Monthly Archives: August 2012

Have a Great Weekend

It Came From the NARBC: Other Denizens

Snake pair

Based on the previous sets of photos, you might think that the North American Reptile Breeders Conference shows were all about the reptiles. They are, but they’re great places for peoplewatching, too. Twenty years ago, the old cliche of the reptile enthusiast as tattooed motorcycle rider and general hooligan might have had a tiny bit of truth to it: the guy from whom I bought my late savannah monitor Afsan had big scars down one arm from where he’d admitted he’d lost a knife fight. Even considering that you’ve never seen anyone handle tiny reptiles with such gentleness, reptile shows today are as diverse as they come, and everybody out there has a great story as to why they’re out there.

Gopher snake and keeper

By way of example, this young lady was just part of the crowd that you simply wouldn’t have seen at many Texas reptile shows in the early Nineties. Her snake was just as intriguing, as I haven’t seen a gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer) since I was about seven years old. Best of all, our niece, ostensibly the reason we made the trip, was trying to get over an aversion to snakes, and this gopher snake gave both her and the Czarina the opportunity to hold a very gentle and very well-adjusted snake.

(A side-tip to those with snakes letting people hold their snakes for the first time, especially if the snake is a climber. Give them some advance warning that said snake will generally wrap its tail around fingers, arms, or any other protrusion. It’s an odd feeling if you aren’t prepared for it, and I’ve gone without holding snakes for long enough that I’d forgotten the sensation. This way, nobody has a freakout, including the snake.)

Czarina with gopher snake

And then we had the plant freaks. Namely, the Greater Dallas/Fort Worth Bromeliad Society had such a great time at last February’s show that its members came out again for August. As can be told, they had lots of plants, lots of buyers, and lots of enthusiasm.

Shawn and Gail

Bromeliads

And then there was the hardest-working participant at the show. The NARBC crew was working itself to a nub, the security crew at the convention center was even worse off, and by Sunday afternoon, all of the vendors had the expression I knew so well from plant shows. That look said “We’re having a blast, and we love everybody here, but we know that there’s a bed or cot or spare couch at the end of this day, and Nyarlathotep help the first person to get in the way of it.” This guy, though, just finally couldn’t keep working, and passed out in the first available chair.

Sleeping dog

I don’t blame him in the slightest. That’s going to be me when the Triffid Ranch does its first NARBC show next summer.

It Came From The NARBC: Invertebrates 1

Last weekend’s North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington may have been slightly smaller than the standard shows in February, but only just. With a specialty in captive-bred reptiles and amphibians, the NARBC isn’t just the biggest reptile show in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. It’s the show you need to hit for exotic color morphs, cage ideas, and essential accessories. Oh, and it’s hard not to start impersonating Steve Irwin when viewing some of the stunning animals out here:

Of course, it’s not all reptiles and amphibians. Several dealers had quite a selection of invertebrates as well.

Millipede

Now, this character is an arthropod not often seen in the US, at reptile shows or elsewhere. It’s a vinegaroon, also known as “whiptail scorpions” because of the flexible telson at the end of the abdomen. That telson is about as long as a cat’s whisker and about as dangerous, and one theory holds that it’s used purely for display. The “whiptail scorpion” name comes from the two strong claws held to the front, and “vinegaroon” comes both from its ability to spray acetic acid as a defense when molested, and the strong vinegary smell when crushed. They’re active predators of smaller animals, but while scary-looking, they’re completely harmless to humans. I haven’t seen one since I was five years old, so this one was a long-missed delight.

Vinegaroon

It Came From The NARBC: Turtles 1

Last weekend’s North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington may have been slightly smaller than the standard shows in February, but only just. With a specialty in captive-bred reptiles and amphibians, the NARBC isn’t just the biggest reptile show in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. It’s the show you need to hit for exotic color morphs, cage ideas, and essential accessories. Oh, and it’s hard not to start impersonating Steve Irwin when viewing some of the stunning animals out here:

Pancake tortoises

The summer NARBC show didn’t have much in the way of turtles and tortoises other than the very common spur-thighed and red-footed tortoises (considering their size as adults, thankfully all of these were hatchlings), but a few dealers had some surprises. The biggest was this clutch of pancake tortoises (Malacochersus tornieri), which almost came home with me.

Albino red-eared sliders

While not as rare as they used to be, albinos of any type still gain recognition and notice at reptile shows. With this pair of amelanistic red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), who would have figured that their distinctive red ear spots are visible in albino forms as well?

Albino red-eared sliders

It Came From The NARBC: Caramel savannah monitors

Last weekend’s North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington may have been slightly smaller than the standard shows in February, but only just. With a specialty in captive-bred reptiles and amphibians, the NARBC isn’t just the biggest reptile show in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. It’s the show you need to hit for exotic color morphs, cage ideas, and essential accessories. Oh, and it’s hard not to start impersonating Steve Irwin when viewing some of the stunning animals out here:

Caramel savannah monitor

This little guy here is a surprise all on his own, because he’s a captive-born savannah monitor (Varanus exanthematicus). That’s a big deal in the reptile trade, because the vast majority of savannahs available as pets in the US are imported from Nigeria and Kenya. Even more so, he’s what’s called a “color morph,” raised specifically for a particular color or color pattern. Color morphs have been a standard in the snake trade for twenty years, but generally only leopard geckos and bearded dragons are raised for their various color morphs. I have no idea what color morphs are in the future for monitors, but I look forward to seeing what happens.

Caramel savannah monitor

It Came From The NARBC: Lizards 2

Last weekend’s North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington may have been slightly smaller than the standard shows in February, but only just. With a specialty in captive-bred reptiles and amphibians, the NARBC isn’t just the biggest reptile show in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. It’s the show you need to hit for exotic color morphs, cage ideas, and essential accessories. Oh, and it’s hard not to start impersonating Steve Irwin when viewing some of the stunning animals out here:

Frilled dragon

Blue-tailed monitor

Blue-tongued skink

It Came From The NARBC: Lizards 1

Last weekend’s North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington may have been slightly smaller than the standard shows in February, but only just. With a specialty in captive-bred reptiles and amphibians, the NARBC isn’t just the biggest reptile show in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. It’s the show you need to hit for exotic color morphs, cage ideas, and essential accessories. Oh, and it’s hard not to start impersonating Steve Irwin when viewing some of the stunning animals out here:

Unknown lizard

Stub geckos

Timor monitors

This last one was a particularly sentimental moment. This is a big female black-throat monitor (Varanus albigularis var.), a medium-sized monitor lizard native to southern Africa. The reason why this one melted me a bit is that V. albigularis is a close cousin to the savannah monitor, Varanus exanthematicus, and she was both the size and general temperament of my late savannah monitor Afsan. She would have been a handful at that size, but out of all of the animals I saw at the NARBC show, she was the one I would have tried to bring home.

