Category Archives: Publishing

Cat Monday, the Explanation

Cadigan/Leiber/Steadman books

Every once in a while, people come across this silly little blog or actually come to the house and visit, and they ask about the cats. Well, they don’t ask about the cats per se, but they ask about the names. Everyone knows that cat people have a thing about odd names, but people who know me know that I have a thing for reasonably obscure ones, too. This is a deliberate effort to confuse visitors, so they don’t stick around long enough to discover that I don’t name the plants. Believe it or not, it works remarkably well. The only problem is that they continue to ask about the cats, wondering “Why would you choose those names?” When they realize that I used to be a professional writer before I came to my senses, they simply smile and nod, instead of screaming and running for the door. Not that I mind their screaming and running, but the Czarina has issues with this when her parents come over: they have enough of a problem with the life-sized Nanotyrannus head hanging over the toilet in the spare bathroom.

As it turns out, a run on a used bookstore week before last dredged up some beauties, giving me the opportunity to illustrate the examples. Well, that and torment the increasingly more sporadic visitors when they come by.

In the case of Cadigan, she actually had things pretty easy. Her story actually starts twenty years before she was born, when a then-girlfriend came up and told me “You HAVE to read this book.” At the time, I got a lot of that, and was already starting to blanch over the word “cyberpunk” being thrown around about it. At the time, the word was less a description of a certain subgenre of science fiction involving situations where technology outstrips ethics and becoming more of a marketing catchphrase, like “steampunk” today. Worse, by 1992, the subgenre itself had gone from being more punk to more cyber, attracting both writers and readers with an unhealthy obsession with downloading their personalities into computers and leave the meat behind because, as I wrote later, “they couldn’t get laid in Tijuana with a jockstrap full of $100 bills.” (Yeah, I was a little angry back in the early Nineties.) After trying my best to plow through many of the more recommended books at the time, and realizing that the people who read Bruce Sterling novels do so because they can’t handle the depth of characterization in Microsoft operation manuals, I shuddered and gulped, and took a chance on her recommendation. And that book damaged my fragile little mind.

For those who know Pat Cadigan, you already understand why I named my little orange cat after her. For those who don’t, let’s just say that they both have the same curiosity and general attitude about life. Science fiction enthusiasts talk about how Arthur C. Clarke developed the idea of the geosynchronous communications satellite but failed to patent it, but if Pat had the time back in the early Nineties to file patents on many of the ideas in her novel Synners alone, she’d own half of the planet right now. Bill Gates would be her personal doormat, and Steve Ballmer would dance every time she shot at his feet. Just tell yourself, tell yourself, that you could look into the eyes of a kitten with exactly the same expression that Pat gets when she’s on a roll and not think of naming that kitten after her?

Sadly, Leiber was a mistake, at least as far as naming him was concerned. He also had the glint in his eye as a kitten, encouraging me to name him after the much-missed author Fritz Leiber. (The Czarina’s nickname itself came from Leiber’s famous chess ghost story “Midnight By the Morphy Watch,” included in the pictured collection, because of her intensity in learning how to play chess.) Both the grey fur and the green eyes were regular themes in his novels, so it seemed like a good idea. Something happened, though, while I was living in Tallahassee at the end of 2002, and I came back to find him a bit broken. He’s a sweet cat, and enjoyable in his own way, but to call him “dopy” is to be nice. I once had a dog that was smarter than Leiber is, and this was a dog who regularly walked into sliding-glass doors. Combine this with his incessant one-note chirping, over and over and OVER all night long, and I’ve threatened on more than one occasion to rename him “Doctorow”. In that situation, the name might fit, because if this cat could speak English, all he could manage would be “Humperdidoo!”

And the third book? Well, we’ve run out of cats, but this one had particular significance back around 1997 when it came out. Not only did I have a ginger cat named “Jones” at the time, but I also had a savannah monitor at the time named “Steadman”. When friends would ask for that story, and they learned very rapidly not to ask again, for anything, I just told them the tale of the baby lizard I brought home for my birthday in 1997. The hatchling lizard that went into a large cage, loosened his bowels for maximum effect, and very promptly managed to make the inside resemble a Ralph Steadman painting. That was the day, after removing him from said cage and having to climb inside to clean the filth he’d managed to spatter on the ceiling, that I first coined the phrase “a stench that could burn the nose hairs out of a dead nun,” and he rarely disappointed me in new opportunities to use it. Most savannah monitors tend toward personalities that blend David Bowie and Sid Vicious, but Steadman was pure G.G. Allin. In that case, he was the perfect personification of my writing career at that time.

