Category Archives: I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

Have a Safe New Year

Establishing the tone for 2021…

2020: The Year That Stretches

Among the more chronologically pedantic, December 31, 2020 isn’t just the end of a particular year in the Gregorian calendar, but also the end of a particular decade. Working on the idea that the calendar had no Year Zero, the Twenty-Teens didn’t end when the last few seconds of 2019 rolled through the clock. No, what we get is Year Zero at the end of each decade, where everything is in flux, neither caterpillar nor butterfly, and the actions in that year help determine what the next decade are going to be like. Think of it like a cloned cat: the reason why you can’t make an exact clone of a beloved cat is because so many of the factors that made that cat unique happened in the womb. Change the food, change the stressors the mother cat had during gestation, change any number of a multitude of factors that might cause a particular gene expression, and you have a clone that’s a genetic copy of the original, but otherwise looks and acts nothing like its progenitor.

With that concept in mind, the way 2020 went, we’re going to start out with a cat genome and get the cutest, cuddliest 40-foot Gila monster with bat wings and laser beam eyes that you’ve ever seen. For some of us, this is a feature, not a bug.

The last thing to be said about 2020, from the Triffid Ranch’s perspective? This was a year to change plans, to pivot away from video (kindasorta), and to get ready for new weirdness. If you think the gallery has changed from where it was five years ago, back in the old Valley View locale, that original gallery was such a huge jump from where things were at the end of 2010. The phrase “quantum leap” is horribly overused by half-bright marketing majors whose grasp of the concept is exceeded by the coliform bacteria in their guts, but that’s pretty much what happened over the last ten years, and now it’s a matter of seeing if this trend continues for the rest of the coming decade. Until we have a better idea of what to expect, and whether that involves blasting Harkun troop carriers out of the sky as they try to take back their former planet, take care of yourselves, and keep watching for new developments. There are still a lot of enclosures to build and stories to tell.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn, the Anniversary Edition

It finally happened. This week marks 18 years since the lovely Caroline of Caroline Crawford Originals decided to throw away all decorum and common sense and marry a former science fiction essayist, meaning that I’ve been married to someone willing to put up with my shenanigans for a solid third of my life. We ascribe many things to that longevity, besides beating the deadpool bets that the marriage would last 1/36 of that duration. Separate work areas and home bathrooms, for instance. One of the biggest, though, is having traditions tied to goals, and that’s where the annual Anniversary Spare Change Road Race comes in.

Art credit: Amanda “Shinga” Bussell

Back when we first married, our financial situation was somewhere around “grim.” The job that almost moved us to Tallahassee in 2002 (and inadvertently exposed me to the wonderful world of carnivorous plants) cratered, as my company decided that the massive software upgrade for which I was hired to write documentation just simply wasn’t going to happen. Three days before Christmas and six days before the wedding, I’m looking at moving back to Dallas and wondering what we were going to do next. At the end of 2003, I finally found gainful employ, and the next year meant finally getting ourselves back onto rather shaky financial feet. At the end of of 2004, we didn’t have enough in our bank accounts, after paying bills, to do anything for our anniversary, so we raided our respective collections of spare change, cashed them in, and bought dinner that night.

Since then, we’ve worked out a basic system that works extremely well. All through a calendar year, we collect change in one spot or another. Mine goes mostly into this ridiculously cheery Monoclonius bank purchased in the mid-1990s. At the end of the year, on our anniversary or as close to it as we can manage, we clear out our banks, head out to the nearest Coinstar machine, and cash in said change. Any coins that aren’t scanned, and a lot slip through that are perfectly good legal tender, go back into the pile for the next year. We then compare our totals, and the winner buys dinner. We then start it all over again over the next year. Just as with shows where we have adjoining booths, there’s no real rivalry here: nobody is trying to beat the other, which seriously confuses friends when they expect me to lose it when Caroline has a better show than I do. (There’s a very friendly rivalry in one case: in the last decade, Caroline has always made more than me at Texas Frightmare Weekend, and I’ve sworn that one day, I’ll beat her in gross sales. Considering that I not only need a big truck and two booth spaces to come close to the amount of inventory necessary to do so, this may be a loooooong while.)

(Yes, this bank is seriously obnoxious, but there’s a backstory. We Gen Xers remember all through the 1970s the emphasis on novelty banks of all sorts: combination vaults, Crayola crayons, and even Gum Grabbers. It says a lot about post-1980s sensibilities that by the early 1990s, toy stores were bereft of banks, even novelty ones, and this one turned up only after months of searching for something with a decent volume. Yes, it’s garish. Yes, it’s obnoxious. However, it still holds a ridiculous amount of coinage, and it’s still going strong after over a quarter-century.)

In retrospect, everything that happened in 2020 can probably be laid at our feet, because we got busy at the end of 2019. I was focused on turning the gallery into a fulltime venue and Caroline was focused on holiday shows, and we were so tired by our anniversary that we just looked at each other and said “We’ll cash in everything in January.” By mid-March, we figured that we’d just roll over everything for the next anniversary, and we know what happened mid-March 2020. I still kept collecting change, though: since the Triffid Ranch started up, the tradition was to give change in US dollar coins, and after a show or open house, loose coins went into the Monoclonius. Lunch at the gallery usually consisted of pasta or ramen, with the extra money going into the dinosaur. Even after the crash of the show circuit after state and county lockdowns, the popularity of last summer’s Porch Sales meant that the dinosaur kept getting heavier: by November, it was almost too heavy to lift with one hand, and emptying it on Tuesday took over 20 minutes. Carrying the Readercon bag that held that loot left me listing to one side, and I had only one thought: “Am I going to have to rent a handcart to move Caroline’s haul?”

