{ Under The Bluegums }

A personal blog with craft tutorials, reviews of books, films, and music, parenting advice, and opinions on society and politics.

May 25, 2016

Book Review || Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Alaskan Dog-Racing by Gary Paulsen

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I'm not certain what I was expecting when I started to read 'Winterdance' by Gary Paulsen, although it's probably an expectation more along the lines of an educational look at what it takes to indulge in professional dogsledding. The truth of the novel is very far from this and I rather closed the book with the feeling that I had learnt something infinitely more valuable from it.

Paulsen is known as a children's author and has won several awards for his writing. I have not read any of his other books, however, and upon finishing it and doing some research about him I discovered this other life - which was actually a bit of a shock for me because of the intensity and passion he showed for dogsledding. They say all writers are a little bit crazy, and Paulsen would then fit into this stereotype perfectly, for no one would embark on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race unless they were a little bit (or a lot) crazy.

From the very first chapter, I was  not only gripped by Paulsen's fine memory, flowing writing, and self-deprecating humour, but also the connection he forms with his dogs, with nature, with the landscape that he suffers in and for.

We all look for certain themes when we are reading books and I think one of my current focal points is nature and humankind's lost connection to it. I sometimes think I would give anything to move out into the country, into one of those little hermits in the forests deep in Siberia and simply live quietly, living on the land as we were meant to. Perhaps this is why the biggest theme I have taken away from 'Winterdance' is this lost connection with nature and how we need to expose ourselves to it before we find it again.

Paulsen experiences this through his connection with his dogs and this enlightenment leads him to think more about the 'sanctity of life', as he puts it [32]. He notices his own change of heart through little anecdotes, such as a story of ranch cows forming a roster among themselves where one cow stays behind to protect the calves while the others find water [32]. His new connection to nature also comes through short encounters with creatures of the forest: a chance encounter with a beaver all alone on a frozen lake that inspires the dogs to race off towards it simply to see what it is [34]; the meeting with Marge, a wild coyote who was 'beautiful in a way only wild things can be beautiful', follows the team for several days, and stuns Paulsen with her use of tools to catch grouse - something only humans and apes were once believed to do [43]; a chickadee sitting atop his hood, sharing his meals; his lead dog Cookie's very clear appreciation of the beauty of sunrises [141].

The intensity of his new-found connection is revealed when he discovers a deer caught in a trapper's snare. He thinks it dead and removes the snare, stubbornly attempting to rub the hair around the deer's neck flat again, trying to 'make up for what had happened to her' in his anger. The deer was alive and could have killed him with her sharp hooves but merely left, looking back at him [57].

Similar anecdotes and experiences litter the novel - some inspiring silent smiles, laughing out loud, or stifled gasps - but one thing is certain - reading this novel, living vicariously through Paulsen's experiences, will leave your mind echoing his sentiment:
...I thought my whole life had changed, that my basic understanding of values had changed, that I wasn't sure if I'd ever recover, that I had seen God and he was a dog-man and that nothing, ever, would be the same for me again.
I have never been more grateful for a book I picked from the pile at a charity store than now, and this novel will leave you questioning your values and beliefs, urge you to reconnect with nature, and remember that God will not come to you - you must find him for yourself.

14 August 2017: When I started to read the novel, I was very concerned for the dogs. While Paulsen was very interested in the health and safety of his dogs, it was clear that some of the other racers were not. Regardless, dogs who race in such a contest, over such terrain, can surely not ever be the same again. There is a petition against the race on Peta if you're interested in signing it. Click here.

{Image credit: By Frank Kovalchek from Anchorage, Alaska, USA - The look of sheer determination - 2010 Iditarod Ceremonial start in Anchorage, AlaskaUploaded by Smooth_O, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10438431}

May 18, 2016

Refashion || Man's shirt to raglan woman's shirt

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I love it when hubby throws out his old shirts, especially when it's in a fabric and colour I like. With this shirt, I wanted to make a hoodie. I had to go out and purchase the knit fabric to match the grey though.

