Monthly Archives: January 2011

Man vs. Nature

I haven’t come across any wetas at the farm lately, but I have been engaging in a running battle with (normally) harmless sparrows.  The property used to be a dairy farm and there is an old milking shed which we decided to convert to a plant nursery where we will grow seedlings.  The conversion was done in April and May of last year.

Near the end of the project, I did a walk around with the builder and pointed out some gaps around the roof.  I’d seen a lot of birds flying around and suggested that he patch up some of the holes so the birds wouldn’t decide to take up residence.  He told me that birds wouldn’t be interested in a building because there were too many trees around for them to nest in.

Fortunately, he was a better builder than ornithologist.  Because as soon as he had packed up his tools and left, four families of sparrows built nests in the very gaps I’d shown him.  In no time, word was out and all their friends and extended families moved in.  It was a veritable bird condominium.

I have two big issues with bird infestations.  First, they poop a lot.  And everywhere.  They may not foul their own nests, but they think nothing of fouling every square inch of the adjacent area.  Second, birds don’t like people and every time I walked into the nursery it was like I was entering a cave filled with bats at dusk. 

Not only that, it’s hard to distinguish between a panicked bird who is trying to get away from you and an extra from an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

However, there wasn’t a lot I could do about it.  They had already built nests, and presumably laid eggs and I’m not heartless enough to make expectant bird families homeless.

So for the past several months I have dodged birds and related bird bombs and watched proud parents feeding their babies.  More recently, I’ve noticed the little birds flying around and lately there have been only the occasional visitations.  This is where the term “empty nest” came from.

It seemed like a good time to make the nursery unfit for birdie habitation.  I’d studied the problem and had a plan of attack for taking back the nursery. 

The fatal flaw in Plan A was that it involved nailing or screwing long boards over the gap between the wall and the roof while standing on a ladder.  To the extent it might be possible, it would probably require two people, one of whom would be me, and maybe two ladders.

Always happy to find an excuse not to get on a ladder, I thought long and hard and came up with what I thought was a better, totally natural solution!

One of the biggest threats to our revegetation program is the Australian possum which was brought to New Zealand in the hope of starting a fur trade.  In Australia, the possum is endangered and protected but here it is considered a major pest because they love New Zealand native plants.  It is estimated that around the country, they eat 21,000 tons of vegetation every day.  In order to prevent possums from undoing everything we’ve done, we have installed bait stations around the property which I regularly stock with pellets that the possums find irresistible but which are hazardous to their health, to put it delicately.

Not only do possums eat vegetation, they also love bird eggs and baby birds, so controlling them also helps with our native bird population.  Plus improving the vegetation will make it more appealing to birds for nesting so they stay out of the nursery!

My brilliant insight was that if possums eat baby birds, then adult birds probably don’t like possums and would try to avoid them.  Of course I wasn’t going to do anything as foolish as introducing a possum to the nursery for sparrow control, but I figured that a reasonable facsimile of a mortal enemy just might convince the sparrows that the neighborhood was in decline and that it was time to move on.

The possum bait comes in big bags that feature a picture of the meanest, ugliest possum you ever wanted to see.  I reasoned that if I were to cut out the pictures from a few bags and stick them to the eaves near where the birds come and go, I would have a clean, green, no impact solution.

My theory was that the birds would instinctively avoid what they (should) recognize as a predator.  I was also counting on them not having sufficient cognitive skills to observe that the fearsome predator seemed rather flat.  And that it hadn’t moved since their last approach.

I got to work with scissors and tape (and ladder) and soon had made the area as inhospitable as possible. 

Ignoring the ridicule of my sceptical wife, I sat back with a cold drink, admiring my handiwork and hoping to see it in operation.  I was looking forward to watching a sparrow hurtle toward its erstwhile home and suddenly come to a screeching aerial halt upon seeing the possum leering from over the entry way.

Initial observations were encouraging.  Although I didn’t see headlong flight, it was clear that the birds knew something was amiss.  Instead of entering, they swerved away and sat on the roof.  Two or three seemed to be having some sort of council of war.  I imagined that their agitated chirping translated into something like “Let’s get the hell out of here!”

After a while, I got bored, declared victory, and got on with other tasks.  Later that day we packed up to head back to town.  I was hearing a lot of chirping and saw a lot of sparrow activity over by the nursery so I decided to check things out and enjoy the havoc I’d created.

And I was the one who got the nasty shock.

Those chirps I was hearing had actually been laughs of derision.  They had really been saying, “Is he kidding?  Who is that supposed to fool?  Ooooh, I’m soo scared!” 

Hoards of sparrows were flying in and out of the forbidden zone with impunity and dancing merrily on the very spots I had put possum pictures.  Not only that, one picture was flapping in the breeze hanging by a single piece of tape.  I’m convinced it had been gleefully pecked loose by the creatures it was supposed to be terrifying.

