Delightful mini spheres

This pansy was covered in perfect spherical melted frost drops, glisteningin the morning sun. I passed it planter yesterday on my way into work, and actually doubled back to take a photograph. I wonder what microscopic characteristics of the petal surface make it so hydrophobic.

Belated Delight of the Day

Last weekend I went hiking with some friends to Youngman Stream hut, in the Lees Valley.  We came off the tussock-covered tops and down to the beginning of the beech forest, and inhaled the peculiar scent of those woods.

Here’s Carrie entering the high bit of the beech forest, where the old man’s beard lichen hangs thick.

The beech forest has a heady fermenting smell, not disgusting but not particularly pleasant, in an objective way.  But that first big whiff was my Delight of the Day, because it means we’re in the NZ east coast bush.

The smell is the mold growing on the honeydew of the particular species of scale insect that coats the trunks of these beech trees.  The black mold grows in thick cushiony mounds along the tree trunks and even the ground.  Even if I go blind, I’ll love this smell because it means I’m in the New Zealand woods.

Nerdy Delight of the Day

At work I’m on a mission to better utilize our waste nutrient water.  The latest tool acquired for that mission is the light green nitrate meter in this set.  The purple potassium meter is also on order.

A product designer after my own heart–rainbow colored meters.

I took it out of the packaging yesterday, squinted at the instructions that come in seven different languages printed on crinkled light weight paper, calibrated it with the sleek little bottles of calibration solution, and checked the nitrate level in one of our recirculating fertigation tanks.  730ppm NO3-

I was confused.  According to my Mega-Fancy Fertilizer Spreadsheet, I expected that nutrient solution to be at approximately 170ppm N, since the EC was 1.7  I checked it with the nitrate test strips–the reading was off the chart, above 500ppm.  Had my spreadsheet been grossly wrong for all these years?!

I went and measured another familiar solution, a “high N” feed at EC 1.6.  Again, the answer was way higher than I expected, 640ppm nitrate.  I pulled out a text book and looked up that calcium nitrate mixed at 0.84g/L should make a solution with EC 0.8 and 100ppmN, then went to the fertilizer room to measure out the solution.  The tester showed 440ppm nitrate.  Eh??

Back at my desk I phoned the guy I bought the meter from.  I must be doing something wrong, but I wasn’t sure what.  We talked about calibration, checking the meter in clear water, using a standard solution….nothing was ringing a bell, until I looked at the container of test strips I was using as a comparison.  There were two scales to read: nitrate-N ppm or NO3-ppm.  I hadn’t registered that there was a difference, but the scales had different numbers–500ppm NO3- equals 113 ppm nitrate-N.  That’s when I figured out my error.  My fertilizer spreadsheet is calculated in N mg/L, which is different than NO3- mg/L by a factor of the molecular weight of 3 oxygen molecules.  I glanced over at my nerdy wall poster of the periodic table of elements.  A molecule of NO3- weights 62g/mole while N itself only weighs 14g/mole, so ppm calculations in NO3- are 4.42 times higher than those in solo nitrogen molecules.

Adjusting for the extra weight of the oxygen, suddenly all the numbers made sense.  My Mega-Fancy Fertilizer spreadsheet was still telling the truth, albeit in a different language.  SUCH a relief.

Delight of the Day:  Chemistry WORKS.  Math WORKS.  And so does my nitrate meter.

Nudging the comfort zone

I make a point to never check the weekend forecast for an upcoming tramp before Thursday, Wednesday night at the latest.  It’s not a superstition, exactly, more my way to cope with an ever-changing forecast and an aversion to decision-making.  Better to see the forecast just once, close enough to departure to be pretty solid, and make one decision about where we’ll go to avoid the rain.

But THIS time the whole of our weekend driving range looked amazingly good.  Cold, for sure; it IS winter after all.  But dry, sunny, and with calm winds.  Carrie and I reveled in the unexpected luck in getting yet another winter tramp in fine weather.  We both have kids and partners and jobs, so overnight tramps don’t happen spur-of-the-moment, and if the calendar appointment happens to fall on a good weather weekend, it’s cause for joy.

