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Leonhardt Lagoon at Dallas’s Fair Park

Leonhardt Lagoon at Fair Park

I’m regularly asked why I stay in Dallas, all by people who have never so much as visited. Yes, it’s hot during our seemingly never-ending summers. Yes, Highland Park produces people so plastic and artificial that they’re just waiting to declare war upon the Daleks. Yes, we’re not known as a haven for artists, writers, or musicians, or at least the work ethic-challenged wannabes waiting for their first million-dollar contract, no matter how hard some city leaders try to turn us into another Portland or Austin. Sometimes that’s the biggest appeal, though, because Dallas forces you to appreciate the little bits of beauty and protect them. Such is the case of the Leonhardt Lagoon in the middle of Fair Park, just south of downtown.

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon sculpture

Lagoon lilypads

Leonhardt Lagoon

Lagoon sculpture

No, the previous photos aren’t left over from a celebration of the life of H.P. Lovecraft. The singular lagoon sculptures therein were created by Dallas artist Patricia Johanson, who wanted to renovate the lagoon with structures evocative of ferns and duck-potato. Not only are they open to the public (in fact, the park encourages people to climb onboard and view the indigenous plant and animal life close-up), but the portions not easily reached by humans are full of basking turtles on most sunny days.

Lagoon turtle

The vast majority of the turtles in the lagoon are the native red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), which feed on insects, fish, carrion, and water plants. Get up high, though, and be surprised at the mud turtles (Kinosternon subrubrum) staying out toward the center. The real fun, though, comes in winter, where walking out onto the platforms might startle a still-active snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) into ducking back under a platform.

Lagoon turtle

Rameses the Great commemorative stone

Not all of the wonders around the lagoon are natural. Half my life ago, Fair Park hosted the “Rameses the Great” exhibition of Rameses II artwork and artifacts, and the biggest trace was this commemorative stone left behind in 1989.

Rameses the Great commemorative stone

Jumbo

Likewise, the former Dallas Museum of Natural History building adds a bit to the lagoon’s feel. Back in 1986, construction in downtown uncovered the nearly complete remains of a Columbian mammoth, and volunteers restored and assembled the skeleton at the Museum. (Until the recent move to the new Perot Museum in downtown, that skeleton was one of the highlights of the Texas Giants Hall on the second floor of the old museum.) “Jumbo” is a bronze sculpture intended to give a life-sized view of how the mammoth appeared in life, perpetually overlooking the lagoon but not quite able to get over there for a drink.

Lagoon cypress

And since the main draw of the lagoon is the flora, it’s hard not to notice the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum var. distichum) growing along the banks. T. distichum is a native Texas tree, if not necessarily a native Dallas one: it’s usually found to the east and the south, where wetlands tend to stay wet in the summer. Thanks to the shape of the area, though, the lagoon has a humid microclimate that sustains and encourages the cypress, and it tends to grow much larger here than in most places in Dallas where it’s been introduced.

cypress cones

Cypress knees

The famed “knees” of bald cypress are more formally known as pneumatophores or aerial roots, which allow the roots to absorb oxygen in otherwise completely anaerobic conditions. These are also seen in mangroves and other mud-loving trees, but they’re not quite as impressive. The knees in the Lagoon’s cypresses range in size depending both upon their proximity to the lagoon and their proximity to the rest of the landscape: lawn mowers tend to keep them trimmed before they get too tall.

Cypress roots

Cypress knees

Cypress knees

Honey mesquite

Across from the bald cypresses, off Jumbo’s left shoulder, is this little garden space, featuring a real Dallas native. Mesquite is so common as a shrubby tree in the Dallas area, especially in overgrazed former cattle land, that even many natives don’t know how big it can get given half a chance. Most guides go on about the medicinal uses of mesquite, and you can’t talk about barbecue in Texas without someone talking about getting a cord of well-seasoned mesquite for the grille or smoker. Me, though, I just appreciate the big trees for what they are, and appreciate the shade they offer in the middle of summer.

