Why did the caterpillar cross the lawn?


Silk anchor in place, a caterpillar prepares to pupate

Silk anchor in place, a caterpillar prepares to pupate

Grand migrations of wildebeest make riveting armchair viewing – but here’s a much smaller intrepid tale.


It’s a prolific season for monarch butterflies here in Kapiti – almost anytime I look up, there are several flying around the swan plants, sipping from the echinacea, sitting sunning themselves in the golden glow of the Breath of Heaven bushes.


We watched an early caterpillar make a low-slung chrysalis on an iris

Caterpillar skin shrugged off, the transformation continues within

Caterpillar skin shrugged off, the transformation continues within

leaf, and eventually emerge into a butterfly.  And of course, many full-sized caterpillars just disappeared.

We hoped they made chrysalises we simply couldn’t detect in the shrubbery – but feared they’d more likely succumbed to wasp larvae laid in their plump bodies.



Into the energising sun

Into the energising sun







And then  –  this remarkable journey.

Around here, we have sparrows with a habit of harvesting insects and spiders from the brick-work of our walls.  They hover, dart, and cling in a most un-sparrow-like, but very effective way.  We were watching one by the ranch-slider – suddenly saw a monarch chrysalis under the eaves.

It had crawled a good five metres over the grass, then another three up the rough brick, to anchor itself to the soffit.

The crawl-way - from where Helen is photographing a butterfly, to the geranium planter....

The crawl-way – from where Helen is photographing a butterfly, to the geranium planter….


...and up the wall

…and up the wall









I imagine it, all the time we thought it was totally focussed on the swan-plant leaf it was demolishing, actually gazing around and assessing chrysalis-sites.  Those tiny eyes being able to even see so far.  That tiny brain deciding that going so far, in the opposite direction to all the twigs and leaves and branches right beside it, was a good strategic move.  Then – when? – perhaps at night? -setting off, down from the swan-plant, across the lawn, somehow holding its intended direction in its mind, to the wall, and up – there to make its silk fastener and start its transformation.

Wing veins show through the gold-ornamented jade

Wing veins show through the gold-ornamented jade


We watched it as we wined, and dined, and played chess at the outdoor table – then one day the dark veins of the wings were visible through the pale jade of the case.







The next morning, the case was transparent, and the monarch colours vivid through it.  Then – the emergence.

Emerging, wings still crumpled

Emerging, wings still crumpled








There are so many things I wish I knew…  like why and how the Altenrhein snail settled in the wind-machine – and now –  why and how the monarch caterpillar chose its transformation-site.


But even not-knowing can be wonderful  – and wonder-full.


More, More….Encore!


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Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.

Mae West

Can there ever be too much music?  We’ve just done a double-dose of opera, with the fourth reprise of a trip to Neusiedler See, on the Austro-Hungarian border.

This year, it was grand-opera Tosca in the old Roman stone quarry at St Margrethen, and operetta Eine Nacht in Venedig (One night in Venice) on the lake-stage at Mörbisch.  Too much?  –  just wonderful!

Part of what draws us back is the area itself – Austria’s Burgenland is rolling grape hills, charming wine towns, and the lake itself of course.

Almost every Rust-roost-roof has its residents,

Almost every Rust-roost-roof has its residents.

Rust (it’s easy to remember to pronounce that ‘Roost’ when you think of the storks) is an old wine-town with roofs supporting a whole society of storks, and courtyards of places to sample the local product.

Feeding time
Feeding time


Resting time

Resting time







And Mörbisch – our belief that Mörbisch is one of the most welcoming places in the world was reinforced yet again.

The story goes … when we were there in 2009 Margrit and I saw a sign with something about there being music in the town the next day.  So four of our party wandered down town, saw a tent straddling the whole street which had been closed to traffic, with a full brass band playing inside and tables set out with bottles of wine, beer and water. Looked right!  We made ourselves comfortable, then Roman and Mani thought they’d better find someone to pay.  A handsome woman in a dirndl looked like chief-of-staff. How much is the wine?  they asked.  Oh, she responded, this is a private party.  Apologies and hasty back-tracking… But you must stay she said. My husband is celebrating 25 years as the Chief of the volunteer fire brigade. Be our guests.   We stayed.  We sang along to the band and got introduced to the gathering by the band master. We had a ball. She even kissed us goodbye!

Welcomed gate-crashers, 2009

Welcomed gate-crashers, 2009

So – our determination was that next time we went to Mörbisch, we’d show we remembered the hospitality.

A bottle of homemade cherry brandy and one of Appenzeller schnapps were decorated with a photo of the 2009 party, and we started the search.

A friendly woman at the Gemeinderhaus  (Council building) thought she knew who we meant, gave us a name, and said he was at the Czardas restaurant most afternoons.  A waitress in a café serving us ice-cream said – yes, she knew that chap too, and phoned the restaurant to make sure that if he turned up before us they would keep him.

We went to the restaurant… and the chap arrived. Didn’t quite look as we remembered, but hey six years can do that to a man.  We launched our story … wrong bloke.  But he said, I know everybody. I can track him down. Off he went, to return not much later, with the name of the man we were seeking, his card (yes, that was the name we’d forgotten) and the news that he now divided his time between Mörbisch and his other place in Germany, and wouldn’t be back for a week or so.  And yes, of course he’d pass on the bottles and greetings.   A beer later, and a new friend, and Mörbisch’s reputation burnished.

