Posted onJune 29, 2018|Comments Off on Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)
A lot of people already have their eulogies and anti-eulogies in print and online right now, so I’ll just add a small sheaf of commentary to Harlan Ellison‘s funeral pyre. During my writing days, he was a friend and inspiration, but his greatest influence came after I’d quit pro writing. Ellison had a reputation for taking one piece of artwork and writing whole stories based upon that piece, sometimes in bookstore windows where people could watch him work. My whole purpose with the gallery, and pretty much everything I did with the plants before that, was to create something with enough mystery and enough wonder that he’d take a look and want to fill in the rest of the tale. That’s why, when people want to know the stories behind the enclosures at the gallery, I ask “What story do you want there to be?” And so it goes.
(Incidentally, the photo above comes to us from 1999, when Harlan and I were both guests at Readercon, a literary science fiction convention in Massachusetts. He turned 65 that year, and people much closer to him than I knew how he credited reading Golden Age Green Lantern comics for part of his fascination with the fantastic. Hence, with the help of several people, Harlan had his very own Alan Scott ring. It won’t make any sense to anyone not familiar with DC comics, but after posing with this ring, he looked at the GL ring my ex-wife had commissioned a few years before, grabbed my hand, and pulled the ring to his wife Susan, yelling “Look! He’s got a Hal Jordan ring!” When I explained “Well, more Guy Gardner,” he sat back and scoffed “Oh, of COURSE.” I miss precious little of my writing days, but I don’t regret the circumstances of that conversation, ever.)
Backstory: a few years ago, the big Triffid Ranch project, before the gallery, was attempting s culinary project involving Echinocactus texensis, the barrel cactus commonly known in West Texas as “devil’s pincushions” or “horsecripplers.” After confirming that their other name, “candy cactus,” was due to the bright color and shape of their fruit, and not because the fruit was used to make candy as commonly claimed, the grand experiment involved using horsecrippler fruit as a base for homemade ice cream. The experiment was inconclusive, but intriguing enough that the intention was to try again. The setup and opening of the gallery intruded on future plans to try again, and the project remained fallow. We now go to the next part of the tale, already in progress.
By the beginning of 2018, all the signs of a potential bumper crop of horsecrippler cactus fruit were all there. The previous summer had been hot but not brutal, and winter temperatures were cold enough to encourage dormancy but not so cold as to stunt or kill the cactus. All of that went out the window in mid-March, when a series of cold fronts brought temperatures down to about freezing, throwing off schedules for blooming and fruit set. A trip to the area around the town of Mineral Wells confirmed the absolute worst: normally, one of the only times when horsecripplers were easy to spot in situ was around the end of May, when the fruit ripened and those little neon red bombs made the rest of the plant visible. An extensive search through the area turned up nothing: when horsecripplers don’t want birds to find their fruit, they don’t want to be found at all. The only ones found were right next to residences where they were a potential threat to people and animals, and the fruit were tiny and green. The same situation was true of the horsecripplers in cultivation by the greenhouse, and it looked as if that late cold killed the crop for the season. Plans for horsecrippler ice cream were dashed for 2018.
Well, that was the idea. Horsecrippler season was just delayed this year, by about two weeks. Suddenly, every last cultivated horsecrippler that flowered earlier in spring looked up, checked the clock, and screamed “We’re late!” A week before, a couple of green fruit the size of raisins were all that could be found. Now, big, fat, juicy ripe fruit, easily removed from the cactus. The first stage of the Ice Cream Project could begin.
Horsecrippler cactus fruit
Cutting board and sharp knife
Smoothie maker or blender
The two things to remember about gathering cactus fruit are that the purpose of that fruit is to transport seeds, and that the bright colors of most cactus fruit aren’t necessarily there to entice humans. The descriptive name “candy cactus” probably referred to the look of the fruit, not the taste, as fruit on the plant looks like a cluster of wrapped candies. The wrapper, officially known as the corolla, is the remnant of the bloom, and it has a definitive purpose here. Horsecrippler seeds are best spread by birds as they eat the fruit and spread the seeds in their dung, so the idea is to attract birds with bright coloration while dissuading everything else. The corolla does a masterful job of dissuading, as it has all of the softness and mouth feel of a dried thistle bloom. The fruit doesn’t have actual thorns or hairs the way prickly pear fruit does, but that corolla is still too sharp and spiky to grab with bare hands. That’s where kitchen tongs come in handy: a slight twist and ripe fruit just pulls free.
