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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.
(Amanda Thomsen’s new book Backyard Adventure: Get Messy, Get Wet, Build Cool Things, and Have Tons of Wild Fun! 51 Free-Play Activities is coming out soon. Buy a copy for yourself, a copy for your best friend, and at least ten for your local libraries. Whatever you do, don’t ask her about the beans.)
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.)