Now that the Triffid Ranch is between shows, Thursdays aren’t insane for a while. Well, if they are, it’s “filling your house with dog-chewed Star Wars action figures” insane, not “shooting at school buses” insane. I don’t know about anybody else, but I can live with that. Just pass me that tranquilizer gun, just in case this Thursday wakes up before we finish tagging its ears, fitting it with a radio collar, and painting “87” on its butt.
Where to start? Well, without going into long digressions about high-pressure cells and cold fronts, Dallas is going into cooler weather this week. The definition of “cooler,” of course, depends upon your perspective and sense of humor, as I’m still thinking of decorating for Halloween by putting a life-sized model of Venera 13 in the front yard. Even so, this means two things: gardening and music, not necessarily in that order.
For the music, the area around the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is already notorious for its extensive autumn music festivals and concerts, and when I say “notorious,” I really mean “don’t expect to have a free weekend between now and the second week of January.” I could focus on the obvious events, such as the Fort Worth Music Festival this weekend, but let’s try something a bit more unorthodox. In this case, it’s time for a trip to Cleburne, southwest of Dallas, on October 21 for the Jam 4 Bats benefit. Last June, the owners of Garza’s Famous Chigo Hot Dogs discovered that their building hosted a huge colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in the upper floor, and rather than simply force them out, Fred Garza is hosting a benefit to put bat houses all over Cleburne for their benefit. I, for one, haven’t had a good Chicago-style hot dog since I left Chicago in 1979, so I already want to order a Bat Dog. Coming out for music, well, is just gravy.
(And concerning the bats themselves, Mexican free-tails are migratory, so they’ll be leaving the building by the beginning of December. At that point, the idea is to clean out the existing guano, repair any damage, and seal the building so the bats can’t simply move back in. I’ve already talked to Amanda at Bat World Sanctuary about collecting the guano for gardening, but there’s going to be a LOT more than I or any other individual will be able to use. To that end, I’m trying to organize local gardeners and gardening groups to assist with the cleanup. As soon as I know when we’d be able to get in, I’ll spread the word, and we’ll all be up to our armpits in well-aged, high-nitrogen guano by Christmas. And yes, you have to be a gardening junkie to look at guano in that way.)
And as far as gardening is concerned, I owe my friend Leah Shafer, former columnist at the late Dallas tabloid Quick DFW, a few favors. Thanks to her, I now know about Discount Home Warehouse Architectural Salvage. The Czarina’s already been nuhdzing about building me a new, larger greenhouse, so this was already perfect. Then I discovered Discount Home Warehouse has gardening materials. It’s already time for me to consider putting in a new raised bed in the front of the house, and I’ve been wanting to put in a small pond for both wildlife and aquatic bladderworts. Oh, we’re in trouble.
Other than that, it’s relatively quiet right now, but probably not for long. I’d best enjoy this relatively free weekend while it lasts.
In the past few years, I’ve had more than a few newspaper, Web site, and television interviews, and the conductor of each and every last interview asks “So how did you get into carnivorous plants?” Each and every time, I blame Tallahassee. No, not the character in the film Zombieland. The one and only Tallahassee, Florida, the place that saved my life. Three months there changed my life more than years spent anywhere else, and I’ll always be grateful.
Describing the first nine months of 2002 as the worst decade I’ve ever had only touches upon the horror. Besides the general dotcom bust economy and the resultant ongoing unemployment of myself and most of my friends, the house I was renting went back on the market, facilitating a sudden move. Two cats and my maternal grandmother all died within a week of each other. After months of searching, the only job I was able to snag was as the wine manager for a big liquor store, which was a bit like hiring Sid Vicious to manage a tailor shop. My first marriage ended in May, and I coincidentally quit pro writing on the same day, after dealing with the latest entitlement brat who vaguely promised payment “once the magazine was profitable.” As always, it came back to the job: if I wasn’t sweeping up broken wine bottles dragged in by drunken SMU students (redundant, but there you go), I was dealing with screaming technical recruiters who admitted they only wanted my career references so they could cold-call them. Fun times.
Finally, in early September, I received a call from Homes.com, a company then headquartered in Tallahassee. Seeing as how Florida was the only state on the east coast of the US I hadn’t visited at some time in the past, I gleefully accepted the offer of flying out for an interview. After letting me look around the area, they made me an offer, cut me a moving expense check, and sent me back to Dallas to pack. Nine years ago last week, I rolled into Tally in a 1997 Plymouth Neon, back of the car packed with clothes and basic survival gear, ready to start work.
In classic form, things didn’t end all that well. At that point, Homes.com was emerging from a bad bankruptcy, with a new CEO trying to save the company. I was brought aboard to document the features of a software package called PREP, designed to help real estate agents keep tabs on clients who had both looked at houses and actually purchased them. In classic dotcom fashion, the old company had given it out free with matching laptops to everyone who purchased the company’s Web hosting services, with the idea of selling printing and video services through “strategic partners”. During the bankruptcy, all of this fell apart, but that meant the company was still fielding incessant calls from realtors angry that their increasingly obsolete laptops wouldn’t be replaced or repaired for free. By the end of December, the company decided to stop support on the old PREP, shut down plans to make a whole new software package, and lay off everyone involved. Naturally, this happened about three days before I was to fly back to Dallas, five days before Christmas, and nine days before the Czarina and I were to be married. Because I purchased my plane tickets literally hours before I got the news, this meant flying to Dallas, getting married, flying back to Tally, loading up the car again, and driving the whole way back on New Year’s Day. That’s a story in itself.
I’m still good friends with several people from the Homes.com days, and they always apologise for dragging me out to Tally for such a short time, only to have this happen. I always respond that not only am I not angry, but I’m actually thankful. Making that trip to Florida was the best thing that could have happened at that time, for a lot of reasons. Again, that’s a story in itself. The most important thing, though, was that I was introduced to two places that derailed my life up to that point.
The first, Wakulla Springs, was a wonder deserving of a full week of exploration. (Again, story all on its own.) The second, though, was something I spotted while on that initial interview. Not too far away from the airport was a sign advertising a museum, and the first weekend I was in town, I tracked it down the Tallahassee Museum and practically moved in for the rest of the time I lived there.
