To Procreate, or Not

The_Big_Game_of_Africa_(1910)_-_Black_&_White_RhinosA female white rhino, on average, can produce 11 offspring during her lifetime. Who knows how many more are sired by the male rhino … or Mick Jagger, for that matter. A nine-banded armadillo can produce 54, while lemmings and rabbits can produce hundreds. Spreading your genes around is the first rule of life. From an evolutionary standpoint, I’m a complete failure.

The closest I ever got to procreating was in my early twenties when the young woman I was dating and hoped to marry asked me pointblank if I wanted to have children. Yes, I told her, of course. I even convinced myself that I really did. Men will do anything to get a woman into bed.

Fortunately for both of us, she saw through me (the fact that at the time I was employed in a pet shop, dreaming about all the successful books I would write, may have also made her think twice about my future financial prospects). We went our separate ways, sparing me not only thousands of dollars on an engagement ring worthy of my potential fiancé’s expensive tastes, but the inconceivable tragedy of my becoming a parent.

Growing up, I never thought much about having kids. I just didn’t see it as a life goal, the way some people have always known that they wanted to be parents. I want exactly seven—three boys and three girls and one … well, whatever the Good Lord gives us—dealer’s choice.

Occasionally I caught myself thinking about what it might be like. Taking my little boy or girl hiking. Trying to explain the mysteries of sex or how to fry an egg. Passing on my genes and values to some little person with maybe the same blue eyes and big ears, who would for a time worship the ground I walk on and demand all my waking moments, then completely ignore me in her teens, and later call me a terrible drunken monster when she wrote her memoir at 32.

According to a 2013 Gallup poll, over half of all U.S. citizens 18 to 40 already have kids, and even the 40% who don’t still hope to have them someday. Only six percent of this group do not want to have any children, under any circumstances. Seems I’m in the minority.

But at least among the 75 million or so millennials in this country, I have company. According to a recent Cassandra report, fully a third of them do not want kids. Many see this as a deliberate lifestyle choice or not wanting to take on the significant responsibilities that go with parenting. And they don’t seem at all worried about what people will think. Gotta love those millennials.

Of course, if your spouse or significant other really wants kids, it’s hard to say no. I could very well have ended up reproducing, whether I wanted to or not, had I not had the incredible good fortune of meeting and marrying my one and only wife, Josie. She never wanted kids, either. How lucky was that!

I realize that, if every human on the planet shared my views, we would soon go extinct, which might not be a bad idea, considering how our species has totally messed up the planet. We’re not exactly the pinnacle of evolution. We’ve had long enough to change our ways. Why not put some other species, preferably with more intelligence, say ravens, elephants, or even white rhinos, in control of things? The earth would do just fine without us, as it has for billions of years.

Baby naked mole rat

Could be I’m just lacking a baby gene. While other people gush about how cute the new baby is, I’m heading for the door, especially if pictures are involved. The only thing worse than kiddie pictures are dog pictures. Let me know how the kid (or dog) turns out at 21, then we’ll talk. And face it, some babies are about as cute as a newborn naked mole rat.

I could blame my attitude on my maternal grandmother, whom I adored, having spent many idyllic early days on her farm. I remember her warning me how the world was getting worse every day and never to bring kids into this world. Of course, she could have been just tired of putting up with all her own kids’ crap—she had four—or with me, for that matter. I was always getting into trouble, shooting fish and frogs in her pond with my BB gun or cutting down trees in the woods with my ax and leaving three-foot-tall stumps (well, she did ask me to clear out some of the shrubs and trees encroaching on the field).

Not that it’s likely, but I can think of several good reasons why I shouldn’t procreate. First of all, my wife still doesn’t want to. And I doubt very much if she would approve of me spreading my seed around, even if it might potentially benefit the human gene pool. It also sounds like a lot of work, and would impinge on my afternoon naptime.

Second, if I ever did have a kid—perish the thought—I would undoubtedly be a terrible father, the kind who thinks the only good music is classic rock and embarrasses his kids by continuing to wear in public tight Rolling Stones T-shirts over his advancing pot belly.

Finally, there are plenty of people who still want to have kids, as well as plenty who have them accidentally. There are far too many of us here already, with more on the way. As I see it, I’m doing my bit for the planet. The two, four, six (hey, why not twelve, as long as we’re being hypothetical?) kids Josie and I might have had are a counterbalance to those being born. Plus I’ve kept my genes out of the gene pool, which on further reflection is probably a good thing. One Gene is quite enough.


