Tag Archives: head explodey

The Charlie Brown Tree That Time Forgot

Norfolk Island Charlie Brown tree

As par for the course in North Texas, we currently alternate between record high temperatures and sudden drops well below freezing, some in the same day. The Nepenthes and other tropical carnivores are all indoors, soaking up as much sunlight as they can and sucking up artificial light the rest of the time. The temperate carnivores went into dormancy with our first big freeze two weeks ago. The Roridula gorgonias seedlings…well, I don’t even pretend to know what they’re doing any more. The Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion plants are under cover and currently enjoying the sudden gusts of heat. The rest of the year now leans toward support and supply here at the Triffid Ranch, and that’s not including plans for building a new greenhouse this spring.

Likewise, the Day Job is a bit lacking in green this time of year, and a sudden run on my old friend Araucaria heterophylla at the local grocery store inspired me. “What’s wrong with a live tree? Even better, what’s wrong with bringing in a bit of Mesozoic holiday cheer?”

Naturally, it wasn’t enough simply bringing in a Norfolk Island pine. It definitely wasn’t enough to relate how it’s one of the last survivors of a once-extensive group of conifers now mainly represented by the monkey puzzle tree and the Wollemi pine. No, one of the advantages of being a palaeontology junkie is that people give me all sorts of unbidden dinosaur-related paraphernalia. Over the last 25 years or so, friends, relatives, and even a couple of ex-girlfriends contributed to the pile of dinosaur-related tree ornaments and lights, and a fair number had to go on ol’ A. heterophylla. Combine them with some of the new LED holiday lights, and the whole thing doesn’t look so bad.





Naturally, every Christmas tree needs a topper ornament, and stars are just so overdone. Next year, I’m going to make an Archaeopteryx topper, just so it’ll become art.


And since the Day Job is in the tech arena, the tree needed an appropriate nativity. Again, between the stuff I’ve been given and decorations from co-workers’ cubicles, we had quite the ensemble. For the record, the Burgess Shale critters in the front are mine, and they may or may not become ornaments on their own one day.


Look: the Spirit of New Year’s Eve.


Finally, I had to add something for a special niece who’s becoming quite the comics artist. Several co-workers with kids have noted the whole push on the Elf on the Shelf trend, and I can understand the idea. Isn’t it better, though, to have someone watching to see if you’re good and kicking your butt up around your shoulderblades if you aren’t?


I get by with a little hemp from my friends

One of the greatest gifts I’ve yet received in the past ten years is the collection of friends, cohorts, and interested bystanders gathered together through a mutual love of plants. I get calls and E-mail at all hours, asking “Do you know about [this]?”, and I answer them as best as I can. In return, they keep an eye open for particularly intriguing additions: they understand more than I do that the slogan for the Triffid Ranch is “Odd Plants and Oddities For Odd People”, and they do their best to live by that slogan.

For instance, I’d like to introduce you all to Jeremy Stone, a friend who lives southeast of Dallas near the town of Ennis. Jeremy’s wife Jamie has been a friend for nearly a decade, but I’ve only recently had the opportunity to make his acquaintance. He has quite the commute to work (it’s a bit hard for most people outside the state to understand why none of us balk about driving for three and four hours to get to anything, because sometimes that’s the only way we’re going to see the best things about the state), so he had quite the surprise when he found something very odd along the northbound side of Highway I-45.

Basic thistle

For instance, the photo above illustrates the main features of the Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum), a very common weedy plant through the state. It has a lot in common with the citizenry: prickly if disturbed, able to thrive in conditions that kill just about everything else, and ignored at your peril. This time of the year, it can produce flower scapes about 1.5 meters tall, and it usually grows rapidly and goes to seed before the really bad summer heat hits. The surprise, really, is that such a beautiful flower is so ignored, but that’s mostly because it thrives in superficially poor soils, so it’s everywhere.

Anyway, Jeremy was heading to work one day when he spotted something unlike any other Texas thistle he’d ever seen. Like the rest of us, he figured that if he didn’t get some kind of proof, he’d leave out valuable details on his discovery. Worse, he knew that the state could mow the grass alongside the highway at any time, so he had the fear that it might not be there by the time he got back that evening. He took photos, posted them on Facebook, and asked me “Do you know what this is?”