Black-throat monitor

It Came From The NARBC: Snakes 2

Last weekend’s North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington may have been slightly smaller than the standard shows in February, but only just. With a specialty in captive-bred reptiles and amphibians, the NARBC isn’t just the biggest reptile show in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. It’s the show you need to hit for exotic color morphs, cage ideas, and essential accessories. Oh, and it’s hard not to start impersonating Steve Irwin when viewing some of the stunning animals out here:

scaleless rat snake

Granite Burmese python

Blood python

Boa

It Came From The NARBC: Snakes 1

Last weekend’s North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington may have been slightly smaller than the standard shows in February, but only just. With a specialty in captive-bred reptiles and amphibians, the NARBC isn’t just the biggest reptile show in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. It’s the show you need to hit for exotic color morphs, cage ideas, and essential accessories. Oh, and it’s hard not to start impersonating Steve Irwin when viewing some of the stunning animals out here:

Everglades rat snake

Python

Black python

Python pair

Introducing Didelphis virginiana, a.k.a. “Harold”

Cat Found

For the last few years, friends have been posting a “Found Cat” flyer that continues to crack me up. I don’t know why, but the “I think he might be scared” comment gets me every time.

Well, I have great news. On my way to the Day Job, I found that kitty again. Yes, I think he might be scared.

Harold the Opossum

For folks outside of North America, this is Didelphis virginiana, the Virginia opossum. Besides being the only indigenous marsupial in the United States and Canada (which is why I nickname the resident opossum “Harold”, after the nephew of Canada’s answer to Doctor Who), opossums also qualify as one of the native mammals that I’m glad to see in the back yard. Between their personalities and their eating habits, raccoons are hipsters with fur. Armadillos are both dumb as posts and likely to jump at the slightest noise, and one nearly knocked out my front teeth the first time I encountered one. Skunks are best viewed from a distance, and that can be doubled for coyotes and bobcats. Comparatively, if I find a possum waddling across the back yard in the middle of the night, he’s comparatively welcome, even if he does look like a half-drowned rat.

Harold closeup

Sadly, all of the possums in the vicinity of the Triffid Ranch are nicknamed “Harold”, and not just because they tend to look alike. The best natural lifespan for D. virginiana is about two years, with owls and early-rising hawks getting the ones that aren’t killed by cars, coyotes, or dogs. This little guy was apparently checking out the tree for edible fruit or flowers, found himself trapped by encroaching humanity, and figured that he’d just hold still until we all went away. After all, if the motto “Quando omni flunkus, moritati” worked for the fictional Harold, why shouldn’t it work for the real one?

A Pressing Need For Transport

So far, 2012 has been the busiest year yet for the Triffid Ranch, and 2013 may get to be even more extreme. All of this year’s shows as well as the Bram Stoker Awards Weekend in New Orleans, as well as a few one-day shows, and the rough edges of a classic nugget of business advice keep poking me in the back. Namely, “never buy when you can rent, until you lose money by renting instead of buying.” When it comes to transport, the Triffid Ranch is hitting that wall.

Running a very small nursery means avoiding a lot of aggravations faced by larger nurseries. Sticking to complete arrangements and full display solutions means leaving mail order to good friends who already do it much better, as well as my being able to sell larger plants than what can be shipped at a feasible price. However, those plants still need to get to their markets, at an affordable price, and the number of shows and the volume of plants at them means that it’s time to move past rental trucks. The day when the Triffid Ranch needs a 24-foot box truck is still a few years away, and then there are the ancillary issues.

To start, the transport vehicle needs to do its stated job and do it well. It needs to have a few absolutely essential traits, such as having exceptional suspension (I lost several beautiful arrangements in 2010 after being unable to avoid a bad bump in a 12-foot cube truck) and plenty of storage space for tools that doesn’t require having to crawl over plant racks to get at them. It needs to seat at least two, with the possible option of seating for a third. During the summer, air conditioning is essential, and “summer” in Texas and other environs at this latitude means “everything from the end of April to the middle of October.” Having something with reasonably decent gas mileage would be nice as well, with an option of using alternate fuels such as ethanol or biodiesel. (Again, this isn’t a hippie dippie requirement. This is just good old-fashioned Scottish frugality kicking in, especially with the number of farmers in Texas moving toward converting their spare cotton seed or excess sorghum into biodiesel. We’ll only see more of it if industrial hemp production finally gets legalized in the US.) It has to park well, have decent clearance for most bridges, and be able to get into hotel parking garages. Oh, and did I mention that the inside being able to be hosed or squeegeed clean would be a plus?

Then there’s the image that the Triffid Ranch is trying to impart with its transport. There’s nothing wrong with standard cargo vans: the Ford E-Series van is a U-Haul workhorse for a reason. As interesting as the Ford Transit Connects are, they’re just a little too small. Nissan’s NV3500 HD high roof might make the most sense of all, as far as a new vehicle is concerned, but I haven’t heard enough about their longterm dependability yet. However, there’s something missing.

That “something missing”, by the way, is NOT in a hearse. When I first started the hunt for a new vehicle, plenty of well-meaning friends figured “Man, dragging carnivorous plants to a show in a hearse would be COOL!” Well, not really. The Czarina did a lot of research into hearses when she was younger (and I emphasize the “youngER”), during her band days. Firstly, hearses are designed for transporting one sort of payload. Yes, they have great suspension, but that suspension tends to blow out at the worst possible time. The gas mileage is terrible, especially for cross-country trips. Pulling racks and tubs full of plants out of a hearse is a great way to help a lower back specialist pay for her son’s new braces. The low ceiling means a limit on the size of the biggest item being moved. Oh, yeah, and with big windows, leaving it in the sun even for a few minutes with the AC off is problematic. They’re great for the relatively short trips for which they’re designed, but you do NOT want to have one break down in an area where the nearest hearse mechanic may be two days away.

