30 July 2013

How much poison?

How much poison is it OK to put into rivers?

I've been pondering that question recently, having came across a wonderful collection of essays by E.B. White - he of Charlotte's Web fame. Yet he only wrote three children's books, devoting most of his life to enchanting adults with his writing. And now, quite a few years after his death, he's enchanting me. I can't get enough of his way with words.

Writing in 1956 in an essay called 'Sootfall and fallout', he got a bit angry about pollution. I guess that was when heavy industrialisation and chemical production was revving up in the United States, his home country (he lived in Maine and New York). 

"I belong to a small, unconventional school that believes that no rat poison is the correct amount to spread in the kitchen where children and puppies can get at it. I believe that no chemical waste is the correct amount to discharge into the fresh rivers of the world...," he wrote.

Actually, so do I. But we are still doing it. There's just been an Otago University study released showing residues of a certain pesticide in 83% of South Island streams, including one running through an organic farm. The poison in question is chlorpyrifos. 

Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate, much like DDT. Given that DDT was banned in New Zealand in 1970, you'd think it would be a thing of the past. Now, 45 years later, DDT itself is disappearing, but its breakdown product (DDE) remains, and the Otago University scientists found that in the streams too. All organophosphates are renowned for sticking around in a bad way, in the environment and in the fatty tissue of animals. 

Chlorpyrifos is approved for aerial spraying in New Zealand.

What shall we say to our grandchildren? "Yes, we knew it was bad for us and the environment, but we thought it would be OK if only tiny amounts were there." "Yes, we knew it would still be there when you grew up. But we did it for a good reason: we didn't want to pay too much at the supermarket." 

I lack the energy to read all the research on how bad it is for us. The relevant wikipedia site might not be totally reliable, but it scares me enough, and my gut screams at me that it's not good.

Here's a little US-centric excerpt about how thoroughly it gets into us: "A body burden study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found ... a metabolite specific to chlorpyrifos in the urine of 91% of people tested..... A 2008 study found dramatic drops in the urinary levels of chlorpyrifos metabolites when children switched from conventional to organic diets."

Regarding streams, there's absolutely no question that the stuff is toxic to aquatic life and bees. And yet it can be sprayed aerially? What on earth are we doing? 

To semi-plagiarise the word master E. B. White, I profess a sensitivity to organophosphates. They hit me right in the adipose tissue - not to mention my heart, where it concerns my love for this planet.

The Otago publication is here and the University's press release about it is here.

26 July 2013


When I was little I grew some snapdragons and sprouted some runner bean seeds. It seemed to me absolutely magic that a hard little thing that seems much like a small stone would grow into a whole plant and produce pretty flowers.

These days I still love growing things, and as I look around our property - small as it is - I feel deeply satisfied by what I've planted, and how well things have grown. (The plants that are no longer with us aren't there to remind me of their demise.) 

It's citrus time here in the North Island of New Zealand. Grapefruit, lemons, oranges and mandarins are studded around our lawns like gems in a jewellery shop. Here in Hamilton, despite its lack of subtropical climate (cold, kind of foggy winters, too-hot summers), lime trees thrive. As did the one we planted - until now.

It was once so healthy that visitors would comment on it, and we boasted how quickly it had grown and how many juicy limes it gave us. Pride came before a fall, literally. Under the beating sun of last summer's drought its leaves turned yellow and began to drop, then those remaining shamefully curled up .

A kind lady at a garden centre, to whom I took a sorry, clipped-off branch, assured me the tree is still alive and that I should cut it back and give it some TLC.

I took advantage of some newly uncovered chicken run turf that contained years of weeds and scraps thrown to their hungry beaks, which were eaten, defaecated and worm-churned into compost right under the chickens' reptilian feet. When we moved their run recently, a couple of years (!!) later than we meant to, a raised area of this dark crumbly stuff was revealed. This formed the basis of our lime tree emergency first aid.

Five chickens produce a lot of poo. I scooped up the stuff that had accumulated under their night perch, mixed it with the fertile soil, and spread it under our newly pruned tree. 

Finally, I dragged out all the flax leaves* that we'd thrown to the chooks to pick over for creepy crawlies, and laid them as mulch over the surface of the poo-poultice. It looks awful (although, in case you're wondering, doesn't smell) but if I see healthy new growth on the lime tree come springtime, it will be utterly beautiful to me.

I love the way the chickens contribute to this cycle of life - we throw them food and garden waste, and they turn it into gifts for us: food (eggs) and great garden ingredients (fertile soil and chicken poo). 

