You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Thursday, 31 May 2012

of things that grow in the Dark of the Earth, in spite of Persistent Aerial Attacks

Some time ago, probably close to a year ago now, I put some sprouting potatoes into my garden, just to see what would happen. The most likely outcome, I figured, would be that anything that grew would be eaten by our rabid backyard wildlife... and I was right, but not completely.

First, the sprouts grew into handsome little potato plants. They were looking so healthy and robust - and then one day they weren't there anymore. Yes, munched right off. I strongly suspect the possum was responsible, but I don't actually have an eyewitness account of the incident so I will refrain from making a formal allegation. Time went on, the sun shone and the rains fell - and the potato plants sprouted back up again. They would get to a respectable size and then be mercilessly devoured down to the ground. After this went on for a while, the sprouts stopped coming back up, and I figured that was the end of that little experiment. I got quite a surprise, some months later, when the sprouts reappeared. However, the same cycle of growth-and-destruction went on, and in the meantime I had put in a new potato bed, this one located further off the possum's usual pathways.

I had no idea what might come up if I dug up my experimental, stunted potatoes... but I found out yesterday when I decided to put the worm farm in that spot.

Oh, how cute! The tiny little baby ones, and the little white globes that would have grown up to become potatoes one day, had fate unfolded a little differently for these particular individuals. I can even see the two different kinds of potatoes I had put in - some red and some white.

I am so inspired and have great hopes for my future in potato cultivation.

I also put some chives seedlings in the garden this evening. They are a pretty safe bet - Possum turns his nose up at the onion family.

And it's only just now occurred to me the disasters which might befall the worm farm if the possum takes a notion to having a look what's inside. Hmm. I'm going to put a couple of heavy bricks on the lid right now, just in case.

big fat juicy ones, long thin curly ones...

...see how they wriggle and squirm!

Oh, excitement! My worm farm has arrived!

I've always been a dedicated composter. I always put together some kind of composting arrangement wherever I lived, even tiny little ones in the grounds of apartment buildings. When we first moved in here, we used the compost bin already in place - right up the very end of the backyard, in a most inconvenient corner of the carport. But then Mr CJ got sick, and by the time I caught up with dealing with that, I developed a prolapsed disc in my back and couldn't walk much at all for a while. Yes, yes, drama drama. One of the sad consequences of these particular difficulties was that I gave up the composting and resorted to the rubbish bin. It was just too much physical labour for us to cope with. And yes, I felt terribly guilty about it ever since.

Recently I read this blog post by a woman who lives in an apartment block and wished she could compost, but was concerned about the neighbours' reactions to such goings-on. I thought to myself, this lady needs a worm farm. Then I thought that it would be terribly hypocritical of me to comment on this lady's blog when I don't even have a worm farm myself. So I first went online and ordered a worm farm, and then went back and commented on that blog post.

Of course I started with a google search, and had a little look around at the websites selling worm farms. The one I liked the best was Kookaburra Worm Farms, based in Gin Gin, Queensland. It's a family owned and run business, and the thing I liked the best was that they have developed a worm farm that goes directly on your garden bed. The worms are free to wander through the whole garden and come back home for a feed or if it gets a bit cold out there. This means you never have to collect the vermicastings and spread them out over your garden - the worms will do all that for you as they wander about. All I have to do is give them food and make sure they are moist enough. This has got to be the very least labour-intensive composting option I have ever heard of.

I had no idea that you could send live worms through the mail. But, yes, you can - though not to the Northern Territory in the hot-weather-time months. Kookaburra Worm Farms send all their orders through Australia Post. The postie seemed a little bemused - I don't think he had previously realised that live worms could be sent through the mail, either.

The instructions were pretty simple. Put the box in your garden bed. Put in the worms.

Give them some food and make it nice and damp. I started them off on a layer of leaf litter mulch from around the yard, and some newspaper, and some bread crusts, which I cut up into little pieces, as recommended in the notes. Worms don't have teeth, you see.

