Butterflies, buried cars and shattered Blackberries

Walking out to my trailer after lunch yesterday I got distracted by the mesmerizing scene of a pair of butterflies dancing over the decomposed granite. Just a couple of ordinary little snouts, working these magical little vortexes, never touching yet yoked like the dipoles of a gyroscope, the courtship of confetti. So much more elegant than the dragonflies, who fly around the yard while locked in coitus, maybe even snacking on smaller airborne prey along the way.

“Male and female dragonflies tend to couple in the air, sometimes with an initial impact that can be heard easily,” dryly report the Odonata nerds. A remarkable evolutionary achievement when you think about it, one that seems pretty successful based on the quantity and diversity of dragonflies and the weirdly low mosquito count this year. I saw one dragonfly alight near me yesterday whose body was a gorgeous royal purple—a roseate skimmer, I guess—and wished I’d had my camera.  I did get a nice shot of this checkered setwing:

The butterflies were out in bigger numbers this week, as the Texas autumn began in earnest with cool nights, bright moons, and sunny days. It’s the beginning of their migratory season, and the snouts are attracted by all the hackberrys that grow around here, and by the September rains we’ve had. I also saw my first monarch of the season on Thursday, on our green roof. I feel like they have been fewer in number in recent years, maybe because the wrong plants have been dominating our little pocket prairie. 

Last week we had some tree guys out to tend to the beautiful but gnarly old mesquite that my trailer is tucked under, and they helped prune all of our other mature trees. I had been doing my own minimalist pruning for the past decade, producing something more like the tunnels of a man-vole. The fresh emphasis on verticality opened up beautiful new sightlines, and a fresh store of firewood just in time for fall. The undergrowth got trampled in the process, including a patch of tall goldenrod my friend John Hart and I rescued two years ago in the pouring rain from the “empty” lot pictured below that has since been filled with condos.

The goldenrod was just about to bloom, and I was bummed we would miss one of the last flowers to pop at the cool end of our long season. But then when I walked back into the side yard that had been opened up by the tree guys dragging branches, I found a hidden patch under the shade of a big hackberry, growing between the chile piquin and the poison ivy that has been so prodigious this year and managing to out-compete the Johnson grass. I found some more on our roof, growing tall in a spot where the late afternoon sun hits. It’s such a beautiful plant, one you barely notice all summer until everything but the last sunflowers have gone to brown and those green nodes at the top of their tall stems burst out in deep yellow like a hundred tiny suns. A native plant that shows you how well adapted it is to surviving in the untended and weedy margins of the city, providing food and refuge for the native pollinators who otherwise find few oases in the concrete desert.

The consulting arborist who helped us assess our trees last month estimated the age of that old mesquite at 70 years, which sounds about right. A tree that started growing right after World War 2, when this was really the edge of town, and this whole zone was tied into the Air Force base down the road that is now our municipal airport. The tree is the same vintage as the Quonset huts that line the roads around here, and the pipeline that used to bisect our lot, carrying fuel from the tank farm up the road. The pipeline kept the lot clear of structures, and this became a popular dump site through the second half of the twentieth century, until it finally got fenced in.

You have to admire a tree that can grow tall in a dump site, and spawn new trees by providing a bountiful sweet seed crop at the end of every summer for the flocks of feral parakeets that live on the nearby cell phone towers. I still find the occasional Easter egg of vintage junk under its thorny canopy, but the big piles got pushed to the back of the lot before we showed up. We repurposed most of the large pieces for landscaping, but the partially eroded face of the bluff remains an apocalyptic terrace where big chunks of demolition debris stick out of the soil. Our crazy-ass Kishu-ken likes to spend his days scanning the floodplain from atop the resulting mountain of trash, on a perch where his pacing has slowly revealed the remains of an old sewer pipe and the porcelain fragment of someone’s toilet.

Over the past few weeks I have had to intervene several times when the dogs trapped some poor animal in one of those little landfill caves. Last week it was an armadillo hiding under the cab of an old Ford pickup at the edge of the yard. This week it was an opossum trapped beneath a slab of roadbed. Dogs are outstanding sentinels, but a menace to any wildlife that cannot fly. The only time I have seen the dogs back off voluntarily was the summer afternoon when I found them barking their brains out at a big bull snake that was curled up and ready to strike from a cantilevered chunk of old curb cut.

When it rains, sometimes the erosion reveals a bit of one of the unknown objects buried in the yard. Right now the spiderwort is coming up through the frame of an old bench seat from some 1960s sedan that has been recently exposed in a dimple on the hill, purple paisley liner visible upon close inspection. Building a subterranean house in an outlaw landfill is an ecological eccentricity, and one even its practitioners sometimes question the wisdom of. But I think that’s really how we all live on some level, and there’s a truth to letting it be more manifest, and a satisfaction to figuring out ways to help the wild grow back up over it.

