Saturday, April 30, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: Z is for Zanj Sun Squirrel

Have you ever heard of it? I certainly hadn't until recently. It's surprising what a challenge like this leads one to, isn't it.

It turns out that the zanj sun squirrel (Heliosciurus undulatus) is a small rodent only found in sub-Saharan Africa and specifically in the subtropical and wet tropical coastal forests of Kenya and Tanzania. Its diet is largely fruit and seeds and some leaves and with insects in some seasons. No-one seems to know much more about them except that they make nests in tree hollows and chatter loudly. While there is very little data available about how many there are and so it is hard to assess how threatened they are, the clearing of their habitat has to be of concern.

There has been speculation that they may be involved in the spread of diseases to humans but, given how little is known about them, it's hard to know how accurate this speculation is.

While smaller animals like the sun squirrels don't have the appeal of the bigger and more spectacular species they are still a vital part of the ecosystem in which they live and we ignore them at our peril.

The best photos I could find of these elusive animals were these and the best of what little information about them was available I found here.

Friday, April 29, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: Y is for Yummy

And it really was. Lunch today was a family favourite known to us as guacamole spaghetti which came about many years ago one day when we were hungry and the larder was looking a little bare. We wanted something fast and sandwiches - the only other option - did not appeal.

All I had was a large avocado, some very ripe tomatoes, some lemons and, when I checked the fridge, I found some pine nuts. What to do? Inspiration struck and I put some spaghetti on to cook while I peeled and cut the avocado into bite size pieces. Then I seeded and cut up a couple of tomatoes into chunks and tossed them and the avocado in lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil, added a little salt and some freshly ground black pepper and left them to marinate. I toasted a handful of pine nuts lightly in a dry pan until they started to colour and left them to cool. By then the spaghetti was ready to drain. I added the avocado tomato mix and the pine nuts to the spaghetti, stirred them through gently and we were ready to eat.

Since then I've tried substituting lime juice - yum - and other nuts instead of the pine nuts. You have to be careful not to use too many strong flavoured ones, though. I've used just about every kind of pasta you can think of and we've even had it cold - and it's still good but you do need to make sure everything is well coated in the dressing or the avocado will discolour. Sometimes I've added grated Parmesan cheese but for me that takes away from the fresh flavour although others in the family like it so I leave it for them to sprinkle over once it's served. You can add any herbs you like as well - I'm fond of basil, coriander or Italian parsley - but be careful not to be too heavy handed because the flavours are subtle and it's easy to overwhelm them. In my opinion, less is the best way and tasting as you go is critical.

We love it and I'm sorry there are no measurements but it's one of those throw it together, taste and adjust according to what you have kind of recipes.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: X is for Xebec

Well I had a look around and x has to be one of the hardest letters - not a surprise, you understand but still a challenge. And then I discovered the xebec.

This is a long, relatively narrow, three masted sailing vessel with a long, overhanging bowsprit used in the Mediterranean for trade and also popular with the corsairs who plagued merchant shipping in the area. They were especially prized for their speed and manoeuvrability and were in use from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Quite a pretty ship it was, too. See what I mean.

While merchants relied only on sail to get where they were going the corsairs made several modifications. They added guns - close to thirty - and could carry 300-400 men with added oars so they could be brought along side other vessels to overrun them in calm waters. Nothing much has changed, has it. The only difference with modern day pirates, scattered as they are all over the world,  is that they are likely to use motorised boats for a quick approach and get away.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: W is for Wildebeest

Every time I get fed up with pay TV and decide to get rid of it the same thing happens. I suddenly discover something fascinating and decide to keep it. The main reason I got Foxtel in the first place was because at the time we were having trouble getting clear pictures from the only two free to air channels I ever watch ABC and SBS. That has long since been sorted out but it also meant I had access to Foxtel sports and, since we are avid Aussie Rules watchers and I like Foxtel's coverage, I've kept it.

That's not the only reason, though. I do like programs about nature and there are some excellent documentaries on Foxtel - which is where I saw a doco on the great wildebeest migration.

Wildebeests or gnus are antelopes that come into the category of having faces only a mother could love - they have been described as looking like they are made up of leftover bits of other animals - but they are beautifully designed for their herbivorous life style. There are two species - the blue (the majority of wildebeests) and the black. They are large and very strong - an adult can even injure an attacking lion, these being one of their main predators along with cheetahs and hunting dogs.

Most - but not all - wildebeest travel in huge herds following new grass. In the case of the wildebeest of the Masai Mara and Serengeti, this leads them to make one of the great migrations of the animal world as they travel between 800 and 1,600 kilometres from the south eastern Serengeti west towards Lake Victoria then north to the Mara region and return. They often move in long spread out strings as well as groups. Driven by the need to move for food they let nothing stop them moving forward. This includes swimming crocodile infested rivers and lakes often in such a crush of bodies that animals (particularly calves) are drowned while the crocodiles seize any stragglers. It's both breathtaking and horrifying to watch.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: V is for Velvet

It's on my mind since my recent visit to a luxury store where I got to savour the pleasures of fabric in its many forms. Among the rolls of lace, brocade, satin and silk were others of velvet, reminding me what a lovely fabric it is, too, with the way it catches the light with a soft sheen and the joy it is to touch, with its short cut pile somehow smooth, sensual and luxurious all at the same time.