Now, I understand that the fees on change machines such as CoinStar units is a bit ridiculous: in most years, even a 10 percent fee didn’t make that much of a difference, but this time would be different. The cost, though, was worth being able to watch the exact breakdown of individual coins as we waited for the final count. Caroline went first, and had an impressive final tally considering the rough year we had. Then it was mine, and I beat her total within the first big load of change in the hopper.

The final tally? I have to thank all of the Triffid Ranch regulars and new customers over 2019 and 2020, because without your assistance in the great change chase, Caroline wouldn’t have had as wonderful an anniversary dinner as she had. (For very special occasions, she asks for sushi from Hana in Garland, and being married to her for a third of my life qualified as a very special occasion.) The rest goes back into the gallery, mostly in stocking up on plants for the new year. Now the challenge is for Caroline to nearly beat me in 2021, if only because if she wins and has to buy dinner, she knows that I’ll ask for pizza.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

Right now, the greater Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is in our default December weather system: generally sunny and mild, with temperatures at dawn flirting with freezing and temps at dusk considerably higher, with very good chances for surprise frost, snow, and even sleet. Because of that, many of our native plants and the best-adapted of our introduced species base their winter dormancy on photoperiod instead of temperature. A lot of people here do the same thing the closer we get to the winter solstice. Not everything follows that schedule, and for a few, it can be lethal.

The character shown above is a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis), a very common lizard ranging through most of the southern United States, with Dallas and Fort Worth marking the western edge of its range. Besides its fame for changing its skin color between brilliant green to deep brown, thus its common name “American chameleon,” Carolina anoles are also famed for their refusal to drink water from standing sources, preferring to lap dew and condensation from leaves and just about any other available surface. In the Dallas area, even considering their intense territoriality, they tend to collect in surprising numbers, and they’re out on any day warm enough to allow them to move in the afternoon. Not only are they adept vine and bush climbers, but thanks to lamellar pads on their toes like those of geckos, they also skitter across vertical wood, brick, and even glass. If they can get a purchase, they’re extremely hard to catch, which is why I don’t catch them: half of the fun with the anoles in and around the greenhouse is getting them trusting enough that I can get close enough to touch, and one big male that loves camping in a potted grapefruit tree has a thing about puffing up his dewlap and challenging me when I’m using the hose, solely so I’ll set the hose sprayer to “mist” and soak him down so he can get an evening drink.

While their climbing skills are legendary, apparently they have limits. For reasons related elsewhere, Venus flytraps in the Dallas area are best grown in glass globes, brandy snifters, vases, and other tall glass containers so they get the high sunlight, high humidity, and good air circulation they crave. Those glass globes tend to create a pitfall trap for them: either due to the angle, the temperature, or both, anoles this time of the year have a problem with climbing into glass containers and being unable to climb out, especially when chasing the same insects that the flytraps already attract. In busier times, this wouldn’t be an issue, between regular waterings twice a week in the summer and the regular Porch Sales, any trapped anole might spend hours inside a globe before being rescued. This time of the year, though, with the flytraps going dormant and checkups every week, a trapped anole could be injured or even killed by remaining in a plant globe, especially if nighttime temperatures went to or below freezing. The odds of this one ending up in another globe are pretty poor (unlike many people, anoles tend to learn from their mistakes), but that’s no guarantee that it won’t happen to another.

With this in mind, it’s time for a homework assignment. As mentioned before, anoles are exemplary climbers, but they need something to climb other than the underside interior of a glass globe. Lots of objects qualify, so long as they neither contaminate the soil inside the container, block off light to the flytrap, nor spread diseases. In this particular case, all of the globes waiting for spring now have a sprig of bamboo rising above the lip, just in case. It’s not much to do, but it should be enough to save anoles, jumping spiders, and the occasional mouse from a slow and undignified death. For those with Triffid Ranch flytraps, and for those just following my growing recommendations, consider doing something similar, just in case. And so it goes.

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2020 – 3

Curious about what this is all about? Go back to the beginning.

If anyone had cared enough to ask me back in January about the essential fashion accessory of 2020, “facemasks” probably would have rated somewhere below “glow-in-the-dark codpieces” and slightly above “a revival of bellbottoms.” (Honestly, my fear was “Panama Jack T-shirts, the Next Generation” would be the definitive fashion statement of the new decade, and so my inherent cynicism once again torpedoes fame, fortune, and that honorary degree from the University of Phoenix.) To be fair, those of us who inhaled the Misha Nogha novel Red Spider, White Web 30 years ago had our suspicions, but when we weren’t running around in cloned sharkskin armor, either, it was easy to assume that this was a future that wasn’t going to happen. Until it was.

Back in March, masks were purely a matter of survival: something to block off particles and aerosols of yecch from making contact with your respiratory system. In the first few days of the pandemic, we were too busy screaming “CORAL!” to worry about making a statement, but by the end of 2020, face masks were a previously inaccessible surface for expression, advertising, and letting your fellow humans know that backing off was a really good idea. Even with impending COVID-19 vaccines, facemasks may be the fashion statement of the decade, as they also do wonders for fending off flu and air pollution, hiding silent comments, and adding to headphones and books the notice to public transit users that the wearer isn’t interested in a conversation. All of these are laudable uses.

The question, as always, though, is “which one?” Not all masks are created equal, but we’ve definitely gone beyond the early stagest of throwing ideas up against the wall and hoping something sticks. Now with minimum standards for quality and coverage, it’s all about longterm comfort, allowing the focus to go next on art. Because of that, and because I share sympathies with lionfish and blue-ringed octopi on warning passersby as what they should expect, the pile of new masks to rotate through keeps growing.