The name is a bit of a misnomer: the Tallahassee Museum has big outdoor exhibits on early colonial life in northern Florida, particularly from when the turpentine trade was the main economic engine. The rest of the area, though, is closer to zoo and wildlife park than standard museum. Long nature trails run through most of the property, allowing visitors to see everything from black bears to spotted skunks to red wolves in naturalistic enclosures. Most of northern Florida is already primeval (at times, swimming at Wakulla Springs, I half-expected to see dryptosaurs coming to the spring edge to drink), and wandering along the edge of prime cypress swamp made a huge impression.
The most important thing I came across, though, was a small terrarium exhibit in one of the buildings. Inside were the first carnivorous plants I’d ever seen live other than Venus flytraps: Sarracenia purpurea, the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador. It’s one thing to read about them, but to see them up close was intoxicating. Even worse, I was informed by the helpful provost that the surrounding land was just rotten with carnivorous plants.
It’s no exaggeration to say that in sheer variety, the Tally area has more variety in carnivorous plant genera than just about anywhere else on the planet. Besides several species of Sarracenia and their hybrids, you have butterworts, bladderworts, sundews, and even a population of Venus flytraps. To this day, I haven’t heard a straight answer as to whether these flytraps were ones planted at some time in the past that went feral, or if they’re possibly a relict population from the last ice age, where all of the suitable flytrap habitat between North Carolina and Florida is now underneath the Atlantic. Considering some of the geniuses I met at Wakulla Springs who were working on masters degrees and Ph.Ds in the hard sciences, I figure that someone at Florida State University might settle this before too long.
(As an aside, another one of the reasons why Tally was such a needed Tanelorn was that it resembled my birthplace more than I wanted to admit. In some ways, it was even better: Michigan State isn’t exactly known for alligators and anhinga. Besides, I get more joy out of being considered an honorary Seminole than a legacy Spartan: most ‘Noles I meet in Dallas hear that I lived in Tallahassee and automatically invite me to game-watching parties “because you’re one of us.”)
What a difference nine years make. The Czarina and I never got the chance to set up house in Florida, and maybe that was for the best, considering the economic strains of the next couple of years. Instead, I came back with as many books on Florida natural history as I could find, and shortly after coming back to Dallas, really started digging into carnivorous plant research. It’s all been downhill from there.
And here’s where I return the favor. Out of many wonderful memories of my time in Tallahassee (and that includes my roommate discovering that my ex was a physical and temperamental ringer for the character of Edie Monsoon from the Britcom Absolutely Fabulous, thereby leading to half of Tally’s gay community wanting to meet “the guy who used to be married to Edie”), one of the best was volunteering for the Tallahassee Museum’s annual Zoobilee fundraiser. (In fact, based on my prior liquor store experience, I was one of the bartenders, leading to many attendees wishing that their own bartenders were as lavish with the vodka and scotch as I was.) It was much therapy as volunteer work, and I was a brand new man when we finished up for the night.
Posted onSeptember 27, 2011|Comments Off on Welcome back, my friends, to the show that must DIE NOW
In his classic novella “Frost and Fire,” Ray Bradbury described a world of horrible extremes between day and night. Nights were killing cold, and anything caught outside when the sun rose above the mountains burst into flame. The story itself followed the descendants of a band of colonists, all of whom lived their entire lives, from birth to death, in eight days. These people, and their descendants, rushed out as soon as the ice melted and took advantage of the short hour where plant life emerged, rushing back to hide in their caves before the temperatures became too dangerous. In return, they rushed out each evening, retreating only when the cold became impossible to endure.
This, naturally, is a perfect metaphor for life in Texas. Now you understand why Chicago columnist Mike Royko referred to Dallas as “a shopping mall Shangri-La”: I’m slightly ashamed to say that the malls occasionally keep us sane in the worst of our weather. And now that it’s possible to go outside without getting second-degree burns on the insides of your lungs, we’re going berserk.
(Not that the heat is completely done. We recently broke our 1980 record of 100F-plus degree days in Dallas, and we could get a few more before the end of the week. However, it’s possible to go outside in the morning and think “autumn is here” instead of “the next time the weatherman predicts a chance of rain and it doesn’t come through, I’m going to tie him to a tree, get a stick, and use him as a Viking pinata.”)
The urge to get outdoors means that half of north Texas wants to evacuate the hydrogen bomb shelters we laughingly call houses all at once. This means that we have lots of outdoor events. LOTS. Live music shows, hot air balloon races, Renaissance fairs, the State Fair of Texas…heck, even Lewisville takes a break from singing the high school football fight song for a hearty tournament of bobbing for French fries. (Actually, I kid. Lewisville is a lot more civilized than it was when I lived there in the Eighties. I understand the place even has indoor toilets these days.)
Because the weather will, with fits and starts, remain roughly like this between today and Christmas Week, this means that people try to start their own events to go with or compete against existing ones. That’s about the time the Triffid Ranch gets letters and phone calls, from all over, asking about about participating in lectures, fairs, tours, and the occasional Discovery Day. This usually culminates around Halloween, because carnivorous plants just make Halloween a little sweeter. After that, not quite so much, but there’s still a lot to show, a lot to talk about, and a lot to do, and every event keeps me from having to deal with cleaning out the greenhouse. I mean, you should see it these days.
I try to do as many as I can, weather and season permitting, but sometimes circumstances get in the way. (An old friend regularly invites me to show plants at a show she manages in Dallas every year, and the only reason I regularly have to decline is because it runs in February. When all of the temperate carnivores are in winter dormancy and the tropical carnivores are muddling along, waiting makes much more sense.) Sometimes, an invitation coincides with an event already scheduled months or even years earlier. Other times, logistics get in the way, such as with well-meaning invitations well out of state. (The cost of permits for commercial transport of plants across state lines means that there’s simply no way to recoup costs unless the show is huge.) And others…well, it’s about time to talk about that.