We opted for Edwards Valley.  We had both been there before, but it’s less than two hours drive from Christchurch, and has a snug hut above the tree line, and side trip potential.

The walk up the Edwards starts with crossing the Bealey and the Mingha Rivers, which aren’t bridged, but in low flows are straight forward.  I even kept my boots somewhat dry, with the aid of gaiters and a walking pole.  The track isn’t technical, but, as we were reminded by a couple staying at the hut, it IS a big step up from the Abel Tasman great walk.  The track bounced between a steep wooded path around gorges and stretches of gravelly river bed, but since you’re going up river and the hut is on the river, you really can’t get lost.

When we arrived at the hut it was basking in afternoon sun.  The wisp of smoke coming from the chimney showed that someone was already there, stoking the fire, always has a welcoming feel.

We had a snack and a cuppa, and headed up the valley towards that snowy mountain, now called “Falling Mountain.”

“During the magnitude 7.1 Arthur’s Pass earthquake on 9 March 1929, a 900-metre-high section of mountain peak collapsed onto Taruahuna Pass, close to the epicentre. The landslide continued partway up the flanks of Mt Franklin opposite. It then slid about 5 kilometres down the remote valley of the west branch of the Otehake River. The collapsed peak was later dubbed Falling Mountain.”


I’ve been in the Taruahuna pass several years ago and I remember the landscape–huge rip-rap type boulders fill the entire pass, your entire field of vision for at least an hour of hiking.  Can you imagine a land slide big enough to shoot rubble 5 km down the neighboring valley?  It did occur to me that one would have to be extraordinarily unlucky to be in the mountains during that kind of event, and of course it’s not unprecedented…. But you can’t live your life worrying about these things.

Here’s the Falling Mountain rubble. We chased that warm sun all the way up the valley but never caught it before we decided to turn around and head back towards dinner at the hut.

The last of the day’s sun, reflected off a peak.

The hut was unexpectedly busy for a winter weekend; of the 16 bunks, 13 ended up full. Around one table that evening we had cool range of accents, and countries of origin. Chinese, Canadian, German, Kiwi, Dutch, Zimbabwean, American and Australian.  The sky was cloudless and the moon hadn’t yet risen; the milky way was more spectacular than I’d ever seen it.

There was a good hard frost that night. Note to self–next time fill the cooking pan with water in the evening, before the tap freezes.

The next morning the fire’s warmth was all gone, and we waited for the sun to crack over the hill before setting off on our day adventure.

Carrie’s husband gets excited about routes and maps, and he had picked out a creek bed near the hut that, based on the aerial photos and the topo maps, should be climbable without needing any technical gear, as long as we exited the creek bed before the bluffs at the top.  We left most of our stuff in the hut and set off with day packs, crossing the river and pushing through a little bit of friendly scrub to the frosty creek.  Just for reference, “unfriendly” scrub would involve the well-armored  matagouri and speargrass, which we luckily didn’t encounter.  Jeremiah often comes home from his hunting trips picking bits of thorns out of his skin, but “bush bashing” through spines and prickles holds no appeal for me!

Creek icicles!

The hut below looks both close and far away.

In the end we climbed up that rocky bit, which we could have avoided if we’d come out of the creek earlier, but which turned out alright in the end.

After our unexpected rock scramble near the top of the hill, we finally popped our heads over the crest, and our vista suddenly expanded. “It’s like the Sound of Music! I called to Carrie, delighted not only with the view but also that we hadn’t gotten ourselves into trouble on our chosen route.

We strolled along the low alpine grasses, and had an early lunch by this frozen tarn. “We should have carried our stuff, we could have gone down the other side to Lake Mavis, and back along the Mingha!” I enthused, regretting that we had to turn back down to the woods so soon.  Consulting the map, we realized that I might have been a little over-enthusiastic with that plan. It would be a fantastic mission some day, but we had a whole lot more ridge to go along before we could even see Lake Mavis.

Still, we felt pretty accomplished.  Once you’re confident with navigating off-trail, all kinds of amazing adventures open up.  Carrie and I are working on building those skills and that confidence, while at the same time being aware that a whole lot can go wrong while making up your own route in the mountains.

