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After lunch on Christmas Day I took a bike ride down by the river and up along the frontage road of the new tollway to make a delivery to my friend Phil. The day before, Phil had left me a worn but tidily repaired Robert Parker paperback wrapped in two grits bags and tied in the vines outside our front gate, along with a very nice letter. I had been meaning to make a book drop for him since summer, but doing so is not as easy as with other friends with whom I exchange books and letters, because the postal service will not deliver packages to the abandoned building where Phil has made his home for a decade.
It has been freakishly warm here over the holidays, the kind of weather that would pass for summer a little further north. So warm that the plants are confused—on Christmas Eve as I made a delivery of homebrew chile piquín vinegar to our next door neighbors while they were making a fire in the pit, I noticed a bluebonnet in their yard was already in bloom. Proper weather, I suppose, to ride along empty freeways and visit a man who lives off the remains of the city.
Phil’s squat is in a building that may once have been a single-family home along the side of the old road to Bastrop and Houston. If you drove past it now, you would be unlikely to notice it. It exists in a tiny sliver of urban negative space between the frontage road and a gravel mining operation, with big shipping containers stacked up as close to Phil’s main door as they can be without knocking his shack down. It may be that the only reason the little strip where his place is has not been razed is that it harbors a protected tree—a live oak that reportedly has the largest circumference of any in the county, and around which Phil has erected various talismans made from found objects reworked, as both welcome and warning.
Phil was there when I rode up, sitting in his work room making something, and it was almost like he was expecting me. We caught up and then got to talking about Robinson Crusoe, a book about a man who lives in a way not unlike Phil. That led him to bring up Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, of which Phil exclaimed (smiling) “You can’t give that book to anyone!” even though I am pretty sure I gave it to him. Phil was focused on the last section of that book, in which the narrator ends up living in a hole in the ground by the side of the road, and I could not argue with his assessment that it channeled some kind of deep truth telling.
We walked around under the canopy of the old oak tree. I expressed alarm at the broken condition of some of the big branches, and he dismissed my concern, remarking with authority that such breaking off and regrowth is just what those big oaks do. He seemed healthy and wise in the way he usually does on a quiet day there in his refuge, even as I have seen some of the challenges he endures when he leaves it. After I left I got to wondering anew about the tenuous nature of the sanctuary he has been allowed to make of that building.
There’s a doctrine you learn in the first semester of law school, in the class about the real property law that is our society’s true constitution, the system of territorial and social control we inherited from the Norman warlords. The doctrine is called adverse possession, the basic idea of which is that if you conspicuously occupy a piece of real property as if you own it for a long enough time, you can acquire better title to the property than the person whose name is on the registry of deeds. I have never understood why the schools emphasize this jurisprudential arcana so much, given how little life it has in modern practice, in a world where land titles are the seemingly indisputable building blocks of a financial system that ties our homes to our indentured labor in a way the peasants of medieval England would find more familiar than we like to admit. Maybe it’s a safety valve the jurists need to maintain, if only rhetorically—the idea that you could liberate yourself from that system without buying your way out.
At Thanksgiving I found an old 35mm film camera in my parents’ basement and decided to see if I could get it working. It’s a Canon F-1 that my dad probably acquired sometime in the 70s, and mostly used to take pictures of his dental patients’ teeth. That’s why he has a macro lens of the same vintage, which I look forward to trying out in springtime. In the meantime, I have spent the last few weeks shooting on film with the 28mm lens he had. Over the past week I have been able to do so in the company of my son while he visits for the holidays, which is a good thing because he knows a lot more about film photography than me, and has an even cooler camera he brought on the trip, a 1950s East German Exakta he got at Thanksgiving from his other grandpa. As the first rolls have come back from the lab, it’s been amazing to experience how much more lasting a machine that forty-year-old black metal mirror box is than the software-based devices we now use, and how much more interesting are the images it produces. Shooting around here, it really brings out the gothic quality of the Texas edgelands, and the hints of folk horror. Especially in black and white.
