Posted onNovember 9, 2018|Comments Off on Weather Cancellations of the Garland Urban Flea: the November Edition
Texas weather is a famed teacher of humility: regular readers may remember how last month’s outdoor Garland Urban Flea show was cancelled due to rain. A little rain we could have handled: the deluge with occasional hail blasted the whole area, and the Urban Flea locale would have made a great duck pond. Maybe it did. In any case, the revised plan was to move everything and everybody to the next show in November. Considering that early November in North Texas ranges from shortsleeve weather to “maybe I should get a jacket, just in case the wind picks up,” this was a very reasonable choice.
Well, that was before the weather report this week. You know that ominous music in horror films as the protagonist is trapped and unable to move, and the monster moves closer and closer in preparation to attack? The Weather Channel should license a theme and run it in the background when meteorologists discuss cold fronts. For the past week, the Weather.com prediction of an impending front dropping temperatures to or close to freezing left me checking my phone every few minutes. “It’s gonna miss us. It’s gonna miss us. I’m reasonably sure it’s going to miss us…”
It’s not going to miss us. Temperatures are going to drop to very near freezing, and that’s pretty much fatal to most of my plants. Hence, it’s a straight trip to Austin for the Blood Over Texas Horror For the Holidays show on Sunday, but the Saturday Garland Urban Flea just isn’t an option. Next year, after things warm up again, though, it goes right back on the schedule. And so it goes. Don’t let this stop you from going, though: just know that out of all the wonderful things being offered, carnivorous plants won’t be among them.
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Everyone who has ever worked a day job for a while has stories about the coworkers who made it either a little easier or completely intolerable. Back when the Triffid Ranch was still just a vague plan for the future, I worked in a call center for a company that processed electronic payments for utility companies, and our mutual experiences with the company’s customers make me very protective and supportive of my former coworkers to this day. On the other, a recent position came with a coworker so aggressively stupid, so willing to spout whatever racist and just plain ignorant commentary came into the pencil eraser that was the closest thing to a brain he had, that I still refer to his Big Thinks as “vowel movements.” Some of the former make enough of an impression that they’re invited to parties and family events long after parting ways, and some of the latter make one avoid certain locales and events so as never to run into them again. Only a few, a very few, qualify as true inspirations, where you can say your life went in a drastically different and better direction because of their presence, and these are people for whom you try your best to return the favor. And so starts the story of 12 years of Larry Carey.
Larry really doesn’t need much of an introduction in Dallas, being well-known both in the gallery community and in band and club publicity with his hyperdetailed posters and flyers, but we’d never made an acquaintance. Larry and I might have bumped into each other in any number of venues and events in the Dallas area, but we probably wouldn’t have, so a mutual work environment was the perfect place to shove us together. I first encountered him in a job interview for a company that’s now just a tiny block in a multinational organization chart, where he asked for a non-technical writing sample and I gave him a copy of an essay I wrote years before on using the human colonization of New Zealand as a guide for the biological colonization of Mars. That wasn’t the only reason he became my new boss, but it definitely helped, and the peripheral knowledge we shared, both with us and with anyone else willing to join in, was a perk that eclipsed free popcorn and foosball tables.
In an industry where most software and hardware engineers are so busy studying for the test that they’re honestly offended at the idea of learning something that doesn’t directly apply to a promotion or raise (the both of us have spent most of our lives being asked “WHY do you know this?”), and in private endeavors that encouraged tight specialization in art or music knowledge but an aversion to science or history, our coffee-break discussions rapidly spiraled through wide vistas of seemingly unrelated information. Even better, we usually complemented the other’s information in strange and disturbing ways: thanks to him, I’m still the first gardening writer to namedrop Papa Doc Duvalier, Charles Manson, Hunter S. Thompson, and George Romero in the same article about the same plant. (For the record, the plant was Datura stramonium, the angel trumpet, and that discussion over the space of two weeks turned up both D. stramonium‘s history with the Bacon’s Rebellion insurrection in the Jamestown colony in Virginia and a lot of really good reasons as to why anyone seeking a cheap high by ingesting or smoking Datura is in for a world of despair and horror. We even came across a thoroughly horrible story involving gardeners who grafted Datura roots onto tomato plants for improved disease resistance, and where the gardeners didn’t realize they left just enough Datura stem above ground until they made tomato sandwiches with the first tomatoes of the year and went straight to the ER.) And then the subject would veer toward his specialty, quantum theory, and we’d be off for another mathematical or natural history adventure. The physical and chemical properties of lunar soil simulant, the implausibility of terrestrial life utilizing arsenates instead of phosphates in a DNA molecule, the physiological mechanisms behind dream sleep, Bell’s Theorem and quantum foam…this went on for YEARS.
One of the interesting sidenotes later became a priority, when Larry started discussing art and art theory. Most people working in tech with artistic endeavors on the side usually keep them very quiet: the general response by managers to discovering an employee with a sidegig in writing or painting is usually an assumption that the employee will be leaving “once you hit it big.” Interviews are bad enough: I had one hiring manager with delusions of journalism look at my writing background at the time and assume that I’d leave “as soon as you find your perfect job,” even though I stated I’d have to take a massive pay cut to do so. (And then there was the interview where the head software developer piped up that the company didn’t need a technical writer because he was an accomplished writer specializing in Star Trek fanfiction featuring the erotic exploits of Wesley Crusher and Worf. It shouldn’t be a surprise that not only did he get the job, but that the company went under about six months later.) After about three or four months, Larry felt comfortable enough to show me some of his latest work after a long discussion on the Burgess Shale of British Columbia. As someone already familiar with a long run of surrealist comics artists ranging from Jack Kirby through Matt Howarth to Mary Fleener, saying that Larry’s distinctive frameworks, which he referred to as “mandalas,” sank right into the right receptors in my braincells was a decided understatement.
