Beach blanket Mechas
You could still hear the cicadas after the fireworks and after the rain, and their carapaces were there to be discovered all around this neighborhood where one also finds a lot of abandoned cars. Roger Dean would draw you an abandoned car that looks like a giant robot cicada, and you can probably find something just like that at the head shop down the street, the one named after an imaginary planet, where the owner puts on his own private pyrotechnics show every July 4, celebrating his freedom to put big Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul signs up next to each other. I found myself wondering, when the explosions finally stopped, why it seems like there aren’t as many cicadas as there used to be, and whether that’s another sign of nature paying the price for our Promethean bargain, or just an anachronistic imposition of my memories of childhood in a more cicadian climate.
The day after Independence Day we drove to the beach, implementing last-minute plans to turn the short work week into a long weekend. The navigation bots sent us on a long stretch of old highway through South Texas, dropping straight down from Seguin on a road lined with live oaks that all looked like they have been there since that town’s namesake was still around telling people stories of the Alamo and life before the Anglos showed up. It made me wonder about the possibilities for an algorithmically directed psychogeography, and about how many of those ancient trees that look like Ents doing yoga have been cut down as the roads got bigger and we learned how to turn ancient rivers and sea beds into parking lots and building foundations.
It rained the whole week, intense torrents from midnight to lunchtime, which is not what you have in mind when you load up three generations of a family in cars packed with all the gear you need to set up on the sand under the hot Texas sun. We had the dogs with us, our graying old blackmouth cur and the new puppy we got after the loss of our crazy Kishu-ken last month, and I was up with them every morning before dawn to take them out in the rain, and then on long walks throughout the day. The winds were pretty intense on the beach, and so we mostly roamed the marshy empty lots between the condos, and the less developed expanses on the bayside of Mustang Island.
This time last year we had sworn never to return to Port A., after enduring what felt like a weeklong redneck Nuremberg rally-cum-beach party movie, but late planning and limited travel stamina among some members of our group found us breaking our oath, for which the rain felt at the beginning like our punishment. Pretty quickly, though, we realized what a gift it was. The dudes with fascist flags flying from their golf carts don’t come out of their condos during the monsoons. Basically, no one does. And if you sneak out during the breaks in the storms, you can almost imagine what that zone was like when Cabeza de Vaca washed up there in another storm in 1528.
The Texas coast is an ecosystem that has been thoroughly colonized by the infrastructure of petrochemical extraction and consumption. From the beach you can see the offshore platforms along the horizon, and from the bayside nature preserve you can watch them be assembled on the mainland, so much like the Mechas from some Japanese monster movie that you wonder if you watch long enough they will walk on off to their stations out there where the big fish swim. When you drive down through the city named after the body of Christ, you can almost touch the flareoffs of the big refineries that line the side of the highway, and if you open your windows you can hear the interceptors taking off from the Naval Air Station that’s there to protect them. At the north end of the island, they cut a channel through which the big tankers can pass, and when the skies are clear you can watch them head out from there to the far corners of the world.
Exploring the empty lots of the island’s interior during inclement weather, you come to realize the irony that the rights of way reserved for that industrial infrastructure are the only zones other than parks where wild nature is allowed to flourish there in that biodiversity interzone where freshwater meets the sea and the far fliers travel between continents. That revelation is especially evident when the vacationing humans are all huddled in their shelters until the rain clears, and the absence of their gazes frees you to trespass the freshly replenished marshes behind the condos and beneath the power lines. Maybe the dystopian future of those movies where our machines take over the planet and force us underground is not the razed hellscape Hollywood imagines, but a far greener one than the future where the human civilization keeps trying to Band-aid the consequences of its dominion. That’s a Terminator reboot I would watch.
Dark skies and butterflies
It rained all week here in Austin while we were away, and we returned to find our already feral house getting its jungle on. The plants we seeded here during the years of active restoration were those of the Blackland prairie, which at the time of Anglo settlement ran in a long band from north of Dallas to the north end of San Antonio, and of which 99% has since been destroyed by agriculture and urban development. Those plants all do well here, but this wet summer I get the feeling the local climate is changing in a more permanent way to something more tropical, as evidenced by the fritillaries I found frolicking all week on the passion vine that has taken over our chain link fence at the street.
On Wednesday I found a butterfly I had never seen before, with underwings that look like a dead leaf. The question mark, they call it, Polygonia interrogationis, so named for the waxy white glyph found on that same wing. Not an exotic rarity, but still a curious sign.
