Posted onMarch 22, 2019|Comments Off on The Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feed Lot Clearance Sale – #7
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Originally published on February 27, 2019
Okay, so Amanda Thomsen and I were comparing odd tales. Most people know her as the gardening genius behind the book and Web site Kiss My Aster, but like so many of the most interesting people in botany and horticulture, she had a very interesting life before she discovered gardening. It’s not enough to make the observation that the biggest proponents of traditional Japanese gardening were samurai who were tired of war: that works for a lot of us, but not Amanda. I can tell people the tale of how I one-upped Harlan Ellison and his tale of how he was fired from Disney after four hours for joking about a Disney animated porno film with my absolutely true tale of how I got an FBI record for allegedly selling government secrets to the Daleks. (As I told Harlan, I’d NEVER sell government secrets to the Daleks. The Sontarans and Cybermen pay more.) Most people who hear this story just smile, nod, and circumspectly look for anything within reach that could become a weapon. Amanda used to work in the music industry: no matter how disturbing, incriminating, or self-flagellating the story, Amanda will stop for a second, ask you to hold her Dog ‘n Suds root beer (thereby proving her impeccable taste, as she has the old plastic jugs of fresh-poured root beer imported from 1971), and respond. That’s all she does: respond. It’s not her fault that her tales leave most people rocking on the floor, repeatedly screaming “MOMMY DADDY MAKE IT STOP!” She’s only Two Degrees of Francis Bacon from a lot of my musically inclined friends in Dallas, so I just spend my time exclaiming “That was YOU? So how DID he get the airplane seat armrest out?”
This marks the difference between those of us with stories and those without. Those of us With Stories just continue with our little game of nuclear escalation until someone drops the planetkiller, and we all head home and tell ourselves “Good thing that wasn’t me.” Those Without Stories, or without those kind of stories, applaud and exclaim “You should write another book with these stories in it.” Completely misreading the room, they’ll keep asking, too, and drop the writer equivalent of “The Aristocrats”: “It’ll sell really well, too.” Anybody else would respond appropriately, such as jumping up on the table and screaming while trying to hang themselves with their own intestines. Amanda just says “I don’t remember much from those days.” She’s not giving that answer in order to bypass having to explain how the publishing business works, or how anecdote tell-alls haven’t had as much of a market as when calendars read “1983.” She doesn’t remember: whether that’s being diplomatic or that’s a response to years of failed SAN rolls is a point of discussion. My only issue involves my own packrat memory.
The problem isn’t that she doesn’t remember any of the good stories incurred since we started hanging out online a decade ago. It’s that I can’t make the memories go away. I’m not going to tell you about the bobcat and the sleeping bag. I’m not going to talk about how her obsession with Fiestaware left her with the superpower of her teeth glowing in the dark. (When dealing with Girl Scouts, this can be an advantage and a liability, especially when they have night vision goggles and cattle prods, as Girl Scouts are expected to do.) We won’t talk about our comparing notes on how wild sunflower stems practically eat Weedeater line led to our testing the plausibility of the chainsaw duel in Phantasm 2, nor will we talk about the scars incurred when I switched to a hedge trimmer. (A friendly tip: always, ALWAYS use a gas-powered hedge trimmer, because you don’t want to cut into one of those lithium-ion batteries used in the cordless jobs.) There was the riot we accidentally started when an icebreaker questionnaire at the Independent Garden Center conference in Chicago asked “So who’s your favorite Captain: Kirk or Picard?”: she answered “Lochley” and I answered “Rhodes.” There was the midnight run on the Library of Congress to prove to her that the gothic artist Edward Gorey used to illustrate gardening books, and how we got out without breaking any windows or tasering any security guards. Any idiot can set up crop circles, but how many people can recreate Alfonse Mucha paintings in the stock at a commercial mum nursery three days before Halloween? And how that stunt is the reason why all of the fingerprints on her right hand were burned off, and all but the thumbprint on my left?
