I Know Your Methods

Kage Baker was a very Queen of search engines.

She was enchanted with the idea at first encounter – which was when I set up our first little computer with our first little ISP server. Long ago and far away, in Pismo Beach, a little start-up company that was ultimately eaten by a larger company somewhere along the line … but for a couple of years, all there was for choice in connections in lovely Pismo was these little guys and AOL.

Even novices like Kage and I had heard of AOL. Besides, we got their damned disks in the mail constantly, like free crack through the fence at a playground. When local geeks opened their own little provider service, we leaped to it. All you had to do was phone them, pay them and get a code – then pick up your program disks (square floppies,in that distinctive greyed-out beige plastic) at one of the local indie book or record stores. Things were simpler long ago … the program disks were rubber-banded together in stacks of 5, in a wicker basket next to the ZZ Top lightning bolt key chains and Dead Head Teddy Bear stickers.

Anyway, the very idea of search engines hit Kage like a jolt of whiskey – her very own djinn of information, all set to swoop out into the aether and bring her back pearls of knowledge! For once, she learned all the tricks before I did, and was soon an addict. She was the person who taught me about following more and more obscure links, and how to circumvent the advertisers who grabbed prime listings on Webcrawler and Alta Vista. And, eventually, about Google Image games.

Included in the searches for people caught on sidewalks in embarrassing poses, though, was valuable information on parameters and phrasing. I’m not as inhumanly good at it as Kage was – she could find anything, no matter how peculiar – but I can certainly fight through most searches.

The last few days, it’s been birds and plants catching my attention. I’m familiar with most of the local birds; I’ve lived in Northern California before, and know its special residents – red and yellow shafted flickers, several varieties of woodpeckers, white pelicans. Rufous-sided towhees. Merganser ducks. Black-crowned night herons – the only heron with short legs. When we first saw one, sitting awkwardly in a tree above the pond beside which we were then living, Kage swore it was a fake duck model left there to fool us. It wasn’t till I found the bugger in the Peterson Guide that she would admit it was a live heron …

Anyway, while puzzling out the secrets of the otherworldly Datura inoxia in the front yard here, I noticed a bird I could not recall seeing before. Just a little brown bird, roughly sparrow-sized, but which a most charming little chime-like chirp, fluttering madly all around a pyracantha bush. The chirp was familiar … so I went searching: starting with “small brown birds” and slowly narrowing my criteria. Another long stare showed me the unripe pyracantha berries were not the bird’s prey; it was scaring bugs out of the bush and snagging them in mid-air. That was the vital clue – it was insectivorous.

I was watching a Black Phoebe -but it was either a female or a juvenile, and thus it was all in shades of brown. The adult male is a very conspicuous little fellow, velvet black all over except for a silvery-white waistcoat, and the hint of a crest on his head. The one I was watching was a rich chestnut, but had the same distinctive pointy head, white tummy and crazy-flutter method of catching insects on the wing. So – not a new bird, but one I had never seen before! And for me, rusty as I am at birdwatching, a triumph of online research.

However – that was secondary to figuring out what the other mystery plant int he garden was: the one with enormous saber-shaped leaves, and ebony flowers stalks 2 stories tall. All I had for a clue was that my hostess thought they were “some kind of flax” …

Now. Once again, flax is a plant I know; I’ve grown it, I’ve even broken and spun it by hand (a hideous process, though I’m proud to have done it. Once.) Obviously, this thing that looked like a Martian Man-eater vine was not the flax I knew. But equally obviously, I don’t know enough – look at the datura.

So, employing Kage’s meticulous methods, I resumed the hunt. And lo! Via references to flax analogs, flax alternatives, and the tendency of the Victorian British to label every new thing they saw with the name of some old thing they already knew: I identified it. The enormous, ebony and scarlet, leaves-like-sword-blades plant outside the window here is – New Zealand Flax!

It’s not flax, of course. It’s not even related to flax. It’s actually some kind of lily. However, it does yield an excellent fiber when broken, retted and spun; and the Maori used it as their most common plant fiber and cloth. The British kind of acknowledged its origins by also dubbing it “flax lily”, but really: it’s not a flax, and it’s scarcely a lily.

Lots of plants DO yield spinnable, weavable, feltable fibers. Cotton, of course – but nettles give a similar, lovely fabric, commercially known as “rennie”; many of you Dear Readers probably have garments of it in your closet – I do. Papyrus will give cloth as well as paper. Birch bark has recently become popular as cloth, as it is especially soft, cool and silky; you can find bed clothes made of it at Bed, Bath & Beyond! Bamboo makes a very superior thread, especially for knitting.

So the New Zealand Flax should not have been a surprise. It probably wouldn’t have been, except that it looks so much like a carnivorous alien plant. But it’s also fierce and beautiful, like the sinuous lines of Maori tattoos. Someday I may give it a try as a fiber project …

In the meantime, I am en joying the discovery. And the fact that it was Kage’s lessons on research – how to do it, its primacy as a teaching method, the determination one must bring to the hunt – that led me on to all these recent treasures. It feels like we’re completing another project together.

And that feels … very fine.

new zealand flaxNew Zealand flax – flax lily. Not flax at all, but produces a linen-like cloth; not very closely related to a lily, either, but closer than to flax. The bird is a tia, whose beak is curved precisely to fit those war-canoe flowers.

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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2 Responses to I Know Your Methods

  1. mizkizzle says:

    In New Jersey, little brown birds are mainly sparrows of some sort, referred to collectively as LBJs (Little Brown Jobs.)
    Online searches for arcane information are such ripping fun! A current one involves finding out what kind of wood was used in the interior of second-class railway carriages in nineteenth-century England.


    • Kate says:

      You mean, like in the panelling? Or the framing? Because most framing was done in oak, but panelling could be one of several woods – depending on whether it would be carved, painted, varnished, whatever. Fruit woods were for fancy; so were exotics like mahogany and ebony. Pickled pine was common – any sort of pine, really. And that’s pretty much as much as I know …


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