So, to the performances.   The Steinbruch, the Roman stone quarry at St Margrethen is a wondrous place, on a huge scale.  The first time we were there was for Aida in 2004.  We had walked in, looked open-mouthed at the rock-solid (literally) stage – there could be elephants I, half-hoping, had muttered.  There were. Two of them.  And horses and chariots.  Then there was the Nabucco production with the huge fire-breathing war machines and the city ablaze.

What would they do for Tosca?    IMG_6966_1_1Well, there was this huge sculptured angel, whose wings opened to provide the main playing-space, and whose torso slowly turned on occasion to regard, or disdain, the audience.


Projected décor inside the opened wings took us to the church or the prison.  And even cleverer, during the major arias, when you really want to see the singers’ emotion but normally can’t in these big open-air venues, up came their projected images giving you sudden intimacy within the massive overall impression.

Mario, singing in front of Tosca's portrait, projected into the scene

Mario, singing in front of Tosca’s portrait right, projected into the scene centre

I’ll put more pictures at the end – it was so stunning!



A couple of nights before, we’d seen Eine Nacht in Venedig.

A glorious night, with the full moon rising.





IMG_6838Composer Strauss would almost have recognised the Venice the set portrayed at the start, but we the audience roared with recognition when in the second scene a hulking cruise ship appeared between the buildings.

IMG_6854The inside of the ship was the residence of the philandering Duke, and provided a fine setting for the French-farce-rushing-between-cabins of the second act.   

The shadowy officers on the bridge of the ship, and the magician directing the action added a frisson of manipulation

The shadowy officers on the bridge of the ship, and the magician directing the action added a frisson of manipulation

The lake-stage at Mörbisch is another wonderful outdoors venue:  you sit lake-side, with the stage a few meters over the water.  Of course I expected lots of gondola-action.

But there wasn’t.  Somehow, the water just acted as a bridge between stage and audience.


I Due Foscari, (The Two Foscaris) St Gallen. And no, there's not normally water outside the cathedral.

I Due Foscari (The Two Foscaris) at St Gallen. And no, there’s not normally water outside the cathedral.

Back in June we’d seen I Due Foscari (Verdi’s opera also set in Venice) outside the Cathedral in St Gallen.

There, they’d built a canal into the set, and the water was a major presence. There were gondolas as transport, singing-stage, and prison cage; the chorus spent a lot of time singing from in (not on) the water which emphasised their separation from the grandeur of the Doges’ chambers; and as the Doge himself descended into sorrow, remorse and death, he stumbled down the steps and into the water. Brilliant symbolism.

Somehow I felt Mörbisch missed their watery opportunity.  But … nonetheless, a great night.

But fireworks plus water-play at Mörbisch ... spectacular!

But final fireworks plus water-play at Mörbisch … spectacular!

Funny, I haven’t mentioned the music. You know, I think we take it for granted now that the singers will be great, and able to act and move as well – and that the orchestra will be full-scale fine, and that the sound production will be impeccable.  It’s the overall production that stays in the mind.

As these will.   Too much?  Never!

So, a few more photos too.

Another nice symbolism - a wrecked gondola being lifted from the canal during the overture to Eine Nacht.....

Another nice symbolism – a wrecked gondola being lifted from the canal during the overture to Eine Nacht…..

The prison scene for Tosca

The prison scene for Tosca

They put the fireworks into the interval at Tosca - not to overwhelm the final tragedy of the ending, I think.

They put the fireworks into the interval at Tosca – not to overwhelm the final tragedy of the ending, I think.

IMG_6996 bloghead

And looking back to 2007 at the St Margrethen Steinbruch, just because we can …

Nabucco enters on his war-machine, 2007

Nabucco enters on his war-machine, Nabucco 2007

The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Nabucco 2007.

The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, Nabucco 2007.


Music Soothing my Breast


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Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

William Congreve “The Mourning Bride”, Act III, Scene 2.

William Congreve had it right.  My breast has been right savage. I might share the story when I can write sanely about what can happen when you think you’re making a simple change in technology (AAARGH) – but meantime let me share the joy.   There’s been such music!

Some huge scale performances – grand opera on a grand scale, some much more intimate. IMG_7081_1

The latest first. This weekend, the SchlossKonzert at Schloss Heerbrugg, just a bit up the Rhine Valley.

IMG_7085_1This one was a serendipitous surprise. I’d seen a sign, grabbed a pamphlet, seen “Sergei Nakariakov & Gershwin Quartet”, failed to properly follow the double negatives in the German description which actually pointed out it wasn’t a jazz quartet but a proper string quartet, got the tickets, and off we went.


IMG_7083_1We were a small audience, close up to the stage, in what I think was originally a hay-barn.

The walls were aerated in a quite Moorish pattern of openings, now wind-sealed but light-permitting. The high wooden ceiling made for a fabulous acoustic.

And the music, breath-holding. Mozart, Kreisler, Poulenc, Borodin for the “ah yes” response, and other composers who were new to me but extraordinary.

Sergei Nakariakov

Sergei Nakariakov

But Sergei Nakariakov – wow! He was called “The Paganini of the trumpet” when he was only 13, and his virtuosity was as extraordinary as his back-story (literally). As a boy he’d been studying to become a pianist. He had a spine injury, and decided he needed an instrument he could play standing up. Piano’s loss, trumpet and flugelhorn’s gain.

What stays with me is his complete focus on the music, on producing not just passages of incredible speed and dexterity, but exquisitely shaped long legatos,   And while the string quartet were in constant eye contact, sparkling at each other as they threw phrases back and forth, he played eyes-down after the “ready-to-start” glance at the leader.   Only during the applause (and there was a lot, with a standing ovation), did he engage at all with the audience. Otherwise, it was just him and the music. And we felt privileged just to watch and listen. Nothing more was required.