(And on a sidenote, a little extra on washing masks that’s only obvious in retrospect. While washing them in a standard laundry load works for a lot of them, handwashing usually increases their effective lifespan. In addition, for those of us of the male persuasion with particularly slow-growing facial hair, shaving takes on a particular focus when wearing a mask because of hair follicles catching on the inside and pilling the fabric. That’s why I wash masks every day after use, with a bit of shampoo to degrease and disinfect, then hang them up to dry over the rest of the day. It’s easy, efficient, and much gentler on fabrics than tossing them in a washing machine. But that’s just me.)

As mentioned, the pile of masks keeps growing, because the selection keeps growing as well. I’m hoping to be able to turn everybody onto Triffid Ranch poster masks soon, but until that happens, here are several designs that will both help keep you safe and surprise your neighbors at the same time. This also gives me an opportunity to return to my modeling days of the early 1990s and do selfies that don’t scare children and small animals. (The model background, by the way, is an absolutely true story, but it’s been published elsewhere if you want the details.)

To start, old friend and paleoartist Scott Elyard is back to his usual hijinx, and that includes introducing unsuspecting passersby to the Devonian arthrodire Dunkleosteus.

You may be most familiar with Dr. Lisa Buckley for her Bird Glamour postings on Twitter (which are essential viewing for anyone interested in both stage makeup and bird plumage coloration, and she has an extensive collection of masks on Redbubble dedicated to ornithological ostentation. Her main research is on ichnology (the study of tracks, trackways, and other trace fossils), and who could resist having a map of Bellatoripes fredlundi tracks across one’s face?

Chelsea Connor already has my heart due to her unrelenting love of anoles, but her mask design is the best answer to the question “is that snake venomous?” ever made. (I have a great appreciation for the venomous snakes of North Texas, and spotting a big cottonmouth basking alongside drainage ditches near downtown Dallas is always a highlight of the day. I also agree without reservation that the best way not to be bitten by a snake, venomous or not, is not to do anything dumb enough to allow a bite to happen in the first place.)

In addition to creating comics (Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, I Feel Sick, Fillerbunny) and TV shows (Invader Zim), Jhonen Vasquez creates masks. So many masks. In particular, the Space Jerk design was essential for starting my new day job, so I can blend in among all of you other filthy human bloatlings until the day I finally escape this horrible planet long enough to blow it up. But perhaps I’ve said too much.

Finally, Mónica “Monarobot” Robles Corzo is already justifiably renowned for her frankly stunning Mesoamerican interpretations of kaiju and other monsters, and you’ll have to wait only a short time to see one of her works incorporated into a new Nepenthes hemsleyana enclosure out at the gallery. (If you know anything about N. hemsleyana, you’ll have a hint as to what to expect, and I guarantee that you’ll still be wrong.) She’s taken her distinctive style to mask design, and both the Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc designs are personal favorites around the gallery during both porch sales and weekend plant tours. And if the Shin Godzilla print is more up your alley, who can complain?

Next week: books. Lots of books. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, December is going to be rough enough, but January is going to be a month for staying home and reading.

Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions 2020 – 2

Curious about what this is all about? Go back to the beginning.

This week in Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions, we’re going to talk about food. Now, for Dallas folks, I could bring up local joys such as The Maple Leaf Diner, Tasty Tails, Sababa, and Blu’s Barbeque, but that’s not fair to everyone else, and the idea of these gift options is that they’re open to everyone, regardless of travel options and lockdowns. Instead, we’re going to talk about heat.

Texas cuisine has a reputation for revving the Scoville scale, but what makes it work is an understanding of the flavor that the heat complements and compliments. That’s an overriding concern with most vendors at ZestFest, the largest spicy foods show in the US: any idiot can dump a kilo of ground Carolina Reaper pepper atop an otherwise perfectly good hamburger and post video of the subsequent prolapse on YouTube, but the artist knows when just a little gets the job done and when the chef needs to take the controls of the Titanic and yell “Full speed ahead! Let’s turn that chunk of ice into margaritas!” Therefore, some suggestions on all aspects of that joy, starting with where to start when you don’t know where to start.

When starting with good and hot food, it’s often best to go with someone who knows what they’re doing and trust their assessments. Just like following a film critic with whom you may not always agree but who makes you contemplate going into new cinematic territory, you may have to poke around and find someone with a similar appreciation of heat, and my personal guru in that regard is Mike Hultquist of Chili Pepper Madness. Recently, he’s been expanding into reminding people of Cajun remoulade and horseradish sauces, and his recipes are never boring. Best of all, if going through online listings doesn’t work for you, his cookbooks are dangerous to read in bed unless you look forward to drowning in a pool of your own drool. May I recommend his recipe for peri peri sauce?

In a lot of circumstances, you may just want something easy: you’re not in the mood to or not able to make a full fiery dish, or you want to kick up something that everyone else in the family wants to keep bland. (Speaking from experience, New England-style clam chowder is always improved with a good dose of Tabasco or sriarcha sauce, but I don’t dare spice it to my preference for guests.) That’s why keeping tabs on a good shaker bottle for your own augmentation comes in handy, and Defcon SaucesMalum Allium spicy garlic powder is an excellent addition to roasted vegetables, particularly broccoli and Brussels sprouts. My beloved wife Caroline, who admits that she can’t handle much heat, has a love for Malum Allium, but also for the Feisty Fish Rub from Mom’s Gourmet. We go through a lot of spices (mostly because we eat a LOT of roasted vegetables these days), but we keep coming back to each of these, and we’ll probably have a more extensive list for 2021.