As we turned back down the hill, we chose a different route to avoid the rocky bits.  I always feel tentative lowering myself down through sections that would be really difficult to back-track up, in case we meet a cliff and get stuck.  But this time we were fine.  And again, no speargrass!

Comfort zones nudged out a bit towards more adventure–yay!




Tramping Re-imagined

“I can’t find a plastic fork….maybe I could use a knife to cut up the noodles and eat them with a spoon?”

If I was a more keyed-in person, I would have realized that my friend Teena was a bit worried about our planned tramp, if she was fretting over the cutlery.  But I was blithely unaware, and simply told her I’d throw in an extra fork.

We had had this tramp on the calendar for months, a daintily coordinated weekend date between various other weekend commitments and travels for the three of us, one of whom still couldn’t make it at the last minute.

We met at my house at 7:00, as I was keen to get up to Lewis Pass early.  Teena, good communicator as she is, had been clear that tenting wasn’t a preferred option, so I was anxious to stake a place in the popular hut in case it filled up.

“Should I bring one pair of spare socks, or more than one?” “How many pairs of leggings do you wear?” “I’ve got my eye shades, ear plugs, pillow, three jumpers, puffy jacket…..” the gear list sounded extensive, but when I lifted Teena’s pack, I was reassured. It was very practical, probably lighter than mine.

Lewis Pass is just east of the divide, and the forests get a lot of rain. As we moved into the woods, the green enveloped us from above and below. The noise of the road faded behind us.

We moved at a leisurely pace, stopping for photos and to fondle the moss and lichen coating every surface.

The diversity of non-flowering plant life is staggering. I’m reminded of a package my college roommate once sent me, a parcel of tree top greenery fallen from the western Oregon forest, soft textured greens palpating with the will to grow.

We crossed various side streams on their tumble down to join the Nina River, gentle little babbling affairs. You can drink directly from these streams.  Teena later told me that balancing on the rocks and picking her way across was a good challenge, and I must say she rose to it well; clueless me didn’t realize that she was concerned.

The weather for Lewis Pass was cooperative and Nina hut is a straight-forward three hour walk into a nicely situated 12 bunk hut, with a potential climb to a saddle another couple hours beyond the hut giving options for the afternoon. The two river crossings have swing bridges, another important consideration. Here Teena is, enjoying the luxury of teetering ABOVE the water rather than splashing through it.

This one was more of a seep than a stream, the moss obscuring much of the water flow.

Dryad Teena!

We at lunch at the hut. It is situated on a clearing in a knoll some way above the river, a cozy hut with double glazed windows and a good wood stove.

We took a short walk in the afternoon up the valley. The trail eventually comes out at a saddle with a gorgeous little two bunk hut, though we didn’t go up that far this weekend. I wanted to stay there a couple years ago after a walk along the Sylvia tops, but it was inhabited already, so I had taken the track on down to Nina hut for the night. I hadn’t remembered the trail being difficult to follow at the time, but this time we had to keep a keen eye out for the orange markers to avoid going astray.

We passed a few more picturesque streams.  They always remind me of my Dad, who loves woodland streams.

Back at the hut we spent a little time collecting fallen beech branches for the fire. New Zealand beech is a different family than north american beech. It might technically be a hard wood, but my experience collecting it to burn is that it’s nearly always squishily saturated with water. The dead branches must do a fair bit of rotting on the tree itself, and when they fall they encounter deep moss on the forest floor where they somehow absorb even more water, to the point of literal sponginess. It doesn’t bode well for a hot fire.

Luckily, on our afternoon walk we passed a tree that had been blown down a few years ago, its branches held safely above the forest floor.  We eyed it up as good fire wood, and returned to it later. The hut woodshed had an excellent saw, which is unusual for a hut, so we soon had an impressive stock of firewood ready.

I had forgotten how satisfying it is to make a nice fire! It’s a skill I want to teach my kids, I reflected. Maybe this year would be a good one to get them tramping again. Jeremiah had suggested it only the week before and I had recoiled in haste, remembering the coaxing and energy-sapping cajoling it took to keep them moving on past trips. But maybe….maybe I can muster the umph again. And maybe they’ll be better now that they’re a bit older.