Now, one might assume that because we don’t have children that we dislike them. Anything but. Shows for kids are the best kind, because kids ask the best questions. I’ll drop just about anything to show plants to students of all sorts, because there’s something about the light in their eyes when they learn about, say, the bats that roost in Nepenthes rafflesiana elongata pitchers. Adults try to hide their interest with snide comments and Little Shop of Horrors references, but the kids really want to know.
On another side, many might assume that because of my background in science fiction literature, I’d stay away from science fiction conventions. In fact, I’ve argued for years that most conventions are full of serious gardening enthusiasts who are neglected and ignored by standard garden shows and garden centers. It’s to the point where I’m half-tempted to organize a gonzo garden show, just for the enthusiasts with no time for cutesy garden gnomes and packets of cosmos seeds. I only draw the line at gaming conventions and literary science fiction shows, and that’s purely because of economics. Gaming conventions attract gamers, who generally climb into tournament rooms and refuse to leave for the weekend, so they rarely visit the dealer’s room. Literary conventions are instead full of wannabe writers who preface every sentence with sob stories about how they spent every last penny they had to get to the show: the old Comdex joke about how attendees come out with one shirt and one $20 bill and never change either for the entire weekend is, sadly, far too true for literary conventions.
No, the one absolute is with music. I’m not talking about events where vendors and musicians work together, such as with the Fort Worth Music Festival. It’s the events that advertise a deejay that should be avoided at all costs. The problem is that the deejay who works in a dance club or between sets at a live music venue is mostly interested in getting as many people as possible out on the dance floor, not only freeing up seats along the side but getting everyone hot and sweaty enough that they want lots of drinks. The focus is on the music. At a show and sale, invariably the alleged deejay is some fedora-wearing hipster who’s determined to jam his tastes in music down everyone else’s throats. It’s a sale, so customers try to talk over the horrible whiner rock or Seventies nostalgia trips. The deejay gets hurt that the customers aren’t paying attention to him, so he starts turning up the volume. Customers try to yell over him, so he cranks it up even higher. Before you know it, the decibel level rivals that of an F-16 at takeoff, and potential customers leave because they’re tired of having to scream to communicate basic concepts. The Czarina and I were at a show a few years back where the deejay was so obnoxious that we could only communicate via dry-erase boards, and trying to explain the vagaries of carnivorous plants is nearly impossible under these circumstances.
(I say this because several friends have already brought up the upcoming Etsy Dallas Jingle Bash in November, and I’ve tried to explain that we’re not attending because of the nightmare that was last year’s show. Apparently, the complaints about the deejay racket at last year’s event caused the Etsy Dallas crew to organize a Bash Pass, allowing those willing to pay an extra $20 to shop an hour early without musical accompaniment. While that’s a brilliant way to bring in an additional $1400 for the show, why not skip the access fee, put the hipster back on “funemployment,” and encourage even higher attendance for those with an aversion to Pomplamoose and Marcy Playground?
Silly question, that. Yet another reason to talk about organizing that gonzo gardening show.
And for those with a local show seeking something different, if this tirade doesn’t dissuade you, give a yell. Next year should be a very interesting year.
Comments Off on Welcome back, my friends, to the show that must DIE NOW
The party at FenCon VIII is over for this year, and the next big Triffid Ranch presentation starts on November 5 at the Museum of Nature & Science’s Discovery Days: Reptiles and Other Critters weekend in Dallas’s Fair Park. This year’s FenCon was an interesting mix: so many people from my old writing past came by that the show started to resemble a Dallas Fantasy Fair reunion, along with a lot of kids. The latter were the greatest joys, because they always had great questions or anecdotes. (For instance, the son of one of our fellow vendors had an acquaintance who was snagged by “some weird plant,” and we managed to work out that his acquaintance was nearly the victim of a devil’s claw.) Among other premieres:
de Marigny (2011), $350
Remember the conversion effort on that Eighties-era hexagon tank from a while back? Here’s the final effect. This set includes a custom-cut glass top to keep in humidity and prey animals, and it contains a Nepenthes bicarcalata pitcher plant, a spoonleaf sundew cluster, and appropriate statuary. The top is arranged so that it can be used in conjunction with standard high-intensity reptile enclosure lighting, or (preferably) natural sunlight.
Uncle Sam’s On Mars (2011), $35
The Viking 1 lander model was one for which I’d been searching for years. The clay bonsai pot was one I’d had for years, but that needed just the right elements for it to work. The Crassula in this low-key saikei arrangement is some strange hybrid that I haven’t been able to identify, but that demanded to be included with this pot and this model. Together, they’re a reminder of the Mars explorations that almost were.
iTerrarium Mark II (2011), $150
Some may remember when David Shaw proudly showed off the first-generation iTerrarium, my efforts to reuse the nearly indestructible polycarbonate shell of a second-generation iMac. After cutting and buffing the rear handle into an access hatch to reach the interior of the iTerrarium, it was fitted with a single light socket for a compact fluorescent bulb (23 watts for carnivores) and a thermometer and humidity gauge on the inside. The iMac in question was a DV SE G3/400, so it still retains the original transparent graphite rear shell. Future versions will include custom paint on the rear shell (to both block and reflect excess light and to do something with the original Bondi blue shell), latches on the rear hatch to secure it for use for reptiles and amphibians, and electronic temperature and humidity gauges.
Well, that’s it for the moment, but it’s a start. Just wait until I’m done with the new projects for the Fair Park Holiday Market this coming November.
EDIT: You know that I’ve been married to the Czarina for a while when I start picking up her propensity for reasonably witty or at least memorable puns. Normally, I loathe puns, but describing the act of packing up everything and loading it into the cargo van on Sunday as a “Jenga tu Madre,” though, just fits.
Regular readers of the blog may note that I tend to namedrop Janit Calvo at Two Green Thumbs Miniature Gardens from time to time. This stems from a mutual appreciation of the merits of miniature gardens, especially for those people who just don’t have the time or the space to work on a full garden. We’re both working toward the same purposes, but it depends upon whether you want miniature gardening design advice from Gertrude Jeckyll or Wayne Barlowe.
