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

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.