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.

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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

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.



Ten Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Garden

All kinds of reasons are offered for gardening, from relaxation or psychotherapy to attracting birds or being closer to God, but none are ever given as to why we shouldn’t. The unwary public deserves to know the truth before undertaking such a questionable if not downright hazardous activity.

Plants die. This is an indisputable fact verified many times by independent observers around the world. No matter how hard you garden or how great your gardening skills the end result will always be the same. What is the point of this futile exercise, knowing your plants are all doomed?

Plants grow. Growing plants require lots more watering, fertilizing, staking, deadheading and pruning. The bigger the plant the more work. Soon you will have no time left for anything else.  Is your life so worthless that you would give it all up for a shrub?

Plants don’t stop at one. It is the nature of all living things to make more of themselves. Before you know it, your garden, not to mention every square inch of your living space, will be awash in baby plants demanding your attention. You brought them into this world, now you must take care of them. The happy-go-lucky life you once led is over.

Plants attract animals. The minute a plant pops out of the ground some animal will find it.  Some will eat your plants. Some will use them for construction sites or materials. And some will just trample or pee on your plants.

Gardens get noticed. It starts with an innocent compliment from one of your neighbors about “how nice your pansies look this year.” But don’t be fooled. The compliment is a foil to distract you from what your neighbors are really thinking:  that your garden looks like crap and you don’t know flowers from a hill of beans. Pretty soon your local homeowner’s Gestapo association will be paying a visit to inform you that your garden does not meet neighborhood code and to weed it before nightfall or face execution.

Plants and gardens are imperfect and so are you. Since no plant is perfect and the state of perfection is but an ideal, the attainment of a perfect garden is physically impossible. You will always feel inadequate and worthless to the task. There are plenty of other things in life that make you feel this way, so why add one more?

Gardens attract thieves and other lowlifes. Your garden and all the plants in it might be so close to perfection, however, that it attracts the wrong kind of people. They will steal your plants.  They will steal your ideas. And they will steal all of your free time by asking you to make a garden for them just like yours.

Gardening involves the use of sharp objects. Though gardening is often described as a gentle pastime, it is quite the contrary. More often it is a brutal affair involving lots of cutting, clearing, thrashing, sawing, tilling and killing. The books never mention the ugly wounds that can be inflicted by careless use of sharp trowels, not to mention Rototillers.

Gardening encourages profanity. At best, gardening is mostly a losing proposition. You spend all those hours sweating in the hot sun, breaking your back and your fingernails, then planting, weeding, cultivating and watering your little charges in an unending cycle of toil, only to find them one day flattened by wind or ravaged by snails. Though gardeners sometimes claim to be closer to God in their gardens, the words that come out of their mouths at such moments are not exactly fit for a deity’s ears.

Gardening is insane.  Ask any gardener: once you start gardening you never want to stop. Performing an activity over and over again that always brings the same result—pain and suffering—is an unmistakable sign of insanity.

                                                © Gene Twaronite 2013

A Garden for Javelina

With me it started in the garden.  As a newcomer to central Arizona’s scrub country, I knew that javelina occurred in this area but had still not observed one, despite the fact that they passed almost nightly just outside my bedroom window.  In the morning I would observe their telltale hoof prints along with the damage they inflicted on my new landscape plants.  The fact that I share with them a certain fondness for cacti and other succulents should have been a clue that my life was about to change.  At first I took it good naturedly.  Losing a few plants to wildlife was just part of the cost of living in a rural landscape.  But my cheerful optimism began to wane as the devastation continued.  Increasingly I found my mental state slowly shifting toward the irrational, constructing ever larger and more elaborate wire cages in an often futile attempt to protect my gardening efforts.

Sometimes I would find the plants partially chewed or completely uprooted but otherwise untouched.  Or I would discover strange fibrous jagged wounds on my prickly pear cactus.  Only later was the mystery solved as I learned that javelina eat mostly on the run, like a marauding pack of teenagers in a food court, hastily tearing off chunks of plant flesh with their sharp canines while leaving bits and pieces in their wake.

Though cacti form a major part of their diet, javelina are not especially fussy and will eat roots, bulbs, nuts, seeds, berries, flowers, and pretty much any recently planted green succulent material as well as grubs, garbage, and even dead rodents and birds.

Their fondness for grubs was demonstrated to me when I discovered a prize specimen agave I had just installed uprooted with near surgical precision.  Though javelina are usually fond of agaves, not a leaf or root had been nibbled.  In the hole they had left, however, I found some nice fat grubs.  I removed the grubs and replanted the agave.  Then I replaced the wire cage, burying it a little deeper and surrounding it with a few rocks.  Oh well, no harm done, I thought to myself.