Petrified log at the Lagoon

Finally, here’s a mystery right on the edge of the lagoon. As mentioned before, the whole of Fair Park was constructed as a World’s Fair exposition ground for the Texas state centennial in 1936, but a lot of history disappeared in the years after the city of Dallas took over the fairgrounds for the State Fair of Texas. Of particular note was this petrified log. Some stories relate that the north entrance to the fairgrounds featured an arch made of petrified wood, and this log has a concrete peg at one end that supports the idea (pun intended) of it being part of a larger monument. At the same time, though, nobody can find any definitive proof that any such structure existed. Yet the log exists, and it’s been sitting in that same space by the lagoon for the last quarter-century as proof. Anybody up for borrowing a time machine for a little while to take pictures of it in its old location? Or is it some silent sentinel from an unknown civilization in Texas’s distant past, just waiting for the right event to wake it up?

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Tales From The Ranch: Spot the Horsecrippler

As mentioned several months back, I’ve become extremely fond of the West Texas barrel cactus Echinocactus texensis. It’s not impressive, like many other species of barrel cactus. In fact, the reason why one of its common names is “horsecrippler” is that between blending into the local soil and growing in areas with lots of grassy cover, only two circumstances allow most people or animals to see one before they step on it. If the cactus isn’t blooming or bearing fruit, they’re nearly impossible to see without a very careful view of the locale.

Don’t believe me? Let’s play the latest Triffid Ranch game, “Spot the Horsecrippler”. Within the photo below are fourE. texensis in plain sight. Can you spot them? (I’ll even give a hint: two are directly in the center of the photo, one is up and to the right, while the last is over on the upper left.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 1

Okay, to be fair, we’re looking at a smaller photo, with standard Web-ready resolution. Let’s go for a much closer view. Spot any of them now?

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 2

If you didn’t spot any, congratulations. You now see why these cactus can be dangerous to humans and animals. If you did, I know a few red-tailed hawks who want to steal your eyes and use them for themselves. The problem isn’t just that horsecripplers are down low. It’s that they flatten out over the ground, and with a bit of grass and some faded flower blooms, they’re almost invisible.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 3

As mentioned before, at two times of the year is E. texensis easily visible, and for the same reasons. The blooms are gigantic compared to the cactus’s diameter, all the better for bees and other pollinators to see. The other time is when the fruit ripens, so it catches the eye of birds and other-color-seeking herbivores. Between the color and the scent, the fruit attracts everything from lizards to mice to pigs, and the seeds (roughly the size and consistency of buckshot) either scatter as the fruit is eaten or in the diner’s feces. Either way, after the fruit is gone, the cactus goes back to complete, welcome obscurity.

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 4

This isn’t to say that all E. texensis are, and forgive the pun, wallflowers. Occasionally, one comes across mutants with attention issues, growing well above the height of their neighbors. In garden and container environments, where nutrients and water are much more available than in the wild, horsecripplers will grow much larger and rounder, but not necessarily taller. This one is definitely E. texensis, based on the spine pattern and shape, but it may be interesting to see what happens with subsequent generations over the next few centuries. (Considering how slowly horsecripplers grow, this will have to be a multigenerational effort. Most of the cactus in these photos are at least 40 to 50 years old, and many out on the ranch may be two centuries old. Time for more research.)

Spot the Horsecrippler Cactus 5

All of this leads to speculation with, to paraphrase Joe Bob Briggs, absolutely no facts to get in the way of the story. Most smaller cactus species go for either cryptic coloration or impressive spines, and rarely do they go with both. If anything, most barrel cactus species herald their spines to encourage animals to walk and seek food elsewhere. Horsecripplers not only flatten out, but they also put down an impressive taproot to keep them anchored, and nothing alive today other than humans has the determination and the apparatus necessary to pull one out of the ground to eat it. What I wonder is if some form of the Pleistocene megafauna that used to wander this area during the last big glaciation had a taste for horsecrippler ancestors, deliberately seeking them out in grassland and pulling them up. If this was something that both had the time to dig up the cactus and had strong enough claws to scrape out the hard soil underneath, it explains why horsecripplers have such strong spines. Horses and cattle wouldn’t waste their time trying to chew on one, but what about ground sloths and glyptodonts?

