It was hazy Monday night, but when we stepped out to stare at the alignment of Jupiter and Saturn there in the southwestern sky, the thin clouds had opened up the view, and you could see the main objects clearly enough in our back porch binoculars. Not enough to see the moons, or the rings of Saturn, but enough to see it was really there, and to accept the wonder of the celestial event. In the morning as I got up from my desk the light of dawn over the old road gone wild was pink and portentous, as Romantic a scene as you can get with telephone poles carrying Internet packets through the foreground.
I’ve been thinking a lot this year about the idea of people inventing their own rituals that better tie them into our Anthropocene environment. As I’ve read about the rituals of the cultures ours comes from, including rituals related to the winter solstice, it’s evident almost all of them have to do with agriculture. Efforts at sympathetic magic designed to influence the aspects of nature we can’t control in our effort to turn wild prairies into cornfields to feed our tribe and create the wealth that comes with surplus. All those pagan mysteries, at least the ones whose memories survive, are really just about feudal production and our indenture to the system that still sustains our civilization. The Wicker Man is a story about a crop failure, and one of its deceptions is that it doesn’t show people working.
Or maybe that’s just the narrative we impose on the fragments of the past. I keep thinking about this page I read earlier in the year, from Roger Lancelyn Green’s introduction to his 1957 Penguin translation of Two Satyr Plays, riffing Robert Graves-style on his own idea of what the Greeks were really up to. A lyrical approach to scholarship whose speculative aspects are evident in the heavy reliance on “probably,” hilarious in its tweedy obfuscations of all the sexy bits and its reflexive preference for Dionysus, the dude god who raids the college sherry when the beer runs out, over Demeter, the goddess of fresh bread in the morning. But the passage is surprisingly powerful in the way it reminds you that the real wonder lies in the myths that preceded the ones we learned, stories we can only know from the echoes of their echoes, in the same way the languages in which they were told survive only as cryptic relics embedded in the etymological DNA of our own.
I’ve read similar stories from later sources this year, stories of how Demeter and Dionysus walked to Greece from India, bringing with them the secrets of agricultural production that were ritually taught at Eleusis. Monday’s rosy-fingered dawn got me thinking about Eos and her variants, which led me down the rabbit hole into the theories of h₂éwsōs, the name scholars have divined for the proto-Indo-European deification of the dawn.
All of which is why, when I found the ramen packs neatly stacked atop the old navigation marker where the highway bridge looks over the riverine woods, I wondered if they might be an offering to the Texas Druid King. And then I wondered if the king might actually be a queen.
In the winter the barred owls come to those woods beneath the bridge, and you can hear their eerie calls as night comes on. Seven years ago, back when that bridge still carried cars, my wife and I were returning from dinner with friends across the river when we spotted one such owl grounded right by that old marker, cars and trucks blasting by inches away. We grabbed a big fleece blanket from the house and went back to rescue it.
There was no shoulder, so my wife parked our little red VW wagon in the fast lane with the blinkers on while I tried to bag the bird. As I approached in the dim light of vintage municipal street lamps, figuring it was stunned from striking a moving vehicle, it seemed huge, as tall as my waist, even though I’m sure it was half that size. I got close enough to grab it. And as I spread my Ikea bin Batman cape, its head suddenly did the full Linda Blair, telepathically warning me to buzz off with those eyes like black marbles, and throwing up a big wing like a Mr. Miyagi block in case I didn’t get it. It was obvious we were more likely to hurt it than help it, so we drove off amid the honking cars and called the animal rescue pros.
Later I was advised that the correct way to rescue a big owl is to trap it in a cardboard box and seal it off from light. I have not yet had a chance to find out whether that works. But I am always happy when I hear the owls, because it means we haven’t scared them off yet.
Here’s a phone photo of one from earlier this year, seen on an evening run below the cloverleaf at winter’s end:
The morning after the solstice, baby and I were out in the front yard throwing the stuffed owl dog toy to our crazy Kishu, and I noticed a little shell that some squirrel had halved from one of the walnut trees along our fenceline—the one whose leafless winter branches you can see in the photo that begins this post. The walnuts those trees yield are smaller than the ones you buy in the store, with a diameter no bigger than a nickel, the nuts the size of peas. But the squirrels love them, and sometimes I eat them, too.
