Just as a recap, the gallery is shut down. The keys went back to the leasing manager on March 9, and as of now , there is no plan to revive the Texas Triffid Ranch in any capacity. The site will remain live until March 2024, with decisions made about its status at that time. Likewise, all touring events have been cancelled as well. If you want to see Triffid Ranch plants, I highly recommend the carnivorous plant bog at the Dallas Arboretum: all of the remaining Sarracenia and Venus flytraps went there to live out their lives as educational plants, and I plan to visit them quite often, especially in March and April when they’re blooming. Other than that, the Texas Triffid Ranch is no more.
As for future plans, right now the biggest concern is organizing the remaining items that don’t have room in the house, and then it’s on to new projects. Anybody wanting a heads-up when these are ready might want to subscribe to the old Triffid Ranch newsletter for the update when they’re ready for public consumption. Other than that, be seeing you.
Okay, so the move out of the gallery was slightly delayed due to unavoidable issues last week, but the leasing manager was willing to accommodate an additional week. Several potential buyers of the few remaining enclosures just needed a few extra days to come out and pick up their purchases, they said, before they ghosted. No big deal, I thought: let’s just sell what’s left on Facebook Marketplace and maybe move a few into the greenhouse at home. As for the greenhouse itself, while the Triffid Ranch was ending, it would be perfect for raising hot peppers, vanilla orchids, and maybe the occasional Nepenthes. Not a big deal, right?
Well, somebody had other plans. The National Weather Service predicted all day the possibility of severe weather in the Dallas area, including the possibility of hurricane-force winds. Most of the time, these storms break up when heading east after they hit Fort Worth, but this one was special. First, the tornado alert sirens through Garland, Richardson, and Plano all started going off, and then the clouds rolled in. When this happens in daytime, the skies go a Coke-bottle green from atmospheric dust blown in advance of the front. This one had so much dust that the lightning strikes on the edge of the front went a brilliant peridot green, something I hadn’t seen since a similar storm in 1982. Then the wind hit.
For most storms, the greenhouse was protected both by the angle at which the storms hit and by the bulk of the house. This beast hit different, as judged by the amount of detritus and occasional roof shingle caught in the wind. The greenhouse looked as if it were going to be a little shaken but otherwise fine, and then one big gust blew off a front panel that had been well-secured with greenhouse tape just a couple of days before. That flew, and then the whole thing broke off the foundation, tumbled a bit, and attempted to chase the shingles blowing down the alley. The only thing keeping it from becoming a problem for the neighbors was a crape myrtle tree at the corner. It then crumpled and imploded on itself from the force of the wind. The crape myrtle held both the frame and the polycarbonate panels, preventing them from becoming a threat to others, until the storm finally settled a bit.
When things were safe enough for an initial inspection, it was pretty obvious that it would need a bit more than a touch of duct tape. The main structural elements were bent beyond repair, the foundation was ripped, and the whole thing was an utter loss. The only thing to do at that point was to wait until morning and see what remained.
In daylight, the damage was even worse than feared. The wreckage is going to make one of Garland’s scrap yards very happy, as it’s all perfectly good salvageable aluminum, but it’s not good for anything else. Considering that this is now the second of two catastrophic storms coming through the area, the first one being last September, and getting a new one might be folly.
But you know what? It all worked out. Had the Triffid Ranch continued and I started to get ready for the spring show season, that greenhouse would have been full of young plants at the time it tried to fly back to Oz (or, more likely based on the difficulty of the installation instructions, Lankhmar), and the loss would have been total. The cost of a greenhouse replacement would have been one additional expense on top of the gallery rent increase, and its installation would have taken time away from preparing for upcoming shows. If this was a sacrifice to the Lords of Chaos in exchange for the rest of the year being mellow and uneventful, then let them have it and their laugh.
And so it ends. No GoFundMe or small business loans to rebuild: if anything, any last-minute attempt to go back and restart the Triffid Ranch is now impossible. If you feel sympathy and want to help, come out to the gallery on Friday, March 3 and Saturday, March 4 to buy up the last fragments of Triffid Ranch inventory and make offers on the shelves and other furniture. I’ll be there both days from noon until 8:00 pm or when everything is gone. (The big workbenches out in the front are already claimed, but I still have the big Lundia and Skandia shelves that have to come down, and I’d rather have them go to good homes for someone starting their own new businesses.) And most of all, LAUGH. It can’t be that bad, right?
Things got very interesting over the last week: new greenhouse, torrential rainstorms, a possible book deal, setting up an online press resource, the possibility of getting a degree in Museum Studies…I really, really need to discover a vaccine for sleep, because those three hours I’m getting just get in the way. In the meantime, it’s time to put up a regular marquee of Triffid Ranch events, just to stop the number of calls where the caller refuses to leave a message. And so it goes.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day to those who celebrate. While the rest of Dallas focuses on excessive drinking (this incredibly NSFW piece, and I’m not kidding about it being NSFW, should be the city’s anthem today), my personal anthem is a bit more traditional. (Of course, the song needs to be flipped for me: my father was a Scot Catholic and my mother an Irish Lutheran, but you know how it goes.)
Today marks a strange anniversary in these parts. December 9 marks a solid 30 years since I was let go from a job I hadn’t started at yet, when A.H. Belo, the parent company of the Dallas Morning News, bought up, shut down, and stripped out the competing Dallas Times Herald. At the time, my dream to work for the Times Herald (a dream held since my days as a Times Herald paperboy during the summer of 1980) finally realized itself as a mailroom position, back in the days when the mailroom was a potential gateway to a regular byline. The Sunday before I was supposed to start, I was having dinner with my then-girlfriend when the one and only Barry Kooda came by and asked “So, you getting a copy of tomorrow’s Times Herald?”
“Why? What’s up?”
“Tomorrow’s the paper’s last day. It’s shutting down.”
“Awww, no! I’m supposed to start work there tomorrow!”
“Well, I’d blow that off if I were you.”
I admit that I was angry about this for years, and not just because of the various details leading to that buyout and shutdown. For the next six months, the bus stop in downtown Dallas where I’d depart for various job interviews was right across the street from the old Times Herald building, so I got to watch the hurried stripping of the building’s marble facade and signage, the demolition of one wall to pull out the presses and other heavy gear, the crumbling of everything else, and even the overpainting of the scar where the building shared a wall with a parking lot with a mural particularly insipid even for 1990s Dallas. By the end of 1992, the effort to sanitize Dallas of any intimation that it had anything other than one daily newspaper was so successful that any trace of the Times Herald was one discovered accidentally, like discovering the stepping stones in your garden were unused gravestones. After a while, the only mentions of the Times Herald anywhere were in obituaries, such as when star columnist Molly Ivins died in 2007, and even then.
One of the things about starting a career as a science fiction essayist is that you can’t help but be immersed in the concept of alternate realities. The real fun is noting that the real changes occur due to the little things that set off the avalanches (remind me to tell you the Dallas Blade Runner preview screening story one of these days, if you haven’t read it already). A few years of little things, and the stories between two alternate timestreams go off further than with the blockbuster event. Today is a day to celebrate this, starting with the death of the Times Herald.
A few years back, I realized that my entire professional Day Job career was one massive case of dodging bullets, to the point where friends joke about renaming me “Neo.” Positions and companies fell apart, but staying, in the long run, would have been worse. Most of the time, the transition was painful — these things usually are — but necessary. Considering the current plight of print newspapers, there’s no guarantee that the Times Herald could have survived another five years had Belo picked its teeth with the bones: even if it had lived to see the 21st Century, the thought of celebrating 30 years’ employment there is considerably less appealing today than in 1991. More importantly, if things had lasted this long, I wouldn’t have had a minor writing career ending in 2002, which wouldn’t have led to my moving to Tallahassee to get away from it, which wouldn’t have led to my first encounter with a carnivorous plant in the wild. If the Times Herald had survived, I might have a minor journalistic career, but the Triffid Ranch never would have happened, and the people and places associated with the Triffid Ranch are so much more emotionally satisfying than anything I ever could have done while still working as a pro writer. I know I’ve made more money selling and trading carnivorous plants than I would have made in writing: two shows this year alone eclipsed my total writing income over 13 years, and the friends made in the process are people I’d never give up for the dubious promise of literary or journalistic success.
In his essay “Driving In the Spikes,” the author Harlan Ellison noted that most of the time, there’s no need to get revenge on those who wronged you, because they usually do something to themselves so much worse than anything you could do, and so much more satisfying. Instead of being overly petty, my picture has appeared in the Dallas Morning News multiple times, all of which making me feel like GWAR on the front cover of Tiger Beat, and all without paying for a print copy once in the last 30 years. That’s not a bad legacy with so many other things to focus on instead, and considering the Morning News‘s current financial and circulation issues, the real irony would be if the paper finally shut down or sold for parts a year from today, after all of the reasons why anyone would worry about a daily print paper in this age finish becoming irrelevant. And so it goes.
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Regular visitors at the gallery might note that the space’s break room is a bit loaded with, erm, interesting decor. Ever since the traveling show days, friends have gifted me with all sorts of plant-related toys and accoutrements, all of which are now up on a series of shelves circling the ceiling of the break room. It’s loaded with all sorts of cultural detritus: Monster High Venus McFlytrap, Swamp Thing, Man-Thing, Groot, Treebeard, Zhaan, Medphyll (still my favorite Green Lantern after the obvious contender), and I’m trying to figure out how to get a Pink Bunkadoo seed up there. The overwhelming favorite, though, involves one Dr. Pamela Iseley, former botanist in Gotham City and currently married to one Harleen Quinzell.
And the collection keeps building for various reasons, but the Poison Ivy figures, toys, Lego playsets, and other petrochemical recreations have one aspect that appeals to a carnivorous plant rancher. As opposed to the default, Poison Ivy figures don’t automatically come with Venus flytrap-inspired accessories. In fact, what surprised me was finding a spare McDonald’s Happy Meal figure from 1993 that featured Ivy in a vegetation-festooned car that had not a flytrap-inspired claw, but a carnivorous bloom. Honestly, I couldn’t have been more surprised if it had a working triggerplant bloom on the front.
And how does this work? Well, a lot better than many toys from that time. (Please excuse the squeaking: I’m now exactly twice the age of this toy, and I squeak and rasp when I move too much these days, too.)
A little penetrating oil (something that won’t attack aged plastic), and this goes up on the shelves, next to the ever-increasing collection of DC Bombshells Ivy figures. Now I’m looking for a figure of (extremely NSFW) Frank, but only if it comes with a voice chip.
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Posted onNovember 5, 2021|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Wimberley, Texas – 3
After writing about carnivorous plant issues on this site for the last decade, it’s always funny when unrelated discussions lead right back to the subject at hand. A week ago, the subject was on bee burn, where Sarracenia pitcher plants catch more stinging insects than the plant can digest, particularly at the end of the growing season. A little trip to the Texas Hill Country, specifically to the town of Wimberley, independently demonstrated why.
Shortly after the actual wedding ceremony was over, when everyone sat down with beverages of their choice, we found ourselves surrounded by paper wasps. They weren’t aggressive, but they were persistent, and gentle shooing didn’t do much to convince them to go elsewhere. They weren’t just going for open drinks, either: they were going for particular pieces of clothing or jewelry, and even particular shades of lipstick. After a few minutes of consideration, Caroline of Caroline Crawford Originals, official wedding jeweler and spouse of nearly 19 years to your humble chronicler, discovered that all we needed to do was set out a spare glass full of something sweet at each table, and the wasps left us alone to get a good drink of margarita sugar syrup or Sprite. In the process, we were making our own artificial Sarracenia without realizing it.