Sergei Nakariakov & Gershwin Quartet – and they were generous with their encores too.

Mani was enthralled. He’d famously played first trumpet in the Rheineck City Band as a youth, and a group of them had done the dancehalls and pubs, playing the standards for 5Francs a night. His mouth and his breathing remembered, as he listened.

I was going to go on to write about more music. But .. now I want to let the memory of this performance stand alone. If you want to hear what I mean… there’s some samples on http://nakariakov.com/

Glacial Thoughts from a Heat-wave


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We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.

 Anais Nin

Europe is having a heatwave.   In the zoos, the big cats are getting blood iceblocks, and the monkeys, frozen fruit.

I shall think of glaciers.

On the way to Switzerland, we cruised south-east Alaska. It had been on the wish-list for a while. Then a well-priced opportunity to do it on the way to our Swiss summer, and have a few days with old friends on Vancouver Island into the bargain, presented itself. Opportunity exists to be grabbed, yes?

So – glaciers. Fabulous glaciers. And many of them.

I sit here with sweat trickling down my back, and think of huge expanses of ice, flowing imperceptibly, but flowing, into rivers and arms of the sea.

Glacier 1. The Hubbard.

IMG_5223_1Oh the drama of it.

We cruised into Yakutat Bay in a blanket of heavy sea fog.

Nothing but nothingness.


We set up the chessboard in the glassed-in Horizons lounge – then looked up.

...through the blue tint of the windows....
…through the blue tint of the windows….

A glimpse of mountain tops.




IMG_5258_1And with every metre, more – the bay unveiling itself Salome-like until only a decorative wisp of mist remained, and then revealing the glacier glistening in full sun.

IMG stitched 5413 5414

All six-miles-wide of it (9.5ks) leaning into the sea with chunks constantly cracking off and dropping in.   And behind what we could see, more cracks and rumbles like an unseen thunderstorm as the whole glacier moved onwards.

The Hubbard is not what they call “glacially slow” – indeed, in glacial terms it’s galloping!   A couple of times in recent years it has moved forward sufficiently to block off the Russell Fjord which (should) flow into Disenchantment Bay, and created a short-lived lake.

Russell Fjord to the right

Russell Fjord to the right

Landsat colour-adjusted image ex Wikipedia

Landsat colour-adjusted image ex Wikipedia

Oh – a wry smile.   I’ve just looked up Wikipedia – and it seems that Hubbard’s progress is partly driven by a tributary glacier – Valerie – which joins with it just a bit “upstream”, and pushes it along.

Valerie wasn’t mentioned in the on-board lecture about Hubbard. All the Valeries in the world know why I’m smiling.

Our Oceania Regatta nosed close to the snout.

viewed through the bow screen --  the excitement of the first ice-fall

viewed through the bow screen — the excitement of the first ice-fall

One of the officers said, rather proudly, “our captain will go much closer than most”.

And there we stayed, apart from a slow turn to give the starboard side a half-hour full facing, and then the port.

The initial rush to get an elbow’s-width of railing space relaxed.

The urgency of catching the moment a chunk of ice plunged into the water diminished as we realised there were heaps more to come.   Mani and I identified two splendid cracks and put a bottle of bubbly on which would break away first. Neither did – and if either had, the ship would certainly have rocked from the ensuing wave!

See the crack of the right-hand pillar? There's a smaller calving to the left.

See the crack of the right-hand pillar? There’s a smaller calving to the left.

Our second crack-contender.  The wave is from a smaller chunk dropping. Imagine if "ours" went.

Our second crack-contender. The wave is from a smaller chunk dropping. Imagine if “ours” went.





IMG_5364_1Time slowed, and we were quietly watching for long enough to track the shifts in colour as the sun moved over the ice.


Post-cruise, we heard of friends-of-friends who’d been there when there were three large cruise ships negotiating viewing space – and only then realised how lucky we’d been to have such an experience of splendid isolation, IN splendid isolation.


 Glaciers 2-6.

That was the “Five Glaciers and Taku Lodge Feast” excursion, out of Juneau.   Juneau must be the only state capital without road access. Float planes rule! OK – we’ve been in an alphabet of aircraft, from Aeroflot, to Microlites to the Zeppelin, but a float plane, not yet. So this ticked the boxes – flying over five glaciers, and landing by one for a feast of barbequed salmon.IMG_5539_2_1


Glaciers where the surface looked marble-smooth, with pools of deep turquoise water

Glaciers where the surface looked marble-smooth, with pools of deep turquoise water

glaciers where the ice was crushed to look like frosting on a cake,

glaciers where the ice was crushed to look like frosting on a cake,




glaciers where you could see the merger-lines as the rock-scrapings from the sides of two valleys converged


…such ice, so many centuries of ice and inexorable movement.




AND – yes Daniella – there was a bear!   Up till then, it seemed the animals themselves were slow to leave their hibernation and show themselves, as we’d peered out from the ship and the plane.   But….

Black Bear contemplating BBQd salmon

Black Bear contemplating BBQd salmon

But – we landed the float plane at Taku Lodge, walked up the path …. And there perched in a tree hopefully surveying the BBQ grill – a black bear. They’re resolutely not fed, but our guide tells of seeing one licking the still-smoking grill plate on a previous visit. Cast-iron tongue on cast-iron plate.

