Irreverent Musings on Nature

Print cover frontHere’s a new review of The Absurd Naturalist, posted on Amazon by writer, editor, and reviewer Don Martin. Like all authors, I enjoy reading reviews (especially good ones), but this one is particularly entertaining in the way it creatively weaves together some of my essays in a playful, irreverent tone befitting the essays. Thanks, Don!

on August 16, 2015
This handsome volume contains 43 essays tangentially related to the subject of naturalism, or if you prefer, the avocation of being a naturalist. I use the term ‘tangentially’ very loosely here, because I am just not so sure. Maybe if you stretched it a bit, but that would be fine because the stories are quite good.Where else might you read about the evolution of the toaster oven, and which naturally-selected physical traits you should look for when considering a replacement model? Or, have you recently considered the question of same-species marriage? No matter where you come down on the issue I think we’d all agree that procreation should be limited to an intra-species affair. When you start to cross-breed, say, people and cats, or maybe dolphins and polar bears, you can never really be sure what you’ll get. And the author treats us to what he claims is the first X-rated naturalist essay, which would be an oddity indeed! Unfortunately he strays badly afield and we never really get to the juicy good parts.Perhaps you may be considering becoming a naturalist yourself. Why you would ever want to do that I just don’t know, but no worries! Contained herein are two companion essays, ‘The Well-Dressed Naturalist’ and ‘The Well-Equipped Naturalist.’ Careful study of those chapters will allow you to at least pretend to be a naturalist, and do a convincing job of it, even though you probably have no formal training in the science and have certainly never studied it.And, of course, you’ll need to know how to keep javelinas out of your garden, which you can never actually do, so the best bet there is just to peacefully coexist with them. Which is not the recommended approach when it comes to packrats. Packrats mean an all-out war, man on rat, to the death! You will not win that one either. After considering the various animal species you will certainly, as a pseudo-naturalist, want to move on to the world of plants. And you’ll certainly need some legal advice on how to file wrongful-death lawsuits on behalf of your dearly departed zinnias. You know those ones. The ones who looked perfectly green and healthy at the nursery, but which suddenly expired of some mysterious ailment as soon as you bought them, brought them home, and lovingly planted them in your garden?

This book sits right on the line between humor and satire, and it sits there very well indeed. Good satire is becoming a lost art, and it’s refreshing to see someone who knows his way around it. I guarantee you that you’ll at least smile as you read these short essays, and I’d be willing to bet you’ll even catch yourself laughing out loud at times. They really are that good! The Absurd Naturalist is quite entertaining, and is very highly recommended.         Buy a copy here: Amazon

Living in Agaveland

The Absurd NaturalistAN Transparent

I very much doubt if Carl Linnaeus ever planted an agave in his life. He was the Swedish taxonomist who in 1753 chose the name for this genus from a Greek word meaning admirable or noble. If he had planted one, the Greek word for pain or some choice obscenity would have come to mind instead.

It is hard to plant an agave without getting jabbed once or twice by a terminal spine. This is the rigid, ridiculously sharp spine found at the leaf tips of most agaves. On some species, such as Agave salmiana, it is a long and gracefully recurved, eye-gouging thing of beauty. Some species also have a steroid compound on the surface of the spine that enhances the stabbing pain. Agaves are like that.

The late Howard Scott Gentry, taxonomic wizard of this genus, referred to the general range where agaves can be found as Agaveland, as if it were some kind of mythical kingdom. Armed with sharp teeth, the spiraling rosettes do seem to occupy their rocky posts like guardians of a distant realm. There are 200-250 species of agaves occupying the drier sites of virtually every kind of habitat, from sea level to over 8,000 feet, throughout much of the arid Western U.S., Mexico and Central America as well as the West Indies.

The teeth and spines are supposedly there to protect the plant’s short stem and soft flower stalk from attack by predators. But cattle will eat agaves when really hungry. Javelina will eat them any time they please. And the most serious pests of all are rabbits, blithely eating around the formidable teeth and spines, proving once again that there is no such thing as a perfect weapon.

Some of the agaves resort to chemical defenses. Agave lechuguilla, for example, contains a substance toxic enough to kill goats. It has been suggested that some of these smaller agaves might be planted to protect areas subject to overgrazing. The goat people might get upset about this.

Agave leaves are usually glabrous, which means without hairs, though it sounds as if it should mean something else. As leaves go, they are remarkably long-lived, persisting for as long as 15 years or the entire life of the plant unless hacked off by some idiot who thinks agaves should look like pineapples.

Like many late blooming humans, most agaves are monocarpic, flowering but once in a lifetime. They may take anywhere from 8 to 20 years to flower. The flower stalks on the larger species may reach up to 40 feet in height. These monumental projections of plant matter undoubtedly helped to inspire the word “admirable.” Gentry compares this rapid growth to “a boiler building up a head of steam.” To erect this mighty structure the agave must use up so much of its stored carbohydrate reserves that the leaves are drained and, in most species, the whole plant must die.

In agave flowers, the petals and sepals are hard to tell apart, so scientists just say the hell with it and call them all “tepals,” which does have a cute ring to it.

