Category Archives: Swimming in Strange Waters

Have A Great Weekend

Well, we’re at the end of the time at the Galleries at Midtown space. 18 months ago, we opened with wide eyes and no idea of what the future would bring. By February 28, most of the art galleries will be moved out, the last of the stores on the lower level vacated, and the inevitable demolition started. Valley View Center will be replaced with a new collection of apartments, office buildings, and retail space, but without ARTwalks, without random passersby, and without a lot of strange memories. Valley View deserves a final sendoff, but the move this weekend takes precedence. The new gallery awaits, and with it come new schemes and new stories, all of which wouldn’t have been possible if not for the last year and a half out here. And so it goes.

Glen Rose Interlude – 1

As can be told from the last year, managing the gallery means a dearth of posts. This is a shame on one level, because it means that an ever-expanding collection of photos builds up on backup drives, just waiting for a few minutes between plant maintenance, enclosure design and construction, ARTwalk setup and teardown, home maintenance, relationship maintenance, Day Job essentials, laundry, mowing the lawn, and the regular nervous breakdown every third Friday. If I had the time to find a definitive and permanent vaccine for sleep, I’d be all set.

With that said, with things cooling down and the temperate carnivores going to bed for the winter, it’s time to start updating and revising. Let’s start with a little palaeobotany trip down to Glen Rose, Texas, best known for its dinosaur trackways but full of all sorts of other surprises.

Glen_Rose_2016_17

The original idea, such as it was, was to get out of Dallas for a day during Memorial Day weekend and hit someplace that presumably hadn’t been flooded with May’s torrential rains. This time, it meant hitting Glen Rose, almost directly due south of Fort Worth, and stopping by Dinosaur Valley State Park. Neither of us had been out that way for a decade, but the idea of nature trails, antique stores, and possibly finding some of the Paluxy River’s famed Cretaceous petrified wood. The wood could wait: the dinosaurs couldn’t.

Glen_Rose_2016_12

Besides the draw of Dinosaur Valley State Park’s hiking and biking trails and campgrounds, there’s the real reason why people travel from all over the planet: its famed dinosaur trackways. Back in the 1930s, the fossil prospector Roland T. Bird rode into Glen Rose on a hot summer day on his Indian motorcycle and stopped for a drink of lemonade. While cooling off, he inspected a recently constructed bandshell next to the county courthouse, which was constructed of local stone. Among the huge chunks of gypsum and petrified wood was a fossil track of a predatory dinosaur, and inquiry by Bird led locals to show him the river bottom, which was literally paved with dinosaur tracks and trackways. Not only were the first scientifically described sauropod tracks found in the river, but they kept coming across tracks on multiple planes of what used to be muddy beach: one of the great surprises was of a whole trackway, most likely of the big predator Acrocanthosaurus and the sauropod Paluxysaurus, as the former chased the latter across mudflats. Those trackways were cut out and archived decades ago, but the river bottom still had other tracks to see, right?

Glen_Rose_2016_2

Well, as luck would have it, the Paluxy probably had plenty of new tracks visible to the naked eye…if the bearer of that eye also had gills. The river was as high as I’ve ever seen it, and about as clear and attractive as week-old coffee. It was also as close to white water as it could come, so taking a boat on it, even if that were allowed, was a remarkably bad idea. That didn’t stop innumerable innertubers on the nearby Brazos, but if the idea was to view geology instead of lining the banks with beer bottles, this was a bust.

Glen_Rose_2016_3Glen_Rose_2016_1

Maybe not a complete bust: on the far shore was a smooth softshelled turtle (Trionyx spp.) taking advantage of a lack of humans to get in a good bask. It stayed on the bank for about ten minutes, long enough to get photos, but it didn’t take well to spectators. Enough people collected on the near shore that the noise or the motion spooked it, and it slid off the sandbank and disappeared into the roiling river. Considering that the genus Trionyx is at least 45 million years old, and probably a lot older, it may not have been a dinosaur contemporary, but at least it added some ambiance. Besides, softshelled turtles are famously cantankerous, and since this one was the same diameter as a garbage can lid, anybody stupid enough to catch it would learn soon enough exactly how hard it could bite.