Well, a little while ago, Janit asked about recommendations on dinosaur figures for miniature garden spaces from friends and cohorts. I couldn’t help but chip in some advice, because the love of all things palaeontological goes a long ways back. I cannot remember a time where I was unable to read, and I apparently taught myself to read from a combination of my mother’s nursing textbooks and an edition of The New Book of Knowledge that came out the year I was born. By the time I was five, I’d worn out the “D” volume going through the entry on dinosaurs over and over, and my choice of reading material gave my kindergarten teacher lots and lots of headaches. (In one case, literally: in the middle of January, I’d become convinced that the snowdrift outside the classroom was full of dinosaur bones. She tried to get me back inside while I was excavating the snowdrift with a stick taller than I was, and the scene of her and four first graders trying to take away my stick was straight out of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.) By the time I started first grade, I was an addict, especially on the first day of classes, when my teacher asked everyone to name something that begins with “B” and I said “Brachiosaurus“. (She then accused me of making that up, and I got great satisfaction from proving it to her on our first trip to the school library. That was the origin of my attitude that it’s much better to be correct than right.)
In odd ways, a lot of my current gardening attitude was dependent upon my love of palaeontology when I was younger. When I was very young, I took advantage of local weeds that looked superficially like Lepidodendron trees and first understood the difference between balance and symmetry when putting toy dinosaurs in this miniature forest. Viewing Rudolph Zallinger’s classic mural Age of Reptiles over and over didn’t hurt, either. To this day, I can look at a well-done stone and cactus bed and think “All it needs is a few cowboys lassoing an Allosaurus.”
A terrarium design book of which I am inordinately fond, Successful Terrariums: A Step-By-Step Guide by Ken Kayatta and Steven Schmidt, came out right in the height of terrarium mania during the early Seventies. One of its regular lessons is to avoid the horrible purple elf figures then distressingly common in terrarium arrangements, because “purple elves eat terrarium plants”. At first, I laughed at the witticism, but then I realized that it was, in a way, absolutely true. Humans are hardwired to look for animals of any sort among undergrowth, and it’s absolutely impossible to make any kind of garden, miniature or otherwise, with an animal decoration without viewers first spotting it or hyperfocusing on it. (By way of example, the Museum of Science and Industry had, when I lived in Chicago, had a recreation of a 300-million-year-old Carboniferous forest as part of its coal mine exhibit. Even though the only animal life in the exhibit were giant dragonflies and cockroaches and one small early amphibian, visitors always looked for them and ignored the vistas of club moss and fern climbing to the ceiling.) Go with the palaeontological equivalent of a purple elf, and any sense of versimillitude is dead. Now, if you want to make the equivalent of a dinosaur tourist park, like Dinosaur Gardens in Ossineke, Michigan, don’t let me stop you.
The above figures sum up the general availability of dinosaur figures in the US until about 20 years ago. Back through the Fifties through the Seventies, the big manufacturer of dinosaur playsets was Louis Marx, which based its designs largely on Zallinger’s Age of Reptiles mural. Hence, while they’re great for eliciting nostalgia, these are the dinosaurs that time forgot. (The blue beast on the left is a giant ground sloth or Megatherium from competing playset manufacturer MPC.) The only critters that predated the dinosaurs were the early Permian pelycosaurs Dimetrodon and Sphenacodon and the late Permian dinocephalian Moschops, and usually the only post-Cretaceous additions were ground sloths, wooly mammoths, and saber-toothed cats. MPC made a few Cenozoic additions, such as a few more mammals and even the giant flightless bird Diatryma, which would work all right in miniature gardens if they weren’t in brilliant colors.
The bad news about these guys, other than the fact that they’re rather obsolete by today’s science, is that they’re almost impossible to repaint. Collectors regularly come across sets where the previous owner tried to color them with Testors model paints, and this only left flaking paint getting all over everything. If you come across them at a garage sale or swap meet, be warned that while they rarely fade in strong light, they’ll also keep that shocking coloration forever.
For those on the other side of the pond, the English company Invicta put out its own line of prehistoric figures, and these could be painted. In fact, purchasers in the UK could get many of them already painted. (From left to right, Triceratops, Mamenchisaurus, Muttaburrasaurus, and Tyrannosaurus.) In the States, these were usually available through the Edmund Scientific catalog, which is where I first ran into them circa 1976. These are a lot more scientifically accurate than the Marx figures, but that’s still a matter of perspective. Forget the cranberry color: the Tyrannosaurus was the epitome of palaeo theory circa 1975, and things have changed a LOT.
By way of example, check out the Stegosaurus in the set. Compared to it, most of the current reconstructions of Stegosaurus look like they’re about ready to look up, growl, and chase your ass down the street. These figures are, in both chemistry and balance, very stable. They’re also very, very dull.
The prevailing attitude toward dinosaur toys started to change in the late Eighties and early Nineties when Safari Ltd. started up a line of figures connected to the Carnegie Museum. That line was so successful that it was supplemented by the Wild Safari line. Both lines tend these days toward more obscure prehistoric animals (from the left in the above picture: the gorgonopsid Inostrancevia and the land crocodilian Kaprosuchus, and the dinosaurs Oviraptor and Hypacrosaurus), and about the only difference is price and scale. The Wild Safari line also includes a nice collection of prehistoric mammals, so that’s something to consider as well.
To give an example of how much has changed, the Mongolian theropod Oviraptor was first discovered atop a clutch of of presumably plundered eggs, leading to its name, which translates to “Egg thief”. The reality was that this first fossil, and many found since then, was actually of an animal brooding atop its own nest. Further discoveries of other oviraptorosaurs found that they had extensive feathery plumage, which is replicated in this specimen. 20 years ago, Oviraptor would have been shown both bare as a Christmas turkey and a uniform grey, green, or brown. My, how things change.
For those wanting little figures, or appropriate accessories, Safari also issues a line of “Toobs”, containing all sorts of prehistoric replicas. To date, this includes a line of prehistoric sea reptiles, early crocodilians, and even prehistoric sharks. The set above is a collection of fossil skull replicas, and for those seeking something a bit more subtle in an arrangement, the skulls may be preferable.