The explanation for the wasp invasion was easy. While larval wasps are enthusiastic carnivores, adults are nearly invariably sweet-tooth acolytes, with a diet mostly made up of nectar, honeydew from aphids and scale insects, and whatever other sugary treasures they can find. (That attraction to sweets applies also to more derived wasps such as bees and ants, which explains how you get ants.) To this end, the members of the angiosperms, the plant order comprising flowering plants, that don’t depend upon wind for pollination depend upon insects, and nectar is an extremely effective way to employ insects’ services. Between sugar and bright patterns visible under ultraviolet light, we have approximately 90 million years of co-evolution between insects and angiosperms, and all of the pitfall carnivorous plants use one or both to capture prey.
What’s going on now is the end of the wasps’ life cycle, at least involving these. Most paper wasps designate one female as a queen, and she promptly finds a spot in a woodpile or compost pile to spend the winter before reemerging in spring. The others keep going on as long as they can find food, but with local flowers fading for the year, the competition with solitary and gregarious bees and the occasional indigenous hummingbird gets intense. By the end of October in Texas, the few paper wasps that haven’t become food for birds, spiders, or praying mantises are desperate for any available food source, which is why they come running to uncovered soda, wine, or mead. Since wasps see mostly in ultraviolet light, they’ll also check out any item that fluoresces under UV in the hope of catching a spare bit of nectar missed by everything else, and most humans would be amazed at how many items of clothing, jewelry, or makeup pop under UV. Eventually, that runs out, and the few wasps that don’t die of starvation will die with the first serious cold snap. That cold snap arrives in Wimberley this week: the odds are really good that these wasps will be dead by the weekend, but as the political writer Charles Pierce says every Friday about dinosaurs, they lived then to make us happy now. And so it goes.
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Posted onNovember 4, 2021|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Wimberley, Texas – 2
On a recent trip to Wimberley, Texas, you’d think there would be a lot of time to photograph Texas flora, and that would be true if there wasn’t a wedding going on. There was still time for a few snaps, but a more extensive look at the plants of the Hill Country requires more time, preferably during blooming season in spring. Even so, there was plenty to see.
Mangueys aren’t necessarily native to the area, but they grow extremely well in Central Texas. Not only are they impressive additions to rock gardens, but their tough leaves and sharp spines discourage everyone but humans from messing with them.
Want a touch of international floral history? Here’s why prickly pear cactus were introduced to Australia: members of the genus Opuntia are hosts for the cochineal bug, the source for the colorant carmine. Said bugs produce a white fluffy camouflage to protect against wasps and other predators and parasites, and by the end of the growing season, it can get a little thick.
Wimberley may be in the middle of semi-desert, but with suitable water harvesting capacity, it can be awfully friendly to other tropicals. This little pond at the wedding site both utilizes local limestone (usually so festooned with holes and small tunnels that it’s often sold in aquarium shops as “holey rock”) and just the right amount of water lilies and papyrus to make it magical both during the day and when lit at night.
While one of Texas’s many clichés involves it being covered with cactus (particularly the saguaro, which is only found in Arizona), cactus is just part of the wide range of trees, shrubs, grasses, and herbs growing in the state’s desert and semidesert regions. Most cactus spread their seeds via fruit-eating birds, and sometimes there’s no telling what will show up where. This little one was underneath a combination of “cedar” (actually Ashe’s juniper, Juniperus ashei, the source of winter allergies throughout the state) and mesquite, so it might not last long, but it just might if the area around it is cleared by fire or human action. Either way, good luck to it.
To be continued…
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Okay, so last weekend, two of my best friends got married. They’d been connected via a wide net of mutual friends and acquaintances for the last three decades, but they first met in person while attending the very first Triffid Ranch open house in 2015, and it’s all been downhill from there. They eventually set a time and a place for a wedding celebration, and the time was the one time where the place was at its absolute best. The place was the town of Wimberley, Texas, due west of San Marcos, south of Austin, and right in the middle of the famed Texas Hill Country in the center of the state.
This wasn’t the first time I’d been to Wimberley, but it had been, erm, a little bit of time since the last visit. Wimberley was on the map for decades due to its art galleries, particularly those showcasing its glass artists, as well as its bonsai nursery. The last reason I’d had to be in Wimberley in the last third of a century, though, was for the long-defunct Wimberley Hillacious bicycle race, competing through the 1980s as a worthy competitor for the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred bike race in Wichita Falls. (The Wimberley race was in October, thereby bypassing both the brutal heat of summer and the equally brutal cedar allergy season of December and January. However, it was a bit more of a challenge both because of its impressive hills and the equally impressive headwinds, and a 10-mile race in Wimberley was as much of a workout as the 50-mile in Wichita Falls.) Let’s just say that Wimberley has changed just a little bit since then.
In the last 33 years, Wimberley became a lot less isolated, particularly as far as Austin gentrifiers were concerned. (As we discovered on our second night in town, when the wine mom getaway contingent in the adjoining lodge room decided to climb atop the building and stomp across the roof at midnight. The next morning, they gave every indication that “being so hung over that they couldn’t remember their names when checking out of the hotel” was a default state.) Back in 2011, the area was hit particularly hard by the last big statewide drought, with water having to be shipped in by truck to keep people from dying, so most new businesses and subdivisions had extensive water harvesting towers, as did schools and hotels. Likewise, highways and sideroads were recently expanded as much as possible to handle the increased traffic, giving Wimberley the same general vibe as areas around Dallas in the Eighties. On top of everything was the realization that the gap between the usual summer heat and the influx of cold winter weather was going to be extremely short in 2021, and the Halloween festivities in town gave a note of fervency, because the period between needing sunscreen and hats and needing heavy jackets and gloves wasn’t going to last for long.
To cut to the punchline, the wedding went through without problems, from the bagpiper opening everything to most of the guests coming in costume because of the season. (The bride was so far away from being a Bridezilla that we all joked about asking the piper if he could play an appropriate theme for her arrival.) Yeah, the best man looked as if he stole Boris Johnson’s toupee, but that couldn’t be helped thanks to the lack of humidity. 10/10; would attend again.
If any good came out of events on last Saturday, it was that respiratory arrest stopped by mid-afternoon, and we were healthy and active enough to consider going out for a special event at the Dinosaur Company in Allen, just north of the gallery. The Dinosaur Company specializes in both life-sized prehistoric animal reconstructions, both static and animatronic, as well as presentations and workshops on various topics. A dear friend has worked there for the last year, and when she noted a few weeks ago that the Allen facility was offering a date-night lecture on dinosaur reproduction and nesting, well, that was all of the excuse we needed. Loaded up on antihistamines and bringing out the requested picnic dinner, we both got a very, VERY up-to-date lecture on what’s currently known on dinosaur courtship, mating, nesting, and hatchling care, but we also got a tour of the back storage area, full of existing reconstructions awaiting repairs or reassignment.
The worst part about being in a huge warehouse full of life-sized dinosaurs and pterosaurs and giant-sized arthropods isn’t the realization as to exactly how big some of them are. The worst part is that you stare at them for a moment, and all sorts of smartaleck comments come up about expressions, colors, and placement. This isn’t to disparage the Dinosaur Company in any way, or to badmouth any of those constructs, because they’re absolutely beautiful. It’s just circumstances, you know?
“HOLD YOUR HORSES! Let me get dressed first!”
“Okay, in or out. I’m not holding the door open all night!”
“Oh, dear. I swear, there should be a law.”
“HOW much? For an OIL CHANGE?”
“Don’t give me that. You knew what I was like when you married me. All three times.”
Anyway, as far as the connection to the gallery, we’re in tentative talks about an upcoming paleobotany lecture, focusing on carnivorous plants and the tantalizing hints of their presence in the fossil record. Yes, there will be a lot of time set aside to talk about Australian pitcher plants.
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Along with everything else coming down this weekend (and let me tell you, full-bore asthma fits at my age aren’t fun, and that’s on top of emergency greenhouse repairs), one of the issues resolved was discovering why a large mailing of posters, courtesy of Adeline Robinson Art, was returned “Insufficient Postage.” (Let’s just say that the automatic US Post Office kiosks offered to “expedite” mailings may only list “large envelope” categories, but the Post Office treats padded mailings as “packages.” And people wonder why I’m contemplating training carrier vultures to deliver the mail.) Well, that’s been resolved, and for those wondering why you have a Triffid Ranch poster in your mailbox this week, that’s why. For everyone else, should you know a reporter, freelancer, or other sculp[tor of the language arts who might need a poster, send their address this way. Send your address, too, while you’re at it: we have plenty.
Posted onAugust 4, 2021|Comments Off on “It’s got what (carnivorous) plants (don’t) crave!”
A little sidenote between shows and new enclosures: a friend and Day Job coworker took recommendations on carnivorous plant care in Dallas to heart and came across something that would have slipped between the cracks otherwise. As related elsewhere, the municipal water in the greater Dallas area is best described as “crunchy”: seeing as how we’re situated on what used to be North American Seaway ocean floor about 80 to 90 million years ago (with big areas of Arlington, Irving, and Flower Mound peeking up as barrier islands akin to today’s Padre Island), water out of the tap is full of dissolved salt and calcium carbonate. Up in Flower Mound, the water is also so full of dissolved iron that you can tell which residents have lawn sprinklers by the wide rust stains on driveways, sidewalks, and sides of houses. All of these are really bad for carnivorous plants, and a lot of people have issues with them, too, so Dallas people tend to drink a lot of bottled water. (Not me: I actually like the flavor, and the only bottled water that catches my interest is the even more mineralized Mineral Wells product, and I’m fairly sure that when I die, my bones will glow in the dark from the dissolved radium I imbibed as a kid in Saratoga Springs.)
Anyway, my friend noted the regular Triffid Ranch admonishment “Rain water or distilled water ONLY” with a recently purchased Cape sundew, and found what she thought would be a great source of distilled water with a new brand called Zen WTR. It makes a promise that it’s “100% vacuum-distilled water,” but not is all as it seems.
Let’s start by noting that for this discussion, we’ll take all of Zen WTR’s claims at full face value. No snark, no arched eyebrow, nothing. The claims of using 100 percent recycled plastics is a noble one, as well as using only ocean-salvaged plastics. (I’m currently working on a Nepenthes enclosure that asks what plastics would look like after 50 million years of burial, and the reality is that nobody’s quite sure what’s going to happen to all of the various plastics we’re turning into signature fossils for the Anthropecene.) I have no reason to doubt that the water isn’t 100 percent vacuum-distilled for maximum purity, either. But is it safe for carnivores?
Well, the first tipoff was noting that the contents at the bottom of the bottle read “Vapor distilled water with electrolytes for taste.” Even discounting the obvious jokes (which I imagine the crew of Zen WTR is as sick of hearing as I am of Little Shop of Horrors references), my heart sank upon reading “…with electrolytes for taste.” Flip over the bottle to read the ingredient list, and…
…and we get “Calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, potassium bicarbonate (electrolyte sources for taste).” None of these are bad in drinking water. If you ever get the chance to drink true distilled water, such as that used for topping up car batteries or keeping steam irons clean, you’ll note that while it’ll hydrate you, it’s not necessarily going to win any taste tests, and a big tall glass of lukewarm distilled water served to friends on a hot day is a good way to guarantee they never to come to your house again for summer activities. (Since cold water holds more dissolved gases than warm water, really cold distilled water is okay, but as with vodka left in the freezer, you’re more likely mistaking the chill for any actual flavor, but that also isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) Spring waters are popular because of naturally dissolved salts and other minerals as part of their makeup, and most bottled water has a pinch of various salts per bottle to improve their flavor and make sure you buy more. Zen WTR does the same thing, and for us humans, there’s nothing wrong with this.