Glen_Rose_2016_10

Not far from the river were two old friends: the Tyrannosaurus and Brontosaurus statues from the 1962 World’s Fair, where they joined other life-sized dinosaurs in an outdoor exhibition sponsored by Sinclair Oil. These days, they’re in exceptional condition: when I first viewed them in the fall of 1980, they’d been neglected for decades since they were donated to Dinosaur Valley State Park. The Brontosaurus had been constructed in segments in order to make it easier to ship by boat to the New York World’s Fairgrounds, and the sparkle used to cover the seams had fallen out, giving it a strange checkerboard look. Meanwhile, the Tyrannosaurus had suffered from the loving attentions of the residents of Glen Rose: in 1980, it had all of two teeth left. Apparently, having a fake dinosaur tooth was a status symbol among Glen Rose teenagers, so the rest had been shot out with .22 rifles and picked up. That changed in the late Eighties with a big restoration and location change, though, and they look today as if they could go for a walk.

Glen_Rose_2016_8

(thick northern Australian accent) “Now, this is a mature tyrannosaur! He’s about fifteen meters; that’s about 50 feet! Now, I’m gonna sneak up behind and jam my thumb up his butthole! That’ll really piss him orf!”

Glen_Rose_2016_9

Incidentally, there’s a very good reason why this tyrannosaur has a trapdoor for a cloaca. By 1962 standards, the World’s Fair dinosaurs were marvels of animatronics, and this trapdoor allowed access to the mechanism that opened and closed the tyrannosaur’s lower jaw. I’d known for years that other dinosaurs had similar mechanisms (the Triceratops had a head that moved back and forth, and the Ankylosaurus had a tail club that wagged), but I’d been told for years that the Brontosaurus was completely immobile. Imagine my surprise at Caroline spotting guide at the front of the corral that described the brontosaur’s neck moving from side to side. Nearly 55 years later, and you still learn something new.

Glen_Rose_2016_6

Another drastic change from late 1980: in a strange way, this was a more accurate locale for a big sauropod than anybody thought. In 1980, the scientific consensus still held that the big sauropods were swamp-dwellers that used water to buoy their massive bulks. The Paluxy dinosaur tracks seemed to confirm this: although plenty of sauropod front and hind footprints showed up in the river, not a single tail dragmark showed, up, supposedly confirming that the tracks were made under enough water to float the tails out of the way. What’s understood now is that sauropods held their tails out of reach of a wayward herdmate’s foot, and that most sauropods actively avoided swamps in favor of well-drained floodplains. Ironically, while the conditions most favored by tyrannosaurs are best represented today by southern Louisiana and the Florida panhandle, most of the big Jurassic sauropods would have been most at home in plains like the ones around Dallas and Fort Worth. If they could deal with the drastic changes in vegetation, that is.

Glen_Rose_2016_5

And on the subject of Texas climate, the seeming dead-fish eye on the Brontosaurus has a slightly disturbing story. This is the third head on this statue: when the big restoration project on both statues started in the mid-1980s, an effort was made to put a new, scientifically accurate head on the Brontosaurus, when “Brontosaurus” became a nomen dubiam for the previously described Apatosaurus. Unfortunately, as is often the case with a lot of science art, the proponents of accurate sauropods ran right into proponents of preserving art in its original form, even if it’s wildly inaccurate. Ultimately, molds were found of the original head, and this fiberglass replacement was made from those mold and reattached. The eyes, though, were made of clear resin, which has fogged and crazed from just a few years of Texas’s wildly high levels of ultraviolet light. Texas cars very rarely rust out due to our climate removing any need for salting roads in the winter, but the tradeoff is cracking car dashboards from heat and auto paint that turns into watercolors in ten years.

