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Originally published on January 24, 2020.
Installment #14: “The Best Intentions”
The question keeps coming up with visitors and clients at the gallery. Even with a decor that continues the argument that Doctor Who and The Red Green Show are really the same television show, one items stands out. It’s led to lots of stares, a few quiet questions (where the individual looks up with a quizzical expression but doesn’t actually get anything out), and a few misunderstandings. It’s all involving the same thing, though: “Why is there a poster for the movie Annihilation in your gallery?”
As I said, it’s a regular question, where those asking it assume that there’s a big artistic explanation, or at least a smirk of “Well, I really liked the movie.” Most Triffid Ranch stories have to go the roundabout way in order to tell the story right, and this one takes a little while. The short version: the 2017 movie Annihilation is based, rather loosely, on the novel by author Jeff VanderMeer, from the first volume in his Southern Reach trilogy. You might recognize the name: Annihilation is the first adaptation of one of his novels so far, but his latest novel Dead Astronauts flooded the book review ecosystem when it came out in December 2019, and that was just a side story on one chapter of his 2017 novel Borne. Those of us who remember the 1990s may remember Jeff as far back as his first novel Dradin, In Love, from his extensive short fiction and nonfiction output over the last 30 years, or from the various fiction collections he and his wife Anne have edited over the last 15 years. Most importantly for this discussion, Jeff VanderMeer is to blame, partly at least, for my getting into carnivorous plants.
Okay, since the short version is inadequate to the task of explaining what’s going on, here’s the long version. Jeff VanderMeer is to blame, partly at least, for my getting into carnivorous plants. Happy?
Okay, backstory. I first encountered the literary dervish that is Jeff VanderMeer about 25 years ago. Due to being laid up after extensive shoulder surgery in 1994, I decided that I could spend my time zoned out on painkillers while watching afternoon television (and in those days, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was the most challenging option out there) or I could take advantage of the opportunity. The next four months alternated between extensive therapy to give a modicum of normal range of motion to my right arm, writing, and learning Web design. With those last two, this was that magical period just before the Internet went really mainstream, in what is generally referred to as the Golden Age of glossy full-color magazines. Lots of magazines meant a need for content that required lots of writers, so I spent the second half of the 1990s polluting the tables of contents for a slew of science fiction and gonzo magazines you’ve probably never heard of. The subsequent collapse of those magazines at the beginning of the Twenty-First Century was mitigated by getting a new career in first Web design and later technical writing, for a slew of companies and online publications you’ve probably never heard of. (If you have, the odds are pretty good that they either still owe you money or they owed someone you know money when they shut down everything and moved out in the middle of the night.) At the beginning of 1995, I had a column for a magazine you’ve probably never heard of, where I was having grand fun beating on some of the more established and pompous gatekeepers in the science fiction community: I wasn’t making any money, but I was infuriating the right people. That’s when I started a regular correspondence with a certain somebody from Tallahassee, Florida.
To say that this was an easy friendship would be a blatant lie. Both Jeff and I were opinionated, fervent, enthusiastic, and more than a little hyperactive: the difference between us lay with his having talent. I nonetheless attempted to keep up, but kept forgetting that what I thought was idle frippery could be intensely annoying to others. At one point, Jeff blew up on a throwaway piece I wrote for an email newsletter you’ve probably never heard of, and told me “Why don’t you start writing about gardening?” Others would have escalated the conflict, or at least told him exactly what impossible sexual act he could attempt, with accompanying photographs, diagrams, and helpful videos. I thought about it, made a few “Hmmmmm” noises, and did just that. Hang onto this, because this is important.
All of this was fun and games until the beginning of 2002. That was a particularly bad year all the way around, especially for someone with a severe writing habit that was subsidized with 60-hour weeks indulging in technical writing forays. The dotcom crash went into its third year, and a lot of endeavors subsidized with techie money turned back into pumpkins and mice. The non-technical writing career ended in May 2002, after arguing with yet another wannabe editor of yet another stillborn culture magazine about how “exposure doesn’t pay the bills, especially from a magazine that most likely will come out when the Dallas Cowboys win a shutout World Series pennant.” Sometimes, you can be TOO right: after seeing a pattern of publications promising to pay “when we’re successful” and then making damn sure that they never became successful enough to pay their contributors, I shut down everything and walked away. 18 years later, and I still don’t regret that decision.