One of the great missed opportunities in palaeo recreations in the Nineties involved Battat, which put out a line of absolutely fantastic dinosaur figures between 1994 and 1998. These were based on the best evidence available at the time. (From left to right, the ankylosaur Euplocephalus, the iguanodont Ouranosaurus, the Canadian ceratopsian Styracosaurus, and the Texas predator Acrocanthosaurus.) As display pieces, they changed the dinosaur replica business forever, and Safari went into overload in its attempt to catch up. As miniature garden denizens, not only are they extremely rare outside of collections, but they were composed of plastic that tended to deform from the figure’s own weight. As you may notice, the Ouranosaurus above is having a few problems with standing, and that’s because its forelimbs bent over time in storage. If you’re like me and enjoy the screams of Cat Piss Men when I chop up Boba Fett Star Wars figures for succulent arrangements, go to town and invite a few toy dinosaur collectors over to your house to see your new display. Otherwise, go with a comparable Safari figure instead.
One of these days, though, I’m setting up a large enclosure with just one of Battat’s Pachycephalosaurus figures peeking off the side. Look at it as “Bambi leaving the forest” from 80 million years ago.
Finally, we have Papo, a French company that got into the dinosaur figure business relatively recently. While its dinosaurs may not be the most accurate, they’re some of the most detailed I’ve ever seen. (From left to right, Parasaurolophus and Allosaurus.) Most of Papo’s predator figures, particularly the Tyrannosaurus and Spinosaurus figures, have articulated jaws, so they can be opened for a full roar or nearly closed for a pensive expression. These, my friends, beg for presentation in a large terrarium or saikei arrangement.
And now that you’ve considered some of the options, you should always consider two essentials. The first is scale. I know, the temptation is to go with a huge figure, but without comparable floral accompaniment, the figure will dominate the scene to the detriment of the plants. At absolute worst, the arrangement resembles a Godzilla playset more than anything realistic. Remember, the idea is to focus on flora and fauna, so if all you have is a small pot or tray for the display, go with a small figure. Save some of the big ones for the right circumstance.
The other essential is considering the stability of the figure. For obvious reasons, prehistoric miniature gardens will be irresistable to children, and they’re going to want to touch. Also for obvious reasons, most dinosaur figures aren’t designed for garden applications (would it be that someone did), so a figure that’s perfectly stable on a flat surface tends to flip when standing in potting mix. To get an idea, make up a big pile of sawdust or dead leaves, taller than you are, and try to stand upright on the top. Even the more stable figures may have to be shoved down into the potting mix deeply enough that they look like they’re trapped in mulch, and two-legged figures such as Tyrannosaurus or Deinonychus? It just isn’t happening.
The way around this is to make supports for the figures. This can be done easily by inserting plastic, bamboo, or metal rods through the feet of the figure and up into its legs and sticking the rods into the soil mix. This way, the figure looks as if it’s actually walking instead of trapped in quicksand. Another option is to attach the feet, with either epoxy or superglue, to a piece of slate or other flat rock, and carefully inserting it into the potting mix. (If you want the figure to appear as if it’s walking on rocks instead of potting mix, just attach it to the rock in question.) Check on an inobtrusive area with either epoxy or superglue to make sure that the adhesives don’t attack the plastic, but if the adhesives don’t react, go wild. After the adhesive is COMPLETELY DRY, bury the base just enough to hide or obscure it, but not so little that it damages the illusion.
Some people have aching nostalgia for the 1980s. Not I. When I look at another technological or social development that makes humanity and its members a little more fun and I say “I love living in the future,” I mean it. I look back fondly on certain aspects of that decade, but only because I was in the middle of it at the time. I definitely don’t want to go back, save to visit with my previous self circa June 1984 and beat him to a pulp with a baseball bat. A little tough love applied then, and I wouldn’t have wasted the whole of the Nineties writing for science fiction magazines.
A lot of what was disappointing about the Eighties involved a lot of good ideas that could have been wonderful ideas if they’d merely cooked for a little longer. We came up with a lot of concentrated, powdered, and creamed stupidity, such as Panama Jack T-shirts or Phil Collins or selling arms to Iran to finance the contras. However, we also came up with some really innovative ideas that were hyped up, oversold, and ultimately discarded before they were really ready. One of those was the hexagon fishtank.
For those who don’t remember the hex tank, when it was first produced, it was the biggest innovation in aquarium design since all-glass aquaria appeared in the Seventies. (It tells you how old I am that I remember my first aquarium being a classic design from the Fifties, with a slate base, metal corner moldings, and gutta-percha seals on all of the corners.) It not only offered multiple viewing angles, but it was absolutely perfect for people living in small apartments without enough available wall space to justify a standard aquarium.
Unfortunately, some of those same assets led to the reasons why they fell out of favor. Since the aquarium had six sides, concealing filter hoses, aerator tubing, or power cords became problematic. The design encouraged height over width, which gave much less of an opportunity for decorations. (I might add that hex tanks coincided with the use of crushed-glass aquarium gravel, a fad I don’t miss. If the stuff was bad for the aquarist by scratching the hell out of the tank interior and slicing up unprotected hands, imagine how it made bottom-dwelling denizens such as Corydoras catfish feel.) Most of all, the trend in the Nineties and Aughts was toward really, REALLY big aquaria, and the square-cube law gets in the way of making comparable hex tanks. At that point, you’re better off getting a pond.
This is a shame, because while hex tanks may have faded into the same temporal netherworld inhabited by black lacquer waterbeds and console video games at convenience stores, they’re actually very nice for plantkeeping. The problem lies with bringing them into 2011.
This project started over a decade ago, when the Czarina and I first moved in together in 2002. Someone had given her a basic 20-gallon hex aquarium years before, and it had collected dust and dead bugs in a storage corner for years. We were desperately broke at the time, so when I mentioned how badly I missed having an aquarium at the time, she dragged it out and said “Have fun.” We got a lot of use out of it in our first apartment, and then in our first house, until we upgraded tanks recently when an old friend gave me his. In the meantime, this one sat, waiting for a new use.
