It’s cold and windy out, and we’re looking at the very good likelihood of snow next week. Believe it or not, Dallas has better weather than a lot of places further south and east: after reading about how badly Atlanta was iced over yesterday, I don’t have the heart to check on the current conditions in Tallahassee. All I can offer is sympathy, offers of help, and photos of the sailfin lizard at Moody Gardens in Galveston to remind us all of warmer times. In six months, I’ll probably hate myself for waxing nostalgic for summer, but that’s six months from now.
And as an extra, current work both with plants and with web site couldn’t be possible without a substantial donation of music from Ego Likeness and Hopeful Machines, and I’m currently awaiting the upcoming Ego Likeness album Stoneburner. Those who recognize the reference might understand why Steven Archer got me cackling with an offhand comment about how “the slow loris penetrates the shield“. Now he’s got me thinking of a story to go with that, the bum.
I was taught at an early age that vacation trips should always be to see things that you couldn’t experience at home. Fair and good, but wholly inadequate in some circumstances. In this case, trying to get decent photos of Moody Gardens’s resident vampire bats, I learned a lot more than just the problems of photographing darkness-loving animals in low-light conditions. This little guy spent his entire time under the tinted lights in his enclosure giving me the most horrible look of disdain and contempt, occasionally popping up to snort at me before returning to grooming himself
And then there were these two, alternating between nuzzling each other and excitedly chittering at each other in what I would have sworn was laughter. A five-hour drive to Galveston, and I could have had the same experience at home.
Every relationship thrives on the little moments, when you see your loved one in his or her true light. For me, there’s nothing more exciting than watching that little vein in the middle of my beloved’s forehead throb with exasperation, usually when I make some innocent suggestion. For instance, telling her “Did you know that Moody Gardens has a crocodile monitor on display?” makes it pulse like the lights in a techno nightclub, because she knows what’s next. Namely, three dozen photos while I ask her “And how could you say ‘No’ to that cute widdle face? I mean, it’s like a big scaly cat, and I’m sure we could tame it down. We could even let it sleep at the foot of the bed like one.” That’s usually when the pulsing stops, and I can hear the sound of her Elbows of Doom as they slide out of their sheathes and drool venom on the carpet. And now you know why we’ve been together for the last 11 years, because there’s no way I could ever get tired of that sort of excitement.
After a chat with some of the reptile keepers at Moody Gardens, I discovered that they have a tradition for naming many of the reptiles. All of the venomous snakes in the facility, ranging from bushmasters to Gaboon vipers, have names after flowers, such as “Daffodil” and “Tulip”. The crocodile monitor, though, is named “Mr. Awesome,” and it’s only partly sardonic. The Gardens use stout nets to keep many of their animals in one place while also allowing good air circulation, and Mr. Awesome spends most of his time testing every last space on the net to see if he can get out. He’s particularly studious when kids walk by, and I can only imagine how industrious he is about trying to escape when the net opens for feeding or cleaning. Everybody should have a Mr. Awesome in their lives, don’t you think?
The longer I work with carnivorous plants, the more I appreciate the merits of the whole plant, not just the structures used for capturing insect prey. Yes, the pitchers on a Sarracenia pitcher plant are beautiful and exotic, but there’s an equal beauty in the blooms and rhizomes, and further beauty in the plant’s entire life cycle over the space of the year. To understand the plant, you have to view it over its entire growing season, from spring budding to final winter dieback, and not just focus on one tiny part of the life cycle. Don’t take the time to check on the pitcher plant over the entire year, and you miss a lot of the inherent beauty because you’re only focusing on its prime insect-catching period.
This applies to many other plants, including a plant famous for its blooms. The titan arum, Amorphophallus titanum, is best known for its gigantic and foul-smelling flowers, which are rare enough to be newsworthy. When a titan arum in a big greenhouse starts to flower, news crews and general bystanders converge on the flowers much like the flies needed for their pollination. But how many people look at the rest of the plant after the bloom shrivels and dies?