See, Amanda doesn’t remember any of this. She has a hard enough time remembering when she ran over a post-Christmas poinsettia with a 2011 Accord. She has no memories of our violating a good three dozen FAA regulations and a treaty with Brazil by sending the first kalanchoe to the International Space Station. When the next Mars rover takes photos of the 100-foot Gibby Haynes garden gnome she dropped from low orbit into the middle of Weinbaum Crater, she’s going to be as shocked as the rest of us. When I forget this, all of Amanda’s accomplishments will waft away like fog in a high wind, and that’s completely unacceptable. Please: I beg you. When you come out to one of Amanda’s book signings, don’t just tell her about how her books inspired your life. Show the tattoos. Show the CT scans. Most of all, make sure she remembers one of her greatest adventures by walking up, looking at her completely deadpan, and singing the verse “Crab salad makes you pee blue.” If she really likes you, she’ll show you the Bowie knife she nearly broke taking on a patch of scarlet trumpetvine in 2014, and she’ll tell you about how she disobeyed orders and called off the airstrike with seconds to spare. She may not remember that, but the Dalai Lama does, and he’s eternally grateful.
My previous life as a science fiction magazine essayist is one of public record, and some good came from working on and for magazines that were forgotten moments after the last issue saw print. Among other things, if not for a long and very convoluted friendship with one Jeff VanderMeer, I never would have been drawn into the wonderful world of carnivorous plants. This is a roundabout way of saying that this March is a month for anniversaries: thirty years ago on March 9, my first published article, a collection of movie reviews, appeared in a long-forgotten zine. Ten years ago on March 9, the first of my last two books saw print. For the most part, with a few relapses, I’ve stayed away from professional writing since the spring of 2002, and this next month marks the publication of another relapse. Specifically, check out the March 2019 issue of Clarkesworld, and note that this little piece on sorcerers’ gardens may well be the first of many.
If you’d told me back when I was a film critic in the early Nineties that most of the ancillary support industry for motion pictures would be completely obsolete by 2005, I would have laughed and pointed. With video releases a few months or even weeks after a theatrical run, the market for movie novelizations was already dying by the turn of the last century, as was the market for mediocre soundtracks that were the only way to get access to a current hit song. Thanks to streaming services, DVDs and Blu-Ray disks are going the way of Betamax, and with them the huge assemblage of “The Making Of” documentaries that came with the disks. About the only exception to this is the voluminous market for high-end, impeccably printed books on the concept art for films, television shows, and video games, because all of the concept art put together in the early stages of a film production can be just as inspirational as the final product.
Anyway, as someone taking a deep dive at an advanced age into enclosure design, sometimes guides to zoo and natural exhibition design aren’t enough, and it’s time to look at the unnatural. Lately, that’s been a combination of the works of Chris Foss and Syd Mead, classic film designers whose work in the Seventies and Eighties still influence movie set and prop design to this day, and pictorials from Weta Workshop in New Zealand. Lately, the browsing reading keeps coming back to The World of Kong: The Natural History of Skull Island, a pseudobestiary of the concept art from Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and The Art of District 9, which includes concept art and final props from Neill Blomkamp’s 2009 film. Come back in a few months after the next run of new enclosures are complete, and you’ll understand why.
For various reasons, instrumental music is a big part of the background at the Triffid Ranch. While sculpting or repotting while watching video or listening to spoken-word audio is easy, writing or sketching with either in the background is nearly impossible, and even songs with a significant portion of dialogue are impossible to navigate while composing blog posts or essays. This means that instrumental or electronica get a lot of play, especially at the Day Job, and the 21st Century marvel of streaming services means that my horizons are expanded daily. That’s why I’d like to turn everyone to Sarah Schachner: her specialty is game soundtracks, which means setting mood in particular game sequences with pieces that won’t get overly repetitious if a player spends too much time trying to work out how to move forward.