One of the staff stood by with a sturdy pole to ensure that the animal headed for the woods rather than into the clicking claque watching it.

Taku Lodge guy on bear-patrol. Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier behind.

Taku Lodge guy on bear-patrol. Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier behind.

Object of desire...

Object of desire…





Mani with plane on Taku River. The Hole in the Wall Glacier was named when it could only be seen through the gap in the hills, which it has now advanced through.

Mani with plane on Taku River. The Hole in the Wall Glacier was named when it could only be seen through the gap in the hills, which it has now advanced through.

Taku Lodge famously belonged to a woman, Mary Joyce, who bred huskies and proved both her dogs’ and her own mettle by sledding from there to Fairbanks – a 1000-mile journey through ice, and snow, over glaciers and frozen rivers.    Her story was proudly told by the team there – how she’d started out at Taku Lodge as the nurse-companion to a chap whose mother had bought the lodge as a detox facility for him… and went on to create her own fame and fortune. No “Valerieism” there.


Mani with Capt Meinhardt Hansen, and (needed today ) ... ice picked up from the Hubbard Glacier - or was it Valerie?!
Mani with Capt Meinhardt Hansen, and (needed today ) … ice picked up from the Hubbard Glacier – or was it Valerie?!


Back to thinking cold thoughts in a heat-wave.

Let me think again about ice.

And check the fridge.


Requiem for a Gull


Over the last few days a question-mark has come and gone from the title of this piece.

A black-backed gull – karoro – has been our “resident gull” since we came here eight (heavens!) years ago. From his perch on the neighbour’s roof he has ruled the roost, keeping a beady eye on the kitchen window for emerging tidbits, and noisily seeing off competitors. We inherited him from the lady who had our house before us, and for a long time he seemed to be a solo act – an older gent with a gammy leg, who’d found himself a nice spot in the sun for his declining years. Mani fed him bread laced with comfrey tincture to help his knee.

IMG_2430_1Then one spring four years ago  while we were still in Switzerland, an email from Rosalind told us he had allowed a girl-friend to move in, and was engaged in amorous – if precarious – adventures on the streetlight.

With success!


2011 - surprise Dad!

2011 – surprise Dad!

Initially she seemed only to be permitted to stay over during the courting season, but over a few years she is more often there than not.

Earlier this year, I was grumbling at him for being a dog in the manger. He would gobble everything coming from the magic window, and chase off his shyer partner if she looked like trying to get something for herself.


But then I saw him back up on the roof, regurgitating food for her. An old-fashioned chap indeed, certain that his role is bringing home – and up – the bacon.

He’s been very assiduous in this “good provider” role, gathering and presenting choice bits of nesting material to her.



I wasn’t sure how to approach the neighbours if it looked like the couple were serious about building on their roof.   Accommodating the tap-dancing and raucous calling is one thing. But hosting a nest – that might be pushing it. Happily, they had the rituals here… and the real thing somewhere else.


Or this?

Or this?

What pleases you m'dear?

What pleases you m’dear?







But perhaps he was feeling his age pressing on him, in his need to be a father yet again.   It looked like he’d had some tough competition for her continuing favours; he’d turn up with a dented head, dirty and not his normal immaculate self.

Then a couple of times, we saw him standing on the lawn, trembling all over.

“Not good” we thought, having just had Mani doing the same with a high fever from an infection.


Anyway … after six weeks away, we got back from our South Island round-trip. No gull to greet us. “Perhaps off on parenting duty”, we tried to convince ourselves. But the next day – no gull. And so it’s gone on. “Well, he’s had a good life” we consoled ourselves.

Then suddenly – the question-mark appeared on the title of this piece. The girlfriend was on the neighbour’s roof, calling loudly. I’m not fluent in gull and can’t differentiate between the warning “you’re in my air-space – leave immediately or take the consequences” call and the “ welcome home” call.


But in flew a young gull, still in camouflage brown feathers. Clearly this year’s offspring.


And then…. in flew another adult, also welcomed.   Our old chap?   I couldn’t tell. But I could hope.




Reconstituted family?

No. If it were “our” gull, he’d had have quickly been down as soon as he saw we’d returned – on station outside the kitchen window, gulping down food to feed the family.

Like the girlfriend, I think we have to accept it’s a relationship finished.   Will we be as fast to move on?   Perhaps not.

Requiescat in pace, old boy.




Kapiti Island, Peel Forest – a nice conjunction


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How tidily sometimes things click together.

I started writing this in the DOC camp at Peel Forest in Canterbury, with bellbird song loud around us. There’s no comms here and I’m in holiday mode, so who knows when I’ll post whatever this turns out to be, but… here’s the conjunction.

Kapiti Island. Peel Forest. Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens.

The book first. It’s an extraordinary scan over the last 70 millennia and into the near future. One of the themes is how fast our species has been able to change its culture (way of organising, belief systems, way of relating etc) over recent history.    Click.

Dry feet landings are always appreciated

Dry feet landings are always appreciated

Then Kapiti Island. With it right on our doorstep at Paraparaumu, and its birds and reputation spreading, it really needed to be seen again.

Many years back we had our Navigate family work picnic over there.   I remember that trip most for the return from the top of the hill. We’d taken the gentler track up, which left the steep one down. We ‘navigated’ that, as I recall, mainly by bum-slide, as the Duignan boys sprang past on young legs that held no fear of tree-roots, rocks or wash-outs.

I am totally converted to walking with sticks - thank you Helen!