The project really started last June, when I was prepping for a show that imploded disastrously. The original tank was going to hold an original plant display, but when the top literally shattered in my hands, I realized that this wasn’t going to happen. Worse, since most aquarium manufacturers stopped selling hexagon tanks, finding replacement glass tops was and is nearly impossible. That is, as far as aquarium-friendly tank tops are concerned. This made me sit down and re-evaluate exactly what I wanted to do, and why.
The first absolute is that the wood finish needed to be sent back to Hell. One side of the top molding on the tank already had a bad scrape thanks to the shattering incident, and that revealed that the finish was just paper-thin. The photo above shows the tank after a good sanding with sanding sponges, which also removed mineral buildup that was otherwise almost impossible to chip free. (When I describe Dallas municipal water as “crunchy,” I mean it.) Next was time for the stand.
The stand, to be honest, was a nightmare. The main composition was particleboard, which strangely wasn’t sealed at any of the joints or on the undersides of surfaces. The storage access door had a baroque handle that just screamed “We’re heading out to the mall to go see Top Gun for the 47th time,” with matching if barely noticeable hinges. It was time to strip down everything.
After removing the storage access door, I sanded everything down to where the surfaces were nicely scuffed, and then wiped it all down with a tack cloth to clean up the dust. The underside got the same treatment, as it had absorbed just enough water drippage over the last 25 years that the particleboard was starting to chip in one spot. As a general rule, when the woodgrain pattern started to disappear, it was ready for new paint.
The door was next. The underside was completely untreated, so all of the hardware came out and front and back got a comparable sanding.
The stand could be painted at any time, but the tank itself needed to be taped off before it could be painted. (Trust me. You do NOT want to spend days scraping off paint overspray from the glass if you can help it.) As a little bit of advice to anybody doing something similar, take the time and effort to purchase genuine painter’s masking tape. Not only does it peel away from glass without leaving adhesive or little bits, but it also is much less likely to take chunks of paint with it. The edges were taped, then painter’s paper put over that to cover the glass, and then more tape atop that to hold everything in place. I also put painter’s tape along the interior of the tank lip for two reasons: firstly, to prevent any potentially toxic residue from building up on the lip, and secondly, to allow me to drape more painter’s paper across the top so I wasn’t scraping the inside of the tank, too.
To make absolutely sure that the tape and paper are well-secured, always check things from the inside. If you can see anything through a gap in the paper or tape, the paint will find that gap.
Finally, it was time to finish it up. A friend of the Czarina’s works for a glass company, so he was able to cut a brand new top based on a template I gave him. The base and tank were both edged with a new RustOleum universal spray paint, complete with a hammered finish. A new handle went on the door after it was painted, and everything reassembled. While it still kept a dark finish, you’d never assume that this was the old Eighties relic that had started out back in June.
And you’re wanting to see the new Wardian case? It’s time to come out to FenCon this weekend to see it for yourself. It’ll featured in situ with plants and accountrements for your viewing and purchasing pleasure. And so it goes.
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Posted onSeptember 19, 2011|Comments Off on “In the world of gardening, one day you’re in, and the next you’re compost.”
The Czarina and I aren’t much for watching television, but that’s a severe simplification of the real situation. We’re not much for watching television for television’s sake. Especially when show season starts, we have too much to do, too much to research, and too much to pack to afford to kill three or four hours watching the glass teat. That doesn’t mean we’re two of those snobs who sniff “Oh, I don’t watch television, because it’s all garbage.” No, in our case, we only watch television while we’re working. The money that could be spent on cable goes instead into new supplies and new plants, so we go through lots and LOTS of DVDs.
Naturally, this leads to all sorts of interesting conflicts when we spread out tarps and dropcloths on the living room floor and work on our next projects. I really detest the overuse of the terms “razor-sharp” or “needle-sharp”, but the Czarina’s elbows certainly feel like both when it’s my turn to pick the choice of viewing on an evening. I make a suggestion of lightweight family fare, and I usually wake up six hours later without such advanced skills as color vision. We tried settling our disputes on entertainment in a respectable and civilized fashion, and, well, that’s when I learn why every roller derby league in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex wants to sign her on. (Much as when I describe my first marriage as Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape fanfiction, this sounds much more fun in concept. It’s definitely more fun when you don’t try to walk away and realize that your knees are now ball-and-socket joints instead of hinge joints.) We usually compromise at this point, and I’m able to get my Max Headroom fix when she’s with friends for the evening.
Anyway, the Czarina’s background inspiration while working is, these days, the reality show Project Runway, which is about as close as we get to standard reality television. (Well, between that and Prehistoric Park. Every once in a while, I’m able to remove the remote and use it myself when she’s not looking.) If you’re not familiar with the show, the basic premise is that 16 up-and-coming fashion designers compete every week for the opportunity to show a line of apparel at New York Fashion week, as well as for big cash prizes intended to help them launch their own clothing lines. Every week, the show gives everyone a particular challenge, usually to be finished within the next day, where it’s shown on a runway before judges. Each week, one contestant is chosen as winner, and one gets removed.
One of the reasons why the show is strangely addictive is that, as opposed to most reality television, Project Runway actually features people with real talent. Oh, the first couple of episodes usually remove the contestants who weren’t cut out for more than costuming, but by the halfway point, you’re looking at the remaining designers having to work at beating the others. What’s funny is that most of the near-winners go on to better careers than the actual season winners, mostly because they’ve shown off their merits and realized how badly they want to be designers, and not just reality show stars, after all.
Another one of our dirty secrets is that we usually celebrate our wedding anniversary in the same way. That is, setting up shop in the middle of nowhere, turning on cable, and watching crap until what Bill Hicks referred to as “my hump of hate” is full. We burn out any interest in mindlessly watching television this way: three days of seeing Pajama Jeans ads cures us of any interest in getting cable for another year. It keeps us remarkably productive.
Anyway, all of this discussion on television made me wonder why nobody’s yet pitched the idea of a gardening show following the Project Runway model. After all, if the DIY Channel can grunt out The Vanilla Ice Project, it shouldn’t be all that hard to sell a sixteen-week series dedicated to pushing the limits of small-scale gardening, right?
