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Archive for June 2015

Making Botanical Gardens Better

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I’ve been harping on about the need for improving botanical gardens and making them more interesting without really offering any insight on how to do so. Sort of like how people on Facebook bitch about Obama’s botched health care program or tsk-tsk the current state of lobbyists and corrupt politicians in Washington. Or anything else that’s solely the government’s fault.

Those sardonic librarians...

Oh, those sardonic librarians…

But as I sit here on what could be the eve of my final day as an underground troll holed up in the basement as my gracious benefactor of a landlord hosts a Father’s Day cookout (Happy Father’s Day to everyone, by the by!), I am drawing up a very rough, anything-goes list of ideas while watching the original, first Jurassic Park and stealing them from other websites. The ideas, not the dinosaurs.

Also while learning this

Also while learning this

So, without further a-poo-poo, here are some ideas on how to make botanical gardens more compelling as well as enriching and educational:

1. QR Codes — Although a bit of a newbie myself with QR code–readable mobile apps, I thought that botanical gardens worldwide would’ve immediately taken advantage of this essentially at-your-fingertips textual tour guide (not suggesting to do away with human guides, but more on that later). What’s more is that the institution could create their own info pages linked to these QR codes. During my visit to Tokyo’s glass hothouses, I relied on spotty WiFi and Wikipedia for knowledge on flora I found botanically and historically fascinating — I found it even more incredulous that the gardens hadn’t chosen to highlight these stories…which brings us to the next idea.

2. Stories — Where History and Botany collide. And why shouldn’t they in a botanical garden? Just read this amazing tale summarizing the global impact of a sole slave boy who discovered and shared his knowledge on how to pollinate the vanilla plant. And take in those illustrations! Kid-friendliness aside, botanical gardens could afford to be a little more racy with displays. After all, plants are all about reproduction, which means sex.

How can storytelling work in a botanical garden setting? Take, for instance, the decomposition of an animal, displayed at the Natural History Museum in London: the model demonstrates certain time points of a rabbit’s decomposition in a series of contained displays. Now, consider especially the locality of a botanical garden: here, a display could show the ebb and flow/succession of dominating plants and the external (read: human-caused) factors contributing to the destruction or proliferation of certain exhibited species.

If only we lived in the age of R2D2-projected holograms, these stories could be supplemented with said human factors, the historical figures telling their own part in botanical dramas. And despite my distaste for overly cheesy tour guide actors (I’m talking to you, Ben Franklin of Boston — your autobiography proves that you were a dick), I think this is where tour guides can really enhance the experience, by several playing these parts as a guest meanders through the displays. You know, a hole they’ll fill until we have Star Wars–quality holograms.

And speaking of history, why can’t botanical gardens include pop culture references? Other museums do. I’m talking Triffids, Little Shop of Horrors, Amy Stewart–inspired botanical alcohols — even if this was a separate exhibit at the end of the tour, next to the gift shop, it would provide some fun celebrity and modern-day appeal.

Also, I just think we need to bring back Brendan Fraser

Also, I just think we need to bring back Brendan Fraser

3. Tour Guides — My London experience in 2013 would’ve been quite dry had I not taken the free SANDEMANs tour, led by a witty copycat of Jimmy Carr; the guide was incredibly knowledgeable, improvisational, and funny to boot, and I had no problem quaffing up quite a bit of voluntary tip money at the end of the tour. Perhaps this is one element botanical gardens should try out; if the guide made the experience worthwhile, then open your wallet as wide as you see fit. Also, please hire me.

4. Live Debates — Botany is a field full of controversy and intrigue. Exploit it! Host events that invite scholars, horticulturists, and other fancily named plant enthusiasts to venues at which hot topics are planned in tandem with the garden’s current flowering features.

5. Guest Curiosity and Feedback — This is a favorite of mine because it taps into our childish stage of constant Calvin & Hobbes’ “Whys”. The Socratic method of questioning could be implemented a number of ways: books placed throughout the gardens and in which visitors could pen their questions regarding all-things botanical or perhaps an end-of-tour query box in which anyone can submit their queries, which would be answered via radio show or on a feed on the garden’s website. This, in itself, could lead to more and better-designed exhibits. I daresay it encourages an entirely separate blog post.


I’ll. never. stop. posting.

6. Evening hours — I’m a bit biased, having known of Dale Chihuly’s work beforehand, but I admired Phipps Conservatory’s creative sight in using the glassmaker’s work so exquisitely in its exhibits. Chihuly’s work already wonderfully imitates nature — twining, writhing, and illustriously colored — but what really caught my and, undoubtedly, the public’s attention was the use of lights to accentuate the artist’s sculptures at night.