Long story short, the next seven and a half years were a crash course on the limits of my knowledge and how much more I needed to learn, and Larry was in the same situation. When it came to art, I was tabula rasa, and he gave me plenty of recommendations on artists and movements that had influenced him. That led me to looking for new resources for inspiration, dragging in new discoveries from the local Half Price Books stores to make sure he hadn’t already seen them, and then taking his recommendations to look for more. he knew very little about the back history on natural history and palaeontology art, so introducing him to Charles R. Knight, John Sibbick, and Marianne Collins led to a whole new explosion of paintings and prints. He started experimenting in color, leading up to the now-famous Triffid Ranch poster, which he presented to me in 2012. (He refused to take any payment for that poster, which is why all sales of shirts and posters go right back to him. “Pay the writer” is important, but so is “pay the artist.”) Both he and the company inspired me in turn: one of the advantages to working in a company specializing in hardware is a surfeit in odd discarded accessories and packing materials, and many of the early Triffid Ranch enclosures incorporated hoarded packaging elements such as the ultradense foam shipping cases for touch screens. It’s no exaggeration to say that without Larry and his inspiration, the current gallery wouldn’t exist, and those foam panels and blister packs were vital during the gallery’s earliest days for enclosure construction. And then there were the original mandalas Larry gave me for birthdays: the hallway leading to my office is referred to as “the Larry Carey Exhibition Hall.”
Eventually, though, the party had to end, and the conversations couldn’t make up for what was increasingly a toxic work environment. The company already had a reputation for, erm, interesting selections for employees, such as the predecessor who thought that coming to the Halloween family party in a gimp suit was acceptable. However, steady attrition and annual October layoffs eventually produced a supersaturated soup of psychosis. Coming into the break room to find an engineer curled up in a little ball on the counter, eyes scrunched shut in rage, because “I’m angry at my government” makes jobhunting much more of a priority, especially when people started taking bets on which coworker would be the first to come into the office with a shotgun “because God said Baby Jesus needs more blood.” The next job was in some ways even more perilous, but that put me in the perfect place for the position that allowed me to lease, stock, and open the first gallery three years ago.
And so that leads us to today. Larry and I tried to stay in touch, but schedules and workloads conspired, and he dropped off social media in order to focus on day job work and art. I finally managed to catch up with him last week, and oh boy did the news get interesting. Our old company went through a succession of buyouts, ending with pretty much everyone getting laid off, and Larry found himself with a new company in Eugene, Oregon. Even better, I’d caught him just a week before he and his wife packed up everything and moved there permanently. Oregon didn’t do much for me when I lived there two decades ago, but I respect the decisions of friends who stay, and it’s apparently exactly what Larry has needed for years. More interesting coworkers on the day job, a local community that encourages art, plenty of time to read and paint…yeah, I’m not the only one wondering what he’s going to accomplish once he’s established. Seeing what three months living in Tallahassee did for me a third of my life ago, I understand far too well.
After all this, a toast to Larry, and nothing but honest wishes for a long and lively arts career. I’m proud to call you a friend after all this time, I was honored to have you as a boss, and I can’t wait to see what you do next.
To say that Anno Domini 2002 was a bunkerbuster and kidney stone of a year was a bit of an understatement. The year started with the realization that the tech boom of the previous four years was over and done: much as with the pundits seeing signs of recovery from the crash of 1929 in January 1930, business analysts watching the detritus from the dotcom boom kept seeing new sprouts in the manure pile, but they weren’t visible from the ground level. The number of poorly managed built-to-flip tech companies blaming their implosions on 9/11 just kept climbing, and those of us who made plans for the future based on relative employment stability pretty much dropped everything and hung on. In my own case, the company that had hired me for a three-year stem-to-stern documentation revamp suddenly made the news for creating the 38-day monthly reporting period, and while its co-CEOs wouldn’t see the inside of prison for fraud for a few years, the rest of us wouldn’t be there to wave goodbye. Goodbye, steady paycheck: hello, wildly variable schedule at a Dallas liquor store that paid enough for rent or the car payment but not both at the same time.
If evil is the loam of the decay of virtue, from which new good will sprout again, 2002 was a raised bed garden the size of a football field. In very short succession, I lost two cats, brother and sister that I’d bottle-fed as kittens after they’d been abandoned at a Goodwill truck 14 years before, and a grandmother. Driving out to bury one of the cats led to a head gasket on my car blowing out, with a very expensive tow back to town. Oh, and let’s not forget the root canal, or the move to a barely affordable apartment just before the divorce was final. The absolute nadir, though, was watching as a haphazard pro writing career crumpled under the deaths of innumerable seemingly stable paying publications. This was matched by any number of wannabe editors who assumed that publication was enough of an honor without grubby compensation marring it, and by the end of May, with just the latest zine dweeb asking for submissions and responding to queries of payment with “Since I’m not a well-heeled trust fund baby, I’ll pay when the magazine starts making money and not before,” I was done.
By the middle of September, when the despair of working retail in a liquor store during the holidays was a regular morning and evening dread, a glimmer of light came through with a call from a company in Florida seeking a technical writer. It was coming out of a dotcom bankruptcy, they warned, and Tallahassee wasn’t Miami or Orlando. The pay wasn’t what was standard for that sort of position a few years earlier, the benefits were pretty bad, and the lead developer would disappear for weeks in his quest for a Russian mail-order bride. However, one of my potential co-workers brought in her pet Vietnamese potbellied pig on Fridays, the initial interview went well, and I had an old friend in Tally who recommended the place as somewhere to relax: Jeff VanderMeer, whose novel Annihilationcomes out as a film early next year. Jeff had delivered several well-placed slaps upside the head during my writing days, and if he was living out there, then it was worth the monumental move out there, wasn’t it?
To cut to the end, the job didn’t work out. Three months in, and about three days before I was to fly back to Dallas and marry Caroline, Delenn to my GIR, the president of the company decided that the gigantic software project planned for January 2003 didn’t need to happen, and a dead project didn’t need a technical writer. Since I’d already paid for plane tickets about an hour before getting notice, that meant sitting around in Tallahassee for three days before returning to Dallas, getting married shortly after Christmas, and flying back to Tally on New Year’s Day to pack up everything and drive back one last time. Noon on January 2, 2003 found me on a nearly-deserted beach in Gulfport, Mississippi, looking across Coke-bottle glass water on the Gulf of Mexico, coming across the occasional enormous fish bone or mangrove seed, and wondering “So what’s the rest of the year going to be like?” Considering how the previous four months had gone, most people would have been embittered for years on both career and locale and never returned.
