Thursday, September 27, 2012

My Pet Cricket and Other Stories

It was a mouse: the droppings on the kitchen bench said so. Such creatures do come in (they’re called house mice for a reason) but not often since our kitchen’s been renovated, and almost never if we’re careful about crumbs. So this mouse must have been desperate, because we were leaving nothing out ...and why did it choose to deposit those tiny black sausages in the same spot every time? Rodents are not usually toilet trained. 

Be not afraid! This is a kitset weta, available
from museum stores, toy shops and the like.
Then, one day, I spied our visitor, a weta clinging to the small forest we call a house plant, right there on the bench. Weta are insects from the Orthoptera order, and thus related to crickets, but reputedly larger and uglier. 

Although they can bite, I’ve never met anybody who’s had that pleasure, and generally they are harmless. All the same, they scare so many of us so much that I’ve chosen to humanely euphemise the title of this post. “My Pet Cricket” is less offputting than, for instance, “How I Learned to Love the Weta”.

Many Kiwis would rather die than approach a weta. It’s ironic, considering that the beaky bird for which we’re named gets as up close and personal as possible: far from being put off by the impressive armour that weta wear, it eats them.

A weta wreck, pictured on our driveway. Not so
different from the car wrecks that some people
keep in their front yards, but on a smaller scale.
I used to be one such Kiwi — the terrified sort rather than the culinarily inquisitive sort. One of my earliest weta memories is of my English godmother, Mrs Curtis, bludgeoning one of the beasts to death with a hammer while my mother and I, aghast (at the weta, not its demise), looked on from a safe distance. We thought Mrs Curtis very brave, exhibiting the best of British sangfroid.

Another time I discovered, on a childhood visit to the treehut in the bigger branches of our garden’s old puriri, that it had become a nursery school for weta. 

The hut had been one of my favourite retreats; I’d secretly fantasised about “running away from home” to live there and steal into my mother’s kitchen late at night for supplies. After the unexpected encounter with those tough-looking juvies I don’t think I ever climbed into the treehut again.

The landmark totara tree in the garden that I enjoy as a grown-up is a weta metropolis whose citizens treat our adjacent bungalow like a second home: the aging timber of both must appeal to their aesthetic sensibilities. So in the last decade, sentences like “I think there’s a weta on me” (uttered in the seemingly calm manner that belies complete terror) and “Stay very still...” became commonplace within these walls.

This one crawled out of
the woodwork when
the henhouse was
Once, in the dark middle of night, Carol wanged her nose — hard — with an agitated hand after she woke to feel something crawling across her face. I turned the light on, searched, and was about to give up 10 minutes later when I discovered the culprit beneath the bed. In retrospect, given weta size relative to the average human adult, it was probably more stunned than Carol had a right to be.

On another day, we brewed tea to celebrate the arrival of family members, only to be perplexed when the teapot wouldn’t pour. Then we noticed the antennae sticking out of the spout. A weta had lodged itself there, finding the long narrow space and the brown hue of the pot a splendid substitute for the more usual hole in a tree.

Weta infusion might be suitable for a wild foods festival but not for a home brew of chai, so we removed the impediment, rinsed, and started over. Carol’s sister and brother-in-law were none the worse. The weta, now stewed, was beyond assistance.

My feelings about these native insects have changed in the last few years, in what I can only call a desensitisation process. Probably the last two steps were:
- attending a talk and slide show by wildlife photographer Rod Morris on the unique wildlife of the Denniston and Stockton plateaux. Weta, including previously unseen species, were a recurring motif;
- watching the irrepressible Stephen Fry encountering New Zealand’s more reclusive and peculiar inhabitants on a BBC doco, Last Chance to See. Sirocco the kinky kakapo stole the show but weta had their moment in the sun.

As a result, and without expecting to, I’ve now felt fondness for my “pet” weta in its pot plant home, and I’ve even handled a living specimen without fear. Granted, it was a little subdued — it was among various invertebrates, mostly spiders, that had made a hasty exit when I waterblasted their home, aka the palais de poulet or henhouse. This was an end-of-summer cleanout in the chicken coop, not waterboarding at Guantanamo, but the effect was no doubt similar. I then terminated our relationship by feeding the weta to the chooks who, having recently fled the waterblaster themselves, enjoyed the distraction.

I fearlessly handle
the henhouse weta.
Sadly, as with many pets, the pot plant weta came to a bad end. I put the plant outside for a while, hoping Willie (as we called him ...or her: I didn’t see if there was an ovipositor) would go to greener pastures. But some days after we brought it back in, we found him on the kitchen floor, looking pale and emaciated, and wriggling feebly. I suspect his limited diet of pot plant leaves — I saw the holes in them had led to severe malnutrition.

Carol assessed his condition as terminal, so she kindly chopped his head off. This didn’t appear to end his misery, as a few hours later he was still moving. I finished him off.

I’m quite interested in weta now, and I’ve borrowed most available library books on the subject, almost every one aimed at children. Perhaps any residual fears I have will melt in the presence of facts and full-colour photos of these creatures at several times their actual size.