That about sums it up at the time, although the Czarina makes vague noises about another cat, and I’ve made my choice of next pet very plain. With the next cat, the deal is that s/he who pays the adoption fee gets to name the beast, so I suspect she’s saving her pennies in anticipation.

Free Story Idea, One Inside This Box!

“But Darwin was clever and observant; for all the violence of nature, he knew that most evolutionary dramas were played to a subtler script, the day-to-day interaction between the antelope and the grass, the squirrel and the acorn. Plants and plant-eaters co-evolved. And plants aren’t the passive partners in the chain of terrestrial life. Hence today’s Pop Ecology movement is quite wrong in believing that plants are happy to fill their role as fodder for herbivores in a harmonious and perfectly balanced ecosystem. A birch tree doesn’t feel cosmic fulfillment when a moose munches its leaves; the tree species, in fact, evolves to fight the moose, to keep the animal’s munching lips away from vulnerable young leaves and twigs. In the final analysis, the merciless hand of natural selection will favor the birch genes that make the tree less and less palatable to the moose in generation after generation. No plant species could survive for long by offering itself as unprotected fodder.”
“When Dinosaurs Invented Flowers,” The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert T. Bakker, Ph.D (1986)

It’s no secret that, over a decade back, I used to be a science fiction writer. No, scratch that: I was a science fiction essayist. Never wrote any fiction that came close to being published, but I wrote a lot about the genre and subjects related to it. It started out with the lowest of the low, film reviews for long-dead zines, but then I migrated to science essays and articles and everything really went crazy. That’s when I ran into a fundamental dichotomy in science fiction: while everyone keeps emphasizing the “science” in the name, it’s an overemphasis on what would be considered “applied science” in the Dewey Decimal System. Engineering and mechanics are the main sciences observed and utilized in much SF, particularly what’s commonly categorized as “hard science fiction,” and for someone like me with an ongoing fascination with the biological sciences, the reality was a lot more engrossing than the fiction.

And that’s one of the problems with far too much science fiction: authors who spend months and years fussing about the physics and the tech being used by an alien species, who even write up scientific papers based on the research they conducted, and their biology begins and ends with what they half-remember from high school. With the exception of Robert Sawyer, you don’t see too many hard SF writers with extensive experience in biology or palaeontology. (You do see quite a few horror writers with an extensive zoology and/or palaeo background, ranging from H.P. Lovecraft to Caitlin R. Kiernan, and I’m not sure why, but I’m not complaining.) It’s bad enough when you read stories where the characters and motivations are secondary to showing off some spiffy tech Big Think, but it’s particularly disappointing reading a novel where the details of a starship drive are worked out to eight decimal places, and the creators of that drive are tetrapods or arthropods with a slightly different number of fingers or eyes. I started walking away from the genre after realizing how real zoology was so much more fascinating than the fiction, and when I started studying botany, that’s when I started to run.

The problem with this comes with remembering themes and concepts that were absolutely riveting to me three decades ago, but that leave much, well, everything to be desired. After a while, it’s a matter of reverse-engineering a mediocre (to me) idea and revving it up a bit. That’s a standard trope in writer’s guides: if you’re inspired to write because you read someone else’s story and you know you can do better, then do so. Or, with those of us with no real interest in writing fiction, passing on the ideas to friends and cohorts and seeing what they do with it. And thus, supercharging a glimpse on a sidestory, it’s time to put a nitrous rig and V8 blower on a childhood favorite of mine, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede by the late James P. Hogan.

To give the background to The Gentle Giants of Ganymede requires recapping the previous book in the series, Inherit the Stars, so hang on. The action starts in the near future, after humanity buils a significant presence on the moon. In the course of development, a crew discovered a spacesuited corpse in a hollow. The deceased, nicknamed “Charlie,” was human, but his corpse had been sitting in that lunar hollow for 50,000 years. In the course of trying to understand how a technologically advanced human ended up on the moon when all of Earth’s hominins were still in the Stone Age, a research team came across a derelict spacecraft buried in the ice on Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. This ship dated from about 25 million years ago, and was operated by an obviously alien species therefore nicknamed “Ganymeans”. Not only was there the mystery of why the Ganymeans had crashed there, but the hold was full of preserved specimens of Earth animals from the Miocene, including some early apes. Our intrepid heroes learn that the Ganymeans were indigenous to Minerva, a planet that used to exist between Mars and Jupiter, and apparently transported terrestrial life to Minerva for unknown reasons. The Ganymeans left the solar system for equally unknown reasons, leaving those terrestrial animals to take over, and the early apes apparently evolved into Charlie’s people and later our own ancestors.