A few nights later, I looked out the window and saw my agave once again dug up and on its side; the wire cage was sitting on a nearby shrub as if carelessly tossed with the flick of a tusk. Though a bit ragged, the agave was still intact, however.   I shook my head and tried to smile as I replanted and retrenched, this time with even bigger rocks.

Several weeks went by and I was beginning to feel that my agave was safe when the hooligans struck again.  This time, the wire cage was nowhere in sight.  And the agave, uprooted yet again, was looking tired and worn.  I finally found the cage at a considerable distance, as if it had been ripped from the earth in unison by a circle of  javelina and flung as far as possible to prove their point.  This was definitely getting personal, not only to me but to the javelina, whose favored grubbing place had been denied.  Whether or not they viewed this as some kind of sport I cannot say, but the sheer vehemence with which they must have thrown that cage does make me wonder.

I spent the better part of the morning digging the cage in even deeper and securing it with a fortress of small boulders.  Though more than a year has passed with no further incidents, I know they are out there still, grubbing around as they tug on that cage and my nerves.

My first actual sightings of javelina were at night as I came home and saw them dispersing in my headlights.  Since my driveway runs along a nearby wash, it is just one part of the javelina highway that the local herd must follow through the neighborhood.  Eventually I began to see them in broad daylight, especially during winter months when they are less nocturnal in their habits.  At first I saw only brief glimpses of them as they crossed the road ahead of me on my local walks.  Always they seemed more surprised by the encounter than I and quickly ran away.

The name “peccary” comes from the Tupi Indians of Brazil, who referred to this creature as “an animal which makes many paths through the woods.”  Indeed, after a period of wet weather, my front yard seems as if part of some major migratory pathway, with multiple lines of tracks running to and from various objects of interest.

Lately, I have begun seeing javelina everywhere.  One winter morning, I saw half a dozen of them reclining in the enclosed entryway of an office complex near downtown Prescott, Arizona.  Slowly they rose and made a dignified retreat, and I could almost hear them grumbling in displeasure at being disturbed as they looked over their shoulders at me

I must admit that my most memorable javelina experience was quiet and uneventful, at least for me.  I was walking home along an unpaved road when a short distance ahead a herd of animals crossed in front of me.  The animals were still in their winter mode, for it was noon on a bright February day.  One by one they passed, unhurried, though several of them paused briefly as they glanced in my direction.  I counted about sixteen, though it’s quite possible I missed several of the youngsters as they slipped hurriedly behind the adults.  They were moving from open scrub into a denser cover of mixed woodland and chaparral.  For a while I could see them following a course that took them roughly parallel to my own and the road.   Not wishing to startle the herd, I kept walking at an even pace while enjoying their company.  As I started to overtake them, however, one of the larger animals suddenly stopped and stared in my direction, at which the whole herd began to trot faster and faster in a more diagonal direction upslope and away from me and the road.  Occasionally I could still catch glimpses of them passing through the vegetation like some bristly phantoms of the scrub.

It was, I remember, a most pleasant experience.  My temporary traveling companions did not seem especially alarmed by my presence, just cautious, and we both parted none the worse for our meeting.  It was my own neighborhood herd and I had finally made their acquaintance.  Though they had now passed out of my vision, I could still see them in my mind’s eye, crossing and re-crossing the road from one neighbor’s yard to the next, on their way to new meals and adventures.  And I saw them as the social creatures they are, moving in unison while enveloped by their own special group scent.

Considering the social isolation that often afflicts our species at some stages of life, it is hard to imagine the sensory richness of connections that a javelina must experience within the herd – a degree of connectivity that puts to shame all our self-absorbed twittering.

As for my own grumbles, I cannot stay mad for long at such a creature.    I have fenced some backyard areas that are considered off limits.  I continue to cage young tender plants until they are old enough to deal with javelina on their own.  And I always try to plant a few more plants than I really need in what is probably a fruitless attempt to stay one step ahead of them.   Though I have heard some occasional grunts at night, for the most part the javelina pass by my window quietly.  But I do not have to hear them to know they have been here.  As I step onto the patio in the morning, I am immediately gripped by a pervasive scent that seems to call out to me with a primal insistence: “come run with us.” It is a tempting thought, but then who would tend the garden?                                                                                                © Gene Twaronite 2012

Originally published in What’s Nature Got to Do with Me? Native West Press, 2011