And naturally, my mind goes horrible places. We follow this too closely, with Janit Calvo and Billy Goodnick filling the Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn niches. We get sixteen gardeners and garden designers, give them hori-hori knives and insane challenges every week, and watch as someone gets sent home every week. (In particular, I can see Billy telling disqualified designers “I’m sending you upstairs to clean out your space. Do you need the wheelbarrow or just the handtruck?”) Best of all, we tape everything, just to show the world what sort of loonies the gardening trade encourages. I can see it going for twenty seasons.
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This song brings back flashbacks to nine years ago, and not just because I was listening to the song over and over while moving to Tallahassee. Tiny room, scattered writing implements, windows leaking during torrential thunderstorms, random mantids on the ceiling…I even think I woke up with my face painted half-gold at least once while I lived there.
We’re now in the final stretch before FenCon VIII, so expect at least some radio silence. Now that the soul-stripping heat has let off for a while, and the Yellow Hurty Thing in the Sky is behind a welcome layer of cloud cover, it’s time to get to work.
Well, all work and no play makes Jack Nicholson overact, so there’s time for some fun. Specifically, for those in the Dallas area, the Museum of Nature & Science in Fair Park hosts its latest Beer & Bones adults-only event tonight, starting at 7:00. If you can’t make it, make plans for the next one on December 15, but try to get out while the weather is cool and the attitudes mellow.
In more personal news, I received a postcard from Scott Elyard of Coherent Lighthouse, letting me know about his and Raven Amos’s Dinosaurs & Robots art show next month. Years back, Scott and I discussed that odd fascination with jungle ruins and dinosaurs that runs through fantastic art for the last seventy years or so, and this card made me realize that the only thing odder than dinosaurs in old Mayan ruins has to be robot dinosaurs in Mayan ruins. Anyway, his piece “Trikeratos” piece inspired me, and so back to the workshop for me. Heh heh heh.
Finally, the Czarina acknowledges that it’s time to get a new greenhouse. The current one was a cheapie hobby greenhouse purchased from a friend nearly seven years ago, and the plants outgrew the greenhouse about two years ago. Since she won’t let me have display cases or crocodile monitors, I’ve picked out a greenhouse she can get me for my next birthday, and it’s a beaut. I’m sure she’ll even help me harvest my own organs to pay for it, too. With a grapefruit spoon.
Most people look back fondly on the individuals who influenced their behavior and attitudes as children, and wonder what would have happened if they ever met their role models. A few move those dreams to varying levels of completion, with results ranging from handshakes to restraining orders. A few, well, a few manage to make an impression. By the time I turned 35, I’d met almost all of my childhood heroes. Oh, who am I kidding? I scared the hell out of them.
You think I’m exaggerating, but much like how I have an FBI record for allegely selling government secrets to the Daleks, I have witnesses. In 1990, Stephen Jay Gould came through Dallas to promote his book Wonderful Life at McFarlin Auditorium at SMU, and I found myself invited to an autograph reception afterwards. After waiting in line behind a gaggle of sorority girls who thought they could sell their autographed copies afterwards, I stumbled to the front of the line with my well-worn copy of Wonderful Life, and promptly scared the hell out of Dr. Gould. Not with any of the erudite questions I had about the fossils of the Burgess Shale, but by choking and asking him about baseball. Mind you, at the time, I was in a black trenchcoat, Mad Max motorcycle boots with steel shin plates, and black hair down to my waist, so I don’t think he was expecting the question about baseball. (I also managed to scare the hell out of the fantasy author L. Sprague de Camp and his wife Catherine on the elevator up to the reception, even as I was trying to explain that we knew each other through correspondence.) It’s a good thing that I didn’t get my Anomalocaris tattoo until the beginning of 1992, because then he really would have flipped if he’d seen it.
I thought that was that, but it kept going. I scared the hell out of Carl Sagan. I literally scared Johnny Rotten so badly that he nearly jumped through a plate glass window, and that was only by my holding out my hand. I scared Harlan Ellison badly enough that he confided in me “Riddell, I like your writing, but DAMN you’re weird!” The main reason I never scared the hell out of Hunter S. Thompson was because I actively avoided attending his readings and lectures: you should never scare the hell out of anybody with access to lots of exotic firearms. Hell, I even scared the hell out of people I’d known from high school, who later went on to bigger and better things. You’d think they’d been immunized from Riddell horror just from my proximity back then.
Again, I have to note: with most of these tales of terror, I have witnesses, particularly to the Johnny Rotten incident. The Czarina is even worse: she managed to scare the hell out of theatrical makeup artist Tom Savini, just by being herself. Well, that and standing six feet tall.
It hasn’t gotten any easier since I switched careers from writing to horticulture. Just ask Jacob Farin. Or Debbie Middleton, who keeps a shotgun loaded with consecrated silver by her bedside just in case I should visit without warning. Amanda Thomsen now knows four separate recipes for napalm and keeps them on hand, and Ryan Kitko claims he knows I’m going to contact him when he has dreams about my brother Martin and I calling our father’s name from atop Sentinel Hill. (Well, that’s fair, seeing as how my brother looks more like our father than I do.)
This, of course, is why I fear meeting the person behind The Idiot Gardener. As his bio reads:
I am an idiot. It needs saying. I drink too much, exercise too little, and am unlikely to change. On 29 November 2009, I had a thought. That thought has turned into a millstone around my neck. I carry my burden with me, and every day it gets a little bit heavier! To think, I could have been so many things: a drunk, a junkie, a womaniser, a lunatic, a criminal or even a pervert. Instead, for my sins, I chose GARDENING!
I understand all too well, seeing as how “freelance writer” is much filthier than anything in his list. (With only a slight bit of self-loathing for youthful indiscretions, I highly recommend that weekly newspaper writers and science fiction magazine columnists marry meth dealers and child pornographers, solely so their children have one parent they can look up to.) As I said, I fear meeting him, because we’ll either see the aspects we have in common and become fast friends, or see the aspects we have in common and challenge each other to single combat. Either one can’t be good for the space-time continuum.
And on the subject of the Museum, the Triffid Ranch has a more active role at the Discovery Days: Discover Reptiles and Other Critters weekend on November 5 and 6. Any excuse to go to the Museum, or into Fair Park in general, is a good one, and this one involves carnivorous plants that encourage frogs and other herps. I probably won’t have any tree frogs in Sarracenia pitchers to show off, but I’m working on it. More details to follow.