And for those who want to go past merely eating hot and want to grow hot, there’s really good news on that front, too. Specifically, while a lot of really good seed suppliers offer excellent pepper species and hybrids, you can’t go wrong with the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University and its wide range of pepper seeds. Personal recommendation: my favorite variety from the Institute is its Numex Halloween: not only does the foliage go deep purple-black with sufficient sun, but the peppers go from black to orange as they ripen, and they’re now an essential part of my notorious goth salsa recipe. But don’t pay attention to me: go wild and try something that surprises you, because that range of seeds includes some doozies.

Well, that’s it for this week: things are going to get interesting, what with American Thanksgiving and all. Feel free to expand upon this list in the comments, too: half of the fun is in the sharing.

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November…

Because (a) my current presence in North America is due partly to overly enthusiastic celebration of Gunpowder Treason on its 300th anniversary, (b) I still bow to nobody in my appreciation of Alan Moore, and (c) I am a hopeless fan of Violet Carson roses:

State of the Gallery: October 2020

We’re finally coming upon the end of the growing season here in Dallas, aggravated by the surprisingly cold temperatures of the last week in OCTOBER. One more Porch Sale on October 31, and then the tents go into storage, the Sarracenia pitcher plants and Venus flytraps go into winter dormancy, and we shift gears until next spring. (For those unfamiliar with Dallas autumns and winters, you’ll be glad we did, too.) That doesn’t mean that the Triffid Ranch shuts down with it. It just means that we’re going a drastically different route than what had been planned back in January.

To begin, it’s time for a short break, and everyone is going to be worrying about larger things around Election Day than one carnivorous plant gallery. Therefore, the first week of November is one of rest and recharging, as well as the opportunity to get the gallery into winter order. In previous years, the weeks until American Thanksgiving would go into multiple shows at the end of the month, but with half cancelled until next year at best and the other half simply not happening at all, it’s time to, as the old saying goes, put your bucket down where you are.

The first big change is that as opposed to the regular Saturday night Nightmare Weekends Before Christmas shows that have been going since 2017, the gallery will be open on Sundays in November and December, exact times to be announced soon. As always, a maximum of 10 people will be allowed inside the gallery at any time, or as at a time when Dallas County drops its current lockdown restrictions, and masks are mandatory. No messing around with this, either: anyone trying to enter without a mask will be asked to wear one or leave.

The other big change is one planned for the middle of March, but understandably curtailed due to conditions. Before the big office lockdown, we were getting ready to announce the availability of enclosure rentals, for those who wanted a carnivorous plant enclosure for offices, classrooms, bars and restaurants , or popup events, but who didn’t necessarily want to buy one. Again, details will follow very soon, but as restaurants and offices start reopening, it’s time to guarantee a little bit of green over the winter.

Finally, it’s time to expand the knowledge base a bit and get back into virtual lectures. Another aspect of the current COVID-19 collapse is that the museum, school, and arboretum lectures and presentations that used to be a staple through the year aren’t happening, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable trying to do one anyway. This means that it’s time to get a lot more use out of the new iPad and put together more videos on plant history, behavior, and husbandry, including more than a few new tools and techniques for those working in much colder climes than these.

One last thing. This November will also see the return of the regular Post-Nuclear Family Gift Suggestions posts that have been on hiatus since the gallery opened: I have a lot of neat friends with a lot of neat and inexpensive items that they’re offering this season, and it’s time to boost the signal as much as possible. Now let’s see how well we get through November.

October 1, 2020

And it’s October 1, meaning that it’s no longer considered unusual by average people to watch this clip over and over, the way I have since this approximate date in 1976…

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

Shameless plug time: Dallas has a lot of restaurants, ranging from the corporate to the ethereal, and one of our best draws for visitors is our only Canadian restaurant. I’ve hyped the Maple Leaf Diner for years: when the old gallery was at its Valley View Center location, the Maple Leaf was right across LBJ Freeway, and it became a regular locale for grabbing breakfast before one of the old Valley View ArtWalks, meetings with old friends after gallery tours, and regular Wednesday night dinners with my in-laws. Everything on the menu is both authentic and worth trying: I can state with authority that the Maple Leaf’s Belgian waffles are the best I’ve ever had this side of Toronto, and it’s the perfect place to introduce Texans to the Euclidean idea of poutine. Short of being greeted at the door by Rick Mercer, it’s the best chunk of Canada you’ll ever find this far south.

Anyway, one of the minor draws of the Maple Leaf is the east wall, covered with all sorts of kitschy tourist souvenirs from Our Home and Native Land, including a souvenir plate of Canada’s flower emblems, the provincial equivalents of state flowers in the US. It’s a little out of date, as it only lists “Newfoundland” instead of “Newfoundland & Labrador” (not to mention nothing about Nunavut), but it still shows off the Newfie flower emblem and beloved flower of Queen Victoria, the purple pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea. For years, the plan was to bring in a purple pitcher plant or ten on July 1, Canada Day, just so the staff and customers could see one in the pulp, and possibly go into a discussion of the carnivorous plants of Canada. (Oh, trust me. Canada has a lot of them.) Unfortunately, there was always one minor disaster or another that prevented that from happening, especially after Valley View closed and we had to move gallery locales. 2020, though, was going to be the year that we actually pulled it off. I was sure of it.

