Daily Archives: June 11, 2013

Road Trip: the Robert E. Howard Goblin Tree

Robert E. Howard Museum

It’s often said that writers never really quit: they just find another addiction. It’s definitely hard to get out of the research habit, or to pay tribute to those who got you started even after you’ve left. For my best friend Paul Mears and myself, a bit of that involved a nearly three-hour road trip to Cross Plains, Texas, to visit the Robert E. Howard Museum this last weekend. While Robert Ervin Howard is best known as one of the triumvirate of writers best associated with the classic weird fiction pulp magazine Weird Tales (the other two being H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith), but his contributions to other genres assured his memory as one of Texas’s most influential fiction writers. Every year, on or around the anniversary of Howard’s death, the town of Cross Plains hosts Robert E. Howard Days, a series of readings, lectures, presentations, and parties, culminating in a barbecue held on a ranch just outside of town.

National Register

Robert Howard's workspace

The trip itself is a good excuse to get out of Dallas for a while, but it’s also a great opportunity to research Texas history and natural history. Once west of Weatherford, the land switches back to its primordial charm, and civilization still attempts to keep the wilds at bay instead of attempting to dominate it. With the right kind of eyes, it’s not hard to see what the area was like back in the 1920s and 1930s, where automobiles were still relative novelties for people still using horse and buggy to get around the area. With other eyes, Howard’s eyes, it’s also not hard to see the wild wonders that filled his more fantastic stories peeking out in plain sight.

Tim Truman

You can see my problem. While everyone else was there to talk to fellow Howard enthusiasts, such as famed comics artist Tim Truman and Howard savant Mark Finn, and with good reason, I went wandering a bit to find bits of that wonder. Fossil shells in the front yard of the Museum. Viewing the converted sleeping porch Howard used as his bedroom and work area, and remembering when I was living and writing in a space not much larger than that twenty years ago. Noting fresh armadillo dig marks at the base of a pile of fresh sand around a dead tree stump. That’s about the time I noticed the goblin tree.

Robert E. Howard goblin tree

Between their natural propensity to grow in odd shapes, their tendency to heal prunings in grotesque ways, and ongoing stresses from sun and wind, Texas oak trees already stimulate the natural human tendency toward pareidolia, but this one practically came straight out of a Michael Whelan painting. The camera couldn’t capture all of them, but stretch the eyeballs a bit and see the faces, especially the profile of the turtle man in the old burl.

Robert E. Howard tree goblin

Robert E. Howard tree goblin profile

Robert E. Howard tree goblin

If it wasn’t hard to see monsters and supernatural beasts in that one tree, then it just kept coming. When joining the rest of the Robert Howard Days crew for the traditional Texas barbecue at the end of the day, I wandered off for a second and found the stump of a long-dead Western cedar tree, blasted by sun and heat for maybe twenty years or more.

Cross Plains dragon skull

If I can see the dragon skull lying in the dust, then very likely “Two Gun Bob” Howard could have, too. The difference is that I note the similarity and move on. He probably would have used that as a hook in a new story, and thrilled generations of new readers 77 years after his death. Many of his fans lament how an imagination like his was trapped in small-town Texas. Me, I think that imagination couldn’t have existed without that stimulation.

Tales From The Ranch: this year’s Opuntia blooms

Opuntia clump

This week brings typically Texan temperatures to the area, along with typically North Texan (lack of humidity). When faced with the slow oven outside right now, it’s hard to believe that we already received nearly two inches of rain on Sunday morning, and that we were still dabbling in near-freezing temperatures at least once per week just over a month ago. Sure, that’s typical for Maine, but for Texas? Oy.

The upside to the odd temperatures and the fierce rains hitting much of West Texas is that the area’s most familiar component of the flora, the prickly pear, is doing all right. The vicious summers of 2011 and 2012 only slowed them down, and the odd 2013 spring meant that they bloomed later and stronger than usual. Normally, by the end of May, the blooms would be long gone, leaving only the developing fruit, known locally as “tuna,” attached to the cactus pads. This time, though, I lucked out, and managed to get quite a few excellent shots of an exploding semidesert and the life therein.

Opuntia in bloom

Among other things, the rains and cold brought out an anomaly. Normally, the flowers of Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri are a brilliant canary yellow, but the weather seemed to encourage the development of orange ones as well. If these appeared only on individual cacti, that might make sense, but any given clump might have one orange to every five yellow. It’s not completely unheard of at the ranch: my father-in-law showed me photos of the ranch in 1990 with the same phenomenon. Of course, 1990 was marked not only with an unusually cold winter (including the coldest temperature ever recorded in Dallas), but with torrential spring and summer rains that left the Brazos and Trinity Rivers flooding as far north as the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. Are the orange blooms stimulated by similar weather conditions, or are other factors involved? Time for more research.

Orange Opuntia bloom

Opuntia bloom

Opuntia flowers

Opuntia flowers

Orange Opuntia flowers

As any entomologist will tell you, and Bug Girl in particular will tell you, the evolution of flowering plants and the domination of every landmass by insects go together like rum and Coke. Opuntia blooms produce impressive amounts of pollen, and the available protein in that pollen draws out any number of indigenous insects. Both native and honey bees go absolutely mad for prickly pear pollen and nectar, which made photographing them an aggravation. How are you supposed to get one to hold still when they’re practically rolling around in glee?

Opuntia with bee

Opuntia with katydid

That attraction doesn’t stop with bees, either. While its jaws are better suited for cutting than mashing, this juvenile katydid had no problem trying its best to down as much pollen as it could muster. Grasshoppers occasionally accompany the katydids in hiding within the blooms, but they apparently have no interest in either blooms or pollen as food.

Orange Opuntia with ambush bug

In any situation with lots of insect prey, you’ll find lots of predators, and Opuntia offers a handy hiding space and basking platform for them as well. Very occasionally, if you’re quiet and subtle, you might see a local fence swift (Sceloporus olivaceus) basking atop a prickly pear pad, snapping up bugs before returning to the top of the pad. No such luck this time, but closer viewing of this orange bloom revealed a rather large ambush bug hiding at its base. Considering the pain of their bite, I wasn’t so dumb as to try to capture it, so I settled for naming it “Irwin” before letting it go on its way.