So this isn’t something that would be on the road incessantly, but that requires experts for when it does need TLC. High ceilings, doors at the side and back, and auxiliary storage accessible from outside the vehicle. Good presence, good handling, and an interior that could be sprayed down. Oh, and an exterior that could be given a perfectly appropriate paint job. What’s wrong with buying a used ambulance?

Have a Great Weekend

The North American Reptile Breeders Conference starts this weekend at the Arlington Convention Center, and every NARBC show needs its own music:

Things To Do In Dallas When You’re Dead

Here we are, coming up on the last weekend of August. Next Monday, most elementary, middle, and high schools open up across Texas, along with a significant number of universities. A couple of days of orientation, a few days of interim assignments, and then back to the linen mines until December. For those of us out of school, it’s even worse: streets blocked by helicopter parents terrified that their precious snowflakes might be snatched off the sidewalk by a pterodactyl, so they’re all jockeying to make sure that they’re right in front of the school door. More blockages due to kids who have to be driven to school, because there’s nothing more shameful and horrifying than having to take a bus or (gasp) walk. (I can say with absolute honesty that I walked nearly five miles to school every day while in high school. That, though, was because school policy was that students couldn’t leave the campus once they’d set foot on it, so walking was means toward stopping by the grocery store and digging through the latest issue of OMNI to bolster myself for a day of algebra.) I won’t even start with the road rage parents getting tagged by police for blasting through school zones, screaming “Do you KNOW who I AM? I have to get my CHILD to SCHOOL!” Yeah, it’s going to be fun.

Now, you have three options this weekend. You can stay in bed, listening to the clock ticking away like a potential suicide listening for an oncoming train. You can do more of the same, filling your days with television and work and sleep until you go to bed on Sunday night and realize that you’ve just lost that summer forever. Or, or, you can make plans this weekend to do something so blasted interesting that you immediately have something to talk about on Monday morning. As a high school chemistry teacher of mine was fond of joking, having all ten of your fingers and no interesting scars means that you didn’t live.

With that in mind, you have two serious options in the Dallas area. Both aren’t safe. Both aren’t orthodox. However, both will give you plenty of conversation material when you’re in the cafeteria, realizing that you’re going to get really, really bored with tuna fish sandwiches and canned pudding by the beginning of October.

The first, the latest Shadow Society event at the Crown & Harp on Greenville Avenue, sadly is one to which the Triffid Ranch won’t be a participant. Don’t let that stop you from heading out for its Nineties flashback show to dress up, catch music, and peruse the offerings of the various vendors in the back. If the Czarina and I didn’t already have commitments on Saturday, oh HELLS yes we’d be out there.

And speaking of commitments, as mentioned a while back, the North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington is trying a little experiment. Traditionally, the Arlington NARBC show is held in February, but this year, we get an additional show in August. This weekend, in fact. Again, the Triffid Ranch won’t be out there in an official capacity, but the idea is to do one more dry run before becoming a vendor at next year’s August show. I also have a very determined niece who wants to look at poison dart frogs, two friends who plan to shop for rat snakes (well, one who wants to buy one, and her adoring husband who needs help in keeping her from filling the house with reptiles), and two equally dear friends who are using this as the opportunity to bring their own kids to their first reptile show. The Czarina and I will be out there on Sunday, between noon and 2 p.m., so look for the white hair and listen for the nonstop commentary. Like the Shadow Society, you’ll kick yourself on Monday morning if you don’t come out and you realize that your whole summer, to quote the late Van Garrett, was spent eating Ding Dongs and watching Thundercats.

Unnatural solutions for invasive problems

This time last summer, the drought still had the rest of the year to go, and I was forced to buy water to keep the carnivores alive. This year, the rainwater reserves are loaded to the gunwales, the Sarracenia are actually growing this early in the season because of the decreased temperatures, and the Nepenthes are going mad. In my case, I can’t remember a summer quite so insane and an August so drenched since 1987. That was quite a year: that was the August where I discovered that if the rainwater in the streets rides over the axles on your bicycle wheels, you should just give up and push. That was the summer where jokes about putting pontoons on my transport really weren’t jokes, and where I spent my 21st birthday trying to get dry after biking to work through what we charitably call a “gullywasher” in Texas and the rest of the planet calls “God letting you know what He REALLY thinks about you.” It hasn’t been that bad this year, but considering that our high temperature on Tuesday was the low this time a week ago? I’m not complaining.

GloFish

Because of the coolth and the surprising amount of rainfall, you may have read about our current situation with West Nile Virus, mosquitoes, and authorities in Dallas County spraying for both. Now, it would be remarkably easy to note that this was a self-inflicted issue, compounded by Highland Park and White Rock Lake residents who freak out every time they see a wayward bug. (True story: I received a call last year from a White Rock Lake gentleman who wanted to buy hundreds of Venus flytraps from me. He apparently saw a trail of ants at the end of his driveway, and wanted to build a killing hedge of flytraps around his house to eat them all. When I tried to explain that flytraps could actually attract bugs, and that they wouldn’t magically wipe out every arthropod in the timezone with intentions of coming near his house, he called me a liar. I truly wish that he was the only person with this idea, but I’ve had several others deciding that this is more “all-natural” than covering themselves with bulletproof plastic.) Instead, this started the beginnings of a Project.

Okay, to start, we’re going to need music. When dealing with evil experimentation of this sort, I highly recommend The Consortium of Genius. In fact, when it comes to projects that invoke both Doctor Who and The Red Green Show, I can’t think of anyone else.

Now, to start, consider the basic situation with the Triffid Ranch as a venue that raises carnivorous plants. Many if not most of these carnivores thrive in boggy conditions, which usually entails bodies of standing water. Standing water attracts mosquitoes, which lay eggs, which in turn become larvae. Said larvae grow to adulthood, bringing with them any number of diseases. The females collect many of these diseases when drinking blood in order to produce viable eggs, and spread them from host to host in the process. Keep the mosquitoes under control, and you control the diseases. This situation is aggravated by the fact that many of said carnivores depend upon mosquitoes as prey, and one, the purple pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea, actually depends upon a certain number of mosquito larvae in its traps to assist with breaking down trapped prey. I need to collect lots of rainwater, preferably clean enough to use in mister systems, while at the same time making sure that it remains mosquito-free for both my health and that of everyone around me.

