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

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.