What you'll need for this project:

A man's shirt
Matching knit fabric

How to refashion the shirt:

Of course, we start with taking the shirt apart. I personally hate unpicking seams but in refashioning items, it's a sad necessity. You could simply cut the seams off, but this way you may lose valuable fabric.

Here is the shirt before unpicking.

First, remove the sleeves...

...then the collar. 

I also removed the pockets, as they needed to be repositioned.

The next step is to cut away the shoulder seam for the raglan design (I used a pattern of a raglan top I already had in my stash) and also to sew the side seams according to your size. Be sure to pin and cut according to your own waist- and hip-line - simply cutting off the same amount from the existing edge will only retain the manly (read straight) cut of the shirt.

You will need to cut a pair of sleeves out of the knit fabric, as well as the hoodie pieces and a long section that will fit the bottom of the shirt, as though the knit fabric is sticking out the bottom of the jacket. I copied the sleeves and hoodie from a pattern I had cut from one of my favourite hoodies.

All that remains now is to sew everything together. Sew on the sleeves, the hoodie, and the bottom strip and sew on the pockets. I neatened up the hoodie seams and the attachment to the neckline with strips of fabric so you don't see the overlocking.

The finished project looks like this:

May 13, 2016

Book Review || The Truth Teller by Angela Hunt

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Angela Hunt's 'The Truth Teller' is a compelling and powerful novel about spirituality and science, and how the two subjects have become intertwined in a world geared towards science and morality rather than religion and spirituality.

Unusually, the first reading we are presented with in this novel is a 'Publisher's Note' that admits that when the novel was first published, readers were not as much in tune with science and genetics as they are today. Indeed, science and geneticism has become somewhat mainstream over the last few years, what with the rise of scientists such as Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson into popular culture and the concerns about the proliferation of genetically-modified produce on our shelves.

To me, this is basically an admission - or warning? - that the book is a sort of premonition to the possibilities of gene therapy, and of course how it can all go wrong.

At its centre, the novel is about Lara Godfrey, an incredibly religious woman who has managed to find peace with the recent death of her husband Michael to cancer. She realises that she can fulfil their desires for having a child by being artificially inseminated by the husband of a good friend of her's, Dr Helmut Braun. However, Braun's own desperation for success and renown places Lara and her child at the centre of the world of a rich, powerful and seductive businessman, Devin Sloane. Sloane believes that the human gene is devolving as a result of damage from external environmental factors and also because of disease. He persuades Braun to use the genetic information of a 5,600-year-old mummy when inseminating Lara, with the purpose of discovering the pure genetic line of our ancestors and possibly healing the human gene. However, his ultimate desires are much more sinister, as are his means to getting what he wants.

Once you get into the novel, it really is an addictive read, compelling you to discover how Lara's destiny plays out. Dotted with the minor themes of love, grief, and motherhood are the themes of God's ultimate purpose for us and blind faith in his knowledge, as represented by Lara, perfectly juxtaposed with the hard science and frank factual nature of biological and genetic processes, as represented by Devin. It would appear that the novel's message is that, while we are improving our lives and health through science, blind faith in science alone will lead us down paths that are selfish, uncompromising, and eventually just plain evil.

Reading the final few chapters really leaves you with your finger ready to turn the page as soon as you've read the last text on it, as the thrilling serendipity of Lara's faith and science's failure come to their inevitable meeting place.

May 9, 2016

10 Amazing Facts About Tarantulas That Should Make You Want One!

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Chilean Rose
You speak the word 'tarantula' and people merely see a spider, the likeness of which resembles those vengeful arachnids from the film 'Arachnophobia' but hairier and much bigger. But the tarantula - and indeed all spiders - is so much more than a simple arachnid. Why? Here are 10 reasons:

1. Although their bites can be painful, most tarantulas will only bite after a lot of poking and prodding. Even then, most of their venom is less toxic than that of bees. Most of them.