*Strappy leaves, like those from flax, astelia or cabbage trees, or vines, like grape prunings or native spinach, are good for chickens when they're fresh because they tend to house goodies like snails and insects. However, after a few days they're nothing but a menace. They don't break down and get in the way of the chickens' scratching, which is very important to them.

25 July 2013

Growing young princes

I gave birth to a young prince, too. The Duchess of Cambridge cannot possibly be loving her baby boy more than I did mine.

How things have changed for us 10 years later. I still adore him, but now sometimes he leads me at times, instead of me tending to his every need. He has become a strong, lithe young goat!

Recently we went for a walk that became an adventure. We strolled in a convoy of three out to the head of a tiny peninsula. Jack spotted rocky cliffs at the sides and climbed down. Indoor rock climbing walls are for babies, he said - this is the real thing!

He urged Anna and I down, too, saying he could see a path. But the path evaporated, and we were left with a clambering, leaping, precarious affair, during which a fall could have left any of us with broken bones or a head injury. Anna repeated to herself "I will not give up" (her mantra for life, I think). I panted behind the children, trying not to sound too much like an aged disapproving mother.

Because at heart I wasn't disapproving. I don't want our lives to always be sterile and safe! People have been climbing rocks forever, and in so many ways we were better off there than in a safe, sterile shopping mall.

 Plus, Jack gave us the greatest entertainment. Inspired by the fact that our next stop was a gelato cafe, he commentated throughout in an Italian accent. "Come on, I will show you zee way to go," he announced. "Eet eez eeezy... unteel you get to the hard bit..."

13 July 2013

The art of napping

Yesterday the sun slid into our lounge, and my eyes slid shut. This is where I lay.

There are some prerequisites for a successful winter afternoon nap. Obviously you need to be tired and have a fairly quiet room*. But the others can be summed up as follows.

A woollen blanket is essential. Don't talk to me about 'fleece'. It sounds sheepy, but it's made of plastic. It belongs in the car for an easily-washed travel rug, or on the bed of someone who's allergic to dustmites. But for me there is nothing like a blanket made purely from wool of sheep. The hand-washing is nothing compared to the pleasure I get from it.

It's better if someone has given it to you. The one in the photo was passed to me by my friend Rebecca.

Secondly, a heat source. Sun, a fire, or a hot water bottle with a woollen cover. We've been a adoring our wood fire, and every night I have TWO hot water bottles - one for tummy and one for feet, of course. We heat most of the hottie water on the fire. But yesterday the sun came through for me.

Thirdly, a cat. It's not essential, of course. But it's assured in our house that if the cat is inside, and a human lies down on a bed or settee for long enough, sooner or later we'll feel the brief, delicate bounces of a cat alighting next to us, and it will feel so right.

This part of the procedure can be refined too, I think. The cat, I think, should be as fluffy as possible. It should also settle down quickly, without too much kneading of paw, nuzzling of head or insistence to be petted. Ours is of this nature, and knows just where to curl up like a grey cushion in crook of leg or curve of body so that both parties gain maximum pleasure from each other without undue interference.

Relinquishing all resistance to sleep during the day is the epitome of bliss. The best of times for me is when not only do my thoughts break up into 'Owl and Pussycat' type fantasia, but when I can feel the colourful fragments of a kaleidoscope tinkling in my mind.

Once consciousness emerges again, the cat should still be there, having slept in synchrony with the human.

Yesterday I arose, and found I'd slept for two - two! - whole hours. I quickly roused myself to my jobs. But the cat remained, a reminder of the luxury I'd just experienced, and that's when I took the photo.

*When Anna was very little and used to wake me at 5am every day, I was so tired in the afternoons that I could sleep in the noisiest of rooms, with children bounding about me. I could even respond to them and fall straight back into my daytime dreams. Once I woke up to find that napisan had been added to the birdbath and it was overflowing with foam. It's never been as clean since.

12 July 2013

Baby's gift

Yesterday I did a little bit of sewing. It's for a baby girl that was born about a month ago now - a live, healthy baby, yahoo!

This is the sun ray toy by the fabulous Joel, of the outstandingly creative blog Made by Joel. Parents, go there right now!

I've been wanting to sew it for ages, and in the end it took about two hours. It was meant to have circles of velcro in the middle - so deliciously scratchy for baby to finger and feel - but at the last minute I realised I had none, so bits of felt and rickrack it was.