Glen_Rose_2016_4

Surprisingly for the whole foofarol about redoing the bronto’s head, nobody talks about redoing the tyrannosaur to match current theories. Namely, covering it with feathers. Here, I argue that this statue needs to be left alone to illustrate how dinosaurs were portrayed in the Twentieth Century…and put in a new accurate one just down the road a ways. You have to admit that seeing a “Roadrunner From Hell” tyrannosaur once you enter the park is a great way to make lasting impressions on first-time park visitors, right?

To be continued…

Have a Great Canada Day

We’re now halfway through the year, and now is as good a time to take stock of where to go from here. That applies on a personal level: as far as the gallery is concerned, we now have a much better idea of the plan for the existing mall and the new outdoor mall that will be replacing it. While the new space is intriguing, it won’t be ready for at least another 2 1/2 years, so it’s time to find something in the interim. Details will follow, but rest assured that we’re staying here until the end of the year, with one last big gathering at the ARTwalk on December 21. After that, we’re moving, with the idea of being set up and ready to go by the time show season gets going in March and April.

Anyway, hitting that midpoint means celebrating a very important day at the Triffid Ranch: Canada Day. This isn’t just to celebrate my people’s answer to Doctor Who, but also the man who led directly to popularizing one of the most famed genera of carnivorous plant in the world: Michel Sarrazin. He may not have been the first human to see the first examples of the plant later named after him, but he definitely helped bring it to its current high level of popularity. Even today, the provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador is just as fascinating as it was when Nineteenth-Century naturalists confirmed that it could capture and digest insect prey, and it all started because Sarrazin had a keen curiosity for the fauna and flora of his adopted home. We all should be so lucky as this.

“It’s the beginning of the end, nothing lasts forever…”

The last nearly twelve months of work on the Triffid Ranch gallery have been among the most productive and successful months of my entire life. Besides having the opportunity to work on larger enclosures than what was practical or sane to bring out to Triffid Ranch shows and lectures, it helped buffer the massive leap between a home-based business and one that might actually grow into a full-time retail establishment. I’ve met an incredible number of wonderful people, heard a lot of fascinating commentary, and managed to juggle full-time employment and gallery fun with only a few regrets that nobody has discovered the 87-hour day. The only other regret is that this stage ends in another six months.

Upon moving in, every artist at the Galleries at Midtown knew that this was a great but ephemeral opportunity. We knew from the beginning that the once-great Valley View Center, which had survived innumerable threats from other shopping venues only to succumb to the power of the smartphone, was going to be demolished and replaced with an outdoor mall arrangement. We knew from the beginning that we’d best make hay while we had the chance, because the combination of central location and inexpensive rent would end once the next stage started. We knew all this, and yet it’s still hard to get over how the current gallery residents will be the last people in Valley View Center as the lights go out and the demolition crews come in. Gee, it’s as if life imitates art:

Well, we got the word last week, but the official notice came out today: the city of Dallas approved the new plan for the mall redevelopment, so everything has to be turned off by December 31 as part of the deal. We’ve been told by the owner that they’re seeking an interim location for the galleries until the new MidTown is complete, and that gallery and workshop space is going to be part of the draw for MidTown, but that’s at least three years away. In the interim, the Triffid Ranch is moving.

Where we’re moving is a good question: a lot depends upon location, rent, and available parking. “When” is a good question as well: we’re going to stick it out in the current location for as long as we can, knowing that when the Christmas season ends, we’re leaving whether we like it or not. In the interim, work continues at the space, we’ll continue to prepare for shows and events, and ARTwalk, obviously, continues all through the remaining time here. In particular, stick around for the one-year anniversary party on August 20 (this doubles as Caroline’s birthday party, so grab cake and barbecue while you’re here), and let’s celebrate what we have while we still have it.

When we moved in, we figured realistically that we’d have a year in the space before the demolition started, and we hoped for two years. 18 months is a good compromise. Now let’s see where we go from here.

“And so it begins.”

Oztopus mural

To steal blatantly from Harlan Ellison, we’ll start at the middle, and then go back to the beginning. The end will take care of itself.