Cristate form of the Texas thistle

As can be told, this was a bit, erm, unorthodox. I could joke and say “The last time I saw something like this, it was trying to convince me not to follow my ex-wife to Z’Ha’Dum,” but that doesn’t really answer what this what is. I’d seen dandelions with multiple fused stems, but nothing quite on this level. And with this being south of Dallas, Jeremy wanted to know if this was some aberration produced by low-level radioactivity, overuse of pesticides, excessive solar radiation, residue from the cement kilns in Midlothian or fracking operations, or just sheer perversity.

Cristate thistle blooms

As it turns out, “sheer perversity” comes closer to the situation than I knew. Lorie Johnson, an old friend and and fellow heliophobe, took a look at this and did a bit of research. In the process, she came across what’s probably the best general-knowledge guide to cristate and monstrose plant forms I’ve yet read. Both unusual plant growth patterns are well-documented in succulents, but that’s mostly because cristates in particular have a tendency to survive for years. This, though, was an example in an aster, not in a cactus.

Cristate thistle stem

And let’s not forget the Czarina. I showed her pictures, and she didn’t question my sanity. I suggested “You want to go out to Ferris, dig up this monster, and drag it home?”, and she didn’t call a psychiatrist and ask about the cost of Thorazine by the gallon. In fact, she figured that if there was any way to rescue it from the lawn mowers, we should give it a shot. Saturday was spent dealing with a truly horrible allergy fit, but Sunday’s air wasn’t quite to our usual “a bit too thick to breathe, a bit too thin to plow” pollen standard this year, so we tossed plastic crates, shovels, cameras, and other implements of destruction, and made a road trip of it. Jeremy sent photos for context to show its exact location, and after wandering along the highway’s service road for a little while, seeing firsthand how the area was still recovering from this month’s tornadoes and killer thunderstorms, we finally found it.

Crushed by the Texas winds

Well, we would have been better off if we’d been able to get out on Friday. Unfortunately for us and the thistle, the winds on Friday night had been particularly bad, and they snapped the two main cristate stems at about the level of the surrounding grass, also breaking off a normal stem at the base in the process. By the time we found it, the plant was obviously dying, and we figured that putting it through the stress of transplantation would only compound the situation.

Cristate thistle bloom, closeup

Jeremy wasn’t the only person to ask “Why don’t you collect seed from it and see if you can grow new ones?” If only I could. The factors that cause cristate and monstrose plants are still completely unknown, and they almost always show up without warning. Almost all cristate succulents fail to produce viable seed, and apparently this is also true of other cristate plants.

Cristate thistle stem

The worst part was that with the combination of a dying plant and the ridiculous intensity of the sun that day, most of the photos of the plant’s structure didn’t come out well. This was probably the best view to the thistle’s stem: instead of expanding outward evenly, the stem grew laterally, making it resemble an organic old-style ribbon cable. That was also the source of its doom, as the wind cracked it right along the flat of the stem, and it may have survived if the edge had been facing the prevailing winds. Combine the increasing dryness of the season and the stronger winds, and it just didn’t have a chance.

The Czarina and I finally left the ailing plant, hoping that it might go dormant over the summer and come up when the rains returned this fall, but we didn’t have too much hope. We just counted ourselves incredibly lucky that we spotted it in the first place, and that the local police didn’t assume that we were looking for ditch-weed instead. As it was, we couldn’t get over the impression that we were being watched, and not just by the drivers on I-45 asking “What the hell are they doing?”

The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You

Texas. With high weirdness like this, I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.

It’s amazing what you can get done on a three-day weekend

You know, most people spend a three-day holiday weekend lazing about, or puttering, or maybe getting a few things done that the normal schedule doesn’t allow. Oh, we did quite a bit of that. Date night on Saturday night was a matinee showing of John Carter, so the Czarina finally got the chance to see what was the big deal about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s secondmost famous creation. (Because she still has pattern nightmares over seeing David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch twenty years ago, I didn’t bring up the singular horror of continuing the conceit from Philip Jose Farmer’s short story “Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod” and suggest the idea of A Princess Of Mars as written by William S. Burroughs instead of Edgar Rice. Mugwumps instead of Tharks, for instance. One of these days, though, I will, when she last expects it, and her scimitar elbows will wail in the night.)