Now I have a couple of kangaroo sausages left over in the fridge. They've been left over a day too long. Previously I would have just felt so awful putting them in the bin, feeling I've dishonoured the sacrifice made by the kangaroos, and wishing that we had a dog to eat them. Now I can just chop them up and feed them to the worms, and they will go back into the soil, and new things will grow, and the cycle of nature is restored. Oh, this feels so good.

Oh, nobody knows how much I love my worms...

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Literary Review - Mutants: on the form, varieties & errors of the human body by Armand Marie Leroi

Aaah, big sigh of satisfaction. I've just finished reading a Most Wonderful book.

I came across Mutants: on the form, varieties & errors of the human body, by Armand Marie Leroi, quite randomly in the library catalogue while looking for something else entirely. Yes, I was struck by the title. The heading might suggest a science fiction or horror theme, but the subtitle and Dewey classification indicate a more scholarly scientific approach. I ordered it through the library, and when it came in, a short review printed on the front cover was the first sign of the literary and educational delights I was in for.

'An exquisitely life-enhancing book... Read it and marvel' - Peter Little, Nature.

I will digress at this point with a little note on the topic of critical reviews printed on the covers, front or back, of books I am considering reading. Generally, I just don't like it. I've found, through experience, that the cover reviews are often meaningless or misleading, and just not a good way to find out anything about the book itself. So I take such comments with grain of salt and if I find myself paying too much attention to them, I remind myself to STOP THAT IMMEDIATELY and look inside the book for a better idea of its actual content - perhaps an introduction, or table of contents, or index of topics. It seems to me that if I were to have a book published, I would prefer not to have what other people think about it printed on the cover.

This book stands out for me by virtue of an unusual quality - it has excellent critical reviews on the covers. They already capture, so precisely and succinctly, exactly how I would like to describe my experience of this book. I'm so impressed, I'm including the reviews printed on the back cover for you. I couldn't sum up this book any better myself.

'Once, people with disfiguring or bizarre mutations were thought monstrous. Now they give vital clues to the dance of genes during the body's growth. Armand Leroi combines meticulous historical research, brand-new genetic understanding and consummate skill with words to tell an absorbing tale' - Matt Ridley.

'Mutants thrills and repels and informs us of the delicacy and wonder of growth and development. It is written with great grace' - Richard Fortey.

'Mutants is much more than a description of the many damaged or unusual forms of human beings that live now and have existed in the past. It is a fun read, being a spicy mix of history, developmental biology and genetics that does the trick of being both entertaining and educational' - Peter Lawrence, author of The Making of a Fly.

The provocative title invites us to question the definition of a word like 'mutant.' This book does not provide an answer to that question, rather, it opens up many more questions and grey areas.

Mutants is many things, but mostly, it's a history. It's a history of the ways in which abnormalities or deformities in the human body have been perceived by society and by science. It's a history of developmental biology, a history of how we have come to understand how the body grows, and why all sorts of things can go wrong in the process. One is left with a sense of wonder that so many of us do, indeed, avoid the myriad of pitfalls in the genetic and biophysical lottery, and end up with all our fingers and toes and bits in the right places. Leroi shows us that it is the very fact of these diversities in natural form that have shown scientists throughout history the way toward to our modern understanding of the development of the human body.

This is a book that is quite heavy on the science, and although it is aimed at a non-professional audience, those without a background or education in biological science might find some sections of this book rather complex and technical. I admit to twice getting to a point where my brain was just getting too twisted up trying to follow the details... and I just skipped to the next bit. Maybe I'll go over some parts a second time. It's a book that required being fairly awake and paying attention to keep up with it - but is hugely rewarding for the effort.