(A little aside, sometimes water that’s too pure can be dangerous in other ways, and not the ones you suspect. When I lived in Portland, Oregon in the late 1990s, the city made a big deal about how the Bull Run reservoir, filled from snow melt, was some of the purest municipal water in the world. What was left out was that it was so pure that it tended to leach chemicals and various metals out of plumbing, and if you lived in a house or apartment in Portland built around the turn of the last century, as my ex and I did, odds were good that Bull Run water and lead pipes put in before World War I and never replaced led to tap output with potentially dangerous levels of lead and cadmium when drunk for long periods. This wasn’t always limited to metal, either: while I haven’t found any confirmation one way or another, small amounts of salt in bottled water may possibly have an effect on the amounts of plasticizer, the chemicals added to give plastics, well, their plastic and flexible properties, from leaching into the bottle’s contents. A bonus fun fact: with most plastic packaging, such as bread bags and Fritos packages, the “Best if used by…” date isn’t the predicted date when the contents go bad, but the predicted date when levels of plasticizer and solvent are detectable within.)
Now, humans are very good at removing minerals from our ingested water: as anybody suffering from kidney or bladder stones can tell you, sometimes we’re a little too good. with most plants, a little salt is completely beneficial, and most accumulations wash out with the next rain. The problem with carnivores is that most live in areas inundated with enough regular rains to wash out most dissolvable minerals after a few thousand years, and more live in sphagnum bogs, which both exude acid and a polymer that bonds to magnesium. In a pot or container, those salts, as little as they are, tend to accumulate. It may not happen right away, and it might not even happen soon, but eventually enough salt will build up in a captive carnivore that it will start burning the roots. In a remarkably quick time, that salt content goes from “minorly irritating” to “lethal,” and with precious little warning.
A few more astute readers may note that technically rainwater can have similar problems with dissolved minerals from dust atop roofs and in containers, as well as dissolved dusts and pollutant accumulated while falling. That’s completely fair, but these are in considerably lower levels than those from Texas tap and drinking water. Please: keep drinking Zen WTR if you enjoy it, but keep in mind that it eventually won’t be safe for your Venus flytrap. And next time, we’ll discuss reverse-osmosis filters and “drenching”…
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Posted onMay 7, 2021|Comments Off on “A man on the move, and just sick enough to be totally confident.”
Along with everything else that’s going on, it’s time to note that this little WordPress word salad turns a full decade old on Sunday, May 9. As with a lot of other things in my distant past, had anyone told me in 2011 what things with the Triffid Ranch were going to be like in 2021, efforts to check that person’s sanity, preferably with an oil dipstick, would have been necessary. Thanks to everyone who stuck with this little road trip for all these years, and fond memories of those who fell off, for various reasons, since that start. Now let’s make plans for 2031, starting with arranging for more events this month.
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As part of efforts to make 2021 better than 2020, the efforts begin this week to clean up the computer desktop, which was taking on disturbing parallels to fiction. This entails cleaning up lots of redundant folders, removing applications that shut down back in 2014, and trying to get something laughably close to a decent image archive. Lots and lots of oddities turned up, including the below weirdness on Buddha’s Hand citrons, so keep an eye open for images that nobody has seen since the Aughts, and maybe we should be thankful for that. Anyway, enjoy.
Among the more chronologically pedantic, December 31, 2020 isn’t just the end of a particular year in the Gregorian calendar, but also the end of a particular decade. Working on the idea that the calendar had no Year Zero, the Twenty-Teens didn’t end when the last few seconds of 2019 rolled through the clock. No, what we get is Year Zero at the end of each decade, where everything is in flux, neither caterpillar nor butterfly, and the actions in that year help determine what the next decade are going to be like. Think of it like a cloned cat: the reason why you can’t make an exact clone of a beloved cat is because so many of the factors that made that cat unique happened in the womb. Change the food, change the stressors the mother cat had during gestation, change any number of a multitude of factors that might cause a particular gene expression, and you have a clone that’s a genetic copy of the original, but otherwise looks and acts nothing like its progenitor.
With that concept in mind, the way 2020 went, we’re going to start out with a cat genome and get the cutest, cuddliest 40-foot Gila monster with bat wings and laser beam eyes that you’ve ever seen. For some of us, this is a feature, not a bug.
The last thing to be said about 2020, from the Triffid Ranch’s perspective? This was a year to change plans, to pivot away from video (kindasorta), and to get ready for new weirdness. If you think the gallery has changed from where it was five years ago, back in the old Valley View locale, that original gallery was such a huge jump from where things were at the end of 2010. The phrase “quantum leap” is horribly overused by half-bright marketing majors whose grasp of the concept is exceeded by the coliform bacteria in their guts, but that’s pretty much what happened over the last ten years, and now it’s a matter of seeing if this trend continues for the rest of the coming decade. Until we have a better idea of what to expect, and whether that involves blasting Harkun troop carriers out of the sky as they try to take back their former planet, take care of yourselves, and keep watching for new developments. There are still a lot of enclosures to build and stories to tell.
Right now, the greater Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is in our default December weather system: generally sunny and mild, with temperatures at dawn flirting with freezing and temps at dusk considerably higher, with very good chances for surprise frost, snow, and even sleet. Because of that, many of our native plants and the best-adapted of our introduced species base their winter dormancy on photoperiod instead of temperature. A lot of people here do the same thing the closer we get to the winter solstice. Not everything follows that schedule, and for a few, it can be lethal.
The character shown above is a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis), a very common lizard ranging through most of the southern United States, with Dallas and Fort Worth marking the western edge of its range. Besides its fame for changing its skin color between brilliant green to deep brown, thus its common name “American chameleon,” Carolina anoles are also famed for their refusal to drink water from standing sources, preferring to lap dew and condensation from leaves and just about any other available surface. In the Dallas area, even considering their intense territoriality, they tend to collect in surprising numbers, and they’re out on any day warm enough to allow them to move in the afternoon. Not only are they adept vine and bush climbers, but thanks to lamellar pads on their toes like those of geckos, they also skitter across vertical wood, brick, and even glass. If they can get a purchase, they’re extremely hard to catch, which is why I don’t catch them: half of the fun with the anoles in and around the greenhouse is getting them trusting enough that I can get close enough to touch, and one big male that loves camping in a potted grapefruit tree has a thing about puffing up his dewlap and challenging me when I’m using the hose, solely so I’ll set the hose sprayer to “mist” and soak him down so he can get an evening drink.
While their climbing skills are legendary, apparently they have limits. For reasons related elsewhere, Venus flytraps in the Dallas area are best grown in glass globes, brandy snifters, vases, and other tall glass containers so they get the high sunlight, high humidity, and good air circulation they crave. Those glass globes tend to create a pitfall trap for them: either due to the angle, the temperature, or both, anoles this time of the year have a problem with climbing into glass containers and being unable to climb out, especially when chasing the same insects that the flytraps already attract. In busier times, this wouldn’t be an issue, between regular waterings twice a week in the summer and the regular Porch Sales, any trapped anole might spend hours inside a globe before being rescued. This time of the year, though, with the flytraps going dormant and checkups every week, a trapped anole could be injured or even killed by remaining in a plant globe, especially if nighttime temperatures went to or below freezing. The odds of this one ending up in another globe are pretty poor (unlike many people, anoles tend to learn from their mistakes), but that’s no guarantee that it won’t happen to another.
With this in mind, it’s time for a homework assignment. As mentioned before, anoles are exemplary climbers, but they need something to climb other than the underside interior of a glass globe. Lots of objects qualify, so long as they neither contaminate the soil inside the container, block off light to the flytrap, nor spread diseases. In this particular case, all of the globes waiting for spring now have a sprig of bamboo rising above the lip, just in case. It’s not much to do, but it should be enough to save anoles, jumping spiders, and the occasional mouse from a slow and undignified death. For those with Triffid Ranch flytraps, and for those just following my growing recommendations, consider doing something similar, just in case. And so it goes.
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Posted onNovember 5, 2020|Comments Off on Remember, Remember the Fifth of November…
Because (a) my current presence in North America is due partly to overly enthusiastic celebration of Gunpowder Treason on its 300th anniversary, (b) I still bow to nobody in my appreciation of Alan Moore, and (c) I am a hopeless fan of Violet Carson roses:
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Posted onJuly 15, 2020|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn
Shameless plug time: Dallas has a lot of restaurants, ranging from the corporate to the ethereal, and one of our best draws for visitors is our only Canadian restaurant. I’ve hyped the Maple Leaf Diner for years: when the old gallery was at its Valley View Center location, the Maple Leaf was right across LBJ Freeway, and it became a regular locale for grabbing breakfast before one of the old Valley View ArtWalks, meetings with old friends after gallery tours, and regular Wednesday night dinners with my in-laws. Everything on the menu is both authentic and worth trying: I can state with authority that the Maple Leaf’s Belgian waffles are the best I’ve ever had this side of Toronto, and it’s the perfect place to introduce Texans to the Euclidean idea of poutine. Short of being greeted at the door by Rick Mercer, it’s the best chunk of Canada you’ll ever find this far south.
Anyway, one of the minor draws of the Maple Leaf is the east wall, covered with all sorts of kitschy tourist souvenirs from Our Home and Native Land, including a souvenir plate of Canada’s flower emblems, the provincial equivalents of state flowers in the US. It’s a little out of date, as it only lists “Newfoundland” instead of “Newfoundland & Labrador” (not to mention nothing about Nunavut), but it still shows off the Newfie flower emblem and beloved flower of Queen Victoria, the purple pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea. For years, the plan was to bring in a purple pitcher plant or ten on July 1, Canada Day, just so the staff and customers could see one in the pulp, and possibly go into a discussion of the carnivorous plants of Canada. (Oh, trust me. Canada has a lot of them.) Unfortunately, there was always one minor disaster or another that prevented that from happening, especially after Valley View closed and we had to move gallery locales. 2020, though, was going to be the year that we actually pulled it off. I was sure of it.
Well, in 2020, it happened, kinda. Right in the middle of a pandemic, right after the Maple Leaf reopened for takeout and curbside service, Sarracenia purpurea came to the Maple Leaf, even if only long enough for quick pictures and a staff ogling before my masked presence had to clear out for safety’s sake. (Their safety, not mine.) Next year, though, once it’s safe to do so, expect a lot more.
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Posted onJuly 10, 2020|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: the HVAC Edition
Very much as with home ownership, commercial property leasing is one of those things where beginners often don’t know what they’re getting themselves in for. For the last three years the Triffid Ranch has been in its present location, most issues with that location were relatively easy, especially compared to its first space. (There’s nothing quite like discovering that the owner of Valley View Center was refusing to let the Dallas Fire Marshall inspect the fire suppression system, right on the heels of the air conditioning system blowing out during the hottest November in Texas recorded history and said owner refusing to repair it for a full month.) It’s the little things that surprise you, and if you’re lucky, they reveal themselves just before they become catastrophic failures. Such is the story of the Triffid Ranch air conditioning system.
