or toy – cargo cult perhaps – the Nēnē was within 20 metres of the main road, and perhaps 200 metres from the edge of town. Kaua’i – everything is relaxed.

I guess if Puff the Magic Dragon can be there, bird magic is a distinct possibility.

bloom, unseen

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act ii. Sc. 1.), William Shakespeare wrote a few lines that, from the first time I read them have always painted a picture in my mind – this is somewhere I’d like to spend some time. Shakespeare notes some of the most beautiful and fragrant flowers – back then probably more wildflowers than in a garden as we would know it today.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.

Marica is working through her Project 365 – she wrote about the flowering of our ‘Queen of the Night’ cacti. Marica wrote – This plant will bloom when it is ready whether anyone notices it or not. I am so glad I got to see it and smell it. I wonder how many things in life we miss out on because we are not observant or even aware or worse still, we just don’t care.

I am also reminded that we all have different gifts; different things we can do or offer. The difference between us and this plant is that we are able to choose whether or not we will bloom, when we will do it, and how long for.

View The Five People You Meet in Heaven product details at AmazonOver the Christmas/New Year break I re-read Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven. On reflecting about the story, and Marica’s writing, I realised we might also bloom unknown to ourselves. Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard (Stanza 14) is perhaps talking more about how a person might go to their grave with their song unsung, but it begins to capture the idea –

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Only begins, however, because it is possible that the sweetness is not wasted. It is possible to be hugely influential in another person’s life without being aware of it. There are two men who have had an influence in my life, they both shared the same first name, in my mind they look somewhat alike, they shared the same interests, and I doubt that they ever heard of each other, let alone met each other.

Alf King was my biology teacher at high school. He’s one of the few teachers I can remember, and yet I can’t actually think of anything exceptional that he taught me, from a biology perspective. What he did do was teach what was his passion in life – to me he was, and is, the epitomy of what a teacher should be – someone who is, in the twilight of their career, still as enthusiastic about the subject as they were straight out of university.

Mr King’s lab was the real McKoy – worthy of the Herbology lab frequented by Harry Potter. There were plants (Bryophyllums – of course) growing on the windowsills, along with a selection of other experiments. Mice – the labs smelled of mice. Cockroaches (in the range). Jars with preserved sharks and other specimens, including snakes, collected during the years spent in Kenya. I can recall him saying how he thought he’d discovered new species of plants – and if memory served me correctly he’d sent them off to the Linnean Society, only to find the plant had been documented decades before. He laughed about that – and I realised that biology could be more than some lessons in a classroom, rather a network of past, present, and future discovery. As an aside, I found in a recent Linnean Society newsletter some advice that I believe, even taken out of context, summarises Alf King:

  • Recognise the likely benefits of following the rules.
  • Optimise your use of the single side of A4.
  • Include a budget.
  • Avoid appearing greedy.
  • Predict the ultimate outputs.
  • Partition large projects into fundable portions.
  • Look forward more than backward.
  • Stand out from the crowd.
  • Consider the broader impact of your outputs.
  • Keep your feet on the ground.

So, although I was a good biology student (loved it), it wasn’t the biology lessons that I really took away, rather it was the collection of attitudes, values, and techniques that have influenced me and my practice, both in class and out, ever since. The blooming on my part, unseen and unknown by my old teacher.

image of Alfred Bryd Graf from http://www.roehrsco.comThe second influence came from Dr Alfred Bryd Graf. Dr Graf would never have heard of me, but he’s had quite an influence on me. He died aged 100 in 2002, after a long and successful career as a plant hunter and world authority on tropical and subtropical plants. He added at least 120 ‘new’ plants to the range of known varieties. He found new species of aglaonema, dracaena, sansevieria, begonia, and even the first white African violet. Dr Graf was no armchair horticulturalist – the New York Times noted in his obituary that his trips had their close calls, from unforgiving terrain to tribes who resented his intrusion in New Guinea. He visited the giant lobelias of Mount Kilimanjaro, the azaleas and rhododendrons of Sikkim and the bamboos of China, where he savored the country’s ornamental horticulture.

