Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Meanwhile, Back at the Ol' Cactus Ranch...

"Some day I'll have to take you to the mutant cactus mausoleum".

What? Was I dreaming?

I was told of a wonderland of bizarre plants, right in the middle of Reseda. One that was full of giant metal dinosaurs. Mutant cacti and huge dinosaurs tucked into a nondescript corner of The Valley. Could it be?

The answer is: how can it be that this place isn't incredibly famous? It's only open to the public on the weekends, but damn, I can't believe I'd never heard of it before! Nothing that my friend Carole told me about it could have possibly prepared me for what waited behind those chain link fences.

Every square inch of the 1.5 acres is covered by strange cacti and succulents. And many of them actually are mutants, which are apparently quite prized by collectors of such things. There's a subculture of mutant cacti collectors? Who knew?

Merely saying that every square inch of this place is covered may give the wrong idea, as if orderly rows of plants line carefully arranged beds. Wrong! It's more like a treasure hunt, with weird little succulents tucked in here and there; beautiful gem-like potted plants sandwiched between huge yuccas and aloes. Things are arranged broadly by type, but never boringly.

And I haven't even mentioned the greenhouses yet! They go on and on, filled side to side, floor to ceiling, with even more plants.

And best of all, none of these plants are taken from the wild. They are all grown from seeds and cuttings, except in the rare cases when they are rescued from construction sites. 

Obviously, owner Dave Bernstein has a passion for these plants. Supposedly over 100,000 fill the property, and that doesn't even count what he grows in other greenhouses in San Diego county. Want to check it out for yourself? Don't bother bringing a credit card. It's cash and checks only here. Even the phone number is unlisted. But everyone is friendly and I promise that you will feel like you have been transported far away from Los Angles. 

To a magical place called Reseda, where the cacti are mutants and giant metal dinosaurs rule the day. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Horror of the Flies!

Since people know I work with animals they sometimes call me to deal with something that isn't, strictly speaking, a member of the zoo. People seem to equate "zoo keeper" with  "person who will touch things that I wouldn't touch with a cattle prod".

This happened yesterday when I got a call to "remove a bug that's bothering a guest". Okay, not really my job, but I was curious to see what kind of silly person couldn't remove a harmless bug themselves. And I was curious to see what the bug was. I grabbed a small jar and a net and headed off.

What I found was completely unexpected. No interesting spider. No giant centipede. No weird beetle. Just 50 MILLION FLIES, all congregated in one corner of the room near the floor. Okay, so maybe there were only hundreds of flies. But it seemed like more.

What were they doing there? The room was spotless. No food anywhere, no spilled drinks. No dead squirrels outside the window. Nothing to draw them in! And oddly, they seemed especially attracted to a coaxial cable plug. Could it be Satan?

Well, no. At least, I think there is a more parsimonious explanation. After I removed the flies I did a little research. I assumed that they were house flies, but I think they may have actually been something called cluster flies. These insects look a lot like house flies (the difference is just a few golden hairs) but their life-cycle is different. They feed on earthworms, staying out of sight in the soil most of the time, and hatch out at the end of summer. As the weather cools they tend to emerge en masse and head into structures where it's warmer, usually congregating on the interior of the sunniest wall while trying to get inside the wall. Yesterday was much, much cooler than the preceding week. It's the end of August. They were on the interior of the warmest, west-facing wall. Check, check, check. The only thing I didn't discover was what their exact range is, but I think the mystery is solved. Unless anyone else has a better explanation for me?
Thanks to google image search for the fly pictures.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Baltimore vs. Work

How exciting! The 11th annual Baltimore Comic Con is this weekend! I've never had the chance to go to Baltimore. And sadly, I'm not going this weekend either. I have to work instead.

But all is not lost because Gabriel is will be there! He'll be doing sketches and signing things and selling copies of our graphic novel Heathentown as well as copies of his sketchbook. His sketch list is almost full, but if you want to grab one of the last slots you can still tweet at him.

So if you're going to be at the Con this weekend stop by and say hello, check out the pretty new second printing of Heathentown, and send some sympathy back to Los Angeles where I'll be battling the heat and traffic and thinking of Baltimore.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Johnny Conqueroo

Muddy Waters
Gabriel and I were watching The Last Waltz the other night, a film we both know well. The music is quite familiar, the performances legendary at this point. But when it got to the Muddy Waters song "Mannish Boy" we both agreed that we must be mishearing one of the lyrics. The song seems to go:

I'm a man,
I spell m-a-n...man

I goin' back down,
To Kansas to
Bring back the second cousin
Little Johnny Conqueroo

Johnny Conqueroo? What? I thought about other blues standards and realized that I'd heard this before. For instance, "Hoochie Coochie Man", also sung by Muddy Waters:

I got a black cat bone, I got a mojo too,
I got the John the Conqueroo, I'm gonna mess with you,
I'm gonna make you girls, lead me by my hand,
Then the world will know, the Hootchie Cootchie Man

A little research solved the mystery: Johnny Conqueroo, also known as John the Conqueror or John de Conquer, is a hero in African American folklore. He was an African prince, sold into slavery in America, who could not be broken by his "masters". He entered mythology as a sort of trickster figure, famous for his prowess at evading those that would bend him to their will. Zora Neale Hurston wrote about him, and there seems to be some evidence that Br'er Rabbit of the Uncle Remus tales is patterned after him.

So why is he in the songs as an object and not a person? It turns out that he is associated with a type of root that supposedly has confers luck in gambling and sexual conquest through sympathetic magic. Some sources say that the plant in question is St. John's Wart, but this doesn't seem right since it has filamentous roots. A better candidate is Ipomoea jalapa, a vine related to morning glories and sweet potatoes. The root of this plant is more like a tuber than a filament. And there's no getting around the fact that when dried it looks like testicles. 

So, another song lyric puzzle solved! Unfortunately I don't think the explanation for all those possibly misheard Pogues lyrics will be as easy.

Thank you to Google Image Search for the photos.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Squirrel Appreciation

postcard available from
This has been a bit of a stressful month so far. First we caught the plague at Comicon, then our (three year young) hot water heater went supernova and spewed water all over Gabriel's studio. Then, on the same day, we discovered that we needed a major plumbing repair in the yard. Clearly, things weren't looking up.

So it was a great relief to see this squirrel massage video. I swear, it turned my entire month around!

T-shirt available from
With that in mind, I thought maybe some squirrel appreciation might be in order.

Yes, squirrels can be jerks. I used to work with wild fox, ground, and grey squirrels, and I can assure you that, pound for pound, few animals inflict as much pain when they bite you.

Even in my current job as a zoo keeper I'm not immune from squirrel antics. Just last week one snuck into my food prep area while I was making dinner for (ironically) our squirrel monkeys. I guess none of the food was to his liking though, since he simply urinated on the celery before scampering off.

Does this make me dislike squirrels? Hardly! It does make me appreciate them for what they are though. Cute and cuddly? Not really, although you wouldn't know it from that video. Bad ass? You bet! Watch out world, here comes a squirrel! And me too, as soon as I get our house put back in order.
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