It got me thinking. Velvet has always been a luxurious and expensive fabric with the best quality made of silk making it a favoured fabric of royalty back in the day. Before industrialisation the best quality hand made velvet was very costly partly because of the use of silk but also because the weaving process was very labour intensive. It required a special loom which wove two pieces of fabric joined together at the same time. It was then taken off the loom and cut apart by highly skilled workers. As well it was difficult to clean. So obviously not something the average working person would be wearing.

With industrialisation and the increasing availability of cotton (which can be used instead of silk although the fabric doesn't feel quite as luxurious) velvet became less expensive but still in the luxury fabric range, not least because cleaning it remained difficult. When I was a young woman, my mother made me an evening dress out of rich dark blue cotton velvet. It did feel wonderful to wear but without modern cleaning techniques I would have been terrified that something would have been spilled on it.

These days, while the fabulously wealthy can still have gowns of handmade silk velvet, the rest of us have to settle for lesser quality. You can still buy cotton velvet - I bought some recently to make a cloak for a historical costume - but the range is not as great as when I was growing up. You are more likely to find rolls of synthetic velvet made of polyester, nylon, viscose or acetate which is generally cheaper and lighter weight - older style velvets can be very heavy - and some synthetic velvet has spandex added to it to make 'stretch velvet'.

While these synthetic velvets are more practical you would be unlikely to mistake them for the older kind. They simply don't have that luxurious feel and texture. As so often happens, the search for practical and cheap means the quality has diminished - although there is a luxury blend of viscose and silk fabric which is both soft and reflective and shows that new can still be beautiful and sensual if not necessarily cheap.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: U is for Unity

Today is Anzac Day in Australia. This is when we remember the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli during World War I. There were, of course, other troops - some came from Great Britain, France, Canada, India as well as from other parts of the then British Empire but the majority of those landed at Gaba Tepe (now better known as Anzac Cove) were Australians and New Zealanders from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs). The landing was badly botched and resulted in the soldiers being landed where they came under sustained Turkish fire from troops entrenched along the top of the ridge. They clung on to this beach head and held it, even making some advances with an enormous loss of life. Eventually it became obvious that the Turkish positions could not be taken and the force was withdrawn in a remarkable almost casualty free exercise.

You may be wondering where unity comes into this. Well, Gallipoli is recognised in Australia as defining the birth of nationhood in what was then a very new nation - the Commonwealth of Australia had only come into being on 1 January, 1901 as a self-governing entity but was still tied to the British Empire as a Dominion. It holds similar significance in New Zealand. This horrific baptism of fire helped to unify a new country and from it has developed the Australian view of itself as a nation.

So here and in New Zealand we mark 25 April as ANZAC Day, a time when we remember all those who have perished to preserve our way of life. In recent years there has been an ever increasing number of visitors who attend the traditional dawn service at Lone Pine on the Gallipoli Peninsula while here dawn services are held throughout the country and are followed by parades of servicemen and women, both those serving now and those who fought at other times and in other places.

Now it's over a hundred years since Gallipoli and there are no more surviving Anzacs but we still remember them.

Lest we forget.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: T is for Tingle

No, I don't mean that delicious - and sometimes less than delicious - sensation we can physically feel. I'm talking about the majestic red tingle tree which grows only in the Walpole-Nornalup National Park and a few isolated pockets around Walpole in the lower south west of Western Australia.

And when I say majestic I really do mean majestic. While there are two other tingle species - the yellow tingle (Eucalyptus guilfoylei) and Rate's tingle (Eucalyptus brevistylis) - these are both smaller. Reaching heights to around 70 metres and with buttressed bases that can measure as much as 24 metres in circumference the red tingle (Eucalyptus jacksonii) is truly among the world's giant trees. Although it's not the tallest even in these forests - that honour belongs to the karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor) - it's the red tingle's girth that makes it special and earns it its status of giant. This is made up of buttresses that support the massive trunk and forest fires mean that the heartwood centre is often burnt out to leave a hollowed area surrounded by these buttresses. The red tingle is long lived, too, living up to 400 years.

The most famous and largest of the tingle trees currently surviving is the Giant Tingle - it is reputed to be the oldest living eucalyptus tree in the world - and it is to be found in the Valley of the Giants in the Walpole-Nornalup National Park. It reaches above the canopy and can be visited via a boardwalk which winds around the buttresses. But that's not all there's to see in the Valley of the Giants. There's also a treetop walk through the canopy of the tingle forest open to the public.

All this is a far cry from when I first went to the Valley of the Giants as a child. Then there was only a gravel road which led past huge trees and where those inclined pulled off the road and parked their cars inside the hollowed out buttresses so they could take photos. Fortunately we're now more responsible and treat these wonderful trees with respect - and I'm very glad that my parents were not among those who abused them. The photo my father took was only of my mother, brothers and me standing on the road in front of the biggest tree.

