The end of a long wet summer delivered a bountiful crop from the bois d’arc trees. When we returned from our August vacations, the paths to our front door were littered with round green pods the size and hardness of softballs. The first time you see one, its surface mapped with cerebral crevasses, you wonder who lost their brain. But each one is packed with seeds, enough genetic material to make a fresh forest of hard thorny branches intertwining into some impenetrable new Monte. They are really designed to be eaten by Mastodons and spread across the land in their excrement. But all the big fierce animals are gone from the Earth, replaced by us and our livestock, and Friday afternoon as the work week wound down what I saw was a scrawny squirrel improbably wrestling one of those leviathan Chiclets up a tree, afraid I would steal it or him. It was a simultaneously Herculean and comical portage he attempted, until I heard the thud as he dropped it to the ground, electing what must have seemed the best path to survival.
I never saw many squirrels when we first moved here to the edge of the urban woods, which I took to be a sign of the relative health of those woods. I only ever saw one bunny, either, hiding in the tall grass of a wetland that had been allowed to develop in the shadows of a highway bridge. What I saw a lot of were hawks, coyotes, foxes and deer. We saw wild turkey, too—just once, in our yard before we built the house, but I’ve found their feathers in the woods since then. When you witness a half-dozen gobblers strutting across the empty field of an old dumpsite, half a block from the highway, the noise of metal shops banging away in the background, you can’t help but marvel at the capacity of wild animals to move through our urbanized space mostly unseen.
At the beginning of August, I noticed some curious animal sign in the strip between our front fence and the sidewalk. The right of way is what they usually call that, the liminal space reserved by the state for the public movement of human traffic. There are duties to maintain such space imposed on the landowner in the local code, but we mostly let it go wild, working to preserve the peculiar character we found when we arrived—an empty lot bisected by a petroleum pipeline that had long been abandoned, its valve box taken over by a colony of a hundred-thousand harvester ants who regulated the gathering of seeds from the surrounding fields using a method algorithmically identical to the protocols used to traffic packets across the Internet.
The dirt in that slice of urban negative space is remarkably soft underfoot, so much so that if you step in there you will worry the ground will give beneath your feet and drop you into whatever subterranean realm that valve box was a portal to. For at least forty years it’s been a spot where trash gets dumped. Of late, mostly just the things that the guys who work on the shop floor of the door factory toss when they finish eating lunch in their cars, or the empties that accumulate after their Friday afternoon happy hours. That, and the wind-born urban flotsam that gets caught in the fence, plastic bags and bits of synthetic packaging that roll down the street like post-industrial tumbleweeds. We have a terrarium filled with talismans we’ve found in that zone: a rusted old horseshoe, Spider-Man’s severed head, the eight-sided die of some wayward dungeon master.
What I spotted back in there at the beginning of August, in the shadows of a retama killed by February’s winter storm, was a fresh new burrow—an exceptionally tidy pile of dirt that looked like it had been just dug up minutes before, with a hole nestled between the roots of a young hackberry. So I set up a trailcam, hid it from sidewalk strolling thieves with one of the plastic bags hanging nearby, and found the armadillos you are looking for.
Armadillos are mostly nocturnal during the hot summer months, and the footage from this burrow has them emerging well after sunset and returning around 2 or 3 a.m. Mostly the footage shows the male, who is big, grown porcine from the ample bugs and grubs that thrive that in trashed dirt. As he walks through the frame, you can’t help but marvel at the wonder of cellular armor that quivers like your belly fat even as it shields him from your fangs. And then every time he returns, he takes a long moment to rub his gonads against the entry to his hole. It’s a gesture that seems as gratuitous as many of the territorial displays males of our own species perform, but in later footage you can see how it succeeds in warding off the opossum and the cat who pass through on the prowl, sniffing and then moving on.
It’s a beautiful thing to find a wild animal making its home like that in the interstices of the city, staking out a small claim in the marginal space and time we ignore. As Labor Day came and went, I wondered if he was in there laughing at the crews coming and going from the fab, and at me typing away on the digital treadmill in my nearby trailer, as he enjoyed a life that apparently involves 20 hours a day of sleeping and cuddling, and a few nighttime hours of mellow smorgasbording prowls.