But there’s more. Shortly after the brouhaha with Charlie and learning of humanity’s Minervan sidetrip, experimentation with pieces of the ship on Ganymede helps bring up a bit of cosmic flotsam. Namely, 25 million years before, a Ganymean starship left a world thousands of light-years away in a hurry as the world it was visiting went supernova. Because of the haste of the departure, the Shapieron left without any easy way to brake, and the ship spent twenty years subjective time slowing down by orbiting the whole of the solar system. Thanks to time dilation, 20 years went by outside while 25 million years went by outside the ship’s gravitational bubble. The Ganymeans pick up a transmission from a distress beacon activated by human techs, limp to Ganymede, discover that their homeworld is asteroidal debris between Mars and Jupiter, and then have to decide what to do from there.

Now what does this have to do with botany? Hang on: I’m getting there. One of the main physical and psychological tropes of the Ganymeans is that they’re absolutely incapable of violence or aggression. The idea was that when vertebrate life developed on Minerva, it had to face much higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than on Earth, and the early Minervan fish dealt with this by developing a dual circulatory system. One half of the system handled oxygen and nutrients, while the other processed and excreted carbon dioxide and other wastes. One group of these fish amped up the amount of waste in the secondary circulatory system, essentially leaving them poisonous. The immediate advantage was that carnivory never had a chance to get established in subsequent generations of Minervan vertebrates, as anything taking a bite out of a neighbor would die right then and there. The immediate disadvantage was that intermingling fluids from the two systems, such as with injuries, would kill the victim, too. Ergo, the ancestors of the Ganymeans evolved to be very careful and thorough, with cooperation instead of competition being a serious survival trait. Because of an absence of predators, Minervan lifeforms took on all sorts of odd traits and behaviors, on the assumption that they’d never learn fight-or-flight instincts. Even after the Ganymeans used genetic engineering to remove the need for the secondary system, they still kept those traits, allowing them to develop high technology and travel to the stars solely by their need to be of use to someone.

Now, I’m not going to go into further detail on the story, or the Ganymeans’ trip to Earth, which they knew 25 million years before as “The Nightmare Planet” because of its indigenous carnivores. I will note that, as with a lot of genre writers, James Hogan made a lot of assumptions about how life might evolve on other worlds as compared to Earth. For instance, even though vertebrates are only a tiny contingent of multicellular life on Earth compared to arthropods, annelids, and cnidarians, the only animal life on Minerva seemed to be analogs to terrestrial vertebrates. No parallels to insects, worms, crustaceans, or chelicerates, either in the oceans or on land.

Likewise, almost nothing is presented about Minervan plants: in the story, one scientist manages to isolate frozen indigenous seeds from debris in the ship on Ganymede, and amazingly gets these seeds to germinate. (Considering that background radiation on Earth after a few thousand years is the equivalent of a major nuclear strike, it’s hard enough to get date palm seeds from Masada to germinate. For similar seeds to survive 25 million years of radiation from Jupiter’s radiation belts, that ship on Ganymede must be a really special construct.) Other than the fact that they’re described as being nearly solid black to absorb the slightest bit of ambient light, they also appear to be identical to Earthly monocot or eudicot plants. No specializations, no particular traits to separate them from terrestrial plants: while it’s perfectly reasonable that similar structures would develop to take advantage of similar physical conditions, these plants are too much like their Earthly analogues.

And here’s where the turbocharging comes in. Let’s work with the structure presented to us: Minerva has no other terrestrial life other than its vertebrates, these vertebrates are all poisonous to each other, the vertebrates are all vulnerable to even superficial bruises and cuts, and that they’re all eating the same plants. Now let’s see what happens.