And although I mistook the venture for a botanical Philip Glass exhibition, I think even a music element might enhance the experience as well.

Look, everyone, I'm in a field of effortless, endlessly repeating crap!

“Look, everyone, I’m in a field of effortless, endlessly repeating crap!”

7. Mysteries and Quests — I’m a huge fan of the PC oldies like Myst, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and Banjo Tooie as well as the Nintendo-created Zelda series. Whatever that makes me, these games share the element of mystery, unlocking one clue after the next, tasks that must be completed, people that must be met, histories and cultures that must be learned and understood. Understanding is seriously lacking in botanical gardens, and although some provide trite little activities for children, such quest-driven games could work for all ages in this setting. Here again, technology can come into play, but, in the meantime, passionate tour guides could be the spark in guest participation just as well.


I understand the limits of botanical gardens, and I’m aware that those I haven’t yet visited might incorporate some of the aforementioned elements in their exhibitions. For those I’ve visited, as botanically interesting to someone who’s botanically interested as can be, perhaps we can up the ante and really jurrasicize (patent pending) the already interesting world of plants.


Why Do You Go Into the Woods?

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I’ve been to a number of botanical gardens and tracts of land fenced into to be called “parks” and “refuges”, and, bumbling through the carefully laid-out paths and among the strategically placed and cultivated botanical showoffs, I often wonder why people go into the (fabricated) woods in the first place.

Meanwhile, a recent article reported that “fewer than 400 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral botany degrees were awarded in 2012. Educators say that’s because students are being pushed into more modern, technology-related majors.”

And while I may be named after one, this bird -- the Gray Catbird -- is not to be messed with. One recently tried to abscond with my rake; in fairness, I was responsible for the accidental death of its child.

And while I may be named after one, this particular birdy — the Gray Catbird — is not to be messed with. One recently tried to abscond with my rake; in fairness, I was responsible for the accidental death of its child.

This article isn’t the first of its kind, and it’s apparent on kids’ faces what sort of wildlife excites them. At the ridiculously named John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, it’s the birds, turtles, and fish that receive the most attention from toddlers and adults alike; the plants serve as a ubiquitous green backdrop to the mammalian drama playing out in front of it.

At the Tyler Aboretum, younger visitors are awed by the unique treehouses and the grotto of tiny gnome villages, rightly so. But are they inspired by the Sleepy Hollow—like canopy above, without which such a forest gnome village would just seem like some suburban kook’s lawn ornaments?

Although I’ve enjoyed Longwood, Shinjuku, and Tyler, I feel as though something is lacking in botanical gardens, and, though it may not be the driving reason for fewer botany degrees, I still feel there is a noticeable lack of creative and tech-friendly education in such gardens and parks. An unfortunate dearth of knowledgeable tour guides, federal funding aside, may also be to blame.

Take, for instance, the Refuge, teeming with delectable edibles (my beloved gas-inducing garlic mustard being one of the invasive kinds); the Tyler Arboretum, a flagging but otherwise medicinally interesting herb garden; and Shinjuku Botanical Garden, harboring such economically and historically fascinating flora as Canna indica and others, the names for which I’m unwilling to troll through the hundreds of photos I took during my four-hour excursion there.

Informative signs present or not, readily phone-accessible Wikipedia aside, and gnomes or none, green spaces are simply lackluster. What would it take to enliven these spaces? Surround techno music synched with flashing neon lights among ferns in a darkened atrium with a dance floor? Enlarged mechanical plants alongside their counterparts – say, a Jurassic Park—inspired Venus flytrap lunging out at unexpected guests as they turn corners in a labyrinthine tropical maze? David Bowie? Actual triffids?

I admit the last one, and only the last one, is mad. But why else do people wander into the woods? To know what a plant’s name is in Latin? No. To see pretty flowers? Somewhat. To pee? Yes. But, I myself went into the woods for adventure, or misadventure. Some venture at the least. In any case, there is an expectation for something wild, beyond control, and other-worldly to occur, something that’s certainly in need today and to give the field of botany some much-needed appeal.

The Strange Ridley Park Library

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The library is incredibly strange place, doubly so if you happen to be in one run by Haruki Murakami. Yet, the characters frequenting the library, as I surreptitiously observe them from my strategic position facing the entrance during my visits, are not so far off from the odd characters of Murakami’s “The Strange Library”.

Ridley Park, in all its old-fashioned glory

Ridley Park Library, in all its old-fashioned glory

Not long after my arrival in the States, I decided to join the local library down the street from my temporary digs in Ridley Park, part of Delaware County and just a 40-minute to five-hour bicycle ride from Philadelphia’s Center City (I got terribly lost on my way home, but more on that soon enough). I walked in to a small, rectangular, stone building — something of a cross between an outpost armory and a stout German colonial townhouse — to be silently welcomed by a wide-eyed woman in her 50s, staring at me as though I was Death and had finally come to tell her she had checked out her last book.

