Bitterns and Mergoats
The green herons have been everywhere you look this June, at least if you look in the right corners of the city, near the fresh water they like. Most often in pairs, which is unusual for such a normally solitary hunter. Breeding season, one assumes. Or maybe they are learning that, to get by in the urban habitat that for all we know is all they really have left, there’s strength in numbers.
I’m used to seeing them along the river in summertime, below the dam that holds in Austin’s Town Lake. The further down you go, the more likely you are to see them. They especially love the stretch between the airport and the Tesla plant, where the south bank is extra marshy, flush with little fish and only a few plastic bottles and old tires. More surprising was the one I saw the other day through the window of my law office, along the creek that cuts through the west side of downtown, in the shadows of the new Big Tech high rises that all seem to have gone up while we were in lockdown. There’s a pocket of habitat even there, full of poured concrete and floodplain trash, but with water and foliage and just enough distance from the bike path.
When we walk on the streets here at what used to be the industrial edge of town, we often pass a spot behind a 1940s Quonset hut warehouse where an old guy from the neighborhood sculpted the remains of dead trees into totems, using a chainsaw and an eye for what stories the trees told. The figures are mostly Indians, ancestral ghosts, but there’s one that looks like St. Francis, with a green heron on his shoulder. It’s the only part of any of those sculptures that is painted. Something about those birds, and the viridian iridescence they hide. Too bad the animal-friendly story it encodes about the missionaries as vanguards of the colonization of the continent is a lie.
The word heron is an ancient one, evolved from a root that it shares, somewhat surprisingly, with the word egret. The etymological authorities point to a proto-Germanic word *hraigran, which if you have ever heard the herons’ eerie skronks in the night, you could imagine was some way early Europeans vocalized the sounds the birds make. I remember paddling the swampy trails of Tortuguero on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica with an indigenous guide, and hearing him say the word in his preferred language for the boat-billed heron he snuck up on in the morning light, three rounded syllables that sounded almost like the bird was telling you its own name.
We learn the names of birds from teachers and books, along with all the other objects in nature, most of which we will never experience in our lifetime outside of a zoo. We see images of them on television, filmed by hard-working wildlife photographers pulling lord knows what tricks to get those shots, trying to convince us the wildlife is still out there, in the wilderness of our imagination. The other side of the frontier. Even though I’ve seen places like that, I’m increasingly skeptical of its existence. The only habitat the wild animals of the planet have is the one they share with us. The human density may vary, but our presence is always nearby. And the work of finding wild food and a safe place to raise their young in the margins of our dominion drives many animals into the slivers of green they can find between our towering edifices and paved landscapes.
On June 6, the Atlanta City Council voted to proceed with funding and authorizing construction of a new police training facility on 85 acres of woodland at the edge of that sprawling metroplex, after a 16-hour hearing from a wide range of opponents including members of the Muscogee nation who traveled from their reservation in Oklahoma to advocate for the preservation of their ancestral forest home, and civil rights leaders who emphasized the connections between racial justice and environmental justice. Thousands of people showed up to testify, of whom only 300 or so could be admitted to the hearing, in a case whose seriousness was amplified by the shooting of one protester when the authorities went in to clear the forest in January. The autopsy showed Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán had been shot 57 times.
After seeing the coverage of that vote, and coming to terms with what it revealed about the capacity of city governments to favor their institutional interests over popular opinion, I was resigned when I went down to our own City Hall two days later to advocate for the protection of the 43-acre wildlife sanctuary and riparian habitat behind an old dairy plant here in East Austin that has been slated for redevelopment as a new urbanist wonderland with office tower, high-rise apartments, retail and restaurants. If you spend any time working on conservation of wild urban spaces, you quickly come to appreciate that cities politically function not like democracies, but like the municipal corporations they are. The council is like the board of directors, the staff the executives and employees, the developers and business interests the shareholders, and the voters are the customers, whose only real choice if they don’t like the product is to move to another town. Wild animals, in that system, don’t really even exist.
At the first hearing, after having put tremendous effort into educating our new City Council member about the issue and obtaining his assurance of advocacy, we learned to our surprise that he had been compelled to recuse himself when the developer entered into a community benefits agreement with a nonprofit whose board the council member had once sat on. This after the developer walked from community benefits negotiations with a more inclusive coalition of neighborhood and environmental stakeholders who had also achieved provisional consensus on robust protections for the wildlife corridor, in a project that has had zero environmental review. The complete disenfranchisement of an entire council district through what felt like textbook dirty tricks was enough to get the council to only approve the second of three readings, deferring the issue until later in the summer and allowing more time for study. But we still only got two votes from the 11 on the dais, and even as we were having some impact, the Sisyphean character of the struggle was more obvious than ever.
When we stepped outside to confer, you could feel the nasty air of our overheated summer settling in. Air you know is more than just hot.