Firstly, as anyone who grew up on National Geographic specials will tell you, “herbivorous” does not mean “inoffensive”. Cape buffalo and elk and wombats are all herbivorous, and only fools get close enough for any of these to gore, trample, or bite. In Earth’s past, many herbivores may have been worse: many palaeontologists note that the real danger from a Triceratops wasn’t from its horns, but from its parrot beak. Hogan’s description of early Minervan forms included the need for armor or padding of some sort to fend off accidental injuries. That immediately gives a survival advantage, and also gradually remove any inhibitions on beastly behavior. Hippos, for instance, are highly territorial, and they’re even more likely to attack fellow herbivores such as elephants and Cape buffalo than they are to attack carnivores such as lions or crocodiles. With no prodding whatsoever, you could very easily see the Lystrosaurus of Minerva as a beast that combined the hippo’s easy-going herbivorous nature with the armor of a glyptodont or ankylosaur. Big armor-plated grumps with tail clubs would be dangerous enough on Earth, but with that dual circulatory system issue, one scrape on a spike or tusk or a bruise from a club would be lethal for anything trying to get their own share of fodder. It’s possible that the Ganymeans developed intelligence not out of a sense of ingrained altruism, but as a way to fight off the shellosaurs that left only the vegetation that they couldn’t eat.

This leads to another major issue. On Earth, plants have a LOT of defenses to prevent their being stripped, as Dr. Bakker above would put it, down to the soil line. For instance, many plants produce phytoliths: bits of silica grown within plant cells. Many plants use phytoliths as defenses: a theory about the spread of grasses across Earth held that grass phytoliths were too abrasive for herbivores unable to process them, and plants such as horsetails use their phytoliths as protection against both vertebrate and arthropod foraging. In other physical defenses, look at the effectiveness of spines and thorns, ranging from cactus to raspberries. While many may produce fruits, nuts, or other incentives to have their seeds spread elsewhere, the plant may not itself intend to be eaten before it produces said incentives: look at Capsicum peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, and other members of the Solanaceae and the number with toxic foliage. If Minerva’s vertebrates left the oceans at about the same time as Earth’s, then we’re looking at anywhere between 350 and 400 million years of plant efforts to fend off herbivore demolition, suggesting that the Minervan flora might have much more in common with chollas than with philodendrons. (Don’t knock seemingly innocent houseplants, though, as many of these are dangerously toxic, too. Eating the fruit of a Monstera deliciosa would be deadly to early Minervan organisms thanks to the oxalic acid crystals growing in the unripe portions. Don’t even get me going about making a rhubarb leaf salad.)

Plants also have other, more subtle defenses. Take a look at the capsicum oil in hot peppers or the hallucinogens in Datura stramonium, not to mention the urushiol oil in cashews and poison ivy. It’s not always necessary to kill a herbivore: sometimes, simply persuading it not to feed on a plant again is enough, whether that’s via blister agents or the world’s worst bad trip. In fact, based on Hogan’s original rules about the Ganymeans, plant consumption by Minervan animals would select for the production of hallucinogens of all sorts. If bruising yourself was a death sentence, noting that your buddy Fred decided to go galumphing down a hillside while tripping might be notice enough to a reasonable warning for any Minervan social animal.

And here’s where it gets even better. As the quote at the beginning of this essay noted, plants don’t passively wait for animals to eat them. They themselves adapt and evolve, not just to prevent or forestall foraging but also to fill new ecological niches unused by others. The animals evolve in turn. As new mutations show up in one group of animals to process a particular toxin in a common plant, those animals become dominant, and the plants had best find a way, one way or another, to prevent their chromosomes from being removed from the gene pool. The development of intelligence just increases the pressure in certain ways: look at the number of human dishes, from masa to poi, that detoxify otherwise dangerous foods. Considering how we humans select varieties of plants for size, flavor, and ease in growing, it stands to reason that the Ganymean agricultural revolution would have run in parallel. That doesn’t just apply to food, either, as there’s no reason to believe that Ganymeans wouldn’t breed new plant varieties as spices, medicines, relaxants, and euphorics.

One last part that hasn’t been considered is the complications that come from dead Ganymeans. Hogan’s novel mentioned that Ganymeans buried their dead, but no mention of how those bodies were processed by microbial and multicellular scavengers. It stands to reason that Minerva was just as rotten, pun intended, with microbes as Earth, and many wouldn’t care about the toxicity of that dual circulatory system. Likewise, nobody said anything about Minervan corpses remaining poisonous after death, and it’s perfectly reasonable to see certain otherwise completely herbivorous Minervan animals feeding on their dead for extra nutrients, in much the same way that red deer on the Isle of Rum feed on seabirds. However, and this goes straight into science fiction speculation here, what about the plants filling that niche?