With many commercial properties in the state of Texas, any improvements to the property other than common areas (driveways, parking lots, access ramps, and the like) must be paid for by the tenant. Necessities such as electricity are maintained and updated either by the property or the utility supplying it, but everything else falls to the purview of the renter. Want to replace bare concrete floors with carpet or wooden flooring? That’s on the renter. Replace fixtures such as sinks and toilets? The renter. For the most part, we cheerily go to work, installing break areas, adding lighting, and doing all sorts of other things to make the space liveable and pleasant, and the question is always “how badly do you need this?”
And this is where the air conditioner comes in. When we moved in, we knew the gallery’s existing air conditioner was a bit, say, chronologically challenged. When installed back in 1987, the individual who paid for it went with the absolute cheapest system s/he could get, which meant a system that cooled the front vestibule, where Caroline’s space is currently located, and a side room that was apparently an executive’s office. Everywhere else, you got what you got, which meant that summers required lots of fans. This also meant that between May and October, that little unit was pretty much on day and night, just to keep the inside area liveable. Things weren’t helped by what could be called “enthusiastic nonmaintenance”: when we moved in, the air filter on the AC unit apparently hadn’t been changed in years, said filter was held in place with two old AC-to-DC power adaptors originally used for a long-removed security system, and the previous tenant had managed to get a ridiculous amount of glitter and most of a blue feather boa into the vents. (That story comes later, because it’s even weirder than you’d expect.) When we had problems with the system three years ago, a thorough cleaning improved the situation somewhat, but we knew that eventually the whole unit would need replacement. In Texas, having an operational AC unit, even one as kludgy and obsolete as this on was, was a necessity for survival for three months out of the year.
Even before the days of COVID-19, the plan was to replace the AC in the gallery before the summer heat got going, as open houses during the summer were already a bit sultry when the place filled with people. However, circumstances led to an acceleration of the plan. Just before the July 4 holiday, the whole old AC unit froze up, leading to water leaking from underneath the unit, and an inspection led to the discovery that the unit coils were rusting out. It may have remained intact through the summer, and it might not have survived July. The compressor on the roof was just as old, just as rickety, and just as ready for failure, and replacing the indoor unit would likely lead to a failure compressor, again in the height of the July repair season. After consulting with our AC rep (anyone needing contact info is welcome to ask), the plan was to replace the whole mess with a new, larger indoor unit and a new compressor, offering nearly twice the cooling power with considerably lessened power consumption. More importantly, because of the surprisingly cool and rainy weather in this first week, switching it out quickly was imperative.
The upshot? The unit still needs some additional work to bring everything up to code, but the difference is amazing. Even in the worst heat, not only does the new unit do so much more to cool the main gallery area, but IT DOESN’T RUN ALL DAY AND NIGHT. Obviously, the real acid test will be to check its performance during a packed open house, which may be a while, but this takes pressure off both attendees and the plants. The plants, in particular, appreciate the sudden coolth. Now let’s wait until it’s reasonably safe to have indoor events to test the system’s limits.
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For friends, cohorts, and relations outside of the Dallas area, a tribute to the flower emblem of Newfoundland & Labrador. For those in the Dallas area, it’s time for breakfast takeout from The Maple Leaf Diner, serving the absolute best Belgian waffles to be found this side of Toronto. And yes, when I pick up my waffles, I’m bringing a purple pitcher plant, just so the owners get a little bit of home.
Posted onJune 29, 2020|Comments Off on 100 Years of Ray Harryhausen
A lot of people will be making note of how today would have been Ray Harryhausen‘s 100th birthday, and they all have good reason to note his influence on them, creative and otherwise. My sole contribution: every last enclosure I design has a scoop of wonder added by a six-year-old who first encountered Harryhausen’s work via the CBS Late Movie on Friday nights back in 1972. The 53-year-old who pays rent on the place regularly has to explain to that six-year-old that the odds are increasing small on any place like the Forbidden Valley still existing in this age, and that films like this are about the only way we’re going to see non-avian dinosaurs. That’s when the six-year-old says “Okay, if the Forbidden Valley doesn’t exist, why can’t we make one?” You can’t argue with kid logic like this, so I’ll probably be building Forbidden Valleys, with all sorts of wonders hidden in them, for the rest of my life. (A 25-year-old tenant who was lucky enough to interview Mr. Harryhausen when he came to Dallas vaguely wishes he knew the whereabouts of the interview tape, as the magazine for which it was conducted and then spiked is long-dead. The 53-year-old just notes that everything that he said was better collected in books and videos that deserve wider recognition, so it’s not going to get pulled out in my lifetime.)
Posted onMay 29, 2020|Comments Off on Upcoming Projects: Screen Tests
In efforts to improve both sculpting techniques and enclosure design, the Triffid Ranch library is full of books offering inspiration and advice on miniature perspective, ranging from the Vietnamese art of Hòn non bộ to entirely too many guides on practical special effects from the 1970s. Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of going directly to the source for reference, which presented itself with a maintenance trip to my late father-in-law’s ranch in West Texas.
The ranch in question is atop the Edwards Plateau, which makes up a significant portion of the border of the Brazos River as it meanders through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. The Plateau is on a thick base of limestone and sandstone dating to the Pennsylvanian Period, almost exclusively marine deposits but occasionally showing thick layers of conglomerate from the erosion of long-vanished mountains. Even the thickest layers are only about a meter thick: most are less than a centimeter thick, and many are paper-thin. Several roads lead the length of the ranch to the Brazos, and the limestone at the highest elevation is thick and strong enough to have supported two quarries that ran until the late 1960s. The rest, well, not so much.
Anyway, many of these ancient seabeds were shallow enough that they supported all sorts of life, as evidenced by innumerable fossils of crinoids, brachiopods, and horn corals. No vertebrate fossils have turned up, but plant fossils are abundant, usually consisting of Lepidodendron and other land plants apparently washed out to sea during floods. Some of the layers are so thin that they suggest ultrashallow lagoons that came close to drying out. All in all, the ranch collects about 50 million years of the history of Texas, just waiting for someone other than me to interpret what it says.
Because of those ultrathin layers, I’d wanted to get photos of these for scale, in attempts to replicate this in enclosure form for future projects. Not only was this shoot intended for reference on lighting and accessory arrangement, but it’s also an opportunity to offer a slight distraction in trying times. Enjoy.
And finally, as a direct opportunity to aggravate Ethan Kocak of The Black Mudpuppy, it’s time to prove that if he wants to mess with us on horrible mashups, some of us will mess back:
Posted onMay 12, 2020|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Canadian Carnivores
For those encountering carnivorous plants for the first time, they tend to be shocked by the sheer range of environments in which carnivores live. There’s the automatic assumption that they all live in hot, swampy jungles, and express shock at discovering the number of species found in North America alone. The shock spreads when they discover that Venus flytraps can be found a day’s drive from Washington DC, and they really lose it when they discover the variety of carnivores in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Best, though, is when I tell them about Canada.
Canada may not be as rich in carnivores as the United States or Mexico, but it has considerable charms. The most famous, of course, is the purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, the flower emblem (the Canadian equivalent of the US’s state flower) of Newfoundland & Labrador. S. purpurea isn’t isolated to that area: it ranges due west from Newfoundland across Ontario (with that range extending south to Michigan and Minnesota) all the way to eastern Alberta, and then north to just short of the border with Alaska. On the west coast, the cobra plant, Darlingtonia californica, ranges well along the coast of British Columbia and south into Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Canada also has a wide range of sundews and butterworts in a wide range of habitats, and one of the most interesting places to view carnivores for sheer spectacle is in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta.
Alberta and Texas have a lot more in common than most people would expect. In fact, when getting off the plane in Calgary from Dallas, it’s hard not to wonder if the plane just circled around Iowa and landed where it started, especially if you travel to Calgary in time for the Calgary Stampede. During the Stampede, the only way you can tell Calgary and Fort Worth apart for sure is that one has more cactus and one has more Mounties. If you see lots of mesquite trees, you’re not in Calgary. That similarity stretches across most of the province: driving near Drumheller, for instance, the plains are so flat and the scenery so similar to North and West Texas that the only way to be sure that you’re in Canada is that the highway signs list kilometers and are written in English and French. All that fails if you head sufficiently west: I recommend doing it the way I did, in the middle of the night when the moon is rising, and you realize that something took a big bite out of the moon and won’t give it back. At that point, you’ve hit the Rockies.
When you’re that far west, there’s absolutely no reason not to visit Banff National Park, especially for those of us fascinated with geology and natural history. However, for butterworts, stop in the town of Canmore just outside of Banff, and head out to Nordic Provincial Park in the mountains overlooking Canmore. That’s where you’ll find treasure.
Backstory: my last trip to Nordic Provincial Park was in 2006, as part of a trip with my wife’s family. I’d never been to Alberta before (my grandparents were from Ontario, but I’d never been that far west), but had dreamed about it ever since learning about the gigantic bone beds around Drumheller and Edmonton as a kid. Caroline and I were already outliers in the family as far as cultural markers were concerned, as they looked at us like dogs being shown a card trick when we noticed a new bicycle trail freshly opened that was named “The Riders of Rohan.” The worst, though, was when heading up one trail, we came across the leftover bracket from a long-removed gate still attached to a tree, and Caroline asked what kind of spigot that was. “That’s for collecting pine syrup,” I told her. “Real Canadians eat their waffles with pine syrup, and maple syrup is just the crap we give to Americans who don’t know any better.” My sister-in-law has never forgiven me for telling her that, because she spent the rest of the trip asking for pine syrup and getting angry that the locals wouldn’t share.
Anyway, half of the family split up to take one trail that led to a mountain lake at the highest easily accessible elevation in the park, and the other half went on the other. This trail’s vegetation thinned as we climbed higher, with spectacular views of the valley and the whole of Canmore. Best, though, was the waterfall on an adjoining peak that blasted mist across the gorge and onto our trail.
Finally, at one point, we stopped to admire the waterfall, up against a boulder about the size of an SUV that had rolled down at some time in the reasonably recent past. It was still reasonably clear of vegetation other than some moss, but it also had a flash of blue-violet at the top. I got closer to investigate the blue, and discovered, snuggled in a patch of soil about the size of a toonie, were a pair of butterworts. Pinguicula vulgaris, to be precise.
This was reason to stop alone, but we figured “Let’s keep going up and see what everyone else found.” Well, that mountain lake was just covered with butterworts: the soil was little more than rock dust, with no real nutritive value, so the butterworts were at home, just blooming away.
As it turned out, they were a great example for people who were afraid of raising a carnivorous plant because they couldn’t keep one warm enough. If a P. vulgaris butterwort can survive an Alberta winter, it can definitely survive a Texas winter. And to this day, when doing slideshow lectures for garden shows and classrooms, I still use the same shots of those butterworts to demonstrate that they can be found in all sorts of odd places:
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Posted onApril 12, 2020|Comments Off on Welcome To Your Career In The Arts
For the last several years, I freely admit that I blatantly stole a beautiful concept from the artist and musician Steven Archer, famed for his involvement with Ego Likeness, Hopeful Machines, and Stoneburner. In addition to his other endeavors, any of which make us mere mortals want to eat his brain so we can steal his powers, Steven also shares particularly disturbing failure videos and gifs, usually involving faceplants and setting idiots’ knees afire, all of which beg for one specific soundtrack, for his followers and interested passersby. The punchline is the same with each video or animated gif: “Welcome to your career in the arts.”
