Sunday, July 26, 2009

Because I Can't Just Have an Ordinary Houseplant

During finals of last semester, my mind cleared momentarily and I found myself in the garden section of a local hardware, looking for monarda. I didn't find any, but they did carry a small selection of carnivorous plants, and I suddenly discovered a great curiosity within myself to learn about them. In the next few weeks, I did some extensive research on carnivorous plants in general and venus flytraps in particular, and decided that if I passed a particularly traumatic math class, I would get one.

As most of you know, I passed precalculus. As most of you have probably guessed, this post will be about my flytrap. If you are one of the handful of people to whom I have related the marvels of my little green friend ad nauseam, you needn't read it if you don't like.

Venus flytraps are native only to the vanishing wetlands of eastern North Carolina. Since the soil is poor in nutrients, they have the fascinating ability to capture insects to obtain the nitrogen they would otherwise lack. To simulate the stagnant atmosphere of NC and the soil of the wetlands, it is best to grow flytraps in peat moss in a small terrarium with plenty of sunlight. After satisfying its conditions of habitat, it is relatively easy to care for- water once every week or so, and just let it sit there. My kind of houseplant.

Mine came in a small terrarium. It had two open traps, one of which had the remains of a fruit-fly inside of it, one unopened trap, and seven leaves from which the traps had not yet unfolded. The traps unfold from the tip of each leaf. It is entirely green- the traps, in some cultivars, turn bright red when they have enough sunlight. I'm not sure if mine is one of those- it probably is, but green is nice enough on its own.

From my researches, I understood that flytraps are notoriously difficult to grow and slow-growing in general, so I was surprised when within a few weeks it was cramped within its terrarium. I began the slippery and redolent task of transferring pickles from one large jar to two smaller ones and absconding with the former.

My researches have since indicated that the interior of a pickle jar is the best substitute for the atmosphere of certain parts of North Carolina.

Being a scientist, I scorn the idea of calling a plant by anything but its established name, but being an artist I rather like the idea. This particular specimen got named Milo, after the Venus de, in honor of its common name. One of my brothers and I are also fond enough of The Phantom Tollbooth to rightly appreciate the appellation.

I have fed the flytrap on two separate occasions. The first time I tried, the only trap open was the one with the remains of the fruit-fly, indicating that it had already caught something before. Each trap can only be used so many times before it simply wears out and dies, and since its edges were curled outward, I suspected that it would not close anymore. I was right.

When a new trap opened the next week, I fed it by hand. The traps are about the size of my smallest fingernail, and while they could capture something like a fruit-fly on their own, they are not strong enough to catch any larger live insects by themselves. Even if a trap is able to hold an insect larger than itself, if it is unable to seal itself completely around it, that trap will die. I fed it a pre-killed mosquito. When a live insect brushes against small trigger hairs on the pads of the trap, the trap snaps shut. Since I fed it by hand, I had to be sure and brush the insect against those hairs so that it would close.

I forgot one thing, though- after the trap closed initially, I neglected to keep prodding at it and brushing against it to simulate the action of a live insect trapped inside, and later that evening the trap reopened. The plant does this to prevent expending energy trying to digest inanimate objects such as sticks, rocks, bubblegum, and mathematics professors, which might accidentally fall into its traps. It takes so much energy for the plant to trap something that setting off empty traps just for fun will eventually kill it. When a newly-caught insect within the trap struggles, it causes the trap to seal itself and begin filling with digestive acids.

So far, all three traps that I have fed took three days to finish digesting their insects. When the traps reopen, the indigestible exoskeleton of the insect remains stuck to the leaf-pad. Unless there is a prodigious number of traps on the plant, it's not a good idea to feed more than one at once. This week, there are twelve traps open, with three additional ones unfolded as of yet, and two emerging leaf-buds, so on Wednesday, I fed two traps.

Here is a short video of the process. The voices heard in the background, with the exception of myself begging them not to shake the table, are my two botanical art students and their parents. Sometimes if the two rambunctious boys sit still and draw various plant specimens well enough, I have a flytrap-feeding afterwards.

Isn't that amazing? Watch it again. Isn't that amazing?

Here is a fly's-eye view. Look at it cross-eyed to imagine the way it must look to compound eyes.