Instead, time was spent with The Plants. Plural. A new shipment of Nepenthes came in, so I can compare the suitability of several new species and hybrids for Texas life, which meant Saturday morning was spent frantically repotting them in fresh sphagnum moss. Friday was spent cleaning up the last of the mess from Tuesday’s tornado April Madness, which included clipping dead Sarracenia leaves, repotting bladderworts and triggerplants, and checking on hot pepper seedlings. On the last, thanks to the kind folks at the Chile Pepper Institute and Dilly’s Chilis, this summer should yield quite a crop of both Bhut Jolokia and Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T” peppers for those with that sort of inclination. At least, that’s the hope, and if hope was all I needed, half of Texas would have been covered with Roridula gorgonias plants last September. And so it goes.

Anyway, pulling weeds and picking whitefly makes you ask all sorts of interesting questions, and now half of my best questions are ones that require my going back to school to get answers. Some are the sort that require so much expertise that I’d probably have a couple of Ph.D theses by the time I had them answered to my satisfaction. Now, I could be greedy and hang onto these, or pass them on to folks who can do something with them. Even if the only response is a quick smack to the back of my head, at least I’ll know that someone else considered them.

The first one was relatively easy. Deadheading the current crop of Stylidium debile made me wonder if any suitably dedicated botany grad student has continued sequencing triggerplant genomes to view interrelationships between the species and with other plants. Some work is available, but dating from back in the Twentieth Century, and this only nailed down close relations to the Stylidacea. I’m considering some molecular palaeontology, by comparing the various species within Stylidium of Australian origin with those in Japan and South America. I have absolutely no proof right now, especially no fossil proof, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Stylidium or its forebears had as much variety and range in Antarctica before it froze in the Pliocene as the genus has in Australia today. Comparing genes of Australian species to those in Tierra del Fuego won’t prove that the genus used Antarctica as a bridge for a time, but it may give some additional lanes of study for understanding how the flora of Gondwana evolved as the supercontinent broke apart.

And the other? Again, this requires expertise and resources that I certainly won’t be getting any time soon. Last spring, I had a bit of an accident with several propagation flats full of Sarracenia pitcher plants. In an effort to get a more dependable source for drainage material than standard horticultural perlite, I decided to experiment with Growstone, an artificial pumice made from recycled glass. Naturally, after the plants were set and starting to emerge from winter dormancy, I get a call from the retailer, letting me know that the batch I’d purchased had a problem keeping a neutral pH. In other words, it was just a little too alkaline for most hydroponic options, and was definitely too alkaline for most carnivorous plants. Of course, I learned this right about the time the drought and heat of 2011 really kicked in, so I wasn’t sure if the plants were dying because of high pH or because they hadn’t evolved to grow and reproduce in a lead smelter.

Well, cleaning up some of last year’s batch, something interesting came up with the plants planted with Growstone as a drainage medium. Namely, most of the Sarracenia that survived were stunted and twisted, and others grew incredibly slowly. Purple pitchers, Sarracenia purpurea, though, grew much faster than expected. At that point, I remembered previous reading on how S. purpurea spread all through the eastern seaboard of North America, and then took a hard left and spread into Michigan, Ontario, and Alberta. Of particular note was that they seemed to do rather well in marl bogs in northern Michigan, and marl is extremely alkaline.

And there started the queries. S. purpurea obviously had a higher tolerance to alkaline conditions than its cousins, but how much of a higher tolerance? Did plants in the Michigan marl bogs grow more slowly than ones in more acidic soils, and was the alkalinity the only factor affecting slow growth? Best of all, what gene did S. purpurea have that its cousins lacked, what did that gene do besides control alkalinity tolerance, and could that gene be transferred to other Sarracenia? Was this something that could be introduced via standard crossbreeding techniques, or is the pH tolerance gene sufficiently recessive that it isn’t expressed in other species?

Now you understand why I still buy the occasional lottery ticket. Most people would use a gigantic windfall to quit their jobs or go on perpetual vacation. Me, I’d enroll in a school with an exemplary natural history and botany program, and I wouldn’t leave until I had my answers or a professorship, whichever came first. In the meantime, I do what I can, and pass on some of these questions to friends that can do something with them. I just tell those friends “Now, remember, after you get back with your Nobel Prize money, you owe me dinner, okay?”

Oh, my aching brain

One of the curses of having interesting friends is that they can be a bit too interesting. See, they share things. Horrible, mind-altering things. Things that leave me in a little fetal ball, crying “Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?” and looking for sharp instruments with which I plan to trim my fingernails to the shoulder. And those are just with the puns. No, some of these disturbing images and concepts are so foul that I immediately share them with the Czarina.