As a landscape plant, the agave is hard to beat. Not only is it drought tolerant, but its spiral form tends to collect and direct water down to the roots—the plant almost irrigates itself.

Few plants have been as intimately involved in human culture. Their fiber and fleshy hearts have been used for everything from food, clothing and shelter to fish stringers, paintbrushes and musical instruments.Various tribes in Mexico have cultivated agaves for centuries. The thick short stem known as a “cabeza” is a rich source of carbohydrates that provided Native Americans with the fermented beverage known as pulque. Gentry points to the considerable effect this drink had on “the esoteric and exotic development of Mesoamerican culture.” That’s one way of putting it.

Those coming later to American shores also found agaves appealing for the mescal and tequila that they could provide. A single Agave tequilana, upon maturity, can produce a cabeza weighing up to 100 pounds, which when distilled is enough to make about 5 liters of tequila. Talk about admirable qualities.

I think of all these things as I plant yet another agave. True to form, one of its stout spines just narrowly misses my eye, and once again I am quietly grateful for my vision and for living in Agaveland.                     ©Gene Twaronite 2015   

Originally published in 5enses January 2015






The Absurd Naturalist is Here!

Print cover frontAt long last, after more than thirty years, my book is finally here. A complete guide to everything you need to know about toad throwing, tofu hunters, same-species marriage, the right to bear arms, the origin of toaster ovens, why gardening is bad for you, and MORE. Available now from Amazon:

As always, your reviews and comments are most welcome. Cheers!

“Gardening in Difficult Places” by the Absurd Naturalist

Gardening is always a challenge. Even in the mildest climates, with abundant rain, keeping our plants alive and looking good is no small achievement. But there are places in this world with such extreme limiting factors as to sorely test even the most determined gardener.

Consider Antarctica, for example. You wouldn’t think water would be a limiting factor there, when the continent contains 70% of the world’s fresh water. Only problem, it’s frozen. There’s not a lot of soil, either. 99.68% of the land area is covered by an ice sheet. The mean summer temperature, by the way, is -30 degrees C.—a considerable stretch for even the cold hardiest garden plants.

Gardening on a live volcano also poses challenges. While volcanic soils can be quite fertile, gardeners should be advised to wait at least until the lava cools off and hardens a bit. Although a common roadside plant called noni is one of the first plants to colonize cracks in lava flows around Mount Kilauea in Hawaii, so far as we know no species of plant can tolerate molten rock. It’s also really tough on gardening shoes.

Sometimes the challenge lies in a place not commonly thought of as a potential garden. Sitting on a jetliner as it taxied down the runway one day, I got to thinking about the depressingly boring landscape of its wings and why no one ever tries to plant anything there. Do other passengers feel the same way, I wonder? While I can understand some of the gardening problems posed by traveling at 600 MPH at an elevation of 30,000 feet, that is no excuse. Think of how much more pleasant our air travel might be if we had nice hedges and beds of colorful flowers to look at against the backdrop of clouds. All plants would have to be kept severely pruned back, of course, in the name of both visibility and aerodynamic efficiency, but every garden has its compromises.

And think of how much more pleasant our daily commute might be, if we allowed ourselves the time and space for a little garden inside our cars. It wouldn’t have to be grandiose in scale. Perhaps a neat little rock garden of low growing plants on the dash, and maybe some beds of day lilies or irises in the back seat. Particular emphasis should be given to plants requiring a minimum of deadheading, pruning and other maintenance, as these can get a bit tricky in heavy traffic.

Even our bodies present abundant opportunities. Just think of all the unused spaces and orifices in the average body. For instance, instead of bemoaning a lack of hair on one’s head, consider the possibility of trying out new kinds of vegetation there. With a little site preparation and adequate irrigation, the hair challenged gardener could grow a nice head of fescue or bluegrass—a far superior alternative to most toupees. For a more exotic, full-headed look, one could try pothos or Algerian ivy. Speaking of ivy, it would be a far more welcome sight across the dinner table than the ugly growth of chest hair curling out from under your open shirt. And think of all the little pockets of opportunity in our clothes. I can imagine a time in the not too distant future when no well dressed man or woman would dare venture out into open society without some strategically placed little flowers and ferns growing from every pocket, hem, and trouser cuff.

Perhaps someday we’ll even have gardens in outer space. We could start with the International Space Station. Sure, they’ve got a few experimental plants up there, but how about a nice rose garden or veggie patch for those astronauts? They’ll have to make the station a whole lot bigger, and haul up tons of soil, water, and fertilizer, especially if they want trees and turf. And they’ll need more gravity, too. For some reason plants are fussy about growing under weightless conditions.

Who knows, maybe we can even get some gardens going on Mars. True, it makes Antarctica look like a resort. The average temperature at mid-latitudes is a chilly -50 degrees C. The thin atmosphere is composed mostly of carbon dioxide. And what little water there is remains frozen beneath the ground or at the poles. So we’d have to find ways to heat things up to melt the ice, and get some oxygen into the atmosphere. But I’ll bet the soil’s good. Maybe we could send some gardening robots there to prep things first. If we can put a man on the moon, we can plant some petunias on Mars.
                                                    ©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses July 2014