Friday, April 22, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: S is for Stars

I don't mean the Hollywood 'stars'. I mean those twinkling little specks in the sky. They've always fascinated me and I'm old enough to have lived in a world when the lights weren't on all night. Here in Perth the street lights went out at 1:00 AM and in the summer in particular the sky would be ablaze with stars.

I remember lying out on the grass with my brothers and staring up at the sky. The lack of artificial light meant we could see stars with a clarity that these days is only experienced out in the bush as far as possible away from human habitation. We would look for the familiar constellations while Dad explained what they were. By the time my children were old enough to do the same the ambient light had cut the number of stars visible to the naked eye dramatically. Sad though this is, we can't live in a past and more trusting time, one when people left a key under the door mat and we didn't need the lighting we do now. An ever growing city, the population and crime that comes with it and possibly the proliferation of fast, modern vehicles, means we need lighting to act as prevention and protection.

Still, living as we do in an isolated city, far distant from other major centres of population means that we don't have to go far out of town to be able to see stars. My family includes an enthusiastic stargazer and she regularly goes to one of the national parks on the outskirts of the city armed with a telescope to indulge her interest. I do have to wonder, though, how much longer this will be possible. Perth is still growing rapidly and although efforts are being made to encourage smaller building lots, the majority of the population still prefer a house and garden and this inevitably leads to urban sprawl - and just as inevitably that means the stars will continue to be less visible.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: R is for Robots

I'm old enough to remember when robots were strictly the province of science fiction. My favourites are the robot in the often and still repeated 1960s TV series Lost in Space with its frantically waving 'arms' and panicked warning of 'Danger, Will Robinson' and Robbie the Robot which first appeared in the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet. This movie is often repeated, too - I watched it again last year - and is acknowledged as one of the important early science fiction movies. If you have a chance to see it I recommend it highly.

But much has changed since these movies were made. Automation has expanded enormously with the development of ever more powerful computers and machines are becoming increasingly autonomous. Who'd have thought just a few years ago that we would have cars that can park themselves and, even more startling, that there are experimental driverless cars being tested. I noticed in today's newspaper that a fleet of driverless trucks has just been tested in Europe. How disconcerting it must be to pull up alongside something like that. There are even humanoid robots being developed in Japan that look human and are being programmed to interact in ways that are very like people.

The level of complexity required for these innovations is enormous. They must be able to make decisions based on more than static and unchanging conditions such as those in a factory. They must react to - and I suspect will also need to anticipate - what may happen. This is mind boggling but, if things continue as they are, I see us in a few years hopping into an autonomous vehicle which we call to our door with a phone app and being delivered to where we want to go without us even having to think - and I'm not sure whether this is frightening or liberating.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: Q is for Queen

I've recently done a course on Future Learn about the life and times of Richard III so queens have been on my mind, given how important they were to medieval monarchs. I felt quite sorry for some of them, married off - often as children - to a man they didn't know. Then, of course, they had to do their duty and produce at least one heir - and more spares if at all possible. After that a few daughters to be advantageously married and make desirable alliances was also a good thing. It must have been quite horrific sometimes as they were sent to a court where they knew no-one and where conspiracy and political machinations were rife, and to a husband who may have found her unattractive or, equally possibly, may have been unattractive to her. That's without even falling foul of different court customs - one poor queen arrived at the English court dressed in the height of fashion for her homeland and was criticised for showing too much cleavage.

But before you are too sorry for all of these royal women, not all were put upon and many wielded considerable power behind the scenes - and they didn't have to be queens to do that. Around the time of Richard III and Henry VII English royal women were deeply involved in the politics of the time.

Just a few examples: Jacquetta of Luxembourg was married to first to John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, aged 17, then, when she was widowed, remarried - in a scandal because she married in secret without the king's permission or anyone else's presumably- Sir Richard Woodville (later Earl Rivers) who began as a Lancastrian supporter but who later supported the Yorkist king, Edward IV. Her oldest daughter, Elizabeth Woodville, was a young widow with two small children when she married Edward VI secretly - seems to be a family tradition, doesn't it - and there were strong suspicions that Jacquetta had some part in this. It seems to have been a happy marriage and Elizabeth, now Queen Consort, had considerable influence at court until the death of her husband leaving the future Richard III as Lord Protector of her young sons.

This all fell apart when it was alleged that Edward had previously been secretly betrothed to Lady Eleanor Butler- a betrothal was considered as binding as a marriage and meant any later marriage was not legal - and the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Robert Stillington, was reported as claiming he had conducted the ceremony. If this was true, this meant Elizabeth's sons with Edward were not legitimate and could not inherit the throne. Well, as we all know, Richard then became king. Whether Elizabeth then aligned herself with another powerful woman, Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, and the mother of Henry Tudor, soon to become Henry VII, as seems likely or whether she merely acquiesced in it, her eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York then married the newly crowned Henry VII - who is just as likely to have had her brothers murdered as her uncle, Richard was. They were certainly brutal times.