Back twenty-five years ago, I worked as a groundskeeper for a now-long-defunct Texas Instruments site in Carrollton, Texas, and I had quite the assemblage of odd co-workers. One’s name was, quite literally, “Bubba”, and I’m pretty sure that this was his legal name on his driver’s license and birth certificate. Bubba was an absolute salt-of-the-earth guy in his own way, except for one particularly vile habit. See, he had a thing for various gas-producing victuals, ranging from Ranch Style Beans to Mickey’s Big Mouth Ale, and he wasn’t afraid to share the end output. Problem is, he’d wait for just the right moment, right when our natural instincts to trust our fellow man were at their height, emit a silent-but-deadly that could char the nose hairs out of a dead rhinoceros, and then ask innocently “Do you guys smell barbecue?” Yes, in fact, we did, as the delicate scrollwork that used to be our sinus bones was turned into smoke and ash.

Now, a quarter of a century later, I’m regularly reminded that I associate with friends who carry on the scientific, theological, and philosophical tradition, as if Bubba were right there in the cargo elevator with me. While they might not physically subject me to a haze of hydrogen sulfide and methane, the effect on brain tissue is much the same.

Case in point. My friend Bon Steele was apparently at the garden center today, and she passed on a photo of a kid’s garden starter kit. Specifically, by way of this, I learned about the Growums line of gardening kits, and I can’t argue with the basic idea. It was one of the characters that burned my frontal lobes. Namely, the introduction to “Frank Cilantro“.

Yeah. Frank Cilantro.

And that’s when it went wrong, Your Honor. “Elvis Parsley” was to be expected, as would “John Lemongrass”. My mind doesn’t go that way, and suddenly I was picturing similar kits with “Jerry Gardenia“, “Jello Bicalcarata,” “DeeDee Romaine“, and “Turner Vanda Blarcum“. I realized how far I’d sunk when suddenly the thought of naming a plant “Nancy Spathophyllum” almost, ALMOST, made sense. Sorry, but NOBODY is going to eat an onion nicknamed “G.G. Allium” if they’re even remotely familiar with the reference.

And then it really got to me. Suddenly, I realized that I had the perfect spokesfigure for a new line of high-intensity herbicides. A pernicious weed with thick-frame birth control glasses and smarmy smirk, that hyperfocused on one subject and wouldn’t shut up about it, before being burned down to the soil line by a welcome rain of poisons and acids. The world’s ready for “Coriander Doctorow,” isn’t it?

Oh, don’t look at me like that. This is your dead rhinoceros moment. Besides, what’s he going to do: sue for copyright infringement?

“A garden unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”

The office is nearly cleared, and all but two boxes out of fifteen are sorted. The Triffid Ranch now has two more growing spaces for Nepenthes pitcher plants, and a new “proofing oven” shelf arrangement for caring for tropical carnivore arrangements. One more spare weekend, and it should be Done, only a month after it started. Kids, when your parents tell you to clean your room, please listen to them. You don’t want to spend your holiday vacation chipping newspaper cuttings and magazines off your closet shelves, where they’d turned to diamond from the pressure of the detritus piled above them.

The last two weeks weren’t all work: the Czarina and I celebrated nine years of marriage the way we started. Namely, dinner, long walks, and a quiet night at home. Her only problem with this involves our choices of entertainment. Invariably, I end up watching my favorite film for staving off the holiday blues, and she has to deal with my bawling my eyes out when the best-developed and most likeable character in the whole movie gets blasted out a shuttle airlock by Sigourney Weaver. (I’m the same way watching the best alien encounter movie of 1982, right when Kurt Russell throws a stick of dynamite at it.)

It’s not so much that Alien is a great gardener’s movie, although it does make me look forward to the upcoming spring’s paper wasp and cicada-killer wasp populations returning. (When the ongoing cleaning and sorting of the office left me barely able to crawl to bed, I actually managed to get in a bit of light reading. Normally, I have precious little patience for fanfiction, but I confess a stout appreciation for Kim Newman’s new collection Moriarty: The Hound of the D’Urbervilles. Of course a man of such education and erudiction as Professor Moriarty enjoys a hobby of raising wasps when taking a break from his career as “The Napoleon of Crime”. In that regard, he’s a man after my own heart, even if he’s fictional.) It’s that it’s hard looking through the new crop of horticultural hardware catalogs without seeing references to the movie.

