Ambient owls and other omens
In the evenings as winter tries to wind down, we’ve been hearing the barred owls calling from the woods behind the factories. It’s maybe the most beautiful sound that comes out of those woods, from what may be their most mystical occupants. Unhurried and unworried, four smooth tones that assure you there’s still some wildness left in the world around you, even on weeks when you see the evidence of how hard we are trying to erase it.
It’s much rarer that we see one of those owls, but when we do it is usually at auspicious moments. The very first time I walked down into those woods on my own, shortly after we moved over here, I came upon a spot where the Anthropocene creek that flows from the drainage ditch behind the gypsum yard pools into an unlikely little pond surrounded by big bent willows and hackberrys. An urban version of the kind of sacred grove you might read about in Frazer, animated with a grace that lets you feel that animist sense of divinity you can never find looking in the endless mirrors of our glass-covered cities. A grace that came up out of the trash-filled muck in the gothic lines of the edgeland trees and vines. Presiding over it was one of those big owls, perched on one of the branches over the water, watching me as I stumbled into its realm. We shared a long stare, and then it flew off, and I realized what an interloper I was, walking in woods that wanted no human visitors, one of the last places left in the city where animals could roam free from human gazes.
The first time I took my daughter down into those woods at dusk, when she was just beginning to take notice of the world beyond the distance of her fingertips, one of those owls was there watching over us from the shadowed branches, backlit by the golden rays of the autumn sunset. The owl seemed more welcoming of the child than the man, but I’m sure that’s just my narrative imposition.
Every time I hear the owls calling to each other in the crepuscular hour, often on weekends when the factories are quiet, the sound fills me with a sense of anticipatory loss, as I wait for the season when they do not return. That these woods are not, as I have slowly learned, some antediluvian remnant, but rather a little slice of floodplain that only recently got sealed off from industrial use and quickly recovered over a few short decades into a rare slice of urban wilderness, provides only a little comfort. You can feel the city circling that secret grove, wanting to tame it even as it pretends to preserve it.
On Tuesday morning I ran down into the beat-up wildlife preserve under the tollway bridge, and encountered a lone birder just off the trail. She asked me if I had seen any owls, and I told her that I had been hearing the barred owls often lately. She then told me that she was looking for a snowy owl that had been sited there recently, explaining gratuitously that it would be white. The thought of such a creature appearing here in the middle of Texas seemed as likely to me as seeing a Wendigo, even though a week ago we did have something approximating snow on the ground. A little research landed me on a Facebook page of excited birders who saw someone’s report on eBird, but it looked like the original poster had typed snowy owl when they meant snowy egret.
On Sunday I had gone for a long run through the wild interstices of our neighborhood, following the train tracks to a trailhead that led me past the rotting trestles of an old bridge, and up a high hill where people have dumped decades worth of trash on a site some say was the location of the first Spanish fort in these parts. One of those trails that makes you wonder how old it may be, and who walked there before you.
When I came back down I followed the creek past the point where it is no longer paved, and then down the dirt paths at the edge of the old gravel mining operations that parallel the frontage road of the tollway. The winds of the weekend before had filled the bare trees with airborne flotsam, one hung with dozens of shards of a white plastic bag that had shredded on its branches, reminding me of one of the grimmer images in Blood Meridian.
A little further on a peregrine falcon took off from the tall perch of one of the telephone poles along the road, and I watched it fly over the plain where the aggregate production stopped a decade ago and the land has been momentarily allowed to do its own thing before the acreage is turned into a municipal park. The peregrine landed in a distant tree, closer to the river, the concrete columns of what was there before lined up like the enigmatic henge of a lost civilization, and you could almost imagine the ruins that will be left when we are gone.
Welcome to all of the new subscribers to this newsletter following last week’s Texas Monthly interview. This month marks the two-year anniversary of this project, which I began just after I turned in the last revisions to my novel Failed State and right before the pandemic arrived in the U.S. The idea has been to use the simultaneously vintage and novel format of the newsletter as a sandbox to experiment with modes of creative nonfiction focused on urban nature, especially around the place where we live at the edge of East Austin, and to be able to include plenty of photography outside of the algorithmic clickbait farm of social media.
The result has been what my friend the writer John Hornor Jacobs called “socio-economic dystopian nature writing, if that’s even a thing,” which sounded about right to me. A more outdoorsy variant of the sort of English writing about urban walks that often gets burdened with the moniker of psychogeography. And an effort at first person narrative that tries to get away from our preoccupation with the self. I keep it free, even though it’s on a platform designed for paid subscriptions (though Drew Shiel at the climate change newsletter Gentle Decline has given me the excellent idea to add some merch).
The newsletter is published on Sunday mornings, a space in the week I have always loved, and found to be somewhat hollowed out in recent years by the decline of Sunday newspapers and Sunday sermons. For a sampling of earlier posts, you can find them ranked by popularity here.
If you are interested in my other work, including my novels and criticism, you can find that here on my main site.
“For me the keeping of a list of birds sighted has neither value nor interest. I am more interested in birds of particular places, how they behave over longer periods and how they use their chosen habitats. What the birds did, ate, and raised attracted me. I suppose I could say I was drawn to their stories.”
So wrote Annie Proulx in her essay “A Year of Birds,” which appeared in the December 2010 issue of Harper’s (paywall). Proulx his best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction, which includes the novels Postcards and The Shipping News and the short story “Brokeback Mountain.” She is also a wonderful nature writer, as evidenced by this diary of a year living in a house she built on the North Platte River in Wyoming. I read the piece when it came out, and one of my bird encounters this week got me to go track it down and re-read it, and it holds up very well as an example of writing about place and landscape and wildlife that leaves room for other digressions, memories and insights. Along the way I learned Proulx wrote an entire book in the same vein, a memoir of her construction of that house and experiences living it. I checked out Bird Cloud from the Austin Public Library Friday, and am looking forward to reading it.
In the article, Proulx also has this awesome quote from Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:
“books on nature seldom mention wind; they are written behind stoves.”
Writing from the warmer winds of Ibiza, cybernomad, human webcrawler and friend of Field Notes Bruce Sterling sends this amazing trove of public domain Texan natural history lore from J. Frank Dobie, from Project Gutenberg’s copy of Dobie’s Guide to Life and Literature of the Southwest. Bruce also sent this dystopian excerpt from Dobie’s A Texan in England, watching owls as the bombers fly off at higher altitudes on their way to Germany:
In the early mornings this winter I have been mostly listening to ambient music on old compact discs while I write. One of the discs in heavy rotation has been Brian Eno’s Ambient 4: On Land. I have a vivid memory of driving cross country sometime in the early 1990s, headed from Iowa to D.C., listening to ambient Eno on the Honda car stereo and experiencing a minor epiphany as the music seemed to perfectly tune in the minimalist beauty of the banal landscape of freeway, farms, sky and clouds.
So I was intrigued this week when I read the liner notes that accompany the CD, and discovered they are different than those that accompanied the original record. In the revised liner notes written for the CD release, Eno explains how the pieces collected in On Land were created around “the idea of making music that in some way related to place—landscape, environment.” And how the creation of those pieces made him realize the same sense of place ran through many similar works that had preceded it. Explaining the draw of such material, Eno makes an observation similar to what I was trying to say about the draw of Annie Proulx’s nature writing:
“In using the term landscape I am thinking of places, times, climates and the moods that they evoke. And of expanded moments of memory too…”
Lastly, here’s some fresh and friendly graffiti I found under the old bridge on the day after Valentine’s Day, right after a caracara flew through the frame.
Have a great week.