Saturday, 4 January 2014

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Love in the Time of Aphids

There's this gorgeous little story in the Origin of Species, in which my old pal Chas. D. describes his attempts to tickle an aphid with a hair in order to simulate the way ants stimulate aphids with their feelers. I can't remember whether or not he succeeds in coaxing the aphid to secrete honeydew (though my guess is that he doesn't), because my entire recollection of this story is bound up in the image of my all-time favourite bearded Victorian (sorry Engels) hunched over his desk tickling a wee little arthropod. (It's almost as beguiling an image as the one in which Charles and his son Francis sit up for 36 hours to record the movement of a climbing plant (can I have my pocket money yet, Dad?). Or the one of Charles slipping botanical condoms over a selection of local weeds to stop any illicit acts of cross-fertilisation from spoiling his study of vegetal inbreeding. Cutesy-wutesy Darwin, right?)

So, aphids. Ticklish ant-cows! What's not to love? Their rampaging vegetarianism, for one thing. These chaps eat whole lettuces for elevenses. If you yourself had an eye on a whole lettuce for elevenses, you might be a tad peeved.

I know this about you because I myself have been peeved. Herds of ravenous aphids marauding up and down the cucurbits, the tamarillo, the roses, the silvanberry, the lime, the Japanese quince have precipitated many a peeve. Peevishness 'r' us, in fact. But in my customary fashion (too busy and/or lazy) and according to my horticultural family crest (Natura Indolentibus Favet), I have abandoned the cucurbits, tamarillo, roses, etc, to their hideous fate and left these aphids to their 300 square metre salad bar.

And you know what? This has led to the most wonderful thing EVERRRRR: ladybirds, who eat aphids like I eat ... whatever comes my way ... are romancing their spots off. All over the garden. Fornicating coccinellidae. I couldn't be happier.
Ladybirds having sex, ideally positioned for their post-coital snack.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


I like the word seminal. It derives from the Latin word for seed, and it suggests things that have the capacity to generate. There are two main types of plant propagation: clonal (via cuttings, for instance, where the new plant is genetically identical to the parent) and by seed, where the new plant is similar to, but will slightly vary from, its parent or parents. It's this generation of new things that are similar to, yet different from, their ancestor (and given time and many generations, potentially very different from their ancestor) that makes reproduction by seed so exciting, and that in turn makes the word "seminal" so apt for descriptions of cultural phenomena that engender new, different, but related cultural phenomena.

The Latin word for seed from which seminal derives is semen. It's the same word we use for male animals' sex cells, and for this reason, there's been a kind of quailing at using the word "seminal" in public, as if we're reinscribing the illegitimate authority of male sexuality or the notion that men are more culturally generative than women. That is perhaps what we are doing, if when we hear the word semen in seminal, we think only of the sex cells that issue from testicles.

But rather than losing the beautiful metaphor embedded in seminal, a metaphor that suggests that words and stories scatter seeds that germinate into new and different words and stories, perhaps we should interrogate our use of the word semen (seed) to describe male sex cells.

A seed is what comes about when a plant's ovum and pollen fertilise each other. It already contains all the genetic material necessary to produce a new organism. A seed is necessarily already fertilised. Animal semen, on the other hand, is not sufficient to produce a new organism. If we draw an analogy between animal and plant reproductive elements (as we already do with the word semen), then the male sex cell would be better called pollen, and the fertilised ovum could be called the semen.

I guess this ain't going to happen, so in the meantime, perhaps we might take to calling our generative texts plain old seedy.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Wherein I turn out to be a terrible ingrate traveller

Oh blog, I've missed you. I've been in fearsome book-writing mode for months; fearsome, because I had plans to have finished a whole draft of a whole book, this book, by now. Of course, it turns out I have more to do. Lots more to do. Every day, new little mushrooms of you-still-have-this-to-do sprout out of yesterday's smooth soil. There are - a fact that shoots a hard sliver of ice through my veins - whole chapters still to write. I am going to bed most nights and wrestling myself to sleep amidst the tangles of what I haven't done. By day, it's a pleasure. I'm loving pottering through my stuff and sticking it together, realising the joys of the contradictions, moving away from the generalisations I'd been planning to draw.

I'm in Canadia this week, at a pretty darn thrilling conference, if you're thrilled by what I'm thrilled by. The papers have been a mix of right-up-my-alley and centred on eighteenth-century German natural philosophers I haven't read. Who knew north America had so many Schelling experts on its books? Schelling and I have studiously avoided each other for 32 years. Apparently this has to change. You think you're all safely on top of a history of ideas, and it turns out you forgot the protagonist. Gah.