My wife was trying, unsuccessfully, to not join the birds in their mocking laughter.  I decided to let the birds savor their victory.  I still have Plan A up my sleeve.

And we’ll see who laughs last.

Celebrating a Parsi Wedding in Mumbai

I mentioned recently that we have just returned from a trip to India for our niece’s wedding.  I can save a lot of time by simply saying that if you’ve ever seen a Bollywood movie, you will know that Indians like to do things with lots of color, extravagance and action.  And we had all of those things!

The bride and groom are both Parsi Zoroastrians.  I could do a year’s worth of posts on the subject of Parsees alone.  Quick background:   Zoroastrians are followers of Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, who founded one of the first monotheistic religions in Persia sometime around 1500 BC.  Persian kings Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes, among others, were Zoroastrians. 

Sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries AD, a sizable group of Persian Zoroastrians came to India to escape Muslim persecution and were allowed to settle in Gujarat state, north of Mumbai  (formerly Bombay), providing they did not take up arms or attempt to convert any local people to Zoroastrianism.

Over the years, the Parsis have treasured and maintained  their Persian rituals and traditions, but have also adopted a number of local Hindu customs.  As a result, a Parsi wedding is an interesting multicultural experience.

Both the bride and groom live in New Zealand but they wanted a traditional Parsi wedding ceremony so they decided to have it in Mumbai where the groom’s family, as well as number of the bride’s relatives, live.

The wedding ceremonies took place over three days.  The first day was the formal engagement.  It started with the groom’s family coming to the bride’s house with an engagement trousseau for the bride.  The groom’s mother, sister and aunt dressed the bride in the engagement sari and presented her with gifts.

Although there was a lot of variety in the rituals and ceremonies, there was one constant—eating!  After a snack, the groom’s family took the bride to their home.

An hour later, representatives from the bride’s family (including me!) went over to the groom’s home with engagement clothes and gifts for the groom.

At this ceremony the bride and groom were together and they exchanged engagement rings. 

The extended family also presented the bride and groom gifts and the two families also gave gifts to each other.  And then we had more refreshments.

Shortly afterward, the bride’s family returned to the bride’s home for a formal lunch.

In the evening, there was a big engagement party at a local hotel.  With lots of eating.  I went native for the event:

They don’t have a wedding cake at the actual wedding so they had one at the engagement dinner:

The next day there were some very interesting ceremonies.

There is the Madhavsaro ceremony where the families of the bride and groom each plant a young mango tree in a pot and place it at the entrance of their homes to symbolize growth and fertility.  The bride’s maternal uncle, in this case my brother in law, was chosen to do the ceremony.  There is a lot of praying and chanting over the tree and lots of incense is burned. After the wedding the tree is transplanted in the garden.

After the tree planting, there was a ceremony called Supra nu Murat, an adopted Hindu ritual where four married women each take a woven basket with some symbolic items in it (turmeric root, betel nut, dates, coconut, etc.) and pass them around while singing traditional songs.   They then grind the turmeric root into a paste in a mortar.

Then it comes time to cleanse the bride!  Turmeric, which has antiseptic qualities, but which stains everything yellow, is used.  The ground turmeric paste is applied liberally to the bride’s body (in this case, just arms, legs and face), while she sits on a wooden platform.

To complete the ritual, the men of the family pick her up on the platform and turn her around seven times.

 It was a lot of fun. The groom had the similar ceremonies and rituals performed at his home that morning and apparently he was stripped down to his underwear and liberally coated with turmeric paste.

 After the bride showered the family had another formal luncheon and later in the afternoon we all went to the groom’s house.

This was the Adarni ceremony. The bride’s family presented the groom with  clothes and gifts, and similarly the groom’s family presented the bride with clothes and jewellery.

And guess what?  There were refreshments at the groom’s house followed by dinner at the bride’s home.

We then had three days off before the actual wedding.  The wedding date had been selected based on an auspicious day in the Parsi calendar, which happened to be Thursday.  Normally the ceremonies described above would have been held on four separate days prior to the wedding.  That would have been fine if all we’d had to do was walk across the village square, but because we had to deal with Mumbai traffic and drive across town between the bride and groom’s houses, the families decided to consolidate all the ceremonies over the previous weekend.

When the Parsis originally arrived in India, one of the dictates of the local king was that they always conduct their celebrations very early in the morning or after dark so that they would not attract undue attention from the locals.  As a result, the wedding was to start when the first star appeared in the sky.  Which is a difficult thing to determine in Mumbai with the present pollution levels.

On the wedding day, the bride and groom’s families arrived at the wedding venue by late afternoon.  The wedding was held at a place called Albless Baug and is one of the most popular venues for Parsi celebrations in Bombay.  It is an enclosed compound with halls and a big courtyard.  The bride and groom had a hall each to themselves to get ready before the wedding.

