Kerosene Creek: A little piece of Heaven

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I’ve been home in the U.S. for five months caught up in the pace of life and have missed  writing about this little island I call my second home–a blip on the world map.

One of New Zealand’s best kept secrets is a shallow thermal river that runs over an old lava flow just south of Rotorua. Unfairly named Kerosene Creek, the water has a mild sulfur smell, but so does all of this volcanic region.

Tucked off the main highway, on a dirt road marked only by a wooden marker, and barely mentioned in tourist guides, this little river gurgles and steams through an easily accessible pine forest, forming little water falls and natural “hot tubs” along the way. The biggest tub is surrounded by ferns and pines. The temperature ranges depending on the time of year, of course, but having been there both in summer and winter, I’ve always found it deliciously addicting.

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The water gushes with considerable force so you have to cling to the sides for stability. Underfoot, there’s thermal mud to dig your toes into, or scrub your arms with–something that enchanted me more than scooping the same mud from a perfectly labeled jar. (Okay, so to be fair, the packaged mud packs are more muddy and softer.) I even found a little grotto with a flat ledge in the rock, barely enough to sit on. Holding on to the sides, behind a curtain of water, it was a sweet spot in which to meditate in and pray.

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My family, whose tolerance for heat was far less than mine took frequent breaks, drying off, dipping back in, being uncharacteristically patient, and eventually ordering me out of the creek.

If I were young again, I’d come here for a hot candle-lit, moon-lit dip. No, not alone.

Constellations: Of Glow Worms?

 March 23, 2012

I have been rolling the words, Arachnocampa luminosa, a lyrical mouthful, on my tongue all week— ever since I returned from a visit to the Kawiti Caves.  Several million years old, the caves were discovered in the 17th century and are still owned by the descendants of the original Maori family. The walls of these caves contain massive pillars of sandstone and pure white limestone— stalactites and stalagmites growing at the rate of an inch every one hundred years, sometimes into recognizable shapes—the fronts and rears of elephant herds, a polar bear, a bearded man, and more, if you use your imagination.

As if that wasn’t awe inspiring enough, the ceiling of this pitch black cave was magical because it has been home to constellations of slender worm-like larvae that glow like stars in the Milky Way. Walking by dim lantern light, the ceiling was, at times, low enough for me to almost touch a star.

Even at the highest points the “stars” were a mere 22 yards away. Deep in the inky black cold interior, with the lantern extinguished, I stood wrapped in a shawl, conversing with Orion. Some of the larvae-stars were as bright as the North Star; others less so, although they were all lodged on the ceiling equidistant from my eyes. Why? “Because,” said our guide—a sweet 12-year-old Maori boy—“the hungrier the larvae, the brighter the light, and when they’re full, they turn off the light and sleep.”

And then, he gave us a little science lesson which just warmed the cockles of my heart! I had smiled at him when he pronounced the glow worm’s multisyllabic name correctly in his beautiful Maori accent. Now, like the glow worms, I beamed when he said the larvae glow because a waste substance produced in their bodies, luciferin, is converted to a biofluorescent  blue-green substance in the presence of oxygen and energy (ATP).

Andwhere do they get their energy from? From food, just like us, the boy said, which is why they have to catch insects. And so, like fishermen, the larvae sit on the ceiling and cast their nets—vertical, silvery sticky strings that dangle down like a pearl necklace, to which unsuspecting insects cling, and are reeled in for supper. Thin as sewing needles with blue-green tail lights, the larvae grow from a speck (one hundredth of an inch) to a whopping inch and a half. That’s a lot of glowing!

By this time, I decided I’d like to be a larva-star. Glow, eat, and sleep—what’s not to love? But then, my little Maori friend said, Arachnocampa luminosa’s  life span from egg to adult was just 10-12 months! I didn’t like that at all. And the glow worms weren’t even worms. The eggs would hatch to be these voracious larvae-stars that would live for some 9 months, metamorphose to pupae and then on to unattractive flies that would live for a mere 3-5 days because they have no mouths to eat.  That was really discouraging. In fact, their sole purpose was to mate and lay fertilized eggs, or worse, just lay unfertilized sterile eggs, if no males were around.

No, I thought, no—this was much too bleak. No stardom for me. I would just go back home and settle for being a writer on a shoe string.