I mean, c’mon: if you’re spending your days spreading pesticides powerful enough that you need a powered pesticide helmet and suit, being dragged back with some sort of organism attached to your face may be only one of your immediate issues. Those who read Aurealia C. Scott’s Otherwise Normal People, about the world of competitive rose gardening, might remember one of the subjects needing one of these suits because her preferred mix of fungicides, insecticides, and mutagenic poisons was just a little too strong for humans to handle. This right here is why I get offended when I’m told that carnivorous plant people are weird. We may be weird, but rose people make us look well-adjusted.

And then there’s the obvious reminders. Most of the last week consisted of regular trips to the paper recycler and to the local Half Price Books (and when it comes to piles of back issues of Horticulture and Mother Earth News, these places are the same thing), with the difference being that Half Price trips meant waiting to see if you brought in anything worthy of payment. While waiting one one such expedition, I poked through the art section and came across a copy of WWW HR Giger Com, a retrospective by the Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger. Generally flipping through it, I found one very good reason to snag it. Giger related the issues he had as a designer on the 1995 film Species, and how he’d gone to a significant outlay of money and time to create a “dream train” sequence which was hacked to pieces by the studio. In response, apparently Giger turned the back yard of his house into a course for an electric train for his and his friends’ use. To complement the train line, he landscaped the back with artifacts of his own design.

Now, I wish I had pictures of this, so you’ll have to snag a copy of the book to see for yourself. I just need to reiterate: HANS RUDI GIGER BUILT AN ELECTRIC TRAIN GARDEN IN HIS BACK YARD. We should be either relieved or disappointed that he didn’t design a miniature golf course to go with it.

Again, I can’t find any photos of the train garden online, so you’ll have to trust me on this. It also gives me a very special goal in garden design. I don’t want to copy Giger’s garden, or even make something reminiscent of it. I want to construct a garden that makes him gasp in surprise and wonder. As can be expected, I have quite a long way to go.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

In the incessant kvetching about Dallas weather, I should bring up that we have a phrase for it: “If you don’t like it, hang around for ten minutes and it’ll change.” Last week? Subfreezing temperatures. This week? Rain and highs more suitable for Miami. I don’t recommend North Texas for anyone with respiratory issues such as a proclivity toward pneumonia, because if the pollen doesn’t kill you, the wild fluctuations in ambient temperatures will shiv you in the bathtub and watch you die.

That’s what hit Friday morning: sore throat, voice like a five-pack-a-day cigar smoker, and just enough of a fever to bring on some particularly interesting auditory hallucinations. Either that, or the cats really did learn how to talk. All I can say for sure is that I woke up late on Friday afternoon, fever burned out, and I did what any sane person would do. I started to clean the house.

Before I start into the details, consider the warring factions in my psyche that I inherited from both sides of my family. As mentioned previously, my father’s Scot heritage generally manifests itself as a thriftiness and frugality that comes dangerously close to packrat tendencies. Oh, who am I kidding? My sister constantly and bitterly complains about the two-seat hovercraft my dad bought at a police auction in the Nineties, and I refuse to get involved, partly because it’s none of my business and partly because I would have done the same thing. My mother, though, manifests her Irish/German/Cherokee heritage through control of her surroundings that pushes minimalism. The worst fight I ever saw them get into involved her donating his high school prom tuxedo to Goodwill, only some quarter-century later. What this means is that all of their kids collect…and collate…and make plans only to get delayed…and then BOOM!

(I’d like to note for the record that if I thought there was a market for it, I’d market a proposal for a comic book miniseries involving a nice Dunwich boy who married a nice Innsmouth girl, and the exploits of their adult children. It would be a combination of horror and comedy, and completely autobiographical.)

Anyway, one of the sore points in the house as of late was the office. When we moved in the spring of 2010, we were already horribly behind on getting ready for the move for various reasons, and I horribly underestimated exactly how many books I had in the library. Ever get that sick feeling when starting what should be a ten-minute chore that stretches into hours and days? By the end of May, that was my basic state of being. Get up, go to the Day Job, go home, pack, haul another truckload over to the new house, go to sleep, get up another four hours later…and all of this on top of getting ready for our big show of the year. After a while, you stop worrying about deciding where everything is supposed to go, and you focus on just getting it into boxes. Those then go into a back corner of a room somewhere until you can deal with them, which you never do because you’re too busy dealing with everything else that needs to be done during a normal workweek and weekend. I’d plan vacation time after Christmas to dig into it, and the Czarina would have her post-Christmas meltdown and decree that we were leaving town for our anniversary. Combine that with our mutual book addictions and the number of friends and bystanders who’d send odd plant- or dinosaur-related items that would go atop the pile, and it’s no surprise that witnesses would ask “Are you SURE that Hunter S. Thompson is dead? It looks like he’s been camping out here for the last month.”