2. All spiders go through a molting process, but having a tarantula makes this one of the most delightful yet scariest and most heartbreaking aspects of keeping them. When molting, the tarantula will shed its exoskeleton, as well as the stomach lining and female genitalia. They even regrow lost limbs in the process! My Brazilian Black had one poorly formed leg after a molt, which it dropped off and regrew at the next molt.

Why is it delightful? Because it is one of the most amazing things you'll ever see in real life. Here's a time lapse of my Mexican Red Rump molting.

Why is it scary? Because you have to consider what it must feel like being trapped in a shell smaller than you are for ages before you can squeeze out in a process that requires just the correct amount of humidity, the perfect temperature, and good genetics. As a keeper, this is one of the most worrying times.

Why is it heartbreaking? Because sometimes the tarantula will just get stuck in the molt. Sometimes you can help them out; most times you will stress them out so much they'll pull their limbs off and bleed to death. My other Mexican Red Rump got stuck and died as a result, just a few weeks ago.

3. There are dozens of different species of tarantula. They come in all sizes and all the colours of the rainbow. Some of them live up in the trees, like Ghana's Togo Starburst Baboon (Heteroscodra Maculata), but most are terrestrial burrowers. Some species make the most amazing webs and tunnels. The best part is relocating a tarantula into a new enclosure only to see all your ornaments, plants, and water bowl redistributed, sometimes covered with webbing or covered entirely.

Mexican Fireleg
4. Some species of tarantula have hairs on their abdomen, called urticating hairs, which are like little harpoons filled with an irritant. They kick the hairs off with their back legs when they feel threatened. For these tarantulas, the flicking of hairs is their first line of defence. Tarantulas without these hairs will likely throw a defensive posture before attacking.

5. When male tarantulas reach maturity, they form hooks on their legs and their pedipalps become shaped like boxing gloves. They will then lay a sperm web, whereon they will excrete their sperm, collect it, and store it in their gloves to deposit inside the female. Male tarantulas' life spans are significantly shorter than females because they are unlikely to survive a molt after becoming mature - the hooks make them get stuck. For this reason, once they are mature, they might become more aggressive and avoid eating as they will only be searching for a mate. The females of some species can live up to 30 years.

6. When males find a female's burrow, they will tap lightly on the webbing. If the female is receptive, she will come out, whereupon the male will dance for her, raising his abdomen, shaking his pedipalps. If she is not happy with his performance, she may attack him or ignore him. If he is successful, she will allow him to approach and he will use the hooks on his legs to keep her fangs away from him until he successfully deposits her sperm. He has to make a run for it when he's done though, as females usually like to eat the males after mating to replenish her food supply to grow the eggs. Females can lay between 200 to 2000 eggs.

7. Tarantulas breathe through two pairs of lungs on the anterior of their abdomen. They are called book lungs because their folded inner membranes resemble the pages of a book!

8. Some scientists believe certain tarantulas have silk spigots on the bottom of their feet similar to their spinnerets at their abdomen. It is currently a controversial idea.

9. Sexing a tarantula is somewhat of an art: ventral sexing is possible if one is practiced, but the most reliable method involves soaking the shed exoskeleton in water and examining the part between the first set of book lungs for the existence of or lack of spermathecae.

10. A tarantula's heart is not controlled with muscle like our hearts but rather through a system of nerve cells. As it beats, it spreads the tarantula's blood, called hemolyph, through the sinuses inside the tarantula's body.

So what are you waiting for! Just a warning though, they are addictive!

Great online stores in South Africa:
Rozzer's Tarantulas

{Image credits:
Green Bottle Blue: By Luis José Quintero-Morillo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 
Socotra Island Blue Baboon: By Marc BRETHES - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17114985
Mexican Fireleg: By Viki - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=121514
Defensive posture: By Sascha Grabow www.saschagrabow.com - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13294331}