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No Huhu Left Behind

March 25, 2009


Well, here we are. The first new entry in the new blog. It seems hardly possible, but stranger things have doubtless happened. The old entries have all been transferred, so ‘vivaminutiae’ is finally up and running. Well, up and walking. Okay, lying down and resting.

Which was precisely what I was doing under a majestic old (or at any rate large) tree last week. I wish I had a better knowledge of botany so I could name exactly what species of tree it was under which I was lying, enjoying the cool springy grass on a hot day. It suddenly occurred to me for instance, that I have no idea what an ‘elm’ actually looks like.

It was appropriate that I have these thoughts, because I was in the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. I looked around for a little sign telling me of the name, both common and Latin, but couldn’t see one. A little annoyed, but it was probably a little unfair to ask that staff go around and label every single individual tree in the garden. Maybe, seeing as this was in the common picnic area, these trees weren’t even considered ‘scientific’ enough.

Enjoying the sunshine, I closed my eyes and tried to name which trees I knew for sure. Pine trees. I know what they look like. An imported species I think. How about Australian natives? I know the Eucalyptus tree (incidentally, impossible to visualize without a koala attached to the trunk). How about from back in New Zealand? Pohutukawa. but I can only imagine them with the red flowers. If they weren’t flowering I would have no idea what they looked like.

Had a row of them I walked past on the way to school. The very school, now that I think about it, when aged 7 or so, we actually went for a field trip into a native forest studying the plant and animal life that could only be found in New Zealand.

I remember back then that I liked the names more than the trees. Kauri, Rimu, Totara, Kowhai (where ‘whai’ is pronounced ‘Fie’, to rhyme with ‘fly’) The Silver Fern, being a national symbol, I knew. But it turns out that I really only knew the stylized version of it, and so when a real one was pointed out, I thought it didn’t look as impressive as advertised. I guess this is the opposite to the Canadian experience, where a real maple leaf is infinitely more beautiful than the outline featured on their flag.

The silver fern is only silver on the underside of the fern fronds, which I remembered I liked, as you can’t see it unless you turn them over, keeping its shimmering pale grey secret from the rest of their green forest brothers which they merged with inconspicuously from above. I think the silver fern is the most ninja of all the ferns.


I also remember that there was something very important about ferns which I think set them apart from the rest of plant kingdom, but I can only remember the Park Ranger’s face being covered in shadow due to his hat and how his voice dropped lower as he let us in on the secret.

It is no wonder that the thing I remember most on that trip were the Huhu grubs. He brought them out in a tiny box like the ones painters keep their portable paints in. He undid the clasps with a firm flick and, ever the showman who understood kids, paused before opening the lid. Divided into two sections with a couple of live ones on the left and dead ones on the right.

The live ones didn’t squirm as disgustingly as maggots do, which disappointed us boys in the group somewhat, but they were big and fat, which made up for it immensely. But things were about to get a whole lot better. He informed us (again, leaving it to the last as a worthy entertainer would do), that they were edible. What a fantastic word. Even in the speckled dark of the forest you could see the eyes of the boys light up with savage interest, and those of the girls widen in horror.


Even before he had finished calling for a brave volunteer, our hands were up, straining to pierce the sky. Most were genuine, but some were only putting up their hands so they wouldn’t be accused of being pikers, being careful to exhibit just enough enthusiasm to pass as legitimate, but not enough to actually be chosen. The girls meanwhile, eyed us with the same disdain previously reserved for the grubs.

The Chosen One took his place, front and centre, and even got to pick out his intended. Naturally, the biggest, fattest, squelchiest one was selected. Held up to us for inspection. An appreciative ‘oooooh…’ Then, before the moment of truth, the Ranger gave us another fact that has always stayed with me: “Huhu grubs taste like peanut butter.” Try forgetting that.

The Chosen One cocked back his head, and just dropped the entire Huhu in, and then turned to us, taking exaggerated bites and smiling the smile of one who was ensured hero status for at least the next two weeks. We sat transfixed, groaning in amazement and disgust and envy, in that heady childhood state of believing and not-believing at the exact same time.

“What does it taste like?”, “What does it taste like?” we clamored. A pause as the question is given due consideration, then in between bites: “peanub budda”. We cheered.

Then, just as we were about to be rendered senseless through delirium, the Ranger says: “Now let’s see if we can have a good look around and find some grubs…” A small army of children immediately began to lay waste to a previously pristine section of native forest, turning over logs, scraping off bark, destroying valuable root systems, and every now and then, “I’ve got one!” would ring out and we would converge like a swarm of locusts (or keeping with the native species theme, like a swarm of wetas) and initiate the ceremonial eating of the Huhu.

It is probably for the best that field trips are no longer conducted these days with the same abandon that we enjoyed. But when I see a line of bored school children being led as if by chain through museums/parks/factories, stopping at intervals to robotically write in the appropriate spaces on their clipboards, I can’t help thinking that perhaps it is better not to merely acquire knowledge, but to accumulate experiences as well.

It would be nice to name every tree that you see in both the common and the Latin, but there is something else that may be un-nameable but just as important to learn, the thing that you can’t recite but will always remember, like the murmuring of the breeze through a group of silver ferns as you watch a shadow-wrapped face in a forest telling you amazing things, many of which you will forget.


viva minutiae,


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