When you look at all this, it's hardly surprising with this ancestry that Elizabeth I was such a strong and savvy ruler. She came from a long line of intelligent and politically motivated women who must have influenced her at least as much as her male ancestors.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: P is for Pineapple

A few months ago I posted this photo - and left what it was as something of a
mystery. Somewhat to my surprise no-one guessed what it was.

So here it is, now fully grown. It was one of three pineapples I managed to harvest this year - and the first I've ever grown. We have had an extremely hot summer so that they survived is something of a miracle. But survive they did - and they were quite delicious.

Their tops are now planted into pots along with another small sucker and we look forward to another harvest from these in two years.

Not that we'll have to wait that long for more pineapples from our garden. There are a number of others we're expecting to fruit next summer.

Monday, April 18, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: O is for Obelisks

I've been watching a documentary series about Ancient Egypt recently and naturally obelisks have come into the discussion. When we think of obelisks we tend to think of them as the hugely tall tapered pairs of monolithic pillars like the so-called Cleopatra's Needle which stands on the Thames Embankment in London and its mate which stands in Central Park in New York. Both of these were gifts from the Egyptian Government during the nineteenth century unlike the many others looted over history. Apparently the ancient Romans were one of the major offenders in this. Nothing like a stolen obelisk to show how important you are, it seems.

Anyhow these giant pillars which stood at the entrance to temples began at around 3.3 metres tall for the earliest ones still existing and continued to grow bigger and higher. The Pharaoh Hapshepsut (the famous female pharaoh) had one put up at the temple of Karnac which measured 30 metres in height and has an inscription saying it took seven months to cut out of the red granite of the quarry. It was then ferried down the Nile by barge to be erected in Karnac. This wasn't the tallest of them either with one erected by Thutmose III, which reached 32 metres from a 2.7 metre square base that tapers as it goes up, the tallest surviving obelisk. It is estimated to weight over 230 tonnes.

When you consider the primitive tools the ancient Egyptian had to work with carving these pillars is an extraordinary achievement. They were then embellished with inscriptions of prayers invoking the gods and commemorating the Pharaoh and the top was decorated with gold and silver. While they are still imposing they must have looked truly spectacular when they were first erected.

Amazing stuff. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: N is for the Never-Never

If you aren't an Australian - and even more an Australian of my generation - you have probably not heard of the Never-Never unless you have seen Baz Luhrmann's movie Australia. Let me enlighten you.

The Never-Never is a term that was applied to the vast and remote outback of Australia, as far as we know, back as far as the latter part of the nineteenth century. It featured in We of the Never-Never, the fictionalised account of the experiences of Mrs Aeneas (Jeannie) Gunn while living on Elsey Station in the early 1900s. It included outback Queensland, the Northern Territory and large areas of Western Australia. Opened up and settled by pastoralists and sometimes with a later influx gold seekers (who left when the gold petered out - Kalgoorlie is an exception and is still a major gold producing area) the Never-Never was seen by those who didn't live there as a harsh, brutal land where people died.

Nowadays the Never-Never is better known as the outback and sometimes you'll hear an older person call it back of beyond or back o' Bourke. The now collapsed iron ore mining boom along with the growth in tourism means that the outback is no longer quite the mystery it once was, although with a large swathe of the interior desert that can't even be used by pastoralists, it's never going to be somewhere that is heavily populated.

The people of the outback still have to be tough to be able to survive but they know they live somewhere special and, increasingly they are sharing stunning natural wonders like Uluru and the Bungle Bungles and pastoralists are opening up their properties so people can stay and experience their world as they cater for visitors from all over the world. If you have a bucket list of places to see I'd recommend adding the Australian outback to it. It's worth it.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: M is for A Mighty Girl

I came across the A Mighty Girl website when it turned up in my Facebook newsfeed. It's a resource site aimed at informing and supporting all those who are seeking to empower and inspire girls right up to their teens and provides suggestions about things like books, toys, videos, clothes and other anything else that might that might help in raising strong, young women. I'll certainly be going back to this resource whenever I need to find a gift for the young girls in my life.

But it's not only about the website. The A Mighty Girl Facebook page posts the A Mighty Girl blog  - it also appears on the website - and the posts are many and varied. There are book, clothing, toy and movie suggestions and posts that tell of women who have overcome the obstacles society has put in their way to succeed in many fields.  Some are famous like Marie Curie (awarded two Nobel Prizes for her pioneering work in Chemistry and Physics) and Valentina Tereshkova (the Soviet cosomonaut) while others are less well known like French aviation pioneer Raymonde de Laroche, the first woman in the world to obtain a pilot's licence in 1910. Then there are brave women like Irena Sendler who organised the smuggling of around 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and American Harriet Tubman who, after escaping slavery herself, worked to rescue other slaves held in the south. Other women are showcased for their work in helping others on a smaller scale - women like Dana Marlowe, of Washington DC who helps to provide the necessities of life like sanitary pads, tampons and bras for homeless women and so many others who work quietly to help others.

