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

“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.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

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.

2020: The Year That Stretches

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

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

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

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

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

Art credit: Amanda “Shinga” Bussell

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

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

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

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

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

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:

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Canada Day

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

100 Years of Ray Harryhausen

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

Upcoming Projects: Screen Tests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome To Your Career In The Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 3

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

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

Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 2

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

To be continued…

Bluebonnet Season 2020 – 1

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

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

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

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

To be continued…

Have a Safe April 1

No jokes, no japes, no pranks, not so much as a pun. We don’t need that today. I tried that a quarter-century ago as of today, and look how that turned out.

COVID-19 Schedule Changes

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.

On 2019

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.

Tornado update

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.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

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.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

Clarkesworld magazine - March 2019

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.

Have a Great 2019


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.

Just Planting Seeds

For your consideration:

Personal Interlude: The Honeymoon Wall

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.

When There’s No More Room In Hell…

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.

Musical Interlude

One of the many inspirations for the gallery and what we’re doing died 25 years ago today, so it’s particularly appropriate to doff hats and remember Vincent Price. If not for an NBC broadcast of a documentary on carnivorous plants narrated by Price, my life would have turned out very differently.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn

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.

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.

Interlude: Sarracenia Blooms

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.

Buy the ticket, take the ride


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 Annihilation comes 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.

But.

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.

More hints

Oztopus mural

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 living in my own private Tanelorn

Deep Ellum robot

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?

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.

Butthole Surfers flyer

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.

Star Frontiers character sheet

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!”

Star Frontiers character sheet

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.

Another Day, Another Mind-Shredding Horror From Beyond

Moon Over Garland

Yes, yes, today is a Friday the 13th, and yes, we have a full moon this morning. So will one cancel out the other?

“Let’s go dark, and see what we find…”

Winter moon

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:

(Well, okay, so our relationship is a bit closer to this, but that can’t be helped.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to pick up the Czarina and take her out to dinner. That full moon isn’t the only sight of uncommon beauty around here.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

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?”

Shotgun shell lights

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

“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:

Taking Out Some Guy

A little interlude. Every one of us has a nemesis, an irritation that makes a person want to recreate the last ten minutes of a Sam Peckinpah or George Romero film. I am just like you. I know one person that gets me roiled to the point of contemplated murder. This is an individual whom, if I ever get in a situation where I’m alone with him for more than five minutes, I’m going to do horrible things to him. First, it’s a matter of nailing his feet to the floor, without taking off his shoes first, and soaking him with a fire hose full of pepper spray. Then it’s time to take off his arms with an angle grinder and cauterize the stumps with a blowtorch. Then I’m going to rig him up with his eyes held open, in front of one of those portable DVD players, A Clockwork Orange-style, and leave him there with the William Shatner movie Free Enterprise running over and over. When I come back in a month, then I’m going to get mean.

It wasn’t always like this. Twenty years ago, I was blissfully unaware of my nemesis. But he kept pushing it. He went out of his way to drive me to this state, and when I take out his tongue and fill the space in his mouth with fire ants, I plan to remind him of this. Slowly. Carefully. With the understanding that it didn’t need to come to this, but he was so damn determined.

My first exposure to him came in the early Nineties. I was dating an ER nurse, and she told me about him. At least once per day, as often as ten on a weekend night, they’d get some poor schlub with gunshot wounds, stab wounds, or a fireplace poker fitted rectally, and they all had the same story. “I was on my porch, minding my own business, when Some Guy came up out of nowhere and shot/stabbed/sodomized me and then took off. No, I don’t know who Some Guy is, and I can’t ID him.” At first, I thought she was joking, considering the amount of stress she was in, and then EMT techs told me the same thing. A few trips to the ER on my own for various reasons, and I even heard it: Some Guy, over and over. He’d come in, wound with impunity, and disappear like the protagonist in the film Bruiser, over and over and over.

At that time, though, he hadn’t actually committed any offense against me. Sure, he inconvenienced my girlfriend, but she claimed she was used to it by now. In a way, Some Guy gave her job security, because the paperwork was less. “Cause of Injury: Some Guy”.