Well, in 2020, it happened, kinda. Right in the middle of a pandemic, right after the Maple Leaf reopened for takeout and curbside service, Sarracenia purpurea came to the Maple Leaf, even if only long enough for quick pictures and a staff ogling before my masked presence had to clear out for safety’s sake. (Their safety, not mine.) Next year, though, once it’s safe to do so, expect a lot more.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: the HVAC Edition

Very much as with home ownership, commercial property leasing is one of those things where beginners often don’t know what they’re getting themselves in for. For the last three years the Triffid Ranch has been in its present location, most issues with that location were relatively easy, especially compared to its first space. (There’s nothing quite like discovering that the owner of Valley View Center was refusing to let the Dallas Fire Marshall inspect the fire suppression system, right on the heels of the air conditioning system blowing out during the hottest November in Texas recorded history and said owner refusing to repair it for a full month.) It’s the little things that surprise you, and if you’re lucky, they reveal themselves just before they become catastrophic failures. Such is the story of the Triffid Ranch air conditioning system.

With many commercial properties in the state of Texas, any improvements to the property other than common areas (driveways, parking lots, access ramps, and the like) must be paid for by the tenant. Necessities such as electricity are maintained and updated either by the property or the utility supplying it, but everything else falls to the purview of the renter. Want to replace bare concrete floors with carpet or wooden flooring? That’s on the renter. Replace fixtures such as sinks and toilets? The renter. For the most part, we cheerily go to work, installing break areas, adding lighting, and doing all sorts of other things to make the space liveable and pleasant, and the question is always “how badly do you need this?”

And this is where the air conditioner comes in. When we moved in, we knew the gallery’s existing air conditioner was a bit, say, chronologically challenged. When installed back in 1987, the individual who paid for it went with the absolute cheapest system s/he could get, which meant a system that cooled the front vestibule, where Caroline’s space is currently located, and a side room that was apparently an executive’s office. Everywhere else, you got what you got, which meant that summers required lots of fans. This also meant that between May and October, that little unit was pretty much on day and night, just to keep the inside area liveable. Things weren’t helped by what could be called “enthusiastic nonmaintenance”: when we moved in, the air filter on the AC unit apparently hadn’t been changed in years, said filter was held in place with two old AC-to-DC power adaptors originally used for a long-removed security system, and the previous tenant had managed to get a ridiculous amount of glitter and most of a blue feather boa into the vents. (That story comes later, because it’s even weirder than you’d expect.) When we had problems with the system three years ago, a thorough cleaning improved the situation somewhat, but we knew that eventually the whole unit would need replacement. In Texas, having an operational AC unit, even one as kludgy and obsolete as this on was, was a necessity for survival for three months out of the year.

Even before the days of COVID-19, the plan was to replace the AC in the gallery before the summer heat got going, as open houses during the summer were already a bit sultry when the place filled with people. However, circumstances led to an acceleration of the plan. Just before the July 4 holiday, the whole old AC unit froze up, leading to water leaking from underneath the unit, and an inspection led to the discovery that the unit coils were rusting out. It may have remained intact through the summer, and it might not have survived July. The compressor on the roof was just as old, just as rickety, and just as ready for failure, and replacing the indoor unit would likely lead to a failure compressor, again in the height of the July repair season. After consulting with our AC rep (anyone needing contact info is welcome to ask), the plan was to replace the whole mess with a new, larger indoor unit and a new compressor, offering nearly twice the cooling power with considerably lessened power consumption. More importantly, because of the surprisingly cool and rainy weather in this first week, switching it out quickly was imperative.

The upshot? The unit still needs some additional work to bring everything up to code, but the difference is amazing. Even in the worst heat, not only does the new unit do so much more to cool the main gallery area, but IT DOESN’T RUN ALL DAY AND NIGHT. Obviously, the real acid test will be to check its performance during a packed open house, which may be a while, but this takes pressure off both attendees and the plants. The plants, in particular, appreciate the sudden coolth. Now let’s wait until it’s reasonably safe to have indoor events to test the system’s limits.

Happy Canada Day

For friends, cohorts, and relations outside of the Dallas area, a tribute to the flower emblem of Newfoundland & Labrador. For those in the Dallas area, it’s time for breakfast takeout from The Maple Leaf Diner, serving the absolute best Belgian waffles to be found this side of Toronto. And yes, when I pick up my waffles, I’m bringing a purple pitcher plant, just so the owners get a little bit of home.

100 Years of Ray Harryhausen

A lot of people will be making note of how today would have been Ray Harryhausen‘s 100th birthday, and they all have good reason to note his influence on them, creative and otherwise. My sole contribution: every last enclosure I design has a scoop of wonder added by a six-year-old who first encountered Harryhausen’s work via the CBS Late Movie on Friday nights back in 1972. The 53-year-old who pays rent on the place regularly has to explain to that six-year-old that the odds are increasing small on any place like the Forbidden Valley still existing in this age, and that films like this are about the only way we’re going to see non-avian dinosaurs. That’s when the six-year-old says “Okay, if the Forbidden Valley doesn’t exist, why can’t we make one?” You can’t argue with kid logic like this, so I’ll probably be building Forbidden Valleys, with all sorts of wonders hidden in them, for the rest of my life. (A 25-year-old tenant who was lucky enough to interview Mr. Harryhausen when he came to Dallas vaguely wishes he knew the whereabouts of the interview tape, as the magazine for which it was conducted and then spiked is long-dead. The 53-year-old just notes that everything that he said was better collected in books and videos that deserve wider recognition, so it’s not going to get pulled out in my lifetime.)