New Review of The Absurd Naturalist

Check out this new review of my latest book “The Absurd Naturalist.” Available at Amazon…/…/1502977281
A Fun ReadPrint cover front
By Niche on March 2, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
Gene has a naturalist’s focus and curiosity – he combines his observations in nature with wry twists on the wide variety of topics his essays cover. Open this book, pick an essay, and you will find yourself smiling as well as gleaning some insights into the natural world in the process.

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!

For Their Own Good

The last big extinction event on earth was around 65 million years ago, when a giant asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs along with much of the rest of life on earth. During the last few centuries, however, hundreds of species have vanished as a direct result of human activity, and the rate is accelerating. While not as messy or sudden as an asteroid, our hairy ape species seems hell-bent on creating the next big wave of extinctions.

According to one website, the total number of species known to be threatened with extinction is nearly 17,000. Since we still don’t even know how many species of plants and animals there are on this planet—it could be three million or ten million—this number likely represents only a tiny fraction of the true number.

Some animals are so critically endangered that it’s hard to see how they’re going to make it. Take rhinos, for example. According to the website “,” black rhinos have plummeted from an estimated population of 65,000 in 1970 to just 5,055 today. Asian species are even worse off, with numbers only in the hundreds.

But try telling this to the millions of people who still believe that powdered rhino horn can cure everything from cancer to foot fungus, despite there being not a shred of scientific evidence that it serves any medical purpose at all. Powdered rhino horn is still an integral part of traditional Chinese pharmacy, and can fetch tens of thousands of dollars per kilogram. Against this irrational belief the rhinoceros stands little chance.

Desperate times require desperate solutions. Merely creating new regulations or preserves won’t cut it anymore. Namibia, for example, was the first country to use “dehorning” as a means to protect their rhinos from poaching. On the face of it, it sounds pretty disgusting. What’s a rhino without its horns? But maybe it’s for their own good. Indeed, ever since Namibia began its program, no rhinos have been poached, though other countries have been less successful with this approach. Since the horns grow back over time, the rhinos have to be regularly monitored and dehorned every 12-24 months. For the Namibians, however, a rhino without horns is better than no rhino at all.

Recently a turtle conservancy in California employed a similar technique with two of its rare ploughshare tortoises, valued by exotic animal collectors for their beautiful golden domed shells. So essentially they disfigured their shells by branding them with identification markers that will make them both easier to track and less appealing to collectors, who will often pay tens of thousands of dollars for an unblemished tortoise. In all, they hope to brand all of the less than 700 specimens still alive in the world. Other rare tortoise species are likewise being uglified.

Perhaps this idea of removing the source of the problem, be it a horn or a beautiful shell, could be applied to other animals. Simply remove the tusks from elephants, for example, to keep them from being poached for ivory. They won’t like it very much, but it’s for their own good. Similarly, animals killed for their horns or antlers, such as the Saiga antelope, Asian red deer, and certain species of wild cattle, might just have to lose those appendages in order to be saved.

Unfortunately, such an approach wouldn’t work with some species, such as endangered tigers. Since each of their body parts right down to the bones are valued for traditional folk medicine, it would be difficult to know where to start. On the other hand, with musk deer, which are killed for their musk glands, surgical removal of the gland in question just might work. And animals killed and threatened for their fur, such as spotted cats, fur seals, and South American otters, could be regularly sheared, which is probably a lot more difficult than it sounds. While the prospect of a bunch of naked jaguars and otters running around is not exactly appealing, again it is for their own good.

Of course, if we wish to remove the real source of the problem, perhaps we should start with us. Our human population of over 7 billion is projected to reach 9.6 billion by the year 2050. This means that an additional two and half billion people will require more land, food, water, and other resources, with less room for other living things. If you think things are bad now, just wait. Ironically, this is not only bad for other species, but for us as well. As species go extinct, we will lose a host of natural products used for real medicines, food, and building materials, along with the vital services that wild plants and animals provide, including air and water purification and pollination of our food crops. So I propose that every fertile human being on the planet undergo a little operation—a much simpler one than removing musk glands or rhino horns—to keep each of us from reproducing again. Maybe someday, when human numbers have returned to less harmful levels, we could allow a few of us to breed under carefully controlled conditions—just enough to maintain the gene pool. Some of us might not like it very much, and achieving this goal will not be easy. But it’s for our own good.
                                                    ©Gene Twaronite 2014

Originally published in 5enses June 2014


Selfies from Mother Nature

Ever since the Oxford Dictionary people proclaimed “selfie” as the word of the year for 2013, I’ve been struggling to find a way to use it in one of my essays. It would not be my first choice. As a word, it has all the charm of that scummy ring of hairs at the bottom of your bathtub drain. But in writing, as in life, sometimes one just has to go with the flow.