Part of the reason why so many of these are so funny isn’t just in being glad that we aren’t as unlucky, unskilled, or foolish as the individuals in said videos. It’s that for anybody with an actual career in the arts, we watch the videos, wipe our brows, and sigh “So it’s not just me.” So often, no matter how hard we prepare and what we try, it’s Faceplant City, and most of us just brush the concrete dust off our noses, spit out the broken teeth, and get up to do it again. Compulsion is a wonderful thing.
And so it goes. Since before the beginning of this foul Year of Our Lord 2020, the original plan for the Triffid Ranch was to jump up the number of Triffid Ranch shows, lectures, and open houses, including an expansion outside of the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area. Well, you can call COVID-19 “The Rona” or “Captain Trumps,” but every artist, musician, and writer in town saw the implosion of venues and events and called it “The Devil Vomits In My Face Once More.” You wipe off your eyes, reach for a towel and an eyewash station, and start again.
And to follow the old adage “when God closes a door, He also opens a window,” it’s time to see if if the next few weeks constitute defenestration or flying. The original plan was to hold a major open house, the Manchester United Flower Show, on April 18, if the current shelter-in-place order for Dallas County would allow it. Since that order runs until at least the beginning of May, this wouldn’t happen anyway, and a lot of folks understandably don’t want to risk crowds even after the order is lifted. We can’t have a traditional open house, and a lot of people outside of Dallas regularly mope (but mope in a cute way) about not being able to get to an open house anyway, so it’s time to make things virtual.
With the recommendation and inspiration of Christopher Doll of Breaking Fitt’s Law and Pete Freedman of Central Track, both essential reading, the Triffid Ranch is going to Twitch. The Eventbrite invitations will go out soon, but we’re going to try a video open house starting at 6:00 pm Central Standard Time on Saturday, April 18. Just as with the in-person open houses, this will run until about 11:00, thus allowing folks in varying time zones a chance to jump in. If this works out well and it doesn’t lead to a terminal curbstomping, we may have more in our current time of crisis, and probably way beyond. Not only will this give friends and interested bystanders a chance to see the inner workings of carnivorous plant blooms, but it gives a chance to confirm that the sole proprietor has far too much in common with the late Rik Mayall’s most famous character. See you then.
Posted onApril 3, 2020|Comments Off on Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 3
Even in better times, Texans and tourists rushed out every spring to view the return of the Texas bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis, bringing family, loved ones, and pets into the mix. This didn’t always end well for the bluebonnets: the plants themselves are reasonably tolerant of abuse, but the flowers are very easily crushed. This was really a problem for actively trafficked areas: for the most part, bluebonnets are common enough and widespread enough that the species can handle the occasional trampled cluster. In these days of social distancing, that dose of blue, purple, and green is even more important than ever, as is the need to give everyone a chance to see them who wants to do so. Please, please be careful when taking family photos in bluebonnet patches, if only by sticking to the edges and not flattening the whole thing. Most importantly, clean up after your pets, unless you want that kind of karma in an age of security cameras everywhere. Everyone else will thank you for this in the future.
For everyone who has followed this little trek so far, thank you very much, and keep an eye open for future posts. Bluebonnet season is just getting started, and there’s no telling what we could find among the undergrowth in a week or so. No telling at all.
Posted onApril 2, 2020|Comments Off on Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 2
One of the things that amazes so many initiates to Texas bluebonnets is exactly how much animal life can reside inside one bluebonnet clump. No, not bluebonnet rattlesnakes: a thriving field of bluebonnets captures dead leaves and other debris to feed detritivores, and the leaves provide sustenance for a whole legion of foragers and grazers, while the flowers attract a wide range of pollinators that themselves depend upon the flowers’ pollen and nectar. With those herbivores come predators to take advantage of the largesse, and bodies of predator and prey themselves feed the detritivores. It’s a short-lived cycle that ends when the plants die off and burn back in May, but it’s absolutely essential for a wide variety of fauna, mycota, and other flora to continue their own life cycles. Give the land a chance to cool and rest over the winter, and the cycle starts all over in spring.
Posted onApril 2, 2020|Comments Off on Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 1
For those outside of Texas, and for everyone sheltering in place, the Texas wildflower season started about the time we all started self-quarantining, and it now gets going with the beginning of bluebonnet season. Lupinus texensis is a denizen of poor soils throughout the state, growing thickly on roadsides, fields, industrial parks, and anywhere where nitrogen is at a premium. Part of their appeal is the tremendous clumps of blooms at the height of the season, but also their transitory nature: by the end of April, they generally burn off and deposit seeds for next year’s crop. By July, most people who hadn’t witnessed the waves of blooms in April would never have known they existed: the stems and flowers turn to powder and are overgrown by grasses and other summer flora.
Because of this temporary display, many bluebonnet habitats throughout Texas will not mow until the bluebonnets and other wildflower species go to seed. With the bluebonnets come legions of wildflower tourists to get photos of family and/or loved ones among the bluebonnets, in addition to utter idiots fussing about bluebonnet rattlesnakes. This is all fine and good, but these photos generally avoid one important fact: L. texensis is a fascinating plant when seen from the ground, to the point of seeming unbearably exotic.
It’s easy to be flippant about plant blindness, the cognitive bias that prevents people from seeing the plants in their everyday environments. It’s an understandable heritage of being taught over and over to look for the animals in various environments: look back on the number of pictorials of exotic environments and then consider how many focused solely on the plants and ignored the animals. You might be considering for a while: everything from National Geographic foldouts to dinosaur books focus on the animals big and small, with the accompanying flora a sidenote at best. The phenomenon of plant blindness is even worse with documentary films and videos: show a field of Sarracenia pitcher plants, and interest only perks up when the viewer sees tree frogs in the pitchers. On a personal level, I deal with this at Triffid Ranch shows on a constant basis: not only do people look at an enclosure in a quest for the animal they’re sure is inside, but after being told that the enclosure holds nothing but plants, they check again just to make sure. Plant blindness isn’t innate and it isn’t genetic: it’s a learned behavior, and it’s one that can be broken with enough practice.
This is why, in the tradition of Sir David Attenborough, it’s time to go among the bluebonnets. Expect more pictures in the very near future: after all, bluebonnet season is only just starting up, and they’re going to get thick in the next few weeks. Most importantly, though, try to remember that plant blindness. Don’t focus on anything else: focus on the plants. Note the foliage as well as the blooms. Only this way can you break the curse of plant blindness.
The best-laid plans, and all that. The old Chinese curse about living in interesting times definitely applies through this month, and apparently beyond. The news about the Dallas County shelter-in-place order requiring all residents to stay at home unless conducting essential business is now international news, but the subsequent mandatory orders applying specifically to Richardson and Garland are just as big a deal. Right now, the Dallas County order will be up for review on April 3, the Garland order until at least April 7, and Richardson cut to the chase and set its order to run until at least April 29. Any way you look at it, anyone in the greater Dallas area isn’t going anywhere, especially since local police are empowered to ticket and/or arrest anyone running about without good reason.
And how does this affect the Triffid Ranch? Quite honestly, it stops everything for the next month, and directly affects the rest of the year. Unlike the twerp at the mail drop last Monday who wanted to argue that the Dallas County order didn’t apply to him because of one tiny issue that he assumed invalidated the whole order, the orders aren’t up for debate over here. As anybody in US Army Basic Training learns on the first day of Nuclear/Biological/Chemical training, you do NOT take off your mask until someone with the proper authority gives the proper “ALL CLEAR” signal. You may be melting in the heat, and you may want the freedom to take it off and relax, but it’s there for a reason.
So what this means is that every Triffid Ranch event scheduled for March, April, and May has been rescheduled, delayed, or otherwise put on hold. The planned April 18 Manchester United Flower Show open house is delayed. This also means that all appointments will have to wait until Richardson’s order is lifted, although remote consultations are still open. (If anything, if you’re looking for a custom enclosure, the delay should give it plenty of time to get established by the time you’re able to pick it up.) Among the important events:
As always, keep an eye on the Shows, Lectures, and Other Events page for changes to the schedule: everything depends right now on how well the COVID-19 situation flattens out, and what gets scheduled against what. Until then, stay safe, stay distant, and we’ll see you when we see you.
The end of any year in the Gregorian calendar that ends in a “9” always ends the same: innumerable alcoholic amateurs assuming that they’re channeling the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson, massive disappointing clearance sales with clothing stores acknowledging that styles WILL change and soon, and the continuing war between pedants on whether a particular decade ends at the end of the “9” year or the end of the “0” year. Personally, since 1970, which just never rolled over and went away until about 1987, my attitude has been that those “0” years are transition years: the decade that was dies tonight at midnight, but the beast won’t die until the signal travels all the way through its bulk and reaches its tail, and it’ll thrash around for a while in the process. We now have a year to find out what the Twenty-Twenties are going to look and sound like, and we shouldn’t worry about the exact date of death. What matters right now is that as of midnight on January 1, the Twenty-First Century is now one-fifth over, and we should start behaving like it. Want a semantic cause? Start insisting that those still using the term “turn of the century” need to emphasize which one.
There’s no question that 2019 was a year of transition, of what the author Harlan Ellison referred to as “the hour that stretches.” Harlan’s 1988 collection Angry Candy started with an introduction discussing all of the friends, cohorts, heroes, and fellow travelers he’d lost by that point, and how the sudden conga line of mortality directly affected his storytelling. At the time I bought that collection when it came out in hardcover, I was nearly 22, so I had no real grasp of his pain: now, I’m the age he was when Angry Candy was published, and I understand far too well. You may not recognize the names of Jeb Bartlett or Rob Fontenot or Laura Huebner, or of my father-in-law Durwood Crawford, but they made the world just a little more fun and a little more kind, and they’ll always have a spot in the Triffid Ranch pantheon of heroes alongside Adrian Slack and old Harlan himself. (And I have to leave a little room for my late cat Leiber, as his life stretched across nearly a third of mine, and not hearing his happy chirps when I’d look at all of the cat fur in the vacuum cleaner and scream “WHY IS THIS CAT NOT BALD?” has left the house just a little darker and lonelier, no matter how much Alexandria and Simon try to fill the gap.)
As far as accomplishments are concerned, this was a good year because of their sheer number. This was the first year a Triffid Ranch enclosure was entered in a professional art exhibition, and the first year of making more than one trip outside of Dallas to show off enclosures. (Next year will be even more fun, with at least three shows in Austin, one in Houston, and the first-ever show outside of Texas in New Orleans in August.) This was a year for workshops, and a year for presentations, and a year for rapidly changing directions. This was the year, a decade after the first halting Triffid Ranch shows, where I never regretted quitting professional writing less, because those workshops and presentations did more actual good than writing about long-forgotten movies and books ever did. Expect a lot more of those in 2020, too, because the life of a carnivorous plant grower is always intense.
With that year in transition comes a few unpleasant but necessary sidebars. 2020 is going to be a year without Facebook: after a lot of thought about Facebook’s accessibility for friends and customers versus the company’s issues with security, its never-ending throttling of Page access to subscribers unless the Page owner pays for “boosts” (and the ever-decreasing reach of those boosts thanks to ad blockers and the company’s own algorithms), it’s time to leave early so as to avoid the rush. Social media access continues with both Instagram and Twitter (just search for “txtriffidranch”), but the rabbit hole opened every time someone sent a message that lowered Triffid Ranch Page posts if I didn’t respond immediately to yet another discovery of that idiotic Santa Claus Venus flytrap video just takes up too much time. Besides, if you’re wanting news on what’s happening with the gallery, that’s what the newsletter is for.