The one thing that makes me want to bury it all under new layers of dirt is when I see electrical wires sticking up out of the ground, or the plastic case of some old TV. Heavy metal relics like that are a reminder of the terrestrial origins of all our ethereal networks. The cloud is a convenient metaphor for that electronically conjured place we spend so much of our time now, but just a projection of the extensive physical infrastructure hiding in plain sight, like the fiber optic cable that runs underneath the nearby nature preserve, transmitting high-resolution photos of goldenrod.

When my daughter ran up to me Saturday morning showing me the bisected cement truck she had discovered in the yard, an object I had picked up from the floodplain trash some years ago, I was reminded of the astonishing statistic I read earlier this week in a post from Professor Mark Maslin of University College of London: there are now more Lego plastic mini-people than actual people on Earth, an event horizon that was reached sometime between 2016 and 2018. None of them are recyclable, though some of them are probably buried in our yard or yours.

On my desk I have a shattered Blackberry I have kept with me for more than fifteen years. My old law firm was one of the first to issue such devices to all the lawyers, in 2000, the year I was up for partner. Those were the days before wifi, and before it was really all that common to remotely log in to your office computer network or even check your voicemail if you were not at the office. That was also the year of simultaneous dot-com mania and catastrophic bust, and the Blackberry got a lot of use. You learned to check it right before bed, and first thing in the morning. The early bird gets the worm.

A few years later, probably on my third model, I was typing a message instructing my co-workers as to my whereabouts as I left the office for lunch, the kind of thing you do when you have been properly electronically leashed, and the device slipped from my hands and fell right into the gap between the elevator door and the shaft. You could hear it bouncing its way down all seventeen floors, like when Pippin drops the rock in the well that wakes the Balrog. 

I asked the security guards if there was a way to retrieve it. They were retired military policemen who always looked like they were waiting for a chance to lock someone up in their office and interrogate them. They laughed at me and said sure, that’s where we go when we need spare change.

It was still all in one piece, held together by a plastic case that reminds me of the unbreakable phones of my youth, but exploded. I kept it that way on my desk for a couple of years, until we got the idea to see if the people who make the deal toys—the translucent trophies of major transactions given out by investment bankers at closing dinners, usually with some miniature totem of the offering inside—could encase it in Lucite.

When baby and I walked down to the river yesterday morning to look at the egrets we also saw a construction crane poking up above the treeline, where they are building a new office building in a spot formerly occupied by an auto junkyard. I wondered if they will ever find tenants post-pandemic. I had been thinking earlier this summer how one of the fortunate consequences of the lockdown is the liberation of those with office jobs from the repressive gaze of other primates. How the boss no longer knows if you are taking a cat nap, playing with your kid or stepping out for a butterfly break when you are supposed to be generating that spreadsheet. Then I wondered how long it will be before our phones become the eyes of our bosses.

The shattered Blackberry reminds me of the way the networks we invented to liberate us can also make us their servants, even when we think we are using them as platforms for our self-expression. Looking at that device today, as I think about the older electronics buried in the yard, it’s also a reminder of how the cloud farming by those of us the economists call “knowledge workers” is more rooted in the exploitation of the Earth than we realize—both product and tool of our ever-accelerating consumption of energy and mineral wealth to accumulate more surplus.

The business page idea of growth is the one our information networks keep us focused on even during quarantine, a statistical abstraction we use as a metric of our performance. But what we are really growing is us, at the expense of everything else. Consider this other nugget I saw from Professor Maslin this week, showing the current results of the millennia-long project of human civilization: if you measure the weight of all the land mammals left on Earth, it’s 30% people, 67% livestock to feed people and pets to amuse them, and 3% wild animals.


Reading list

My favorite book on the materiality of computer networks is Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud (2015). Hu is a poet who used to work as a network engineer, and the combination of those divergent modes of perception produces a remarkable work when focused on this topic. There’s a lengthy excerpt on Google Books if you’re interested.

A is for Anthropocene is a kind of unimaginative title for a podcast, and I feel like that “A”-word is already nearing overuse even before the geological authorities render a verdict on whether said epoch exists, but this new (to me) podcast from the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh is a pretty great conversational compendium of natural history information, often with an urban focus. I especially liked the episode about urban birds, and the projects underway in many northern cities, particularly places around the Great Lakes like Cleveland and Toronto, to reduce the deaths of wild birds from collisions with building glass. But the most uplifting and surprising thing I heard on the episode was that more people birdwatch in the United States than watch professional sports.

The cool kids, of course, take up the more esoteric hobby of dragonfly watching. For tips on how to go about that, check out this excellent 2003 pamphlet Introduction to Dragonfly and Damselfly Watching by Mark Klym and Mike Quinn at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Yesterday I learned the California writer Erik Davis, author of several brilliant tomes on esoteric culture including The Visionary State and last year’s amazing High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies, has a monhtly newsletter on this platform called The Burning Shore, with the latest post focused on his experience of this summer’s apocalyptic wildfires. You can check it out here.

Have a great week, and try to get outside and see some fresh colors. Maybe even leave your phone behind.