An Ancient Mimic

stick insectI’m deep in edits for my upcoming novel, Journey’s End, which will be out with Penguin Random House at the end of May. Taking regular walks is a must, to clear my head, and it’s always a treat for me to find an insect like this one during my wanderings – Ctenomorphodes chronus.

Phasmids (or stick insects) are remarkable animals. Even the name, Phasmid, has an evocative, romantic ring to it. They have been disguising themselves as walking leaves and twigs for 126 million years, even before the evolution of flowering plants. C. chronus has an uncanny resemblance to a gum tree twig and can grow up to 18 cm in length. The males are long and slender, have full wings and can fly. The females are larger but their small wings are not functional, except to flash at predators. Phasmids are harmless herbivores, eating gum and wattle leaves. They also eat blackberry leaves, and I sometimes find them doing a good job feeding on clumps of this invasive weed. They often rock back and forth, as if swaying in the breeze.

Stick Insect fossilFossil discoveries from modern-day Mongolia mark some of the earliest examples of twig-mimicking insects. Evolution quickly produced disguises for bugs, with the arrival of the earliest birds and mammals, which visually preyed upon insects during the age of dinosaurs. This is more tantalizing evidence of early insect-plant co evolution. These ancient phasmids were about 7 cm long from tail to antenna tip. They had parallel black lines running along their wings, which at rest would have resembled a ginkgo tree leaf, also preserved as fossils in China and Mongolia where the insects lived.

Spiny Leaf Insect

Spiny Leaf Insect

One especially interesting Australian phasmid is the Spiny Leaf Insect. Females lay eggs resembling seeds, flicking them onto the ground below their tree. The eggs have a knob, called a capitulum, which is tasty to ants. Ants carry the eggs underground, eat only the knob, and leave the rest of the egg in the nest, protected from other animals that might eat it. The young phasmids (or nymphs) hatch after 1-3 years underground They look and behave like ants. When they emerge from the nest they climb into the trees, where they moult into slow-moving leaf mimics.

Phasmids are parthenogenic, which means the females can lay fertile eggs without mating, but the babies will all be girls. Males can even mate with species other than their own, which can create new species. What fascinating creatures! No wonder they’re becoming popular as pets. Museum Victoria is currently breeding rare giant stick insects, that can grow more than 50 cm in length. Next time I’m in Melbourne, I plan to meet these miracle babies!

Congratulations to Womblywoo for winning the prize draw book giveaway! I shall email you soon for your postal address. 

2016 Australia Day Book Giveaway

 

I’m delighted to be part of the Book’d Out Australia Day Book Giveaway Blog Hop celebrating Australian writers and stories. I’m giving away a copy of my latest novel Turtle Reef, and a copy of Jilted by the fabulous Rachael Johns. The giveaway is only open to Australian residents. Stop by the other blogs on the tour to win more great prizes.

My Australia Day blog post is about a little Australian native orchid, that connects my memories of a lost brother with my upcoming novel, Journey’s End.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAThere is little more poignant in life, than helping to pack up the house of a loved one who has died too young. This has been my sad task recently, since the untimely death of my brother, Rod Scoullar. He was a learned man, a man who loved Australia’s fauna and flora – a naturalist of the first order. His study was a gold-mine of nature books, stored on impressive floor-to-ceiling shelves that covered an entire wall. It was here that I found the holy grail for Aussie orchid lovers – Australian Indigenous Orchids Vol 1 & 2 by A W Dockrill. These are hard to find volumes, and sell on-line Ravine orchid 4.ashxfor up to $200 a set. But aside from being the definitive treatises on native orchids, they also provided me with a wonderful link to my new book, Journey’s End, which will be out in late May.

Journey’s End is concerned in part with a woman’s journey through grief. I’m deep in the edits at the moment. Little did I know when I was writing this book that it would take such a personal turn. It’s set in the wild, mountainous, subtropical rainforests of the Great Eastern Escarpment, and the rare Ravine Orchid (Sarchochilus fitzgeraldii) plays a significant role in the story. So I looked it up in my brother’s books, and found a glorious, full-colour plate of this beautiful and delicate flower.

