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.
This year, the Tallhassee Museum Zoobilee starts on October 14, two weeks from Friday. The theme: Twentieth Century dinosaurs. I probably won’t be there, much to my regret, but if somehow something amazing happens and the financial floodgates open, just look for the white-haired loony with the big idiot grin on his face.