By way of example, lots of flowering plants produce seeds that stick to passing animals. Thistles, sandburrs, Devil’s claws: all of these take advantage of seeds that adhere to skin, fur, or clothing to spread them far past the plant’s immediate range. Others take advantage of animals to spread their seeds via dung: a prevailing theory holds that Capsicum peppers became as hot as they are to attract feeding birds, which pass the seeds through their gut, and repel mammals, which have guts that destroy the seeds. Osage oranges (Maclura pomifera) became extinct through most of their range probably because the various Pleistocene megafauna that ate their fruit and spread their seeds became extinct themselves. As with an earthly herbivore, a dead Minervan herbivore would be a huge source of available nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, and the trick would be to use those nutrients before something else did. The problem most plants would face would be to have a way to have seeds on that body at the right time, under the right circumstances, so they took advantage of that treasure.

In pure speculation, it’s not hard to picture a large group of Minervan plants with seeds that sprouted the moment it picked up byproducts of cell autolysis. These might be ones sticking to hair or armor, or they might be ones held internally. If Minervan animals had the equivalent of a gizzard, you’re looking at evolutionary pressures to produce seeds that could be used as gastroliths, especially in areas without decent rocks suitable for gizzard stones. If they didn’t, then one can picture any number of adaptations, such as seed coats that stuck (gently) to the intestinal wall, or various compounds that encourage the herbivores to keep coming back and eating more seeds. Either way, they hang on and wait, the Minervan critter drops dead, and within three or four days, the whole corpse is awash with new plant growth. Within a month, most of the easily utilizable nutrients have already been absorbed by root and rhizome, and the cycle continues.

With all this in mind, one of the big plot points in The Gentle Giants of Ganymede is that the Ganymeans, for various reasons, left Minerva for a new world, and left Minerva to the descendants of the Earthly animals they’d previously picked up. The idea was that since the indigenous Minervan forms were all helpless herbivores, the introduced Terran carnivores fed on them until the herbivore populations managed to get established. 25 million years later, one group of transplanted apes developed sentience, developed civilization, developed high technology, blew up their adopted world, and then traveled to their original home to start over. Yeah, one big “what-if” story, but typical for science fiction.

Consider, though, what probably would have happened after the Ganymeans left. The big terrestrial predators would be facing herbivores that knew perfectly well how to protect themselves from competition, and the terrestrial herbivores wouldn’t know what hit them. By the time they left, the Ganymeans would have left behind a flora where they ate Datura as mild relaxants, munched rhubarb leaves for salad, and filled baby bottles full of sriracha. By terrestrial standards, just about everything in the local gardens would be dangerously toxic or otherwise inedible, with seeds that latched onto intestinal walls and set off fatal bouts of peritonitis. And if that isn’t cheery enough, then consider that scientist who grew samples of Minervan plants in his lab: if he had any brains at all, he’d torch his whole lab rather than risk any samples getting back to Earth. One sprig of Minervan nightshade in a suitable climate, and you could kiss all of the indigenous flora goodbye, because nothing could compete with it in utilizing sunlight.

Anyway, have fun with your stories. Between this and a good rereading of David Gerrold’s War Against The Chtorr novels, you should give gardeners nightmares for years.

Jalapeno popper recipes: JUST ONE FIX

My friend Michael Hultquist is a bad man. No, I take that back. He’s a bad, bad, BAD man. Positively EVIL. The sort of guy who comes up behind exhausted parents and gives their children four shots of espresso and a puppy. I can say this, because he just let me know that he’s put together a whole site dedicated to jalapeno pepper recipes. I mean, he already has multiple books on chile pepper recipes out there, and now he has to offer MORE? The MONSTER.

Very seriously, I’m glad of this for one big reason. I was first turned onto cream cheese-stuffed jalapenos via the Red Hot & Blue barbecue chain, where they were titled “Red Hot Chili Poppers”. Unfortunately, Red Hot & Blue removed them from the menu about four years ago, and repeated entreaties to bring them back have been unsuccessful. (I’ve forgiven them this trespass. The Walnut Hill location is still my choice for takeout just before screenings of The Walking Dead.) Now, though, NOW…it’s time to experiment with the basic idea. Even better, it’s time to try some of these with some of the best from the Chile Pepper Institute.

Everyone’s got a book out but me

I don’t know what’s in the water right now, and I’m personally not complaining, but a whole slew of horticultural friends have books coming out in the next little while. I already mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Janit Calvo of Two Green Thumbs Miniature Garden Center has an upcoming book on miniature gardens that’s going right into the library as soon as I get it. Two other friends have upcoming books as well, and now is the time to start the hype machine so nobody forgets to put in an order.