That didn’t last long. Shortly afterward, I started working as a clerk for ITT Hartford’s Worker’s Comp division, and I had to clean up his messes. “Some Guy tripped me at work.” “Some Guy left spilled vegetable oil all over the floor, and I threw out my back slipping on it.” “Some Guy told me that if the adjuster denied my claim, I should camp out in the building stairwell all weekend and confront the adjuster firsthand when she gets into the office on Monday.” It was obvious that Some Guy moonlighted in the building, too, as when a supervisor told us all that comparing notes as to which of us got a raise was grounds for termination, in blatant violation of the Labor Act of 1936. When asked who told her that this was grounds for termination, she answered “Some Guy in Legal.”

Ah, so no wonder Some Guy kept getting away with popping caps in asses. He was a lawyer, so he knew his way around the legal system. Certainly, calling the police and telling the dispatcher “You know, Some Guy works in my office” got no response, so I wrote it off. Some Guy can’t be everywhere, can he?

Ah, but he was. I went from that office to a weekly newspaper, and found that I couldn’t be hired on full-time because they needed to do so for the “humor” columnist. Said alleged humorist was extremely popular according to the editor, based on the fan letters and E-mails received, and they all came from Some Guy. Some Guy even wrote those letters in the editor’s handwriting and with the editor’s IP address, to throw everyone off the scent. I took another job in Portland, Oregon, based on recommendations from friends about how great Portland was. Once I escaped eighteen months later, I asked “Have you ever been to Portland?”

“No, but I was told that it was a great place.”
“And who told you this?”
“Some Guy.”

It just kept getting better and better. After moving back to Texas, Some Guy really had it out for me. My phone number had belonged to a drug rehab center that had shut down five years earlier, and for the next five years I had that phone number, I was awakened at all hours by people calling up asking “Is this Darco Drug Labs?” When I’d ask who gave them this number, the answer was almost always the same: You Know Who. When the answer wasn’t “Some Guy,” I’d get a contact number for the facility, church, or Narcotics Anonymous sponsor who passed on the number, and I’d ask them where they got it. Three guesses as to the person who supplied it.

After a while, I realized that Some Guy didn’t have it out just for me. He had it out for all of humanity, with a deep and obsessive hatred of the entire species. Talk to anybody who works in retail. “Some Guy told me that your manager will give me a discount if I ask for it.” “Some Guy left me a big box full of samples for free, and if you don’t give them to me, I’ll sue.” “Well, Some Guy told me that I can keep anacondas in a ten-gallon fishtank, and all I have to do is not feed them so much so they’ll stay small.” “I can’t believe it. Some Guy told me that you had a bottle of wine that nobody else has ever heard of and doesn’t show up in your inventory database, so you’d better find it NOW.” Talk to anybody who works a Customer Service phone center, and they’ll tell you not just what they’ll do to Some Guy when he’s caught, but how they’ll set the corpse on fire and sow the ashes with salt to prevent him from coming back.

And why do I bring all of this up? At least four times this week, I’ve been contacted by people seeking to buy a Venus flytrap. Not a problem there in the slightest, but then they tell me “We’ve got a problem with mosquitoes in our back yard, and we want to get a flytrap to eat them all.”

“Huh. Interesting. You do know that flytraps generally don’t catch mosquitoes, and even when they do, they actually attract them, don’t you?”

“That’s not what I’ve heard. Someone told me that one plant will eat all of my mosquitoes.”

“And who told you this?”

“Some Guy.”

Yeah. I think I’m going to skip out on the fire ants and the angle grinder. I just need to find out where I can rent a sausage grinder and a cubic meter of live rats. I’m going to keep the DVD player right there, though, because some people are so foul that they deserve the worst punishments imaginable.

You never smell the one that kills you

In other developments, I’d like to point out that I’m dying. It’s slow and methodical, and it’s too late for treatment. In fact, it’s so nasty that I wouldn’t wish this on several ex-bosses. Slow strangulation, gasping for breath, various discharges that point to severe reactions…and the best part is that I have photos of my murderers. Some people should be so lucky.