The bride had her hair and makeup done by one of her cousins.

The wedding process started with the Nahan ceremony. This is a ritual purification ceremony where the priest says prayers and blesses the bride.  The bride then went for an actual bath when she returned there were additional prayers with the priest.  While this was going on the groom was having a similar ceremony with his family. 

After the Nahan ceremony, the bride was dressed in her bridal sari and jewellery by her mother and aunts. Then she had to wait alone and was not supposed to be touched by anyone or eat or drink anything until after the wedding ceremony later that evening.

  Plus once again I went native for the occasion:

The actual wedding took place on a stage decorated with flowers.  The bride and groom sat on specially made chairs, which will usually become family heirlooms.  The groom and then the bride were brought to the platform by their families and there were lots of blessings and little rituals.  For example, a coconut and raw eggs were rotated over their heads and broken before they came on to the stage.  This is to take away any negativity or bad luck.

Once the rituals are finished, the two priests conducted the wedding ceremony which lasted about an hour. Close married relatives of the bride and groom stood behind the couple and the priests stood in front. The priests recited the prayers and blessings in Avesta, an ancient language, and continually showered the bride and groom with rice. 

Immediately after the ceremony, the bride and groom went with their parents to a Parsi fire temple nearby for a quick prayer and then returned to the stage so that the guests could greet them and congratulate them.

There was dancing and music all evening long while waiters circulated with drinks and appetizers. With over 500 guests, the dinner was served in three seatings. It was a very traditional Parsi wedding meal served on banana leaves!

It was a fun and memorable event and I wish the bride and groom a very happy married life.

Words To Get Peoples’ Attention

A while back, I did a post on words that shouldn’t be allowed to fall into disuse, or should I say, desuetudeToday I offer another set of words worthy of preservation.  Why do you want to know these words?  Aside from the intrinsic value of increasing your vocabulary and improving the exactitude of your communications, they also have something in common.  They sound like they mean something very different than their actual meanings and that can make them fun to use in daily conversation.  People may not know what you are talking about, but you will get their attention. 

Afflatusn.  No, it doesn’t mean gas.  An afflatus is a divine imparting of knowledge or inspiration.  You might say, “Have you heard Lady Gaga’s latest song?  It sounds like she had an afflatus.

Aprosexian.  Abnormal inability to concentrate.  I’m not sure how alarmed you may be if your teenager’s teacher sends home a note saying, “Joshua’s grades are falling off.  I think he’s got a bad case of aprosexia.”

Crapulousn.  Not what you might think!  This word describes someone who eats or drinks too much, or the way one feels after eating or drinking too much.  Before sitting down to a fancy dinner you might say to the hostess, “I bet I’m going to feel crapulous after this dinner!”

Cunctationn. Hesitation or delay.  People who advocate that young people abstain from sex might suggest that they practice cunctation.

Deflagratev. To burn.  If you accidentally ruin the morning toast you could explain “It looks like we’ve had a problem with deflagration in the kitchen today.”

Formicatev. Everyone’s heard this one.  It means to swarm, and refers especially to ants.  Apparently, ants have formic acid in their bodies and an ant colony is called a ‘formicary.’  Technically you could get away with putting on Facebook something like:  “I had a great time formicating in the mosh pit at the Lady Gaga concert.”  But I wouldn’t advise it.

Fugaciousadj. Lasting a short time, evanescent, disappearing before the usual time.  This word comes from the same source as ‘fugue’ meaning fleeting or flying.  You might challenge your co-workers by asking “Is your pay check as fugacious as mine?”

Futtockn. One of the curved timbers joined together to form the lower part of the compound rib of a ship.  What, you thought it was a combination of ‘fat’ and ‘buttock??’ 

Labileadj. Readily open to change; readily or continually undergoing chemical, physical, or biological change or breakdown, unstable.  I know what you were thinking.  The next time you see a pyramid of cheerleaders, you might say, “Uh-oh, labile.”

Lucubrationn. Laborious study or meditation; studied or pretentious expression in speech or writing.  As in, “I hope this post isn’t too lucubracious.”

Maceratev. To cause to waste away by or as if by excessive fasting; to soften or wear away esp. as a result of being wetted or steeped.  So when your chronically dieting friend shows up you can say, “Still macerating I see.”

Titularadj. Existing in title only; having the title and honors belonging to an office without the duties, responsibilities or functions.  A while ago a children’s clothing manufacturer started selling bras for 6 year olds.  I suppose you could describe them as titular bras.

Turdiformadj. Of or like a thrush.  The Latin name for the thrush family is ‘Turdidae.’  So you could tell your wife, “I can’t cut the grass, there are some turdiforms on the lawn.”

I can’t guarantee how your social standing will be affected if you sprinkle your conversation with these words, but you might be amused when your less erudite interlocutors think you have committed a faux pas! 

And at least you’ll get their attention.