Though I'm surrounded by clever interesting people, and green sprouting Canadiack spring, squirrels of many stripes, woodchucks and swans and frogs and swollen rivers, and though I've only been away a week, and though I am a grown-up independent person with an internet connection who's traveled before and for longer, I've been finding myself pining for home. I had an unexpected moment of joy at the Australian accent of the international reverse charges telephone operator, and felt my heart snap when I heard Beatrice Cat meow somewhere on the other side of my phone call.

Am missing her and Harriet extremely. I can be in touch with my humans, know that they're well, know that they know that I'm well, know that they know that I know that they know that I'm well, but I wasn't able to explain to Harriet and Beatrice I'd only be gone two weeks. Maybe they're not worried about me (I hope so), but I can imagine them trying to work it all out, trying to decide how many days they give it before they figure I'm not coming back. It'll be glorious to see them again. I expect they'll ignore me furiously for a day or two. Can't wait.

And at the same time, I'm plotting my return voyage to Vancouver, which is trees as thick as houses and jagged mountains and laburnum and raspberries growing like weeds. I like me a good mountain range.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

Edvard Munch tribute tomato

Fig. 1. Collaboration between Tomato Plant and Unknown Grub. The Scream. 2011.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Various, with snail erotica

I've just whipped up (and et) this spankingly wholesome quinoa rogan josh curry thing, and am glowing mystically with the goodness (blah) of quinoa sourced from the snow-spangled mountains of Bolivia, plump Black Russian tomatoes plucked from One of My Very Own Plants, and silverbeet snipped fresh from our front garden silverbeet plantation all of forty minutes ago. Also with the goodness of half a caterpillar, whose demise I attribute to my cavalier approach to silverbeet washing. And there we have the end of Vegan March.

One of the consequences of husbanding my own personal incipient vegetable forest is that I have become less and less kind-hearted towards snails. Snails are lovely people: romantic, resistant to patriarchal gender constructs, skilled in the consumption of bills left in slightly damp letterboxes. I have long recognised their virtues. And yet, as hordes of snails have chomped their way through my beans-cosmos-honesty-rocket-silverbeet-etc, romanced each other willy-nilly on beds of lucerne mulch, and spawned an irresponsibly large progeny,

Snails romancing each other willy-nilly on a bed of lucerne mulch.

I have lost all compunction about displacing them onto the oval, and indeed, in my less empathic moments, have actually administered a swift and firm mollusc-murdering stomp. It occurs to me that if I, who am philosophically committed to the principle that humans are - but should not be - self-serving psychopathic chauvinists in their relations with other animal species, can flounce about the garden spiflicating wholly innocent gastropods, then it's entirely likely that the Bolivian quinoa farmer would do likewise, only more so. Am not actually sure whether there are snails in the Andes, or whether they'd go for quinoa, but you understand my point: no agriculturalist whose livelihood is at stake is going to exercise herself too much about the rights of snails. Or about the rights of rabbits, starlings, mice or kangaroos. And probably not very much about the myriad animal species that are displaced by monoculture cropping, and displaced and displaced until there is no place for them. Which is say, just because I'm veganising, doesn't mean that the production of my food doesn't require the suffering of animals. It's just that, instead of eating them, I'm competing with them.

Having once again depressingly aborted my quest to exempt myself from the exploiter class, I will add, in defence of herbivorism, that pastoralists are just as unkind to animals that compete for their flock's food supply AND of course send almost every member of their flock to the slaughterhouse. (Even commercial freerange egg-laying chooks are packed off to the chicken stock factory at the age of eighteen months or so, because it ain't worth spending money on chicken feed for a lady who lays less.)

Okay. I really have to go now. Am starting to think embittered thoughts about injustice to chickens, when all I wanted to do was report on the presence of half a caterpillar in my curry.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Stylish blogger wotsit

The very kind Elephant's Child has conferred upon me a Stylish Blogger Award. She doesn't say why, but I think we all know that it's because of my inimitable dress sense. Or possibly my über hipsterish habit of checking out what's going down in ye Oxforde Englisshe Dictionarie.

So, what is going down in ye Oxforde Englisshe Dictionarie? This: the number-one entry for style offers it as a synonym for "stylus", viz., v. pointy writing instrument, useful for the engraving of wax tablets. The style/stylus is used as a "weapon of offence, for stabbing, etc", and figuratively, "as a symbol for literary composition". I conclude from all this that Stylish Blogger Awards are to be dispensed to persons whose writing utensils are mighty mighty.