Sweet peas

Sweet peas

sweet peas

Bluebonnets

Bluebonnets

Whatever you do, don’t be complacent the way I was. Just rip those lungs out, get gill slits implanted, and spend the rest of the summer on the bottom of a swimming pool. *death rattle*

“If You Go To Z’Ha’Dum, Don’t Forget To Flush”

I have to thank Sid Raisch of Advantage Development System on a regular basis anyway, because he’s constantly coming across new angles for small horticultural businesses. He and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, either in politics or in horticultural concepts, but I’m damn glad that he’s there to keep me honest. I’m even more glad to know him because of some of the oddness he brings to the conversation.

For instance, Sid is probably one of the only people in the plant trade watching the potential for 3-D printing in the business. 3-D printing is finally leaving the domain of thirtysomethings making toys all day, and becoming an exceedingly valuable prototyping tool. To that end, Sid had to share a piece on 3-D printed planter bricks, produced by Emerging Objects out of Oakland. The concept as presented by Emerging Objects isn’t just to incorporate vertical gardens into new buildings, but to offer multiple methods to keep them going.

From a Texas perspective, I’m rather skeptical of the idea without actually holding one of these printed ceramic bricks and field-testing it. Oh, it sounds great, especially for small walls. And then you consider the incredible hyrdraulic pressures of most plant roots, and how any plant root that can get through a microscopic crack in any surface will. Then there’s the problems with trying to replace the planter bricks as they wear out or get damaged. And then you remember how easily a really good Dallas hailstorm would turn a building facade constructed of these into one big shrapnel bomb. Or how a typical gullywasher storm would flood out most of these. Or, as my friend Amie Spengler brought up, do you really want to be the person assigned to refill all of these planter bricks?

Emerging Objects 3-D planter bricks

Courtesy of Emerging Objects, by way of Urban Gardens

Aside from those concerns, I have a really big one. A lot of the aforementioned problems could be mitigated by setting these bricks in an indoor environment. It’s just that I spent far too much of my childhood hanging out with science fiction people, so I see these samples and think “Now I know what the restrooms on Babylon 5 look like.” It just gets worse from there: “I’ll be right back. I gotta hit the head…erm, gall bladder…um, xiphoid process…forget it. I can hold it.”

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn: Tax Day

Here in the US, our Tax Day is April 15, and the Czarina and I are glad to have ours done and out a month early. State sales taxes are due next month, and I already have that under control, too. However, I found myself quoting Dylan Moran quite a bit while getting everything in order.

For those unfamiliar with this scenario, this scene comes from the first episode of the brilliant Britcom Black Books, starring Dylan Moran, Tamsin Grieg, and Nepenthes namesake Bill Bailey. In particular, anybody who has ever worked in a bookstore or comic shop can appreciate the basic premise: in my case, I worked for the comics industry equivalent of Bernard Black when I lived in Wisconsin in 1986.

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Cormorants

Considering how crazy March promises to be, let’s look upon the wonders of the February just past. Namely, with photos of cormorants in the big artificial lake separating the Arlington Convention Center with whatever they’re calling the Texas Rangers ballpark this week.

Solo cormorant

Cormorant chick

Cormorant group

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

Daffodils

I can’t speak for everywhere else, but it’s been obvious for a while that Punxatawney Phil is a Texan. The daffodils are already out in force, and the peach trees have their first glimmerings of blooms…let’s just hope we don’t have a last-minute snowstorm the way we did in 2010, eh?

“You want out of here? You talk to me, eh?”

Show season advances, which requires trips for essential supplies. During one of those trips, I discovered that one of my local Target stores was expecting a much colder winter than what we’ve received in Dallas so far. Either the manager expected a repeat of the record snowstorm of 2010 or the week-long ice storm of 2011, or s/he came to Dallas from a much higher latitude. Either way, the collection of deeply-discounted winter survival gear brought back lots of memories of my childhood in Michigan.

Ice cleats

For the record, when you need them, removable ice cleats are a godsend in Dallas. Unfortunately, you might only need them for a grand total of three days every ten years or so.

Ice maces

And then there were the all-in-one ice scrapers, complete with handles to assist with getting enough torque to take off inches or even feet of rime. I was half-tempted to buy one of these and strap it to the side of my bicycle pack, but the Czarina, as usual, expressed the voice of reason. Voice of reason, voice of doom, it’s all the same with her.