I was absolutely thrilled and enthralled - in a state that's a kind of literary equivalent of being on the edge of one's seat - while reading the first chapter. The topic of the chapter is conjoined twins, but in learning how such a thing comes to occur, we learn about exactly how a blastocyst develops into an embryo. I learned in high school biology classes about the little bundle of stem cells that organises itself into all the different elements of a developing embryo. But how exactly? Leroi shares with us what is known of which genes are active and the names and actions of the various chemical transmitters produced and involved in the process. (Some of them are the hilarious - the names of these signalling chemicals, that is. It seems that, as in many other fields, these chemicals are named according to the personal whimsy of whoever first 'discovered' - that is, isolated or described - them. Sonic hedgehog-defective mouse, anyone? p. 76. Noggin-enhanced conjoined twin African clawed toad tadpoles, perhaps? p. 40.) To read an account of a disc of cells that lifts away from the blastocyst like a leaf, and then curls up to form the neural tube, which goes on to become a brain and spine... to ponder the processes by which an embryo decides what is left, and right, and front and back... it makes me marvel, and wonder in awe at the miracle of multi-cellular life.

Leroi then goes on to discuss, in each respective chapter, the genetic and biological signalling system that orchestrates all these processes, limbs, bones, growth and size, gender, skin and ageing.

As many people would be wondering, yes, there were many ethically questionable experiments carried out along the way in the name of science, as well as the natural history approach of examining and documenting what occurs naturally. A history of genetic study must, of course, include a description of the earliest crude attempts at genetic manipulation. Leroi does not enter into the debate of ethics and refrains from giving any personal views on the matter, beyond agreeing that Josef Mengele was indeed one sick little mongrel. There is surely a place for discussion on the moral implications of some of these courses of action, but Leroi does not make the space for it in his book, sticking instead to the cold facts with their astounding implications.

I did get a bit cross with the author during Chapter IX on the subject of ageing. Leroi proposes that the ageing process itself is a genetic mutation or genetic propensity to disease, one that could, presumably, be identified on the genome and possibly be 'fixed' at some point in the future. I really just don't like this idea. What does he think is going to happen to an already over-populated world if nobody ever dies from natural causes? But I guess that is a debate in itself, and this is just a book review.

It is impossible to predict what medical breakthroughs will be required to ensure that none (eighty-year-olds) will die in the future. But when that day comes comes, it will mark the the completion of industrial civilisation's second great project: the protection of the old from the death.
- p. 331

The first, if you were wondering, was 'the protection of the young from death.'

The epilogue is largely devoted to the author's thoughts on the subject of beauty, from a genetic and biological perspective. It might seem a somewhat incongruous note on which to end, considering the general subject matter of the book, but he actually ties it in beautifully, and opens up some intriguing questions.

I am so excited about how much I have learned about genetics, biology and the human body. Still, when I showed this book to my friend Dr MJ, and he looked through it and announced that it basically contained half the course of a medical degree, I really hope he was exaggerating. I find it hard to tell sometimes - I'm somewhat irony-impaired. There's probably a gene for that.

Monday, 21 May 2012

of Desktops and Cupcakes

It is with much pride that I would like to introduce to you the latest addition to the Maroon Household.

Ta-da! And this one has a lovely story.

Last week, I was feeling very virtuous about staying home and resisting the urge to go randomly op-shopping. I do have to restrain myself sometimes. But on this particular day the universe must have decided that I really did need some more beautiful stuff after all, because the op shop came to me in a most spectacular fashion.

There was an unexpected knock at the front door. This doesn't happen very often around here, as I have decorated my front door with warnings and legal notices designed to scare away door-to-door salespeople and the prosetylising, door-knocking kinds of Christians - and it worked. But on this particular occasion, it was my next-door neighbours who dropped over to make a remarkably kind and generous offer.

Mr and Mrs B are a middle-aged couple who became empty-nesters a little while ago and downsized their way down to the little cottage next to ours. They are pretty great as far as neighbours go. Mrs B is very passionate about gardening and often gets a bit carried away and ends up cleaning up our garden and carport too. Hey, I'm not complaining. In spite of her formidable housekeeping skills, Mrs B does not bake. It's just not her thing. So that gives me an opportunity to share when I get some baking going. Mr B gets quite excited about freshly baked, warm-from-the-oven baked goods. We've kind of developed an informal, unspoken baked-goods-for-gardening-services bartering system.