Our August vacations were no more than a couple of long weekends. In Iowa we found the goldenrod already in bloom everywhere you looked when you got outside of the city, in a state where you can see the hopeful signs of plowed fields beginning to go back to wild, and the native plants we thought had long disappeared coming right back up out of the ground and propagating as soon as the mowing stops.
In San Antonio we communed with the colonial past, walking the grounds of Mission San Jose and thinking about the deep history of human connections to the rivers that run through this region and the aquifers underneath our feet. In our search for toddler-friendly relaxation we stayed at an exurban family resort that turned out to have gotten its Gilead on in the two decades since I first went there with my now-adult son, every atrium and hallway lined with the biggest American flag they can find to fit, in a futile effort to hold the multicultural future at bay. We took an early morning ride on the fake tubing river, then switched to an old downtown hotel, ate the world’s finest curbside lengua, saw white buffalo apparitions on a museum wall, and came upon an evening film shoot in which one of the old theaters was dressed up as 70s San Francisco hosting a Sex Pistols show. Sid Vicious was there across the street, waiting his cue, reincarnated as a gym-toned millennial watching the vintage muscle cars roll by.
We took our daughter to the San Antonio Zoo, which is so old school they still have those Mold-a-Rama machines you can pay three bucks to make a hot pink plastic elephant before your eyes and drop it still hot into your eager hands. Our daughter was terrified of the big bear we saw by the entrance, but curious about the sloth greeting visitors with its handler, and quickly became enthusiastic about all the animals she had only ever seen in books, especially the performative gibbons. I was more interested in the dozens of black vultures I saw circling overhead. And sure enough, as we walked through the menagerie, there they were, availing themselves of the food left out for the animals on exhibit—especially the animals that got raw meat for breakfast.
About three-quarters of the way in, we saw an animal I had never seen, the bush dog, a wild canine from the Central and South American tropics that has webbed feet, weird teeth, and a remarkable capability for pack hunting big fat rodents, especially the ones that swim. When we walked up, the pair in the pen had managed to catch and kill one of the visiting vultures. In front of an audience of humans and other vultures, they gnawed away at the vulture’s fleshy chest. You can’t help but admire an animal that can turn its cage into a platform to trap and eat the locals.
A Natural History of the War on Terror
One of the talismans I found early in our tenure here was a lacquered cufflink that attested to its bearer’s having spent time at the Presidential Retreat at Camp David. I found it along the sidewalk outside the abandoned lighting factory down the street. Later, when one of our older neighbors saw it in our terrarium, I learned that building, which now hosts loading dock-grinding skatepunks and the implorations to uprising of East Austin Maoists, served as a staging area for the Secret Service when George W. Bush was President of the United States, back in the days when you could go to lunch in downtown Austin and literally, as I once did at a beloved spot called Las Manitas, bump into the First Lady.
August provided a grim punctuation to these two long decades, as images of Afghans falling from the wings of the last planes to leave bookended memories of investment bankers learning to fly. The end of the Long War may actually have finally come, but it does not feel like its shadows have gone. The darkness settled in when the Western movie of the original Afghan invasion lost its last reel at Tora Bora, and we drifted into a decade of oil wars waged with flying killer robots, legalized torture, secret prisons, and an abandonment of the pretense of moral clarity that formerly guided our political discourse. I think all of us who lived through that era bear the scars, however obliquely, of the things that we know went on in our names, offstage of the evening news. Maybe we are lucky they destroyed the evidence.
August’s sudden end to a twenty-year war we had almost forgotten got me thinking about the war’s impact on the nonhuman noncombatants in those far-off theaters. In the peak years of the GWOT I used to read a blog called Birding Babylon, in which a Connecticut National Guard officer posted ornithological notes from his deployments in Iraq. They were well-written—one of those blogs good enough to become a book, back when that was a thing—and a quietly eloquent reminder of the natural context in which war occurs.
As the news filled with stories of the human costs of those faraway conflicts, I read up on the environmental costs—the toxic remains of uranium-tipped munitions that litter the landscape, the forest habitats and wetlands razed by warlords and exploding ordnance, the three-thousand-year-old subterranean irrigation tunnels crushed under the weight of battle armor. Kuwait has still not recovered from the damage of the first Gulf War, the one that ended with oil wells burning like infernal geysers that could be seen from space. But maybe because I have been reading a lot in the last few years about the birth of agricultural civilization around the wetlands of Neolithic Iraq, I found myself reconsidering the long wars of my adulthood as local campaigns in our much longer war to control nature.
