Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mid-winter and the minds of plants

Apart from a rogue frost early in May, Winter's taken its time getting to Lalor. Finally, this week, the winds tugged the russety leaves off our plum, Melbun's specialty, the cold needly thin rain that doesn't quite soak the soil, set in, and the cats started cuddling the heater for six hours in a row.

Winter Solstice backyard action. L to R in a sort of clockwise direction: newly leafless Japanese quince, fly screen being used to protect potato patch from chickens, cumquat shortly after removal of three kilos of cumquats, fancy-pants chook-proof corrugated iron raised veg bed, water chestnut bowl with the blanched water chestnut reeds still in, bunked down for Winter beehive under plum tree, kiwi-fruit archway, globe artichoke having the best time everrrrr, dude, purple salvia getting in some late June florescence before anyone tells it its meant to look spindly and sad at this time of year.

I worry sometimes about how our plants read the increasingly erratic weather. Last year, after a horrifically dry Summer, one of the apple trees produced a spray of (Spring) blossom - in Autumn. The blossom set fruit and we had to pull the hard green little apples off so that the tree wouldn't waste energy on them over Winter. Beekeepers in central Victoria have been talking about the gum trees going on strike. This year (not so bad for us, really), we have Autumn-raspberries fruiting in mid-Winter.

Autumn Bliss Raspberry, considering changing its name to Depths-of-Winter Fruit.

And our Autumn-flowering rosemary seems to be flowering at the tippy end of June, tempting the bees out of bed, when we thought we'd set them up to stay indoors and quaff honey til late August.

Rosemary of Bee Temptation.

I heard a really very fabulous paper recently by an evolutionary biologist, Monica Gagliano, who has discovered that plants can learn. She's worked with mimosas, a plant that has evolved to fold in its leaves when touched, exposing its spines and making its green bits look less appetising to vegetarians. In the act of repulsing herbivores, though, it reduces its own opportunity to photosynthesise. Monica designed training that would help the mimosa to refine its risk/benefit analysis.

She dropped potted mimosas repeatedly. At first the individual plants folded up their leaves in response to being dropped, but over repeated drops they learnt that being dropped didn't result in herbivore attack, and they stopped folding in their leaves. Weeks later, Monica subjected the plants to various agitations - touching, dropping - and found that although they were still sensitive to touching, they had lost their sensitivity to being dropped. That is to say, they had learnt that dropping didn't warrant giving up on opportunities to catch sunlight, and they remembered their lesson through time.

So, individual plants can learn and adapt, which is glorious, amazing, challenges all my ideas about how mind works and what plants are. But it also makes extra poignant the fact that the messages the plants are getting these days are so mixed, and the lessons so one-offish (floods one year, droughts the next).

For now, though, it's working out quite well for us plant-eaters. I brought in this ridiculous haul of backyard fruit on Saturday - a week after the Solstice.

 Fruit! Raspberries conspicuously absent (someone may have eaten them before they made it inside).

So, citrus, tamarillos and over-the-hill feijoas. Some kind of Winter we've got here.

Bonus chicken photo.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Nettle and Fox

We were huddled late last night on the floodlit platform of Northcote Station, me reading American Wife (which, you know, if you're into discomfiting novels about the sexual careers of Republican First Ladies, I highly recommend) and Tim stolidly trying not to make eye-contact with the paranoid shouty man on the other side of the tracks. And then, all of a sudden, insouciantly snuffling about, as suburban as your family dog, was a fox. She wasn't in a hurry. She sauntered her way along the outer edge of the platform, took in the pedestrians walking near her up the path, followed her nose along a fence line, and then, a few metres beyond the edge of the platform, slipped under a fence and loped across the tracks. If I'd had a sausage, not that I'm in the habit of travelling with sausages, I could have tossed it to her and she would have taken it. She might even have taken it from my hand, she was so unruffled by our human presence.

I really did wish I'd had a sausage. And/or a camera.