In the fight to preserve a future we could actually live in, most of the attention goes to the big multinational negotiations over emissions limits. The UN’s COP conferences, the Paris Accords, the stuff Greta Thunberg shows up at. Events that garner global news coverage. But the truth is that much of the battle plays out on a mostly ignored stage, in the hundreds of local land use decisions made in your town and mine every week, decisions that often take away another little slice of habitat. Those fights are mostly framed as disputes between property rights holders—those who want to “improve” the land and those who want to continue to enjoy the status quo they paid for. And no one else, especially not the young people who claim to be the most concerned about our climate future, is paying attention.
An Edgeland Conservation Network is probably not the kind of thing that will ever happen, because the real wild spaces we live around can’t compete with the charismatic wonders of national parks and the like. But until we start thinking more seriously about wild habitat as part of urban planning, we’ll be stuck on the same path, one that will run out of room for other life, even if we manage to clean up the atmosphere we have so deeply damaged. Or maybe nature will deliver the correction of which it is so capable, and sometimes seems to have already begun, pushing us out to make room for the tropical wonders that are moving north faster than the models predicted.
There’s an egret in this picture, fishing under the tollway bridge, but you probably can’t see it.
In the news
One winter day in the early 90s, as a young staff lawyer on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, I accompanied a couple of colleagues to a briefing from the leaders of the FBI bomb squad. They were advocating for Congress to grant them more investigative tools and resources. They told us the story of how witnesses had seen the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing freaking out as they got stuck behind someone who didn’t have the money to exit the parking garage in which they had just set the detonator. The Special Agents told us about the different technologies available to DIY bomb makers, in those innocent years after The Anarchist Cookbook and before 9/11 and the daily headlines about IEDs. And they told us about the mysteries of the Unabomber, who had recently reemerged and become one of their prime investigations. At the end of the morning, they took us down to the basement of the Hoover Building to view the strange scene of dozens of banquet tables set up in an empty level of the parking garage, on each of which were displayed individual pieces of the crime scenes of each of the Unabomber’s bombings. The fragment of a coffee cup, a splinter, part of the page of a book, hundreds of such objects, maybe thousands, each in a little plastic evidence bag. A surprisingly effective way to let you figure out for yourself the damage that had been done to the life that was there when the bomb detonated.
I thought about that weird vignette when I read about Ted Kaczynski’s death in his cell at the Supermax. I tried to read the manifesto when the Post published it not that long after we got our briefing, but I couldn’t get very far. It’s sad how much more attention one sociopath got for his ideas than all the peaceful and reasoned advocates for environmental awakening.
An ecological manifesto I can get behind with full gusto is the amazing work being put together by Sorrel Inman for their new magazine Mergoat. I missed Issue One, but Issue Two, on the theme of “Blue Hollers in the Shadow of the Holocene,” is amazing, with a mix of testaments from the front lines in Atlanta and Rockford, poetry infused with environmental grief and green futures, beautiful photography and nature-based works of visual art, and profiles of promising rewildings. The magazine sprouted from Inman’s Knoxville-based landscape design and restoration endeavor, Mergoat—“Native-Inspired Vengeance Horticulture.” Issue three is seeking submissions on the powerful theme of Transecologies, intersectional territory at ground zero of the Zeitgeist. Check it out: it’s a rare project that deserves support to help it reach more readers.
On the topic of green futures, I had the opportunity last year to collaborate with the Canadian filmmaker Brett Gaylor on his new project Necessary Tomorrows, which couples science fictions with far out but hopeful visions of the back half of this century with documentary material about real people bringing similar ideas to life today. Brett got funding for an audio version of the project from Doha Debates, and enlisted me and several other colleagues, including Malka Older and Deji Bryce Olukotun, to contribute half-hour scripts. Necessary Tomorrows is a featured selection at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and my episode, “The Last Impala,” a courtroom drama about the rights of nature, is available for listening (but only through today, June 18, which is the last day of the festival). The scripted portion is the first half-hour, followed by interviews with Susana Almanza of PODER, tribal attorney Jack Fiander, and me.
If you’re wondering what’s a podcast doing at a film festival, The New York Times asked the same question, talking among others with Alex and Winnie Kemp of L.A.’s Wolf at the Door, who produced Necessary Tomorrows.
In other writing news, this week I sent the initial manuscript of my new book, The Secret History of Empty Lots, in to my editor. It draws on the same material of these Field Notes, endeavoring to synthesize all the different observations, ideas and possibilities into a manifesto that reads more like a field journal. With luck it will make its way to print some time next year. I’ll be sharing more details here as they become available. And will be trying to get this newsletter back on a mostly-weekly schedule, now that the big push is behind me.
In other news, the buffalo gourd is in bloom, even if there are no buffaloes around to eat the seed pods:
Have a beautiful week.