I chose different textures and colours for each of the rays from my scraps suitcase, and knotted the end of some to facilitate gumming and goobering by baby. Inside the middle circle I sewed in some scrunchy plastic bag for a little added amusement.

I wish I had discovered sewing when my own children were smaller!

Along with the sun ray we'll be giving the new(ish) baby this gorgous soft, woollen hat. I found it at the Salvation Army, but it looks in such good condition that I hope its source is acceptable.

I adore babies. I find their beauty incredulous - the creamy skin, the suede heads, the plump cheeks, the big eyes. The purity of their smell; I used to stand in Anna's room and inhale her honey scent. I didn't bath her for a couple of days after she was born because I didn't want to wash off her smell. I used to sniff Jack's head for his smell of sand and feathers. (Excuse my animalistic, possibly canine ravings; I've noticed over the years that I smell things more than most people.)

Miss Interested-in-everything, 12 weeks old.

Their brains astound me just as much. Their rate of learning, their curiosity and drive, their wordless yet enormously effective communication skills. I stood for ten minutes having a conversation with a 10 week old recently: I squealed, chatted and performed in the way we instinctively do to babies; she gazed and smiled and peered at me, inducing more and more crazy squeals from the funny, soppy woman she had turned me into! I was completely enchanted.

Then I said goodbye and slept all night.

(post script: I wrote this post on Tuesday and now it's Friday, and I'm about to press 'publish'. But I have to report that I washed that sun ray toy, and red dye ran from the rick rack through the fabric. So this weekend I'll be unpicking and restitching.... oh dear.)

10 July 2013

Not bad is very good

This is a familiar sight in our lounge. Sun streaks in over the scattered lego creations that are so very precious to their creator. The washing that dried overnight on the clothes horse by the heat of the fire has been folded into piles, one pile for each destination in the house. The clothes horse awaits its next load, which will be sunned during the day (if we're lucky enough to have any sun) and brought into the deliciously roasting air of our lounge again tonight.

(No, of course the daily wash doesn't fit onto the clothes horse - if I'm lucky half of it does.)

It would be so much easier without children, wouldn't it? No hoops or jigsaw puzzles or lego catalagues or violins or artwork or fingerknitting supplies to find places for. I could do washing just a couple of times a week. Just two people's crumbs to sweep and wipe up instead of four. No after school classes or lessons to attend. Evening after evening entirely under my own command, with no baths and stories and rituals to attend to.

But then I hear of the pregnancy of someone I know - not very well - but like and admire. Someone who I've always thought should have children, so much so that something was wrong in the world if she didn't. Then I heard she was pregnant, but that something awful had happened.

And maybe yesterday, maybe next week, or perhaps even right now, she'll be in the hospital, administered labour-inducing drugs, delivering that baby, knowing that she'll get to meet her child. It has been the focus of her joy and dreams for about 18 weeks, but that's not long enough; the baby is too young to survive, so she will hold it, and it will take just a few breaths, I suppose, then die.

Most terribly of all, this death is a choice the parents have made because the baby has something wrong with it. I've been told it was a complicated, horrific choice, and not entirely unanimous between the parents. The father had a previous baby with the same health problem who died. He could not face it again.

This happens, doesn't it? Life's terrible pain strikes randomly around us, in our own communities. The daily newspaper's death notices tell us how every day people die. It's a rare day when there's not a young person's death stamped there in black and white, the monotone typeface revealing little of the buckets of tears radiating out from that fact.

So I shudder a bit, cry a little, tend to my domestic tasks peacefully, and enjoy the little things. Yesterday when a school mum asked me how things are with our family, I told her things are fine, and that that is a very good thing. Uneventful and generally healthy are in fact glorious conditions. She's a palliative care specialist, so she knew exactly what I meant.

7 July 2013

Homegrown kitchen

When I was growing up I thought I hated tomato soup. The only type to grace our kitchen was from a tin, and I think it was the smell I couldn't bear. I remember being horrified when I saw my mother put it in a mince dish that I liked. She always put it in there, she said, and I thought I'd been tricked!

No more, no more. There is no tinned soup in my pantry, and on Friday I made a vegetable tomato soup.

It was from the blog of chef-and-mum Nicola Galloway of Nelson, NZ, who also blogs about crafts and gardening. It's Homegrown kitchen, and not only is it gorgeous, it has inventive healthy food ideas that really appeal to me, with lots of emphasis on things that (most) children like.

I added chickpeas to make it a bit more long-lasting in the belly. The recipe (see link in previous sentence) looked, I thought, like it might be a bit boring. Not true - I loved it! It's all gone now.