Ravine orchid 4The Ravine Orchid is found in wet, humid rainforests of the Great Dividing Range, where waterfalls cascade from the tablelands. It is lithophytic, which means its roots cling to rocks or creep into humus-filled crevices. Old colonies form mats many meters wide, and relish the constant play of cool air through the deep, damp ravines. Plants also occasionally grow on the moss-covered buttresses of ancient trees. The fragile flowers appear in October and November, and are up to forty millimeters wide. Colours vary from pure white, white with a red heart, to a rare all-crimson form. They are borne on graceful, pendulous stems which may measure more than a meter long. Quite a sight, when draped in full bloom on the rocks above a mountain stream.

Ravine orchid 3I was fortunate enough to buy a tiny specimen from the Tinonee Orchid Nursery when on a research trip for the book last year, pictured right. According to the wonderful Ray Clement, it should do well in the climate of the southern Victorian ranges where I live. So far so good. One day it may flower, and I’ll think of my brother, and his passion for Australia’s marvellous native plants.

To go into the prize draw leave a comment on this blog post. Don’t forget to check out the other blogs at Book’d Out to be in the running for more great prizes!! (Entries will close at midnight on Wednesday January 27th)

In Memoriam

RodMy big brother passed away without warning over Christmas. I’ve been paralysed, unable to write since. So my dear friend Sydney has written this wise, beautiful post for me. It’s about Rod. Thank you Sydney. Somehow by your gracious act, I’ve been set free to write again. I just needed a little help 🙂 xx

In Memoriam by Sydney Smith

Jenny’s brother Rod died in late December, suddenly and out of the blue, and since his going, I cling to a small yet persistent belief that he isn’t really dead. It’s involuntary. In my mind I “know” he’s gone. But that knowledge lives on the surface of my consciousness. In my heart, he lingers gently yet persistently.

I went to his funeral thinking that would put a full stop on this feeling that Rod isn’t really dead. A friend picked me up from the train station, and as we drove to the church, I told her how, three days after Rod’s death, my computer hid my Start menu, that every time I minimised a document or a browser, it vanished from view, and I didn’t know how to get any of it back. ‘Ghost in the machine,’ I said. Normally, I would call Rod for help and he would sort out my problem. He did that for lots of people. That’s how to get to know computers in a deep-down way, by fixing them when they get sick. I said to my friend, ‘Rod’s telling me I can’t live without him.’

The funeral went along as these thing usually do. Rod’s friends and family stood to speak about his life, his achievements, his effect on them. The minister invited people to come up to the lectern and add their piece about Rod. I wanted to say something but didn’t know what that should be. These people had told anecdotes of Rod that captured aspects of his mischievous, independent spirit, his charm and his talents. I wanted to say something else, but what, I didn’t know.

As I travelled home after the funeral, I was aware that it had not done what I hoped it would do. I still didn’t “know” Rod had died. As I write this blog, ten days after the funeral, I still don’t “know” it.

Death is a strange thing. No matter how often it happens, it remains a foreigner in our midst. It speaks a language we each have to learn. The spark that once animated a body is wrenched free, and what is left is familiar and at the same time shatteringly inadequate.

This “not knowing” Rod is dead is a kind of haunting. It’s an awareness of a space that used to be filled by a flesh and blood person, and which is now filled with the fact of absence and an ongoing, elusive presence. Rod is hovering in this room where I work at my computer. The air tingles with the voice that is about to speak. The air shifts with his movement. From the corner of my eye I almost see his beige and oatmeal plumage. This haunting isn’t oppressive. It simply is, gentle and lingering.

Rod 2Death isn’t a single, decisive event. The body loses its life, and we are led to believe that this is the end. But it isn’t. There is no end, no finality. There is a gentle shifting into another kind of perception, where each of us in the intimacy of grief meet him again.