Ah, now there’s an image you weren’t expecting to get from a gardening blog, were you? Naturally, this is all pure speculation based on E. texensis structure, and it can’t be proved without examples of glyptodont scat that show bits of chewed-up horsecrippler. The image, though, sticks. Texas gardeners already have enough of a problem with nine-banded armadillos digging up lawns and flowerbeds in the night in search of grubs and insects. Now just picture a vegetarian armadillo the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, galumphing into your back yard in a mad search for native cactus. Just remember: you have to sleep sometime.

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Vulture in Garland

20120525-185152.jpg

And this is why I stay in Texas. Garland: come for the Zombieland jokes, and stay for the vultures on the neighbor’s front porch. It doesn’t get more bluecollar goth than this.

NARBC, King of the Monsters

A few months back, I described the joy of the North American Reptile Breeders Conference in Arlington, complete with hat-tips to friends in the Greater Dallas/Fort Worth Bromeliad Society. At the time, the idea was to make plans for next year, because the NARBC only came through the Dallas area once per year, right?

Yeah, I thought that as well, until reading the newest issue of Reptiles magazine brought up a mention of an Arlington NARBC show at the end of August. It had to be a typo, right? We couldn’t be looking at a repeat of the biggest reptile, amphibian, and accoutrement show of its kind, and on Shirley Manson‘s birthday, could we?

Yep. August 25 and 26, at the Arlington Convention Center. Six months later, the cycle continues.

Now, as tempting as this would be for this year’s show, what makes life even better is the option for next year at that time. Next year at roughly the same time is LoneStarCon 3, the 2013 WorldCon, down in San Antonio, and friends and former writing compatriots have already started nuhdzing about my showing plants down there. Well, aside from the distance (mostly involving hauling plants in our famous Central Texas heat), there’s the near-impossibility of finding any vendor information on the site, and similar events run by the same people are notoriously unfriendly to any vendors selling anything other than books. Before the NARBC came up, my response was pretty uniform: “If I wanted to burn a weekend and a month’s pay listening to a herd of reactionary old people screaming about how the universe changed without their express approval and consent, I’d go to a family reunion.” Now, I’m welcoming. “Oh, sure, you could go to San Antonio with about 700 people who will arrive with one shirt and one $20 bill, and not change either for the next week, to an event run by many of the same people who ran the 1997 WorldCon. (And that’s a story I’ll tell for another time.) Or, OR, you could come up here and hang out for a weekend with anywhere between 3000 and 6000 of the coolest people you’ll ever meet in your life.” The choice is clear.

(And back to the subject of Reptiles, I’d like to recommend this new issue, just for the exceptional article on care of three-toed box turtles. Some of you may remember Stella, the world’s meanest box turtle, and her unrequited love affair with our cat Leiber. I can’t say that all three-toed box turtles have her level of personality, generally as vitriolic as it was toward humans, but I can definitely say they’re exceptionally intelligent and fascinating reptiles.)

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012: The Aftermath

Like the swallows of Capistrano, every year’s Texas Frightmare Weekend since 2009 starts and ends the same way. After spending weeks getting ready so nothing goes wrong, Friday morning opens and then EVERYTHING goes wrong. Grumble, grouse, contemplate going back to bed and not coming out until Monday morning. Rise above it, open up at 5:00 Friday evening, and then spend the entire weekend wishing that the party could keep going for the rest of the week. Come home and collapse, making plans for the next year as unconsciousness slides in. Repeat as necessary.

If there’s one big reason why I’m so enthusiastic about Frightmare, it’s because this show has one of the most interesting audiences I’ve ever seen. Quite literally, there’s no telling who may show up and say hello at the Triffid Ranch booth. Biology majors. Dentists. Stilt walkers. All of them come screeching to a halt and look surprised when they see a carnivorous plant vendor at a horror convention. I repeat: they’re the ones who are surprised.

By way of example, below is my dear friend Mischa Jordan, having left Jet Girl, Sub Girl, and Booga at home for the weekend in order to pose with a Nepenthes arrangement. Not only was she surprised to see an N. alata up close, but she was even more surprised to see the big stein it was in. (For obvious reasons, this arrangement was named “The Mullet of Metal”.)

Mischa Jordan with the “Mullet of Metal”.