(Photography is not allowed inside the caves. All pics are taken from the internet.)

http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/glow-worms/1

http://davidwallphoto.com/searchresults.asp?tx=&ts=&c=&g=43&Lids=&Gids=&p=17&n=6748&phrase=

http://davidwallphoto.com/searchresults.asp?tx=stalagmite&ts=&c=&Lids=&Gids=&p=1&n=22961&phrase=

The Monarch and The Swan

While my neighbor was visiting family in Thailand, she asked me if I would water and weed her garden in exchange for a couple of traditional Thai to-die-for body massages. I happily agreed, forgetting that my body is a grouchy, old, creaky machine with hinges that incessantly squawk and squeak, but is a magnet for fickle-headed mosquitoes, bees, wasps and all manner of biting insects that keep falling in love with me.  Scented with some “new and improved” Bug Guard—(notice how all products are reborn new and improved, yet never attain Nirvana?) I did a fairly decent job except for one patch in the corner of my friend’s vegetable garden.

That’s where a 5 ft. Swan Plant was weighted down with innumerable Monarch caterpillars voraciously feeding on its leaves, stalks, seeds, and seed pods.

They quite literally were stripping the plants clean. Fatter and plumper by the hour, I watched and worried they would fall, nest and metamorphose in my hair as I weeded under the Swan plant.  I have never seen such greed, not even when I binge on ice cream.

The Swan Plant belongs to the Milkweed family(and gets its name from the shape of its seed pods. There is even a dark spot that looks like a beak. The seeds ripen from green to brown and then burst open releasing a cloud of wispy seeds that sail on the wind

to new homes. Originally from Africa and Arabia, it has colonized many parts of the world including Australia and New Zealand. Sadly, in America (and perhaps in other places) Monarchs have been declining due to a lack of Milkweed food plants, insecticides and the pollen of genetically-engineered crops that apparently poison the caterpillars.

(Okay, now let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water—genetic engineering is much too complex a topic for me to insert into this blog)

Let’s just say that the science truly is getting newer and improving beyond labeling and repackaging (unlike my bug spray!)

(Pictures taken by my brother-in-law, Larry Smith)

http://www.monarch.org.nz/monarch/monarchs/monarch-host-plants/milkweed/

What’s In A Name?

The word “weed” conjures up immortal tough grasses with long tap roots that grow down into the belly of the earth and scar your hands when you try to dig them out, and then stubbornly reappear the following year with more vigor. Or the hairy crabgrass that grows wherever the sun hits the ground, along sidewalks, between and in between flower beds, and every nook and cranny of garden space.

When I learned that the agapanthus is considered a weed in New Zealand, I was flabbergasted. This is plant that seems contained, growing in clumps as day lilies do, sending thick, strong stems, 2-4 feet long, at the end of which some 50 – 60 star-shaped purple flowers, each with six dainty petal are arranged in pompom-like clusters.  To me, the agapanthus is a magnificent, stately flower, adaptable to tall, graceful flower arrangements. My sister floats the pompoms like candles in bowls of clear water.

My father, who taught me to love plants and genetically lent me his green thumb, used to define weeds as plants that grow where we’ve decided they shouldn’t. He was particularly fond of the dandelion,those yellow bursts of sunny petals that sprinkle unmowed lawns, or suddenly pop up on manicured ones, and then have the audacity to turn into feathery wisps that children love to blow and make a wish on. Not to mention dandelion wine and salad if you’re so inclined.

Here are some pics of the lovely agapanthus taken near where I live in New Zealand and my poem below.

Immigrant Dandelion

By

Lalita Noronha

Deep within the mud-brown ground                                                                   

of muscle and bone,

pith of water and cell,

a long tap root

sprouts fine fibrous hairs

and runs deep down

into the belly of the earth.

Sunflower yellow blooms

and feathery seeds,

dare to live

anywhere,

between cracks in pavements,

sidewalks,

within gated walls,

between blades of pristine grass

in sculptured lawns.

Undaunted by perennial labels—

(damned nuisance, common weed,)

they grow quietly, striving to succeed.

Ever heard a Tui sing?