In many ways, Tallahassee was the right place at the right time. A lack of money precluded a lot of activities, so that meant sitting in a rented room and reading all night. (My roommate was thrilled with this, as I was decidedly less dramatic than his previous roommate, AND I paid my rent on time without reminding. He was also a hopeless fan of the Britcom Absolutely Fabulous, so discovering that my ex was a physical and temperamental ringer for Edie Monsoon just meant that half of Florida’s gay community had to come by and meet Edie’s third ex-husband.) That also meant getting a cram course on Florida natural history and paleontology, especially from the number of Florida State University postgrads at the long-defunct goth venue Club Jade looking for an ear actively interested in their research. The geology and history of Wakulla Springs, the world’s largest freshwater spring, took up a lot of that spare time, and the springs’ steady year-round water temperature meant that swimming outdoors in unchlorinated water in December was an option. The biggest lateral turn in my life, though, came upon a visit to the Tallahassee Museum my second day in town. The Museum is more of a wildlife park and nature preserve than museum as most people would know it, and among enclosures for Florida panthers and river otters were collections of plants that I’d vaguely read about but had never seen in person. Right at the Museum entrance was a collection of Sarracenia purple pitcher plants, and right there was where my old life ended.
Returning to Dallas in 2003 wasn’t a huge improvement on 2002: moving back didn’t remove the reasons for moving out. What changed, though, was a big chunk of Tallahassee that remained under the skin. About a week after getting back, a run to a local Home Depot for new bookshelves led to coming across a display of assorted carnivorous plants for sale, and that’s when it really went down. Although I suffered a few writing relapses (all but one being so aggravating or humiliating that the bug is burned out forever, culminating with threatening to dox the entire management ladder at SyFy in order to get paid), the rest of the time between then and now has focused on the carnivores. This has led to friendships with experts and fellow dilettantes in the field, for all of whom I’d take a bullet without hesitation, and a constant sense of “So what’s next?” Every time I ask that question, someone comes up behind and tells me “If you like that, check THIS out,” and down another rabbit hole I go.
In a very roundabout way, this is a way of thanking the Dallas Observer for voting the Texas Triffid Ranch as one of its Best of Dallas 2017 winners, and a way of thanking those friends and cohorts for getting me here. John, Devin, Summer, Tim, Patrick, Sue, Jeff, the whole crew at Club Jade, the grad students/lifeguards at Wakulla Springs…all of you. I literally wouldn’t be who I am today without you, and I don’t think I would have liked the person I would have been without you. I owe you all a drink, and I hope to have to chance to pay out in person.
Well, we’re at the end of the time at the Galleries at Midtown space. 18 months ago, we opened with wide eyes and no idea of what the future would bring. By February 28, most of the art galleries will be moved out, the last of the stores on the lower level vacated, and the inevitable demolition started. Valley View Center will be replaced with a new collection of apartments, office buildings, and retail space, but without ARTwalks, without random passersby, and without a lot of strange memories. Valley View deserves a final sendoff, but the move this weekend takes precedence. The new gallery awaits, and with it come new schemes and new stories, all of which wouldn’t have been possible if not for the last year and a half out here. And so it goes.
As can be told from the last year, managing the gallery means a dearth of posts. This is a shame on one level, because it means that an ever-expanding collection of photos builds up on backup drives, just waiting for a few minutes between plant maintenance, enclosure design and construction, ARTwalk setup and teardown, home maintenance, relationship maintenance, Day Job essentials, laundry, mowing the lawn, and the regular nervous breakdown every third Friday. If I had the time to find a definitive and permanent vaccine for sleep, I’d be all set.
With that said, with things cooling down and the temperate carnivores going to bed for the winter, it’s time to start updating and revising. Let’s start with a little palaeobotany trip down to Glen Rose, Texas, best known for its dinosaur trackways but full of all sorts of other surprises.
The original idea, such as it was, was to get out of Dallas for a day during Memorial Day weekend and hit someplace that presumably hadn’t been flooded with May’s torrential rains. This time, it meant hitting Glen Rose, almost directly due south of Fort Worth, and stopping by Dinosaur Valley State Park. Neither of us had been out that way for a decade, but the idea of nature trails, antique stores, and possibly finding some of the Paluxy River’s famed Cretaceous petrified wood. The wood could wait: the dinosaurs couldn’t.
Besides the draw of Dinosaur Valley State Park’s hiking and biking trails and campgrounds, there’s the real reason why people travel from all over the planet: its famed dinosaur trackways. Back in the 1930s, the fossil prospector Roland T. Bird rode into Glen Rose on a hot summer day on his Indian motorcycle and stopped for a drink of lemonade. While cooling off, he inspected a recently constructed bandshell next to the county courthouse, which was constructed of local stone. Among the huge chunks of gypsum and petrified wood was a fossil track of a predatory dinosaur, and inquiry by Bird led locals to show him the river bottom, which was literally paved with dinosaur tracks and trackways. Not only were the first scientifically described sauropod tracks found in the river, but they kept coming across tracks on multiple planes of what used to be muddy beach: one of the great surprises was of a whole trackway, most likely of the big predator Acrocanthosaurus and the sauropod Paluxysaurus, as the former chased the latter across mudflats. Those trackways were cut out and archived decades ago, but the river bottom still had other tracks to see, right?
Well, as luck would have it, the Paluxy probably had plenty of new tracks visible to the naked eye…if the bearer of that eye also had gills. The river was as high as I’ve ever seen it, and about as clear and attractive as week-old coffee. It was also as close to white water as it could come, so taking a boat on it, even if that were allowed, was a remarkably bad idea. That didn’t stop innumerable innertubers on the nearby Brazos, but if the idea was to view geology instead of lining the banks with beer bottles, this was a bust.