So I got to thinking about what kinds of photo self-portraits old Mother Nature would post, assuming she even had a smartphone. They might go something like this:

Here I am sitting by a tidal pool at the start of it all—over three and a half billion years ago—when life first appeared on this planet. Welcome to my kitchen. They’re too tiny to see now, but in these waters chains of complex molecules are slowly coming together. Wait till you see what they become.

And here I am at the bottom of the sea during what you humans call the Cambrian Period. It was one of my favorite times, when the diversity of living things on this earth literally exploded. The creature in my hand may look like a horseshoe crab, but it’s actually a kind of trilobite. Paleontologists have discovered over 20,000 different species from every continent. Must confess, I got a bit carried away with the cute little critters. They were the first animals with complex eyes. They ruled the seas for nearly 300 million years, and then they were gone. Oh well, time to move on.

Here’s me riding a Triceratops—yippee, ride ‘em, cowgirl! We’re nearly at the end of the Mesozoic Era when dinosaurs of every description ruled the earth. I have a little surprise for them.

You see this big shadow where I’m standing? I’m on what humans will later call the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico. It’s going to get dark around here real fast. That’s because a huge asteroid is directly overhead and just about to strike the earth. When that puppy hits, all those dinosaurs will be history. Have to admit, I hate to see them go. But 165 million years is long enough. Out with the old, in with the new, I say.

Here I am at the beach under clear blue skies again. Boy, my “little” asteroid sure made a mess of things. Couldn’t see the sun for years. It got so cold I had to put on my woolies. But it’s over now, and we’re at the beginning of the Cenozoic Era. OK, I admit, there were a lot of casualties besides the dinosaurs. Over three quarters of all living things on earth went extinct. Evolution is a messy business, and sometimes you just have to hurry things along a little. But fortunately I still have plenty of stuff to work with. See my squirrel-like animal friend here? He doesn’t look like much. But he and his warm-blooded kin are about to become the next big thing. Humans sometimes refer to this era as the Age of Mammals, but it could also be called the Age of Flowers. Just look at the beautiful magnolia in back of me.

I’m standing at the edge of Grand Canyon, one of my most sublime creations. It gets more hits on Facebook than Madonna or Justin Timberlake, whoever they are. It still amazes me after all these years what you can accomplish with a little uplift and erosion. I don’t much cotton to politicians, but there was one by the name of Teddy Roosevelt who said it best: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages (that’s me) have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Here’s Lucy and me lakeside in what humans now call Ethiopia. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s going to be famous someday. Smile for all your future followers, Lucy. There, I got it—great one. She’s not much for words, but she’s one of the earliest humans. Soon she will die—sorry, Lucy—for life was very hard back then, especially if there’s a big cat like the one over there that’s about to eat you. In about 3.2 million years, give or take a month, human scientists will discover some of her bones and go gaga over them. 

Think I’ll go online to check out what pix you humans are posting these days. Oh dear—what is that? It looks like somebody’s… Gross! And there’s more. After all these years I thought there was nothing that could shock me. I was wrong. What are you people thinking?  Hmmmm.… maybe it’s time for another asteroid.            

                                               ©Gene Twaronite 2014        

Originally published in 5enses April 2014

Imagining Aliens


I think one of my neighbors is an alien. He works                        thething                                    nights, so I’ve never actually seen him. He drives an old beat up Volkswagen bug with dark tinted windows, which is exactly what an alien would drive to avoid detection. According to local gossip, he hates football and never watches TV. Some say he doesn’t eat meat. I realize this is circumstantial, and he could be just another weirdo. But then how do I explain what I saw through his window? Now mind you, I’m not a peeping Tom. I was just walking past his house one night and noticed the shade was up in a back room from which light blazed into the neighborhood as if daring me to look inside. So I did.The room was filled with table high beds of soil, over which hung rows of grow lamps suspended from the ceiling. Poking out of the soil were weird-looking plants that looked like a cross between an artichoke and a pitcher plant. Attached to each of them was a plastic tube running up to a bottle filled with red liquid. It was like they were being fed intravenously with….  Well, if that isn’t proof I don’t know what is.