Anyway, I’ve been a fan of Sarah’s work for years (her sister is a longtime online friend), and game design is already a big aspect of inspiration for a lot of Triffid Ranch enclosures, so discovering that Sarah wrote the score for the new game Anthem means that it’s getting a lot of play in the gallery over the next month. (A project that’s still a very long way away is an exhibition of new enclosures that requires smartphones: stand in front of an enclosure and view a browser page that includes essential information about the plants and construction, while the headphones give a unique musical score that cuts off when the viewer moves to the next enclosure. Again, it’s a very long way off, but when the Triffid Ranch is big enough to pull this off, I would love to hire Sarah for the music, because.)
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Out of the multitude of cats sharing my life over the last half-century, Leiber (pronounced LY-ber) was the only one where I knew his exact birthdate. April 13, 2002. This was due to his mother being a rescued stray who was already pregnant when she was rescued, and she was up for adoption at the same time as her kittens. We were still mourning the deaths of my two cats Jones and White-Ears, early victims of the Science Diet melamine poisoning scandal (and I still have no problems with forcing the executives of Hill Foods watch their children eat their products to ensure either that their products are safe or that a gaggle of psychopaths no longer contribute to the gene pool), none more so than Caroline’s cat Tramplemaine, so we had high hopes for the little ball of grey fluff that peered up with bright green eyes and plotted galactic domination. At least, that’s what we thought, hence his being named after the famed writer Fritz Leiber. For the next sixteen years, though, every time he’d trip on the carpet pattern or fall off the couch, I’d just sigh and tell him “I swear, if you get any dopier, I’m renaming you ‘Doctorow’.” That wouldn’t have been fair: the cat could occasionally say more than the same three catchphrases ad nauseam.
Yes, we had hopes for our little mutant being at least as smart as Tramplemaine, and he gave every indication early on that he might live up to his namesake’s legacy. That lasted about three weeks, until I received a job offer to move to Tallahassee, Florida. On the day I left Dallas for the roadtrip to establish a new life in Tally, I kissed my fiancé goodbye, rubbed the cats’ ears, and left knowing that the separation wasn’t permanent. Three months later, the project for which I was hired was cancelled, I was told that my services were no longer needed, and I flew back to Dallas the day after my layoff for a wedding and a reevaluation of plans. That reevaluation involved staying in Dallas, so it was time to fly back and load up the car with my Florida possessions, such as they were. The whole trip back, and I do NOT recommend a straight nonstop drive from Tallahassee to Dallas unless sleep is a friend who never visits, I kept thinking of that odd little kitten and how I’d finally get a chance to make his acquaintance. I arrived to discover that the woman running the cat rescue service handling Leiber’s adoption was just a little TOO attached to her charges and was freaking out that we dared change his name from “Pico.” That kept up for another five years of spot-inspections, as she was absolutely terrified of someone adopting one of her cats to feed it to a big snake, and she refused to acknowledge the name to which he’d become accustomed in all of that time.
Not that the name made much of a difference: as with most cats, he responded to his name when it was convenient. What WAS different was that Leiber was a fetching cat: throw a cat toy past him, and he’d grab it and bring it back to be thrown again. His problem was that he apparently had heard of stopping himself to avoid collision with walls and objects, but only as an abstraction that didn’t apply to him. We very rapidly learned that he’d enthusiastically run full-tilt into walls, doors, furniture, sliding-glass doors, and anything else that might stop or slow his frantic chase of his favorite toys. Correlation is not causation, but after watching him attempt to impersonate Wile E. Coyote with the front door, we weren’t sure if his repeated collisions were a factor in his sweet but dopy disposition, or if his sweet but dopy disposition was a factor in his collisions. In the meantime, we aimed his toys toward soft objects and started to price cat-sized football helmets before he finally started to watch where he was going.