Now, for those with an aversion to broad-spectrum insecticides, you have plenty of options. For small applications, such as the Triffid Ranch’s Sarracenia pools, mosquito dunks work remarkably well: they contain a natural toxin derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, and Bt is extremely effective on mosquitoes. The problem with mosquito dunks is that they’re effectively sawdust disks impregnated with Bt, and they have a tendency to break apart after a while. This isn’t a problem at all in most applications, such as with planters, old tires, or other places that regularly fill with water and then dry out. When being used in open water cisterns, though, they make a royal mess that can jam up pumps, filters, and mister systems.

Then there’s the biological controls. Traditionally, since Dallas is on a floodplain, using fish adapted to living in floodplain ponds, cattle tanks, and streams makes the most sense. The traditional introduced control is the western mosquitofish Gambusia affinis, but we also have plenty of indigenous minnows that might work. Some of them are also quite attractive, adding a benefit to using them in large rainwater tanks.

Those already familiar with using fish in rainbarrels and ponds to control mosquitoes might already be mumbling “What about goldfish, you moron?” That’s a fair question, and one that’s answered by asking you to look at last year’s heat wave in the Dallas area. Goldfish are great mosquito devourers, but they thrive best at temperatures around 68 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius), and we’re lucky if we see that as an air temperature during the summer. Rainbarrels and yard ponds are particularly subject to the underside of the square-cube law, where you increase the available surface area of an item as you decrease its volume. A lake will heat up in the summer much more slowly than a typical rain barrel, and during a typical July, the water in a standard 150-gallon stock tank can get point-blank hot.

It’s not just the issue with hot water denaturing brain proteins, either, although this is a concern. Anyone who stayed awake in high school biology or chemistry remembers that the higher the water temperature, the lower the amount of dissolved oxygen in that water. That’s a major factor with higher temperatures being lethal to goldfish, as they simply can’t pull enough oxygen out of the available water to survive. Many fish have options to absorb oxygen from the atmosphere in these situations: bettas and lungfish are two famous options, and anybody around a stagnant section of the Trinity River in summer (and in summer, the whole of the Trinity is stagnant) can watch both spotted and alligator gar rise to the surface to catch a quick breath of air. Mosquitofish have that ability as well, which explains their continued popularity.

Another point to consider here is that future plans at the Triffid Ranch include growing both Aldrovanda and aquatic bladderworts, both of which need very acidic, very clean water. Out here, to get that, rainwater is about the only option. Aldrovanda plants can and will catch mosquito larvae, but only bladderwort species with the largest traps could handle something as large as a larva, and most consume water fleas and other prey considerably smaller than a baby mosquito. They also need a lot of light, meaning that any tank keeping them will either have to be in full sun or exposed to a pretty impressive bank of artificial lights. They’ll need a biological control that can both handle summer water temperatures and the lower temperatures seen in spring and autumn.

GloFish

Years back, a friend told me about using zebra danios (Danio rerio) in rain barrels because of their exceptional hardiness. They thrive in temperature extremes that kill most tropical fish and goldfish, and they’re particularly undiscerning about their water conditions. They breed readily, they eat like horses, and they can be brought into indoor tanks when things get cold. Since they’re most assuredly NOT going to be released into the wild at the end of a growing season, danios are already a great choice, but let’s jam the weirdness dial to “11,” shall we?

GloFish

If you’ve been around a pet shop with a decent fish selection in the last five years, you’ve probably seen GloFish in one. Originally developed as a sideproject in efforts to genetically engineer a fish that glowed in response to pollutants, GloFish are gengineered zebra danios with a jellyfish gene added to its genome. Because of this, they are luminous in five colors, with the colors particularly popping in ultraviolet light. Now, that’s interesting enough for our purposes, but apparently the gene that controls the GloFish fluorescence also imparts additional temperature extreme resistance. I saw this myself about five years ago, when a malfunctioning heater in my personal aquarium left the water inside literally steaming when I woke up one morning. All but five fish died due to the temperature, and four of those were GloFish.

So, let’s recap. Heat tolerance. A firm appetite for mosquitoes. Improved opportunities for filtration and maintenance on aquatic carnivores. Designer colors. It’s too late to run a full series of experiments on their viability this summer, but I’m already making plans for next year to go along with a new 150-gallon stock tank for bladderworts. Dr. Pinkerton, could you give us an appropriate theme for the science party?

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn: the birthday edition

The Czarina’s birthday was two weeks ago, and she got exactly what she requested. Namely, a perfect variable-speed band saw, with a replaceable diamond blade for cutting stone, glass, and some metals. Naturally, she’s thrilled, so now she figures that it’s my turn. Every other day, she asks “So…what would you like for your birthday?”, and I know she won’t like my answer.

To understand part of the problem, let me tell you a little bit about my mother. My mother’s birthday is right around Christmas, so all of her children (of which I’m the eldest) had it impressed into their skulls at a very early age that the height of tackiness was to purchase a “Happy Birthday/Merry Christmas” present for her. I mean that quite seriously: you could make a gravestone rubbing of the back of my cranium and read it, if you want. To this day, I take that seriously with any friend or relation with a birthday coinciding with a holiday: a niece’s birthday is on St. Patrick’s Day, and I’d only get her green beer if she asked for it. (Next year, she’ll be old enough to accept it without her aunt and uncle getting arrested for doing so.) A good friend’s birthday is on New Year’s Eve, and the year I planned to throw her a real birthday party with no mention of New Year festivities, she was already moving to Seattle.

Now, my mother may have had that attitude for her birthday, but consider the joys of the child born just before the start of the school year. Any answer to “What would you like to get for your birthday?” is translated to “School clothes and supplies,” and I so detested the annual month-long shopping expeditions for school clothes that I still blank out the clothing sections of stores to this day. Combine that with the first day of school in Texas school districts falling on my birthday, and you can imagine the joy. “Mom, you shouldn’t have. Paper and pencils?”

“Don’t have too much fun with them. You have to get up to go to school in the morning.”