Anyway, thank you all for sticking around, for coming up and asking questions at presentations and lectures, for buying enclosures so I have room to place new ones, and for coming out to open houses. You’re appreciated, and just wait until you see what’s planned for 2020. The first open house of the year is on January 25: you won’t want to miss this one.
There’s usually nothing quite like the Monday after a big show, and with two shows this last weekend, I was expecting a humdinger of a Monday morning. I had no idea. For those catching the news, the north Dallas area was hit by multiple tornadoes on Sunday night, and the damage is still being assessed. To cut to the chase, the gallery was fine: aside from a power outage, everything was in good shape after a quick morning inspection. (People regularly ask about the odd electric clock running in the gallery that still lists the date as sometime within 2000. This is my blackout clock. It’s an easy way both to tell that the gallery was hit with a power outage and to determine how long it’s been back on. After last April’s horrendous storm and subsequent power outage, I’m seriously thinking about getting an emergency generator, just for the freezer.)
The rest of the area, though, isn’t as lucky. The big tornado tore a divot through residential and business areas just south of the gallery, running roughly parallel to LBJ Freeway. Apparently the neighborhood in which I lived at the end of the last century was hit very hard, as was the shopping plaza where I had my old mail drop between 1997 and 2012. North Haven Gardens came pretty close to being wiped off the map, and the main tornado then hopped Central Expressway and took out the gallery’s local Home Depot. Another tornado touched down just east of the gallery, disintegrating both a train crossing and all of the trees in the immediate vicinity. It’ll probably be a few days before anybody gets a good assessment of the damage, but the good news is that tornado sirens and phone alerts worked and no fatalities were reported.
(One aside: not only are we fine, but thanks to the City of Garland keeping up proactive maintenance on power lines, we kept power all through this. The only scary moment came after returning the rental truck for last weekend’s shows: this marks two times in my life that I’ve viewed a funnel cloud from the underside, and it’s a phenomenon I’d be very happy to leave to experts.)
In the meantime, if things go quiet, it’s mostly from helping friends and neighbors dig out from the mess. Thank you for understanding, and normal snarkiness will resume shortly.
A little side-project tied to the October gallery open house this weekend: with the exceptions of side-trips to Tallahassee, Portland, and northeast Wisconsin, next December marks 40 years in North Texas. In that time, I haven’t done a lot of things either expected of me or intimated that it might be in my best interest. I’ve never been to South Fork or the 6th Floor Museum, I haven’t been to Six Flags Over Texas since 1982, I haven’t gone to a high school football game, and I have yet to come across a rattlesnake in the wild. (I had to go to Tallahassee for that.) One of the things I’ve wanted to do besides come across a seven-foot Western diamondback, though, was to eat prickly pear cactus fruit until I fell over, and that’s now checked off the bucket list.
The prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) is a regular component of the Texas experience. Technically, the Dallas area isn’t the eastern edge of its range (Opuntia is found growing along the Gulf Coast into the western coast of Florida, often growing in the crooks of mangrove trees), but Dallas marks where the pine trees of East Texas are supplanted by cactus. In our area, they tend to show up in poor, well-drained areas such as along culverts and bridges, and they’re just cold-tolerant enough to survive most Dallas winters. The cactus has not only been a food source for humans for centuries (the pads and fruit are referred to in Spanish as nopales and tuna respectively), but if you’re lucky, you’ll see little tufts of what look like white cotton lint on the pads. Those tufts are camouflage for the cochineal bug (Dactylopius coccus), the source for the cloth and food dye carmine. (That little bug is the main reason why prickly pear was a major invasive pest in Australia, but that’s a story for later.)
Anyway, prickly pear fruit is much like apples: just because it looks ripe doesn’t mean that it is. I’d been watching a lone cactus clump near the bike path I take to the gallery, telling myself that this would be the year that I harvested that patch. In 2017 and 2018, someone else harvested the whole lot in early September, probably realizing afterwards that nice purple tuna had all of the flavor and consistency of aquarium gravel at that point. This year, though, they stayed until mid-October, and a preliminary test suggested that the whole clump was ready. Tuna don’t have the vicious spines that the pads do, but they’re still covered with irritating hairs to dissuade cattle and other big herbivores, so it was time to go out with kitchen tongs and a big bag.
Now remember those irritating hairs I mentioned? Those need to be removed before eating. The traditional way was to burn them off, either in a campfire or in the flames of a gas stove, but silicone hot mitts also work very well in removing hairs without getting a handful. (Trust me: you do NOT want these hairs stuck in your skin, as they can take days or even weeks to pull free, and tweezers tend to break them.) Whichever you choose to clean them, a good rinse with water, and they’re ready for processing.
A lot of recipes are available for prickly pear fruit, but I knew exactly what their fate was going to be: sorbet. After coming across a good recipe, the next trick was to puree them, as the skin adheres to the pulp when they’re this ripe. Even in the initial testing with a smoothie maker, the juice was flavorful enough that it would have made a great breakfast juice. The plan, though, was to go further.
The final juicing yielded about four liters of liquefied fruit, and then came the real joy: straining. Prickly pear seeds never stop tasting like aquarium gravel, and they’re packed in enough that they’re a threat to the teeth. This meant that a new colander got quite a workout. (Friendly warning: not only will prickly pear fruit juice stain just about anything it touches, but expect at least some seeds to get through unless you’re straining through cheesecloth. Just be prepared for that.)
The next stage started after the juice chilled in the refrigerator for 24 hours, and that involved an ice cream maker. Some enthusiasts prefer making a prickly pear sorbet at relatively warm temperatures to keep up the consistency: others recommend freezing it hard so a spoon takes off shavings. However you want to do it, make sure your ice cream maker is well-cleaned, check it regularly if it’s electric, and make sure it has plenty of ice in the bucket.
The end result? Well, the end result went into ramekins and then into the freezer, and those attending this weekend’s open house gets to try it firsthand. It’s not as outré as horse crippler cactus ice cream, but if it’s popular enough, this may have to be a regular addition to the October open houses. That is, if I don’t eat it all myself.
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Posted onMarch 3, 2019|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn
For those who tuned in late, your humble gallery operator once used to be a pro writer. Thirty years ago this month, my first published article appeared in the pages of the long-defunct science fiction zine New Pathways, and that continued for another 13 years. Ten years ago this month, the first collection from that wild period, Greasing the Pan, saw print. After that, aside from a few relapses, bupkis. It was a very easy decision to stay away, if not for much-missed friends and cohorts who kept assuming that I’d come back “any day now.” I may write occasionally on subjects of particular passion, but I’m not going back to being a writer, and I’ve had to excise a lot of people, all of whom assume that the calendar will flip back to 1997 any day now, who refuse to understand the difference.
And now the latest relapse: a discussion on sorcerers’ gardens and on running magical nurseries as a business, in the March 2019 Clarkesworld. Most of this was due to wanting to explore certain tropes in fantasy literature with a high potential for humor (let’s face it: “Johnny Pink Bunkadooseed” would make a great story), and part of it was due to the reputation of nonfiction editor Kate Baker. This isn’t the only planned relapse: I’m currently composing a similar take on unorthodox carnivorous plant tropes for the April issue. Just don’t expect a return to pro writing, because the gallery and its care is a lot more important.
In the meantime, feel free to spread this far and wide, because I can’t wait to read the stories and novels running with the concepts therein. And because every idea thief needs to leave his knife, this wouldn’t have happened without the influence of Tobias Buckell, Saladin Ahmed, and the crimefighting team of Ernest Hogan and Emily Devenport. Always give credit to friends: always.
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When I was in high school, I read a comment in a magazine from a neurologist stating that “pain is the body’s way of keeping you from dying of tetanus from stepping on rusty nails all day.” One of the many regrets of my feckless youth was that I didn’t write down the magazine’s name nor the doctor’s name, because this statement should be the Triffid Ranch’s mission statement. When you think of all of the important advice given by the wise to the young, most of it may sound as if it’s intended to avoid death. Go back to all of the important advice given by parents, family, teachers, co-workers: it’s not intended to avoid death, but to avoid pain. Don’t run with scissors. Don’t pick up the cat by the tail. Don’t stick your fingers in a light socket. Don’t hold firecrackers in your hand and then light them with a sparkler. Unplug the lawn mower spark plug before reaching underneath. Always cook dried beans for a while before eating them. None of these may kill you outright or even quickly, but it’s amazing how mind-searing pain will make you choose differently with subsequent decisions. I’d tell you how I know this, but let’s just say that I had no fingerprints on my right hand between 1984 and 1987. (I won’t even talk about why I avoid New Year’s Eve festivities, considering that one New Year’s Eve 25 years ago led to a slew of bad decisions that cascaded and replicated into the 21st Century. An assemblage of the alternate individuals I’d be today if I’d just stayed home at the end of 1993 could populate a reboot of Orphan Black.)
In lieu of the usual look back on the previous year with hope of learning lessons from it, let’s look at 2019 with the idea that we all learned something from 2018. It doesn’t have to be much, but the desired goal is to note what causes us blinding agony, and, you know, maybe avoiding said agony for the duration of one’s lifespan. If it’s a particularly pertinent lesson, maybe it’ll become impressed into myth and legend: “You see how that person stops everything and silently cries every day at noon for an hour? DON’T DO WHAT THEY DID.” Likewise, if the action or lack thereof led to a significant cessation of pain or even an overload of joy, this deserves at least as much attention.
Numero Uno: It’s time to drop nostalgia. The new book Typeset in the Future: Typography and Design in Science Fiction Movies by Dave Addey came out a couple of weeks ago, and the chapter on the future realism of 2001: A Space Odyssey contained a gem about the videophone shown near the beginning of the film. Bell Telephone had originally premiered the videophone in 1964, with the intention of introducing videophones across the world based on the exceptional response it received at the 1964 World’s Fair. The problem was that the perceived demand didn’t actually exist except among a few executives looking for an excuse to launch it: the alleged ecstatic survey results came from people who attended the World’s Fair, who made their way to the Bell demo, who tried the videophone, and then stated that they’d be willing to pay for video calls if videophones were available. Nobody ran research of how many people would be willing to pay for videophone service who didn’t see the demo at the World’s Fair, or even if they’d run in the other direction and start communicating with carrier pigeons if videophones were the only other option. Bell finally gave up after spending millions of dollars on pushing a videophone solution that just didn’t appeal to any but a very few, and a solution that was a lot more expensive than existing phone options at the time with no obvious must-have bonus. (It’s very telling that Skype and other video apps only took off when the price of a video call dropped to nothing, and when the technology necessary to make said calls was easily folded into other technology that was easy to access and transport.)
That, in a nutshell, summed up a lot of attempts in 2018 to revive events and venues that died in the 1990s. Either it’s easy to forget that the people who keep nagging about reviving a dead venue have no obligation to put down money on it, the people organizing it are so attached to fond memories from decades past that they assume that everyone else must be as into it as they are, or the intended audience has simply grown past or expects more. If more than ten years have gone by between the last time the venue was open and its revival, the odds are pretty good that its original audience is too distracted to notice its return, and training a new audience as to why This Is A Big Deal may take too long. More than 20 years, and the bright young kids that made the event or venue what it was are probably grandparents by now. What appeals to them probably won’t to their grandkids, and any attempt to revive a venue has to take those grandkids into account.
