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A Journey to the Valley of the Chatbots
On Saturday morning, when I got up a little after 3 to catch a flight to go see my mom in Iowa, this mama wolf spider was waiting for me in the bathroom, with her babies visible on her back, maybe a hundred of them, riding around in the dark for their first week of life out of the egg sac. The last time I had such an encounter, I inadvertently caused the babies to scatter, before I even realized what they were. This time I gave them space, and wondered what it’s like to have that many siblings.
I had never really thought much about where they got the name wolf spider, assuming it had something to do with their canine-like furry coloration (more visible when unencumbered by a litter of younglings). The authorities say it comes from the fact they they do not spin webs, and instead are known for rapidly chasing and then pouncing on their prey, like their namesake. They are not as fast on polished concrete floors as they are outside in more natural conditions, but they seem happy to trade that for the shelter the shadowed nooks of our house provide.
I don’t recall there being any wolf spiders in the house I grew up in, at least not the tarantula size of the ones we have in Texas. I do remember a story my grandma used to tell us about the friend of a friend who popped what she thought was a zit only to have a hundred baby spiders come out, which was no doubt an urban legend granny passed on the same way she told us stories about the dangers of hitchhiking. This was in Des Moines, a place where one of the many unsolved mysteries, not as scary as the missing paper boys or the murder of a woman on a creepy little bridge down the hill from our home, was the mystery of where the name of the town came from.
American place names encode all sorts of histories behind the banal parade of green and white signs marking the exits on the highway. Words in the endangered languages of peoples displaced or destroyed by colonization, the names of old military outposts we think of as long shuttered even as the projection of force across the land persists to this day, the surnames of settlers major and minor, and the simple descriptions of characteristics of the landscape. George Stewart wrote about it beautifully in Names on the Land, a literary account of American place names first completed in 1944 (and now available from NYRB Classics), showing the stories that can be divined from the maps and markers we make.
In footnote 17 to his 1895 edition of the 1805 Expeditions of Zebulon Pike, the naturalist, historian and spiritualist Elliott Coues, famed in his lifetime for both his voluminous writings on the bird life of North America and his very public feud with Madame Blavatsky, condescendingly riffs on some of the many misunderstandings of just where the name Des Moines came from. He does so as Pike and his crew of 20 soldiers portage their 70-foot keel-boat across the wide rapids where the river of that name enters the Mississippi, archly ridiculing the stiff 25-year-old Army officer’s effort to show his command of French by recording the name as De Moyen, and also dismissing as spurious the then-contemporary etymology by association with the Trappist monks who established a monastery downriver at Cahokia. He digs into the old French maps, along with the journals of Joliet and Marquette, and notes all the variants of what were obviously Indian names—Moingana, Moingoana, Moeng8ena. But he does not know what those words mean.
In grade school in the ‘70s our teachers shared the theory about the middle river, as in moyen, the theory about the monks, and the theory that it came from an Indian name. More recent theories argued that it was a word that described the portage. It was only in the past twenty years that the Indian languages scholar Michael McCafferty established that, when Joliet and Marquette encountered the Peoria Indians at the mouth of the river and asked them who lives up there, they told them something along the lines of “those are the Mouinguena.” Meaning, in their language, the shit-faces. A joke that has lasted 350 years, and somehow suits the place.
The town that shares that name is at the confluence of two rivers—the Des Moines, and a more meandering tributary called the Raccoon River, which is one we could easily reach on our bicycles, and spent more time exploring when I was younger. Raccoon Valley was the name of our little league, its playing fields near the party spot in the woods the heads who came before us called the Lost Planet—a weird zone where the water works dumped the lime they used in their treatment process, resulting in an unearthly landscape equally well-suited to playing spaceman or dropping acid, depending on your age. All along the river were dense, mildly creepy woods, in the floodplain the city left alone. And when you got to the river itself, it opened up with muddy flats, where you easily could learn to track what animal neighbors had been out in the night.
I never gave much thought to the name of that river until this visit, when I learned the Ioway called that whole river system the Raccoon, Mingke Nyi, or "Lots of Raccoons" (mingke rohan) River. Encoding in the name, perhaps, the way the rivers and the creeks and the land around them were an integrated ecosystem. A place you can still see, even if the water is now all polluted with agricultural chemicals.