Of course, there’s also a teensy possibility that I might have imagined this. The night before, I had watched one of my favorite classic flicks—the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World, which scared me so silly as a kid I had to hide under the kitchen table whenever it appeared. It was supposed to be some giant alien plant which needed blood to feed its young. Sensitively portrayed by James Arness in one of his first big screen roles, it still looked more like a man than a plant.  

From earliest childhood I thrilled at the thought of aliens from distant worlds, yet was always disappointed by the unimaginative ways in which they were depicted in fiction and movies. Mainly, they all seemed so human.

Why should aliens be made to look like us? You would think somewhere in this vast universe evolution could have produced something other than forward-facing bipeds, with bilateral symmetry. But all we get are more little green men in their flying saucers. Sure, they may sport antennae, big heads, or pointed ears, but they’re still from the same hominid mold.

I guess it’s only natural for a species so in love with itself that it imagines our form to be the pinnacle of perfection. Godlike, we create aliens in our own image. Sometimes we even give them godlike powers like the Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

We also create aliens in the image of other strange earth creatures. We give them tentacles, fearsome heads and big teeth. But in the end—even if they burst out of our chests—we’re still stuck on earth, imagining only what we know.

Not that there haven’t been some great aliens. In the original Star Trek there was the Horta—a silicon-based blob which could drill through solid rock by secreting acid. Star Trek writers got even better in future series. In a Next Generation episode, a microscopic form of crystalline life is discovered living within a thin layer of saline water, which allows the crystals to communicate and form a kind of super-intelligence. Now here was a true alien—something completely foreign and strange from our understanding of life on earth.

In his 1934 science fiction story “A Martian Odyssey,” Stanley Weinbaum created one of the most memorable aliens I have ever encountered in fiction: “It was a nondescript creature—body like a big grey cask, arm and a sort of mouth-hole at one end; stiff, pointed tail at the other—and that’s all. No other limbs, no eyes, nose—nothing! The thing dragged itself a few yards, inserted its pointed tail in the sand, pushed itself upright, and just sat… Then, with a creaking and rustling like—oh, like crumpling stiff paper—its arm moved to the mouth-hole and out came a brick! The arm placed the brick carefully on the ground, and the thing was still again.”

In the final analysis, we are limited both by what we know and don’t know. Our brains are hardwired to perceive and interpret reality in a certain way. I tend to agree with J.B.S. Haldane when he wrote, “Now, my suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose….” (Possible Worlds, 1927). 

In other words, if aliens do exist they are like nothing in our wildest dreams.

©Gene Twaronite 2014

 Originally published in 5enses Feb. 2014

How to Read a Pesticide Label … or Not

Now that it’s weed and bug season, people will be spraying chemicals into every conceivable corner of their homes and landscapes. Not only is pest spraying a vital part of the American economy, it has become a national pastime, surpassed only by football and ranting on Facebook. But before using any pesticide in your garden, bedroom or spouse’s cereal, it is important to read the label.  The fact that no one does so, much less knows how to read anymore, is no reason you shouldn’t. Since chemical companies use such labels primarily to avoid lawsuits, you might find some valuable information that you could use against them, like not specifying the hazards of using the product on cereal.

The first part of the label lists ingredients, which are given freakish chemical names meant to scare you like Superglamamine-nitro-megakill-triphosphate. If you read the fine print, however, you will see that only .000000000000001% of the product actually contains this chemical. All the rest is composed of perfectly safe inert materials like water, used kitty litter and a surfactant, whatever that is.   

The next part lists the important phone numbers to call. There’s a product information number to complain why the product left purple stains on your living room carpet and a medical emergency number to call when in the course of using the product you suddenly stop breathing. 

Invariably there is a warning to “keep out of reach of children,” so if you were thinking of having your four-year-old bratty niece that your sister dropped off for the weekend do the spraying, just forget it.

Then there are a whole bunch of prissy precautionary statements, like if you ingest ten gallons of the pesticide you might experience minor gas pain, diarrhea or complete paralysis. Look for a signal word in upper case letters; if it says “DANGER,” this means maximum toxicity and that is good because you are getting the most bang for your buck. There’s also stuff about environmental hazards such as killing fish or causing long-range permanent damage to the gene pool of all life on earth, but this is not your problem.   

