Posted onFebruary 3, 2021|Comments Off on Personal Interlude: The Blizzards of New Jersey
A pictorial based on necessary training for the Day Job: almost without fail, I always plan travel that coincides with one meteorological menace or another. This time, it was headed for the East Coast of the US just in time for a massive snowstorm that ran a full four days. As the plane arrived in Philadelphia, the first flakes started coming down, and by the time I got situated for the night, it was coming down fast and furious.
Perspective: One of the reasons why this funky little gallery wasn’t named “Michigan Triffid Ranch” is because Texas isn’t my birthplace but it is my home. Most of that comes from living through other blizzards, including the Chicago Blizzard of 1979. The last time I spent more than two days in snow (by the time you’re sick of Dallas snow, it’s already melted away) was 35 years ago, and those months of minus-40 weather were a big reason for moving back to Texas for the first time. The last significant snow of any sort was Dallas’s famed blizzard of 2010, where we broke all records for snowfall within a 24-hour period. Right now, as I write this, Dallas faces a cold front next week that might actually drop temperatures below freezing. However, the odds of snowfall are passing small, even if there’s precedent.
As far as the future is concerned, everything depends on more than just a drastic COVID-19 control, but the idea is to return for further training, preferably when winter is over. It’s also been a very long time since I’ve been anyplace with significant autumn color (Dallas has its moments, but it’s all pastels compared to New England), and sharing photos of that wonder is definitely on the agenda.
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Posted onMay 12, 2020|Comments Off on I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn: Canadian Carnivores
For those encountering carnivorous plants for the first time, they tend to be shocked by the sheer range of environments in which carnivores live. There’s the automatic assumption that they all live in hot, swampy jungles, and express shock at discovering the number of species found in North America alone. The shock spreads when they discover that Venus flytraps can be found a day’s drive from Washington DC, and they really lose it when they discover the variety of carnivores in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Best, though, is when I tell them about Canada.
Canada may not be as rich in carnivores as the United States or Mexico, but it has considerable charms. The most famous, of course, is the purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea, the flower emblem (the Canadian equivalent of the US’s state flower) of Newfoundland & Labrador. S. purpurea isn’t isolated to that area: it ranges due west from Newfoundland across Ontario (with that range extending south to Michigan and Minnesota) all the way to eastern Alberta, and then north to just short of the border with Alaska. On the west coast, the cobra plant, Darlingtonia californica, ranges well along the coast of British Columbia and south into Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. Canada also has a wide range of sundews and butterworts in a wide range of habitats, and one of the most interesting places to view carnivores for sheer spectacle is in the Canadian Rockies of Alberta.
Alberta and Texas have a lot more in common than most people would expect. In fact, when getting off the plane in Calgary from Dallas, it’s hard not to wonder if the plane just circled around Iowa and landed where it started, especially if you travel to Calgary in time for the Calgary Stampede. During the Stampede, the only way you can tell Calgary and Fort Worth apart for sure is that one has more cactus and one has more Mounties. If you see lots of mesquite trees, you’re not in Calgary. That similarity stretches across most of the province: driving near Drumheller, for instance, the plains are so flat and the scenery so similar to North and West Texas that the only way to be sure that you’re in Canada is that the highway signs list kilometers and are written in English and French. All that fails if you head sufficiently west: I recommend doing it the way I did, in the middle of the night when the moon is rising, and you realize that something took a big bite out of the moon and won’t give it back. At that point, you’ve hit the Rockies.
When you’re that far west, there’s absolutely no reason not to visit Banff National Park, especially for those of us fascinated with geology and natural history. However, for butterworts, stop in the town of Canmore just outside of Banff, and head out to Nordic Provincial Park in the mountains overlooking Canmore. That’s where you’ll find treasure.
Backstory: my last trip to Nordic Provincial Park was in 2006, as part of a trip with my wife’s family. I’d never been to Alberta before (my grandparents were from Ontario, but I’d never been that far west), but had dreamed about it ever since learning about the gigantic bone beds around Drumheller and Edmonton as a kid. Caroline and I were already outliers in the family as far as cultural markers were concerned, as they looked at us like dogs being shown a card trick when we noticed a new bicycle trail freshly opened that was named “The Riders of Rohan.” The worst, though, was when heading up one trail, we came across the leftover bracket from a long-removed gate still attached to a tree, and Caroline asked what kind of spigot that was. “That’s for collecting pine syrup,” I told her. “Real Canadians eat their waffles with pine syrup, and maple syrup is just the crap we give to Americans who don’t know any better.” My sister-in-law has never forgiven me for telling her that, because she spent the rest of the trip asking for pine syrup and getting angry that the locals wouldn’t share.
Anyway, half of the family split up to take one trail that led to a mountain lake at the highest easily accessible elevation in the park, and the other half went on the other. This trail’s vegetation thinned as we climbed higher, with spectacular views of the valley and the whole of Canmore. Best, though, was the waterfall on an adjoining peak that blasted mist across the gorge and onto our trail.