We were thrilled. We'd brushed with some mythical creature, like a Tasmanian tiger or a unicorn, this doggy beast, not much bigger than our (admittedly enormous) cats, dusky auburn furred with a dark brown tip to her tail and dark brown legs, who'd paused long enough and close enough that we could see the smile of her foxy mouth, skinny, unworried, out on the town, looking for - I don't know - the odds and ends of people's fish and chips? the good-tasting things that get dropped near public bins? rats?  We probably shouldn't have been thrilled, given our duties to our chooks (although it's hard to imagine such a skinny little carnivore making much headway with the 4kg (+ beak) of Esme or Shirley Australorp). I know they're killers (who isn't, really? not even the veganiest of us can survive without displacing someone else from their habitat). Sometimes they kill creatures whose deaths in turn affect whole systems and their inhabitants. On the other paw, those systems are themselves so irreparably disrupted that in some cases a fox might have a stabilising effect. I'm thinking of rabbits, of course. Another dear carnivore friend of mine, Harriet Cat, amazingly caught herself a sparrow yesterday morning, then dismembered it on my Nepalese felt rug. Bad cat, sweet sparrow, but then, too many sparrows aren't so sweet, and a cat.owes it to herself to eat, and better to eat free-range sparrow than fish trawled out of the ocean and sold in tins, so good cat.

So we were thrilled. I love a feral.

Last year a nettle sprang up unbidden in one of our veggie patches. Nettles are infamous for the formic acid they carry in their hairs, and it's true, if you touch a bare nettle with your bare skin, there will be itching. But! the dudes are edible, and high in iron and calcium! And it is the firm belief of my beloved, an amateur cheesesmith, that they can somehow be used as a kind of rennet-substitute to assist in the coagulation of milk (as, allegedly, can fig-sap and mallow). The thought of growing something as notoriously badass in our vegetable patch appealed – the vegetable-growing equivalent of whatever we experienced in socialising with last night's fox – so we let last year's nettle go to seed, and this year have had ten thousand nettle seedlings to contend with.

Nettles nettling.

We've been chucking nettles into soups with such abandon you'd think we hadn't heard of other greens. They're best harvested by someone adept in the use of scissors and plastic bags, or someone with a pair of gloves, although the people who talk about grasping the nettle (presumably bare-handed) always say it like it's a good thing, so you're welcome to conduct that experiment in your own time. Once they've been cooked they're 100% sting free, and taste ... sort of underwhelming ... and look sort of emerald-fading-to-khaki and soggy. I have been talking bold talk about nettle pesto and nettle gnocci and nettle spanakopita, but these pleasures are yet to transpire. I think I'm more wrapped in the idea of my own derring-do than the actual culinary experience. Prickly ferals on a plate, ftw.

Monday, June 2, 2014

An Expotition Down Edgar's Creek

I had a (crazily beyond optimistic) fellowship application due with a fancy-pantsy German university on the last day of May. Despite warning everyone who'll listen about the perils of last-minute-dom, I found myself taking full advantage of the fact that we are on the far eastern edge of the world, the wondrous wonder of time-zones, and so kicked up my heels adding commas and tweaking adjectives until 7.36am on the 1st June, 144º58'E. Because I get asymptotically more beastly for every minute that I am awake after about 11pm, I'll often put myself to bed with something not quite finished and get up in the wee hours the next morning. And then, even if Doing Things at the Last Minute (and/or Hour) is Bad-o-McBadpants, I get to feel a kind of righteousness about polishing off a 5000-word document and flinging it etherwards in the general direction of Münich before your average Joe has had her Sunday porridge.

The day got a whole lot less productive after 7.36am. I went back to bed and finagled my progesterone pessary into place. I jettisoned my plans to mow the nature strip or mop our chook-poo-compromised living room floor or excavate the sediment of junk that's settled on top of the vacuum cleaner (if indeed the vacuum cleaner hasn't decomposed down there ... it's been a while). I didn't drain the goitre of my inbox. I didn't open the 108,000 word document I have to read and annotate by Wednesday. I may have watched an episode of The Time of Our Lives on iview, because what's a bespectacled Melburnian in her mid 30s to do?