These Stylish Blogger Awards aren't just all beer and no skittles (where "beer" denotes "fun" and "skittles" denotes "responsibility"). No. Being a Stylish Blogger is like being Miss Universe. You thought an occasional appearance in sequins would suffice, but in fact you have sole custodianship of the cosmos, which means that the people of Venezuela will hold you personally to account if a meteorite interferes with their Foxtel. That is to say, I have some tasks with which I am tasked.

Task One: Make a post linking back to the person who gave you the award.

Done. Ha. Easy.

Task Two: Share seven random things about yourself.

Righto. Bearing in mind that it is impossible for the seven things about myself that come to mind in the next five minutes to be random, here goes.

1. I have a bit of a thing for looking at pictures of turquoise sofas on the internet.

2. I recently saw the person who had been profiled in our local paper as the winner of the shire sustainability award loading her vegetables into plastic bags. I had snooty thoughts (despite the strong probability that she planned to use those plastic bags as nappies for orphaned koalas).

3. When I saw that the Wikipedia entry for Delphinium explained the word's derivation under the heading "Entomology", I immediately enlisted as a Wikipedia editor, and, with intense smugness, corrected "Entomology" to "Etymology".

4. I haven't eaten any animal products all year, and I haven't eaten any animals since December 1993, but (or perhaps therefore) sometimes when I'm digging I look lasciviously at the fat white curl grubs.

5. But what I actually do with them, and the snails, is put them in a bucket and take them on a holiday to the middle of the public oval. Sorry, public oval.

6. I've been on four televised game shows: Sale of the New Century (2000), Wheel of Fortune (2004), Temptation (2007), and Letters and Numbers (2010). The best prize I've won was a telescope, but the 50-inch telly of doom that I sold on ebay was pretty good too.

7. When I was about seven, I hatched a plan to have a hundred children, name them all after flowers, and spend my afternoons making industrial quantities of toffee apples. Fortunately, no part of this plan seems likely to come to pass, though some of the flower names were pretty special. Ranunculus Harlot has a certain je ne sais quoi.

Task Three: Award 15 recently discovered bloggers with this award.

Recently schmecently. Some of the stylishest bloggers I know are:

: for excellent ruminations on stick insects, all-round goodness, and for posting me sweetpea and cos lettuce seeds. (Oh - forgot to mention that I am open to bribes regarding this extremely remunerative award.)

Twisty Faster: has been educating my socks off for years now. Changed my life and all.

KateO: I'm totally into her lunchbox. She takes good photos. And is wry.

The Alone with Cats Blogger
: I would send her money if it made her write more. And I had spare money.

Lucy Tartan: see above.

Pavlov's Cat: super-thinky. V. inspiring.

Dale Slamma: if I needed advice about haircuts, or being fey and whimsical yet intelligent and well-acquainted with the place I put my feet, I would dial 0409 DALE SLAMMA.

Ampersand Duck: ridiculously lovely person; makes things.

Mitzi G. Burger
: punstrelsy.

Progressive Dinner Partiers: have tomatoes, will party.

Sterne: has a majillion gabillion different on-again, off-again blogs and such, all grand.

Ann O'Dyne: for blog citizenship and wisdom.

Copperwitch: somewhere between the Swarovski and volcanoes.

Voracious Ex-Vegan: with thanks for the provocaterie.

TimT: international award-winning pantoum-writer, with lovely beard, baking skillz, unstaunchable generosity, and vast repertoire of home-made jokes. (Disclosure clause: is sleeping with judge.)

Task Four: notify award recipients.

Argh. Too hard. Dear recipients, if you're reading this, you have been notified. Otherwise, thank youse all for being grouse.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

It is a waste of time, and therefore immoral, to make the bed

This announcement has been authorised by Harriet and Beatrice Harlot.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


Vegetable patch of oppression. Spiky white border tiles are relics of previous owners' bathroom renovation. Seedlings disarrayed by cat who mistook freshly turned earth for nice loamy loo.

Peggy Orenstein's essay, "The Femivore's Dilemma", has been unnerving me for almost a year now, and I am going to tell you why. If you don't want to know why, but you 'd like to see further illustrations of the bathroom tiles we here at Lalor have used as garden bed edging, skip ahead and leave a penny in the honesty box at the back gate.

Right. So. Reasons for my unnerving. Firstly, there were the visions of indecisive cannibals suggested by that title. Femivore's Dilemma: "Shall I have the char-grilled lady, or – perhaps just a salad?" ("Femivore", let's clarify this from the get-go, is a lousy neologism. It's supposed to denote something to do with feminist eating practices, rather than, as its cognate terms, "omnivore", "carnivore", "herbivore", suggest, the eating of feminists. I'm being curmudeonly here, but that's because I'm all for curmudgeonliness in these matters, taking my lead from finickety fin-de-siècle sexologist, Havelock Ellis, who objected to the word "homosexual" on the grounds that it conjoined words of Greek and Latin origin.)