In the mornings between Christmas Eve and New Year’s we took long walks in and along the river, the same stretch of wild urban river we first encountered when my son was a Cub Scout, and we have seen some amazing stuff, even on the mornings when you can barely see.
At the opposite end of the long block where we live, there is an old metal warehouse building that for years hosted a characteristically weird mix of hipster chop shops, motorcycle repair places, illegal housing set-ups and one underground music venue that had a skate ramp in the back that earned it the name The Broken Neck. For nine years now new owners have been working on building a boutique hotel at that seemingly unlikely spot. Last year they kicked out all the tenants as they began some of the site work, and the building quickly got ransacked and tagged. But if you walk down there and stand on the busted-up parking lot of the old muffler shop where you could also get your taxes done, you will find yourself staring at a very unlikely thing: the rookery of a community of great blue herons in a tall bare sycamore grown up out of an island of landfill trash and river dirt.
I have seen the heronry many times, and written about it here before, but it always maintained a certain inaccessibility. The tree is a perfect refuge for those birds, in a spot that is very difficult to get close to even if you are paddling in the river. But in this brief moment, you can stand on the nearby bluff right at the same level of the nests, look out over a ravine filled with decades worth of junk, and feel like you could almost reach into the nests.
Thursday morning my son and I walked back down behind the warehouse. It’s a steep bluff above the river, most of it accreted public land in an area that once was just outside the city limits and for probably a century a popular place to dump trash. Thick stands of alien bamboo grow up out of the gnarled rebar, hiding the evidence of our abuse of the land there in the liminal zone where the city turns feral. The washed out trail leads to a shallow channel lined with bivalve shells and broken glass. On the other side is a secret island, a spot that, because it is in a river that qualifies as a navigable waterway under federal law, is one of the truest examples we still have of land we all share as the commons.
While my son set up his tripod to get some longer shots of the heronry, I walked the other direction and explored the island. It was much bigger than I realized, stretching out over what felt like a half-mile, there in the shadow of a new office building whose occupants will probably never even know it is there. Patches of invasive elephant ear have taken over some sections of the island, but most of it is dominated by switch grasses and other natives. I even found one stand of bushy blue stem, and helped spread some of the seed.
Deer bolted from the thick brush as I walked, leaping over the silt fences and up toward the street. An armadillo was crawling along the lip of one section of fence, an unlikely sight. A red-shouldered hawk watched over the scene as the white herons and snowy egrets flew up to find breakfast in the spillway of the dam. An osprey came from that direction, carrying a bigger fish than any heron could beak.
Working our way back along the main channel of the river, a big stag crossed in front of us, lumbering and oblivious to our presence. I wonder sometimes about how the animals around us interpret our demarcations of property. They all have their own ways of allocating territory among members of their own species, and of sensing signs of other species, especially predators like us.
On New Year’s Eve in this corner of Texas, the neighbors get going like it’s a Vietnam War simulation, popping off so loud for so long that you can imagine the stress it causes the wildlife as the sounds of the explosions carom down the river corridor. Reminding them who it is that learned to control fire, and use it to consume as much of the planet as possible.
Earlier in the week when my son and I walked down into the backwater wetland below the overpass, we found more elephant ear taking over a spot that a few seasons ago had been dominated by native water grasses, and he remarked how this weird zone where we live is getting “more Stalker-y”—that it feels like it’s in the process of changing into something different, more tropical. His perspective after having been away for a long time resonated with my own intuition. This is the third consecutive year in which winter’s cold has been regularly interrupted by freakishly hot fortnights that bring with them a weirdly dry humidity and a creepy glare to the light, a climatic hangover that feels like a sign of sickness. Because it probably is. And it’s the first year I’ve seen so many wildflowers of spring bloom in December.