This may be a roundabout way to explain why you shouldn’t expect to see a Triffid Ranch tent at the Woodstock 50th anniversary event next year (mostly because “lectures by noted futurists” bring on horrible flashbacks of being trapped in a broom closet with Bruce Sterling in 1999), but it’s also a warning not to expect to see the tent at other revivals. There’s just not enough of a return, and new events and venues are a lot more fun.
Numero Two-o: Forget Facebook. 2018 was an experiment in getting more word out about Triffid Ranch events and open houses via social media, and the final tally is a resounding “meh.” Sadly, Facebook is the one that’s getting cut out more and more in 2019: the pressure to boost articles on Facebook Pages in order for readers to see them is getting ridiculous, more people are either leaving or cutting back on Facebook because of its much-publicized security and privacy issues, and then there’s the whole problem with trying to gauge commitment based on a medium that has no expectations tied to it. The money spent in 2018 on trying to reach new attendees via Facebook is better spent on signing up for more local shows, and if I want to go with ads again, I’ll go with a more effective medium, like AM radio.
Numero Three-o: Focus on home. The very good news about the gallery is that the move to the current location means that a lot of the perceived stigma of being at Valley View Center is gone. (At least now I no longer get people bellowing “But the mall is going to be torn down!” when I pass on the new address.) Now the trick is to get the word out to people already well-trained to ignore ads. Thankfully, the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex has a simply incredible number of one- and two-day markets and shows scheduled through 2019, so the plan is to set up at as many as weather allows. This includes forays into Austin and Houston as well, because I miss friends, customers, and cohorts south of Dallas.
Number Four-o: Don’t forget the little people. When friends finally get a major return on years of hard work with a new book, a movie deal, or a museum show, I always tell them “Now, don’t forget us little people when you’re accepting your Nobel.” I’m only half-joking: not only do I have faith that they WILL get that Nobel Prize, but it’s a reminder to me. I haven’t spent enough time thanking all of the people and organizations that helped get the Triffid Ranch off the ground and where it is, and 2019 is the year where that goes into overdrive. To everyone who came out to a gallery show, stopped by a booth at one of 2018’s shows, or who simply keeps reading site updates while waiting for a new episode of Starcher Trek, thank you, and I’m going to do my utmost to repay the kindness. Now let’s put 2018 in its grave before it can bite one last time.
When composing and constructing plant enclosures for the Triffid Ranch gallery, a lot of back stories and inside jokes get mixed in. Sometimes, it’s serendipity, with an object with a lot of backstory that just happens to be the perfect inclusion to a new enclosure, and a little voice in the back row says “Let it go, so someone else can appreciate it.” Others are items with so much context that they encourage the construction of the whole arrangement. However, keep an eye open for one particular set of additions, because there’s some sentiment tied to it.
My parents-in-law first moved to their house in the late 1960s, back when Dallas was still just a bit more than a town and long before the oil boom of the 1980s expanded its sprawl in all directions. My wife spent the first days of her life in that house, and grew up not far away from the gallery’s current location. She has all sorts of stories about how the neighborhood changed over the decades, with new people moving in to replace those who moved elsewhere, additions added and removed (she loves telling the story of the neighbors who refused to clean their big sunken pool and thereby deal with the clouds of mosquitoes rising off it every evening, so she introduced bullfrogs that made so much noise that the neighbors took out the pool), walking a succession of Norwegian elkhounds to friends’ houses, and keeping in touch even after moving out on her own. Her story became my own in 2002, including the house hosting our wedding reception. The years went on, with my planting roses I’d grown from cuttings taken from roses planted in front of our own house and neglected. The roses at the original house were cut back too far just before the worst heat wave since 1980: they’re gone, but the cuttings are still in the back yard, throwing off gigantic pink and red blooms to everyone’s delight.
Eventually, though, the story of my in-laws’ time in the house had to end. The house was already too large for them to maintain easily when Caroline and I married, and the tales of my father-in-law installing Christmas lights on the eaves outside went from comedy to incipient terror. Finally, at the end of August, they made the decision to move from the monster house in which they’d resided for a half-century, and moved into a retirement apartment. The house went through the now-inevitable estate sale, and then it went onto the market. We just received word that an offer had been made by a couple that admired it and wanted to keep it as it was and not tear it down for replacement with a McMansion, so we can still drive by from time to time and share our memories. Its actual involvement in our lives, though, is done. As someone who moved a lot both as a kid and as an adult, I had defense mechanisms in place to mourn in my own time, but it’s understandably hit Caroline a lot harder than she thought would happen.
That’s where the Honeymoon Wall comes in. To hear my mother-in-law tell it, her dream with this house was to put a stone wall in the back, a promise she made on her honeymoon. It took a little longer than she planned, and that wall required building an extension declared “the playroom”. The stone came from trips to the Rocky Mountains, ranging from a deep navy igneous rock to a truly stunning light green stone with darker blue veining running through it from all directions. The Honeymoon Wall, once finished, witnessed the family growing, spreading, and reuniting, including our reception, and the chunks of rock that didn’t make the wall were incorporated into edging on a wildflower garden in the center of the back yard. That was the state of affairs until the estate sale was over and the house was vacated for the last time.
Before the house was cleared, all of the extended family was asked about taking everything not needed for the new apartment, and I was asked repeatedly “are you SURE you don’t want anything?” I really didn’t: we had our own furniture and our own keepsakes, but I asked if I could rescue some of the rocks in the back. One included a rather large petrified log found in the Brazos River decades before, and the rest of them were extra Honeymoon Wall pieces. A bit of experimentation revealed that they polished up in a rock tumbler quite nicely: they weren’t gem quality, but the blue stone was mistaken for sodalite, and the green was different enough that it caught almost everyone’s eye.
Now, a month after the estate sale, the experiment goes to its next stage. The idea is to add pieces of those Honeymoon Wall extras, big and small, to new enclosures, starting with “Hoodoo” from October. Those who know the story will recognize and appreciate the bits of Honeymoon Wall as they encounter them, and I hope to be in the business of constructing carnivorous plant enclosures long enough that customers specifically look for the tumbled stones. For everyone else, though, it’s all about the hidden context: they won’t know that the stone in their enclosures had its origins in a wish nearly seventy years old, but I will, and knowing that bits of that wish are spread across the continent is good enough. Selah.
For all of you having to work on Thanksgiving Day in the States, and for those working Black Friday everywhere, a reminder that the movie that popularized today’s theme song premiered 40 years ago. It’s still the best documentary about life in Dallas in the 1980s ever made.
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The response to the new Netflix series The Curious Creations of Christine McConnell, which premiered last weekend, has been interesting. What’s particularly interesting has been the very polarized responses from friends and colleagues whose opinions I respect and often admire. Two friends whose contributions to goth culture in the Nineties were vital in establishing said culture were livid: they were furious as to the overly cutesiness and the attempt to sell creativity to and for the terminally uncreative. Others equally vehemently celebrated a show that was trying its best to be a little dark, but not too dark. Finally, at the bequest of Caroline of Tawanda! Jewelry (and Delenn to my GIR at the gallery), I sat down and watched a few episodes. Not that my opinion means anything at all, but the only issue I had was that so many of the projects looked like video accompaniment to an upcoming book (not that there’s anything wrong with that at all) and had nowhere near enough detail to allow a casual watcher to recreate most of them without additional online help. Then again, neither does The Great British Baking Show, and that’s not why people watch that, either.
What excited me about Curious Creations wasn’t just that so many of us incipient gothlings would have done just about anything for a show like this a quarter-century ago, but that it shows an inherent strength to Netflix. Namely, instead of worrying about its programming playing to Peoria, Netflix management realized that not copying what everyone else is doing in a particular format gets more viewers, not fewer. Combine that with the current trend in comfort viewing that emphasizes creativity and encouragement toward excellence, and we might have the new movement in entertainment for the next decade: getting those curious about a particular artform or art movement moving in the right direction.
If this is more of a trend toward celebrating more gonzo artistry, as the upcoming second season of Curious Creations suggests, then one thing is certain: it’s time to start pitching more shows of this caliber. I can think of two horticulturalists, Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center and Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster, who would be perfect for their own gardening shows, and letting Stewart McPherson travel the world to view carnivorous plants in the wild would be incentive for me to pay for Netflix access for the next five years all by itself. (If nothing else, an all-Amanda Thomsen show has the added novelty of watching her family, including three singing dogs and the world’s most put-upon cat, in action, because they’re ALWAYS entertaining.) Just don’t ask me to pitch a show with my horticultural and social sensibilities to Netflix: it’s already been done.
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Posted onJuly 13, 2018|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn
“20 percent chance of rain,” I said. “Weather radar shows nothing,” I said. “Clouds coming up, but they’ll burn off before they get to me,” I said. “If it starts raining, it’ll be over right away,” I said. “The gutters are overflowing, but the water won’t get above my bicycle’s axles,” I said.
And it keeps coming. Want to get an idea of how intense one of Dallas’s admittedly rare summer rainstorms can be? This isn’t a fire hydrant. This is the downspout for a strip mall rain gutter, about 15 minutes after the rain started, and about an hour before the rain ended.
All in all, considering how badly we needed the rain, every last drop counted. Best of all, the nearly 10 centimeters we got will roil up the Trinity River, stirring up the anoxic muds responsible for the hydrogen sulfide fug that distinguishes downtown Dallas most summers. For a couple of days at least, Dallas is going to smell PURTY.
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It’s been…interesting around the gallery this last week, mostly because the focus is on having everything ready for Texas Frightmare Weekend next week. (I’ve been joking that the response to the phrase “We’re a week away from Frightmare!” is enthusiastic cheering from the attendees, cries of “Once more into the breach, once more!” from the staff, and a sustained Brown Note from the vendors.) Everything is coming through so far, so here are a few photos of the blooms in the Sarracenia pools as they emerge from winter dormancy:
And a little extra in order to demonstrate that carnivorous plants aren’t a dependable form of insect control. This little corner of North Texas is becoming an enclave of the longhorn crazy ant, and they’re doing quite well in disturbed areas such as suburbs. The last two months have been a rush of insect controls such as orange oil drenches, to which they respond by moving their mounds a few meters away and starting fresh. Well, apparently they’ve discovered Sarracenia nectar, both in blooms and in traps, and it’s not turning out well for the little junkies:
The Sarracenia are benefiting for the moment: a percentage of the nectar-slurpers will fall in and feed the plant. However, each pitcher catching five or six per day does nothing for the hundreds of thousands or even millions back in the original nest, so about the only sure way to take out the nest involves art. And so it goes.
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.
As mentioned a couple of weeks back, things have been a little crazy around the Triffid Ranch, and not just because we went from rainstorms that would have stunned Gilgamesh to classic North Texas Hot’n’Dry with nary a transition. Details will follow very soon, but the upshot is that the Triffid Ranch outgrew its origins, and it’s time to evolve. Best of all, that evolution involves air conditioning.
I’m regularly asked by friends from outside Texas as to why I stay in the Dallas area. After all, Texas’s governor is a joke, Dallas doesn’t have a great historical reputation, and the city is entirely too close to Lewisville. Of course, McMurdo Station is too close to Lewisville. I stay because while so many other great cities of the world have so much to offer, Dallas is the only place I know where I can get up before dawn to go to the Day Job, wait at a train station for a transfer, and watch, in the day’s first light, giant robots with guitar necks for heads tromping through the city. With that sort of spectacle, how could you leave?