What was amazing about this one was that it had the face of the owl, the same face I saw staring down at me the first time I really went deep into the woods behind the door factory, and that I saw again with baby the first time I walked her down there at twilight. The face of the wild spaces that manage to hold out in the heart of the city.
To see that face is surely a peculiarly human thing, a product of the same kind of mutant cognition that produces stories of dawn goddesses, magical orgies on the threshing room floor, and Christmas tree invocations of the eternal green that lurks even in the barest winter. But it makes me wonder whether the same power of imagination that turned us into the apex predator, one that managed to turn the entire planet into a factory to feed us, might also give us the power to imagine a more balanced future, one that harnesses the power of reciprocity instead of dominion.
Probably a fantasy as silly as my theory of the ramen, but then we are living on land taken from people who followed a path more like that. Land that, when you leave it alone, fruits plants older than the human habitation of this continent, like the Texas mistletoe that redlines the Scoville meter and reminds you that the wild remnants of what was before are still out there, waiting to be rediscovered along with the wild part of your own soul. At the end of a year that has reminded us how much change and adaptation we are capable of when compelled, on the days when the machine stops for a rest, and the night sky of the city is noticeably clearer and darker, it almost feels like the possible.
A year in the field
I started this newsletter in February, a week after I turned in revisions to my latest novel, and three weeks before the pandemic arrived here in force. I had long been wanting to do something more with the urban nature material I have been accumulating, and to explore boundaries of form and genre in a way that suits writing about the liminal space where wild nature and the city coexist. Ecological fact as applied science fiction. The newsletter format had always appealed to me, even when I was a kid and my dad used to get that weird Kiplinger Tax Letter. And I had no book deadlines looming.
The response has been much better than I expected. I started with a list of 20 people who had subscribed to the news feed on my main site. Now I have as many as 5,000 people reading each of these posts, some of whom have even started their own projects inspired by this one. I have re-used a few photos, and repeated myself on occasion, probably more than I know, but the field journal format works well to always anchor it with some fresh material. And I’m finally getting a clear idea of how this material could work at book length, while in parallel I explore the urban woods as a setting for fiction.
My idea to send this out on Sunday mornings has killed a few weekends, but I think keeping a schedule is important for a project like this, and I love infiltrating the mindspace formerly occupied by the Sunday paper and the Sunday sermon.
Instead of the usual reading and screening roundup, here are a few highlights from Field Notes 2020, from the 47 (!) dispatches I have sent out in 2020:
The most read post of the year was July’s “Flight of the Fire Ants,” thanks to an appearance at the top of Y Combinator’s news feed, and because everyone is excited to learn that fire ants can fly.
A close second was my inaugural post, “The Nomads of February,” which holds up pretty well as a manifesto for what I am trying to do with this project.
June’s “Black Nature Writing” also got a lot of attention outside the regular readership, including republication by two other platforms. That post that helped me better see the privilege I take with me on my solitary walks in the woods, and radically rethink how I read nature and nature writing.
The only post that caused me to lose more than a couple of subscribers was August’s “Car Camping with Bigfoot,” which I presumed was from pissing off an equal number of Bigfoot true believers and serious natural scientists who don’t have time for Sasquatch stories.
The most intense piece for me to write, and probably my personal favorite as a piece of writing, was April’s piece about spreading my brother’s ashes, “An Aborted Road Trip to the Lost Planet.”
Lastly, the best wildlife video of the year had to be this bruiser of a bobcat prowling in the woods behind the door factory right before Halloween, the highlight of November’s “Tastes Like Chicken.”
Thank you all for reading and sharing, and for the emails and comments many of you post—even the taxonomic corrections from the real ecologists. The sharing is key to help reach more people, which is a big part of what makes the project worth continuing, so please keep it up if you are so inclined.
And for those of you who have been patiently waiting for a cat meme to show up here, check out this one that baby and I found on Christmas Eve down in the Swamp Camp—a good reminder not to take oneself too seriously, as time in the woods often teaches.
Have a safe last week of 2020, and try to get outside on these quiet days if you can.