I am totally converted to walking with sticks – thank you Helen!

This time, Helen and I opted for the tour to the North End. The trek to the top of the much smaller hill was quite enough for a late January super-hot Sunday – and we timed it perfectly for a return to the Lodge for lunch.

The thing that has stuck in my mind this time, thanks to the great info-sharing by our hosts and guides, is the timescale of the change there.

It was way back in 1870 when the need for, and potential of, Kapiti Island as a conservation site was seen – and it was reserved as a bird sanctuary in 1897.

Slowly and steadily in campaigns over the nearly 120 years since, pests have been removed and the land allowed to regenerate.

Our guide was talking about what they expect to see in the next 40-50 years, as if that time-scale is was more like weeks. So – click! At the same time as land was being relentlessly cleared, and the last huia shot, some of our farther-seeing forebears were starting the culture-change we take for granted today.

Back from the brink - this Takahe is one of a pair having a second crack at nesting this season. Obviously they know we're counting on them....!

Back from the brink – this Takahe is one of a pair having a second crack at nesting this season. Obviously they know we’re counting on them….!

So thence to Peel Forest.   From about 1855, hectares of forest were milled there. Huge kahikatea, totara and matai were ripped out.    But – we’ve just been touching trees estimated to be maybe 1000 years old.

The blip on the side of the trunk is Mani's head!  This totara is almost 3m across.

The blip on the side of the trunk is Mani’s head! This totara is almost 3m across.

Thank you, Arthur Mills. He was a British MP, visiting his brother-in-law who was one of the early settlers/landclearers, and he was so horrified at the destruction he bought 16 hectare of uncut forest, and deeded it on his death. Saved by foresight. Click!

And about touching trees… there’s a nice DOC “touch” in Peel Forest. A sign in one place encourages you to feel the bark of a totara, and consider what you’re experiencing. The texture, the temperature…

Another further along urges you to do the same with the kaihaktea. And yes, it’s cooler to the touch, scalier, quite a different energy sensation. A tactile surprise.

I’ve always touched trees… but now I’m doing it more thoughtfully, expecting different sensations.

Back to Sapiens and how little it takes for us strange creatures to add something new to our thinking. Click!


Pukeko Crossing


There is something in me maybe someday to be written; now it is folded, and folded, and folded, like a note in school.

Sharon Olds

Sometimes there’s too much needing to be done, to leave much time for the pleasure of unfolding my thoughts.  And sometimes, a story just unfolds in front of you.

It’s pukeko-chick time – and  little nursery of them came out for their road-safety training.  In Switzerland at the start of each primary school-term we see flocks of littlies lined up on one side of the road, getting their instructions in safe crossing from high-viz jacketed teachers. The littlies wear high-viz shoulder sashes on their way to and from school too.

In pukeko-land, the high-viz colours of the adults are courtesy of nature, but the littlies are dull black. Only their ridiculously long legs and big feet give their future splendour away.

So, let the pictures unfold the story…..


Look right, look left....

Look right, look left….

... and cross.

… and cross.

Waiiiiit....     There's always one....

Waiiiiit…. There’s always one….

Okay - now you hop up here.

Okay – now you hop up here.

Two up...

Two up…

....three clambering....




OK - you just need to try harder....

OK – you just need to try harder….

.. or maybe try down here....

.. or maybe try down here….

... just jump!

… just jump!

... perhaps if I come down and demonstrate?

… perhaps if I come down and demonstrate?

Oh do come on.. we're heading for the swamp.

Oh do come on.. we’re heading for the swamp.

Made it!

Made it!

..but wait. I'm exHAUSTed

..but wait. I’m exHAUSTed

And so it unfolded.  And for a while, there was nothing else to do in the world, but watch.

And then… just as I was finishing writing this…back they came past my window, heading for the lake.


IMG_2110_1 IMG_2112_1

Come on...

Come on…

Where ARE those stragglers?

Where ARE those stragglers?

Stalking Storks


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I promised storks.  I thought they could wait a while. But the  storks themselves demand telling right now.

And not the promised storks of Alsace, but the storks of Bodensee are centre and front of the story.

We were pedalling back from a herb-gathering ride, and I saw one-two-three…more… flying over the willows by the Alten Rhein (the old Rhine which forms the boundary between us and Austria).  We stopped – and so in a sense did they, pausing their directional flight to spend five minutes, maybe more, making  spirals and loops  in an ever-changing formation.  There were thirty of them.  Thirty storks!



Flight planning meeting

Flight planning meeting

When Mani was a boy, there were storks around here.  But for the first decade-plus of our summers here, we saw none.

Then – it was 2011 – we saw two (we couldn’t presume to call them a couple) regularly in the fields, and they were joined for the wondrous sight of  13 storks all gathered on the airport making their flight-plans for migration.

Since then summers here have had storks.  Up to four in nearby fields.   But this lot… breathtaking!

IMG_0995_1So now of course I’ve done my research ( I love Wikipedia), and find that Mani’s memory matches.   The last wild storks were seen in Switzerland in 1950, seven years before he “migrated” to NZ.  Then industrialisation and changes in agriculture including draining of wetlands and large-scale maize growing took them to “Near Threatened” status across Europe in 1988.

Since then preservation and reintroduction programmes have succeeded in bringing them back to “Least Concern” status. Programmes like the one we visited in Alsace have been given much of the credit – and in Switzerland there’s been a programme of release of zoo-reared storks. Success!