Seeing the majestic wildlife that manages to survive in this sliver of unintentionally preserved urban wilderness usually gives me hope, with its indisputable evidence of resilience. But sometimes I look back at the photos and see the same precarity as my friend who lives in the abandoned shack that could be torn down any day. Animals occupying the interstitial green that is all they have left, as their populations rapidly diminish under our unceasing encroachment. To even walk down in that rare urban redoubt is a violation, no matter one’s supposed intentions. Writing this on New Year’s Day, it makes me wonder what kind of crisis it will take to break our alienation from the world around us, and get us to learn to share. You can feel the retributive power of ejectment welling up behind those hot winds, in a year when midwinter brings wildfires in the Rockies, and you realize it has already hit.
“Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.” — Joan Didion, “The Santa Anas,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1969)
She’s not often thought of as a nature writer, because she wasn’t, but it’s always there in her work, an implicit understanding that goes with her emotional toughness and her keen observation of the deep currents of history coursing through the news of the day. The week has been full of tributes marking Joan Didion’s passing, one of the best of which among those I read was Michiko Kakutani’s retrospective in Thursday’s NYT. But the best tribute is to go reread her, and this short piece on the Santa Anas is pretty great, and maybe a fresh angle.
Two other great pieces worth noting from this week’s Times: Jack Healy and Mike Baker on the welling conflict as green energy producers look to extract rare Earth minerals from tribal lands in the U.S., and Sominin Sengupta on Chile’s effort to enshrine rights of nature in its new constitution, and potentially impose more fundamental legal controls on the mining of lithium in its mineral-rich deserts. The latter piece does a great job of articulating the hopeful possibilities represented by such radical rethinking of rights regimes, but omits to note how deeply Chile’s often dark history, including the U.S.-backed 1973 coup, was fueled by the interests of mineral extractors.
That reminded me of another one we lost in 2021: Christopher Stone, the law professor who spawned a fresh branch of jurisprudence of the rights of nature by asking his students a particularly cogent provocation one day in class: If corporations have rights, why shouldn’t trees? Stone’s seminal law review article on the subject, “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” remains vital and compelling, and increasingly influential as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of its original publication.
Over at Aqueduct Press, my contribution to this year’s roundup of guest posts from writers on their year in reading, in my case including a reconsideration of some volumes from the Anglo-American canon as works of climate fiction. Thanks to L. Timmel Duchamp for having me back again, and for the amazing collection of other perspectives she assembles.
I came upon an interesting new nature writing site this week, Gotham Canoe, a project of the Wall Street Journal reporter and editor Neil King that includes a lot of East Coast urban perspective on the wild.
For more on the doctrine of adverse possession, the Wikipedia entry is a good historical overview.
And thanks to Henry Wessells of Endless Bookshelf for this wonderful entry in the 1933 OED (also found in my more current version). I can attest that the observation of the last citation is true:
Heronry, hernery . [f. Heron, Hern + -ry.] A place where herons breed. a. 1616 SURFL. & MARKH. Country Farme 671 To provide therefore for a Heronrie or place to breed herons in. 1622-3 in Simpkinson Washingtons (1860) App. 41 Cutting the greate tree in the heron row. 1789 G. WHITE Selborne xxiii. (1853) 95 Send me word…whether the heronry consists of a whole grove or wood, or only a few trees. 1872 JENKINSON Guide Eng. Lakes (1879) 25 It contains two or three wooded islets, upon one of which was a heronry. b. 1603-4 Act I Jas. I, c. 27 § 6 So that hee or they shall not shoot anye…Gunne, within sixe hundredth paces of any Hernerie. 1786 W. GILPIN Lakes Cumbld. (1808) II. xix. 76 The screams of a hernery (the wildest notes in nature).
Field Notes will be off next week, as I plan to be in the field, in one of the sorts of places Joan Didion liked to visit. Happy New Year, thanks for reading, and I hope to back in a couple of weeks with something more authentically tropical.