Finally, at one point, we stopped to admire the waterfall, up against a boulder about the size of an SUV that had rolled down at some time in the reasonably recent past. It was still reasonably clear of vegetation other than some moss, but it also had a flash of blue-violet at the top. I got closer to investigate the blue, and discovered, snuggled in a patch of soil about the size of a toonie, were a pair of butterworts. Pinguicula vulgaris, to be precise.
This was reason to stop alone, but we figured “Let’s keep going up and see what everyone else found.” Well, that mountain lake was just covered with butterworts: the soil was little more than rock dust, with no real nutritive value, so the butterworts were at home, just blooming away.
As it turned out, they were a great example for people who were afraid of raising a carnivorous plant because they couldn’t keep one warm enough. If a P. vulgaris butterwort can survive an Alberta winter, it can definitely survive a Texas winter. And to this day, when doing slideshow lectures for garden shows and classrooms, I still use the same shots of those butterworts to demonstrate that they can be found in all sorts of odd places:
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Posted onJuly 9, 2014|Comments Off on Travels Abroad: the Hibiscus of Grenada
As mentioned earlier, the Nicaraguan city of Grenada is absolutely festooned with beautiful Hibiscus trees, all of which were first starting to bloom during my trip at the end of May. Unfortunately for me, many of the most impressive specimens didn’t photograph well, as it’s remarkably hard to stop and get a good macro photograph when everyone else in your party doesn’t share your botanical zeal. The same was true of the photos I thought I had of hummingbirds feeding from those same Hibiscus blooms. Well, next trip, then.
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Posted onJuly 9, 2014|Comments Off on Travels Abroad: Hotel La Bocona
Between the Day Job and working on big plant projects for the end of this year and the beginning of next, sharing photos of the work trip to Grenada, Nicaragua went onto the back burner, but not out of a lack of wanting to share. Actually, yes, it IS because I don’t want to share. Namely, I’ve found my perfect house, and now I need to figure out how to make it happen in Texas.
To recap, the end of May and beginning of June were spent in Grenada with co-workers at the new Day Job, where we were the overawed guests of local philanthropist Peter Kovind. Among many other things, Mr. Kovind took advantage of Grenada’s classic Spanish architecture (painstakingly rebuilt after its burning to the ground in 1856, and you might want to look up the name “William Walker” if you want to understand why) to convert one of Grenada’s beautiful houses into the Hotel La Bocona, literally across the street from the statue of the same name.
As a hotel, the Hotel La Bocona reminds me of why I dislike most American hotels: simplicity is a wonderful thing. The rooms are comfortable and roomy, the pool is exquisite, and the staff, without exception, absolutely wonderful. Just for the experience alone, I rapidly felt terrible about not making my own bed and saving the housekeepers the trouble. Were I insane enough to consider going back to professional writing, this place would be my perfect idea of a locale in which to lock myself and write for the next month, only coming out to improve my Spanish. (As it stands, my Spanish isn’t so bad that I’d believe that “¡gringo estupido!” meant “May the Lord be with you!”, but it desperately needs improvement.)
And then there’s the garden. Many of the houses and hotels in Grenada follow the same basic pattern: one big door to the front, usually at the corner, but no windows. Instead, the center of the house is open to the sky, and usually exploding with plant life. When the rains come, they don’t come with heavy winds, so an overhang in the courtyard keeps tables, chairs, and couches protected from water, and when the rains stop, the combination of sights at ground level and sights in the sky (such as the family of parrots yelling at each other from a nearby tree) is about as close to Tanelorn as I’ve ever found. Grenada is justifiably famous for its wide variety of hibiscus trees, and some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen were growing in the second courtyard, right next to the (shallow, warm, and inviting) swimming pool.
Oh, and I almost forgot the spa. Grenada has an extremely wide range of tourists visiting at any time, and the spa in the back of Hotel La Bocona turned out to be extremely popular with both German and Canadian visitors. Peeking inside, I could understand why. Let loose a few small dinosaurs in there, and I’d never want to leave.
I’ve already told myself, over and over, that with a new push toward travel, it’s better to visit twenty new places once than the same place twenty times. I’m reconsidering my decision as far as Grenada is concerned. In fact, if it means being locked up in Hotel La Bocona for a month, I might even take up someone on a book contract, and that’s saying something.
As mentioned before, the big trip to Nicaragua at the end of May/beginning of June was work-related, which puts certain restrictions on botanical sightseeing. It’s bad enough being the only person in the general party actually thrilled to see my old friend Hylocereus costaricensis, the dragonfruit cactus, in the wild (or possibly its cousin H. undatus), and confirming that they grow best in medium to heavy shade during the hottest parts of the year. It should be understandable that my cohorts weren’t going to stop the bus every time I saw something vaguely interesting along the side of the road, and much of the area around Grenada had very handy cliffs and even a few volcano calderas to throw me into if I didn’t stop whining. Because this was business, I settled for biting my tongue, grumbling slightly, and trying my best to get decent photographs before the drivers had us on the other side of the galaxy.