The route from my mom’s place in Southern Iowa to the airport in Des Moines passes over the Raccoon River in a few spots, and it always tempts me to go back. On Columbus Day, with an hour to kill before my flight back to Austin, I walked a little stretch, around an old oxbow lake at the west end of town. It’s a spot I used to walk in winter, when my now-adult son was an infant, and you could walk straight across the iced-over expanse pictured above, and make it into the deep woods and on to the river. Even better conditions for tracking, and for getting out of your own head.
In the intervening years, they have made it into a proper park, but the wider area around it remains more rugged, the zone where industry hides behind suburbia, with gravel pits and industrial staging yards along the railroad whose nighttime calls punctuate my memories of childhood. A little further on is a long sprawl of office parks and big box buildings whose true purposes are never as evident, across from a woodland preserve.
ChatGPT lives there now, in the complex of buildings pictured above. You can see it from Interstate 35, just south of the mall and the river. I had driven past it many times in recent years, as it was being built, but not known what it was until I came upon a news article while hanging out with my mom watching Perry Mason reruns. ChatGPT, it turns out, lives off the same water I drank growing up—the water of the Mingke Nyi. 500 ml, around 16 ounces, every time you ask it a few questions. Contributing to a 34% spike run Microsoft’s global water consumption from 2021 to 2022 (to nearly 1.7 billion gallons, or more than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools).
There’s no sign telling you that’s what’s there. I had to look in a data center trade magazine, which also disclosed the permits for additional Microsoft sites planned all around the roads that trace the path along the river between the freeway and the airport. The current site is an active construction zone, as they build out a fourth pad. Big, but nothing like the Tesla factory near our home, and super quiet. Another anonymous cluster of warehouses in a boring little corner of Midwestern exurbia, but this one being trained in pattern recognition through some simulation of the memories of us all.
In the sky overhead, on a sunny and blustery early autumn day, I saw a few vultures. And, as I drove to check out the address of the next site to be built, a lone hawk in flight. There were no signs there, either. Just a cornfield, across from a fancy new baptist church, where once had been prairie, on the day that commemorates the discovery of this continent by European explorers. As my friend in Tijuana says, you can see the future from here.
Annular reading table
NO STOPPING ON HIGHWAY TO VIEW ECLIPSE
So read the signs along Interstate 35 Saturday, as we drove north to Dallas for a quick weekend trip. We stopped anyway, at a frontage road Chipotle in Waco, right across from the Baylor stadium. We had a single pair of eclipse viewing glasses to share, thanks to our neighbors, and it was pretty dang awesome. We weren’t the only ones—a family of five pulled up next to us, each with their own glasses, and better equipped with data about when the peak moment would be where we were on the planet. When I took off the glasses the last time, I noticed the storefront next door to the Chipotle was a CBD shop called AMERICAN SHAMAN (First Responder Owned, US Hemp Authority Certified, Zen Master, Free Samples, Pull Hard).
In Dallas, we caught the amazing new show at the Nasher Sculpture Garden, Groundswell: Women of Land Art, an exceptionally curated exhibit about 12 artists, most of them active since the ‘70s, in a field whose critical attentions have long been dominated by monolithic dudes. As is the nature of the work, most of the show was documentation of permanent installations we will now have to add to our road trip list, but it also included some complete works, including Stream Trace, a site-specific sculpture by Mary Miss that marks the path of a stream buried under downtown Dallas. It also provides a very entertaining slalom course for a pair of four-year-olds who have been in the car for three hours. Up until January 7, and worth the trip.
And in White Sands, as reported at the beginning of the month, scientists have established that human footprints tracked across that expanse are 21,000 to 23,000 years old—pushing the estimated date of human arrival on this continent back by ten millennia.
On my way to Iowa last weekend, as I awaited the next round of editorial comments on my own new book, based on the material of this newsletter, I finally had time to read my friend and colleague M. John Harrison’s new anti-memoir, Wish I Was Here. It is brilliant, profound, and insanely funny, with some great discussions about edgelands and other post-industrial wildernesses. A sample:
Right after I got back, I got the email I had been waiting for, which means this newsletter will be on one-more monthlong break as I get back to my desk to finish the last round of significant revisions on The Secret History of Empty Lots: Field Notes from an American Edgeland.
Stay safe, and enjoy the autumn cool, which has even arrived in Texas.
[AI saving native languages]