"The back-alley ambiance was so foul, so incredibly rotten."

That last comment particularly hurts when your 11-year-old niece says it. Just saying.

I’d already planned to take the week after Christmas off and do nothing but focus on the mess. This included threatening the Czarina that if we went anywhere between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, I’d tell the investigating detective “I didn’t defenestrate her, sir. I just threw her out a window.” Well, that’s what I told myself: one view of her rapier-sharp elbows and the word “please” was used quite often, and not just as part of the phrase “please don’t kill me”. However, something about reaching the terminal stage of Dutch Elm Blight made my mother’s heritage grab my father’s in a rather rude place and scream “Shove off,” and I started pulling stacked books off the shelves and alphabetizing them where they belonged. And filling boxes full of obsolte gardening catalogs for recycling. And tearing through an already-impressive magazine collection and deciding what I’d keep and what was going to Half Price Books.

One of the nice things about having a very comfortable relationship with the Czarina is that I can drop all sorts of worrisome comments and she doesn’t kill me where I stand. For instance, last week, I finally admitted to her that after book tour events in 2009 and 2010, I slept with a fan immediately afterwards, and she beat me to saying “And you were already married to her, weren’t you?” This way, when she came home on Friday evening and the first words out of my mouth were “It’s not what it looks like,” she just blinked at the piles of boxes and magazines and blinked instead of preparing to show me my own gall bladder. Then she looked at the office and screamed. Even better, it was a good scream.

And so it continues. The gardening magazine sale at Half Price brought in enough money that I could get her another Christmas present. I’ve cracked open and discarded boxes that I’ve been dragging around, still sealed in packing tape, since 1996. I now understand why so many dedicated bibliophiles now have PDAs or smartphone apps that track all of their books, because I discovered a good two dozen that I’d repurchased at least once because I couldn’t remember if I already had it. (These will be up for an upcoming Joey Box giveaway after the holidays. I promise.) The Czarina dances through the house, giggling about how she expected to find me dead in a crapalanche by now, and I just tell her that with the change in my pockets, I’m still worth more dead than alive. Best of all, remember my mentioning the odd dinosaur-related stuff received from friends and cohorts? We found a home for one of the biggest pieces.

First, a bit of preamble. The Czarina and I have been friends of Mel Hynes, the writer of the classic Webcomic Two Lumps, for nearly a decade, and Mel has a habit of surprising friends with really odd acquisitions that she finds via eBay. One day, she called and asked us to meet her at her apartment, because she’d found “the absolute perfect Christmas present for Paul.” I loved it, but the Czarina just looked sick and asked Mel “And what did I do to you?”

Part of the Czarina’s concern was that we really didn’t have a place to display it. It couldn’t go over the mantelpiece because of a beautiful glass display given to her by a mutual friend, and she was insistent that it didn’t need to go up in the living room. It then sat in my old office for the next five years, and it went into the back closet of the new office when we moved in. The Czarina kept making noises about putting it in the garage, but that required risking massive catastrophic crapalanches to get to it. Now, with the extensive bulldozing and palaeoarchaeological expedition going on, one path leading to bedrock gave me strength, and it came out. And when you see where it went, blame the Czarina for it.

Damocles the Nanotyrannus

Yes, this is a life-sized Nanotyrannus bust. Yes, this is in my bathroom. Directly over the toilet, in fact. I call him “Damocles”. This is a friendly warning: if I could do this much with a bout of Dutch Elm Blight, you’d best pray I never get smallpox.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

In loving memory of the late Nigel Tufnel, here’s the best song on geology ever written.