When my grandchildren are old enough I look forward to sharing these kinds of stories with them, because, whether they are boys or girls, these are tales that inspire and I hope that they'll take that message away with them.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: L is for Leopard

The leopard is one of the most beautiful of the big cats and I recently watched a documentary where they were studying the way in which leopards and people co-exist in India. Although there is occasional conflict for the most part people accept that at night leopards are in their villages and on the outskirts of the cities and apart from taking sensible precautions - like having their children sleep between both parents if they sleep outside (common practice due to the heat) and keeping dogs as an early warning sign to alert them if a leopard gets too close - they are happy to live and let live. They also believe that leopards do a service in preying on the stray dogs which are found scavenging everywhere.

This video shows how far some villagers will go to help a leopard in trouble. A young leopard found itself trapped in a deep well and together with wildlife officers and a lot of ingenuity the villagers managed to free it. Touching, isn't it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: K is for Kangaroo Paws

No, not the furry paws attached to Australia's iconic kangaroo. Kangaroo paws also are native Western Australian wildflowers which are now grown all over the world. They are visually stunning with their vivid colours and flower for long periods making them popular with gardeners. The tall ones in particular are outstanding as cut flowers. See.


Kangaroo paws in the wild come in a variety of sizes from dainty little catspaws to others up to two metres in height. Those grown in gardens are usually hybrids developed from Anigozanthos flavidius, the yellow kangaroo paw (which is endemic to the south west of Western Australia) crossed with other tall varieties or with the smaller and shorter lived catspaws to produce numerous colours ranging from pale to strong yellows through to many shades of orange and on to reds which range from light and bright to deeper colours like burgundy. There's even a lavender coloured one.

There is one other closely related species of kangaroo paw, also endemic to the South West. This is the black kangaroo paw, Macropidia fulginosa, which has stunning green and black flowers, but it is harder to grow and difficult to propagate so is less widely grown in the garden.

It's quite extraordinary how the kangaroo paw has become such a widely grown plant. When I was growing up when you said kangaroo paw you most likely meant the Western Australian State floral emblem, Anigozanthos manglesii or the red and green kangaroo paw which only grew in the bush. and is still my favourite. Anyone who went bushwalking knew there were other kinds but most weren't as spectacular. When I was a child a favourite family picnic place was bushland surrounding an abandoned gravel pit. Just over the road from it was a cleared paddock on a hillside. I don't know what it was used for because I never saw animals grazing there but every spring the whole hillside would burst into red and green as the kangaroo paws flowered. Sadly it has all been ploughed up now and with that the rhizomes of the kangaroo paws have been destroyed.

You can read more about growing kangaroo paws here. I recently planted some Anigozanthos manglesii in a pot. My fingers are crossed that they'll survive the ink disease that has wiped out all my previous attempts to grow them and which they are notorious for getting and that I'll get some flowers. If I do I'll post them.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: J is for Jerusalem Artichokes

These delicious, knobbly little tubers are, of course, not artichokes and nor are they from anywhere near Jerusalem. Unlike the globe artichoke (which is a kind of thistle bud and which the tubers of the Jerusalem artichoke supposedly taste similar to though I can't see it myself) Jerusalem artichokes are from a variety of sunflowers which are found throughout eastern North America ranging from Canada to as far south as Florida and Texas. These are very pretty and can be used as cut flowers. Picking is also supposed to improve the quality of the tubers so that's a bonus, I suppose. Oh and where does the 'Jerusalem' come from? Well, there are a couple of theories. One is that it's a corruption of the Italian word 'girasola' meaning 'turning to the sun' which sunflower blossoms do while the other that it comes from a garbling of the area in the Netherlands where it was first farmed in Europe. Because of this confusion of names in some areas they are now being marketed as sunchokes which certainly makes a lot more sense.

So how do we use these little tubers? Well, they can be eaten raw or cooked in a variety of ways - steaming is the best way to retain their crunchy texture, I'm told - and they are slightly sweet and nutty, something like water chestnuts. Delicious and full of goodness as they are, they have something of a reputation for causing wind in some people but on the other hand some also believe they make a healthy food choice for patients with Type 2 diabetes because they contain fructose which is better tolerated than sucrose. But that is for your doctor to advise you about, not me. I just see them as little bundles of yumminess - and that's whichever way you choose to eat them. Apparently they are also used as animal food. That's reasonable, I suppose. After all, why should we be the only ones to enjoy them,

I've been tempted to grow my own Jerusalem artichokes because they are hardy, pretty and prolific but, because even a tiny fragment can sprout, which means they are potentially invasive weeds, I've resisted. Instead I'm very happy to rely on the skills of commercial growers.

You can read more about them here.

Monday, April 11, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: I is for Iguana

And what fascinating creatures these are. They are lizards which are usually stocky in shape with loose skin under their throats and spines along their heads, down their spine and on to their tail. They are found in warm sub-tropical and tropical areas of Mexico, Central and South America, islands in the Caribbean, Fiji, Madagascar and the Gal├ípagos Islands. They are not found in Australia despite how similar some of the Australian dragon lizards look.