The reason for their visit, however, was to ask me if I would like to have this gorgeous antique writing desk. I was determined to say no as I really do not need any more furniture. But once I laid eyes on it, I knew it was meant to be for me. It just suits me so well, and fits in perfectly with the house and decor.

This desk belonged to Mr B's father, who was, by all accounts, a decent, honourable, intelligent gentleman. He was a biochemist - I wonder what fascinating experiments or discoveries were once expounded upon this very surface.

I think that the situation was basically one where Mrs B didn't want the desk taking up space in her tiny down-sized living room any more. Perhaps she doesn't feel it goes with her decor - home decorating is another of Mrs B's special skills. But of course, Mr B didn't want to part with it, what with it being an heirloom from his dear father. Mr B's brother offered to take it but that would have involved transporting it to Queensland. I guess the solution they came up with was to find it a home where they knew it would be well loved and cared for. It was given to me on the condition that I never sell it or give it away - if I get to a point where I can't keep it anymore, I am to give it back to Mr and Mrs B for them to rehome it themselves. Fair enough, I reckon.

It took me a few days to settle this lovely piece in. Once I found the right spot for it, I had to rearrange the artworks on the wall around it to fit the space. That was a slightly sad moment as I really loved having the Toulouse-Lautrec prints (my heirloom from my grandfather!) here around my computer station - but they didn't fit with the new desk taking up all the wall space. But in its place I get some of favourite books on display here in the main living room rather than tucked away in my bedroom, and they look and feel just lovely there. Then I had to decorate it just right and fill its nooks and crannies with appropriately handy, useful, creative stuff.

Now it's ready for its public introduction. I invited Mr and Mrs B over for a viewing of their treasure in its new home and some thank-you cupcakes - chocolate and raspberry, and colour co-ordinated with the dark wood of the desk itself. And of course I made extra so there's some left over for us. Hey, I'm not silly.

While I'm here celebrating the joys of heirloom writing-desks, I'll also introduce my little desk. I've had it for years and lugged it all over the country moving around here and there. It's performed in a wide variety of functions in various locations, including a stint as a kitchenette in my room in a boarding house. (It copped quite a range of new stains during that particular assignment.) My nana bought this desk for my pa when he studying to become a teacher at Melbourne University, and my father and uncles all went through their high school studies with it. Now it's mine. It's not so grand or handsomely hued but I just adore it.

Friday, 11 May 2012

of Treasure Found - Op Shopping for Stationery

I've been a stationery addict since I was just a little kid. I remember the first time I felt that thrilling rush that girls can get while shopping, the one that the whole consumerism movement depends upon exploiting. I was seven years old and in a newsagency/bookshop, surrounded by books and notepads, pens, pencils, rulers and rubber erasers in such an astounding variety of shapes and styles that I marvelled that anyone could come up with the idea to make all these things into colourful little rubbers. Shining accessories were lined up in neat categories, each item defined by its little perspex slot. I can remember the absolutely rapt fascination with which I regarded my first-ever start-of-school-year supplies, aged four. I don't remember ever feeling so deeply about any toys or dolls. It was books, and paper and scissors, and tape and glue and suchlike, that inspired my early explorations of the properties of the physical world.

I can still become overwhelmed by such feelings if let loose in places like Officeworks or those funky Scandinavian stationery stores. So when I began to fully embrace the Buy Nothing New movement as a lifestyle a couple of years ago, I wasn't sure that I could pull it off when it came to stationery. I do have to have things to write on or in, and it's not like paper is something that one can re-use directly. I wasn't prepared to start pulping and moulding my own recycled paper, and I didn't think of stationery as being the sort of thing that was usually found in op shops. Now I think I just mustn't have been looking with the right eyes, because once I decided to look for and hoard any second-hand stationery I came across, a whole new world opened up. Every now and then I come across a section or a pile in an op shop where it looks like someone has cleaned out that part of their desk drawer. Just look at some of the incredible stuff I've collected. 