Watching William Basinski’s remarkable video version of his Disintegration Loop 1.1 this week, filmed from his Williamsburg rooftop as the sun set on September 11, 2001, I got to thinking how all of that terror and militarized violence is ultimately about something even more deeply primitive: our control of fire. The materials we need to burn to keep the machine of our production and dominion running are also the materials we use to blow each other up. The Promethean bargain bears high interest, and keeps the vultures in business while it keeps the silos full and the air-conditioning on.
Over Labor Day weekend I read the beginning of one of Elaine Pagels’ later works about the Gnostic Bible that I stole from my mother’s library, this one about the story of the Garden of Eden and the curious way in which Christian ideas of sexual morality developed in the early church. This weekend, thinking about 9/11 and what it was really about and the horrors it uncorked, I found myself heretically wondering whether Genesis missed the point. The mastery of fire is what gave us these brains, by letting us cook our meat, and what gave us the power to destroy the whole world. Surely that is the real knowledge that makes us all sinners, and the reason those slow-motion videos of the Twin Towers burning are so secretly compelling, the 21st century’s persistent and elegiac Yule log.
End of summer reading
If you’re interested in reading about the ecological costs of the war on terror and its antecedents, there’s a ton of material out there, including this 2011 Living on Earth report, this report from the Watson Institute at Brown University, this study by Professor Nafees Mohammed of the University of Peshawar, and this August 30 Scientific American piece on the open-air burn bits used by the U.S. military.
The September issue of Texas Monthly has a wonderful feature by Andy Beta on Dallas-raised William Basinski and his Disintegration Loops, ambient musical works constructed from the artist’s collection of Muzak clips taped from radio broadcasts and then re-recorded as they decomposed in the playing. On 9/11, Basinski played them with his fellow tenants on the roof of their building in Brooklyn as they watched the apocalyptic scene unfold, an entropic serendipity that brought new attention to Basinski’s work.
My friends at Small Beer Press have just revealed the cover of the debut collection of Richard Butner, one of my favorite short story writers and a good friend. Richard’s stories occupy their own weird branch of the literary fantastic, charged with a feeling that finds its way through the melancholy of clear-eyed understanding into just enough whimsy to make you crack a smile. Richard has a particular gift for using old buildings and forgotten objects as portals and keys, conjuring a rare species of nostalgia that tells the truth. The brilliant cover design, made with the type of a 1970s labeling machine, nails the aesthetic of Richard’s work (that may even be what he first wrote the stories on). The Adventurists will be out in February, and is now available for pre-order.
This summer I finally read Moby-Dick cover-to-cover, all 206,000 words. I had started it in my 20s, and enjoyed it, but got distracted before they even got to sea. It took my year-long immersion in reading and viewing works of natural horror (or more accurately, reading works through that critical prism) to get me to pick it back up, and I finally got to the epilogue yesterday (where I learned why Cormac McCarthy wanted an epilogue in Blood Meridian, and found the literary reference encoded in a writer friend’s email handle). As a novelist, it seems like a pretty batshit book (mostly in a good way), and as work of ecological fiction, it’s profound. I doubt that any critic has ever compared Melville’s masterwork to a Tom Clancy novel, but it does that very similar, very American thing of turning a technical manual into a work of engaging fiction. In Melville’s case, the manual is about the pursuit, killing, and harvesting of a gigantic sea creature in order that its mysterious bodily fluids can be used as a fuel, and that’s where the book’s real power comes from for me, despite the author’s Shakespearean aspirations.
In August I had the pleasure of speaking with author Lancer Kind for his Sci-Fi Thoughts podcast. It was a fun conversation that covered a lot of territory I have never been asked about, and he has edited the interview into four coffee break-sized nuggets that will be running throughout the month.
I’ve written a lot about 9/11 and its long shadows over the years, but I’ll just share one here on this anniversary weekend: “The Warporn Eucharist,” a riff on violent popular culture in the age of the GWOT, and what it revealed about our own moral rot, written in 2007 for a group blog I used to have with some colleagues.
On the lighter side, here’s the last sunset of August getting its Rothko on:
Have a safe week.