(Incidentally, I learned something very handy and very thoughtful that hadn’t come up in years of bicycling in the States. For many reasons, Nicaragua is absolutely loaded with bicycles, and I watched fathers with two kids on the top bar cruise through traffic with grace and elan. Only recently have motorists in the States, particularly in Texas, accepted the increasing number of bikes on the road, so I still deal with the occasional jerk who thinks it’s still 1983 and that there’s something fundamentally wrong with someone over the age of 14 on a bike, under any conditions. Because of that, I was still rather defensive of anybody honking behind me, as that usually meant an idiot who expected the bikes to get off the road just for them, even if they were the only other person on the road. I’m serious: I had one bozo blast her horn from her SUV for a good half-mile, tailgating me the whole way, and then finally pull around just in time for us both to look at each other at the stoplight. Well, I looked at her: she stared straight ahead and did her best to avoid eye contact while her kids stared. I just told them “You’re all right, but your mom really needs to up her medication” before pedaling off.
(Anyway, it took a trip of this sort for me to make sense of a horn habit that hadn’t made sense before. As mentioned, I used to get defensive about people honking at me, and would get angry when a motorist would pass with a quick double-tap on the horn. “Yeah, I know, I’m in your way. I’m trying to get out of it.” What I discovered was that for Central America at least, this is a sign of respect: the double-tap is to inform the cyclist that a car or truck is coming up behind, and that the driver saw and acknowledged the cyclist’s presence. Now, when I get this at home, I don’t get surly. Instead, I wave and thank them, and the drivers are always surprised that the crazy white guy on the bike actually gets it.)
One of those minor grumbles came up over and over with a particularly beautiful tree that was so brilliantly orange that it was visible from the air well over the Managua airport. Everywhere we went, these trees followed, so orange that I thought the foliage was orange. Upon closer inspection, the coloration was from the blooms, but what blooms! I thought our native crepe myrtles did a great job of hiding their foliage among brilliant cascades of flowers, but this one could have taught the crepe myrtles about eight or nine lessons. My problem was being given a chance to focus in on an impressive canopy of them while moving at speeds that threatened to blue-shift the pigments.
Finally, I managed to get close to a small specimen, and just stood and stared at the blooms. Each was easily the size of my hand, looking more like something manufactured from steel or bronze than anything botanical. For the rest of the trip, I’d gaze contentedly at those trees as they passed by on the highway back to the airport, telling myself that one day, I’d come back and give them much more time and attention.
The real surprise on this is that while I and everyone else in the group thought these were indigenous trees, our not having seen them before was only because we lived far too north. We’d encountered Delonix regia, commonly and appropriately named “flamboyant”. Originally from Madagascar, the flamboyant tree grew enthusiastically and vigorously any place where the conditions were right, and went feral over most of the Earth’s tropics. In the US, they’re apparently only found in the Rio Grande Valley in far southern Texas and in southern Florida, but they’re as cosmopolitan a tropical tree as can be managed.
That was another big surprise: while the northern half of Nicaragua may be jungle, the area around Grenada was much drier and scrubbier, and I saw a lot of analogues to plants I would have seen in North Texas that were thriving under many of the same conditions. The surprise was seeing so many plants, particularly cacti, that I recognized from just about any garden center or commercial nursery back home. At first, I thought that these may have originated in Central America and gained their current popularity due to imports to America and Europe, but D. regia‘s range makes me wonder about that. Time for more research, and the hope that I might live long enough to finish it.
Among many other wonders in Grenada, Nicaragua, one of the greater mysteries of Grenada was literally across the street from the hotel in which I stayed. Right by the front door of the building across the way was a large statue, carved out of volcanic rock, built into the side of the doorway. A very helpful gentleman working at the hotel passed on what he knew about the statue, which he was the first one to admit wasn’t much. Then again, nobody else seems to know, either.
The statue is called “La Bocona,” which roughly translates to “The Big Mouth”. La Bocona is a fixed point in Grenada: Grenada attracts a large number of international tourists and expatriates, and even those completely inept in Spanish, such as myself, can recite the name and have everyone in the city point you in the direction of the statue. In fact, the statue now has several concrete pillars in front, to prevent drivers and cyclists from taking out the front door while being distracted by its odd shape. La Bocona may not be in the center of Grenada, but it’s close enough that it’s very handy as a guide to the central market, the fire department, and any of the central cathedrals in the city.
With it being a landmark, you’d think that La Bocona would have more of a history, but that’s where things get odd. Apparently it was excavated during the construction of a sidewalk, with different versions saying in the 1940s or 1950s, and the owner of the property had it installed in the front of the building so everyone can see it. Other than that, it’s a mystery. La Bocona has no myths coming up around it, no outre explanations as to how it got there, or why it was constructed. It’s just there, and I suspect that filling in some of the questions about it would disappoint everyone, as the mystery seems to feed upon itself. Trying to give it an explanation would ruin it, but everyone has their own basic ideas, which they keep to themselves.
After a while, I shared that sentiment. I have no doubt that archaeologists have already examined and documented everything they can about La Bocona, and now I want to hunt down what they’ve written. I myself have a sneaking suspicion as to what the artist was trying to capture, and if I’m wrong, you’ll never know. In the meantime, it just perches at that corner, unseeing, as wonderful humanity rushes by. It did so before it was buried, and it’ll probably do so centuries after I’m gone.