Personally, I don’t worry about poor Nigel. He’s probably currently holed up in the Roy Orbison Celebrity Rehab Clinic and Retreat in Sheepdip, Wyoming. Days filled with visiting the small-arms range with John Lennon and Kurt Cobain, ultralight flying with Buddy Holly and Stevie Ray Vaughan (with Randy Rhoads in the control tower and Rick Nelson as flight crew), charm school classes with Sid Vicious and GG Allin; and let’s not forget those barbershop quartet sessions with Jimi Hendrix, Joey Ramone, and Andy Gibb. And then there’s his daily pantsing of his roommate from Memphis…

Time for a bit of head explodey

I’m a big fan of living miniature gardens, even if my ideas tend to go a bit…dark. Now, it’s easy to go dark, but I also enjoy adding a bit of natural history to the mix. This is why I have ambitions for a couple of new penjing projects. Dinosaurs can be impressive, but how many people design miniature gardens around the creatures of the Burgess Shale, especially as a way to keep garden gnomes under control?

Call in the burn squad

I don’t make a huge deal of my Scottish heritage, no matter how badly the Czarina wants to see me in a kilt. (She’s Welsh: it can’t be helped.) One aspect of my paternal ancestry, though, leads to a lot of trouble. Namely, the fact that you have no idea, no idea, of what the word “frugality” means if you’re not of the blood. I remember reading a book review in the Eighties that started out describing how the reviewer’s grandmother could stretch out a Thanksgiving turkey until she was trying, in mid-July, to figure out how to make turkey-flavored Jell-O from the bones. My first response was “Are we related?” This frugality should be celebrated, not mocked: I mean, how many other civilizations on the planet could look around at available resources and say “We have fresh water, peat, rye, and a big load of copper. What can we do with this?

(Now, I say this about my father’s side of the family. My mother’s is even better, as she came from classic Irish/German/Cherokee stock. I’m glad I don’t let old family and country rivalries affect my life, because otherwise I’d get a big stick and beat the crap out of myself.)

North Texas tends to bring out a lot of that, because it’s not like we have a lot out here. The trees are small. We don’t have big metal deposits. The soil is some of the richest on the planet, but only after it’s been worked for decades to break up the clay we lovingly call “black gumbo”. The two things we have to excess are both products of the yellow hurty thing in the sky that stays above the horizon for eighty days at a stretch this time of the year. Namely, a lot of sun and a lot of wind.

Capturing the wind is relatively easy, because the only time it stops blasting out of the south is during those few moments we laughingly call “winter” and it blasts out of the north. More and more wind turbines are going up to take advantage of our surplus. Since we literally have 300 or more sunny days per year, now it’s time to scoop up a bit of sun, and use it for good instead of for skin cancer and powdery automobile paint.

Now, two things to take into account. I have a good friend in the UK who’s well-known for her propensity to get into trouble, to the point where she has a List. Specifically, this is entitled “Things Arkady Is Not Allowed To Do,” and one of the top ten entries is “Anything suggested by Paul Riddell.” It’s like these people know me or something. That’s the first, and the second is that I’m a horrible enabler. I like to tell people that my little brother Eric is still the only five-year-old I’ve ever met who knew how to make black powder, and I innocently whistle when he points out that his seven-year-old older brother was the one who gave him the recipe. If Arkady and I were ever to meet in real life, well, I hope everyone’s prepared for the next few years when Earth gets blasted out of its orbit and goes wandering through interstellar space. (Another entry in Arkady’s List is “Anything that makes her giggle for more than 15 seconds.” A few minutes hanging around with me, and she’ll be giggling for years.)

And why do I bring this up? It’s because I’ve discovered that I have a need, a deep horrible primeval need, for a Fresnel lens. A big Fresnel lens. Even better, I discovered folks in Fort Worth that manufacture Fresnel lenses.

Now, I’m not going to say a word about what I have in mind, other than that it should be a very interesting heating system for the greenhouse in the winter, and a very important tool during that period when we pass from “spring” to “My daily commute requires me to swim through pools of molten concrete”. I promise, though, that if it doesn’t work, you’ll never know. That’s the good side to the shock of tossing Earth into the void between galaxies.

“Something’s wrong with Jack”

Back in the fall of 1993, I took a date to see the premiere of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Although I was still trying to get the taste of Tim Burton’s Batman out of my mouth, I was willing to give Nightmare a fair chance. The film is justified for its reputation for turning millions of embryonic goths over to the dark(er) side, but since I was goth back when the term referred to Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, it simply cemented my attitude that a little bit of Halloween in my Christmas was a very good thing. (Trust me: Rowan Atkinson isn’t the only one who adds Daleks and dinosaurs to his nativity set.)