I feel as though I knew this look; I worked in a large hostel in New York City, and you never knew what was going to come through that door: drunk homeless men demanding a free bed and instead making their own on the floor in the middle of the lobby, local crazies out for a walk happening to notice the noticeably gargantuan hostel building for the first time in their decades of living next door, and the occasional thief who’d later be recognized, all too late, on the security cameras making off with some unfortunate backpacker’s valuables.

Sure enough, minutes after my arrival, a roundish man noisily entered and struck up a quite complex conversation ranging from the absurdity of James Bond’s escape from the Russians in the movie GoldenEye to something about not being fooled by peanut butter sandwiches. The librarian, bless her, nodded or otherwise chirped in with an occasional “Uh huh” or “Hmm, yes, that’s interesting”, dealing with the visitor in much the same way I would or perhaps truly agreeing that peanut butter sandwiches would have a devil of a time putting one over her.

The librarian

The librarian

The library itself, I discovered after my visit, seems to have an interesting past, one connected to a famous industrialist I knew of all too well thanks to school field trips to Pittsburgh’s most popular museum, the Carnegie Science Center.

In a tale that seems fitting for an area of the strange, inexplicable, and unfathomable — refer to my unending apartment searching and examples undoubtedly soon to come — the library, facing difficulties in funding, decided that wealthy magnate Andrew Carnegie would “donate $7,500.00 for a public library building”.

Naturally, Carnegie never promised any sort of monetary assistance, nor was even familiar with the borough of Ridley Park. And, naturally, it worked, and Carnegie ponied up, even increasing the amount to $10,000.

Rather than strange, inexplicable, and unfathomable, however, I’m more inclined to call this behavior “blasé”, something I’ve noted in my own interactions thus far in Delaware County, or Delco. On a mobile phone-less and thus doomed bike trip into Center City, Philadelphia, I mistook West Chester Pike for West Chester Pike. An easy mistake, considering that my current address lies on Chester Pike, the mailing address of which must include the “West”, despite there already being a West Chester Pike in existence some miles north of Ridley Park.

This madness goes back a way with litigious matters over names and changing hands of tracts of lands. Along the 40-some-minute route I bike to my job every morning, there’s a particularly and pleasantly potholed stretch known as Amosland Road, a name one can find connected to disputations in realty with Governor Lovelace, who I quote here:

“Jan Cornelissen, of Amesland, Complayning to ye Court that his Son Erik is bereft of his naturall Sences & is turned quyt madd, and yt hee being a poore man is not able to maintaine him.”

If only it was Loveless, givin' up a dime, nothin' less

If only it was Governor Loveless, givin’ up a dime, nothin’ less

RUDE, sir. But I like your style and prose.

Going back to the title of this blog post, the Ridley Park library has been a boon to my researches into local history as well as horticultural references, but it sadly lacks the resources needed to answer my most pressing, recent questions:

Since when did landlords need not try to sell their properties and assume a soft-spoken, single, non-threatening white boy in desperate need of an apartment right away would immediately snatch up an overpriced, grungy apartment best fit for a lab scene in Breaking Bad?

How on earth do realtors decide credit check fees? I’ve seen prices ranging from $30 to $75! Is this depending on the credit check services used? And do these credit checking services differ in quality so drastically? It’s just a credit check!

If soil is finite, how is the horticulture industry — in which I play a part — affecting land resources and is it worth all of the mulching and tilling?

Are all of the e-mails I get from non-biased and justifiable in their cause?

From what I’m learning at the library and at my new job, it’s comforting to be receiving first-hand knowledge that has at least worked up until the present. And, despite my misgivings moving here far from my wonderful former students and coworkers in Japan, my interactions within and without the library have been worthwhile.

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

June 19, 2015 at 12:59 pm

The Never-Ending Apartment Story

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Do you remember the 1984 mind-blowing fantasy The NeverEnding Story? A bullied teen escapes to a world in which he transforms into an adventurer and hero and gets around on a giant, white, dog-like dragon, Falkor (whose name incidentally is a rough transliteration of the Japanese word for “lucky dragon”).

According to IMDB, the production studio built a “43-foot long motorized creature with 6,000 plastic scales and pink feather-fur” with a head three feet tall and long to create the legendary creature.

My tie-in for this anecdote is that I also ride a hefty steed and am on an adventure, only my means of travel is an immensely heavy mountain bike and my quest is not in fantasy but in realty.