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It’s official: the Dallas area has hit a full 70 days of temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F. This breaks the record set back in 1980, my first summer in Texas. (And that was a summer, spent delivering papers for the Dallas Times Herald in brain-frying heat. I wouldn’t want to go back, but I have fond memories of that summer all the same.) As my father-in-law puts it so well, this isn’t a record. This is a losing streak.
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While everyone else whimpers and whines about whether the US Post Office can remain solvent, some of us use it. Last month, I sent out several Joey Boxes to interested bystanders. One was eaten by individuals unknown, but the others arrived without incident. Even better, one of the winners, Lisa Holmes, sent one back.
Oh, my. I knew there was a lot going on in Los Angeles and San Diego for those of a dark bent, but I had no idea. Compared to the interesting items Lisa included, I feel that my best efforts to promote Dallas events are a bit like bragging about how we actually have indoor outhouses and dinner that ain’t roadkill. (Considering that most of my high school class reunions end badly when everyone tries to sing the school fight song and forgets the lyrics, that may not be too far from the truth.)
Anyway, among many other goodies (including the program for Re-Animator: the Musical), the package included a postcard for the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in San Pedro, California this weekend. After the ICPS 2012 conference next August, it may be time to make a road trip and keep going until I run out of west. Thank you very much for the package, Lisa, and I can only hope to pay you back. Time to search for gardening conferences out that way, I think.
Last weekend was an interesting accumulation of events. If I’m not careful, their repercussions may eat me alive.
First thing, last Friday was the first weekend night in about five months where walking outside didn’t bring new sympathy for baked salmon. This, combined with the fact that the Czarina and I were goth back when the term referred to Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, led to a trip down to Panoptikon in Dallas’s Deep Ellum area. We hadn’t had the opportunity to take a night off like this in about a year, and one of the big surprises was that it was packed that evening. From what several friends stated, this was getting to be a regular occurrence, as the drinks were cheap and good, the music was much better than at our resident Club Spooky, and everyone was there to relax and see old friends instead of To Be Seen.
One of the real surprises, though, was how quickly the evening turned into one big carnivorous plant lecture. I was regularly introduced to new people as “the carnivorous plant guy,” and in the process made friends with several people who were just hooked on the idea of raising carnivores. (The only thing more surreal and more natural at the same time than a former Air Force officer hanging out at a goth club was his picking my brain about raising Sarracenia pitcher plants.) This applied all the way across the spectrum of plants, too. If I’d come out with heirloom tomatoes or hot peppers, I probably would have sold every last one, and don’t get me started about the girl who started asking me about African violets.
Sunday, my best friend and I decided to crash the Dallas Home and Garden Show at Market Hall near downtown. We arrived at noon, and what amazed us was how empty it was. It wouldn’t be unfair to note that the vast majority of attendees, such as they were, showed up solely because of the senior discount: besides vendors and sales reps, we were probably some of the youngest people in the entire venue. Despite its name, the show had almost no garden items other than one heirloom seed dealer and two different nurseries from around Fort Worth. Well, that isn’t completely true: the back corner had the only action in the place, thanks to booths from the Texas Master Gardeners and displays from our local fern, succulent, and bromeliad societies. Even then, the whole show suffered from an issue that hits a lot of younger gardeners, which is an assumption in publications and shows that most gardeners are retirees and pensioners with a lot of money and unlimited free time. The space was remarkably empty compared to previous shows, and the number of quickie “As Seen On TV” gimmick and gimcrack vendors, in proportion to local vendors, was the worst it’s been at one of these shows since I started attending in 1992.
So. An ever-expanding crowd of potential younger gardening enthusiasts, as well as a lot of folks who need something for relaxation. They don’t have a lot of money, but they’re savvy enough to do their research before spending it, and they expect to get their money’s worth. If something doesn’t work, they’ll simply drop it instead of fussing about making it work because was an expensive purchase thirty years ago. They’re very familiar with social media, but they may be drowning in events as it is. Most importantly, thanks to years of being forcefed like recalcitrant pythons, they have an aversion ranging toward a phobia for standard newspaper, television, and radio promotion of events.
I have a lot of other things sitting on my plate that need to be eaten or scraped off before I can do so, but now I’m curious about what it would take to organize and launch a gonzo gardening show. If you don’t hear from me by New Year’s Eve, tell the Czarina I love her and not to bother with a funeral.
A few extra observations for the weekend, because I’m getting paid by the pithy comment. (Go ahead and laugh. Eating fresh grass cuttings and bowls of hot bluejean soup on the front porch of a refrigerator box builds character.)
Firstly, I’m an involuntary teetotaler: I can’t drink, but I’m fascinated by many of the aspects of the history and production of wine and spirits. This scares my family at times, as the filthiest four-letter words that could ever be uttered within range of a Riddell for the last 500 years are “last call”. It really scares my youngest brother, as his appreciation for and consumption of various forms of alcohol is generally exceeded only by the likes of Keith Richards. A few years back, he and I got into a conversation about whether sherry or port barrels should be used for scotch whisky aging, and I thought he was going to have a seizure when he realized I knew more about the meaning behind the term “the angel’s share” than he did. All I know was that milk came out his nose when he choked, and it was 20-year single-malt before it spewed out his nostrils. It should also be noted that I was wearing this shirt at the time, so I caused more damage to the lad than I’d considered.
It’s with that boy-in-the-plastic-bubble attitude that I peruse the commentary of Dr. Vino, and I discovered that he and I have common ground after all. Namely, to deal with the winter doldroms in Chicago, he’s become an enthusiast of moss gardens in rose bottles. I have only two things to add: number one, I’m going to have to do a post on purchased and constructed terrarium tools just for this sort of circumstance, because I know exactly how to fix his schmutz problem. Number two, when I do this, I prefer Jack Daniels bottles for one good reason: they’re square, so they can be set on their sides without worrying about their rolling. Other than that, we’ll have him growing merlot cuttings before you know it.