Upcoming Projects: Screen Tests

In efforts to improve both sculpting techniques and enclosure design, the Triffid Ranch library is full of books offering inspiration and advice on miniature perspective, ranging from the Vietnamese art of Hòn non bộ to entirely too many guides on practical special effects from the 1970s. Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of going directly to the source for reference, which presented itself with a maintenance trip to my late father-in-law’s ranch in West Texas.

The ranch in question is atop the Edwards Plateau, which makes up a significant portion of the border of the Brazos River as it meanders through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. The Plateau is on a thick base of limestone and sandstone dating to the Pennsylvanian Period, almost exclusively marine deposits but occasionally showing thick layers of conglomerate from the erosion of long-vanished mountains. Even the thickest layers are only about a meter thick: most are less than a centimeter thick, and many are paper-thin. Several roads lead the length of the ranch to the Brazos, and the limestone at the highest elevation is thick and strong enough to have supported two quarries that ran until the late 1960s. The rest, well, not so much.

Anyway, many of these ancient seabeds were shallow enough that they supported all sorts of life, as evidenced by innumerable fossils of crinoids, brachiopods, and horn corals. No vertebrate fossils have turned up, but plant fossils are abundant, usually consisting of Lepidodendron and other land plants apparently washed out to sea during floods. Some of the layers are so thin that they suggest ultrashallow lagoons that came close to drying out. All in all, the ranch collects about 50 million years of the history of Texas, just waiting for someone other than me to interpret what it says.

Because of those ultrathin layers, I’d wanted to get photos of these for scale, in attempts to replicate this in enclosure form for future projects. Not only was this shoot intended for reference on lighting and accessory arrangement, but it’s also an opportunity to offer a slight distraction in trying times. Enjoy.

And finally, as a direct opportunity to aggravate Ethan Kocak of The Black Mudpuppy, it’s time to prove that if he wants to mess with us on horrible mashups, some of us will mess back:

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Canadian Carnivores

For those encountering carnivorous plants for the first time, they tend to be shocked by the sheer range of environments in which carnivores live. There’s the automatic assumption that they all live in hot, swampy jungles, and express shock at discovering the number of species found in North America alone. The shock spreads when they discover that Venus flytraps can be found a day’s drive from Washington DC, and they really lose it when they discover the variety of carnivores in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Best, though, is when I tell them about Canada.

Canada may not be as rich in carnivores as the United States or Mexico, but it has considerable charms. The most famous, of course, is the purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, the flower emblem (the Canadian equivalent of the US’s state flower) of Newfoundland & Labrador. S. purpurea isn’t isolated to that area: it ranges due west from Newfoundland across Ontario (with that range extending south to Michigan and Minnesota) all the way to eastern Alberta, and then north to just short of the border with Alaska. On the west coast, the cobra plant, Darlingtonia californica, ranges well along the coast of British Columbia and south into Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Canada also has a wide range of sundews and butterworts in a wide range of habitats, and one of the most interesting places to view carnivores for sheer spectacle is in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta.

Alberta and Texas have a lot more in common than most people would expect. In fact, when getting off the plane in Calgary from Dallas, it’s hard not to wonder if the plane just circled around Iowa and landed where it started, especially if you travel to Calgary in time for the Calgary Stampede. During the Stampede, the only way you can tell Calgary and Fort Worth apart for sure is that one has more cactus and one has more Mounties. If you see lots of mesquite trees, you’re not in Calgary. That similarity stretches across most of the province: driving near Drumheller, for instance, the plains are so flat and the scenery so similar to North and West Texas that the only way to be sure that you’re in Canada is that the highway signs list kilometers and are written in English and French. All that fails if you head sufficiently west: I recommend doing it the way I did, in the middle of the night when the moon is rising, and you realize that something took a big bite out of the moon and won’t give it back. At that point, you’ve hit the Rockies.

When you’re that far west, there’s absolutely no reason not to visit Banff National Park, especially for those of us fascinated with geology and natural history. However, for butterworts, stop in the town of Canmore just outside of Banff, and head out to Nordic Provincial Park in the mountains overlooking Canmore. That’s where you’ll find treasure.

Backstory: my last trip to Nordic Provincial Park was in 2006, as part of a trip with my wife’s family. I’d never been to Alberta before (my grandparents were from Ontario, but I’d never been that far west), but had dreamed about it ever since learning about the gigantic bone beds around Drumheller and Edmonton as a kid. Caroline and I were already outliers in the family as far as cultural markers were concerned, as they looked at us like dogs being shown a card trick when we noticed a new bicycle trail freshly opened that was named “The Riders of Rohan.” The worst, though, was when heading up one trail, we came across the leftover bracket from a long-removed gate still attached to a tree, and Caroline asked what kind of spigot that was. “That’s for collecting pine syrup,” I told her. “Real Canadians eat their waffles with pine syrup, and maple syrup is just the crap we give to Americans who don’t know any better.” My sister-in-law has never forgiven me for telling her that, because she spent the rest of the trip asking for pine syrup and getting angry that the locals wouldn’t share.

Anyway, half of the family split up to take one trail that led to a mountain lake at the highest easily accessible elevation in the park, and the other half went on the other. This trail’s vegetation thinned as we climbed higher, with spectacular views of the valley and the whole of Canmore. Best, though, was the waterfall on an adjoining peak that blasted mist across the gorge and onto our trail.

Finally, at one point, we stopped to admire the waterfall, up against a boulder about the size of an SUV that had rolled down at some time in the reasonably recent past. It was still reasonably clear of vegetation other than some moss, but it also had a flash of blue-violet at the top. I got closer to investigate the blue, and discovered, snuggled in a patch of soil about the size of a toonie, were a pair of butterworts. Pinguicula vulgaris, to be precise.