Technically, that last happened 30 years ago this next week. The very next year, school started three days earlier, making me the only sixteen-year-old in Lewisville High School‘s senior class. I got school dress shirts that year, too, so now you understand why I bypass the “Back to School” section at Target and go straight toward the Halloween section at the local Michael’s store. Greenhouses are cool.

The other problem is that I know that the Czarina gets frustrated when there’s simply no way she can get me the perfect birthday present. Every birthday goes the same. The mere words “crocodile monitor” cause her elbows to slide out of their sheathes and drool venom on the floor. In fact, I think I’d be in less trouble if I said “power of attorney” or “threesome”. She can’t afford what I really want, and I wouldn’t expect it of her. As for the other possibilities, she has the same problem when she wants to plan a vacation. She wants someplace nice and romantic, and so do I, but when I say that my idea of a perfect getaway is hanging out on the shores of Lake Vostok in the Miocene, she just starts to cry. I won’t even start with her attempts to make an operational Red Lantern ring, just so Leiber can dress up for Halloween this year.

However, this year is different. I need new garden implements, and she understands this. I need something to help haul plants to shows, and she understands this. Therefore, she won’t have any problems when I ask for this:

Tricera-Tractor

(Apologies in advance to the original photo owner: this is being used without permission solely because I couldn’t find any. This will be amended, and the photo owner compensated, as soon as I track down this person. All I can tell for sure is that the creator of this wonderful beast is in London, in the Shoreditch area, and that there’s video. Image copyright by Wreckage International.)

Of particular note is the driver of this beast. Yeah, have fun with Tank Girl, Jet Girl, Boat Girl, and Sub Girl. When the Triffid Ranch goes international, my first hire will be Triceratops Tractor Girl.

EDIT: a bit more digging reveals a bit more. The critter in question is named “Adrianne”, and she was the work of the Wreckage International art group. Sadly, the group’s Web site is done, but if you want to listen to how Adrianne was constructed, have at it.

August 20, 1890

Happy birthday, cousin. Although, to be fair, if you’re going to be 122 today, you might want to invite me to the party one of these times.

Introducing Cadigan

On one side, I don’t want to be one of those people who goes on and on and ON about their cats. On the other, the Internet really is made of cats, and I’ve become convinced that the great advances in broadband technology in the last fifteen years all depend upon our obsession with online cat photos. Therefore, let me contribute to the mess. Say hello to “Cadigan”, the new Triffid Ranch cat.

Cadigan

This is what happens when you leave the house. I make a quick run to the local Petco for research purposes (and that will be explained shortly), and this little fuzzball reached out of her cage in the pet adoption section, snagged my leg, and demanded I take her picture. I showed the picture to the Czarina, and she insisted that we go back to look at her. By Friday, after the initial adoption evaluation, we came back home with another literary reference. Like her namesake, one of my favorite people, she’s really quite quiet and speaks only when she has something to say. She’s also quite the hellion when encouraged (again, like her namesake), and she’s already pretty much taken over the household. She’s even terrorized Leiber into submission, mostly by hiding atop chairs until Leiber walks by and bushwhacking him from above.

Cadigan

Cadigan

Cadigan

You know, you’d have thought I’d learned my lesson in letting ginger girls into my life, but I suspect this one is sticking around for a while. The Czarina has a cat she can cuddle, I have one that doesn’t sleep on my feet all night, and Leiber has one that doesn’t steal all of his wet food. So long as she doesn’t try to eat the plants, and she shows no indication of having any interest, she’ll fit in just fine.

Have a Great Weekend

“To fight the bug, we must understand the bug.”

When Texans joke “If you don’t like the weather, just hang around ten minutes,” they aren’t kidding. (I say ‘they” because even though I’ve lived here a full two-thirds of my life, I’m really only Texan by marriage. I may be the Texan equivalent of a Sassenach, haole, or pakeha, but at least I know that you only serve Lone Star beer to tourists who don’t know any better.) An hour ago, nothing but dry heat. In another half-hour or so, we’ll probably be flooded out. Look for me in the Sarracenia pools, where I’ll probably be feeding the bladderworts.

Very seriously, if the rain isn’t fun enough, I’ll be spending the night buying mosquito dunks and hitting just about any place in the neighborhood with standing water. The Sarracenia pools are safe because I use them religiously, but with Dallas going crazy with West Nile Virus panic, anything to keep aerial spraying to a minimum works for me.

Anyway, back to getting the rainwater collectors ready for the deluge, and many thanks to Debbie Middleton for reminding me to get the word out on mosquito dunks. We’re still at least six weeks away from the end of summer out here, and this may be a sustaining action.

“Causing a commotion, coz they are so awesome…”

Museum of Nature & Science hallway

As one of the sidenotes of being in the Museum of Nature & Science hall, the Triffid Ranch table was located between two sets of murals on display. Over the run of the Planet Shark touring exhibition, the Museum set out big sheets of Tyvek and allowed anybody brave enough to be seen in public draw and write all over them. Naturally, five-year-olds have no fear of man, beast, or god when it comes to public artistic expression, but you could tell that quite a few older artists had made their marks as well.

Planet Shark display

(And before anyone asks, the velvet curtain along the wall was cover for an emergency exit for the shark exhibit, leading from an alcove looking at popular culture presentations of sharks over the years. This led to quite a few people assuming that the curtain led to new wonders, only for them to be surprised and a little disappointment that the curtain had a view of a middle-aged guy in a cowboy hat and a collection of carnivorous plants. Had I known that so many would peek through, I would have been waiting there with a fiberglass hammerhead shark head, just to see the expressions on their faces.)

Shark mural and cutout

As can be told, the murals definitely contained a lot of enthusiasm.

Shark mural closeup

And then there was the little bit at eye level from me across the hall. I know that most adults attending the exhibition wouldn’t have noticed this little bit, or recognized the reference if they had. I have several nieces and a couple of nephews, though, who would have laughed themselves sick if they’d seen it.

Narwhals, Narwhals

Okay, Zac: be honest. You’re responsible, aren’t you?