Well – some success.  The last figures I found were that 175 pairs were recorded breeding in Switzerland in 2000. But their breeding success rates were seen to be low.  Perhaps they’ve got better at it in the last decade, for us to have seen 30 in one flight.

A "phalanx" of storks

A “phalanx” of storks

There’s something of a moral here about the risks and benefits of cohabiting with humans.  Storks benefitted by the introduction of agriculture – they like open meadows instead of scrubland, and they liked that humans liked them enough to allow, and even encourage them despite the filth they drop, to build nests on tall human-made structures with tiled roofs that release warmth into the night air. Then changes in human activity threatened their existence, but human regard for them also supported their return. In Poland, they even uplift nests from the top of pylons and re-settle them in safer places.  The moral might be something about the benefits of being a large imposing charismatic bird  with a heap of mythological values about it instead of something small and scurrying and creepy!

The other storks, the ones I thought I’d be writing about, were more static.

The wild ones were in their nests on the towers of old buildings in Alsation towns, still feeding their young which are fully-fledged now, but not yet leaving home.

The city door at Turkheim, Alsace

The city door at Turkheim, Alsace

Why one of the collective nouns is "a filth of storks"

Why one of the collective nouns is “a filth of storks”




They reminded me of a wonderful evening some years back in Rust by the Neusiedlersee – the lake that separates Austria and Hungary. We wandered into town – me without my camera, an infrequent mistake but always deeply regretted!   That was when I discovered that Rust is famous for its storks – they seemed on be on almost every rooftop down one old street.   It was sunset – and the storks standing in their nests, or swooping in on parental duties, all had their white breasts tinged with pink.   Of course I went back with my camera the next evening…. No sunset.  Just the loud beak-clatter which they use to communicate.

St Martins Cathedral in Colmar

St Martins Cathedral in Colmar


Perhaps they've recently cleaned the tiles...

Perhaps they’ve recently cleaned the tiles…




Then there were the storks in the Stork Reintroduction Centre at Hunawihr.  By 1983, that region of Alsace was down to three nesting pairs.  The diagnosis was that extinction could follow the dangers of migration: electrocution, hunting, drought in Africa, and pesticides.  Solution: remove the  migratory instinct.

Raising young in umbrella'd comfort

Raising young in umbrella’d comfort

If you’re down to three pairs, they’d better stay home and breed!

So, they keep some eggs in the reproduction aviary, and the baby storks stay confined there for three winters.   Tough love, but by the time they’re let out as sexually mature adults, they’ve lost their migratory urge.

They stay safely in the Centre’s park or neighbouring villages and do their work of increasing the species.

Their young pop out of the egg with their migratory urge intact,  but there are enough of them now to take the risk.  By 2011, there were 600 nesting pairs in Alsace.

The Stork Reintroduction Centre's bird park

The Stork Reintroduction Centre’s bird park

Storks spend so much time preening they were used as a symbol for conceit in medieval England.  When you've got into this mess, it's a job!

Storks spend so much time preening they were used as a symbol for conceit in medieval England. When you’ve got into this mess, it’s a job!

So now the Centre is working on otters – from 1991 they’ve been releasing then regularly into the  wild.

An otter demonstrating fish-catching skills

An otter demonstrating fish-catching skills in the Centre’s Fishing Animal Show


It pays to be cute if you need to be rescued.

It pays to be cute if you need to be rescued.

I was a bit less impressed to find Humboldt and Blackfooted Penguins, and “Byronia sea-lions” ( South American Sea-lion)  in their Fishing Animal Show… but hey, they were real crowd-pleasers, and if attracting the euros is what it takes to save the local species, perhaps our Southern sealife can support the principle.

IMG_0998 tSo, what is it that has us stopping to gaze at these fine birds standing in a field, or soaring in the sky?

We’re in good company. The ancient Egyptians and  the Hebrews gave the stork special virtues. The Greeks and Romans  believed that the birds took care of their aging parents, transporting and feeding them, and that eventually a stork would not die, but flew to islands and took on the appearance of humans.  Muslims respected storks for visiting Mecca on their migration path.

Maybe borrowing from the Greeks and Romans, there was a German belief that storks’ souls were human. Having a stork-nest on your roof was also thought to be a protection against fire, so in Germany and Holland, they’d build platforms to encourage nesting. Poles, Lithuanians and Ukrainians believe that storks bringIMG_0768_1 harmony to a family on whose property they nest.


And then of course, there’s the whole baby-bringing business, which is a very ancient and wide-spread belief, and Jung and Freud both had a lot to say about that!


Two more tidbits, just because I love them.

  • a Polish folk tale relates how God made the stork’s plumage white, while the Devil gave it black wings, imbuing it with both good and evil impulses   –  like dropping babies thereby causing birth defects, and like leaving a birthmark nevus flammeus nuchae on the back of babies’ heads, commonly known as stork-bite.  I have one still, and never knew why. My mother, not being raised with storks, blamed the forceps.
  • In medieval England, storks were associated with adultery. Which (perhaps!) links to the fact they often try out several possible partners, though breeding only starts when there is a stable pairing. Good practice I think!

Here’s my final joy… a list of the collective nouns for storks, lifted from, of all places, the NZ Birds website.

Storks, a clatter of
Storks, a cluster of
Storks, a filth of

Storks, a flight of
Storks, a flock of
Storks, a muster of
Storks, a mustering of
Storks, a pair of
Storks, a phalanx of
Storks, a silence of
Storks, a swoop of


 I might add – a soar of…  Both for their flight, and for what they do to our spirit.