To begin, I’ve become convinced that Amanda Thomsen of Kiss My Aster is my real sister. Or at least the one that lived. If she isn’t a sister, then she’s a very close cousin, because her sense of humor is almost as black as mine. Or maybe that’s just mushroom compost. Anyway, her first book, imaginatively titled Kiss My Aster, comes out at the end of the year, and I’ve already sworn to her that if she tries to give me a free copy, instead of paying full price for an autographed copy, I’ll walk to her house and talk her to death. If you turn your head toward Illinois and listen, you can just hear her screams of horror and rage. One way or another, I’m getting a copy, and it’ll have that most beloved of book dedications, “I should have killed you when I had the chance.”

Now, I could bring up that Billy Goodnick is coming to Dallas next February to speak at the Dallas Arboretum. I could bring up that I plan to crash his lecture and just sit there, watching him, until he screams “LOOK, WILL YOU JUST HECKLE ME OR THROW ASPARAGUS AT ME OR SOMETHING?” This should be within the first fifteen seconds, seeing as how my visage could make a sundial run backwards. The real reason I’d be out there, though, is so I could get his upcoming book, Yards: Turn Any Outdoor Space Into the Garden of Your Dreams, autographed.

With this autographing session, I have to move fast. He’s been lamenting whether or not this book will sell, so I told him the absolute truth. On a trip back from 2046, I saw what happened with it. Yes, it’s a success. Yes, he’s the first garden writer to get both a Pulitzer and a Nobel for a garden book. Unfortunately, between the calls from King Charles to give Billy a full knighthood, and the teenage groupies who keep smashing in the windows in order to get to him at night, he hasn’t had any sleep since next year. I don’t know where he gets the time to run that tachyon emitter to broadcast horticulture tips to his fans on Gliese 581c, but I understand they’ve carved his face into a cliff of pure frozen nitrogen on the outermost world in the system.

“Paul,” he told me, “you weren’t supposed to take the red pill AND the blue pill at the same time.”

“You know me better than that. You know the blue box in the back corner of my garden? It isn’t a Port-O-John, no matter how badly you want to use it as such.”

That said, buy his book as soon as it comes out, and I promise to introduce him to some particularly Dallasite examples of Crimes Against Horticulture. In certain parts of Dallas, he’ll probably fill up four or five microSD cards with photos, each one more Lovecraftian than the one before.

Oh, and for apartment dwellers, a treat. Fern Richardson, a very polite and kind individual whom I traumatized the last time the Garden Writers Association had its annual conference in Dallas, had her own book, Small-Space Container Gardens: Transform Your Balcony, Porch, or Patio with Fruits, Flowers, Foliage, and Herbs, released earlier this year. Considering that the front porch of my house is particularly onerous during summer, I’m snagging my copy as quickly as I can. I’m trusting that Fern will have plenty of ideas for sun-scorched spaces that won’t involve cactus.

As for me? After a few discussions at the Day Job with co-workers about peppers, and plenty of discussions at shows about carnivores, I’ve changed my mind about writing my own book. They didn’t understand why when I told them that I’d need an advance of at least $50,000, because that’s what the writing time spent away from plants, the Czarina, and Leiber would be worth. They didn’t understand when I said I was much more likely to play Russian roulette with an automatic. They didn’t understand when I told them I’d sooner watch a SyFy movie marathon, eyes propped open like Malcolm McDowall’s in A Clockwork Orange the whole time. Now I just tell them “I’ll be glad to write a new book, immediately after the Dallas Cowboys win their first shut-out World Series pennant.” That they understand.

A tribute, if you will

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Mike Royko, the quintessential Chicago newspaper columnist. To say that Royko was one of my most influential journalistic role models as a kid doesn’t even come close to the situation. In fact, not only did Royko influence the state of the newspaper column through the Twentieth Century, but I submit that media through the Twenty-First owes him recognition as well. You wouldn’t have had newspaper columnists as diverse as Dave Barry, Molly Ivins, and Lewis Grizzard without Uncle Mike’s inspiration, and I’m certain that if he were alive today, he’d have one of the most-read and most-quoted blogs on the planet.

At the same time, considering what has happened to standard journalism since he died, I also think he really got the last laugh. Royko was famous for quitting the Chicago Sun-Times the day after Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, and laughing when Murdoch tried to pretend this wasn’t an issue and ran old Royko columns in their place. In some afterlife, I can see him cutting up with his friend Studs Terkel, howling “They practically gave me a state funeral! Talk about leaving early to avoid the rush! I wonder what they’re gonna do for Skip Bayless and Elvis Mitchell: set fire to the garbage can before tossing them in?”