Now the real fun begins. While the corolla makes a handy pull-tab when removing the fruit, you definitely don’t want chunks of it in the next stage. To the cutting board all of it goes, to cut off corollas and any squishy or bruised parts and wash what’s left. A handy tip: when disposing of the corollas, don’t add them to your garden unless you really like pain. They tend to survive months in the garden, just as spiky as they were when dumped there, so try to bury them either deep enough or enough out of the way that they won’t turn up with a random raking. Your feet, knees, and hands will thank you later.
With access to a cutting board and sharp objects, now is a perfect time for a bit of botanical anatomy. Horsecrippler fruit really don’t have enough pulp to make it worth the effort to skin the fruit the way you would with prickly pear, and the peel actually adds what subtle flavor it has. In addition, the pulp is full of small but very tough seeds, the better to pass through a bird’s gizzard, and helping yourself to the pulp now is very much like chewing a spoonful of very sticky aquarium gravel. To continue requires removing those seeds, and that requires…
(*in Red Green voice*)…the cactus preparator’s secret weapon: a smoothie machine! In actuality, any blender will work well, but aside from sentimental reasons (I picked this up in Tallahassee the same exact weekend I encountered my first carnivorous plant in the wild), having a stirring stick that can push down and stir fruit without opening the top is awfully handy. After the fruit is washed and dried, just drop everything in here and blend away. A little warning though…
THIS is why you don’t want to use the spout on a smoothie maker. Prickly pear seeds are large enough that they’re filtered out by the spout opening, allowing the resultant juice to drain out through the spigot. Prickly pear fruit also produces a lot more juice: horsecrippler fruit have proportionately more peel and pulp, so capillary action keeps the juice bound up with the rest of the pureed pulp. A little juice will escape, with enough seeds going along with it that closing the spout is nearly impossible.
Likewise, don’t bother putting the pulp into a colander or strainer. Even if adding additional water or other fruit juice, the pulp will just suck it up and refuse to drain. The best option is to pour the pulp into cheesecloth, and squeeze out the juice into a freezer container. The temptation will be strong to taste that juice, and that’s when you discover why prickly pear and dragonfruit are the only cactus fruit commercially raised for food. “Subtle” is a nice way of describing the flavor, with a touch of starchiness. The main attraction is the neon color, which is one of the reasons we’re doing this. Just pour that juice into freezer containers if you aren’t going to use it right away and freeze it: from previous experience, it freezes well and keeps for months. As for the remaining pulp, you can attempt to grow new horsecrippler cactus from the seeds (a longterm venture, as horsecrippler cactus are VERY slow-growing), or you can set out the pulp and seeds to delight the local songbirds. Set up a platform near your cat’s favorite window, and get double satisfaction from watching happy birds and listening to anxious and nearly incontinent cats. Win/win.
As for what to do next, well, that’s a reason to check back for Episode Two. It’s going to be a busy weekend.
Posted onJune 22, 2018|Comments Off on The Aftermath: Carnivorous Plant Workshop at Curious Garden
Waking up on a summer Saturday morning in North Texas is hard. It’s bad enough that this time of the year, the big yellow hurty thing in the sky races to emerge before you can finish your coffee (or, in my case, Dr. Pepper) and blast your reason for living to ash. It’s not just that the local air quality moves from “sultry” to “too thick to breathe, too thin to plow,” or that the filth in the air conditioner’s air filter makes you wonder if the cats took multiple dumps in it. By the first weekend in June, the only willing people up with the sun on a Saturday are farmer’s market vendors, air conditioner mechanics, and masochists whose gimp suits are at the cleaners. The rest of us are smart and get everything done under soothing moonlight, draw the blinds, and sleep until the worst of the heat passes. Yes, it’s that much harder to readjust come Monday morning when the day job calls, but the people fussing about this aren’t the ones who have to live with it.
That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise to see the crowd already lined up for the first carnivorous plant workshop at the newly relaunched Curious Garden on June 9. After the success of its recent taxidermy workshop, Curious Garden was a perfect locale for discussing the vagaries of carnivores and helping the participants go home with a carnivore of their very own.
As to new workshops, that depends upon upcoming schedules, but they’re very likely. Keep an eye open for updates, and register quickly when they appear: this one was large enough that we almost needed a larger space to hold everyone.
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Posted onJune 8, 2018|Comments Off on Upcoming Events, June 2018 Edition
A month after Texas Frightmare Weekend, and things in the gallery are finally under control. New and reworked enclosures are going strong, the propagation area is full of new and exciting species, and the deep freeze in the back is full of frozen blueberries. (Take this from a longtime resident: about the only thing that makes summer in Texas livable is the explosion of East Texas blueberries in farmers’ markets and grocery stores, and the only thing that makes July and August tolerable is knowing that June was spent filling every refrigerated space in the vicinity with June’s and April’s and Melissa’s blueberries. By the time the blueberries run out, the local craft stores are full of Halloween stuff, which is usually enough to get through the last few weeks of baking heat before things start cooling off. This routine works until the day it’s possible to live like an African lungfish and aestivate in mucus and mud cocoons until the rains return.) This is the time of the year where everyone knows firsthand what a grasshopper on a griddle feels like (there’s a very good reason why sheepskin car seat covers were popular in Dallas in the days of vinyl car seats, especially for those fond of shorts), so the idea is to offer events and activities either indoors or after dark, and preferably both.