While the visions of cannibals have faded, "The Femivore's Dilemma" has kept on troubling me, on account of its actual (gosh) content. Orenstein's thesis, for those of you who can't come at reading the whole article, is this: the discourse of radicalism that has attached to concepts like "eating local", "growing your own", "dishing up homespun spelt spaghetti with a side serve of freshly fermented tempeh from your own cellar", has permitted women who seek to identify as progressive to forsake paid employment in exchange for unpaid weeding, hoeing, zucchini-tending, and the recycling of baby poo, all without compromising their progressive credentials. I.e., there is a new (old) form of domestic labour, and those who practise it can see themselves as revolutionaries, rather than dish-washers to the patriarchy, because not only are they washing dishes, but they are Saving the Planet, which activity is endorsed by the Kyoto Protocol and Al Gore. Or in Orenstein's own words: "these gals — these chicks with chicks — are stay-at-home moms, highly educated women who left the work force to care for kith and kin. I don’t think that’s a coincidence: the omnivore’s dilemma has provided an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper."

Omnivores requesting free-range dilemma with raspberry coulis

The "chicks with chicks" line might suggest to you (as it does to me) a certain lack of sympathy for this alleged movement of chicken-nurturing American PhD-Program-alumnae-cum-homemakers. Or, as it turns out, a gleeful (?certainly jauntily articulated) conviction that Women With Gardens are DOOMED. "[I]f a woman is not careful," runs the final sentence, "chicken wire can coop her up as surely as any gilded cage." As in, you thought you would achieve apotheosis through bee-keeping, but in fact you're just lugging hives around on the back of a ute. Well, sure - but if that's what I want?

Enter Orenstein's disconcerting deployment of the "Women think they want X, but their preference for X has been engineered by the patriarchy/media/capitalist complex and is in fact against their truest interests" manoeuvre. It's a familiar line (B claims that she truly, freely, for her own sake, wants her forehead botoxed, but in fact she "wants" it because her society has created a whole buncha malevolent stories about what an acceptable body looks like, and she - probably rightly - believes that if she doesn't measure up then she has no status). It's a line that appeals immediately to someone like me who believes both that many (most? all?) of our desires are socially constructed and that there are at least some individuals who try to shape others' desires for their own ends. So, I'm all ready to accept that the desire to grow turnips in the backyard is socially constructed. I'm ready to accept that part of how it's constructed is through stories about the role of local turnip production in alleviating world hunger, and the notion that a person who participates in such a project believes she thereby gets to be identified as a provider, nurturer, food radical, eco-warrior, blah blah. Just as, you might say, B hopes to be ranked amongst women not-to-be-spurned when she has Botulinum toxin syringed into her face. But is an implicit parallel between the intelligent adult with alternatives who takes up backyard vegetable gardening and the person who forks out half her week's wage on wrinkle-be-gone warranted?

No. Growing zucchinis and receiving injections of neurotoxins are on whole different planets of fun, utility, and healthfulness, and as a person herself not averse to a home-grown zucchini, I am strongly irked by Orenstein's suggestion that I might be in the malign thrall of a patriarchal delusion. (Or rather, I readily admit that I'm in the malign thrall of several patriarchal delusions – perhaps more on this when I'm feeling brave enough – but none of them pertain to zucchinis.) I'm not in a position, nor do I want, to throw in the dayjob I'm lucky enough to love and take up full-time brassica husbandry, but if I were in such a position, and it was what I wanted, then the last thing I would need, amidst the hubbub of "Don't go out at night - you'll get yourself raped", and "Don't stay inside - that would be capitulating to the people who tell you not to walk alone at night", and "Pluck your oxters", and "But don't!", etc, etc, is the spectre of oppression by vegetable patch. Because while many (most? all?) of our desires are socially constructed, sometimes we can stand back and inspect them from every available angle, and see that they're not so bad.

Which brings me to this portrait of a tomato

– green at the tippy end of Summer (thanks a bunch, La Nina) –

and the excellent sunflowers that grew from seed in no time flat (no, really, thank you, La Nina)

and this mess of sage, roses, thyme and chives which has been flavouring my dinner for a couple of weeks now

and the rooftiles assisting with Project Lawn-No-More

and this young person who has discovered new pleasures in hiding behind dwarf beans.

That is all. I'm off to work on some proper dilemmas now.