This was reason to stop alone, but we figured “Let’s keep going up and see what everyone else found.” Well, that mountain lake was just covered with butterworts: the soil was little more than rock dust, with no real nutritive value, so the butterworts were at home, just blooming away.

As it turned out, they were a great example for people who were afraid of raising a carnivorous plant because they couldn’t keep one warm enough. If a P. vulgaris butterwort can survive an Alberta winter, it can definitely survive a Texas winter. And to this day, when doing slideshow lectures for garden shows and classrooms, I still use the same shots of those butterworts to demonstrate that they can be found in all sorts of odd places:

State of the Gallery: April 2020

A solid month after the COVID-19 lockdown started, and everyone understands my hometown’s unofficial motto: “So…aside from THAT, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?” For those having issues with shelter-in-place orders, I sincerely sympathize and empathize with your plight, and here’s hoping that the Triffid Ranch can help take the edge off. For those suddenly finding ourselves with the opportunity to live our preferred hours, “If I’m not back in my coffin by sunrise, I turn back into a pumpkin,” there’s a lot to do. Hang on.

To start off, the virtual Manchester United Flower Show on April 18 was an experiment in terror, but it also worked. Yeah, the video froze at the beginning (a glitch in its iPad app means that everything freezes if texts or other notices come through, requiring a hard restart to get everything going again), but it was a grand start. This, of course, was the beginning: the archives are up on Twitch, and expect new installments every Sunday evening. (During the duration of the lockdown, don’t expect any Saturday evening virtual open houses for one very important reason. I refuse to make anyone choose between Triffid Ranch streams and those of Panoptikon Dallas, myself included. Dallas’s best goth club is having issues with the lockdown as well, the DJs and crew are friends, and the Friday and Saturday night playlists are a great comfort in the gallery late at night.)

And on the subject of virtual events, it only gets better next week. Until March, the biggest Triffid Ranch show of the year was the planned Texas Frightmare Weekend horror convention that traditionally runs the first weekend of May. Frightmare has been moved to September, and we’re all awaiting word as to whether it’ll be safe for the show to run then (and whether we’ll all be wearing masks and not just for costuming), but Grand Poobah Loyd Cryer decided that if we couldn’t have the show in May, we at least needed something. That’s why, starting on April 25, the new Frightmare HQ streaming show promises to give everyone a taste of what makes TFW such an event. The first broadcast runs on April 25 and runs through the weekend of May 2, and those who missed out on the last virtual open house get a good look at the inside of the gallery starting at 2:00 pm Central Time. And yes, if you can’t watch live, the archives will be available on YouTube and Twitch.

In other developments, it’s official as of today: the governor of Texas signed an executive order today that allows non-essential business to conduct pick-up and delivery business, which means that the Triffid Ranch is back to limited operation. Because (a) customers cannot enter the premises, (b) only curbside delivery is allowed, and (c) the gallery is currently full of plants that had been potted in anticipation of the Dallas Oddities & Curiosities Expo show scheduled for March, we’re going to try something different. All enclosures listed in the Enclosures Past & Present section are available for purchase at any time (just schedule an appointment for pickup or delivery), but most of the sales at shows such as Oddities & Curiosities and Texas Frightmare Weekend were for smaller, individual plants and containers. Because setting up tables and letting customers go through a complete inventory isn’t an option, it’s time for a Sunday Flash Sale. For the foreseeable future, from 12 noon until we’re out of plants, the Triffid Ranch front porch will have one specific species or group available, all generally identical, and all for the same price. Check back each Saturday to find out what the Flash Sale special is going to be, and call or write to reserve a plant once the special is announced. For those who want to drive by first, we accept drive-up visitors, but everyone will HAVE to stay in the car while doing so. (On my side, it’s masks and gloves all the way around, with containers cleaned before the sale starts.) For obvious reasons, the sale starts with tropical carnivores, but expect to see Sarracenia and other outdoor carnivores in the next few weeks once growing season gets going.

Well, it’s not the same as normal operations for an April, but things could be a lot worse. After all, three years ago, the gallery was a packed-up mess after its relocation, and it took six months of work to get it ready for its official reopening. If we survived that, we can survive anything.

Welcome To Your Career In The Arts

For the last several years, I freely admit that I blatantly stole a beautiful concept from the artist and musician Steven Archer, famed for his involvement with Ego Likeness, Hopeful Machines, and Stoneburner. In addition to his other endeavors, any of which make us mere mortals want to eat his brain so we can steal his powers, Steven also shares particularly disturbing failure videos and gifs, usually involving faceplants and setting idiots’ knees afire, all of which beg for one specific soundtrack, for his followers and interested passersby. The punchline is the same with each video or animated gif: “Welcome to your career in the arts.”

Part of the reason why so many of these are so funny isn’t just in being glad that we aren’t as unlucky, unskilled, or foolish as the individuals in said videos. It’s that for anybody with an actual career in the arts, we watch the videos, wipe our brows, and sigh “So it’s not just me.” So often, no matter how hard we prepare and what we try, it’s Faceplant City, and most of us just brush the concrete dust off our noses, spit out the broken teeth, and get up to do it again. Compulsion is a wonderful thing.

And so it goes. Since before the beginning of this foul Year of Our Lord 2020, the original plan for the Triffid Ranch was to jump up the number of Triffid Ranch shows, lectures, and open houses, including an expansion outside of the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area. Well, you can call COVID-19 “The Rona” or “Captain Trumps,” but every artist, musician, and writer in town saw the implosion of venues and events and called it “The Devil Vomits In My Face Once More.” You wipe off your eyes, reach for a towel and an eyewash station, and start again.