Anyway, I didn’t quite go willingly, as my very old friend Joey Shea kept pushing me in the back, telling me “Don’t worry about the candiru! The water’s fine!” After I discovered that maybe I shouldn’t walk to his house in Connecticut and talk him to death, we compared notes on the movie. The one absolute full-stop plot hole? Not one kid, NOT ONE, who received Jack Skellington’s presents didn’t prefer it to Santa’s intended replacements. Considering that I belonged to a generation that lusted after some of the darkest and most horrific toys ever to haunt Toys “R” Us ordering managers (from Creepy Crawlers to Prehistoric Scenes model kits to the Alien 18-inch action figure), I could picture the outtakes from Nightmare featuring one kid weeping “Puh-LEEEEEEEEEZE, Santa! Don’t take away my cuddly Cthulhu!”

I think that’s what bugs me the most about the idea behind the new HGTV reality series My Yard Goes Disney. Might it be time to start a gardening show that commissions Hans Rudi Giger, Jhonen Vasquez, and Steve Bissette to offer a few alternatives?

“If the Sontarans don’t find you handsome, they should at least find you handy.”

For the last several years, I’ve joked that my gardening style resembles a television show. Namely, an unspeakable Lovecraftian fusion of Doctor Who and The Red Green Show. This being Texas, this requires me to explain the metaphor in terms that don’t leave the listener, in the immortal words of fellow Lone Star transplant Bill Hicks, “looking like a dog being shown a card trick.” Stating “Lots of very alien-looking plants amid old planters” doesn’t come close to describing the aesthetic, and asking the listener to picture “Flying saucers on cinder blocks in the back yard” just gets them to call the police. The problem isn’t just that these two shows are sufficiently obscure to most Americans that explaining the connections would take all weekend. It’s that programs are, in reality, the same exact show.

For the card-trick folks, Doctor Who is a classic British science fiction show that, with the exception of a big gap between 1989 and 2005, ran pretty much continuously since the day after the Kennedy Assassination. The Red Green Show, on the other, is a similarly classic Canadian comedy series running between 1990 and 2006. The former chronicles the adventures of the Doctor, an enigmatic extraterrestrial who travels through time and space in a temporal vessel. The latter chronicles the adventures of Red Green, the head of the mythical Possum Lodge located somewhere within the wilds of eastern Canada. Other than that, they’re the same exact show.

For those familiar with both shows, the background. By the end of 1989, Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner had successfully driven the show into the ground, and the BBC decided that it was time to cut its losses and give the program a much-needed rest. Nathan-Turner, though, wouldn’t give it up, as witnessed with his constant attempts at a revival, and he tried to pitch a new show to American and Australian outlets without success. The Canadian Broadcasting Company, though, nibbled a bit, but with one big proviso. Since the funds for keeping Doctor Who alive came from the comedy budget, the show had to be retooled as a comedy. Since the available money was even smaller, no universe-spanning adventures. Since it was a CBC show, the talent had to be Canadian. Other than that, nothing changed at all.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the similarities. Both shows have a very distinct opening instrumental theme, recognizable by millions, but unlike just about anything else in the history of television.

Both shows are named after an older gentleman of bizarre dress and manners, who constantly interferes with the Powers That Be.

Both shows feature a gangly and rather dorky younger relative, who happens to be the only relation you ever see. Otherwise, you have hints and suggestions of a past history, but they’re all supposition.

Both title characters travel in a bizarre vehicle that holds considerably more crap on the inside than would appear to be possible from the outside.

Both characters have a tendency to attract a slew of very bizarre cohorts and companions.

Both characters have a propensity for tinkering, and are known for singular tools for getting the job done. (C’mon. You’d do anything to hear Peter Davison mutter “And now for the Time Lord’s secret weapon: duct tape.”)

Both shows have a thing about robots.

(go straight to 5:52)

And let’s not forget male sex symbols.

EDIT: And then there’s the slight change to the classic Possum Lodge motto. Apparently the original was “Quando omni flunkus, reingero”: “When all else fails, regenerate.”

The only major digression involves the villains. CBC budgets meant no Daleks, no Cybermen, no Movellans, none of that. This meant that the only one of the Doctor’s nemeses that made the transition was a famed megalomaniac obsessed with universal domination.

Again, between the budget and the comedy background, this meant the Master wasn’t quite up to his old tricks. It just meant that his new tricks were a bit more, er, subtle

Now that there’s context to my original metaphor, be afraid. If this doesn’t discourage random passersby from insisting they come by “to see the plants,” I don’t know what will.