I first got intrigued by iguanas when I watched a documentary about the marine iguanas of the Gal├ípagos. These dive to feed on algae or seaweed growing on reefs but the other iguanas are land feeders although apparently they don't mind a swim. They vary widely in appearance and size and live in a range of habitats including tropical forest, desert and along rocky coastlines. Most are strictly herbivorous although according to some enjoy worms, crickets and baby mice - I'm guessing the mouse eaters would be those kept as pets.

The green iguana, (Iguana iguana) has the greatest length of any iguana - it can reach two meters in length - and is a popular pet which can live for 15-20 years in captivity. I'm somewhat conflicted about this because, while I'm happy to keep as pets animals which are domesticated, I feel other animals really belong in their natural habitat. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that, because less than benign human activity has driven many creatures to extinction or its brink in the wild, if it wasn't for captive animals and the breeding programs associated with many of them (whether they are pets or in zoos), we would have to face the loss of some complete species. Tricky, isn't it. Happily, though, the green iguana is in not danger of extinction as it is one of the more common of its species and, as long as it is appropriately cared for, is no doubt content.

There's a lot of interesting information about the various kinds of iguana at this San Diego Zoo link.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: H is for Honey

And very tasty it is, too. While we are long past the time when honey was the only sweetener available to us - the sweetly addictive poison that is sugar having overtaken it in most of our foodstuffs - honey and beekeeping seems to be undergoing a resurgence.

There have always been commercial beekeepers at work here. We used to see trucks loaded with hives in our country travels as they moved them from place to place, following the blossom that makes our unique honey flavours and also playing an important part in horticulture and agriculture by assisting in pollination of fruits and other crops. And, of course, there's the honey. I remember going to an agricultural show as a very young girl and being given a chunk of dripping honeycomb straight from a hive as part of a demonstration on beekeeping - and delicious it was too.

Recently, though, beekeeping has become a popular hobby, too, and it's becoming quite trendy to have a hive or two in your backyard - of the more than 900 registered keepers in Western Australia (who have nearly 29,000 hives between them) about 90% are small amateur beekeepers. The authorities have a good grasp of numbers because all hives must be registered and this is a wise requirement if we are to keep our hives free of the pests that are decimating hives in many other areas. For the same reason it is prohibited to import much that is associated with beekeeping (including bees) into Western Australia. I was told by a professional beekeeper that despite all our efforts they anticipate that pests will eventually reach here. It's only our relative isolation that has protected us so far. For that reason there are a few colonies maintained on isolated islands as insurance for the future.

It's sad that we have to think this way, isn't it, but at least we are doing something proactive and as long as we keep doing this we'll have enough bees around to pollinate our flowers, something that is critical for our food supply, as well as to produce the delicious treat that is honey.

There's information on beekeeping in Western Australia here.

Friday, April 08, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: G is for Guinea Pigs

and why they are commonly known as that I have no idea since they don't come from Guinea in Africa (or New Guinea, the big island just to the north of Australia, for that matter) and they certainly don't resemble the golden guinea, a coin that was part of British currency in circulation up to 1816. Nor are they related to pigs and, as far as I can see, have nothing in common with them at all - unless someone thought their loud squeaks resembled a pig (which they do not). The trouble is that the name guinea pig is firmly established in public usage and while breeders prefer the name cavy it's not likely to change in most places any time soon.

In fact what we know as guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus officially) are originally from South America. They are rodents which have been domesticated and as such do not exist in the wild. They are believed to have originated from a closely related species Cavia tschudii. In their homelands they are kept for meat and also used in folk medicine and religious ceremonies.

That's not the case in Western countries, though, where they are mainly kept as pets - and delightful pets they make. They are docile, friendly and surprisingly intelligent for such small creatures. When my kids were young we shared our lives with Pam and Barbara - named by my young son after two family friends, who I suspect would not have appreciated the honour had they known - and for a short time, the only male, Guinea (apparently he was running out of inspiration at that point).

The two females could not have been more different in personality. Pam was small, short-haired and exceedingly busy all the time. Whenever anyone went into the yard she would bustle over to the fence around the run and chatter noisily. She loved to be stroked and enthusiastically explored whenever she was let out and never minded being picked up. Barbara was much bigger with a longer coat and did pretty much nothing. She ate, drank and lay in the sun. We nicknamed her the Brick in the end. She didn't object to being picked up but nor did she show any interest. Guinea was a cranky little creature who died suddenly from no obvious cause but he did leave a memento when Pam unexpectedly gave birth to a single baby which sadly also died within weeks.

Pam and Barbara were with us until they died of old age and Pam at least was very much missed.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: F is for Fairies

If you know any little girls you've probably been dragged into the experience of fairydom complete with special dresses (usually filmy, ruffled and sugary pink), small, delicate looking wings that sit between the shoulder blades and are often speckled with glitter, and of course, the wand - also usually glittery and with a star at the business end. There may be a crown of some sort, too. It looks something like the iconic photos of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in the classic 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. Yes, I know she's a witch not a fairy, but I'm only talking appearance here.