Tui in a flax plant

Yesterday, I heard a Tui sing—and that was just one song of her repertoire. It was a beautiful pulsing beat, the sound of a flute, one note, mesmerizing and almost hypnotic. Like us, tuis sing different tunes—joyous, plaintive, flirtatious melodies, and sometimes, they click, cackle, wheeze and grunt. I assume that’s when they’re in a bad mood (like I am now; how could my Ravens not fly to the Super Bowl?) I’m glad I don’t have two voice boxes as tuis do; I’d have a double bout of laryngitis from yelling and cheering. Oh well!

I’ve learned to recognize tuis from their greenish-blue iridescent feathers and the white tufts on their throats, which turn into white shoulder pads when they fly. It’s beautiful to watch a flock in flight. Or even just a solitary little one flitting and flirting about in my sister and brother-in-law’s garden. Next year, there will be many more because the young kowhai (pronounced kofai) tree they’ve planted will burst into bloom—long, yellow, pendulous blossoms, so commonly seen everywhere in Auckland. Tuis feed on their nectar and fruit.

What they love equally well, perhaps even more, is the New Zealand flax plant, whose nectar ferments, causing them to totter a bit, and fly somewhat ungracefully. But hey, they don’t drive, so why begrudge them a little good cheer? Or a night cap?

Here are some pictures taken in Rotorua, about a three hour drive from Auckland, where I presently live.

Kowhai tree not yet in bloom
Tui drinking nectar from flax plant

When does New Year’s Day Begin?

My sister, whose home is in New Zealand, told me that she spent the first day of the new millennium sitting in a comfy chair watching the sun rise over the rest of the world. By the time that gorgeous, glittering ball at Times Square began its descent, and strains of Auld Lang Syne filled the air, the new year wasn’t a new born baby anymore.  My sister had already turned the first page of her desk calendar.

That’s how it was last week at Christmas too.  Before the sun rose my family in India had already opened presents and had a spicy brunch. But in America, my family and friends had awakened to Christmas Eve, with plenty of time left to do last minute shopping.  It’s disorienting, at the very least– this time warp, this asynchronous life style with people I love. But it does help me reconcile my faith in a Creator and the science of Evolution.  (Anyway, that’s a story for another day.)

Happy New Year Everyone!

Below is a picture of Hicks Point in New Zealand, where the sun rays first touch land.

Christmas, 2011

Sitting on the porch in a sleeveless blouse under clear skies on a Christmas evening can only mean that I’m not anywhere close to my home in Baltimore, Maryland. In fact, I am in New Zealand, called “Aotearoa” translated from the Maori language as the “land of the long white cloud.” I’ve seen that long white cloud stretch across the sky since my arrival here at my sister and brother-in-law’s home—a long silky sash that covers the horizon, but this evening the sash is snipped into cotton tufts with serrated edges, still ever so beautiful.

New Zealand is a land that has its own natural Christmas tree—the Pohutukawa (pronounce po-hoo-ta-car-wa)—a large, magnificent evergreen that blooms red all along the Auckland Bay, lines the city streets, and generally proclaims the good news of the season. Although New Zealanders decorate their homes with traditional twinkling pines and ornaments, the Pohutukawa is their official “Christmas Tree.” What I most love about this New Zealand native is how tenacious and unassuming it is.  Tolerant of poor soil, salt-laden winds and inhospitable dry sunny sites, it still produces an exuberance of flowers, smothering the landscape in a bright crimson blanket. Although it can tower to 70 feet in height, it is humble and just as happy hugging the coast line as a shrub, aflame for only two weeks, long enough to allow honeybees to feast on its nectar, and for us to later enjoy a silky smooth uniquely flavoured honey. (And like me, it doesn’t like frost or possums.) Children sing songs about ‘the native Christmas tree of Aotearoa’ and how it fills their hearts with ‘aroha.’ May it usher in a brand new year of hope and blessings for us all, no matter where we live.

Welcome to my New Blog

As a writer, I want my blog to blend elements of Indian and American culture, the two countries that are “home” to me, my careers as a research scientist, teacher, poet, and author, and now that my parents are deceased, my role as the oldest member of a multinational, inter-faith family spread out on four continents. I hope you’ll join me as I travel and share my stories, poems, recipes and pictures with you and that you will write back and offer your insights as well.

Here is a picture of a Sunset in Goa, India, on my last visit home in 2008.