And then we spent the rest of the day going for a walk along Edgar's Creek. Edgar's Creek is a proper creek, right up until it gets to Lalor, where it finds itself curtly disciplined into a broad concrete drain that stops the water from soaking into the soil and instead rushes it down south to join Merri Creek and then the Yarra. Up our end, just on the paddocky side of Lalor, organic life is doing its bit to slow down the flow. The drain is thick with reeds and tribes of gawky moor hens.

 The paddocky end of Lalor, looking north, towards the bucolic warehouses of Cooper St, Epping. Note delicious cardoons, fennel, and wild brassicas.

Where Edgar's Creek leaves its spongy soilbed and enters the concrete creek control facility, with bonus inscrutable creek-straining fence thingy, on the tippy northern edge of Lalor. Note blackberries.

Representative Edgar's Creek moorhen. Note Vietnamese mint in foreground.

A plucky adventurer.

The creek travels from the paddocks down between the back fences of rows of backyards, and we make a habit of tramping it from loquat season until the end of plum-time because of the high likelihood of stumbling across fruit left to drip onto the ground. Further downsteam, though, as it gets to Thomastown, Edgar's ploughs its concrete way through a kilometre or two of dark satanic mills. We always stop before we get here, not so much because of the lack of fruit trees or the high likelihood of wading through the industrial goo that gets into Edgar's at this point (just your average toxic dose of lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc), but because by now we've walked about five good kilometres and we have to walk the same to get back home again.

Wuchatsch House, from before the brick-veneerealisation of the Lalor/Thomastown borderlands.

Suburban sheep, doing their thang.

Also, by now we've generally seen the sheep, and our lives are thus complete; we can turn back satisfied. Yesterday, though, in the spattering rain, we kept going: past the sheep, past the Thommo Recreation and Aquatic Centre, through the creek tunnel under the Ring Road (a blaze of glorious graffiti as high as the spray-can can reach), then we had to cross the creek (wading, in my now thoroughly saturated shoes, through the arsenic-enriched waters) to the more navigable western bank, south past the massive Thomastown electricity terminal station, through a cyclone fence someone had kindly already cut open for us, and then down into Reservoir, where the edges of the creek get backyardy again.

 The tunnel under the six-lane northern Ring Road. Excellent acoustics; great place for choral recordings, spray-can-based-artwork, camping holidays, &c. You can barely hear the cars above. Water most definitely not potable, but on the other hand it didn't completely dissolve my shoes when I waded through it a few hundred metres downstream.

After the industrial strip, things get pretty excellent. As with the good people of Lalor, the Resvians of Reservoir are backyard agriculturalists with a keen eye for a bit of public land that can be appropriated for the cultivation of broccoli.

So there's a lot of this sort of thing, self-allotted allotment gardens, artfully terraced:

And here. I love that these people have positioned deck-chairs so that they can enjoy their view across the cabbages to the concreted drainage canal.

Note water in bottom righthand corner, lapping at edges of concrete. This far downstream, the creek's picked up three suburbs' worth of street-water and is positively gushing towards the Merri.

The best things of all, though, are the adjacent houses with little fowl-portals cut into their back fences. A gaggle of chooks grazed out the back of one house, scampering across rocks and behind prickly pears as we ambled into sight, and next door were eight Muscovy ducks, who one by one ducked (ha!) through their portal to escape us. As the co-proprietor of an establishment which sorely lacks for much needed chook-pasture, I was pretty impressed, let me tell you, by the good use of this de facto common. I can see something going wrong in the fox-meets-bird department one of these days, but at least the bird would die with a crop full of juicy green grass and a lot of outdoor adventuring under her belt.

So that, ladies and lentilmen, is what I did yesterday. Stay tuned for further adventures in the inner outer north.