Maybe not a complete bust: on the far shore was a smooth softshelled turtle (Trionyx spp.) taking advantage of a lack of humans to get in a good bask. It stayed on the bank for about ten minutes, long enough to get photos, but it didn’t take well to spectators. Enough people collected on the near shore that the noise or the motion spooked it, and it slid off the sandbank and disappeared into the roiling river. Considering that the genus Trionyx is at least 45 million years old, and probably a lot older, it may not have been a dinosaur contemporary, but at least it added some ambiance. Besides, softshelled turtles are famously cantankerous, and since this one was the same diameter as a garbage can lid, anybody stupid enough to catch it would learn soon enough exactly how hard it could bite.
Not far from the river were two old friends: the Tyrannosaurus and Brontosaurus statues from the 1962 World’s Fair, where they joined other life-sized dinosaurs in an outdoor exhibition sponsored by Sinclair Oil. These days, they’re in exceptional condition: when I first viewed them in the fall of 1980, they’d been neglected for decades since they were donated to Dinosaur Valley State Park. The Brontosaurus had been constructed in segments in order to make it easier to ship by boat to the New York World’s Fairgrounds, and the sparkle used to cover the seams had fallen out, giving it a strange checkerboard look. Meanwhile, the Tyrannosaurus had suffered from the loving attentions of the residents of Glen Rose: in 1980, it had all of two teeth left. Apparently, having a fake dinosaur tooth was a status symbol among Glen Rose teenagers, so the rest had been shot out with .22 rifles and picked up. That changed in the late Eighties with a big restoration and location change, though, and they look today as if they could go for a walk.
(thick northern Australian accent) “Now, this is a mature tyrannosaur! He’s about fifteen meters; that’s about 50 feet! Now, I’m gonna sneak up behind and jam my thumb up his butthole! That’ll really piss him orf!”
Incidentally, there’s a very good reason why this tyrannosaur has a trapdoor for a cloaca. By 1962 standards, the World’s Fair dinosaurs were marvels of animatronics, and this trapdoor allowed access to the mechanism that opened and closed the tyrannosaur’s lower jaw. I’d known for years that other dinosaurs had similar mechanisms (the Triceratops had a head that moved back and forth, and the Ankylosaurus had a tail club that wagged), but I’d been told for years that the Brontosaurus was completely immobile. Imagine my surprise at Caroline spotting guide at the front of the corral that described the brontosaur’s neck moving from side to side. Nearly 55 years later, and you still learn something new.
Another drastic change from late 1980: in a strange way, this was a more accurate locale for a big sauropod than anybody thought. In 1980, the scientific consensus still held that the big sauropods were swamp-dwellers that used water to buoy their massive bulks. The Paluxy dinosaur tracks seemed to confirm this: although plenty of sauropod front and hind footprints showed up in the river, not a single tail dragmark showed, up, supposedly confirming that the tracks were made under enough water to float the tails out of the way. What’s understood now is that sauropods held their tails out of reach of a wayward herdmate’s foot, and that most sauropods actively avoided swamps in favor of well-drained floodplains. Ironically, while the conditions most favored by tyrannosaurs are best represented today by southern Louisiana and the Florida panhandle, most of the big Jurassic sauropods would have been most at home in plains like the ones around Dallas and Fort Worth. If they could deal with the drastic changes in vegetation, that is.
And on the subject of Texas climate, the seeming dead-fish eye on the Brontosaurus has a slightly disturbing story. This is the third head on this statue: when the big restoration project on both statues started in the mid-1980s, an effort was made to put a new, scientifically accurate head on the Brontosaurus, when “Brontosaurus” became a nomen dubiam for the previously described Apatosaurus. Unfortunately, as is often the case with a lot of science art, the proponents of accurate sauropods ran right into proponents of preserving art in its original form, even if it’s wildly inaccurate. Ultimately, molds were found of the original head, and this fiberglass replacement was made from those mold and reattached. The eyes, though, were made of clear resin, which has fogged and crazed from just a few years of Texas’s wildly high levels of ultraviolet light. Texas cars very rarely rust out due to our climate removing any need for salting roads in the winter, but the tradeoff is cracking car dashboards from heat and auto paint that turns into watercolors in ten years.
Surprisingly for the whole foofarol about redoing the bronto’s head, nobody talks about redoing the tyrannosaur to match current theories. Namely, covering it with feathers. Here, I argue that this statue needs to be left alone to illustrate how dinosaurs were portrayed in the Twentieth Century…and put in a new accurate one just down the road a ways. You have to admit that seeing a “Roadrunner From Hell” tyrannosaur once you enter the park is a great way to make lasting impressions on first-time park visitors, right?
Posted onJuly 1, 2016|Comments Off on Have a Great Canada Day
We’re now halfway through the year, and now is as good a time to take stock of where to go from here. That applies on a personal level: as far as the gallery is concerned, we now have a much better idea of the plan for the existing mall and the new outdoor mall that will be replacing it. While the new space is intriguing, it won’t be ready for at least another 2 1/2 years, so it’s time to find something in the interim. Details will follow, but rest assured that we’re staying here until the end of the year, with one last big gathering at the ARTwalk on December 21. After that, we’re moving, with the idea of being set up and ready to go by the time show season gets going in March and April.
Anyway, hitting that midpoint means celebrating a very important day at the Triffid Ranch: Canada Day. This isn’t just to celebrate my people’s answer to Doctor Who, but also the man who led directly to popularizing one of the most famed genera of carnivorous plant in the world: Michel Sarrazin. He may not have been the first human to see the first examples of the plant later named after him, but he definitely helped bring it to its current high level of popularity. Even today, the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador is just as fascinating as it was when Nineteenth-Century naturalists confirmed that it could capture and digest insect prey, and it all started because Sarrazin had a keen curiosity for the fauna and flora of his adopted home. We all should be so lucky as this.
Posted onJune 24, 2016|Comments Off on “It’s the beginning of the end, nothing lasts forever…”
The last nearly twelve months of work on the Triffid Ranch gallery have been among the most productive and successful months of my entire life. Besides having the opportunity to work on larger enclosures than what was practical or sane to bring out to Triffid Ranch shows and lectures, it helped buffer the massive leap between a home-based business and one that might actually grow into a full-time retail establishment. I’ve met an incredible number of wonderful people, heard a lot of fascinating commentary, and managed to juggle full-time employment and gallery fun with only a few regrets that nobody has discovered the 87-hour day. The only other regret is that this stage ends in another six months.
Upon moving in, every artist at the Galleries at Midtown knew that this was a great but ephemeral opportunity. We knew from the beginning that the once-great Valley View Center, which had survived innumerable threats from other shopping venues only to succumb to the power of the smartphone, was going to be demolished and replaced with an outdoor mall arrangement. We knew from the beginning that we’d best make hay while we had the chance, because the combination of central location and inexpensive rent would end once the next stage started. We knew all this, and yet it’s still hard to get over how the current gallery residents will be the last people in Valley View Center as the lights go out and the demolition crews come in. Gee, it’s as if life imitates art:
Well, we got the word last week, but the official notice came out today: the city of Dallas approved the new plan for the mall redevelopment, so everything has to be turned off by December 31 as part of the deal. We’ve been told by the owner that they’re seeking an interim location for the galleries until the new MidTown is complete, and that gallery and workshop space is going to be part of the draw for MidTown, but that’s at least three years away. In the interim, the Triffid Ranch is moving.
Where we’re moving is a good question: a lot depends upon location, rent, and available parking. “When” is a good question as well: we’re going to stick it out in the current location for as long as we can, knowing that when the Christmas season ends, we’re leaving whether we like it or not. In the interim, work continues at the space, we’ll continue to prepare for shows and events, and ARTwalk, obviously, continues all through the remaining time here. In particular, stick around for the one-year anniversary party on August 20 (this doubles as Caroline’s birthday party, so grab cake and barbecue while you’re here), and let’s celebrate what we have while we still have it.
When we moved in, we figured realistically that we’d have a year in the space before the demolition started, and we hoped for two years. 18 months is a good compromise. Now let’s see where we go from here.
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To steal blatantly from Harlan Ellison, we’ll start at the middle, and then go back to the beginning. The end will take care of itself.
Nearly six weeks after signing the lease and starting to move in, the new Triffid Ranch space is nearly ready. The official launch date is September 19, 2015, to coincide with the September ArtWalk. It’s not a standard retail space: it’s a gallery, open by appointment only, but also a workspace in order to get new arrangements and new plants ready for new shows. That said, the real fun should be starting in October, once the heat breaks, the days get shorter, and the air in Dallas no longer smells like burning flint. Enter the mall and head for the octopus mural, take the escalator downstairs, and we’re right at the bottom.
A lot has changed with the Triffid Ranch since that first show in the fall of 2008, and much of it involves economics of scale. As the shows increased in popularity and people started coming out specifically to see what plants were available, the need to expand became obvious. For all of the assumptions that the Ranch was specifically that, particularly with the number of people calling at ungodly hours because “I’m coming through Dallas at 3 in the morning, so I wanted to come by then to see your plants,” it’s always been a home-run business since the beginning. Sarracenia in the back yard, Drosera and Stylidium in the greenhouse, and Nepenthes and Cephalotus on shelves inside the house so our horrendous summer heat and dryness didn’t wilt them within minutes.
This worked for a while, and we kept expanding, but rapidly the Triffid Ranch ran into the same snag as any other home-founded business. Namely, houses aren’t conducive toward running horticulture-based businesses. We needed room, a lot of room, to expand past one or two shows per year. We needed room to construct larger enclosures than the little jars that were the stalwarts of small shows. We needed room to exhibit those larger enclosures, because while attendees would thrill to seeing Nepenthes arrangements where the plants were at a decent size, nobody had the interest in taking them home. Honestly, that’s understandable: considering the number of international guests at Texas Frightmare Weekend, it’s hard enough bringing home a one-gallon plastic arrangement on the plane, but a converted 30-gallon hexagon tank with a plant big enough to eat small children and puppies? Naah.
Another factor that kicked in was that the show schedule was having issues. Covering expenses meant continuing to work a day job, and recent changes in that day job precluded my taking a week off to prepare, attend, and break down from big shows out of the Dallas area. In and out of Dallas, the old show regimen was changing, too. Every twenty years, we see a regular crash on local conventions: they start out feisty and hungry at the beginning of a recession, and the attendees really get into the festivities as a way to forget their aggravations and fears for at least one weekend. This lasts until the economy starts to improve, the curiosity-seekers move on, and the regulars realize that their own day jobs, families, and financial obligations are getting in the way. This usually gets aggravated by the number of shysters and incompetents who hear Some Guy stories about how science fiction and media conventions are a perfect way to print their own money, fail in a spectacular fashion, and thus poison the well for everyone else. Shortly after leaving the 2014 hiatus with Texas Frightmare Weekend, two shows for which I was scheduled blew up in a rather spectacular fashion, with fellow vendors bringing up the words “class action lawsuit” when they weren’t bringing up “put the organizer into a parking lot, put a gasoline-filled tire around his neck, and set him on fire.” Considering the number of touring vendors for whom cancellations don’t just mean a missing paycheck but a whole missing week of expenses between shows, I figured that it was about time to look for other venues. The Triffid Ranch isn’t quitting conventions and trade shows: there’s no way that I’d miss out on Frightmare or next year’s All-Con, as well as this November’s Funky Finds Holiday Experience in Fort Worth. It’s just that fewer and fewer vendors can risk the first-year shows that might be great, or might be the next Fed-Con USA.
And then the Texas summer intruded. In the last five years, we lost two beautiful old silverleaf maples that worked very well at shading the main growing areas all summer. Then our neighbor had no choice but to take out two equally majestic elms that shaded the whole of the house from the afternoon sun, and afternoon sun in Texas can be a killer. Both trees had such a wood-borer beetle infestation that they would have come down atop the house had they remained, so I didn’t blame him in the slightest, but their removal meant that a prime grow room became a prime bread oven by about three in the afternoon. Fans, extra air conditioners, improved circulation: nothing changed the fact that the plants kept indoors were overheating, and I lost several much-beloved Nepenthes cultivars in the early summer from heat exhaustion. It was time to move.
That’s where things get entertaining. Taking over and converting one of Dallas’s many light industrial spaces was always an option, except to clients who might have issue with coming out to an otherwise empty industrial park a few hours after dark. Standard retail space usually comes with the requirement of having to be open for business during standard business hours, which gets in the way of the Day Job necessary to finance the expansion for its first year or so. The best option would be a gallery of some sort, except most of Dallas’s gallery space is now renting for absolutely insane prices, and moving enough plants to pay the rent just simply wouldn’t be possible.
Please note that I said “most of Dallas’s gallery space.” This is important.
When it first opened 42 years ago, North Dallas’s Valley View Mall was one of the first indoor shopping malls in the area, and it definitely wasn’t its last. It survived multiple threats of shutdown and demolition that took out the neighboring Prestonwood and Richardson Square Malls, and it seemed to be making a comeback around 2005 with the addition of whole new third floor, with a brand new AMC movie theater taking up that floor. Then the original owners, leveraged up to their eyeballs, disappeared and defaulted on their various loans, and the city of Dallas found itself owning a very large shopping mall, in what would be a prime area once expansion of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Freeway was complete. Until that work on LBJ was done, though, the mall still had to be maintained for the theater. Anchor stores JCPenney and Foley’s moved out or went under, leaving only the Sears at one end. In between, business slowly trickled away, and the stores followed. By 2010, the mall was pretty much dead.
The good news was that a new owner came in, with a new idea. The plan was to demolish the Valley View Mall and replace it with a huge facility called Midtown, which included a new theater, apartments, shops, and even a park that ran through the middle of it. That work would have started shortly after the mall’s purchase, but the Great Recession intruded. The mall couldn’t just be taken down: several long-running tenants weren’t leaving just yet, AMC wanted a new theater before it allowed its very successful existing one to come crashing down, and the Sears was fully owned by its parent company. Since the big theater expansion, the demand for shopping mall space crashed as companies such as Gadzooks and Waldenbooks died off and others cut back on mall presence. With the decreased traffic due to the LBJ expansion and new malls going up in the far northern suburbs, Valley View was seen as an anachronism, but its demolition couldn’t happen until the stars were right. So what to do?
That’s where the owners came up with brilliance. The mall itself had to remain open: that was the only way to access the movie theater. That meant rooftop maintenance to prevent leaks, keeping air conditioning going, a facilities crew to sweep floors and keep the electricity connected, and all of the other factors necessary to keep this 1970s-era artifact going. The solution: what about converting the empty shops into art galleries?
When I first heard the idea behind the Gallery at Midtown, this coincided with its regular ArtWalk exhibition on the third Saturday of each month. Every third Saturday, the galleries open their doors from 6 to 10 in the evening to the general public, and the festivities include live music, food, and all sorts of other amenities. What really surprised me about this was the general vibe. Dallas gets a reputation for being unfriendly to the arts, and some of that reputation is justified: we locals learned back in the Eighties to be very quiet about new venues, because as soon as word got out, the area would be overrun with speculators famed for letting tenants do all of the work on a space and then kicking them out because some yuppie made vague noises about paying three times the rent. Here, that’s not a concern, and it shows.
Now here’s the kicker. The new space means a significantly enlarged workspace in a very central location, accessible from almost anywhere in north Texas. The rent is reasonable, the neighbors are wonderful, and those looking for new gallery space should check on it now. We’re also working against the clock. Sooner or later, depending upon when the next stage on Midtown starts, the mall is coming down, and everyone in it will have to relocate. That could happen by the end of the year, and it could happen two years from now. We don’t know, and neither does anybody else. In the meantime, this was a perfect opportunity to expand, we get at least one equivalent of a show every month without having to get trucks, carts, and extension cords, and the people who want to come by “to see the plants” can come up to the front window and look to their hearts’ content. Things may change. Things may change very rapidly. The plan, though, is to give this as much of a chance as we can, and see what next year brings. Here’s to seeing all of you next September 19.
Most of this last weekend was a blur. Reports of an impending winter storm meant that getting everything secured for freezing weather was imperative, which required lots of time in the greenhouse. This included deadheading Sarracenia seed pods in order to get seeds for next spring, applying new greenhouse film, taping everything down, and otherwise cleaning up before our promised Icepocalypse 2014 arrives by Tuesday night. In go the hoses, back go the sprinkler heads, under cover go the faucets. The rainwater tanks are full, the spare pots moved into shelter, the tender succulents put next to thermal mass and the citrus up against a south-facing wall…I’m a firm believer in the power of negative thinking, where planning for the absolute worst means that you’re ahead of the game if the absolute worst doesn’t happen. (This is why I should have bought a decommissioned fallout shelter years back, because it would make a great tropical carnivore grow house, but that’s a different dangerous vision.)
Anyway, with the exception of a spare “Miranda” Nepenthes pitcher plant and a Brocchinia carnivorous bromeliad, all of the tropical carnivores were secured indoors for the winter, and I checked on the Miranda as I first entered the greenhouse. The whole neighborhood is infested with a rather large population of Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis), with their regularly camping out among sweet potatoe, Carolina jessamine, and hibiscus leaves, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise to find one in the greenhouse. The surprise was in one using Nepenthes leaves as a hammock.
Since I wasn’t completely prepared, I ran inside to get a camera, hoping that he wouldn’t run off in the interim. I’d forgotten that either anoles are loath to leave a good loafing lounge, or they’re hams. This one actually hung out long enough to pose for a while.
After a few minutes getting shots, Ta’Lon finally decided that I was hanging out too close and too long, so he got up to leave, keeping one eye on me at all times. While not possessed of the independent eye action of true chameleons, anoles have their moments. (By the way, take a closer look at the rear foot in the photo. Something that I hadn’t realized until this photo is that anoles have opposable toes on both front and rear feet. The difference is that theirs are the equivalent of our little fingers and toes. I can definitely see the advantages of this for a small lizard in grasping thin leaves and stems, but this was a wonderful surprise all the same.)
Well, I backed off for a little while, and came back about ten minutes later. In that time, had he been replaced with a new, brown lizard?
Nope: not at all. Anoles are regularly referred to as “American chameleons” because of their color changing abilities. They have neither the range of color or pattern as true Old World chameleons, but they can shift from a deep green to a deep brown in a matter of about a minute. Ta’Lon apparently decided that either the weather wasn’t quite right, or that I was aggravating him, because he started to switch back the next time I came through.
I’ve watched a lot of anoles in my life, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see one change color, and I never thought I’d be lucky enough to photograph one in the middle of a color transition. That said, I realized that I’d have to check any plants being brought indoors for the winter for wayward anole eggs. The females have a habit of laying their eggs in planted containers because the soil is so loose and well-drained, and while I both enjoy hatchling anoles and their color-changing attributes, I’d prefer not to do so while trying to catch the baby frantically running up and down my bathtub in an effort to escape. Especially not in the middle of January.
Posted onJune 29, 2014|Comments Off on Essential viewing for rose gardeners
As an aside from normal subjects, I’ve taken issue for quite a long time on the idea that horticulture is too boring a subject to be worthy of popular media renditions. After spending two separate days cleaning up rose bushes only now recovering from last winter’s repeated cold strikes, I beg to differ. Not only is there drama, excitement, and pathos involving roses, but the best documentary about pruning heirloom roses came out last summer:
And you think I’m kidding? After the second round on Thursday evening, call me “Cherno Alpha”, because I almost literally had my ass handed to me. Judging by the blood spray all over the back yard fence, either the rose gave as good as it got, or I had a very intense heavy petting session with a band saw. The moment someone builds real Jaegers for trimming back roses, Osage oranges, citrus, and mesquite, I’m buying it right then and there, because sometimes to fight monsters, you need to make monsters of your own.
Comments Off on Essential viewing for rose gardeners
Posted onJune 12, 2014|Comments Off on Introducing Myocastor coypus
I love terrorizing my UK friend Dave Hutchinson with tales of the horrible, vicious wildlife in Dallas, because it’s like poking a Knox Block with a stick. He refers to Texas as “Australia Lite”, because he knows that unlike Australia, not every life form in my native land would try to kill him. No, most just want to knock him out, drag him back to their lairs, and lay their eggs in his chest. Worse, I have a passport now, so I just might come out to London, drag him onto a plane to Dallas, and sing to him the whole way back.
Anyway, so that Dave doesn’t soil his bedsheets every night, I wanted to show him something here that wouldn’t try to kill him, enslave him, or steal his wimminfolk. That can be a tough order, especially coming from a guy nearly taken out by his bicycle being hit by an armadillo in my back alley. (Not only can those little armored pigs run, but they JUMP, too.) It took an exotic intruder in one of the oddest places in the area, but I finally succeeded.
As mentioned a while back, I took a new Day Job out in the Las Colinas area of Irving, close to DFW Airport. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Las Colinas started out in the early Eighties as a tech hub, culminating with it becoming quite the symbol of dotcom excess about 15 years ago. All of that turned back into pumpkins and mice, but some of the oddities remain. First and foremost is the network of canals that run all through the eastern side of the area: apparently originally intended to make slightly hilly Dallas prairie a bit more tolerable, the canals had the side effect of attracting all sorts of wildlife. Egrets, herons, softshelled turtles the size of a garbage can lid, the occasional water snake, and the very occasional alligator all show up in the canals, but one of the biggest surprises here was a little guy I met on the daily commute from the train station to my office.
A few people here may know the story of the nutria, a South American water rodent that pretty much fills the niche there that the muskrat fills in the US and Canada. Nutria were first brought to the US as a possible source of cost-effective furs when beaver became endangered through the States: the market never took off, but nutria breeding numbers did, and they rapidly became a major pest in Louisiana. Part of this was due to their voracious feeding habits, and part was because nutria prefer to dig deep burrows into steep riverbanks. When said “riverbank” is a flood levee…well, you can imagine why they’re not exactly loved through the area.
Even fewer know that nutria are a rather common invasive animal in the Dallas area, but that’s because they’re incredibly shy and secretive. While I’ve seen the occasional burrow along creekbeds through the area, the only time I’d seen one before was when two ran out in front of me in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. They’re usually so secretive that one doesn’t even hear them slip into the water and swim off, which was why spotting “Gustavus” here in the morning light was an even bigger shock. His favorite lounging and feeding spot is a canal bank in the middle of a large park in the middle of Las Colinas, and he’s completely unafraid of the innumerable joggers and bicyclists who race right by his grazing area.
That is, until one of those cyclists stops and tries to get his picture. Well, it’s not like he’s going anywhere soon: the three-foot alligator I spotted in another canal is a ways off, and Gustavus is big enough to be a major challenge for a gator that small. Which brings up the eternal question: in such a blatantly artificial and manufactured venue as Las Colinas, are introduced species residing therein really quite the menace they would be in more pristine areas? Or is this just giving them running room to spread out further? Either way, I suspect Gustavus is going to be here for a while.
Posted onJune 12, 2014|Comments Off on The Magic Grapefruit Seed Theory
I’m regularly asked, by people who don’t live here, why I remain in the Dallas area. It’s definitely been a while: I celebrate the 35th anniversary of my first move to the Metroplex this December, with escapes in 1985, 1996, and 2002, but I keep coming back. In the last ten years, it’s started turning into the city it always could have been, and now I honestly can’t see living anywhere else. I’m not saying the place is perfect, and it’ll never be perfect, but it’s close enough for my needs.
One of the reasons why I love this town is because of the little things that make the place interesting. For decades, Dallas earned its reputation as “all hat, no cattle” by overhyping pretty mediocre venues in a desperate bid for international attention, while elected officials and noted businessmen worked their utmost to scuttle wonders for which they weren’t getting a cut. To this day, we always alternate between wanting an area or event to get proper recognition so it can grow, and trying to hide it so the SMU brats don’t “discover” it and gentrify it to death.
Sometimes, those little things are in plain sight. For instance, I started a new Day Job back last March. The upshot of this was that I get up at Even The Birds Are Telling Me To Go Back To Sleep Ayem and hitch a ride on the DART rail system practically to DFW Airport. In the process, I go by the notorious Texas School Book Depository twice per day, right along the back, and I see things in the summer morning light. Terrible things.