Lest We Forget…


, ,

How much does one imagine, how much observe? One can no more separate those functions than divide light from air, or wetness from water.

Elspeth Huxley

The storks will have to wait.

The storks will have to wait.

We’ve had a few days in Alsace.

I thought I’d be writing about wine and food and picturesque old towns with storks on towers.

But I find myself writing about a WWI battlefield. It seems appropriate for August 2014.

As Kiwis, our minds go to Passchendaele and the Somme when we think of the war in France. I lost a great uncle on the second day of the Fourth Army’s attack in the Somme in 1916 – though lost seems a strange word for something you never had. Equally strangely, when I think of Alfred William Ordish b. 1894 d. 16 Sept 1916, I find myself imagining an old man aging in pace with his brother, my grandfather. Yet he was only 22. “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old….”

But of course Alsace, bordering Germany and France and with more German than French place names, was fought over metre by bloodied metre.

We were staying at Trois Epis, up in the hills above Colmar, and not far from the battleground of the Collet du Linge.   “It’s worth going to have a look, if it’s not raining” said Monsieur Diss the Manager of Hotel Restaurant l’Alexain, who absolutely defines the art of gracious hosting.   So we drove through forests, and past monuments, to the memorialised part of the battleground.

IMG_0554_1IMG_0543_1Entry was through the little museum, built bunker-like into the side of a hill.

In there, we were face to face with the small exhibits of personal effects, and relics of war. The sorrow, the horror, the desperation and the futility.

IMG_0542_1We moved from exhibit to exhibit, like other small knots of visitors – all French, I think. I found myself commenting in English, and hoping the others there could recognise the difference between Swiss-German and German-German conversation from our group.

The signs and explanatory material were all in French only: there was no sense that this place was intended as somewhere for both sides to come together to remember and try to understand.


So little to help with

So little to help with


Objects of art from objects of war









The other visitors DID realise we were talking Swiss-German, didn't they?

The other visitors DID realise we were talking Swiss-German, didn’t they?

A hundred years before, to the month, the Germans had moved in and dug in. For about six months, they’d fortified the top of this hill with stone-lined trenches, reinforced bunkers, protected artillery and machine-gun posts. Then in March 1915 the French started a counter-attack, fighting uphill, from scraped dirt trenches. The heaviest battles over the Linge Ridge peaks of Barrenkopf, the Schratzmännele, and the Collet du Linge were from July to October, with flamethrowers and gas attacks as well as gunnery. It all produced inconclusive gains and losses of territory – but the loss of some 10,000 French soldiers and 7,000 Germans.

Map of the Lines - so many lives, so close together. So many deaths for so little gain.

Map of the Lines – so many lives, so close together. So many deaths for so little gain.

The Germans stayed in control of the ridge until the end of the war.

German trench - well engineered and built of course, over several months.

German trench – well engineered and built of course.

French trench - improvised during their attack.

French trench – improvised during their attack.

So we walked through the conserved part of the battleground. The signs showed where the front lines had been from time to time – within a stone’s throw of each other – let alone a bullet’s range. The unevenness of the battle was clear in the unevenness of the terrain.

IMG_0570_1_1Some blasted tree trunks still stood, but whereas the rest of the ridge has been reforested, here the trees have remained cleared, and the bony structure of the land still releases the occasional skeletal remains of a soldier.

Small crosses mark where remains were uncovered during the conservation of the site, and signs warn of areas where there may yet be munitions.

And through the coiled barbed-wire and on the edges of the trenches, wild-flowers grow.

Tender blues and pinks against the blood-tang of rusted steel.













And the only word I could repeat was “why?”.

The strategic “why” was clear when you stood at the end of the ridge and saw how it commanded the valleys below. But the larger “why” remains ultimately unanswerable no matter how many histories one reads. Why leaders of nations should think that war is a solution – and why people should willingly or unwillingly throw their bodies into pursuing that..? (On this topic, the best thinking I’ve read so far is Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”. When you have a spare week, read it! )

But the hopeful thinker in me came away from that once-was-battleground still hopeful.   If we can stand in these places and contemplate… If we can remind ourselves as we look at the current world conflicts, that once it happened here too…  Perhaps that’s what such places are for.

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.  

Arundhati Roy


The Oyster-lover’s Guide


, , , ,

I know of a cure for everything: salt water…in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.

Karen Blixen

We’ve had the sea. The entirely different smell of salt water, and the movement of tides. Bodensee – Lake Constance – is beautiful and large enough to be constantly changing on the surface with the movement of light and wind – but I miss the deeper pulse of the tides.

Brittany was our fix. And not just the sight of the sea, but the taste of it. We’ve been eating oysters. That understates it. We’ve been gorging on oysters. Pure concentrated taste of the salt sea.

Let me state my position up front. I firmly believe there is no better oyster in the world than the Bluff oyster. But I am prepared to go to a lot of effort to test that belief.

Notable oyster-excursions have included our 2010 NZ Far North tour.   I wrote then for Helvetia magazine:

Doesn't everyone do this in a Paris hotel room?

Doesn’t everyone do this in a Paris hotel room?

“Oysters seem to be among the things that firmly divide people’s opinions – up there with religion, politics, and sports teams! […]  

But yes – we’re in the “oysters are the food of the gods” camp.   The highlight of our weekend in Paris last year was not the art and architecture – it was the oysters from the street-stall.

So, you can imagine our distress when we realised that leaving early for Europe this year will mean we miss the Bluff oyster season. Compensation: each oyster opportunity has been a “must stop”.  