After dinner Teena taught me a new game, after which we basked in the wood stove warmth on top of our sleeping bags on the bunks. So much for being worried that we’d have to compete with hordes of trampers for bunk space! We had the hut to ourselves, so we yip yapped like school girls for a couple hours before we called it a night.

Teena’s enthusiasm for the experience was gratifying. She enjoyed the peacefulness of the forest, ate well, slept well, was not eaten alive by sandflies, remained bouyant after tripping and sliding on a section of trail, and coped well with a stomach ache (not related to my cooking!). I enjoyed seeing the tramp through a new tramper’s eyes, and I felt a renewed energy to bring my kids out into the woods.

Thank you, Teena, for reimagining the tramping experience with me. I’ve gained renewed sense of wonder at the lush forests and streams we’re so privileged to have in our NZ back yards.

Caressing the cherry blossoms

Delight of the day: Under grey skies and a miserly easterly wind, these earliest-of-early cherry blossoms signal that winter will end, and it won’t be long until it does. The Hagley Park blossoms aren’t even cracking yet and the cherries in our garden are still barren, but these few trees I pass on the way to pick up the kids from school are always the very earliest ones. Today I reached my hand up to caress them, squeezing them lightly in my palm.
I was surprised at how soft and moist they were. Somehow they look like they’ll be cotton candy dry, but they’re fresh and new and alive.

Mt Herbert under blue skies


Last weekend was the first clear lovely weekend we’ve had in what seems like forever. It can’t really be that long since we had fantastic weather during our lockdown into May, but I’m tired of being cold.  I jumped onto Carrie and Irmana’s planned hiking day Sunday, and we headed up to Mt Herbert, the highest point on the Banks Peninsula. I’ve approached it from the Kaituna Valley once and Orton Bradley park another time, but this is the first time I’d started at Diamond Harbor.

The trail is a straight forward track up through sheep pasture to the summit.  Every year it is closed for lambing August-October, right about when the weather is getting warmer and we’re wanting to plan such a hike, so we squeaked it in just before the closure this time.  It really is a better track to do on a clear winter day anyway….there’s no water and no shelter, so it would be a scorcher in the summer.

We ambled along, chit-chatting about home renovations, flannel sheets, the size of the closets, and children, stopping once or twice for Irmana to stretch her back which has been bothering her. My knee started to niggle and I made a mental note to book a physio appointment.

Last week was the first time someone referred to me (in my hearing) as “middle-aged.”  I thought I didn’t deserve that term until I turn 40, but I have to admit that the wrinkles around my eyes and propensity to retire early to bed under an electric blanket all point to the same direction.  And, if I admit it, so do our conversation topics.

I remember when other people talked about cranky joints and the pleasure of taking a kid-less outing to the grocery store. I listened to them, smiling, comfortably bemused, wondering what it was like to get old.  Ha.

I guess if I am to be uncharacteristically optimistic, “middle-aged” means there’s still half of life left to live.  Here we are, approaching it with a smile.  

Paint the Roses

The Camellias are in full profusion against a pure winter sky.  They win my nomination for Delight of the Day.

We didn’t grow up with these–winters are too cold in upstate NY–so my first experience with their gaudy abundance was at a Planting Fields Arboretum on the northern shore of Long Island, when I was a student at Cornell’s Riverhead research station.  The garden showcased dozens of varieties, with shades varying from white to pink to red, and they seem to really put their heart into the business of flowering, littering the ground with their chunky spent blossoms only to optimistically pop open more buds the next day.  They are sometimes pruned to a single standard trunk topped with a ball of color, and they never fail to conjure up the old time Alice in Wonderland cartoon where the playing cards are frantically painting the roses red or white to assuage the evil queen’s whim.

Snow on the Mountains

This July marked our 15 year anniversary.  We both look very young to be married, don’t we?

I feel somewhat accomplished to have negotiated 15 years of marriage, including some major life stages.