Nearly six weeks after signing the lease and starting to move in, the new Triffid Ranch space is nearly ready. The official launch date is September 19, 2015, to coincide with the September ArtWalk. It’s not a standard retail space: it’s a gallery, open by appointment only, but also a workspace in order to get new arrangements and new plants ready for new shows. That said, the real fun should be starting in October, once the heat breaks, the days get shorter, and the air in Dallas no longer smells like burning flint. Enter the mall and head for the octopus mural, take the escalator downstairs, and we’re right at the bottom.

Storefront
The beginning.
A lot has changed with the Triffid Ranch since that first show in the fall of 2008, and much of it involves economics of scale. As the shows increased in popularity and people started coming out specifically to see what plants were available, the need to expand became obvious. For all of the assumptions that the Ranch was specifically that, particularly with the number of people calling at ungodly hours because “I’m coming through Dallas at 3 in the morning, so I wanted to come by then to see your plants,” it’s always been a home-run business since the beginning. Sarracenia in the back yard, Drosera and Stylidium in the greenhouse, and Nepenthes and Cephalotus on shelves inside the house so our horrendous summer heat and dryness didn’t wilt them within minutes.

Storefront Side

This worked for a while, and we kept expanding, but rapidly the Triffid Ranch ran into the same snag as any other home-founded business. Namely, houses aren’t conducive toward running horticulture-based businesses. We needed room, a lot of room, to expand past one or two shows per year. We needed room to construct larger enclosures than the little jars that were the stalwarts of small shows. We needed room to exhibit those larger enclosures, because while attendees would thrill to seeing Nepenthes arrangements where the plants were at a decent size, nobody had the interest in taking them home. Honestly, that’s understandable: considering the number of international guests at Texas Frightmare Weekend, it’s hard enough bringing home a one-gallon plastic arrangement on the plane, but a converted 30-gallon hexagon tank with a plant big enough to eat small children and puppies? Naah.

Another factor that kicked in was that the show schedule was having issues. Covering expenses meant continuing to work a day job, and recent changes in that day job precluded my taking a week off to prepare, attend, and break down from big shows out of the Dallas area. In and out of Dallas, the old show regimen was changing, too. Every twenty years, we see a regular crash on local conventions: they start out feisty and hungry at the beginning of a recession, and the attendees really get into the festivities as a way to forget their aggravations and fears for at least one weekend. This lasts until the economy starts to improve, the curiosity-seekers move on, and the regulars realize that their own day jobs, families, and financial obligations are getting in the way. This usually gets aggravated by the number of shysters and incompetents who hear Some Guy stories about how science fiction and media conventions are a perfect way to print their own money, fail in a spectacular fashion, and thus poison the well for everyone else. Shortly after leaving the 2014 hiatus with Texas Frightmare Weekend, two shows for which I was scheduled blew up in a rather spectacular fashion, with fellow vendors bringing up the words “class action lawsuit” when they weren’t bringing up “put the organizer into a parking lot, put a gasoline-filled tire around his neck, and set him on fire.” Considering the number of touring vendors for whom cancellations don’t just mean a missing paycheck but a whole missing week of expenses between shows, I figured that it was about time to look for other venues. The Triffid Ranch isn’t quitting conventions and trade shows: there’s no way that I’d miss out on Frightmare or next year’s All-Con, as well as this November’s Funky Finds Holiday Experience in Fort Worth. It’s just that fewer and fewer vendors can risk the first-year shows that might be great, or might be the next Fed-Con USA.

And then the Texas summer intruded. In the last five years, we lost two beautiful old silverleaf maples that worked very well at shading the main growing areas all summer. Then our neighbor had no choice but to take out two equally majestic elms that shaded the whole of the house from the afternoon sun, and afternoon sun in Texas can be a killer. Both trees had such a wood-borer beetle infestation that they would have come down atop the house had they remained, so I didn’t blame him in the slightest, but their removal meant that a prime grow room became a prime bread oven by about three in the afternoon. Fans, extra air conditioners, improved circulation: nothing changed the fact that the plants kept indoors were overheating, and I lost several much-beloved Nepenthes cultivars in the early summer from heat exhaustion. It was time to move.

