Conservation Comment (strap)

By Margie Beautrais
Recent days and weeks have been unseasonably warm and sunny, evenings cool and clear with brilliant stars in the night sky.

I've been watching as the constellation of Orion with its bright star Rigel, or Puanga, sets earlier and earlier each evening, signalling the change of the season. A few nights ago the temperature plummeted. The first frost of winter had arrived. Time to dress in warmer clothes, find winter woollies in drawers and cupboards, turn on the heaters or light the fire.

We humans are very good at creating the ambient indoor temperature we prefer. Our modern industrialised lifestyle minimises the impact of seasonal temperature changes and the vagaries of an uneven seasonal food supply.

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It hasn't always been like that for people in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

In the past, if food crops had not been planned and planted at the right time, then harvested and stored, there would be insufficient food for the following year. Times to plant and harvest were signalled, for Maori, by not only the changes in temperature, but by the rising and setting of specific stars and star clusters, such as Matariki (Pleiades) and Puanga (Rigel).

The stars and moon phases provided a calendar that was used to ensure continuity of food supply throughout the year.

This year, however, has been a very different kind of year. We've experienced weeks of lockdown in our chosen home "bubbles" with the main trip out being to the supermarket.

For many of us, it was a new experience to discover that ordinary foods, normally available on any day of the year, were in short supply or sold out. It is hard for many of us to imagine what life would be like if our food was only available if we grew it ourselves, or knew someone else who did and was willing to trade.

One of the things that changed for many New Zealanders during lockdown was a new awareness of gardening and of growing food for personal supply. Perhaps there was a growing sense of unease about commercially produced food running out?

Garden centres ran out of seedlings. Social media was awash with garden-newbies looking for advice on how to create a vegetable garden, and when to plant various food crops and fruit trees.

In some ways, this is an echo of the earlier war-time "Dig for Victory" campaigns, when people were encouraged to grow a vegetable garden and become more self-sufficient.

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Many New Zealanders have shown a similar response to this current pandemic. We have collectively begun to be more self-sufficient and grow more of our own food. To ensure the continuity of our food supply, we can get outside and grow it ourselves.

With the help of social media and networks of friends, we have the opportunity to extend the range of our homegrown food.

With a bit of informal trading, we might find that the person who grows excellent broccoli would like to do a swap with the one who grows awesome kumara. The family with far too many feijoas might do a trade with the family whose walnut tree is laden.

And if we give some of our excess produce to the person down the road who is skilled at preserving, our seasonal food supply can be extended deliciously.

Margie Beautrais is an Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum