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.
I was taught at an early age that vacation trips should always be to see things that you couldn’t experience at home. Fair and good, but wholly inadequate in some circumstances. In this case, trying to get decent photos of Moody Gardens’s resident vampire bats, I learned a lot more than just the problems of photographing darkness-loving animals in low-light conditions. This little guy spent his entire time under the tinted lights in his enclosure giving me the most horrible look of disdain and contempt, occasionally popping up to snort at me before returning to grooming himself
And then there were these two, alternating between nuzzling each other and excitedly chittering at each other in what I would have sworn was laughter. A five-hour drive to Galveston, and I could have had the same experience at home.
Every relationship thrives on the little moments, when you see your loved one in his or her true light. For me, there’s nothing more exciting than watching that little vein in the middle of my beloved’s forehead throb with exasperation, usually when I make some innocent suggestion. For instance, telling her “Did you know that Moody Gardens has a crocodile monitor on display?” makes it pulse like the lights in a techno nightclub, because she knows what’s next. Namely, three dozen photos while I ask her “And how could you say ‘No’ to that cute widdle face? I mean, it’s like a big scaly cat, and I’m sure we could tame it down. We could even let it sleep at the foot of the bed like one.” That’s usually when the pulsing stops, and I can hear the sound of her Elbows of Doom as they slide out of their sheathes and drool venom on the carpet. And now you know why we’ve been together for the last 11 years, because there’s no way I could ever get tired of that sort of excitement.
After a chat with some of the reptile keepers at Moody Gardens, I discovered that they have a tradition for naming many of the reptiles. All of the venomous snakes in the facility, ranging from bushmasters to Gaboon vipers, have names after flowers, such as “Daffodil” and “Tulip”. The crocodile monitor, though, is named “Mr. Awesome,” and it’s only partly sardonic. The Gardens use stout nets to keep many of their animals in one place while also allowing good air circulation, and Mr. Awesome spends most of his time testing every last space on the net to see if he can get out. He’s particularly studious when kids walk by, and I can only imagine how industrious he is about trying to escape when the net opens for feeding or cleaning. Everybody should have a Mr. Awesome in their lives, don’t you think?
The longer I work with carnivorous plants, the more I appreciate the merits of the whole plant, not just the structures used for capturing insect prey. Yes, the pitchers on a Sarracenia pitcher plant are beautiful and exotic, but there’s an equal beauty in the blooms and rhizomes, and further beauty in the plant’s entire life cycle over the space of the year. To understand the plant, you have to view it over its entire growing season, from spring budding to final winter dieback, and not just focus on one tiny part of the life cycle. Don’t take the time to check on the pitcher plant over the entire year, and you miss a lot of the inherent beauty because you’re only focusing on its prime insect-catching period.
This applies to many other plants, including a plant famous for its blooms. The titan arum, Amorphophallus titanum, is best known for its gigantic and foul-smelling flowers, which are rare enough to be newsworthy. When a titan arum in a big greenhouse starts to flower, news crews and general bystanders converge on the flowers much like the flies needed for their pollination. But how many people look at the rest of the plant after the bloom shrivels and dies?
That’s why I have a special love for the extensive crew managing the Rainforest Pyramid at Moody Gardens in Galveston, because they understand this, too. Sure, they could make a big deal about a new A. titanum bloom, but what about the majesty of the full-grown plant?
In most displays of this type, the emphasis is usually on the animals, with the plants being not much more than background. This is completely understandable: we humans in particular and we mammals in general are the end-result of millions of years of pattern recognition encouragement. In most cases, we not only ignore the majority of the flora surrounding the occasional bit of fauna, but we actively block out the flora unless it directly affects us. Think about the last time you went for a walk in woodlands: seeing a toad crossing the path made more of an impression than the trees surrounding that path, didn’t it?
The Moody Gardens titan arum is near the center of the pyramid, and easily accessible when navigating the trails meandering along its floor. The branches stretch well overhead, but the trunk is close enough to touch. Strangely, nobody does: it almost seems disrespectful to do so. Just getting the chance to see a fully-grown titan arum is fascinating enough, but to stand underneath one and view the underside of the foliage…that I could do for hours.
Compared to typical winter temperatures further north, Texas winter temperatures are relatively balmy, and they improve the closer one gets to the Gulf of Mexico. Between the warm waters of the Gulf and the proximity to the equator, Galveston might see temperatures approaching freezing with the very occasional cold front. In fact, as we left, the island faced its first hard freeze since the famed freeze of 1983, which actually froze the ocean close to shore. Even under normal temperatures, it’s a little too chilly for amphibians such as tree frogs or salamanders, but a few hardy reptiles might still be wandering around, basking in spaces protected from north winds and taking advantage of the occasional insect.
Such was the surprise when trying to get photos of a split in a palm’s base at Moody Gardens by the main entrance. Many of the more common species of palm in Galveston produce fingerlike root buds when the crown of the base is exposed, presumably to help anchor the tree further during hurricanes, and the split in one was particularly interesting. As I focused, I noticed a pedestrian on the side, watching me but not having any particular interest in moving unless absolutely necessary.
As it turned out, this was a female brown anole (Anolis sagrei), related to the green anoles found in Dallas. Since they’re much less tolerant of cold than A. carolinensis, they’re mostly found around Houston and San Antonio, so this wasn’t too surprising, but it was still a nice diversion.
The bigger surprise came literally at my feet. I was on a concrete walkway running parallel to the outside of the building, and a woman coming down the walkway warned me not to step on the lizard right behind me. I turned to see a big male brown anole on the walkway, and noticed that he was too chilled to climb the sides to escape. It took a couple of tries to snag him, but once he realized that I wasn’t planning to eat or injure him, he stayed on my hand and soaked up the warmth. The only problem was being intensely right-handed with a camera best used by a rightie, with a lizard propped in my dominant hand, trying to get a photo before he jumped off. While it was a wrangle, he stayed right there, posing and basking, and he finally only jumped off when I brought him to the trunk of that original palm and coaxed him off.
Considering the cold later that night, I don’t assume that I saved this lizard’s life, but I definitely improved the odds that he wouldn’t be snapped up by a bird or stepped on by a passerby. That’s about all you can do.
Making the nearly five-hour drive between Dallas and Galveston, two discrepancies make themselves readily apparent. The first is going through the town of Ennis, where apparently the city ordinances don’t allow its local strip clubs to advertise themselves as featuring nude entertainment, leaving a whole line of establishments promoting “fabric-free cabarets”. The other is that while the Houston area has a paucity of naturally growing palm trees in the area, I suspect that local ordinances require every restaurant and retail establishment to plant at least one palm out front. The closer you get to Galveston, the more palms line the sides of Highway I-45 until you actually get to the Gulf coast. The coast then goes to salt marsh and flats, and the palms start up again after crossing the bridge from the mainland to Galveston Island.
Out at Moody Gardens, that theme continues, as the climate is perfect for several species. It’s also perfect for cycads, philodendrons, and, interestingly enough, roses, and they’re planted lushly and profusely around the Moody Gardens hotel grounds. The palms, though, dominate everything, with plenty of ferns, epiphyte orchids, and other flora growing in the crowns, and the attendant flora comes with fauna. Birds are the most obvious, and it was a little too cold to see amphibians, but a few reptiles were still around, and those will be featured shortly.
One of the best surprises, though, was discovering how well Araucaria heterophylla, the Norfolk Island pine, does on Galveston Island. Under Dallas conditions, they won’t survive our occasional but brutal freezes, and without a high-humidity environment, they won’t grow to be more than the Charlie Brown Christmas tree that time forgot. With Galveston’s balmy climate and high humidity, they grow to full trees with remarkably lush foliage. Combine this with the cycads, and all the surrounding gardens need are a few life-sized dinosaur figures to make the place resemble a recreation of the Arlington Archosaur Site during its heyday. After years of only seeing seedling Norfolk Island pines, seeing a full-sized tree was a very welcome sight, and the Gardens are loaded with them in various sizes.
Ever since we first got married, the Czarina and I usually spend the beginning of the new year in overdrive, and New Year’s Day 2014 went above and beyond. Most years, the last week of the previous year and as much of the first week of the new goes into maintenance: my Day Job has a “use it or lose it” policy on vacation time, so the last days remaining after a steady regime of shows and sick days usually goes into maintenance and support. Organizing tax records, cleaning the house, contemplating “would shoveling out the office be faster than just setting everything on fire and rebuilding the house?”…it’s usually a great way to end the year.
This year, though, has a whole new level to it. At the end of the year, the Czarina went freelance after nearly 13 years at her previous employer, and her first action involved scheduling a whole new slew of shows and events through 2014. Since one of her favorite places to visit is Galveston, I’d had to work or prepare for my own shows every time she went down for a visit, and she was determined to get me out there, one way or another. That “one way” consisted of getting me as the heavy lifter at Space City Con at the Moody Gardens convention center.
In the endless fannish battle between “Star Trek versus Star Wars,” I usually play conscientious objector by shrugging “Don’t look at me: I’m a Babylon 5 kind of guy.” (I’m really more of a Max Headroom kind of guy, but describing the wars between Mediterranean geckos and orbweaver spiders in the greenhouse every spriing still requires the analogy of The Battle of Gorash 7.) The main focus of Space City Con this January was on the twentieth anniversary of the premiere of the show, as well as celebrating the end of its main story five years later, so this was as much of a 15th anniversary reunion of the cast and crew as anything else. The show also included costuming events, art panels, and easily the biggest dealer’s room I’ve seen in 20 years, since the Dallas Fantasy Fairs used to run at Dallas Market Hall. Between resident Galvestonians, all of Houston right at its feet, and a plethora of attendees from all over the planet, it was a very good show for the Czarina.
I, however, had ulterior motives. After getting set up at the convention center on Thursday night and Friday morning, I escaped for a few hours. On the other side of the hotel and convention center parking lot was the whole of Moody Gardens. The immediate gardens themselves were to be expected for winter (which, considering that Galveston temperatures in January might go as low as freezing, still meant a lot to see), but the main draws were the three pyramids on the site. These contained, in order of size, a rainforest biome, an aquarium, and an IMAX theater, and the first two offer a full-day experience each. Over the next few days, keep coming back for new photos and discussions, because there’s a lot to see out there.
And before I forget, Galveston has many other attractions, and one of its best is the variety and quality of its dining establishments. One of the smaller yet most interesting places is a new restaurant called The Gumbo Diner, which was nearly a literal lifesaver on Thursday evening when we were at our most exhausted. After five hours of driving and another two hours of setup, it’s amazing how much pep one can get from the best bowl of seafood gumbo to be found this side of New Orleans. If you get the chance to visit Galveston this year, make a point to hit the Seawall, go straight to the Gumbo Diner, and while fighting your friends and family over the crawfish etouffee, let the crew there know who sent you.
Posted onDecember 20, 2013|Comments Off on More Pig Information, Even If You Didn’t Want It
I’m constantly amazed at the number of contemporaries who want to return to some mythical “simpler time”. I’m not even talking about the people who want to go back to a time before their births, on the assumption that somehow they’d fit in better in Athenian Greece or a week before Woodstock. (Sadly, they never want to take a chance and go back far enough to make a difference.) These are people who lived through the 1970s and 1980s, and conveniently forget the horrors therein. They’re welcome to go back, but I have no interest in anything other than the future. Live through Pearl Jam playing incessantly on terrestrial radio, a second time? Not a chance. I regularly joke “I love living in the future,” and I’m only half-joking.
This week confirmed how much I prefer living in the future, and it all had to do with a prior discussion of kune kune pigs in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Twenty years ago, even learning about kune kune pigs would have been nearly impossible in the States without traveling to New Zealand. Today, one quick note, and the horizon keeps expanding. Within a week, I received comments from two very interesting folks with a similar fascination with the little pigs. The first lives in the States but came from New Zealand, and currently waits for access to a soon-to-be-born piglet. The other managed to pass on a lot more information on the pig in the movie.
One of the things that came up while verifying the story was that one shouldn’t always depend upon one reference source. For instance, the information I previously obtained referred to the pig breed as “kune kune”, and apparently there’s some argument as to whether the proper spelling should be “kune kune” or “kunekune”. (Yes, welcome to the joys of trying to transcribe non-English words to the Roman alphabet.) This is in addition to arguments about the kunekune’s origins: some sources attribute the first pigs’ appearance in Aotearoa to Captain James Cook’s first visit in 1769, while others suggest that the first arrival of pigs to the islands is unknown. (All that’s known for certain is that while pigs were probably one of the main food animals brought by the first Polynesian colonists about 1000 years ago, for unknown reasons, they didn’t survive for long.) Twenty years ago, tracking this down from the States would have been impossible.
Even better is comparing notes right away. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a thing on the identity of the pig in The Desolation of Smaug through movie publicity materials or sources, but figured that half of the fun was keeping the in-joke “in”. That’s when someone else wrote to say that the pig in question was named “Hercules”, and Hercules was one of the major draws at the Willowbank Wildlife Refuge in Christchurch. He’s already a celebrity in New Zealand, especially after he and his mate Minnie had their first litter of piglets in 2010, but that movie appearance was his first serious exposure in the rest of the world.
This, of course, needs to be rectified. Online humanity goes absolutely berserk over Grumpy Cat, and yet there’s no love for Hercules? I’ll be back: I have work to do.
Comments Off on More Pig Information, Even If You Didn’t Want It
There’s geekery, and then there’s geekery. Right now, all of my friends disposed toward a fondness for fantasy is lining up to see, if they haven’t already, the latest The Hobbit movie, The Desolation of Smaug. The Czarina and I got our obligation done early, thanks to a preview screening hosted by Keith’s Comics, and she had a blast. Me, I spent most of my time looking for New Zealand references and in-jokes, and found a beaut. Almost every person in the theater caught the cameo of director Peter Jackson at the beginning, but I was probably one of the only people in North America that evening who caught the other big cameo.
I meant that literally. Toward the end of the film, to give out spoilers, you have the dwarf Killi dying of poisoning from a goblin arrow, and his associate Bofur goes looking for the herb kingsfoil, and was told by Bard of Laketown “We feed it to pigs.” Bofur finally finds it in front of a pig and snatches it away, and the story, such as it is, continues. At that point, I had to stop and squeak at the Czarina, “Look! It’s a kune kune pig!”
For instance, the kakapo, the endangered giant flightless parrot second only to the kiwi as a symbol of the country, used to range in huge numbers across both main islands, at least before some well-meaning idiot introduced rabbits. The rabbits weren’t a direct threat to the kakapo, but then the rabbits came very close to taking over the way they did in Australia. Another well-meaning idiot imported stoats to hunt the rabbits, and the stoats had no interest in chasing rabbits when easier prey was available. Kakapo dug burrows as a defense against New Zealand’s original, now-extinct top predators, including the famed Haast’s eagle, so they had no defense against predators specifically adapted to hunting burrowing prey. Today, kakapo only live on islands completely free of predators, and the odds of their surviving the next century are very poor.
One of the other values of Exotic Intruders lies with it listing some particular success stories on the islands, and that’s where I first encountered the kune kune pig. A variation of the Poland China breed, the kune kune was bred by the Maori of New Zealand as both a food animal and as a pet. The name “kune kune” means “fat round belly,” which pretty much describes the pig: even full-grown kune kunes look more like piglets than anything else. They’re often mistaken for Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, but they’re easily recognized by one distinguishing characteristic: kune kunes have a tassel at the corner of each side of the lower jaw. The main reason for their popularity, though, comes from a particularly friendly and affable personality to go with their natural intelligence. Why they haven’t become at least as popular a pet as the Vietnamese potbellied pig is a mystery.
Well, that might be rectified in the near future, including here in the States, thanks to the American KuneKune Pig Society. At the very least, considering the various ordinances preventing ownership of farm animals within residential areas, it’s not going to be an option around the house, but one day…one day…
Cloudy and foggy days, just before the Icepocalypse of 2013, don’t make for good photos. However, when you catch a fly feeding on a stapeliad flower, helping to demonstrate why they’re called “corpse flowers”, you just have to run with it.
And so the Sarracenia growing season ends. Last week’s surprise but not completely unexpected hard frost finally put paid to the taller growth in the Sarracenia pools, and they don’t have much longer until all of them go brown and die back. Considering the weather forecast for next week, with lows pushing freezing, we’ll get a classic Sarracenia autumn: lots of brilliant color as the traps die off, and then quiet until spring.
One of the benefits of the heightened color is that the insects still around are even more mesmerized by the coloration, and the plants have no problems taking advantage of the arthropod bounty. This way, the plants get one last boost of nitrogen and phosphorus before the winter sleep, and in anticipation of large and healthy blooms in March. More than at any other time during the growing season, this is when passing by a Sarracenia stand yields the odd sound of flying insects attempting to fly or climb out of the pitchers, only to have the shape of the pitchers produce a downdraft towards the depths every time they try to fly out. The pitchers also act as acoustic horns, so that angry buzzing travels a lot further than one would expect.
And what’s in the pitchers? This time of the year, it’s usually a combination of moths and bees, both attracted by the pitchers’ fluorescence under UV and by a particularly generous secretion of nectar along the lid and lip. This year was surprising, though, because a significant number of traps also caught at least one stink bug at a time. I don’t know if they were attracted by the nectar or the promise of a hiding spot, but there’s a satisfaction in knowing that next year’s stink bug population drops every time the plants feed.
A long while back, I accepted the idea that the classic “Renaissance Man” archetype is impossible. It wasn’t really possible during the period when the term was coined, but Thomas Jefferson and Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen could fake it. Even through the Eighteenth Century, an individual with a reasonable accumulation of knowledge on most subjects? Sure, if you were limited to concentrating on works in your native tongue and a smattering of references in three or four other languages. Today, there’s simply no way to be that much of a generalist. Any of the pure or applied sciences alone sees so much advancement in a year that standard print books on physics or palaeontology are hopelessly outdated by the time they see print six months after the author typed “-30-“, and now further education depends more on unlearning inaccurate or obsolete information picked up during earlier bouts of academia.
This isn’t to say that learning is worthless, or that there’s no point in trying to keep up. Instead, what I’m seeing, thanks to the wonders of the Intertubes, is the evolution of what I like to call “Renaissance circles”. These are groups of people specializing in widely diverse fields, who themselves have friends with enough knowledge in those fields that they can make connections and build relationships impossible within those specialties. Thirty years ago, the cross-pollination between, say, astronomers and palaeontologists that ultimately allowed the the acceptance of an extraterrestrial impact as the cause of the famed Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction was an anomaly. These days, that sort of mass mind isn’t just common, but in fact inevitable.
Case in point. A few months back, I was lucky enough to catch a lecture tied to the book Ginkgo: The Tree that Time Forgot by Peter Crane, with Dr. Crane discussing his longtime love with Ginkgo biloba and its extinct cousins. While the ginkgos used to range every continent during the days of Pangaea, they gradually died back through the Mesozoic Era and the earlier parts of the Cenozoic, with the last holdouts in the northwest of North America and the eastern portion of Asia until about 8 million years ago. Right about then, ginkgoes disappear from the fossil record, and they were understandably thought to be extinct by researchers in the West until the first samples of wood and leaf arrived in Europe from China. One species, Ginkgo biloba, survived that final cull, and survived through China and Japan for thousands of years thanks to human intervention. Today, ginkgoes are found on every continent but Antarctica, but like the resurgence of the Wollemi pine, it’s due to people enjoying the beauty of the tree and encouraging its growth. Between the symmetry of the fan-like leaves in spring and summer, and the stunning canary yellow foliage in autumn, it’s hard not to fall in love with ginkgoes except for one little issue.
The issue, sad to say, is the ginkgo’s fruit. Ginkgo produce separate male and female trees, and the vast majority of ginkgo grown in urban areas are male. (The photos above are of ginkgoes on the grounds of the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, and they’re all male.) That’s because the females produce clusters of squishy fruits a little larger than a cherry, with apricot-colored flesh surrounding a stout seed with a strong shell, roughly the size of a pistachio. With the exception of the nut itself, very popular when roasted, that’s the last analogy to anything edible that you’ll hear about ginkgo fruit. My ex referred to the stench of ripe ginkgo fruit as “cat shit on a stick”, and I experienced this firsthand when I lived in Portland, Oregon in the late 1990s. A Lutheran church in downtown, about a block from my mail drop, had planted male and female ginkgoes between the church itself and the city sidewalks with no concern for the aftermath, and walking those sidewalks in October was a nightmare. The ripe fruit splattered onto the sidewalks when ripe, rapidly turning into an orange mush in the gutters with a stench that would have burned out the nose hairs of a dead nun. Worse, the strength and shape of the nuts meant that they didn’t break easily underfoot, and a badly placed heel meant that you went sliding into that gutter. The only good news was that ginkgo stench wore off after about an hour, and didn’t stain clothing, so it wasn’t quite as bad as rolling around in a litter box, but only just.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Firstly, nothing disturbed that fruit while it was relatively fresh. I didn’t test this personally, but unlike durian, nobody is ever going to sell ginkgo smoothies as the latest fad taste sensation, unless coprophilia suddenly becomes VERY popular. The nuts would eventually be snagged by local crows, but I never saw bird nor mammal rushing to grab them up if given a choice between them and acorns. Likewise, considering that the conditions in the Pacific Northwest were extremely conducive to growing ginkgo in the wild, you’d think that the forests outside of Portland and Seattle would be overtaken with ginkgo trees, but they really only showed up in areas where they’d obviously been planted by humans. Since humans weren’t around when ginkgo last lived in the Portland area, I wondered what factors caused their seed dispersal and germination.
Here’s where it gets even more interesting. Ginkgo nuts will germinate on their own, but apparently the natural germination rate within the nut shells is very low. Almost every bonsai book I’ve encountered that discusses ginkgo as a good bonsai tree recommends gently cracking the shell with pliers and removing the embryo inside, instead of merely planting the nut and waiting for it to germinate on its own. This suggested that the nut needed some kind of chemical or mechanical treatment to weaken the shell. But what? Whatever it was, it was in short supply in Portland, otherwise the city would have been overrun with ginkgo a century ago.
And now it gets bizarre. Late last week, Dr. Thomas Holtz, a man whom I want to be like when I finally grow up, shared a very fascinating article on frugivorous habits of modern crocodylians. While modern crocodiles, alligators, and caimans give every indication of being obligate carnivores, they apparently have a fruit-eating streak that runs across the entire group. (I haven’t found anything on gharials eating fruit, but that may just because nobody has chronicled it yet.) The article went even further, suspecting that crocodylians might be involved with seed dispersal in the wild by spreading them in their feces. Problem is, alligators and crocodiles tend to be rather secretive about their constitutional habits, so everything is conjecture at this time.
DING! The light went off in my head: “what if the previous success of ginkgoes was due to their nuts being spread by dinosaurs, crocodylians, and other archosaurs in their dung?” The idea of large animals carrying, processing, and dispersing seeds of large trees isn’t anything new: just talk to anyone familiar with the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) and its probable spread across North America in the guts of Columbian mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths during the Pleistocene. I brought this up with Dr. Holtz, and he informed me that, at least as far back as his grad student days, alligators were notorious for scarfing up dropped ginkgo fruit.
Now, here’s where surmisal turns into testable hypothesis. The surmisal is that ginkgo fruit may have developed its particular rank odor to attract now-extinct crocodyloforms and other archosaurs and descendants, including dinosaurs and large birds, and encourage them to swallow the seeds. Said seeds were big enough to act as gizzard stones in the species with gizzards, with the seeds passing through the gut after having most of the shell coat worn away by mechanical action in the gizzard. Much like many seeds, from eucalypts to Capsicum peppers, those seeds would be deposited in new locales with a healthy dollop of fertilizer around them, giving them a decided advantage in germination and growth over other species that didn’t utilize the powers of crocodile crap. Considering the number of crocodylian species that thrived through most of North America until the end of the Miocene, when Earth started its current cooling cycle, it’s possible that one or more species surviving until about 8 million years ago was a major vector for ginkgo nuts, and the ginkgo died out in North America and most of Asia shortly after. (And now I want to go digging for more information on the distribution during the Pliocene and Pleistocene on the range of the Chinese alligator [Alligator sinensis].) Now all that’s left is finding evidence to back up this surmisal.
The potential evidence comes in three forms. The toughest would be to examine gizzard stone collections still preserved within the ribcages of fossil crocodylians: this is tough partly because so few were preserved and because ginkgo nuts may or may not preserve under those conditions. The second would be to look for ginkgo nuts within crocodylian coprolites, and that requires finding incontrovertible crocodile coprolites from the right place and the right age. Finally, there’s real-time experimentation: offering ripe ginkgo fruit to alligators, confirming that they ate the fruit of their own volition, and then following them around with a baggie for a few days until I got the seeds back. And considering that I have a good friend who (a) forgets more about crocodylians every night when he goes to sleep than I’ll ever learn, (b) has access to captive alligators and crocodiles, and (c) is up for all sorts of odd experiments, I now have about 11 months to plan this out and get a good supply of ripe ginkgo fruit. Don’t wait up.
When discussing plant identification and origins, I regularly tell people “The Latin never lies.” I get this constantly when discussing so-called “primrose” plants, where the flowers receiving that name in Georgia are drastically different from those here in Texas and from those in England. That’s because “primrose” is a descriptive term, not an actual name, referring to the first plant to flower in spring. Collect all of the various primroses known worldwide in one place, and put on nametags with proper Greco-Latin binomial nomenclature on them, and their complete lack of relationship becomes obvious, as would just looking at them.
The understanding of relationships is why I’ll make a point of bringing up Latin names when asked questions about carnivorous plants. Mention the common name “pitcher plant”, and I immediately ask “So…which one?” I don’t expect others to know the Latin for plants they saw casually in a garden center two years ago, but if they’re described as “a little bit like a calla lily,” it’s fairly clear that we’re both talking about Sarracenia, a North American pitcher plant. If the description includes “flat leaves with pitchers on long stems coming off the tips,” it’s invariably one of the Old World Nepenthes plants. And if the plant described matches the description of the South American pitcher plant, Heliamphora, or the Australian pitcher plant Cephalotus, my first question is always “And exactly WHERE is this garden center?”
And that’s where we come to one of my follies. A decade ago, when I was first started digging into the vagaries of botany, my wife and I joined her parents for a trip to the Parker County Peach Festival in Weatherford, just due west of Fort Worth. While everybody else was shivving fifth-graders for the world-famous peach ice cream (and I didn’t blame them a bit: those fifth-graders are just lethal when they have access to machetes, and they usually work in packs), I struck up a conversation with an event vendor selling odd plants near the town square. One of her offerings was a package of odd cuttings from some kind of succulent I didn’t recognize, and that she couldn’t identify. “The person who sold me the original plant called it a ‘corpse flower,'” she said as she was bagging it up. I didn’t hear anything else, as I was too busy screaming “Shut up and take my money!”, so that was about it.
The only good news was that I discovered why it had the name “corpse flower”. Those original segments rapidly and enthusiastically rooted and took over their containers, and dropped handfuls of segments every time they were moved. Right now, the greenhouse is full of descendants from that original package, and every autumn, they throw off these fascinating five-pointed blooms.
When they bloom, the name “corpse flower” becomes obvious. While the flowers don’t actually produce a stench per se, their scent draws in flies as pollinators, and on a warm day, the flowers can be practically dripping with flies that assume that they’re tracking carcasses. However, with the bloom buds being roughly the size of a pencil eraser, they don’t necessarily stand out from across the yard.
Care and maintenance were the easy part, so the ordeal started with the identification. At first, it appeared to be a member of the genus Stapelia, a group of succulents native to Africa and Asia. The blooms didn’t match any reference I could find, either online or in various books on succulents, and that’s when I discovered that Stapelia has two related genera, Orbea and Huernia, and the blooms and coloration don’t match any of those, either. The research continues, but in the meantime, the Czarina watches the blooms and comments “Wouldn’t these make great inspirations for jewelry?”
The theme for the end of the season, from what should have been the most influential song of 25 years ago:
Oh, and remember my noting a couple of years ago that those Dunecraft Carnivorous Creations kits might not be as productive as advertised? Well, here’s a firm demonstration of the problems with growing carnivores from seed. The seeds from which these seedlings sprouted went into the pot back in April, and they’re only now that large. It’s possible to grow carnivores from seed, but be prepared for a long wait. (I admit that I love telling kids who ask about the Carnivorous Creations kits that if they can get their seeds to germinate, they’ll still have to wait at least three to five years in most cases before they have full-sized plants. The kids are shocked, but you really need to see their parents’ expressions for real comedy.)
Halloween’s over, and even in Texas, that means that winter is due at any time. The first big blue norther that officially announces the arrival of real autumn should hit by Saturday night, and the trees are already changing color thanks to our recent rains. Sadly, that means that the resident Sarracenia should start dying back and changing color themselves before too long. This means that standing outside during a full moon and marveling at the brilliant glow from the leucophyllas is just a dream until next April, but so be it. A good winter dormancy, and they’ll come back even stronger than last year.
As an extra, I regularly rave about the frail triggerplant, Stylidium debile, as one of the toughest carnivorous or protocarnivorous (depending upon your prespective) plants available to beginners. Here’s a demonstration. In spring, they started blooming, and didn’t let up all summer. By the beginning of August, when just about everything else was dying off or simply baking, little S. debile was blooming and growing. Now, with the sun fading and the outside temperatures dropping below what most tropical carnivores can handle? It’s still blooming. Next year, if everything works well, S. debile will be joined by a whole flotilla of new triggerplants, but this little monster is still one of my favorites just because of its tenaciousness.
I’m not even going to think about suggesting that the drought may be over. I won’t even suggest that it may be easing. That said, our gullywasher storm on Saturday was followed by mist all Sunday and thick fog on Monday, the humidity is more evocative of New Orleans than Dallas, and we’re getting warnings that October 30 might end with severe thunderstorms. In other words, what we used to call “a typical Halloween season”. Compared to last year’s dust-dry autumn, nobody’s complaining.
Since this exceptional weather, in classic Texas fashion, usually precedes unnaturally cold or stormy weather, the last couple of weekends went into cleaning out and modifying the new greenhouse. That included putting in just short of two tons of rainwater as thermal mass, resealing gaps and potential weak spots in the greenhouse film, and putting down new flooring. Friends scream, not unreasonably, about how much they hate weed cloth in garden beds, but this stuff is wonderful for allowing excess condensation seep into the soil under the greenhouse while preventing popweed clover from taking over the whole place.
With the improved weather, it’s time to say goodnight to the Sarracenia. Although the pitcher plants still attract and capture insects, they won’t be doing so for long, as the insects are either dying off or going dormant for the winter. Because of this, the Sarracenia follow the lead, gradually dying back over the next month until they’re dormant about the time we start getting killing frosts in December. They’ll stay that way all winter, only coming out of dormancy around St. Patrick’s Day when it’s time to bloom. Until then, all I’ll have are pictures, but it was a good season for Sarracenia, and we can only hope for a better one next year.
Sarracenia pitcher plants are wonders at any time of the year, even when they’re in winter dormancy. The absolute best time to appreciate them, though, is in autumn. When the summer heat breaks, Sarracenia make up for lost time by growing the largest and most distinctive pitchers of the year. All species produce brilliantly-colored autumn pitchers, all the better to attract insect prey, but Sarracenia leucophylla goes for both color and the brilliant white fenestrae on the pitcher throats and lids. On the right night, with the right full moon, and they’re positively blinding.
And while we’re looking at pitcher structures, here’s a great opportunity to dispel a very common misconception. A regular occurrence at plant shows involves kids who look at Sarracenia, and the kids’ fathers relating “And when a bug enters the pitcher, the top closes down and keeps it from escaping.” They’re usually very defensive when I demonstrate that the lids never close once the pitchers open, up to and including one who yelled back “Well, I know of one that does close! I’ll bet you don’t know about that one, do you?” (Amazingly enough, he ran off when I asked for a species name.) This says a lot about the number of parents who’d rather be right than correct, but it also says a lot about the perception that Sarracenia pitcher lids close. Without understanding of how the pitchers actually work, it’s a reasonable presumption.
As the following photos show, immature pitchers start their growth with the lid in place, and the growth occurs laterally when the pitcher prepares to open. Spread to the side, breaking the seal, and the pitcher is ready for business. This one wasn’t quite ready just yet, but given about three or four more days, and a concurrent doubling of height and depth, and it has at least another month’s worth of insect-catching before impending winter cold causes the main plant to go dormant. Come spring, the cycle begins anew.
When it comes to moon gardens, anybody can make one out of Datura or Ipomoea moonflowers. One of the most interesting options, though, involves pitcher plants. Set up a bog garden or even a good container garden full of Sarracenia leucophylla, in a place that gets the light of the full moon in October, and you’ve got magic. Turn on a UV light at those times where the clouds block the moonlight, and you’ve got wonder. Now all you need is a crowd to appreciate it.
Posted onJune 11, 2013|Comments Off on Road Trip: the Robert E. Howard Goblin Tree
It’s often said that writers never really quit: they just find another addiction. It’s definitely hard to get out of the research habit, or to pay tribute to those who got you started even after you’ve left. For my best friend Paul Mears and myself, a bit of that involved a nearly three-hour road trip to Cross Plains, Texas, to visit the Robert E. Howard Museum this last weekend. While Robert Ervin Howard is best known as one of the triumvirate of writers best associated with the classic weird fiction pulp magazine Weird Tales (the other two being H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith), but his contributions to other genres assured his memory as one of Texas’s most influential fiction writers. Every year, on or around the anniversary of Howard’s death, the town of Cross Plains hosts Robert E. Howard Days, a series of readings, lectures, presentations, and parties, culminating in a barbecue held on a ranch just outside of town.
The trip itself is a good excuse to get out of Dallas for a while, but it’s also a great opportunity to research Texas history and natural history. Once west of Weatherford, the land switches back to its primordial charm, and civilization still attempts to keep the wilds at bay instead of attempting to dominate it. With the right kind of eyes, it’s not hard to see what the area was like back in the 1920s and 1930s, where automobiles were still relative novelties for people still using horse and buggy to get around the area. With other eyes, Howard’s eyes, it’s also not hard to see the wild wonders that filled his more fantastic stories peeking out in plain sight.
You can see my problem. While everyone else was there to talk to fellow Howard enthusiasts, such as famed comics artist Tim Truman and Howard savant Mark Finn, and with good reason, I went wandering a bit to find bits of that wonder. Fossil shells in the front yard of the Museum. Viewing the converted sleeping porch Howard used as his bedroom and work area, and remembering when I was living and writing in a space not much larger than that twenty years ago. Noting fresh armadillo dig marks at the base of a pile of fresh sand around a dead tree stump. That’s about the time I noticed the goblin tree.
Between their natural propensity to grow in odd shapes, their tendency to heal prunings in grotesque ways, and ongoing stresses from sun and wind, Texas oak trees already stimulate the natural human tendency toward pareidolia, but this one practically came straight out of a Michael Whelan painting. The camera couldn’t capture all of them, but stretch the eyeballs a bit and see the faces, especially the profile of the turtle man in the old burl.
If it wasn’t hard to see monsters and supernatural beasts in that one tree, then it just kept coming. When joining the rest of the Robert Howard Days crew for the traditional Texas barbecue at the end of the day, I wandered off for a second and found the stump of a long-dead Western cedar tree, blasted by sun and heat for maybe twenty years or more.
If I can see the dragon skull lying in the dust, then very likely “Two Gun Bob” Howard could have, too. The difference is that I note the similarity and move on. He probably would have used that as a hook in a new story, and thrilled generations of new readers 77 years after his death. Many of his fans lament how an imagination like his was trapped in small-town Texas. Me, I think that imagination couldn’t have existed without that stimulation.
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The last time I was in Michigan to see the old ancestral stomping grounds was in 2009, for my maternal grandfather’s funeral. The last time I was in Michigan for any appreciable length of time was in the summer of 1982, shortly after my paternal grandfather had the first of a series of heart attacks. I haven’t been to my birthplace since shortly after I moved from there in 1976, and I have a lot of new friends whom I’ve met since then who still live there. I’ve been looking forward to the idea of a working vacation for a while, I’d like to see the place one last time, and I’d love to show the Czarina my childhood haunts. Anybody else interested in meeting us at Bloomapalooza in Litchfield next August for a very overdue homecoming?
Other highlights of the anniversary: since the Perot Museum was as packed as can be expected for the week after Christmas, we couldn’t get tickets for anything other than a late evening arrival. That didn’t stop us, as any excuse the Czarina can find to go to the Crow Collection of Asian Art is a good one. On our way back to our car, we walked past the side entrance to the Dallas Museum of Art, and noted the now-bare bald cypresses planted along the avenue.
That’s when the Czarina noted the oddity in the grass underneath the cypresses. Combine regular mowing of the cypress knees, weather that soaked the exposed wood, and enough cold to make the algae growing on the wood stand out, and you find growths like this among the still-green grass:
And among the knees were a few more signs that for all of our sub-freezing weather last week, our arthropod contingent continues. I knew better than to attempt to pick up this assassin bug, as they have a particularly painful bite that I’m glad I’ve avoided so far, so catching a quick photo of it was the only safe and sane option. If it managed to find a decent shelter before temperatures dropped again, it might even live to see the spring, helping to keep the local grasshopper and American cockroach population under control. For that reason alone, having spotted ones at least this big in my greenhouse feeding on palmetto bugs, they’re always welcome as far as I’m concerned.
At the time, the end of 2002 wasn’t ending so well. The job that moved me to Tallahassee just ended without warning, with my getting word literally a half-hour after buying the plane tickets to come back to Dallas for Christmas. Considering the condition of the economy at the time, finding something new wasn’t all that great a prospect. That didn’t prevent the Czarina and I from getting married shortly after I got back, at the old Dallas Museum of Natural History.
We knew that the future could be a bit rough, but our biggest debate at the time concerned the actual location. The crew at the museum gave us an incredible rate for leasing the upper floor, and all we had to do was decide on exactly where. The museum featured a temporary display of a cast of an Acrocanthosaurus atokensis, a big predatory dinosaur native to the area, as well as permanent mounts of a Columbian mammoth, a large mosasaur collected from the shore of Lake Heath, a giant sea turtle named Protostega, and a Tenontosaurus, at the time the first Texas dinosaur ever on permanent display in a Texas museum. She vetoed saying our vows underneath the Acrocanthosaurus, as she felt that doing so underneath a giant carnivorous reptile might set a bad precedent for the subsequent marriage. We settled on her first choice, and had a quick but thorough ceremony underneath the Protostega. For the next decade, every time we went to Fair Park, we’d drag people out to the Museum, and show them the exact spot.
To this day, I still give her gentle grief about not going for a more, erm, lively representative of our relationship, as the Acrocanthosaurus cast went back to its owner shortly after the wedding. Be that as it may, we wouldn’t change anything else.
As mentioned earlier this year, the old Dallas Museum of Natural History merged with the next-door hands-on science museum The Science Place to become the Museum of Nature & Science, and the old composite museum was evacuated for the new Perot Museum of Nature & Science in downtown Dallas. When the new museum opened this month, we both made plans to spend our tenth anniversary underneath the relocated Protostega.
And there we are, a full decade later. I need a bit less peroxide to even out the white hair than I did then, and she’s lost quite a bit of weight since then, but we’re still together and still happy doing so. The only reason why we haven’t booked our twentieth anniversary festivities at the Perot is because we can’t purchase tickets that far in advance. As soon as we can, though, everyone is invited.
Posted onOctober 26, 2012|Comments Off on Lunch With Garden Writers: oh, the humanity
On very topical notes, I have to admit that Today’s Garden Center magazine has a brilliant method of attracting press coverage for garden stores, by inviting local garden writers to lunch to let them look around. I love the idea. LOVE it, and I may expand upon it. In fact, I may resurrect the idea of the “Manchester United Flower Show” as such a luncheon. Of course, I say this as a former writer, and I can imagine the aftermath.
Now, I say this as someone who knows a lot of garden writers, and counts many of them as good and dear friends. I also count a lot of other specialist writers as friends, and know that this won’t work in other venues. Political writers, for instance, are used to this sort of treatment, and always compare a quiet little luncheon to that one they had with “their close personal friend” in the White House or the Governor’s Mansion. Sports writers are easy to feed, but the subtleties of general garden luncheon cuisine are beyond them. And don’t get me going about the insane entitlement issues with film and music critics throwing temper tantrums unless they get freebies and exclusives for them to sell on eBay. (As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, an inexplicably still-employed local writer out here, back when he was a film critic, was notorious for throwing tantrums and fits about getting freebies and exclusive interviews in exchange for positive coverage, and then savaging the venue because he got everything he wanted. He now can’t figure out why his name is a profanity among the music community; I myself was nearly stomped to death at a music festival in 2000 because a band assumed that I worked with him and wanted revenge.)
More’s the pity. Considering some of the absolute loons with whom I associate in gardening circles, on both sides of the counter, I’m not only thinking that these luncheons should be encouraged. They should be mandatory. If the luncheons don’t scare the hell out of the shade of Hunter S. Thompson, we’re not doing it right.
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As mentioned a few weeks back, my friend and cohort Amanda Thomsen just announced the impending release of her new book Kiss My Aster at the end of the year. In order to celebrate, I once again tried to mail her something I found for her about three years ago, but wasn’t able to send until now. In the past, she had various flimsy excuses as to why she couldn’t give a mailing address, usually involving words such as “stalking,” “restraining order,” and “a shotgun full of rock salt if you show up here,” but I suspect she’s learned to trust me a bit. Either that, or the praying mantises in the back yard need feeding. I reciprocated her trust by sending her…a garden gnome.
Now, this isn’t just any garden gnome. Strictly defined, this is a fossil gnome. Jason Cohen, the co-owner of Curiosities in the Lakewood area of Dallas, has a penchant for finding all sorts of little odd things, and one of his many suppliers came across a spoils pile from a German porcelain factory that produced dolls and other household items in the early Nineteenth Century. When figures either misfired in a kiln or broke afterwards, they were dumped out into a huge spoils pile behind the factory, and weeds and vines rapidly overgrew the pile after the factory shut down. The way Jason understood it, construction of a condo building led to a bulldozer moving a big chunk out of the hill, and this must have been one hell of a hill, and passersby collected as many of the figurines and fragments as they could find. Most of these consisted of full doll figurines, doll heads, and various disarticulated limbs, and I personally claimed a head about the size of my thumb that was intended to have inset eyes and hair. (I need to get photos of this, because I really need a life-sized version of this for a Euphorbia project.) This gnome, though, was a bit special.
Why is he special? It’s not because of his distinctive patina. He actually cleaned up quite nicely after being buried in earth and mud for nearly two centuries, which says a lot for modern porcelain cleaning techniques. He was unfinished at the time he was buried, so that’s not it. Just take a look at the side, though, and it’s painfully obvious.
Yep, Juergen here was a casualty, probably of the Great Gnome/Flamingo War of 1877. Oh, sure, historians may tell you that the worldwide stock crash of that time was due to excessive Prussian speculation, but the reality was that this was the year the war between gnomes and flamingos went global, probably aided by the development and distribution of the Winchester repeating rifle a few years before. If I had the time, I’d build him a prosthetic hand, and then he’d be a fossil cyber-gnome.
Sadly, though, I had to send Juergen to Amanda right away, because he couldn’t stay. I personally felt sympathy for him, but as a dedicated flamingo loyalist, I couldn’t defend him from my highly loyal forces.
In the ongoing garden war, the gnomes need to learn one very important thing. Unless one talks about worms, moles, or cane toads, every potential threat is, by definition, Death From Above.
When I tell people that I don’t watch that much television, it’s not that I’m snooty about what I’m watching. Honestly, a lot of it comes down to having the time: between the Day Job and working on the plants, I don’t have the time. Oh, I’ve tried, but setting up a laptop to view while repotting Sarracenia is more trouble than it’s worth. But when it involves a BBC Scotland documentary hosted by Professor Iain Stewart on the origins of plants? I’ll make the time.
EDIT: And while I’m at it, have I mentioned often enough how badly I wish BBC America would put Sir David Attenborough’s classic miniseries The Private Life of Plants on DVD?
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As one of the longtime vendors at the North American Reptile Breeders Conference shows in Arlington, I’d looked forward to visiting Plano Pets (in Plano, Texas, naturally enough) for a while. Always avoid procrastination whenever you can, my friends: by the time I finally got out that way, it was in time for a big moving sale. Even then, it was definitely worth the trip.
For those unfamiliar with Plano Pets’s reputation, this is a classic pet shop in the old sense. Yes, the old locale carried items for dogs, cats, and various small mammals, but their two big draws were the fish and reptile selections. By the time I got out there, they were pretty well-cleared, but oh, you could see what once was.
That’s not the important part. The important part is two-fold, in two lessons on how to do business. Speaking both as someone who gets a lot of odd requests for plants, and someone who worked at a shopping mall pet shop in the mid-1980s, I’m putting together a similar list to this one and displaying it prominently the moment the Triffid Ranch opens a retail space.
And the other lesson? Say hello to “Fred”.
For those unfamiliar with reptiles, Fred is a black-and-white tegu, the Argentine equivalent to a monitor lizard. When I first started keeping exotic reptiles in the 1980s, I was told over and over “You don’t want a tegu. It’s not that they get big; it’s that they never get tame, and they’re always vicious.” Nobody sent Fred that memo, and as far as he’s concerned, he’s one big scaly cat. He likes being held and he loves being pet, and I haven’t met a lizard that so enjoyed having his ears scritched since my late savannah monitor Afsan.
Fred, in many ways, demonstrates a very valuable point about Plano Pets. Fred’s keeper, and his father, regularly come back to the store to let everyone know how well he’s doing. In fact, about once per month, weather permitting, they bring in Fred as well, partly to say hello, and partly to let other customers know that the foul reputation tegus have for being aggressive isn’t valid any more. (It used to be true back in the Eighties, when all of the available stock in tegus was wild-caught, and the survivors making it to US pet shops were traumatized beyond belief. These days, with both an exceptional captive breeding population and improved knowledge on their habits in the wild, that perception is about as cliched as the perception of orchids being tough to raise.) In the meantime, Fred’s public appearances mean that he’s in a controlled environment, where herpetophobes can look without any worries of his getting too close. (My mother is morbidly afraid of snakes, and I understand now all too well that the last way to get someone over a phobia is to force the issue. This was taken to a specific point the afternoon this photo was taken, as one spectator had no problems with her daughters saying hello to Fred, but she herself couldn’t get past her phobia of lizards to enter the store.)
As of now, Plano Pets’s new location is still up in the air, but the crew has hopes of making an announcement soon. Until them, with Fred as an example, previous Triffid Ranch customers are more than welcome to send in photos of their plants. In fact, with the owners’ permission, I’d like to start posting a regular listing, just to show that carnivorous plants aren’t that difficult to raise, either.
When Texans joke “If you don’t like the weather, just hang around ten minutes,” they aren’t kidding. (I say ‘they” because even though I’ve lived here a full two-thirds of my life, I’m really only Texan by marriage. I may be the Texan equivalent of a Sassenach, haole, or pakeha, but at least I know that you only serve Lone Star beer to tourists who don’t know any better.) An hour ago, nothing but dry heat. In another half-hour or so, we’ll probably be flooded out. Look for me in the Sarracenia pools, where I’ll probably be feeding the bladderworts.
Anyway, back to getting the rainwater collectors ready for the deluge, and many thanks to Debbie Middleton for reminding me to get the word out on mosquito dunks. We’re still at least six weeks away from the end of summer out here, and this may be a sustaining action.
I’ve officially reached that age where everyone stops sending me the latest memos. For all intents and purposes, I’m residing in the basement, with only my red Swingline stapler to keep me company. Nobody loves me enough to let me know that the world changed while I was taking a nap, and it’s all to make it easier to laugh at me when I ask where the VHS tape rewinder went.
Well, that’s okay. I’ve wanted to visit Aquarena Springs near San Marcos for decades, mostly because it still preserves a host of flora otherwise wiped out when Texas warmed and dried out at the end of the last ice age. Another reason is because Aquarena Springs is the closest I’ll be getting to Wakulla Springs in the Florida Panhandle for a while. (Nearly ten years away, and I still desperately miss that place.) But the most entertaining reason? For years, I was tantalized by the various tourist flyers for the amusement park at Aquarena Springs, including the star attraction, Ralph the Swimming Pig.
Well, I’m too late to watch Ralph, or one of the many Ralphs trained over the years, perform his famed “Swine Dive”, after discovering that the amusement park was acquired by Texas State University in 1996, and the attractions removed in order to protect the indigenous and often highly endangered wildlife in the springs. Even the Submarine Underwater Theater is gone, having been pulled up with one of the world’s largest cranes last May.
Well, a life without Ralph also means a life with the unique fauna and flora of San Marcos Springs. Schedule permitting, a weekend trip down that way next spring is in order.