Surprise photo of me in the basement room

Surprise photo of me in the basement room

And finding an apartment in Delaware County has been no easy feat. At the time of writing this, I’m still holed up in basement of a house in Ridley Park by the good graces of my sister’s boyfriend, who is just delighted to have me and has no qualms with my presence here whatsoever.

Upon arriving here about a month ago and exploring the vast outer area of Philadelphia in the meantime, I’ve been shocked to find that shitholes are now going for the rate of one of Beyoncé’s eye lashes. Or about the price Strong Bad paid for his new Compé.

Today, I had the pleasure of meeting yet another realtor, whose name I won’t divulge out of respect for privacy and, moreso, poor memory. Crump, as we’ll affectionately call him, arrived in fashionable shorts and a protruding t-shirt under which I image he was keeping his other properties.

He curtly beckoned me inside and told me to wait if I wanted and as if though I had a choice, leaving me for some minutes in a dingy lobby with a mirror plastered with images of the current Pope. During my wait, two tenants came through, one who ignored me completely and the other who looked horrified when I said hello.

Landlord Crump (a portmanteau of a crappy Trump), who will undoubtedly demand my ride as apartment deposit fee

Landlord Crump (a portmanteau of a crappy Trump), who will undoubtedly demand my ride as apartment deposit fee

Down the corridor, I heard Crump pound on a door and, in response, a vicious snarling of a German Shepherd and a sudden wild ranting from a human within.

Crump: “Where’s the key, man? You got my key.”
German Shepherd: (translated) KILL KILL KILL KILL KILL

This went on for a little as I admired the landlord’s taste in carpet — dark gray or red or mauve or carnival throw-up, accentuated by musk of tobacco and socially awkward, single men with shifty eyes.

The ranting human with snarling dog indeed had no key, so the landlord decided to show me how marvelously the basement laundry room could be the setting for a paranormal horror film. After 10 seconds, with still no key, Crump wordless- and signalessly took me to see the unit for rent, very much unconcerned whether I was even following him up the much-too-soft/sinky carpeted stairs (also not without the lovely pungency of a small-town bowling alley).

Crump studied the door, perhaps considering a shoulder thrust but then thinking about what his prospective tenant — wait, did he follow me? Oh, yeah, he’s here — might think. He chanced feeling above the door sill for a key, and, voila, there was one! Ah, but it didn’t fit either lock. Mysterious key was placed back on top of door sill.

Then, a light bulb came on — not in the hallway, where about 96% were merely just decoration at this point — and Crump got out an old and warped Lowe’s credit card and jimmied the door open. I remarked dryly something about security, to which Crump wittingly retorted that he was “just really good at doing this sort of thing”.

Now impressed by my landlord’s obvious and demonstrated credentials, I stepped into the studio, as it were, and tried out the room I’d hesitatingly call “home” in a place I called “definitely one year but we’ll see” working at a job where I’m seen as “figuring out what I’m doing”.

I observed the bathroom, commonplace minus the claw marks in the sink, as though someone was trying to get out through the piping, or, better yet, something trying to get in. The refrigerator stood in the middle of the room, not usually where I’d have a refrigerator, a comment to which Crump responded by pushing it into the kitchenette area; as he did so, liquid poured out from the bottom into the brown/tan/calico unusually already moist carpeting.

“Ah, just water,” he said, opening the fridge door. “Ah…that’s going to be fun to clean up.”

Whether he meant himself or me, our tour had come to an end. We talked shop: credit check and application fee of $35, rent with utilities included at $700, laundry wash and dry combined at $3.75, and surrender of dignity and possibility of “bringing someone back to my place” at the low, low price of getting out of Ridley Park and away from sister’s boyfriend, which approximately balances out to zero.

Another surprise photo of me bringing someone back to my place

Another surprise photo of me bringing someone back to my place

In this tender little vignette, my horse, as it were — my light, aspiration, hope, and whatever the hell Artax stands for — has already sunk in the mire of the Swamp of Sadness. In fact, I took the application form and have the $35 ready to go for tomorrow.

My tale isn’t as heart-wrenching as the loss of that gorgeous horse, but it’s been too long and annoyingly tiresome. The other day, I spoke with a girl who wasn’t sure she was even selling an apartment, nor was I sure she had ever spoken to a human before. Another potential housemate seemed a little too keen on spending (all the) time with me, while another posting turned out to be a sex ad. Mind you, I’d live rent-free so long as I was willing to be a “female in a 24/7 Dominate/submissive (D = Me, s = You) lifestyle.”

Oh, Delco, you spoil me with an abundance of choices.

Until tomorrow, I remain in The Nothing, living the lie, as Gmork would have it. Luck-be-a-lady or Crump-be-a-landlord, I’m still having some interesting (mis)adventures, and that’s really been my only quest to begin with anyway.

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

June 18, 2015 at 5:47 am