The thing is viewing fairies like this is a relatively recent phenomenon. Back before the Victorians prettified them, fairies and the rest of the fey were something quite different. They were 'other' in very disturbing and alien ways and, if you were wise, you tried very hard not to draw their attention to you. It was best not to name them at all if you could avoid it but, if you had to, you could call them 'the Shining Ones', the 'Fair' or the 'Fair Folk'. That way they might be flattered and leave you alone or even do you a favour - although their idea of a favour might not be what you would think of as one. If, for instance, you're a fiddler asked to play for a party of the fey on your way home from the market and you're well paid for your trouble, you may find once the party is over that fifty years have passed.

The fey came in many shapes and sizes ranging from human sized and like to quite tiny creatures, all of whom could fly by magic - no delicate insect-like wings needed. Some lived in Faerie or Fairyland but others, like the English brownies, might live in your house or barn and do small tasks for you as long as you didn't offend them. You would be wise to leave them some sort of small offering of food or milk. Otherwise your milk might curdle or your butter fail.

Unlike brownies, some of the Fair were downright malicious so it was better not to put yourself in their way at all if possible, because you could never tell which was which and even those who were friendly were easily offended and might take revenge on you. They might exchange your baby for one of their own and carry it off to Faerie or put an evil spell on you, for instance. Remember what happened in Sleeping Beauty? And if one fell in love with you and carried you off, you would never be seen again.

There were things you could do to protect yourself. Everyone knew fairies couldn't stand cold iron so an iron or steel object was a handy thing to have with you. If you didn't have that, you could try keeping a piece of dry bread or a four-leafed clover in your pocket and, if you had to go somewhere fairies might see you, putting your clothes on inside out to confuse them and/or carrying a bell with you might help. Some of these superstitions lasted up to as recently as the 1920s so not as long ago as you might imagine.

Want to know more? Well, you could have a look here.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: E is for English

and all its mysterious workings.

For the past couple of years I've been studying French and German via the Duolingo website. It's been fun and educational in more ways than just improving my knowledge of those two languages. is a US based website so when it was first set up - and I began learning there very soon after that  - it was very US centric. If you used a phrase or spelling that varied from the US version when you translated something you were likely to be marked as incorrect. It was extremely annoying as you can imagine but, thanks to them having a system where you could report such matters, things rapidly improved - although a few intractable issues remained for a long time, hardly surprising when much of the work is done by volunteer moderators. They now accept a number of regional variants in most areas - even if I'm still pushing them to accept a couple of Australianisms like 'How are you going?'.

The interesting thing, though, comes in the discussion sections where you can ask questions and have them answered by the moderators or other students and comment on various matters. This is a very helpful part of the learning process but it's also where people can get testy and where the many and varied differences as to what constitutes 'correct' English shows up. Many see their regional variant as the only correct usage and sometimes they defend this fiercely.

As I have a degree in English and am an English teacher by profession, I'm often tempted to join in these fiery discussions but I've learned a thing or two about the internet over the years and so, unless it's a simple grammatical or structural issue, I bite my tongue - or perhaps that should be hold back my fingers. It's by far the safest way as many of these commenters - who I presume come from a fairly insular background where they rarely meet people different from themselves - are so convinced they are right that there's no likelihood I'll change their minds.

Fortunately these people are the minority. One of the things I really like about Duolingo is how most people want to help and will go out of their way to do so. It makes for a pleasant learning system and one that, now I'm close to finishing in both languages, I will miss.
ink i

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: D is for Dog

Dogs have always been a part of my life. My family was never without a dog and usually a cat as well and when I married that did not change. I brought my cat with me and we were soon were joined by our first dog and we've rarely been without one since. This first dog was a labrador retriever cross who came to us as a five week old puppy. Far too young really to leave her mother but it was unavoidable because her mother had developed mastitis and become seriously ill and unable to feed her litter. She thrived, repaying us with love. When I was suffering from severe morning sickness and confined to bed while pregnant with my first child she would creep onto my bed - something that was usually not allowed since I'm not a fan of dogs on beds - lying with a paw on my feet all day until my husband came home.

There have been others since then, of course. There was the rescued kelpie cross pup who had been abandoned at our local vet and who shared our lives for over sixteen years. Then, when my parents went travelling, their dog came to us. She was with us for another ten years before she died at a few months off twenty. And finally my sweet little Cavalier King Charles spaniel who died aged twelve and a half just over a year ago.

While it breaks your heart every time you lose a doggy companion, life doesn't feel complete somehow without one around and, while we are frequent dog sitters for Virgo's dog, it simply isn't enough. So now we are looking for another dog. All we have to decide is whether we want to take on a puppy or one that is somewhat past that stage. Whatever we decide we are agreed that it will be a rescue dog so we can give an otherwise unwanted dog a chance at a happy life.

Wish us luck.