Here’s where Jeff came back again. Four months later, I received a phone call from a company in Tallahassee, Florida that needed a technical writer. That sort of thing happened a lot, mostly with technical recruiters pretending that they were working by wasting their victims’ time with jobs that didn’t really exist, but these folks were serious. Even better, they were willing to pay for a face-to-face interview. Three days later, I was on a Delta flight, with a seatmate stopping in Tallahassee on his way to Miami, telling me “Don’t waste your time in the Panhandle: the real action is in the South.” I wasn’t going to give him any grief: Florida was one of the few states in the Estados Unidos that I’d never so much as flown over, and everything I knew about the Florida Panhandle came from Golden Nature Guides from the 1960s. I wasn’t expecting alligators on everyone’s front porch, but I at least expected to see tree frogs.
The punchline: after the first phone call, since I knew absolutely nothing about Tallahassee, I emailed the one person I knew who did: a guy who was still trying to convince me to return to writing. Jeff had lived most of his life in Tallahassee, and he told me to go for it.
Fast-forward two weeks: not only did I get the job, but they were even willing to pay for me to move there, so that meant loading up my old Dodge Neon with everything I thought I’d need for the next few months, leaving my frantic fiancé in Dallas, and making a straight drive along Interstate Highway I-10 to Tally. After getting set up in a residence hotel just off the highway and visiting my new workplace, it was time to explore the new environs, and I found myself on a Friday afternoon in the Tallahassee Museum. The Museum is less a formal museum than a wildlife preserve and recreation of the general environment facing early European settlers in the area, which meant lots of forest, lots of bog, lots of animals ranging from Florida panthers to indigo snakes, and the widest range of flora I’d ever seen. And there, up in the front by the main visitor center, was a planter full of Sarracenia purpurea, more commonly known as the purple pitcher plant. And that, as they say, was that. Discovering later that the boglands around and in Appalachicola National Forest have the widest variety by genera of carnivorous plants of any area on the planet was just gravy.
Well, time elapsed. The company that hired me was climbing out of bankruptcy after the dotcom crash, and three months after moving out there, I discovered that the big software package I was hired to document wasn’t going to happen and that my services were no longer needed, This was about three days before Christmas and six days before my fiancé and I were to be married, and literally an hour after purchasing non-refundable plane tickets to get back to Dallas for that wedding, which meant having to fly to Dallas for holidays and wedding, flying back to Tallahassee on New Year’s Day, cleaning out my rented room and saying goodbye to my roommate, and driving back to Dallas. (A little tip: don’t try that as a straight trip if you feel the need: the first 11 hours aren’t that bad, but the last four are where sleep deprivation starts to kick in. I’m just glad I didn’t encounter any significant road construction.) One of the last things I did before leaving Tallahassee, though, was visiting the Tallahassee Museum one last time and ransacking the gift shop’s selection of carnivorous plant books.
17 years later, those books are part of the library at the gallery. The fascination with carnivores never let up, ultimately leading to giving lectures on carnivores, then selling them at shows and conventions, and ultimately to the gallery. And behind this all was the cherished friendship of Jeff VanderMeer, who never gave me any grief in Tallahassee about needing time to recuperate and heal. In return, I do nothing but cheer over news about new books and upcoming television deals. A hardcover copy of Dead Astronauts sits on display in the gallery as I write this, and the Annihilation poster will only get replaced in its current place of honor when the next movie adaptation comes out. That said, it’s still so much fun to send him pictures of the crowd at a gallery open house, wag my finger, and yell “Dude, this is YOUR FAULT!”
And if you think this was an odd story, just wait until I tell you about Ernest Hogan. Ernest REALLY has a lot to live down after having to deal with me for the last 30 years.
It took long enough, but the Triffid Ranch presence on Facebook is now as dead as cathode-ray tube monitors, and it was for a lot of reasons. The biggest and foremost was needing to focus on the gallery, but recent developments with Facebook’s algorithms as to which posts would and would not be shared with Page subscribers, as well as how much getting them boosted was going to cost, made being on that platform intolerable. Instagram and Twitter are both still destinations, but getting off Facebook was a plan for the better part of a year, and the current gallery efforts just expedited that. (And yes, this is a shameless plug for subscribing to this newsletter, early and often.)
You may have missed it during its original release, but a lot of Triffid Ranch inspiration these days comes from a rereading of Raven Rock by Garrett M. Graffiti, a look at efforts after World War II to build and rebuild facilities for government officials to survive a major nuclear attack. Examining facilities never used but still technically active is a long-running fascination, and you don’t get stranger than a lot of military and government plans that were sidelined as peace broke out.
Finally, a combination of long hours and seeking new vistas at the gallery means needing a lot of new music, and the current work background music comes from the German electronic band Blutangel. When you need music for future archaeology, you can’t go wrong with this crew.