Not that this is particularly new: for all of the treasures in the Dallas Arboretum and the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, the most famous horticultural display in all of North Texas is the north side of Dealey Plaza. Yes, this is the famed “grassy knoll,” subject of conspiracy theories and Bill Hicks jokes alike. For spending a total of nearly a third of a century here, I’ve only been here maybe three times in my life. Once the original wood fence came down a decade ago, it actually lost some of its charm…if your idea of “charm” consisted of enjoying morbid graffiti on the back of the fence along the lines of “Hey Man, Nice Shot.”
No, the surprise came from passing by the back of the Sixth Floor Museum. Well, technically, it’s the front of the Museum display, but it’s the back of the original Depository building, For health and safety issues, the original structure has a very robust fire escape, brick painstakingly chosen to match the original building, and as such doesn’t contrast with the original the way far too many Dallas residential “improvements” do.
After a few weeks of passing by, that’s when I first saw it. At first, all I could see from the train was a clump of green on the sixth floor fire escape. The train rushed by fast enough that I couldn’t make out much more than that, but I could have sworn I caught a glimpse of round leaves, like a citrus tree’s. My first thought? “Someone has a Meyer lemon up there? Cool!”
My problem here was getting proof. I finally decided one day about two weeks ago to drag my camera out that way and get a good photo to show friends, and wouldn’t you know it, the plant disappeared the day I was prepared. Any conspiracy theorist worth his salt would have said “they probably brought it inside to repot it or clean it,” but I had no doubt that someone was determined to prevent me from getting a photo of “Lee Harvey Orange”. One online wag joked that it had been taken out by “Jack Ruby Red Grapefruit”, and I was starting to wonder.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it any more. Today was a particularly cloudy and cool day for the middle of June in Dallas, so instead of catching my transfer in downtown, I figured that I could sneak by and sneak a shot of Lee Harvey. He was back in the fire escape again, and without the afternoon sun shining right in my eyes, I figured that I’d have my chance. At least I wasn’t a patsy.
Well, the bad news is that Lee Harvey wasn’t a citrus tree after all. Based on an evaluation of the final image, Lee Harvey is most likely a corn plant (Dracaena fragrans), but a positive ID requires a trip to the Sixth Floor itself, and that’s going to require a free weekend. In fact, I just may bring a citrus tree as a peace offering, because that corn plant just doesn’t fit the space. It would probably be better for the Gerald Ford Presidential Library and Museum, because it’s much less “Lee Harvey Orange” than “Squeaky Frond.”
The last really bad bout of winter weather came through last night, and areas south and west of Dallas took frost damage. Out here at the Triffid Ranch, though, we got cold, but not cold enough to cause longterm damage. Good thing, too, because this winter has gone on far too long. Sure, the calendar says “spring”, but try telling that to the dingbats ordering the cold fronts.
Anyway, one of the better aspects of our current weather fluctuations is that everything that can bloom is doing so, all at once. This makes such ephemeral and unnecessary activities as breathing a little more jolly, as Dallas air once again hits “too thick to breathe, too thin to plow” in consistency and flavor. Oh, but the view.
One of the surprises that really isn’t too surprising is watching the current explosion of terrestrial bladderworts in the greenhouse. One of those subsurprises was discovering that a pot of Utricularia lividia I thought was dead from last December’s Icepocalypse survived and now threatens to take over. In addition, one pot of sundews had barely visible sprigs of another bladderwort I haven’t identified yet, adding a bit of yellow to go with the white, purple, and red all around. The hummingbirds certainly aren’t complaining: several ruby-throats and rufous hummingbirds found access through the front door when things were warmer, and now I can joke that to go with all of my other problems, I have a greenhouse infested with dinosaurs.
Others are a bit slower. None of the Venus flytraps have done more than produce bloom spikes, but the forkleaf sundews (Drosera binata) are going mad. With a bit of luck, most of the sundews that survived the winter will follow up with similar displays, and the flytraps should follow within a few more days
And should it be a surprise that no matter how rough the weather, the frail triggerplants (Stylidium debile) just keep growing and growing? The weather encouraged them, too, with one of the strongest displays I’ve seen since the big snowstorm of 2010. With the new triggerplant species getting established in the greenhouse as well, I can only imagine what the greenhouse will look like this time next year. Here’s just hoping that we don’t have to suffer quite so much to get there.
We all thought that by this time in April, winter would be dead. I’ve lived in Texas for nearly 35 years, and the last serious bout of freezing weather to hit this late happened the spring before I moved here. Most years, we could be assured that the last freeze was done before St. Patrick’s Day, and that April would be nothing but balmy mornings and rainy weekends. This has been a rather unorthodox winter.
I wasn’t the only one affected by this, being struck with a bout of flu after last March’s All-Con that took a solid month to fend off. Several winters in the last decade were so mellow that both Sarracenia pitcher plants and Venus flytraps didn’t get enough of a winter dormancy to keep them from blooming once and then dying. This year? All are only now starting to bud, and as of this evening, only two Sarracenia flava had opened their blooms. It’s not just the Sarracenia, either: most of our native trees and bushes are so far behind that they also only started blooming within the last two weeks. At the rate we’re going, we’ll need snowblowers to clear off the drifts of pollen in the streets.
And are we done? Of course not. Three days after taking these photos, the temperature took a dive once again. The middle of April, and we’re looking at one last two-day run of freezing, and the Sarracenia are too far along to cover without damaging the bloom buds. Of course we’re getting one last freeze, only three weeks until the next big show. Of course.
It’s cold and windy out, and we’re looking at the very good likelihood of snow next week. Believe it or not, Dallas has better weather than a lot of places further south and east: after reading about how badly Atlanta was iced over yesterday, I don’t have the heart to check on the current conditions in Tallahassee. All I can offer is sympathy, offers of help, and photos of the sailfin lizard at Moody Gardens in Galveston to remind us all of warmer times. In six months, I’ll probably hate myself for waxing nostalgic for summer, but that’s six months from now.
And as an extra, current work both with plants and with web site couldn’t be possible without a substantial donation of music from Ego Likeness and Hopeful Machines, and I’m currently awaiting the upcoming Ego Likeness album Stoneburner. Those who recognize the reference might understand why Steven Archer got me cackling with an offhand comment about how “the slow loris penetrates the shield“. Now he’s got me thinking of a story to go with that, the bum.