This is followed by a terse statement that it is a violation of FEDERAL LAW to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling, which means you could be facing some serious jail time for using it to kill that nasty foot fungus.

Under “Storage and Disposal” is a warning not to store the chemical in food or beverage containers and to avoid contaminating foodstuffs, especially those you happen to be eating at the time. Recommended procedures for disposal are also provided, which at the very minimum should include triple rinsing the empty container, wrapping it with an impervious, all weather plastic, encasing this in solid concrete, and placing the whole in an unmarked bag and dropping it off at the nearest EPA approved Extreme Hazardous Material site or, if one is not conveniently nearby, in your neighbor’s trashcan.

The “Directions for Safe Usage” is a long overblown section full of stuff obvious to any normal, sensible person, such as mixing, filling tanks or aerial sprayers, and manner of application, which you can largely ignore. I mean, who doesn’t want to use pesticides safely? You do want to read the part about how much of the product to use per gallon of water. Plan on at least doubling or tripling this amount for more killing power.

You might also want to glance at the part listing the kinds of pests actually targeted by the product. Don’t worry if the pest you are trying to eliminate isn’t mentioned. Just increase the dosage. For really serious pests, like telemarketers, you may have to go full strength to achieve long lasting control.

Lastly, there is usually a section called “Re-entry Intervals.” This just tells you how long you should wait after application until it is safe to enter the area again. This is a personal judgment call. Some people are more chemically sensitive than others. If you suddenly start to bleed through your facial orifices and notice a dense green cloud in the area, you may want to wait a few minutes at least.                                                                                                                                      ©Gene Twaronite 2013                                                                                                                                                                                          Originally published in 5enses, July 2013

Weird Gardens

There are almost as many different kinds of garden designs as there are gardeners. A garden can be as formal as the place setting at a royal wedding or as informal as a weekend scratch patch. It can range from urban chic (in which plants are almost incidental) to rustic or au naturelle. The whole garden can be an art form in which each plant, rock, or sand particle is a painfully chosen part of the abstract whole. It can be desert, tropical, English, Mediterranean, oriental, or Disney in theme. Or the theme might be literary, such as all the plants mentioned by Shakespeare or the Bible. It can be a rock, sand, or water garden. Or even a tactile, scented, or stir-fry garden.     

Frankly, I am bored with these designs. They’ve been done to death. And I can do without terms such as harmony, simplicity, repetition, unity of design, and all the other ho-hum elements that well-designed gardens are supposed to have. Why can’t my garden be disharmonious, complex, just full of singularities, and have not the faintest trace of unity? We need to overthrow the smug know-it-alls who dare to decree what principles of design we must follow. Arise, ye poor browbeaten gardeners. Create gardens of anarchy, I say!

What we need are some wholly new designs. For instance, I would like to someday create a garden in which not a single plant has anything at all to do with any other. It would defy anyone to see a theme, pattern or relationship. The first hint of such a thing would cause me to yank out the offending plant. The plants would be from all corners of the world and have absolutely nothing in common. There would be a boojum tree right next to a pink petunia and a monkey flower. Next to these I’d plant a cabbage.  And if someone asked, why did I choose this particular juxtaposition? No reason—no reason at all.     

How about a garden devoted completely to weeds? Pick all the nastiest, ugliest, toughest and most despicable weeds you have ever heard of. Toss a bunch of seeds over the ground. No need to water or cultivate. Just give them plenty of room, step back and watch them fight it out. I can just see an army of Russian thistle, advancing forward to dominate the landscape, met by hordes of ragweed, nut sedge and bur clover. Who will win, and what kinds of patterns might develop in the process? Can you imagine the interesting combinations of shapes, colors, and textures that might evolve? And the best part of all is, you never have to weed it.    

For those with truly weird tastes, why not plant a garden devoted to odd shapes? A garden of grotesquerie. Think of plants so monstrous, so fantastic and bizarre that they would stand out from any other. Imagine a whole garden full of such freaks. There would be crested forms of cacti, of course, and mutant examples from every major plant group. From the deserts of southwest Africa there would be a Welwitschia plant, with its long, splitting, strap-like leaves wrapping themselves around the landscape. There would be ferociously thorny, succulent Euphorbias from Africa, Madagascar palms, creeping devil cacti from Baja, and plenty of white baneberry (or doll’s eyes) flowers, whose white fruits with black spots look like hundreds of angry pupils staring back at you.    