Goodbye, Uncle Mike. And goodbye to your lifelong pal Slats Grabnik, too. There are times where my old friend Edgar Harris mourns that we won’t get any more anecdotes from Slats or Dr. I.M. Kookie as well.

Extreme Scot Frugality, Demonstrated

I’ll admit that, for someone my age, I have precious few freakouts over the times changing. If anything, anyone offering me the chance to go back to 1982, with or without my retaining everything that I’ve learned in the last thirty years, would get punched in the nose. (Well, that’s not completely fair. I’d go back for an hour, bushwhack my previous self from ’82 as he was coming home from school, break both knees, tell him to get his act together and quit journalism or I’d come back to finish the job, and then return to the present. But that’s just me.) Just when it comes to horticulture, viewing the new techniques, the new knowledge, and the new materials available that didn’t exist even five years ago blows me away. At least once a week, I look at how I can order seeds from South Africa and get detailed care instructions on plants indigenous to New Zealand, and set them underneath LED light systems designed to maximize the light usable by the plants while minimizing energy consumption. When I exclaim “I love living in the future,” I mean it.

As things change, though, I have to admit that sometimes while I don’t miss the past, I miss some of the side effects. I don’t miss the dank old decrepit hardware store in town, with the elderly owner who spent more time in day-long xenophobic diatribes than, say, sweeping the floors. However, I occasionally miss the days before elaborate point-of-sale systems at Home Depot, where I didn’t have to buy up the entire stock of an item I liked for fear that it would be discontinued and dumped in the “Clearance” aisle a week later. I don’t miss Sevin dust all over the cabbages by well-meaning relatives, but I actually miss bamboo leaf rakes that don’t cost the gross national product of Bosnia and that last more than one season. I like the automatic checkouts at garden centers. And I was surprised at how little I miss newspapers, but how much I find myself dependent upon newspapers a day or so later.

Odd as it sounds, newspaper has a million-and-five uses in the garden, and the decline of newspapers means that we’ll need new materials to replace it. Need to kill off grass in a new garden plot? Most garden guides recommend putting down several layers of newspaper over the grass, and then piling on fresh soil on top. Need a separation material between the various sheets of composting material in a lasagna garden? Nothing works better than newspaper. Remember the joys of making your own newspaper seed starter pots? Exactly how are you supposed to conserve on available resources if you’re having to buy sheets of paper to make them? Let’s see you use your iPad to pack up bare-root plants for transport, or to line a manure hotbed pit before filling it to the brim.

Until a few years ago, not buying the daily paper wouldn’t stop a dedicated gardener. Besides asking neighbors who were probably glad to hand over the 20 kilos of Sunday paper, you always had relatives who’d stack up the last few months’ reading matter until they decided it was time to dump it all. Go to work and stalk the break room, and the place would be loaded with discarded papers by about 10 in the morning. If that wasn’t an option, most cities had weekly newspapers that laughingly suggested “One copy is free; all other copies $2” on the front cover, with a handy address to receive the money. There was a bit of redundancy in spreading composted chicken manure over the Dallas Observer and its resident James Lipton of fandom‘s 60,000-word blatherings each week on comic books and Star Trek, but what can you do?

These days, though, finding a suitable supply of newsprint for gardening is quite the task. I have a friend and co-worker who does a lot of glasswork in his offtime, and he goes through a lot of newsprint during the shaping process. He finally filled a storage shed full of old newspapers, picked up Elvis-knows-where, because he doesn’t know if he’ll ever find a new source. At the rate things are going, I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, gardeners start stalking out crazy cat lady houses the way blacksmiths stalk out decommissioned wrought-iron bridges in the hopes of getting a suitable stockpile.

This isn’t to say that this is impossible. In my neighborhood, I already have a regular source for newspaper, and I don’t have to work at it. I just have to look for the sign.
For Rent sign

Now, for years, Dallas gardeners could always depend upon getting tremendous quantities of free newspapers from the Dallas Morning News, delivered every other day. That is, until a little circulation scandal that horrified the CEO of the company (wink, wink), and suddenly stopped the flow of valuable paper pulp when advertisers threatened a class action suit. Never let a good idea go to waste, the CEO thought, so suddenly the Morning News‘s parent company started offering several free options that included Briefing and Al Dia. Much like disliked relations, they tend to arrive unannounced and unwanted, with the recepient left with the responsibility of disposing of them. Although I imagine the parent company would like to tell advertisers that each issue gets opened and read by an adoring family of eight at each and every address, most Briefing issues are dumped in the garbage as quickly as they’re received or (in the case of a neighbor who was particularly disgusted with the littering of his yard) tossed into the street. At least twice a week, a surly delivery guy drops them off, and asking said delivery drone to not drop it off gets a snarl, a rude gesture, or a frantic chirp of “Call the home office! Call the home office!” And don’t get me going about actually calling the home office, because any attempt to stop delivery gets repeated phone calls asking “Are you sure? After all, you’ll miss out on valuable coupons in each paper,” in an age of QR codes.