And to follow the old adage “when God closes a door, He also opens a window,” it’s time to see if if the next few weeks constitute defenestration or flying. The original plan was to hold a major open house, the Manchester United Flower Show, on April 18, if the current shelter-in-place order for Dallas County would allow it. Since that order runs until at least the beginning of May, this wouldn’t happen anyway, and a lot of folks understandably don’t want to risk crowds even after the order is lifted. We can’t have a traditional open house, and a lot of people outside of Dallas regularly mope (but mope in a cute way) about not being able to get to an open house anyway, so it’s time to make things virtual.

With the recommendation and inspiration of Christopher Doll of Breaking Fitt’s Law and Pete Freedman of Central Track, both essential reading, the Triffid Ranch is going to Twitch. The Eventbrite invitations will go out soon, but we’re going to try a video open house starting at 6:00 pm Central Standard Time on Saturday, April 18. Just as with the in-person open houses, this will run until about 11:00, thus allowing folks in varying time zones a chance to jump in. If this works out well and it doesn’t lead to a terminal curbstomping, we may have more in our current time of crisis, and probably way beyond. Not only will this give friends and interested bystanders a chance to see the inner workings of carnivorous plant blooms, but it gives a chance to confirm that the sole proprietor has far too much in common with the late Rik Mayall’s most famous character. See you then.

EDIT: And the official invitation is now live on Eventbrite. Feel free to share early and often.

Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 3

Even in better times, Texans and tourists rushed out every spring to view the return of the Texas bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis, bringing family, loved ones, and pets into the mix. This didn’t always end well for the bluebonnets: the plants themselves are reasonably tolerant of abuse, but the flowers are very easily crushed. This was really a problem for actively trafficked areas: for the most part, bluebonnets are common enough and widespread enough that the species can handle the occasional trampled cluster. In these days of social distancing, that dose of blue, purple, and green is even more important than ever, as is the need to give everyone a chance to see them who wants to do so. Please, please be careful when taking family photos in bluebonnet patches, if only by sticking to the edges and not flattening the whole thing. Most importantly, clean up after your pets, unless you want that kind of karma in an age of security cameras everywhere. Everyone else will thank you for this in the future.

For everyone who has followed this little trek so far, thank you very much, and keep an eye open for future posts. Bluebonnet season is just getting started, and there’s no telling what we could find among the undergrowth in a week or so. No telling at all.

Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 2

One of the things that amazes so many initiates to Texas bluebonnets is exactly how much animal life can reside inside one bluebonnet clump. No, not bluebonnet rattlesnakes: a thriving field of bluebonnets captures dead leaves and other debris to feed detritivores, and the leaves provide sustenance for a whole legion of foragers and grazers, while the flowers attract a wide range of pollinators that themselves depend upon the flowers’ pollen and nectar. With those herbivores come predators to take advantage of the largesse, and bodies of predator and prey themselves feed the detritivores. It’s a short-lived cycle that ends when the plants die off and burn back in May, but it’s absolutely essential for a wide variety of fauna, mycota, and other flora to continue their own life cycles. Give the land a chance to cool and rest over the winter, and the cycle starts all over in spring.

To be continued…

Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 1

For those outside of Texas, and for everyone sheltering in place, the Texas wildflower season started about the time we all started self-quarantining, and it now gets going with the beginning of bluebonnet season. Lupinus texensis is a denizen of poor soils throughout the state, growing thickly on roadsides, fields, industrial parks, and anywhere where nitrogen is at a premium. Part of their appeal is the tremendous clumps of blooms at the height of the season, but also their transitory nature: by the end of April, they generally burn off and deposit seeds for next year’s crop. By July, most people who hadn’t witnessed the waves of blooms in April would never have known they existed: the stems and flowers turn to powder and are overgrown by grasses and other summer flora.

Because of this temporary display, many bluebonnet habitats throughout Texas will not mow until the bluebonnets and other wildflower species go to seed. With the bluebonnets come legions of wildflower tourists to get photos of family and/or loved ones among the bluebonnets, in addition to utter idiots fussing about bluebonnet rattlesnakes. This is all fine and good, but these photos generally avoid one important fact: L. texensis is a fascinating plant when seen from the ground, to the point of seeming unbearably exotic.

It’s easy to be flippant about plant blindness, the cognitive bias that prevents people from seeing the plants in their everyday environments. It’s an understandable heritage of being taught over and over to look for the animals in various environments: look back on the number of pictorials of exotic environments and then consider how many focused solely on the plants and ignored the animals. You might be considering for a while: everything from National Geographic foldouts to dinosaur books focus on the animals big and small, with the accompanying flora a sidenote at best. The phenomenon of plant blindness is even worse with documentary films and videos: show a field of Sarracenia pitcher plants, and interest only perks up when the viewer sees tree frogs in the pitchers. On a personal level, I deal with this at Triffid Ranch shows on a constant basis: not only do people look at an enclosure in a quest for the animal they’re sure is inside, but after being told that the enclosure holds nothing but plants, they check again just to make sure. Plant blindness isn’t innate and it isn’t genetic: it’s a learned behavior, and it’s one that can be broken with enough practice.

This is why, in the tradition of Sir David Attenborough, it’s time to go among the bluebonnets. Expect more pictures in the very near future: after all, bluebonnet season is only just starting up, and they’re going to get thick in the next few weeks. Most importantly, though, try to remember that plant blindness. Don’t focus on anything else: focus on the plants. Note the foliage as well as the blooms. Only this way can you break the curse of plant blindness.

To be continued…