I also made some chocolate almond milk and oat milk from her recipe. I felt inspired at the thought, because I am avoiding dairy (apart from yoghurt and the odd cheese sauce on lasagne) and I dislike tetrapak with a vengeance (all commercial alternative milks come in tetrapak cartons). The milks were quite easy to make, and I'd link to her recipe here but for some reason only the homepage URL comes up when I go to the recipe. The quantity made was small, though, and I only hope I can be bothered with the process every day or two... perhaps I can upscale.

3 July 2013

First eggs

Yesterday I got such a treat! I found that the first of my new little pullets has started to lay. This is her first, small egg. They get bigger with time.

She didn't use the nestbox - she tucked down in the straw beside it (and pulled all the straw out of the nestbox!). Neither did she today when she produced egg number two, but I'm quite happy with that, because with five hens and one nestbox, things could get a little crowded in there. I've seen three in there at once before, and it looked cosy but not comfortable! (Especially when one's an Orpington the size of a not-so-small dog.)

I wrote about the arrival of the three teenaged chickens a few weeks ago. Life was quite scary and brutal for them at first, but after a couple of weeks they seemed settled and happy, and were no longer being bullied by this lively lady.

She has the biggest, reddest comb of all the hens I've had so far, and on the day the new birds arrived I swear it doubled in size and got much redder. Her hormones got all fired up, I suspect, and her comb (and her aggressive behaviour) announced her dominance.

She's been laying through winter, though, although she's two years old. I think the hormones might have helped out. It suits me because she's been the only one giving us eggs until now. With the shortest day over, however, we will soon have plenty of eggs.

Here are some photos showing how comb size changes with maturity (it's under hormonal control, I'm sure).

Immature pullet (she's about 16 weeks old, I think, but I
forgot to ask when I bought them!)
This bird is a bit more mature - see how the comb is a bit bigger,
and the skin around her eyes is red too. I'm pretty sure she's the
one who laid her first egg yesterday, which is two weeks since
this photo was taken.
Compare the two brown birds' combs, one mature and one not.
Can you see my old Orpington resting her eyes? She's now entering her grandmotherly phase of life, and is sometimes a bit exhausted by it all. She's still very beautiful, but I worry about her age, and if she doesn't start laying this spring, a tough decision will have to be made. In general though, she's as dapper as the next hen and darts about the place with ample energy.

And finally there's the cat-bird interaction, which worries so many "I want chickens" people. The chickens are in control, as I've written before. The cat's curiousity remains, though, and sometimes I feel sure that he enjoys their company and wishes they'd be more friendly. He reclines in the sun up against the mesh fence of their run. The new pullets were terrified of him when they first arrived, and kept making alarm calls when he strolled into sight. Now, six weeks on, they've realised he's a pussycat, and take no notice.

1 July 2013

Filling up the soil

Gosh it's nice to be back. I've just emerged from a few days editing a big document on how climate change in New Zealand is likely to affect the soil.

Anna and her friend in the weekend.
One message that hit home with me is the important of putting carbon into the soil - that's leaves and other plant matter. It does wonderful things to soil - makes pores in it, and feeds all the little microbes that do important things, and generally grows plants better. It's going to become even more important as the climate changes, according to the scientists who wrote the report I edited.

Of course in nature those things just fall on the soil and it works well. We gardeners do crazy things like make bare soil! To compensate we need to add compost (which is full of carbon and useful microbes).

The leaves above, which are on our neighbour's front lawn, are destined for our compost bins and chicken run. My feathery ladies love sorting through things like that.

We're growing some good stuff for our soil this winter. It's a combination mix of oats, peas and legumes (the latter two fixing that other goodie - nitrogen - into the soil as they grow). The oats will make great mulch for our spring garden, but they have been very popular in these parts already.

The oats mix during last weekend's frost.

Not only does the cat eat them frequently, but the hens adore them, and every day I tear off a few handfuls so they get their greens.

Regarding climate change... a couple of years ago I was chatting with one of New Zealand's top climate scienstists. He worked for the intergovernmental panel for climate change in India but is now in Wellington, and is so bright you practically have to wear shades when you talk to him. He gets angry when people deny climate change will happen. But what about free speech, said I! Well, he said, it's worse than denying the holocaust (he's German). Because if the deniers are listened to, and as a result steps are not taken to reduce climate change, more people will suffer and die. A lot more, he said. Wow.

(NB: we bought the oat mix seed from www.kingsseeds.co.nz.)

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