Dr Graf’s contact with me has been through his books ‘Tropica’, and the huge two volume encyclopaedia, ‘Exotica’. When Marica was working through her writing about the cacti she wanted to know more about them, and the correct name. Searches on the web showed a confusion of names and muddled information. I said to Marica, ‘The internet is -at best – an opinion, Exotica is the law.’ When I was more actively involved with growing and selling house plants, Dr Graf’s books were the final word in terms of identifying plants, quite apart from the astounding range of other information relating to the culture and origin of the plants. Seeing photos of the plants in their natural context was so amazing – often clarifying some of the other questions, for example what mix to grow the plants in or if the leaves change shape as the plant matures.

Apart from the obvious reference advantages, Dr Graf’s books have always been an inspiration to me – we didn’t make very much money working with plants, but I loved it. Here was someone who had somehow managed to take things that were interesting to me – travel with his wife to the far corners of the planet, explore, look at plants, take photos, learn new things, discover new species, and come home and write books that are cherished around the world. It doesn’t get better than that – I’m still motivated by that idea.

Inarticulate Speech of the Heart

View Inarticulate Speech of the Heart product details at AmazonLast night Marica and I were making food for today, and finding some time just to enjoy each other’s company over a little antipasto. I’d slipped on Van Morrison’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart cd – I think it represents some of his very best work. Track four is Celtic Swing – I suddenly remembered the video from years ago, and how my friend Terence also loved it. I was struck by the timing of what we were doing and the song – Terence pulled a late night, if not an all nighter, a few years ago. Christmas morning – the sun would’ve been coming up as his BMW purred across the last few kilometres of straights, home to Pauline and the kids.

A little later that morning I called my Mum. My sister was late coming home because there’d been a bad accident and the traffic had been diverted. I was chilled, and said, ‘Someone’s Christmas just got a whole lot worse.’ And although I didn’t know at the time who, I did have a premonition that I would know who it was.

I can’t imagine what went wrong in those last few moments – I just know that Terence was taken too soon.

I’d rather be an anvil than a snail

Thrush image by Rachel4cats http://www.flickr.com/photos/delcolmar/A couple of days ago I was in the bathroom and I heard a sound I haven’t heard for years. Even without looking I knew what it was. No, you low thinking person, not ‘that’. It the unmistakable sound of a snail being pounded against a stony surface. It’s a sound that lifts me on a number of layers – first, a snail is about to be digested. No matter how good or fast you are at developing an immune system it’s damn hard to develop an immunity to being digested. Second, it means finally, after literally years, a thrush has moved in to the neighbourhood, and hopefully with a mate along. And finally, joy of joys, there’s the chance that I’ll again get to hear the wonderful thrush call. They’re not called song thrush for nothing.

Their call is beautiful, and – almost like watching some exceptional dancer or gymnast, and you wonder if they can do it again – thrushes usually sing their song twice. Wonderful. Blackbirds sound similar, but they only call the once. How it works is when the male thrush is concert mood, he settles on some high spot – tree top, roof top, anywhere – and he sends down cool tunes in the finest jazz traditions, not just once, but twice.

Robert Browning wrote in Home Thoughts, from Abroad:

Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops – at the bent spray’s edge –
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!

I bet, for homesick expats, more than one tear was shed on the harmonies of the thrush. I haven’t seen thrushes around here in the five years I’ve been here, and I’ve missed them. The other cool thing about thrushes, is that they build the most careful, neat, and beautiful mud-lined nests – and they lay exquisitely forget-me-not blue (actually, thrush-egg blue is how we’ve described that tone of blue in our family) eggs, with chinese black spots (mostly towards the larger end). The blue is not unlike that of starling eggs, but with greater depth of colour.

The specific (latin) name for the song thrush is Turdus (yep, same family as the blackbird) philomelos – Greek for ‘song-lover’. There’s a side reference there to Philomela, daughter of Pandion, who was turned into a nightingale – a smaller bird not unlike a thrush, however, to the best of my knowledge, never introduced to New Zealand.

As a boy I used to regularly rescue thrushes from my Dad’s glasshouse – his delectable grapes were just too tempting – and carrying out the heartpounding ball of buff and white feathers, and throwing them high into the bright blue skies, free to eat more grapes, more snails, and sing more songs. I love thrushes and they will definitely be there in my heaven.