Other than the initial difficulties of getting to the convention hotel and getting back out, thanks to ongoing road construction around DFW Airport, the only issue the whole weekend came from the lighting in the hall hosting the dealer’s room. Combine that with getting familiarity with a new camera, and I’ll state for the record that I plan to leave photography to the experts. Even with that aggravation, and lots of frustration with light levels and autofocusing, just look at the expressions on everyone’s faces.

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

Texas Frightmare Weekend 2012

As always, talking with the kids at shows is one of the great joys of setting up booths at said shows, and I had a real surprise. Among other guests was Madison Lintz, best known for playing “Sophia” in the cable series The Walking Dead, and she took a break on Sunday from signing autographs to wander around the dealer’s room. Not only was she intrigued by the plants in the first place, but she had no idea that the Atlanta Botanical Garden has a large carnivorous plant collection, including a Nepenthes collection. Since she mentioned that her teacher back home was offering her extra credit if she came back with interesting science information from Texas, I gave her my last spare copy of the May 2011 issue of Reptiles. If she becomes the Tippi Hedren of carnivorous plants when she gets older, well, it’s all my fault.

Madison Lintz

As of last check, the crew at Texas Frightmare Weekend still doesn’t have a complete count of the attendance, but I’m glad nonetheless that we were in a much larger space in a much larger hotel than in 2011. Between the Czarina and myself, when asked if we were going to be out for 2012, our simultaneous response was “Oh, HELL yes.”

More photos to follow…

Have a Great Weekend

I wonder why all of the “Sounds of the Nineties” radio stations leave this song out of their playlists? Not enough impotent whining to interest the programming directors, I guess.

Introducing Hemidactylus turcicus

As mentioned for a while, we have a lot of Mediterranean geckos (Hemidactylus turcicus) in the Dallas area. As can be told by the name, they’re not native in the slightest: they apparently arrived in the US in Florida on potted plant shipments, and they’ve been steadily moving west since the 1950s. The first time I ever noticed them was in 1990, where large adults were taking advantage of porch lights on an old apartment of mine to snag insects. Today, they’re all over Dallas, where they’re usually only noticed when they wriggle away from approaching humans on brickwork and stucco walls.

For the ophidiophobes out there, the Medgecko is a much better neighbor than the Tokay gecko (Gekko gekko), which has tried and failed many times to become acclimated to the Dallas area. (Back in the Eighties, a popular suggestion for dealing with cockroach problems in apartment buildings was to buy Tokays and then let them loose in the apartment. Not only did this do nothing to the roach population, but those happy new Tokay landlords discovered that they had a beast that bit and bit hard when approached. Tokays also have the charming habit of getting directly over a person on a ceiling or wall, barking loudly, and then crapping on the eager upturned face trying to identify the noise. I’ve heard of Tokays becoming dog-tame, but I’ll believe it when I see it: I’ve had too many encounters with them.) H. turcicus is very skittish around humans, and most encounters with one consists of hatchlings getting into a house in search of new territory. A Medgecko may spend its entire life in a territory about three meters from where it was born, and most of its species’ prodigious migration is due to females laying their eggs on moving trucks and shipping containers (the eggs actually glue themselves to the chosen surface), where the hatchlings emerge hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from the place of their laying. In Dallas at least, they don’t compete with indigenous geckos, and they do keep the bugs down a bit.

However, there’s always the joy of finding one inside, such as when the Czarina found a big adult in her bathtub a while back.

Hemidactylus turcicus

See the little dark patch in his abdomen? That’s his liver. H. turcicus is translucent enough that it’s possible to make out internal organs and stomach contents, and if you should be in front of a pane of glass on which one is resting, it’s actually possible to see its little heart beating. The translucency gives an idea of how delicate they are: many people come across them after they’d been captured by the local cat, usually with a leg or two broken and the tail removed. (The tail isn’t a big deal, as it auto-sheds at the slightest touch. It’s very rare to find a large one like this with a complete tail with proper markings, and most have tails the color of stale egg nog.)

Hemidactylus turcicus (closeup)

And before you ask, this little guy went back outside where he belonged. He couldn’t escape the bathtub, and now he’s ensconced in the greenhouse with others of his kind. Let them fight their war with the orbweaver spiders with one additional warrior.