In the ten years that he and Tramplemaine were companions, we saw another side of him. Tramplemaine was in retrospect an incredibly competitive cat, who looked at Caroline as the ruler of the house and the rest of us as inconvenient but tolerated accessories. Since I at least had the ability to open cat food containers and use a brush, this meant that Leiber was at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy, and he didn’t like it one bit. This meant that for years, we’d go to bed and then hear Tramplemaine and Leiber attempting to establish dominance through war cries. To his detriment, the best Leiber could manage was a squeak that wouldn’t have worried a sparrow, so when he’d respond to Tramplemaine’s throaty yowl, the laughter that ensued when he’d emit a loud “MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!” just made things worse. Between that and his natural insecurity, he first inspired and earned his first nickname: “FreakBeast.” For his first ten years, his default expression upon hearing his name was a frantic “ohGodwhatdidIdo?”, and no amount of reassurance could convince him that we weren’t about to do something unnamed but completely horrible to him with no warning.
Not that Tramplemaine didn’t get back what he gave. In the years before the gallery, Saturday mornings were usually dedicated to lawn mowing and weeding, and then a quick nap before Caroline got home from her old day job. Tramplemaine usually crashed out on a pillow next to the couch, and he’d relax so much that he’d start to snore. That’s when Leiber would exact his revenge by carefully sneaking up and teabagging Tramplemaine, who was far too dignified to say anything. I speak from experience, there is nothing in this universe quite like being awakened from a dead sleep to the sound on one cat’s testicle-free scrotum smacking up and down on another cat’s forehead, and it was just bizarre enough that it would wake me up every time. He once tried it with me, and that’s when I learned that he understood one phrase in English on a genetic level: “Keep it up, and I’ll turn you into a Davy Crockett cap.”
After Tramplemaine died in 2012, Leiber mellowed out considerably, and no longer felt compelled to push boundaries. instead, he challenged our respiratory systems. EverySaturday morning, he’d attempt to wake me up to play his absolutely favorite game. The rules were simple: I had to start brushing him and collect the accumulated cat fur, and the first one to scream “WHY IS THIS CAT NOT BALD?” automatically lost. His favorite time to play this game was right after I’d finished vacuuming the living room, where I’d measure the accumulated cat fur and dander in the Dyson debris receptacle in “Leibers.” Nine years at our current location, and I still get tremendous yields of sweet potatoes grown in the little garden out back due to all of the Leiber fur dumped in it for the last near-decade. (Seriously: dump excess cat fur in the garden. It not only makes an excellent source of slow-release nitrogen for greedy plants, but it improves the tilth to no end. Nine years of adding cat fur and compost to Dallas’s indigenous “black gumbo” clay, and the garden soil is so fluffy that you can harvest sweet potatoes with bare hands.)
Even with the brushing, and possibly because of it, Leiber fur could be found everywhere: coating ceiling fans, accumulating behind the toilet, clogging air conditioner filters, and attempting to gain enough mass to achieve sentience. Leiber also shared with tarantulas the ability to shed irritating hairs at potential threats, and he took being held as a Defcon 1 threat. Pick him up, and put him down with a nose full of what we called “cat felt.”
There are a lot of Leiber stories, such as the box turtle that fell madly in love with him, only to be frustrated by his climbing up stairs to get away from her. The oddness, though, escalated after we adopted Alexandria after Cadigan’s death in 2015. Alexandria has her own quirks: among other things, she’s completely silent, and we only learned what her meow sounded like after she’d locked herself in a closet. She also has a strange fascination with the garage: she has absolutely no interest in going outdoors, but she begs and rolls to be allowed to wander around in the garage, and she regularly meets us at the door when we get home from the gallery. Leiber had no patience for this, as the garage is where Odd Things Make Odd Noises, and he’d watched two cats leave through the garage and never come back. When we’d come home especially late after open houses, we’d find them both at the door: Alexandria trying to get free as Leiber tried to pin her to keep her from danger. When that failed, he started calling for her as we were getting ready for bed. Every night, as we were all winding down, he’s grab a particular cat toy with his mouth and wander through the house while letting loose the most pathetic yowl. It was so odd that I had to get video, if only because I figured that nobody would believe it otherwise.