Or how about a garden devoted entirely to dead plants? Included here would be examples of species which die right after blooming, such as the most of the agaves. Just imagine what you could do with their bold, withered stems and flower stalks in every size and shape. A nice big saguaro skeleton, with ribs splitting wide open, would add a nice accent. You could also include, of course, all the thousands of plants that you have personally killed over the years. Rather than chipping them up or throwing them on the compost pile, why not utilize all those dead annuals, shrubs and trees in morbid arrangements of gray and brown? They would remind us daily of the grim mortality that lurks behind each one of our garden success stories.

Or you could opt for a variation on the scented garden, one in which each plant is chosen for its foul-smelling qualities. There would be trilliums, stapelias, skunk cabbages, carrion-flowers, of course, and lots of flies to boot. And, yes, there would be whole rows of the giant titan arum (also known as corpse flower), whose flower shape so titillated the Victorians in their steamy hothouses.

But the weirdest garden of all is the one without any plants at all. There would be nothing, in fact. No soil to till, no sand to rake, and no rocks to move around. No distracting gazebos, statues or water features. It would be a bold statement in minimalism and the ultimate meditation garden, with only the bare horizon left to contemplate. Meanwhile, I still have a few details to work out in the design.   

  ©Gene Twaronite 2013

Originally published in 5enses Magazine, May 2013.



Maintaining a Natural Perspective

Developing an appreciation for the natural world offers many benefits, not the least of which is that it may help keep us from going insane.

Did you ever have one of those days, when you’ve just been fired from your job and you come home to an empty, filthy apartment, only to find a note from your girlfriend telling you she’s leaving you for a body builder in Samoa? And you try to grab some beer and find there is none because someone has stolen your refrigerator. Then your doctor calls with some really, really bad news … Suffice it to say that keeping your chin up under such circumstances is no easy task unless you are an unfeeling machine or have the intestinal fortitude of Job or, better yet, have learned to maintain a natural perspective.

Simply put, a natural perspective is a way of seeing things or events in terms of our relationship to that larger time frame and sphere of existence we call nature. In the afore-mentioned case, for example, instead of dwelling on your crappy karma, you can take heart in the fact that you are still alive as opposed to being one of the estimated 150 to 200 species of life becoming extinct every 24 hours. And you can be thankful that you’re not living back during the infamous Permian-Triassic extinction event, when some 90 to 96% of all species of life on earth bit the dust, so to speak. So far, the human species is still around, and so are you. So be of good cheer. Not being extinct definitely has its advantages.

Or you might consider that your probable lifespan is considerably longer than any species of mayfly, whose lifespans can range from 30 minutes to a day. And while you might think winged male ants (or drones) lucky in that they get to spend their entire lives doing nothing but eating and mating, few live longer than several weeks. Or you could have been born a gastrotrich—a tiny aquatic animal that lives only 3 days. So, unlike these other organisms, you still have plenty of time left to screw up again. Just don’t get too cocky about this. Most trees will live longer than you. And so will some animals, such as certain tortoises and fishes. There is even a kind of ocean clam said to live 400 years.

You might also give thought to old Sol—the source of life on this planet, not to mention sun tans, skin cancers and wrinkly skin. Scientists estimate that it has been around for about 4.5 billion years, going through about 500-600 metric tons of hydrogen each second just so earth can intercept its tiny fraction of total energy output and allow you to soak up some rays at the beach. At this rate, you might ask, could the sun burn itself out before you die? Not to worry. It is estimated that the sun has at least another 4 or 5 billion years before it uses up all of its hydrogen. Of course, long before that, there may be a few other issues of concern. As the sun gradually uses up its hydrogen, it will slowly become brighter and larger, so much so that in about 1.1 billion years it will completely dry out the earth’s atmosphere, making all the world’s real estate virtually worthless. And in 2-3 billion years, temperatures on earth will become too hot even for those with oxygen tanks. And after that the sun will probably expand into a red giant, engulfing all the inner planets including earth. So whatever happens to you in this miniscule time span you call a life, don’t worry. It can’t be as bad as being swallowed up by a red giant.                                                                                                                             © Gene Twaronite 2013   

Originally published in 5enses Magazine, April 2013