The Aftermath: Discovery Days at the Museum of Nature & Science

Texas Triffid Ranch table

Last weekend’s Discovery Days show at Dallas’s Museum of Nature & Science went off without a hiccup, even with the slightly melancholy vibe running the entire weekend. As of September 16, when the current Planet Shark exhibition closes, so will the Science Museum building, previously known as The Science Place for the last three decades. Considering the amount of time I’ve spent over the last quarter-century in this building (the original Robot Dinosaurs exhibition opened on my 21st birthday), this was a second-to-last opportunity to say goodbye to an old and dear friend.

The welcome sign at Discovery Days

The idea was simple: come out with a sampling of carnivores for exhibition, and answer questions the attending kids had about the plants and how they lived. As with last year’s Discovery Days show, both kids and adults kept me on my toes with thoughtful, sharp, and detailed questions about carnivorous plant physiology and habits. What was new this year was the number of visitors, both from out-of-state and out-of-country, who had great insights. When I wasn’t talking to a Romanian engineer about Transylvanian dinosaurs (and he was absolutely amazed that such a thing existed) and his world-famous countryman Baron Nopsca, I was helping to identify pitcher plants on Luzon in the Philippines. If I was twitching by the end, it was only because of the sheer amount of information that attendees shared, and I only hope that I was able to return the favor.

A small selection from my carnivorous plant library

As I did last year, I brought out a cross-section of reference books on the subject to show examples of plants I didn’t have in my collection at the moment, but it may be time to get an iPad and go electronic. My back still hurts from hauling them out of the car on Sunday evening.

Sarracenia lid and lip

All of the plants were popular, but the big Sarracenia hybrid was the belle of the ball. In fact, a couple of people made precisely that comment. Not only did she draw interest in the first place, but she was ultimately more accessible to understanding basic passive-trap physiology than any other plant there. (In particular, one attendee had a slight freakout when I was demonstrating with a UV light how the lid interiors and lips of the pitcher fluoresce under ultraviolet light, and she literally squeaked “It’s a sonic screwdriver!”) That said, most of the kids liked her cousin…

The provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador

I was regularly asked if I named individual plants, and I was half-tempted to nickname the two Sarracenia purpurea “Red” and “Harold” for the duration of the show. Considering the number of Canadians, not to mention us Canadian anchor babies, out to see the sharks, that may or may not have been prudent. Bringing “Red” out, though, was especially important for one four-year-old with a look in her eye that I knew well from her age: “Don’t you DARE patronize me.” She wanted everything explained to her exactly the way I would have done with her parents, and she asked as many questions as she could about the hairs on the lip and composition of the debris in the bottom of the pitchers with her admittedly slightly limited vocabulary. I hope to run into her again in a few years and see how far she leaves me in the dust in scientific inquiries.

Nepenthes ampullaria

And the other surprise hit? Explaining the number of mutualistic relationships between carnivores and various animals had some kids engrossed, especially when I told them about the relationships between Nepenthes ampullaria and the frog Microhyla nepenthicola. Frogs that nest and breed in pitcher plants? Oh, that shattered a few fragile young minds. (I’ll say the greatest satisfaction came with a group of teenagers who claimed that they were there to watch out for little brothers, and they must have hung out on Saturday afternoon for an hour, asking every question they could. I don’t know if they were too fascinated to pretend to be nonplussed, or if I treated them like adults, but they asked some of the sharpest questions the whole weekend long. And so much for kids today being lazy and stupid, eh?)

As mentioned before, this was the last actual event at the old Museum, but I’ve been assured that the crew wants a carnivorous plant presence at the new Perot Museum of Nature and Science, which opens next year. In the meantime, I’m planning to organize one last outing to the current Museum on September 16, where those of us who remember the two separate museums in Fair Park can come out and have one last look around. For the Czarina and myself, it’ll be particularly important, as we were married under the Protostega in the Texas Giants Hall at the old Museum of Natural History, and this is as close to renewing our vows in the same place as we’re going to get.

Have a Great Weekend

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn: Soft Landing

And now a temporary break in the gardening conversation. Just as with seemingly two-thirds of the planet, I’ve my sense of wonder stretched to the breaking point due to NASA’s updates on the Mars Curiosity rover, and it’s as if the last 36 years didn’t happen and I was waiting for the first feeds from Viking 1’s landing in Chryse Planitia back in 1976. If anything, I almost wish the Interwebs were available back then, because reading the updates and viewing videos without one of Don Henley’s “bubble-headed bleach blondes” squawking endlessly “Is there life? Is there life?” is extremely enjoyable.

I’ll also warn you that through no fault of my own, I’m a child of the Eighties. Further, while I have no interest in illicit pharmaceuticals, I spent my most formative years hanging out with a lot of stoners. (If you ask really nicely, I’ll tell you how I found out that savannah monitor urine looks almost exactly like crack cocaine, at least to a suburban nit who’d probably smoke laundry detergent and swear it gave him a buzz.) Because of that, I had a lot of exposure to post-psychedelic culture, and it gave me a long-running appreciation for the sequential art of Vaughan Bode, Moebius, Matt Howarth, and Bernie Wrightson. When you’re 14 and bored out of your mind, going through old issues of OMNI was better than drugs, and was almost better than sex. Not that I had any first-hand-experience to make the comparison.

Anyway, here’s a bit of head explodey for people of the right age. First, go to the NASA site and open up the video “Dropping in on Mars: A Rover’s-Eye View“.

At the 14-second mark, start up this video and then go back to the NASA vid:

I have nephews and nieces who won’t get the appeal. I can guarantee, though, that a whole slew of high school classmates will watch this. No matter what they’ve done since the early Eighties, no matter how much they’ve changed appearance or attitude or mental outlook, I can guarantee you that they’ll look at this and yell “DUDE!” Because that’s what we did back then, mostly because we didn’t know any better.

Things To Do In Dallas (And Fort Worth) When You’re Dead

To hear natives tell it, absolutely nothing happens in the Dallas area during the summer. “It’s too hot to do anything,” they say. “The real action hits in autumn, when the big yellow hurty thing in the sky stops trying to turn us into ash.” “We don’t even like going out swimming, because the water evaporates before you can dive off the high board.”

Yeah, don’t you believe it. If you fall for that, you’ll fall for the real whoppers, such as how getting a degree in journalism is a guarantee of high and stable income for the rest of your life. (Well, it is if you moonlight as something much less socially reprehensible than a music or film critic.) My problem is that I give everyone the benefit of the doubt, especially concerning the journalism degree, and then the rest of the summer is booked solid.