Mostly due to Alexandria’s influence, Leiber settled down immensely, and the FreakBeast just became known as the Old Man. Around the time he turned 15, we knew every extra day was a gift. He’d already lived longer than any other cat we’d known, and until about two weeks ago, he was still getting around. He was a little too stiff to jump into windows, but he’d still roughhouse with Alexandria for a few minutes before deciding that it was time to get back into his heated cat bed and catch his breath. His teeth got sensitive to dry cat food, so we augmented it with regular treats of chicken and tuna and he kept plowing on. We honestly figured that with his indoor life, he might live to see 20, which was unlikely but actually plausible.
Just short of his 17th birthday, though, he scared us by suddenly refusing to eat. He rebounded about a day later, but it was then a slow decline, and we could only stand by and try to help as he faded. He could still drink and use the litter box, and he wasn’t in any pain, so we made the decision to leave him among familiar surroundings instead of traumatizing him with that one last trip to the vet.
I can’t get angry: 16 years was already an impressive life for any cat, and I’m glad that other than his first few months, the vast majority of it was spent sleeping on my feet. That said, if things go quiet around here, that’s the reason. For such a little cat, he left a bigger hole in our lives than we realized.
Posted onMarch 7, 2019|Comments Off on The 3rd Annual Manchester United Flower Show: Early Days
What’s probably the last freeze of the season just finished passing through, Daylight Savings Time starts this coming Sunday, and experts are predicting what may be the greatest explosion of bluebonnets and other Texas wildflowers seen in generations. (No sightings of bluebonnet-colored rattlesnakes: I wonder why that is?) This means that it’s time to announce that the third annual Manchester United Flower Show, a celebration of the blooms of the world’s carnivorous plants, starts at the gallery on Saturday, April 6 from 6:00 to whenever everyone goes home. This won’t be all: the idea is to premiere two new large enclosures, including a particularly challenging commission. (Being more of a Dell Harris/Doug Chiang/Ron Cobb kind of guy, attempting a Nepenthes enclosure with a Georgia O’Keefe influence led to a LOT of research, but it’s worth it.) Either way, the event is free, and it starts at the tail end of the Deep Ellum Art Fest and Scarborough Renaissance Festival, so feel free to come in and overload on bladderwort and butterwort blossoms. In the meantime, back to the linen mines.
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Posted onMarch 3, 2019|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn
For those who tuned in late, your humble gallery operator once used to be a pro writer. Thirty years ago this month, my first published article appeared in the pages of the long-defunct science fiction zine New Pathways, and that continued for another 13 years. Ten years ago this month, the first collection from that wild period, Greasing the Pan, saw print. After that, aside from a few relapses, bupkis. It was a very easy decision to stay away, if not for much-missed friends and cohorts who kept assuming that I’d come back “any day now.” I may write occasionally on subjects of particular passion, but I’m not going back to being a writer, and I’ve had to excise a lot of people, all of whom assume that the calendar will flip back to 1997 any day now, who refuse to understand the difference.
And now the latest relapse: a discussion on sorcerers’ gardens and on running magical nurseries as a business, in the March 2019 Clarkesworld. Most of this was due to wanting to explore certain tropes in fantasy literature with a high potential for humor (let’s face it: “Johnny Pink Bunkadooseed” would make a great story), and part of it was due to the reputation of nonfiction editor Kate Baker. This isn’t the only planned relapse: I’m currently composing a similar take on unorthodox carnivorous plant tropes for the April issue. Just don’t expect a return to pro writing, because the gallery and its care is a lot more important.
In the meantime, feel free to spread this far and wide, because I can’t wait to read the stories and novels running with the concepts therein. And because every idea thief needs to leave his knife, this wouldn’t have happened without the influence of Tobias Buckell, Saladin Ahmed, and the crimefighting team of Ernest Hogan and Emily Devenport. Always give credit to friends: always.
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