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Posted onJuly 6, 2014|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn, the Saladin Ahmed Edition
At the new Day Job, the relationship with my co-workers is still new enough that an idle conversation on any subject other than “so how was the weekend?” tends to veer off into “And how do you know this?” territory pretty quickly. At my age, it’s not as bad as it used to be: not only do co-workers expect at least a few interesting stories from anyone pushing 50, but the statute of limitations now usually applies to the better ones. Also, many of them are funny or at least curious now, but the old saw about how “comedy is tragedy that happens to other people” also applies when enough time has gone by that the stump no longer aches on cold rainy nights. Even so, some casual discourse still leads to my supervisor looking at me with that expression that says she’s looking for a convenient garbage can if in case she gets sick right then and there, and I have to remind myself that “C’mon, it isn’t THAT bad” isn’t always a suitable defense.
Even with the much more mundane stories, context and backstory is everything, as my writer friends often discover. Sometimes, the backstory becomes a bit of incipoient head explodey, as Saladin Ahmed discovered last week.
I’m going to go into further discussion on Saladin later this week, as his hugely enjoyable first novel Throne of the Crescent Moon made me consider how underutilized conventional and magical gardens are in contemporary fantasy novels and stories. His style and scope are regularly compared to that of the late Fritz Leiber, and I regularly joke with Saladin that, to quote another Texan, I knew Fritz Leiber and Saladin’s no Fritz Leiiber. HowEVER, I could see the two of them off in the corner at a conference or convention, gleefully comparing notes and asking “By the way, have you read this?” until they were kicked out for scaring the cleaning crew. (Me, partisan? You bet. Saladin was born not far away from where I was, and we Michigan kids stick together.)
Anyway, one of Saladin’s many interests is on how imagery from science fiction, comics, and role-playing games ends up in popular culture, and he recently shared via Twitter a collection of punk band flyers using classic Dungeons && Dragons illustrations. I could have told him about my adventures with introducing the Dallas skateboarding community to Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life in 1992, directly leading to seemingly half of the band flyers in the city featuring the denizens of the Burgess Shale. Instead, since it was related to the subject at hand, I let him know that one of the remaining artifacts of my sordid youth still in my possession had more of a direct connection than he realized.
As mentioned, backstory is everything. At the end of 1987, I was a feckless twentysomething first encountering music that wasn’t in saturation airplay on our local AOR radio stations, and had become hooked on the backlist of famed Austin proto-punk legends The Butthole Surfers. Right about the time I started a new job at Texas Instruments, word got out that the Surfers were going to play at the Arcadia Theater, the famed and long-cremated live music venue on Dallas’s Greenville Avenue, and precious few things mattered to me more at that point than getting to the concert. Tickets were cheap, getting down to the Arcadia wasn’t as big a deal as they would be to someone who hadn’t already bicycled the length and breadth of the city, and the new job meant that the other bills were covered. And that’s when everything cratered. My roommate (now the famed glass artist Robert Whitus of Drink With The Living Dead) had a family crisis that required his moving back home, a slight bout of bronchitis that required a trip to the ER stripped out the extra funds, and working nights at Texas Instruments meant that there was no blasted way I could get that day off to hit a Surfers concert. Paul was a very sad boy, but he soldiered through, swearing that he was going to catch another Butthole Surfers show at another time.
(As it turned out, it never happened, but not for a lack of trying. When a big show promoting the album Independent Worm Saloon in 1993 was rained out in a nearly catastrophic thunderstorm that threatened to electrocute everyone on the stage, I took it as a sign that it simply wasn’t going to be. And wouldn’t you know that the rescheduled show conflicted with yet another new job, and I couldn’t even find anybody at the last minute to buy the tickets? I still have them around the house somewhere…)
Fast forward over two decades, to me wandering through the flagship Half Price Books store, up the road from where the Arcadia used to reside before it burned down in 2005. I can’t tell you why I started poking through that New Arrivals cart, but peeking from inside a box was a flyer from that very Butthole Surfers show that I missed. My own flyer had gone the way of all concert promotional material, but here was one in nearly pristine condition.
Now, its method of preservation also explained why I couldn’t just take it or just pay for the flyer and leave everything else. That flyer had been stuck inside a box for the last twenty years, where it had acted as a character sheet for a role-playing game. Specifically, it was a character sheet for the long-out-of-print TSR science fiction game Star Frontiers. If I wanted the flyer, I had to buy the whole game, and the stern crew at Half Price wasn’t about to let me get out of there without the full monty.
Now, that would have been enough of a solved mystery for the crew handling my estate sale, asking “Why the hell did he have this?” I haven’t bothered with gaming since I was in high school (although I used to paint lead miniatures for gifts for friends all the way up until about 1994), so it’s not like I had a stockpile of old games or something. Saladin’s notes about band flyers and role-playing games, though, made me want to get this out to the general public. Somewhere, someplace, is some fortysomething punk whose day is going to be made by a friend telling him “You remember that Dralasite character you used to play back in the Eighties? Well, he’s ONLINE!”
And to add to the embarrassment, I’m sending Saladin the whole game pack, flyer and all. He’ll probably have a blast of belated nostalgia going through the game rules. If he decides to auction off the flyer, though, he’ll probably pay off his kids’ college fund. I think Sludge the Dralasite would want it that way.
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It’s my firm belief that almost any holiday can be improved by adding a touch of Halloween to it. Christmas? Already been done, to great effect. Easter? Well, the man did say “This is my body: take of it and eat.” Arbor Day? That’s any given day in the Triffid Ranch greenhouse. There are limits: Veteran’s Day in the US and ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. However, the ones generally labeled “overly commercial” can be amped up quite a bit by adding a touch of darkness at the right time, under the right circumstances.
One of the best in that category is St. Valentine’s Day, and not just because of roses and chocolate. Go out tonight and stare up into that absolutely magnificent full moon starting to rise this evening, and just tell me that you don’t have the urge to take after one of the most famed unorthodox yet incredibly devoted couples in movie and television history:
First, the congratulations. Old and dear friend Dave Hutchinson just saw his latest book, Europe in Autumn, published on both sides of the Atlantic. Considering that we’ve been commiserating over the state of journalistic careers on both shores for the better part of a decade, and he was sufficiently bereft of sense, taste, and sanity to buy my last book, the least I could do is pass on word. After all, he’s had to put up with me for a significant portion of the 21st Century so far, and that’s something that nobody should do without access to strong drink or electroshock therapy.
Anyway, it’s also time to remind him of why he worries about my coming to visit unbidden. As in his walking out of his house into the garden and tripping over my sleeping body on the front steps, with a big sign taped to my back reading “PLEASE TAKE ME IN”. Poor Dave already believes that Texas is a deathworld writ large, and he refuses to spell it out in correspondence. I tell him about armadillos, horned toads, mockingbirds, and coyotes, and he merely refers to my home as “Australia Lite”. More than fair: he’d last about five minutes outside of the United Kingdom anyway, and if he came here, he’d have to be wheeled around in a armored bubble like some deformed hamster, just to protect him from the mosquitoes and horseflies. Well, that and the mountain lions: I didn’t tell him about the mountain lions that sleep in the streets of Fort Worth.
Anyway, to celebrate his new book, I realized that I need to put together a package for him, and I told him so. I could hear the shudder of revulsion and horror from here. You’d think that we had chainsaw duels in the middle of downtown Dallas or something. (Well, we do, but only when fighting over prime parking spots on Friday nights. We’re not barbarians.) And this is why I figure it’s time to send him a collection of Texas ephemera, unique in its power to make him glibber and meep just a touch more in his sleep. The trick isn’t just to play on his fears that Texas is as bad as he suspects, but to go waaaaaay past those fears and burn Hank Hill cameos into his corpus callosum. This might take some effort.
Well, I’ve already found the first item, after the Czarina needed to make a trip out to the famed Turner Hardware. For those not familiar, this is the other Dallas icon named “Turner,” and not quite the force of nature as the other. (If we ever get Dave out here, this is someone I plan for him to meet, by the way. How often do you get the chance to meet the guy who justifiably beat the hell out of Kurt Cobain?) That said, we have the perfect garden decoration for Dave, absolutely guaranteed to keep his guests talking about him…and looking for easily-accessible sedatives. I could even tell those guests “Of course they’re real. How do you think we keep the horseflies from stealing the children out of the back yard?”
Well, this is a start, and a pile of swag that both Turners would be glad to assist in increasing. Now to find a rattlesnake ashtray…
Posted onFebruary 5, 2014|Comments Off on “If I owned Texas and Hell, I’d rent out Texas and live in Hell.”
Last week’s horrendous ice storm hitting the Southeast US missed most of North Texas, giving us a few scares but not inflicting any serious damage upon the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. We also missed out on the predicted icestorm coming through the area in time for Super Bowl Sunday, and even if we had, everyone was already prepared. We got some desperately needed rain last Sunday and on Tuesday morning, but the sleetstorm passed to the north, and we weren’t subjected to last-minute panics of idjits sliding around Dallas highways crying “I need to buy the bread and milk and hot wings!”
No, our problem is that, for North Texas, this is the Winter That Just Won’t Shut Up. We get bouts of seriously cold weather, yes, and usually right about now. For instance, we had the record snowfall in February 2010: for us, 12 inches of snow was “record”, but that’s to be expected. We also had the horrible ice storm and week of deep cold in February 2011, just in time for the big Super Bowl game hosted at the new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. In 2012, though, we practically had a year without a winter, as we skirted freezing temperatures but never really went over. That was the late winter where the dogwood and quince trees started blooming in late February, and we all waited for a last-minute ice storm that, thankfully, never came through.
This winter, though, hasn’t been particularly abusive since the Icepocalypse in December. No major storms since then, no major power outages, and no glass-slick highways. The problem, though, is that we regularly and consistently go well below freezing almost every night, and have done so at least twice per week since the middle of December. I’ve now been in Texas for a third of a century and I’ve never seen a winter quite like this, and my mother-in-law, who keeps up with these things, can’t remember a winter like this in all of her time in Texas, either. Considering that she’s a native, I trust her assessment.
In the meantime, all Texans have one thing in common, no matter their political, economic, social, or educational backgrounds, and that’s our ability to kvetch about the weather. Some joke that we should make it into an Olympic sport, but our skill at complaining about inevitability means that nobody else could come close. It’s like entering the SpaceX Dragon in the bicycle race, and then wondering why the silver and bronze winners had such lousy times. And with a winter like this, we’re currently stomping the pros. After two months of cold, nasty, depressing weather, we’re starting to sound like Chicagoans, and that’s saying something.
The real worry? We’re whimpering and snuffling and grumbling now about how cold it is, and how we can’t wait until summer. Oh, woe, we’ll never thaw out! Misery, despair, high heating bills! WhatEVER will we do? I worry because we’re only four months away from the beginning of summer, and even the most vile Texas winter is a kiss compared to the blasting nightmare waiting for us in June and July. And I’m not looking forward to the pterosaur rookery impersonation coming from legions of maroons just waiting to tell each other, and anybody they can catch, “It’s HOT!” all through August.
So, yeah, go ahead and sing your select cuts from the Frozen soundtrack. Have fun. I can tell you what to expect for a soundtrack in July, and you aren’t going to like it:
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