Anyway, to start the festivities, I sympathize with those who have families this time of the year. By the middle of August, the kids are both going insane from a two-month diet of cable television and the impending dread of the new school year, and they want to do something. Their parents are going insane with the realization that if they don’t take vacation time now, they won’t have any opportunity to take a vacation until after Christmas, and that they have a long four-month intervening slog in the linen mines until they’re paroled. Both take a good look outside, stick a finger out from underneath sunscreen and shade cloth, scream as the radiation leaves them able to see the bones in that finger before the flesh catches fire, and decide “Whatever we do, it’s going to be someplace with air conditioning and thick ceilings.” Not that I blame them in the slightest, as this is the time of the year that makes me impersonate the lifestyle of my totem animal and stay underground.

Well, the good news is that the Museum of Nature & Science in Dallas’s Fair Park is run by people who think like sane parents, which is why it’s hosting this weekend’s upcoming Discovery Days event, Discover Going Green, before school starts. The Triffid Ranch will be out there to show off a selection of carnivorous plants, carnivorous plant impersonators, and general oddballs on both Saturday and Sunday, so stop by and say hello.

As for the first serious Triffid Ranch show of the fall season, we’re now officially 45 days away from FenCon IX, running in Addison this September 21 through 23. Same hotel as previous years, but with luck, we’ll be seeing the first serious break in the heat about then. You may think you don’t want to deal with gullywasher storms on the weekend, but anything beats the smell of burning flint everywhere you walk. The start of autumn weather not only promises to make things easier on the folks coming out from places where the local hydrogen in the atmosphere doesn’t spontaneously fuse, but it may make for some particularly interesting plant arrangements.

And lest I forget, announcements for the 2013 Texas Frightmare Weekend see release next week, and along with that, first availability of passes. Naturally, the Triffid Ranch plans to crash the party again: at this point, the idea is to be the first in line for vendor’s spaces. Considering the crowds at the 2013 show, get your tickets as soon as they’re available, because the weekend passes could very easily be sold out six months before the show. It’s happened before.

Finally, last year’s drought put paid to previous plans, but it’s time to return to the Funky Finds Holiday Shopping Experience in Fort Worth the weekend of November 10. Any excuse to go to Fort Worth is a good excuse, and I certainly don’t have problems with spending the weekend at the Will Rogers Memorial Center. That is, if there’s room to squeeze in the Triffid Ranch. We’ll see.

“Sweetie, if you don’t let me come, I’ll adopt a Hynerian baby!”

In the last few weeks, I’ve run into several people who knew me during my old writing days, and they don’t really believe that I’ve quit. In many ways, I don’t blame them, because they can’t kick the writing habit, so they can’t believe that I’ve gone cold turkey. Well, I get the usual “you’re doing a blog, so you’re still writing” garbage, but that’s like saying I’m still a drug abuser for popping a couple of aspirin. For the sake of argument, let’s presume that the discussion of what constitutes a writer involves those who write for publication and/or payment, in a venue which they do not have direct control. I know this will offend the self-publishing obsessives, but I haven’t offended anybody in the last few hours, so it’s their turn.

It’s not that I don’t miss writing in general. I miss the communication. What I don’t miss are the mindgames that go with traditional publishing of all sorts. I don’t miss having an editor/publisher sit on a manuscript for months or years. I don’t miss being rewritten without warning (especially when I volunteer to take on rewrites) and having to take the hit when the editor screws up. I don’t miss having articles gutted because an article submitted by the editor’s girlfriend ran five pages over, and she threatened to go postal if the editor so much as changed a single word. I don’t miss book and magazine distribution nightmares. I don’t miss having to wait six months for payment on articles, or of editors magically deciding “we can’t afford to pay until we’re profitable,” and then going out of their way to make sure their publication remains unprofitable. I don’t miss editors who still owe me money for dead publications from fifteen years ago who move to a new one and assume that I’ll play the same game. Most of all, I don’t miss having to commiserate with friends about how utterly terrible and horrible it is that one venue or another went under, when what you really want to howl is “I’ll see it in Hell, sucker!”

Amazingly, these people still wonder why I’d give up the glamor and lucre of writing for science fiction magazines for raising carnivorous plants. Heck, some even get offended that I won’t come back.

In the past few days, though, I’ve reconsidered my stance. I can actually thank my local grocery store for this, because one quick peek through its Periodicals section demonstrated that there’s no reason why I couldn’t hop back, just long enough to pay for a new greenhouse and about 50 acres to put it on. All I need is the right gimmick.

Red Harvest front

By way of example, when passing through the periodicals racks, I usually focus on the magazines. Going through the books these days, though, is like wandering through the Marianas Trench. I’ve been far enough away from publishing that all of the denizens are odd to surface-born eyes, and some have all of the lurid fascination and danger of vampire squid and gulper eels. That’s actually unfair to vampire squid and gulper eels, because they can survive in the wild without assistance. The current trend in vampire/angel/werewolf/shapeshifter/witch romance novels is the literary equivalent of those “fruit cocktail trees” sold in garden centers: graft on enough scions, and someone will buy it just because it looks too strange to survive.

With the collapse of Borders last fall, it’s obvious that both the publishing industry and the publishing distribution industry are both in trouble. Both lost a huge market, and now they’re throwing whatever they can against the wall to see if it sticks. Hence, it’s hard not to ask if some poor overworked editor isn’t channeling the spirit of Max Bialystock and offering contracts for the science fiction equivalent of “Springtime For Hitler”. Hence, this viperfish of a title in the rack this morning:

Red Harvest back

Yes, you’re not just looking at a Star Wars novel. You’re looking at a Star Wars ZOMBIE novel. One of a series. To quote one of literature’s greatest fictional orchid enthusiasts, “PFUI!”

Next, there’s the “Featured” area of the periodicals section, better known as the “Pay For Play” area. Most days, this is filled with the latest issue of D magazine, highlighting its latest “Top 283 Left-Handed Vending Machine Operators Willing To Pay Us For a Full-Page Ad” cover story, but today? Today is a very different day. Today, the Featured area is full of the latest publishing sensation: three volumes of Twilight slashfic, with the serial numbers barely filed off before publication.