That’s why I have a special love for the extensive crew managing the Rainforest Pyramid at Moody Gardens in Galveston, because they understand this, too. Sure, they could make a big deal about a new A. titanum bloom, but what about the majesty of the full-grown plant?
In most displays of this type, the emphasis is usually on the animals, with the plants being not much more than background. This is completely understandable: we humans in particular and we mammals in general are the end-result of millions of years of pattern recognition encouragement. In most cases, we not only ignore the majority of the flora surrounding the occasional bit of fauna, but we actively block out the flora unless it directly affects us. Think about the last time you went for a walk in woodlands: seeing a toad crossing the path made more of an impression than the trees surrounding that path, didn’t it?
The Moody Gardens titan arum is near the center of the pyramid, and easily accessible when navigating the trails meandering along its floor. The branches stretch well overhead, but the trunk is close enough to touch. Strangely, nobody does: it almost seems disrespectful to do so. Just getting the chance to see a fully-grown titan arum is fascinating enough, but to stand underneath one and view the underside of the foliage…that I could do for hours.
Compared to typical winter temperatures further north, Texas winter temperatures are relatively balmy, and they improve the closer one gets to the Gulf of Mexico. Between the warm waters of the Gulf and the proximity to the equator, Galveston might see temperatures approaching freezing with the very occasional cold front. In fact, as we left, the island faced its first hard freeze since the famed freeze of 1983, which actually froze the ocean close to shore. Even under normal temperatures, it’s a little too chilly for amphibians such as tree frogs or salamanders, but a few hardy reptiles might still be wandering around, basking in spaces protected from north winds and taking advantage of the occasional insect.
Such was the surprise when trying to get photos of a split in a palm’s base at Moody Gardens by the main entrance. Many of the more common species of palm in Galveston produce fingerlike root buds when the crown of the base is exposed, presumably to help anchor the tree further during hurricanes, and the split in one was particularly interesting. As I focused, I noticed a pedestrian on the side, watching me but not having any particular interest in moving unless absolutely necessary.
As it turned out, this was a female brown anole (Anolis sagrei), related to the green anoles found in Dallas. Since they’re much less tolerant of cold than A. carolinensis, they’re mostly found around Houston and San Antonio, so this wasn’t too surprising, but it was still a nice diversion.
The bigger surprise came literally at my feet. I was on a concrete walkway running parallel to the outside of the building, and a woman coming down the walkway warned me not to step on the lizard right behind me. I turned to see a big male brown anole on the walkway, and noticed that he was too chilled to climb the sides to escape. It took a couple of tries to snag him, but once he realized that I wasn’t planning to eat or injure him, he stayed on my hand and soaked up the warmth. The only problem was being intensely right-handed with a camera best used by a rightie, with a lizard propped in my dominant hand, trying to get a photo before he jumped off. While it was a wrangle, he stayed right there, posing and basking, and he finally only jumped off when I brought him to the trunk of that original palm and coaxed him off.
Considering the cold later that night, I don’t assume that I saved this lizard’s life, but I definitely improved the odds that he wouldn’t be snapped up by a bird or stepped on by a passerby. That’s about all you can do.
Making the nearly five-hour drive between Dallas and Galveston, two discrepancies make themselves readily apparent. The first is going through the town of Ennis, where apparently the city ordinances don’t allow its local strip clubs to advertise themselves as featuring nude entertainment, leaving a whole line of establishments promoting “fabric-free cabarets”. The other is that while the Houston area has a paucity of naturally growing palm trees in the area, I suspect that local ordinances require every restaurant and retail establishment to plant at least one palm out front. The closer you get to Galveston, the more palms line the sides of Highway I-45 until you actually get to the Gulf coast. The coast then goes to salt marsh and flats, and the palms start up again after crossing the bridge from the mainland to Galveston Island.