The best oyster eating place so far [was] Totara North on the Whangaroa Harbour.   It’s where my great-great grandfather’s family had a kauri timber mill – the last one to operate once the kauri trade finished.     The Lanes built ships there too – indeed the last time I was back there was twenty years ago when we took the scow Te Aroha ‘home’ for her 80th birthday.

Hunting and gathering rock oysters at Totara North

Hunting and gathering rock oysters at Totara North

There’s not much remaining now – just the huge sheds breaking down in the weather, and some rusting machinery.  

Industries change as our lives do. Boat building and timber milling have disappeared from the Whangaroa – but – oysters! The new industry of oyster farming means spat are plentiful in the harbour. Heaps of them have colonised the piles of the old wharf buildings at Totara North and grown into gorgeous oysters. We gathered, opened, and ate, until we’d had enough, then stayed the night on the wharf in Feierabend and did the same the next day. The cuts in our hands have healed now – but the flavour lingers in our memory.”

Feb 2010 – Helvetia


Jane demonstrating the perfect slurp at Frontignon
Jane demonstrating the perfect slurp at Frontignon

2010 ended up being a vintage oyster-eating year in Europe too. We drove through Southern France en route to Spain, and discovered Frontignan. A small town, with Muscat wine vineyards and an oyster stall in the tiny central square where they’d open a dozen and put them on a plate with a lemon for 5 euros. We revisited that paradise on the way back up with Jane and Peter.

So – there was the challenge for Brittany.   Could the oyster-experience measure up? I’d noted the famous oyster areas in my pre-research, and off we went with our mouths watering.

First attempt, in the Bay of Morbihan – disaster! Waterfront restaurant out from Arradon: “Oysters please.” “Sorry – we have none. It’s spawning season and they’re all milky. No oysters.”

The Point at Arradon. Picture perfect, but - no oysters!

The Point at Arradon. Picture perfect, but – no oysters!

No oysters – all this way and they’re too busy having sex? The Gulf of Morbihan is Brittany’s oyster nursery, with spat from here being sent out to other parts of the Breton coast to mature. So oyster sex is serious business here.

But.. it must have just been those particular oysters. Next day, a little further round the bay – oysters for lunch. Later after sampling many others, we rated those as too small. But at the time, there was the particular joy of the first. And perhaps the only, if all round the rest of the coast the others were too busy ensuring future populations?

Yes!  There are oysters for eating...  Port Navalo

Yes! There are oysters for eating… Port Navalo


But.. it must have just been those particular oysters. Next day, a little further round the bay – oysters for lunch.

Later after sampling many others, we rated those as too small. But at the time, there was the particular joy of the first. And perhaps the only, if all round the rest of the coast the others were too busy ensuring future populations?

No such worries. The next morning we were in Carnac, where they’ve been farming oysters since the 1880s. Currently they count around 80 farms there.

Paradise beckons

Paradise beckons

IMG_1232_1The Sunday market was huge – everything you could imagine to eat and drink and wear – and a group practising Breton bagpipes – and oysters! My breakfast was a dozen huge oysters, shucked by the man on the stall, packed with seaweed and lemon, and slurped down on the side of the road before we went hunting megaliths.

Onwards… I’ll write about the megaliths and menhirs and Breton villages and the hydrangeas (truly) later.. but let’s follow the oysters.

Now we’re on the northern coast of Brittany, where the rocks are pink granite. The market at Treburden had oysters, but there the stall-holder couldn’t/wouldn’t open them.. but she would sell us an oyster knife.

I thought about my old faithful opener

The round flat ones are the indigenous variety.

The round flat ones are the indigenous variety.

still in the drawer in Kapiti, and bought another. Essential equipment really.  We chose a mixture of the “hollow shell” oyster that we’d been eating, and that look pretty like our Pacific oysters, and the indigenous “flat” oysters. The latter have been badly affected by a parasite – perhaps similar to bonamia? – and so it’s mainly the hollow shell that are cultivated.

Resistence is futile. Man(i) the tool-user.

Resistence is futile. Man(i) the tool-user.

Out of town, around a marsh (with a menhir standing the middle), and to a small bay where the tide was on the way out.

We settled ourselves on pink granite rocks, and watched the bay empty of water and fill with families gathering seafood…. and ate oysters. That evening I had to have lobster instead.

Picnics don't come much better.

Picnics don’t come much better.

Over the bay and foraging families, to the oyster farm.

Over the bay and foraging families, to the oyster farm.

The sea-midden.

The sea-midden.

Just one more oyster stop. They say, “Mention Cancale to a Frenchman or a foodie and the instant response will be ‘oysters’.”   So – down to the port, seafood restaurants galore. But we’d got to like our “do-it-yourself” dining, and found the cluster of oyster-sellers’ stalls.  Such choice:  I settled for the “Huitres sauvage”.  I know it means ‘gathered from the wild rather than farmed’ – but couldn’t resist the mental picture of savage oysters!

The instructions were clear. “We’ll open them for you, but you must sit over there on the harbour-wall to eat them, and throw the shells into the sea.”  “Mais oui Madame!” (by now, the French was coming more readily to my tongue). But we’d had a good breakfast, and it was only morning tea-time, and I could manage only half a dozen before I – I couldn’t imagine myself thinking this – I couldn’t eat another. Sated! Surreptitious tipping of remaining oysters into a plastic bag, and away. The rest were lunch, as we started our inland-facing return journey, taking the taste of the sea at least a little way with us.


Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.

Anita Desai


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