Featured entry in the Periodicals section

Fifty Shades Darker

I have to admit that this is absolutely brilliant in an odd way. Why kill yourself on creating original situations and characters when you can just high-grade the background of an established universe? Better yet, why kill yourself further on creating something truly unique, when (as Norman Spinrad noted fifteen years ago) a chimpanzee could type out a manuscript for a Star Wars novel and it would still make the New York Times Bestsellers list?

Fifty Shades Freed

Twenty years ago, my younger self would have been offended by this. Enraged. Screaming at the top of his lungs at this sort of gibberish taking over bookshelf space. In those intervening two decades, though, I’ve noticed that for all of the outrage, the final determination as to the success of these servings of literary Hamburger Helper is the famed invisible hand of the market. Yes, some of these sell and sell well, but the writers tend to disappear. The worst fate of all: the books go out of print, and they stay out of print. Or, to put it another way, these will probably be about as well-read and well-appreciated as the unauthorized rewrite of Gone With The Wind in the Nineties. And so it goes.

This is why I’ve decided not to complain and kvetch about this state of affairs, and I’m planning to use it to finance an expansion of the plant business, if not the opportunity to buy a new house. If I can’t get a three-book, six-figure contract for my crossover Absolutely Fabulous/Farscape slashfic, featuring the erotic exploits of Edina Monsoon and Pilot, then I’m just not trying hard enough. All editor queries welcome…

Ave atque vale, Ralph the Swimming Pig

I’ve officially reached that age where everyone stops sending me the latest memos. For all intents and purposes, I’m residing in the basement, with only my red Swingline stapler to keep me company. Nobody loves me enough to let me know that the world changed while I was taking a nap, and it’s all to make it easier to laugh at me when I ask where the VHS tape rewinder went.

Well, that’s okay. I’ve wanted to visit Aquarena Springs near San Marcos for decades, mostly because it still preserves a host of flora otherwise wiped out when Texas warmed and dried out at the end of the last ice age. Another reason is because Aquarena Springs is the closest I’ll be getting to Wakulla Springs in the Florida Panhandle for a while. (Nearly ten years away, and I still desperately miss that place.) But the most entertaining reason? For years, I was tantalized by the various tourist flyers for the amusement park at Aquarena Springs, including the star attraction, Ralph the Swimming Pig.

Well, I’m too late to watch Ralph, or one of the many Ralphs trained over the years, perform his famed “Swine Dive”, after discovering that the amusement park was acquired by Texas State University in 1996, and the attractions removed in order to protect the indigenous and often highly endangered wildlife in the springs. Even the Submarine Underwater Theater is gone, having been pulled up with one of the world’s largest cranes last May.

Well, a life without Ralph also means a life with the unique fauna and flora of San Marcos Springs. Schedule permitting, a weekend trip down that way next spring is in order.

Happy birthday to the Czarina

Today is the Czarina’s birthday. Look busy.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

In my efforts to terrify my poor friend Dave Hutchison, I regularly tell him insane lies about how much worse Texas is than his native England. Not just the minor exaggerations, such as the packs of roadrunners that chase down joggers like modern-day phorusrhacids, or my concealed chainsaw permit for when I need to go grocery shopping. (As I said, minor exaggeration. Cattle prods are much more effective when dealing with people who walk the way they drive.) No, I tell him the big whoppers, the ones that would leave Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von M√ľnchhausen exclaiming “Oh, come ON!” Again, insane lies: tales of people using their cars for bread proofing ovens and frying pans on summer days. I tell him about the sun being so horrible that Texans brew tea by putting water and teabags in glass jars and just leaving it outside in the sun for a few hours. I tell him about a place where the outside air can still run close to blood temperature, four hours after nightfall. And he believes it all.

Oh, wait, that’s right. I forgot. When I tell him “these are insane lies”, I really mean “this is the absolute truth of the matter. Gaze upon the horror, ye mighty, and despair!” That’s just how Texas is.

Believe it or not, I don’t do this to torture him. I do this to convince him to come out and visit. Preferably, he’d visit at a time when the ambient temperatures come close to the fusion point of iron, but we can’t have everything. So instead of making the obvious jokes about “man, is it hot in Dallas right now, I just ask him “So…it’s too hot to ride a bicycle to work any more. Do you think there’s enough room in the parking lot for one of these?”

That vague ululation you hear coming from Great Britain? That’s Dave, trying to figure out whether he needs to scream or cry, and not quite accomplishing either. I suspect he’ll come out here one of these days, just to beat the hell out of me with a toy Dalek, just because he can.

Have a Great Weekend

Show aftermath: July with the Shadow Society

Triffid Ranch booth at the Shadow Society

Four years ago this week, the Triffid Ranch debuted at Convergence 14, a goth convention held that year in Tampa. Last weekend, the latest Triffid Ranch show ran at The Shadow Society, a monthly gathering at the Crown & Harp here in Dallas. Back then, the Czarina and I were traveling by car across the continent, so this wasn’t much of a show. Last weekend, the available space was at a premium, so the idea was to come out with a sampler. A selection of beginner carnivores, a few loss-leaders to demonstrate that carnivorous plants consist of more than Venus flytraps, one flytrap globe so nobody asks “Hey, where are the flytraps?”, and stickers and buttons. Between this and a very pared-down setup for the Czarina, we barely squeezed in everything into the car, just like four years ago.

You know what else was just like 2008? No matter how much or how well the organizers promoted the show, the opening of the Olympics kicked our butts.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a complaint. Yes, the show was a bit sparse on attendees, but the both of us have done shows where vendors outnumbered attendees by two to one. The July Shadow Society event still featured a lot of interesting folks, this gave a field test of a new lighting system for the new display shelves, we vendors had a great time comparing notes on upcoming events, and pretty much everyone made plans for Convergence XIX in Austin next spring. We also used this time to plot and scheme on plans for the Shadow Society event at the end of August. Between this and the North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington that weekend, who says that Dallas and Fort Worth are lacking in odd attractions?

Detail: Triffid Ranch booth at the Shadow Society

And with that, here’s a gentle reminder that the next Triffid Ranch show will be at the Discovery Days: Discover Going Green family event at the Museum of Nature & Science on August 11 and 12. As I keep telling people, come for the biodiesel, and stay for the carnivorous plants.