“Negotiated” is a good word.  It means we’ve come through a bunch of obstacles with varying levels of gracefulness, rather like kayaking a whitewater river.  A river has stretches of challenging bits that are exhilarating when maneuvered successfully, stretches of wondrous calm bits in high-walled gorges with crystal waterfalls that you feel privileged to experience…. and then there are those rapids that you enter unawares and at the wrong angle, where you miss eddies and get trounced by unforeseen obstacles and you come out the other end drenched and tousled and in dire need of a chocolate.

15 years of marriage puts us solidly in the middle age category, along with hatch-marked wrinkles under our eyes, various joint aches, a mortgage, a decent sense of who we are, what we want, and an increasing skill set to negotiate meeting those needs when they differ.  That last bit’s worth celebrating, so we planned a trip to the snowy mountains.

New Zealand is in a privileged position during the this global Covid19 pandemic, and we can travel domestically without restriction.  So while we couldn’t jet off to Myanmar for our 15 year celebration (my private wish), thanks to our generous friends’ willingness to have our kids, we could head away to the mountains in New Zealand’s Southland for the weekend.

We aimed our car towards Lake Ohau, a lake formed by the hydroelectric system, nestled into the barren mountains of the McKenzie country. After an overnight at Twizel, the snow on the hills looked promising for a day of skiing.

I have only down-hill skied a handful of times, and not once in the last decade.  As kids we cross-country skied, our family not being as willing to spend the money on lift tickets as others might have been.  But I’ve ice skated since I was a tyke and I’m a proficient roller-blader, so with a bout of uncharacteristic overconfidence, I declared that I could pick up down hill skiing for the day, no problem.

I still own a pair of snow pants, purchased decades ago, with the latest lift pass still attached (Kirkwood, Lake Tahoe, 2007), and Jeremiah surprise-purchased some shiny new goggles for the weekend.  The rest of the gear I rented.  I was ridiculously pleased that the boots were pre-warmed in the rental hut.

When I stepped outside to shove my feet into the bindings I was reminded that downhill skis are really only designed to go DOWN.  I dusted off the old snow-plow stop and set off to the bunny slope, realizing that I’m not as nimble cornering in skis as I am on rollerblades!  I must have looped the bunny slope 10 times before being ready to head over to the chair lift.

Ohau ski field is tucked into the south (shady) side of an alpine bowl, and so has a better chance of snow retention in these not-so-cold mountains than most. And it has a chair lift, an important bonus for a club field.

There weren’t many different trails down that had enough snow yet, but that suited me fine, I was happy to stay on the green one with the little kids whizzing fearlessly past me. Jeremiah waited for me at various corners, like a gentleman.

There’s a section of the basin above the lift that a few people access by walking, so just before lunch we hiked up there to have a peek over the other side. The wind was whistling, picking up the snow, and I was thankful for those snazzy new goggles and unfashionable snow pants.

Jeremiah skied down from the top (keeping his nose warm!) while I walked down on snow shoes.

Probably race and economic class is more on my mind than usual because of the current US news, but I was struck by the fact that both the ski field and the lodge were nearly all white European-decent kiwis, and the price ticket of this type of recreation and the gear it requires takes it out of the range of many NZ families.  It’s a very different scene than the beach, which is egalitarian in its accessibility.

We were having fun, but the wind was starting to pick up so much that the flinging snow made it hard to see and the chair lift was swinging vigorously, so we called it quits by mid afternoon and headed back down to Ohau Lodge.

Being our anniversary we had decided to splurge on the accommodation.  The Lodge is a traditionally comfortable establishment with dinner served in the dining room and views of the lake from our window.  We had a soak in the outdoor hot tub, chatting with the kids and parents who were there.  I have to say, it is sometimes easier to enjoy conversation with OTHER people’s children for whom I have zilch responsibility than with my own kids.  Still, dinner conversations with a 6 year old and a 9 year old are looking up.    

If you had told me 9 years ago that I’d get good family dinner conversation in a DECADE, I’d have swooned.  But now that we’ve been married 15 years, out of high school for 20, we’re starting to count life in decades and can take the longer-term view.  May this coming decade be even better than the last.