One of the advantages of emulating a Gila monster in the summer heat (living underground, emerging only to suck eggs and swallow baby bunnies whole, and dealing with interlopers with a venomous bite) is having plenty of time to organize for the days when the sun’s default setting drops below “supernova”. 2018 has been interesting in that regard: this year’s Deep Ellum Arts Fest was an anomalous combination of torrential rains and near-freezing temperatures, so registering for the 2019 Fest wasn’t even a question. This is also the year to see about admission to the famed Cottonwood Art Festival down the road from the gallery in October, as well as a lot of smaller shows and events through the area. The first showing at the Deep Ellum Art Company was a hit, and that may be a regular showing venue as well.
As far as the traditional Triffid Ranch shows are concerned, things are lively. Texas Frightmare Weekend’s open call for vendors starts soon, with notice on acceptance usually arriving in August. That’s also about the time for applications for the Blood Over Texas Horror for the Holidays show in Austin in November, and two weeks after Horror for the Holidays is the two-day revived Dallas Fantasy Fair at the Irving Convention Center. That last one is going to be the most interesting, especially since I was a regular guest during my writing days through the first half of the 1990s until the original convention imploded in 1996. On one side, even the kids who were at the last few Fantasy Fairs are in their thirties and forties now, and nostalgia from the older fans might not be enough. On the other, Dallas still has precious little to do on Thanksgiving weekend that doesn’t involve movies or malls, and the Thanksgiving Fantasy Fair weekends in the Eighties and Nineties made that weekend a lot more tolerable for those of us without family plans (or those with families they had to escape for a while). Either way, let’s see what happens.
(As an aside, while it’s great to get invitations to attend other shows as a vendor, please understand that being able to attend is a combination of logistics and scheduling, and those can collide with interstate regulations, weather patterns, or the laughable concept of “personal life.” Please also understand two things, the first being that my having to reject a vendor request almost always isn’t personal, but that every show requires about a week before the show to prepare and a week after to recuperate and reorganize. Therefore, every two-day or three-day show effectively cuts out three weeks per month that could be used to create new enclosures or perform essential maintenance at the gallery, which is why we schedule the regular gallery shows for the months where we aren’t running an outside event. The second thing is that whining, guilt trips, or pushiness, especially of the “don’t you owe it to yourself to come to our show?” type, WILL guarantee a blacklist on even the remotest possibility of coming out to future events. This is a roundabout way to recommend not following the lead of Fear Con in Salt Lake City and taking a lot of care with vendor contact information. Unsolicited entry into a mailing list is bad enough, but texting when the mailing list wasn’t getting an immediate response? Oh, that’s a blocking.)
And for the regular gallery showings? Scheduling conflicts kicked in for the end of June, so the next Triffid Ranch gallery opening has been moved to Saturday, July 7. It’s a touch late for Canada Day, but as a chance to see Michel Sarrazin‘s namesakes in the pulp, it’ll still be worth the trip. Expect details in the very near future, as well as a few surprises, and some might even include blueberries.
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Posted onJune 8, 2018|Comments Off on Enclosures: Antarctica in Decline (2018)
Description: Very little is known about prehistoric Antarctica: with 98 percent of the continent covered with kilometers-thick ice, the few fossil beds accessible at the surface illuminate life there approximately 150 million years ago (including the discovery of the early theropod dinosaur Cryolophosaurus), approximately 65 million years ago, and the period surrounding the continent’s freeze 5 million years ago. Coal deposits and pollen samples from coring rigs are the main views of Antarctic plant life, as well as the inference from DNA analysis of the relationship between sundews from West Australia and Tierra del Fuego. It’s very possible that Antarctica had a wide and diverse population of carnivorous plants through its pre-freeze history, including relations to the Australian pitcher plant Cephalotus, but between the inaccessibility of most of its fossil-bearing strata and the poor fossilization record of carnivorous plants elsewhere, any discussion of Antarctic palaeofauna, especially of the period immediately after the extinction of the dinosaurs, is understandably speculative.
Dimensions (width/height/depth): 18″ x 18″ x 18″ (62.23 cm x 62.23 cm x 62.23 cm)