Besides, what we’re gunning for here isn’t just a discussion of the increasing self-inflicted obsolescence of print newspapers. It’s a matter of knowing that you accomplished something good in the garden and in your neighborhood by taking something unwanted and unloved and turning it into something beautiful. Besides, we want a LOT of papers. This is why you want to look for those “For Sale/For Rent” signs. It’s because, in areas where Briefing and Al Dia are delivered, you get sights like this:

Pile of Belo Briefings

The Briefing delivery guys don’t care that their papers pile up for days, weeks, or even months, because their bosses are insistent that they get them out. Their bosses don’t care, because they don’t have to clean copies of Briefing off their lawns every other day. (The Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas County has strict ordinances involving the dumping of unwanted trash in public view, but that doesn’t apply to the rest of the county.) You could subscribe to Briefing and get those papers one bit at a time, or you could keep an eye open for houses under construction, houses abandoned in foreclosure, or houses between residents and literally clean up. Trust me: not only will the neighbors not have issues with your swiping the piles, but they’ll probably thank you for your conscientiousness in caring for your community.

Assorted Belo crap

What you do with those copies of Briefing depends upon your intent and their condition. Get a couple of weeks of dry weather, and those piles will be close to pristine. Get out after a good North Texas gullywasher, and you’d think those sopping wet lumps are unusable. Pshaw! Dump them into any decent grade of wood chipper, and you have a wonderful mass of moist paper fiber for all sorts of things. Add grass seeds before dumping it onto a bald patch in the yard, and you have hydromulch. Put the pulp in the bottom of flowerpots to retain water and cut down on the weight of standard potting mixes. Mix it with dirt to shore up raised beds, or use it as a proper mulch for roses and around irises. Compress it in bowls and paint with nontoxic paints to make seasonal toad houses. You’re making your community more beautiful in more ways than one, and for free.

I know this doesn’t help gardeners in other areas with their lack of gardening foolscap, but this might give you ideas on available sources in your area. For Dallas-area gardeners, though, take advantage of the surprise bounty, and make sure to send pictures of the process to the crew at the Dallas Morning News. I’m sure they and their advertisers would love to learn how much of an influence they have upon the horticultural arts.

– A tip of the hat to Barry Kooda, who has been dealing with the delivery of Briefing to empty lots in his neighborhood for a lot longer than I have.

Once more into the breach, once more

For those who didn’t know me in the black days known as “the Nineties,” I used to be a writer. Specifically, I used to write nonfiction for a plethora of science fiction magazines, culture zines, weekly newspapers, and other gathering posts for society’s detritus. After about 13 years of little recognition and less pay, I came to my senses and quit nearly a decade ago. I refer to my two temporary returns to standard writing as “relapses”, and it’s because of writing that I have sympathy and offer support for recovering heroin addicts. Writing is a nasty, foul, vile little business, and the only reasons I can see for wanting to go back to dealing with science fiction publishing are either addiction to the subject matter or a level of masochism that usually entails bunny suits, overflowing toilets, and six-foot sandstone strap-ons lubed with habanero peppers. (Now’s about the time I’m told by friends “Tell us what you really think.” That’s when I tell them about how the only way I got paid for one of those relapses was by threatening to out the personal E-mail addresses and phone numbers of every executive at SyFy if I didn’t receive my check, and they understand why I’d sooner get a hot Clorox enema than have to deal with that again.)

Strangely enough, though, I don’t have that level of hatred toward writing about horticulture. I have no delusions of reaching the heights of a Gertrude Jeckyll or even a Neil Sperry in garden writing. For me, it’s pure relaxation, spiced with a thrill coming from sharing new wonders with friends. And then there’s the cross-pollination with people in other endeavors: I haven’t found the right opportunity for another article about plants for Reptiles magazine, but the response to last year’s article on carnivorous plants in the vivarium gives me an itch to try this again.

Then there’s the newest addiction: dark gardening. And so now I start as the new gardening columnist for Carpe Nocturne magazine, starting with the Spring 2012 issue. Arioch, Issek, and Nyarlathotep help us all.