Out at Moody Gardens, that theme continues, as the climate is perfect for several species. It’s also perfect for cycads, philodendrons, and, interestingly enough, roses, and they’re planted lushly and profusely around the Moody Gardens hotel grounds. The palms, though, dominate everything, with plenty of ferns, epiphyte orchids, and other flora growing in the crowns, and the attendant flora comes with fauna. Birds are the most obvious, and it was a little too cold to see amphibians, but a few reptiles were still around, and those will be featured shortly.
One of the best surprises, though, was discovering how well Araucaria heterophylla, the Norfolk Island pine, does on Galveston Island. Under Dallas conditions, they won’t survive our occasional but brutal freezes, and without a high-humidity environment, they won’t grow to be more than the Charlie Brown Christmas tree that time forgot. With Galveston’s balmy climate and high humidity, they grow to full trees with remarkably lush foliage. Combine this with the cycads, and all the surrounding gardens need are a few life-sized dinosaur figures to make the place resemble a recreation of the Arlington Archosaur Site during its heyday. After years of only seeing seedling Norfolk Island pines, seeing a full-sized tree was a very welcome sight, and the Gardens are loaded with them in various sizes.
Ever since we first got married, the Czarina and I usually spend the beginning of the new year in overdrive, and New Year’s Day 2014 went above and beyond. Most years, the last week of the previous year and as much of the first week of the new goes into maintenance: my Day Job has a “use it or lose it” policy on vacation time, so the last days remaining after a steady regime of shows and sick days usually goes into maintenance and support. Organizing tax records, cleaning the house, contemplating “would shoveling out the office be faster than just setting everything on fire and rebuilding the house?”…it’s usually a great way to end the year.
This year, though, has a whole new level to it. At the end of the year, the Czarina went freelance after nearly 13 years at her previous employer, and her first action involved scheduling a whole new slew of shows and events through 2014. Since one of her favorite places to visit is Galveston, I’d had to work or prepare for my own shows every time she went down for a visit, and she was determined to get me out there, one way or another. That “one way” consisted of getting me as the heavy lifter at Space City Con at the Moody Gardens convention center.
In the endless fannish battle between “Star Trek versus Star Wars,” I usually play conscientious objector by shrugging “Don’t look at me: I’m a Babylon 5 kind of guy.” (I’m really more of a Max Headroom kind of guy, but describing the wars between Mediterranean geckos and orbweaver spiders in the greenhouse every spriing still requires the analogy of The Battle of Gorash 7.) The main focus of Space City Con this January was on the twentieth anniversary of the premiere of the show, as well as celebrating the end of its main story five years later, so this was as much of a 15th anniversary reunion of the cast and crew as anything else. The show also included costuming events, art panels, and easily the biggest dealer’s room I’ve seen in 20 years, since the Dallas Fantasy Fairs used to run at Dallas Market Hall. Between resident Galvestonians, all of Houston right at its feet, and a plethora of attendees from all over the planet, it was a very good show for the Czarina.
I, however, had ulterior motives. After getting set up at the convention center on Thursday night and Friday morning, I escaped for a few hours. On the other side of the hotel and convention center parking lot was the whole of Moody Gardens. The immediate gardens themselves were to be expected for winter (which, considering that Galveston temperatures in January might go as low as freezing, still meant a lot to see), but the main draws were the three pyramids on the site. These contained, in order of size, a rainforest biome, an aquarium, and an IMAX theater, and the first two offer a full-day experience each. Over the next few days, keep coming back for new photos and discussions, because there’s a lot to see out there.
And before I forget, Galveston has many other attractions, and one of its best is the variety and quality of its dining establishments. One of the smaller yet most interesting places is a new restaurant called The Gumbo Diner, which was nearly a literal lifesaver on Thursday evening when we were at our most exhausted. After five hours of driving and another two hours of setup, it’s amazing how much pep one can get from the best bowl of seafood gumbo to be found this side of New Orleans. If you get the chance to visit Galveston this year, make a point to hit the Seawall, go straight to the Gumbo Diner, and while fighting your friends and family over the crawfish etouffee, let the crew there know who sent you.