Boxed sets, apparently untouched.

I think I gasped when I discovered these gorgeous ladies. How long has it been since people have been making stuff like this?

And inside the folders, writing sets that just make you want to write letters. And address and stamp them. That's the really fun part.

I SO remember this 'fashion' chick from the 80's. And that clown in the black cap - that was actually the motif theme of my bedroom when I was ten years old.

And, yes, we'll look inside...

"#%*!@*something unintelligible but clearly very funny#*&@$!*"...

This handmade paper writing set is of exquisitely fine quality. Delicious.

The text on these Korean envelopes reads - All by myself, don't wanna be all by myself... I can't help but think of Bridget Jones alone on her couch on New Year's Eve.

I would have bought this gorgeous paper wallet regardless of the contents - which was some very fine, plain stationery.

Random little pieces, from a diverse range of sources, some clearly homemade on closer inspection.

And envelopes! Really, who bothers to print the inside of envelopes any more... and envelopes lined with tissue paper! Oh my, the decadence!

These cards feature artworks - top, "MEMORIES" by F. Botha, and left, "SCARLET" by N. Grob - that were painted with the mouth, and came with these unusual envelopes - very plain and utilitarian from the front, with postcode squares marked, and then this asymmetrical scalloped detail on the back flap.

Sweet, retro strawberries...

Plenty of daggy or plain notebooks and exercise books for day-to-day domestic journalling, my list-making and attempts at organisation and such, or for 'morning pages' ramblings of the kind that Julia Cameron encourages. Some are still new in their plastic wrappers; some of them have been used halfway and the pages torn out before giving them to an op shop.

My mum found this adorable, and unused, little Beatrix Potter notebook. Each page features a small illustration and a quote. This frog looks comfy - '...he lives in a little damp house.'

This one features not only a very stylish magpie illustration by Antonia Pesenti on the front cover, but also blank pages inside. 'Unlined' is a highly-prized quality among op-shopped stationery.

I started to think that maybe I could cross trips to Officeworks off my list of things to do... but now I've run out of black pens. And no, I really don't like to write with coloured pens. Ah, the next dilemma...

Thursday, 3 May 2012

the Truth about Possums

Recently I posted this short post introducing my local resident possum when I actually thought to get my camera out while he was conveniently positioned in a good viewing area.

In trying to answer Ruthie's question in the comments - are they friendly? - I got a bit carried away for the confines of a comments box and thought that a post on the subject was in order, particularly for the edification of international readers.

And, if I'm doing another post, I'll want fresh photos for it. So last night I went outside and followed the sound of the possum. I couldn't actually see it, I just held the camera over my head, pointed in the direction of the noise and let the flash do the rest. Out of several random shots I captured these two images.

I'm sorry, dear reader, but I do not have good news. The short answer to the question - are they friendly? - is no, they're not really.

They are not shy, but brazen and shameless and completely confident in their inherent superiority over humans. They are not deliberately aggressive or malicious, but they are so single-minded and determined in their efforts to find food, or territory, or whatever it is that's important to possums, that they can be very destructive and even dangerous. If one gets a mind to get into your house, you've got a real problem. They will eat everything edible in a garden that you want to grow, and leave the weeds and the lawn alone, so they don't even earn their keep like a good goat or a wallaby.

In my experience, everyone who has lived in an area where they have to deal with possums ends up coming to the conclusion that they are absolute mongrel bastards. And that's the polite version.

Oh! I hear you gasp. But they're so CUTE... how could you say such a thing?