I was greatly engrossed, edified, and entertained by Dr. Barry Rice's Carnivorous Plant FAQ, which I would recommend to anyone who was interested in growing or learning about carnivorous plants, or just for fun. Dr. Rice is a leading expert on them, and the FAQs answer everything concerning them imaginable. His book, Growing Carnivorous Plants, is also a great resource and full of lovely photographs of flytraps and other fascinating carnivorous plants, such as pitcher plants, sundews, waterwheels, and bladderworts.

Doesn't God have the most interesting ideas? Just look at what he made. This little plant, perhaps more than any other, shows evolution for the profane mockery that it is.

(Unfortunately, I was unable to exact revenge upon the mosquito that bit my forehead.)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

On Anachronisms & Renaissance Men, Part I

Yesterday, a friend sent me a couple links to Mary-Sue tests designed to help writers ascertain if their characters are realistic or too idealized. A Mary-Sue is a character who is so endowed with desirable attributes, talents, characteristics, powers, and circumstances as to be annoyingly unbelievable and rather like a shapely plastic mannequin on which an exorbitant amount of jewelry has been hung. They're commonly seen in fanfiction and fantasy novels, and are more often than not the author fantasizing the way he would wish himself to be if the world went his way.

My characters aren't afflicted with Mary-Sueism, but as I was going through the questions and laughing at them and the results, I noticed something oddly familiar about them. After thinking about it for a moment, I retook the test answering each question for myself as if I were a book character, checking only the boxes that would indisputably apply.

For any score higher than a 71, the results say, “Irredeemable-Sue. You're going to have to start over, my friend. I know you want to keep writing, but no. Just no.”

I scored a 122.

My dears, I am a Mary-Sue. Shocking much?

Now, before anyone dashes off to run their characters or themselves through the test and despair, there is a note at the end that says the results will contain some degree of inaccuracy, and that it is even possible for someone to score very highly and yet be a well-developed, balanced, and original character. The test only takes a tally of the most commonly clichéd traits and situations, not of how cleverly or originally they are integrated into the story or of the counterbalancing challenges the character might face.

The questions that caught my attention were the ones regarding hobbies, tastes, and mental abilities- things like knowing multiple languages, singing and playing musical instruments well, having “refined” tastes in books, music, and movies, learning skills quickly, practicing martial arts, collecting interesting things, knowing a wide range of assorted facts, possessing a high level of intelligence, being expert in more than one field, being astonishingly good at something which is not one's profession, photographic memory, and dressing in an unusual style.
Are these things so unattainable that someone who lays claim to some, most, or in many cases all of them is some superhuman wonder?

My mind went spinning off down several tracks. What is so unusual about listening to good music, reading good books, and watching good movies? Is there something particularly stunning about collecting something, whether it be mollusks or stamps or minerals or bird's-nests or postcards? Is having a hobby that interests one, be it building models or crafting or photography something unheard-of? Is knowing trivia or odd bits of interesting information a superpower? Is knowing and being interested in languages besides American English the very stigma of otherworldly superiority?

The next thought was, what are people supposed to do instead? Excluding a few other unmentioned yet obvious categories such as playing sports, exercising, and any other wholesome activity, what one thing is there left to do? What is one to do, when there are no books and no music, nothing to collect, to study, to want to know simply because it's interesting, to build or sew or play with or talk about? It begins to sound like a desert island scenario. So, what do real people, not unrealistic Mary-Sues, do with their time? I asked several friends if they could enlighten me, and discovered that without these phenomenally unknown activities, modern people get addicted to video-games, shop, go to the mall, gossip, and enjoy bad music, books, and movies. Please note that I am not, of course, speaking of people who may not be particularly blessed with gifts in art and music, or whose pecuniary standing or otherwise lack of opportunity prevent their proper nurturing.

The next mental track was the realization that throughout history, the cultivation and enjoyment of these marvelously impossible activities was something that the commonest of people strove for. Even 100 years ago, these accomplishments were held in what was apparently another half of education, and one whose almost complete absence today has perhaps catalyzed the atrophy of the artistic intellect in society. I have know for a long time that I am an anachronism, but the fact that my anachronistic tastes may lead people to believe that I am not old-fashioned but unrealistic to the point of nonexistence is beyond disturbing.