This approach doesn’t work for everyone, and knowledge isn’t always power. An acquaintance of mine, seeking to overcome her own weta phobia, learned all there is to know about weta lifestyle (also through library books), but the mere
soupçon of a weta in her beloved garden still prompts her to scuttle away until her partner sounds the all-clear.

Weta Wisdom
It’s not necessarily a good idea to stew weta or feed them to the chooks, as I did. Some of them are rare and endangered.

Essentially there are five types: tree (the kind most people find in their gardens), ground, giant, cave, and tusked weta. Taxonomically we have two basic weta families with, between them, numerous species, of which scientists keep discovering more.

Weta is a Maori word. These insects do occur in other countries, with different names, but New Zealand has more types than anywhere else in the world. Unusually, some of our native weta live in alpine areas. These include the mountain stone weta which can freeze, thaw, then get on with life and a cave weta known as the Mount Cook flea.

Andrew Crowes book (pictured, with a Little Barrier giant weta on the cover) is a good guide to New Zealand insects generally, with several pages on weta. Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand also offers weta wisdom, and theres a great page of articles on them at the New Zealand Geographic magazine website.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Afternoon Tea at Alberton


There’s a new book on the block, and it’s all about me, heaps of other people — and more importantly, 200-plus chickens. Urban Chicks has profiles by Renée Lang with photos by Trevor Newman, and I’ve contributed a sprinkling of hen-keeping hints at the back.

The only appropriate way to celebrate such an initiative is with a hen party, so that’s what happened. On a fine spring afternoon at Alberton, one of Auckland’s finest historic properties, invited guests roamed the Mt Albert house and grounds, heard pianist Billy Farnell tickle the ivories, bid for chicken-related items in a silent auction, sipped tea from fine china cups, and sampled a spread of Renée’s superb home baking. 

We were a mixed bunch, from Pat and Lovest Reynolds who’ve kept hens in Howick for half a century (all their flock are named Katie) to the family who called in with Cocoa, their special-needs bantam (geriatric and blind), on their way home from a weekend at the beach. And a former Mr Gay Auckland, MP David Cunliffe, financial advisor Greg Moyle, food writer Julie Biuso. Yes, they all have chickens in their backyards too. 

I won’t begrudge David Cunliffe the hand-painted teapot (starring chickens!) that he scored in the silent auction: he simply outbid me. Nor will I hold it against fiction publisher Harriet Allan that she won the coveted Grandpa’s Feeder (a clever ‘help yourself’ device for hens) in one of several raffles — I didn’t really need it. 

The proceeds from those fundraising activities are going to a north-of-Auckland charity that finds homes for downtrodden chooks and other hitherto unlucky creatures. The owner of the Animal Sanctuary attended the launch in a wheelchair, as the previous week she’d broken her ankle in the line of duty, during a rescue. 

Alberton, owned by the Historic Places Trust and managed by chicken-keeper Rendell McIntosh, was a fitting venue. The ballroom, which is smaller and more intimate than the anonymous expanses at today’s five-star hotels, easily accommodated all of us for the speeches, and doubled as a gallery for an exhibition of art by another chicken-keeper, Billie Harbidge.

 At the back of the room, protected by a glass cabinet and propped up against an ancient cardboard box bearing the legend “EGGS”, was a certificate for first prize. It had been awarded to one of Alberton’s first inhabitants by the Auckland Poultry, Pigeon, Canary, and Dog Association.  

The initial description for Sophia Taylor (1847–1930) in the Dictionary of National Biography is “Hostess, suffragist, landowner” but as this and other records note, she was also a poultry fancier, and a very discerning one. The faded script of the certificate is hard to read in the dim light of Alberton’s ballroom but it appears that the winning bird on that occasion was a Pekin duck. 

At least one of her 10 children seems to have inherited Mrs Taylor’s ability: an Auckland Star report of the 1893 Auckland Agricultural Show held at Potter’s Paddock lists V Kerr Taylor of Alberton — probably Sophia’s daughter Violet — as the winner of two categories for poultry and one for produce, “heaviest dozen hen eggs”.

Hens have been around forever but they’re hot right now or, as a range of tee-shirts and aprons has it, “the new black”. The Listener recently showed a gumbooted Kim Hill (the radio presenter) in her garden with a bird in hand — a hen of her own, not one borrowed for effect. She’s sharp. 

The media coverage for Urban Chicks in the last week has been remarkable. My favourite soundbytes were of Edith the white Silkie, chookling quietly as Billy Farnell and fellow hen carer Gail Batten (who runs workshops on chicken-keeping) chatted to the hosts of TV One’s Good Morning show, one of whom also has chooks.

Photos, above and below
1. Alberton that day, with one of its trademark turrets in view. 
2. Alberton’s fine china, set out for the hen party.
3. Afternoon tea spread.
4, 5. Urban Chicks publicist Lorraine Steele (centre) and guests.
6. Sophia Taylor’s “First Prize” certificate. 
7. Tea on the lawn. 
8, 9. The youngest poultry fancier present and possibly the oldest, Pat and Lovest Reynolds.
10. Eco-friendly vehicle (economical, too) parked by a launch participant.