Monday, April 04, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: C is for Cats, Big Cats

No, not this kind of kitty cat

I'm talking about the big cats - the kind people go on safari to see. They are on my mind at the moment because there was series of documentaries recently on pay TV focussing on these big cats and fascinating creatures they are, too - and there are more of them than I expected with every continent except Australia having at least two species.

So I thought I'd make some of them the topic for a few of my A-Z Blog Challenge posts starting today with cheetahs.

While technically cheetahs are not classified as big cats because they don't roar they are by no means tiny and these beautiful creatures are only marginally smaller than the other large cats found in Africa  where they are most common. Small populations are also found in Iran and south western Asia. Cheetahs have short, coarse fur which is tawny coloured and covered with black spots each 2-3 cms in diameter. They have a graceful form with a deep chest and noticeable waist, long legs and a relatively small head. The face has a dark tear like streak from the inner corner of each eye which outlines the nose and muzzle giving them a very distinctive appearance. They communicate by chirps, churring and purring but can also growl.

They are day time hunters, preying on smaller mammals like Thompson's gazelles, springbok and impala when hunting alone but family groups or male coalitions (groups of males, usually brothers, who form life long bonds) will tackle larger prey like zebra and wildebeeste. They are able to reach speeds of 120 kmh (75 mph) over short distances making them the fastest land animal on Earth. They tend to live on open savannah and grasslands where prey is bountiful.

Cheetahs are less aggressive than the other big cats and in one of the documentaries one wild family had decided that the photographers were no threat and came to greet them, even climbing on top of their vehicle to use it as a vantage point and resting in the shade it gave. They have been kept as pets at different times in history and there are paintings of them on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, sometimes walking on a leash but at other times out they seem to be part of a hunting party.

Sadly they are under threat due to low genetic variability (the cause is unknown but is assumed to be linked to a genetic bottleneck at some time in the distant past), the illegal pet trade, conflict with humans - a problem for all big cats - and habitat destruction.

Fascinating creatures, aren't they.

If you want you can find out more about cheetahs here and here.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

A-Z Blog Challenge: B is for Buttons

Recently one of those 'Like if you know what this is' memes was going round Facebook and the picture we were supposed to comment on was one of these.

Apparently whoever put the meme together was under the impression that this - a button box or spare button collection - was incredibly old-fashioned and something that nobody in the twenty first century would have. I doubt if they are under that illusion any more because the comments exploded with people of all ages sharing that they still have collections of spare buttons. And why wouldn't they?

The last couple of pairs of pants I bought for myself and those I bought recently for Pisces - he's a man who prefers not to shop for himself - as well as shirts bought for both of us came with spare buttons and thread in natty little packets and they have to go somewhere, don't they? Sometimes you can find a place on the garment where they can be sewn in case they're needed at some time in the future but more often than not they need a temporary home. Add in some one who sews and knits - that would be me - and a lot of spare buttons accumulate. So da-da we have a button box/collection.

Granted some of the buttons in my button box have been there a long time - you need four buttons and can only buy them in a pack of six or you need eight and have to buy two packs of six - and they build up over the years but what else am I supposed to do with the excess. I could toss them but that's wasteful and besides the time may well come when I need to replace one of the originals or for that matter have find one to replace a stray that's gone missing and I'd rather go to my button collection than have to buy a complete new set. Truth be told I haven't actually bought a replacement button in more years than I care to remember.

So meme maker, button collections are not old fashioned. They are simply good sense.

Friday, April 01, 2016

A-Z Blogging Challenge: A is for Apples

In the early 1980s my father suggested we go to an open day at the Stoneville Horticultural Research Station in the hills outside Perth. This was run by the State Department of Agriculture and sadly has now been closed down and the land sold off. We were toying with the idea of going farming at the time so I packed up the kids and off we went.

It was a cold, miserable, late winter's day and we joined one of the groups being shown around the experimental plantings of various fruit trees. The hills area is well-known for stone fruit orchards and we first wandered along rows of leafless peaches, apricots, plums and nectarines with flower buds just starting to develop and learned about various methods of laying out an orchard and which were most successful in what area. Then we moved on to the apples and pears, all of which looked pretty lifeless, too, but we learned a lot.

The tour ended with us moving into the relative warmth of a big shed where we were invited to sample 'something special' that they had recently developed. The 'something special' turned out to be four different kinds of apple, two of which were very familiar - the pale gold American Golden Delicious apple and the rich red, tangy Lady Williams (a local Western Australian apple which originated from a stray seedling on a farm at Donnybrook in the south west of the state). The others were not.

We were told they were the offspring of Golden Delicious and Lady Williams apples and had been developed by John Cripps, the head of research at the research station. They were just about to become commercially available. Originally known as Cripps Pink (marketed as Pink Lady™) and Cripps Red (marketed as Sundowner™ - apparently it was a sport from the Cripps Pink) they were a revelation when we were offered a taste. Both were sweet, crunchy and had a pleasant tang and, we were told, both are suitable for eating fresh and cooking. As an added bonus they also store exceptionally well.

It's fascinating to think that - apart from the developers and the orchardists who first planted them commercially - we were among the first to taste these apples and they remain my favourites, both fresh and cooked.