Storefront lit from within
That’s where things get entertaining. Taking over and converting one of Dallas’s many light industrial spaces was always an option, except to clients who might have issue with coming out to an otherwise empty industrial park a few hours after dark. Standard retail space usually comes with the requirement of having to be open for business during standard business hours, which gets in the way of the Day Job necessary to finance the expansion for its first year or so. The best option would be a gallery of some sort, except most of Dallas’s gallery space is now renting for absolutely insane prices, and moving enough plants to pay the rent just simply wouldn’t be possible.

Please note that I said “most of Dallas’s gallery space.” This is important.

Store interior
When it first opened 42 years ago, North Dallas’s Valley View Mall was one of the first indoor shopping malls in the area, and it definitely wasn’t its last. It survived multiple threats of shutdown and demolition that took out the neighboring Prestonwood and Richardson Square Malls, and it seemed to be making a comeback around 2005 with the addition of whole new third floor, with a brand new AMC movie theater taking up that floor. Then the original owners, leveraged up to their eyeballs, disappeared and defaulted on their various loans, and the city of Dallas found itself owning a very large shopping mall, in what would be a prime area once expansion of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Freeway was complete. Until that work on LBJ was done, though, the mall still had to be maintained for the theater. Anchor stores JCPenney and Foley’s moved out or went under, leaving only the Sears at one end. In between, business slowly trickled away, and the stores followed. By 2010, the mall was pretty much dead.

Back Room

The good news was that a new owner came in, with a new idea. The plan was to demolish the Valley View Mall and replace it with a huge facility called Midtown, which included a new theater, apartments, shops, and even a park that ran through the middle of it. That work would have started shortly after the mall’s purchase, but the Great Recession intruded. The mall couldn’t just be taken down: several long-running tenants weren’t leaving just yet, AMC wanted a new theater before it allowed its very successful existing one to come crashing down, and the Sears was fully owned by its parent company. Since the big theater expansion, the demand for shopping mall space crashed as companies such as Gadzooks and Waldenbooks died off and others cut back on mall presence. With the decreased traffic due to the LBJ expansion and new malls going up in the far northern suburbs, Valley View was seen as an anachronism, but its demolition couldn’t happen until the stars were right. So what to do?

That’s where the owners came up with brilliance. The mall itself had to remain open: that was the only way to access the movie theater. That meant rooftop maintenance to prevent leaks, keeping air conditioning going, a facilities crew to sweep floors and keep the electricity connected, and all of the other factors necessary to keep this 1970s-era artifact going. The solution: what about converting the empty shops into art galleries?

When I first heard the idea behind the Gallery at Midtown, this coincided with its regular ArtWalk exhibition on the third Saturday of each month. Every third Saturday, the galleries open their doors from 6 to 10 in the evening to the general public, and the festivities include live music, food, and all sorts of other amenities. What really surprised me about this was the general vibe. Dallas gets a reputation for being unfriendly to the arts, and some of that reputation is justified: we locals learned back in the Eighties to be very quiet about new venues, because as soon as word got out, the area would be overrun with speculators famed for letting tenants do all of the work on a space and then kicking them out because some yuppie made vague noises about paying three times the rent. Here, that’s not a concern, and it shows.

IMG_0685

Now here’s the kicker. The new space means a significantly enlarged workspace in a very central location, accessible from almost anywhere in north Texas. The rent is reasonable, the neighbors are wonderful, and those looking for new gallery space should check on it now. We’re also working against the clock. Sooner or later, depending upon when the next stage on Midtown starts, the mall is coming down, and everyone in it will have to relocate. That could happen by the end of the year, and it could happen two years from now. We don’t know, and neither does anybody else. In the meantime, this was a perfect opportunity to expand, we get at least one equivalent of a show every month without having to get trucks, carts, and extension cords, and the people who want to come by “to see the plants” can come up to the front window and look to their hearts’ content. Things may change. Things may change very rapidly. The plan, though, is to give this as much of a chance as we can, and see what next year brings. Here’s to seeing all of you next September 19.