Is the tendency to want to give now-unusual abilities to a character really a manifestation of a half-forgotten, almost inaccessible latent desire to pursue these things for oneself? Is it the mysterious gravitation toward a culture which is missing in the world today? Do they feel instinctively that sometimes the only progress is moving backwards? Perhaps- yet at the same time, they remain so depraved or deprived that it cannot be recognized, and until that balance comes, modern culture will remain one-sided, and what ought to be normal will remain the epitome of eccentricity.

Perhaps this was rather a far station from where my train of thought set out, but the idea I began with remains- the world shuns the enjoyment of simplicity, and the cultivation of gifts, to the point that someone who chooses otherwise is regarded as almost unreal.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Secret of Priest's Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story

Between writing my seventh novel, editing my third, and trying to make myself helpful with those of a handful of friends, I haven't had time for any demanding reading commitments this summer- but I can never pass up a good nonfiction picture-book whenever I come across one in the course of my rambling researches.

Be it known that I shall rant on the state of our local library system in another post.

Be it known that it meets only the most primitive of requirements to deserving the appellation of Library, viz., it contains books beneath a roof.

Be it known that it might not even be a library after all, since it doesn't really have any books and warehouse-style skylights aren't quite the same as roofs.

Anyway, I did find a fascinating book last week: The Secret of Priest's Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story, by Peter Lane Taylor with Christos Nicola. It came up on a search in the library system for nonfiction books on caving (one of many things I love reading about) and I ran to hunt it down before someone else got to it first.

It begins with telling how the authors, two expert American cavers, were exploring some cave systems in the Ukrainian countryside. On later hearing locals allege that several Jewish families had hidden there during the holocaust, they became interested and attempted to investigate- but all their searches for more information deadended, until they were contacted by a survivor who shared the harrowing and almost incredible story of courage and raw determination.

The families had indeed lived in the caves, concealed in a subterranean world, from October 12, 1942 to April 12, 1944. Assisted only by neighbors who left them food, they lived day to day in complete darkness, under threat not only from the Nazis who frequently searched and blocked the sinkholes and known entrances, but from the dangers of the caves themselves.

After meeting with the survivors of the families, the authors returned to the caves and found the chambers where they had lived and the tortuous passages they had penetrated. The book is full of photographs of the simple artifacts, the caves and their surrounding regions, and haunting black-and-white pictures of the families themselves.

The darkness of their experience is almost unfathomable. Perhaps the saddest part to me was one survivor who had been a little girl at the time, and who, in her unbroken year underground, had forgotten the sun.

Read this, if you can find a copy- it is sobering and inspiring. History books written by those who experienced and discovered it have something no textbook can ever teach. Besides what it said in itself, it heartened me to know that books like this are still written and published (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2007) and furthermore that such compelling stories can be about the strength of families.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I suppose I've kept you wondering about my blog name and picture for long enough.

Astronomically speaking, a syzygy is when three or more celestial bodies come into conjunction and for a while stand in alignment with each other; the word is from the Greek σύζυγος. It has less common meanings in astronomy, and is also used as a technical term in other fields including philosophy, poetry, and zoology.

Syzygy has been one of my favorite words since the first time I heard it many moons ago, and particularly describes the way I think- and hence the content and style of this blog.

I had originally intended to start a blog in which to post musings and advice on the mysterious art of writing and my wanderings in the world thereof. That began even further back, when I conceived the idea of writing a book about writing books, which ended up on the back burner as I actually wrote the books I was going to write about writing about. Several people expressing a degree of impatience at the nonforthcoming help, or otherwise, that I had vaguely promised, I figured that I could start smaller with a blog, and if I ever came up with anything press-worthy I could always compile, edit, and publish my posts in print.

Pondering the idea more, I realized that while writing may be the way in which I am best gifted to communicate my passion with others, it would be nothing without the things I write about, the things which inspire me, and the things I love besides. Among these are the worlds of music, literature, poetry, philosophy, the sciences, the outdoors, martial arts, foreign languages and cultures, and history- all within the universe of my Catholic Faith. What I have to say about writing would mean nothing if I excluded them.

The picture represents the galaxy in my multidimensional, multifaceted, multifarious mind.

I walk in many spheres. When these come into alignment with each other, my mind and soul are illuminated, ignited, and inspired.

It's a Syzygy of Worlds.

Also, it sounds cool.