And then there are the creatures you never see, just the mysterious structures they leave behind, sometimes on your bedroom door.
When the tricycling toddler and I ran into our neighborhood entomologist out walking his badger hunter Friday afternoon, I showed him this picture and he explained that it’s the nest of a potter wasp. And that inside there right now is likely a caterpillar, mature insect or arachnid that has been put into a coma by the sting of the female wasp, which delivers a neurotoxin. The female then deposits her eggs inside the living body of her prey, which provides a living host so that fresh food is there for her babies when they are born. That stuff from the Alien movies is real, he said, speaking the language of the science fiction writer.
Looking at the nest with that knowledge, perfectly seated in a nook of engineered steel and sheltered from the elements by a modernist overhang, I can’t help but appreciate the Anthropocene adaptation involved. And wonder if caterpillars in a coma dream as the newborn baby wasps eat them alive.
What may be my favorite plant of the Blackland prairie began to bloom this week, the partridge pea, a native legume that does well in disturbed areas, and is exceptionally effective at fixing nitrogen in the soil, among other phytoremediative qualities. The first season we began our restoration, it blanketed the yard, and then in later years made room for other flowering plants and big grasses as they began to establish. A powerful exemplar of natural resilience. Soon the big bumblebees will be hovering around them, well into autumn.
At night, clear skies and a newer moon have kept it super dark here in the woods behind the factories at the edge of town. Those clear skies let the lamplights of the city bleed off, and when I walk out to my trailer before dawn it’s so inky black that I have to put a hand out to avoid walking right into some night critter or low-hanging branch. Friday morning the puppy got me up at 4, and when we stepped out, Venus and Mars were clustered together in the Southern sky, taunting the oligarchs who will never actually be able to colonize them, and reminding me that Paul was the coolest Beatle, precisely because he was the dorkiest one.
In the net
Speaking of Wings, the documentary filmmaker Doug Pray turned me on recently to the blog of author and chef Mary Dougherty, who chronicles life outside and in the kitchen in the faraway freshwater wonderland of Lake Superior and the Wisconsin shoreline, connecting food with nature through a mix of lovely prose and great photography. This latest post, a meditation on wings and breath and emergence from pandemic, is pretty great.
If you live in Austin, and are interested in helping to protect and preserve the wild and scenic stretch of urban river that flows from Longhorn Dam to the Travis County line, please join us on July 24 at noon for a virtual stakeholder meeting to launch the Colorado River Conservancy. There are many groups and institutions that already do great and important work related to the Lower Colorado River, but none that really focus on advocating for the maintenance of its natural character and status as a rare urban wildlife refuge, and the Conservancy aims to fill that gap, working with public and private stakeholders to ensure those interests are taken into account. Kind of like a neighborhood association for the river, and for the animals, plants and ecosystems that don’t have a voice when the development permits come up for review. You can sign up for the Zoom event here.
The notion of GPS bots providing a means of getting wonderfully lost is belied by Robert Macfarlane’s excellent piece on wayfinding in the July 1 issue of The New York Review of Books, which reviews three new books on the subject, and explores the deep connections between human evolution and our seemingly unique capacity for navigating with the aid of temporal understanding. (Paywall.)
Locus now has a short excerpt of their interview with me from the July issue up on their website.
“The remainder of the skeleton, stripped of all flesh, still rests on the seashore, the clutter of bleached ribs like the timbers of a derelict ship.”
Corpus Christi got its name from the Catholic calendar, but something about it always makes me think of bodies in the landscape by the sea. And on this trip, as I roamed the weird run-down tourist zone of North Beach with the dogs while the kids and moms and grandma explored the aquarium, it got me thinking of J.G. Ballard’s 1964 story “The Drowned Giant,” which I had recently reread. It might be the first Ballard story I ever read, probably in some anthology, and part of what makes it so great is the way it reads like a piece of nature writing, as the narrator clinically and dispassionately describes the arrival of a gigantic human body beached on the shore like a whale, and its subsequent consumption by the people who find it. You can read the story online here, and I see there’s a new animated short film adaptation from Tim Miller for Love, Death & Robots, his Netflix series with David Fincher.
Perhaps more appetizing, in the shadow of the derelict aircraft carrier anchored off Corpus, we discovered you can get some pretty killer South Philly cheesesteaks deep in the heart of South Texas, courtesy of a place called Yo.
Lastly, for more on the life and habits of the potter wasp, here’s a short video doc narrated by David Attenborough, who seems to narrate all nature documentaries.
Have a great week.