The New Tenant

Most of this last weekend was a blur. Reports of an impending winter storm meant that getting everything secured for freezing weather was imperative, which required lots of time in the greenhouse. This included deadheading Sarracenia seed pods in order to get seeds for next spring, applying new greenhouse film, taping everything down, and otherwise cleaning up before our promised Icepocalypse 2014 arrives by Tuesday night. In go the hoses, back go the sprinkler heads, under cover go the faucets. The rainwater tanks are full, the spare pots moved into shelter, the tender succulents put next to thermal mass and the citrus up against a south-facing wall…I’m a firm believer in the power of negative thinking, where planning for the absolute worst means that you’re ahead of the game if the absolute worst doesn’t happen. (This is why I should have bought a decommissioned fallout shelter years back, because it would make a great tropical carnivore grow house, but that’s a different dangerous vision.)

Anyway, with the exception of a spare “Miranda” Nepenthes pitcher plant and a Brocchinia carnivorous bromeliad, all of the tropical carnivores were secured indoors for the winter, and I checked on the Miranda as I first entered the greenhouse. The whole neighborhood is infested with a rather large population of Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis), with their regularly camping out among sweet potatoe, Carolina jessamine, and hibiscus leaves, so it wasn’t that much of a surprise to find one in the greenhouse. The surprise was in one using Nepenthes leaves as a hammock.

Anole
Since I wasn’t completely prepared, I ran inside to get a camera, hoping that he wouldn’t run off in the interim. I’d forgotten that either anoles are loath to leave a good loafing lounge, or they’re hams. This one actually hung out long enough to pose for a while.

Anole

After a few minutes getting shots, Ta’Lon finally decided that I was hanging out too close and too long, so he got up to leave, keeping one eye on me at all times. While not possessed of the independent eye action of true chameleons, anoles have their moments. (By the way, take a closer look at the rear foot in the photo. Something that I hadn’t realized until this photo is that anoles have opposable toes on both front and rear feet. The difference is that theirs are the equivalent of our little fingers and toes. I can definitely see the advantages of this for a small lizard in grasping thin leaves and stems, but this was a wonderful surprise all the same.)

Anole

Well, I backed off for a little while, and came back about ten minutes later. In that time, had he been replaced with a new, brown lizard?

Anole
Nope: not at all. Anoles are regularly referred to as “American chameleons” because of their color changing abilities. They have neither the range of color or pattern as true Old World chameleons, but they can shift from a deep green to a deep brown in a matter of about a minute. Ta’Lon apparently decided that either the weather wasn’t quite right, or that I was aggravating him, because he started to switch back the next time I came through.
Anole

I’ve watched a lot of anoles in my life, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see one change color, and I never thought I’d be lucky enough to photograph one in the middle of a color transition. That said, I realized that I’d have to check any plants being brought indoors for the winter for wayward anole eggs. The females have a habit of laying their eggs in planted containers because the soil is so loose and well-drained, and while I both enjoy hatchling anoles and their color-changing attributes, I’d prefer not to do so while trying to catch the baby frantically running up and down my bathtub in an effort to escape. Especially not in the middle of January.

Essential viewing for rose gardeners

As an aside from normal subjects, I’ve taken issue for quite a long time on the idea that horticulture is too boring a subject to be worthy of popular media renditions. After spending two separate days cleaning up rose bushes only now recovering from last winter’s repeated cold strikes, I beg to differ. Not only is there drama, excitement, and pathos involving roses, but the best documentary about pruning heirloom roses came out last summer:

And you think I’m kidding? After the second round on Thursday evening, call me “Cherno Alpha”, because I almost literally had my ass handed to me. Judging by the blood spray all over the back yard fence, either the rose gave as good as it got, or I had a very intense heavy petting session with a band saw. The moment someone builds real Jaegers for trimming back roses, Osage oranges, citrus, and mesquite, I’m buying it right then and there, because sometimes to fight monsters, you need to make monsters of your own.