Head of an ice mace

Oh, that was just the beginning. Heavy steel multi-use scrapers for breaking ice off sidewalks and driveways. Standard scrapers with fur-lined gloves sewn around them. Heat packs. Wind visors. It suddenly occurred to me that nobody’s made the definitive Canadian post-apocalyptic road movie, something along the lines of “Depressed Doug”. Or had someone made it after all?

A glimpse from the vaults

Thanksgiving rainbow

Thanksgiving rainbow

A little treat from the archives. One of the reasons why I keep returning to Texas every time I leave? It’s not just because of the intense rainbows when we get our classic gullywasher storms. It’s not that we regularly get double and sometimes triple rainbows during those storms. It’s that these photos were taken on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Rainbows instead of snowstorms? Yes, thank you.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

I’m starting to worry about the Czarina. Something’s wrong with her. For the last few days, she’s been oddly…agreeable. Since I, like Bill Cosby’s kids, cannot sleep through the night unless I’ve had a good beating, a few suggestions on garden ornamentation are usually enough to guarantee that I’m completely unconscious for twelve hours or more at a time. That could be the concussion talking, too, but I like to think it’s because I made particularly good suggestions.

However, I guess the dent in the top of my head left by her sharp elbows has made her remarkably sympathetic. Either that, or she’s worried that the top of my skull can double as a guacamole bowl, and she hates guacamole. (Hey, she puts up with my multiple foibles, including that horrible deformed tumor atop my neck, so I give her no grief about her one flaw.) The first sign was that she revoked a longrunning ban on new citrus. For years, she insisted that I was only allowed two citrus trees for my own personal use. If I felt so inclined to sell them, she stated, she was fine, but if they were staying, TWO. Only TWO. I kept that promise, sticking to a Rio Star ruby red grapefruit I grew from seed and a Buddha’s Hand citron. Now, though, she comes to me unbidden and asks “How hard would it be to raise a Mexican lime tree so we can make Key lime pie?”

You know, some guys would take horrible advantage of their wives being in such a flexible state, and she regularly thanks Crom, Issek, and Nyarlathotep that I have no interest in football or other pro sports. Instead, I brought her out to the local garden center and picked out a beautiful little Mexican lime tree of her very own, and a new “Pink Lemonade” blueberry bush to replace the one the drought took out last summer for myself. I wasn’t worried about her, but I was concerned.

Now, though, I’m worried. Under most circumstances, any suggestion of outre front yard ornamentation would bring on her impersonations of Tomoe Gozen. However, I showed her a lovely photo archive of the lawn dinosaur Dug the T-Rex, and she actually asked “Is this something you’re wanting to do for the front yard?”

Yes, I’m taking her to the doctor. That’s after I cover the entire back yard with greenhouse polycarbonate and turn it into a Nepenthes nursery. When will an opportunity like this come again?

So much for the Earth-shattering kaboom

It’s December 21, and nothing happened this morning. You’re welcome. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to take a shower, get some sleep, and try to find a replacement Red Lantern ring. Mine burned out last night. And for those who were expecting everything to fall apart today, a word from one of my childhood role models:

“Awww, but I wanted to explode.”

As longtime readers have noted, my interest in horticultural robots goes way back, and I’m impressed by the news of Willoway Nursery in Ohio using robots to move plants back and forth in the greenhouse and nursery yard. I personally like the idea, and would do this with the Triffid Ranch as soon as they’re practical.

My only fear doesn’t involve horticultural robots going berserk, or even their going through their routines with a Joan Baez soundtrack in the background. My fear involves having lots of friends who are more devilishly inventive than I’ll ever be, and having much more programming experience than I’ll ever have. I have no problems with robots letting me know what they really think. It’s when they want to be like me that I have issues.

The Charlie Brown Tree That Time Forgot

Norfolk Island Charlie Brown tree

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

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

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

triceratops_light

triceratops_ornament

bronto_ornament

stego_light

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

tree_topper

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

tree-ensemble

Look: the Spirit of New Year’s Eve.

uncle_duke

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

triffid_ranch_elf