I, too, was once innocent to the Ways of the Possum. Once, when I was young and naive and city-bred, I attempted to defend the honour of a possum who made a go for our food-box while camping. My protests failed to move the sentiments of my bush-wise, local human companion, and the possum rewarded my efforts by running up to me later in the night and biting my toe. True story!

Some people wonder why we would put up with such a menace. This little bugger here certainly does his share of driving the neighbours to distraction, keeping people awake all night, leading to next-day grumpiness and resentment. Sometimes it seems he's a little tyrant holding all the humans hostage to their domestic comforts. But what can you do? You can't shoot them.

No, really, you can't. It's illegal. If it weren't, I'm sure the life expectancies of local possums around here would suddenly plummet. But as native animals, they enjoy legal rights far greater than we humans. And, upon reflection of the ethics and morals of this dilemma, I do come to the conclusion that they were here first. This was their place first - I'm just renting a house here.

While many native Australian animals have become extinct or endangered as a result of the impact of European settlement, the common Brushtail Possum is not in this position. Changes made to the landscape by settlers have created more habitat for possums and they have thrived. Sometimes the opposite is the problem - overpopulation can occur in specific regions, causing some nasty destruction of the natural environment.

Still, for all the problems they cause, there's no denying that they are indeed very cute. Even for people who are not feeling very friendly toward possums, the sight of them is captivating. Their fur coat is hard-wearing and designed for blending in with tree trunks, but close up you see it is incredibly soft and shiny. Their delicate little features are so fine and endearing, and belie the ferocity they are capable of. It melts your heart - as long as they keep their mouths shut. The noise they make is another story.

It's absolutely indescribable. I know, because I have failed for many years to give any attempt at a description in words of the sound a possum makes. And it's not like I have the technology to go out and record the audio and upload it to my blog... when it eventually occurred to me (yep, I'm a bit slow on the uptake with this whole google thing) that someone else had probably done exactly that already. It only took me a few seconds to find this link to a YouTube audio clip and this link to more information about possums. I've often thought that the first white settlers here must have been absolutely terrified of the noises that came from the bush in the dark of night. It's much more impressive than anything artificially engineered at the Hollywood studios making horror films.

So, while a possum is fine with any amount of water - their furs make excellent raincoats - PLEASE DON'T FEED THE POSSUMS AFTER MIDNIGHT. Or before midnight, for that matter, either. You will end up with gremlins.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

of the Samhain Supper

So, tonight is Halloween.

Yes, really. I realise there is some confusion about this here in the southern hemisphere. Remember, the seasons are the other way around, so that makes it Halloween tonight here in the Antipodes. This festival is also known to pagans by its ancient Celtic name, Samhain. As a seasonal festival, it marks the descent of the wheel of the year toward the darkness of winter and the lengthening of the nights. According to tradition, the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest on this night, and the dead are free to roam the earthly world and claim the offerings we leave out for them.

As a solitary, practising Witch, I've developed my own way of creating rituals that is pretty simple, low-key, spontaneous, and, like my cooking, made up mostly of whatever happens to be around at the time. This is my Samhain.

A plate of food is prepared to feed the dead on their big night out. Apples cut across the middle to reveal the Star at the heart, fruit and nuts, tonight a little pasta bolognese and wholemeal bread with butter and honey. A traditional bottle of cider and cigarettes for the ghosts who like to party.

At first a dumb supper is presented in honour of my 'personal' dead - represented here by pictures of my paternal grandfather and my high school best friend. The black Samhain candle is lit only for this night and then put away for the next year. It is surrounded by a circle of 'white light' in the form of tea-light candles. Frankincense incense is burning; the incense holder is a little statue of an elephant, an animal known to remember the dead and honour graveyard sites over generations.

Then the feast is taken outdoors and left for the 'public dead' to enjoy at their leisure as they roam about.

The outside lights will be left on all night, and the Samhain candle burning in front of an open curtain, to light the way for the wandering spirits - and show them where the yummy stuff is.

Our beloved ancestors, blessed be.