A report from the Ercotastrophe zone
Monday in the middle of the night I was awakened by silence. I have a hazy memory of an abrupt knock, like a breaker trip, but what intruded upon my sleeping mind was the absolute quiet in our room, as all the white noise of the machines that keep our little house cozy and habitable had stopped. I opened my eyes, and quickly realized the power was out. The room was cold. I looked at my phone, and saw a push notification from an entity that had never messaged me before—the electrical utility, advising us that rotating outages had been implemented and should not last more than forty minutes.
It was a little after 3 a.m. I checked on baby and bride, pulled on my pants and boots, and stepped outside to better assess the situation. I thought about getting back into bed, but decided I should at least check our breakers and get some more information. When we headed to bed around 10 p.m. Sunday night, a light dusting of snow had begun to fall, something that happens maybe every five years or so here. And it had already gotten colder than it ever gets here. Saturday I had busted the padlock on our back gate by defrosting it with a hammer, and when I jogged to the feed store later in the day to get a replacement I saw the guy at one of the frontage road llanterias working by a fire he had built in an old truck wheel, an image that now seems like a premonition.
At the feed store further along the highway, I took a picture of this flyer posted on the bulletin board outside, which now seems like a memory from the other side:
Our house has an unusual design. The lot was a quasi-brownfield when we bought it, bisected by a petroleum transmission pipeline that had been abandoned in the 90s thanks to the brave work of community environmental activists. We worked with the oil company to remove most of it, and make sure the site was clean, and then designed a house that would encode the memory of that past industrial use while at the same time restoring the land. The house is small, 1200 sf buried in the trench left after we removed the pipeline, the roof covered with eight inches of bespoke dirt planted with the native flora of the Blackland prairie. The living and sleeping areas are divided by a little canyon of glass and concrete where the pipeline ran, a conceptual riff that makes us ever-connected to the outdoors, especially since we have to step outside to go from room to room.
I never expected that space to be packed with snow. It basically never snows here, not really. My adult son had one ice day as a kid, and in the twelve years we’ve had this place we’ve seen three light dustings, never more than an inch, and never sticking more than a few hours. It never really gets cold, either, with any hard freeze a major news event, and the houses show it. You notice it immediately as a transplanted Midwesterner—all these drafty little wooden bungalows with high ceilings and no contemplation that the occupants might have to spend a lot of time inside. Or that you would need the house to protect you from the cold for an extended period of time.
This was real snow. Five inches of it, drifting up against the windows down in our hole. It must have just stopped snowing when I stepped out into it. The sky was clear but for a few little cottonball clouds cruising low in the cold wind, and the world was aglow, brighter than any full moon, even though all the lights were out in every direction. Even more breathtaking was the silence. Our place sits at the edge of town between a stretch of light industrial uses along the road and a sliver of urban woods and river behind them, and both the factories and the forest were dead silent, all the animals hunkered down. Even the wind seemed noiseless, but you could feel it. 9°F per the weather report, but colder in person.
The tranquility of the city brought to a stop by a heavy snowfall is one of the things I have missed the most since I moved here from the north 23 years ago. But we never had winter blackouts, and if we did we could start a fire in the fireplace. The feeling that comes over you when the power and heat are out and you have a young child to protect is a bit more bracing.
At least we had gas and water, our cars, plenty of matches, and a cell signal, even though our phones had not charged in the night. My wife had presciently gone to the store the day before to stock up for the week. We had a prepper-grade water filter and a cooler that had been sitting outside full of melted ice, now re-frozen and ready to preserve our key perishables. I found our flashlights and two little candles, began to charge my phone from my half-charged laptop, and researched what was going on while I waited for the promised restoration of power that would come any minute.
It came back on at 4:50 a.m., to my great relief. And then it went back off ten minutes later, and stayed out. As I read the early reports there under the eerie glow of an LED flashlight aimed at the ceiling, the only sound the cross vine scratching at the high windows, I registered the concerns from the authorities that the whole statewide grid could catastrophically fail in this unforeseen event, started looking at the outage maps, and found myself wondering what we would do if the power never came back on. And thinking about how much of our lives are devoted to keeping the power running and feeding the machines.
We knew a cold snap was coming, and the week leading up to it I had been worried about our animal neighbors down in the woods behind the factories, as I wrote about here last week. Of course they proved better prepared than us, and probably had a much better sense of what was coming.
At daybreak on the first day I took the dogs down along the river. The woods were crazy quiet, not a track to be found. No deer. The ducks were there on the shallow water, as always, but the songbirds and herons were not about. The beautiful rookery of the great blues I wrote about last week was empty. Chances are they were hunkered down somewhere nearby. Later in the week I checked the trailcam. Last Saturday morning, after seeing three coyotes trotting down our street from an urban hunt and disappearing into the gate that leads to the woods behind the factories, I had set the camera up just inside the gate. When I checked it later in the week, I found a fair bit of traffic, including this fox heading out at 1 a.m. as the storm blew in and returning at 4, just as I was stumbling around in the dark.
I had been especially concerned about how the migrating songbirds would deal. On the first day, which was the windiest, you could see the struggle as a lot of birds came in to seek shelter in our little canyon, loitering by our steps or under our awnings, feathers fluffed out like puffy down jackets. But over the course of the week you could see how quickly the birds that had been around for weeks—warblers, waxwings, and wrens—adapted to finding food in the snow.
I found many of them foraging along the rocky banks of the river, where the snow accumulated the least and disappeared the fastest, territory normally dominated by the sandpipers and plovers. They also flocked to the areas of tall brush where the dormant grasses along the waterline and in our pocket prairie dropped seeds from last fall onto the fresh snow.
Suddenly the woods and yard were full of robins, a bird we rarely see here. Perhaps they had fled the even colder temps in the near north.
In the pre-dawn mornings after the first day the only sound was the barred owls calling to each other across the woods behind the blackout-shuttered dairy plant.
The lizards who had already emerged for spring had a tougher time. I found one gecko splayed on the snow beneath my in-laws’ frozen water heater, and wondered how many other of our reptiles would be impacted. Mid-week brought freezing rain, a lot of it, which was much harder on the plants (and on most people’s pipes). I heard a big hackberry fall behind our house like a bomb, and another one has been hanging for days on one of the power lines behind the door factory. Once the thaw came, the prickly pear and other thorny cactuses looked like they had melted. The yuccas seemed to mostly hold up fine.
Upon my return from the woods that first morning I shoveled our patio, pathways, and driveway out, a job that took two hours improvising with a gravel rake and a shop dustpan (since you would never think to own a snow shovel in Texas), adapting bath salts and sandbox sand as ice mitigation, and even packing what snow I could up against our bedroom windows as extra insulation. And at the end of my labors, as I worked my way from the back patio to the street, I found a hilarious taunt from one of the monk parakeets who live in the always-toasty cell phone tower behind the 7-Eleven, a discarded empty from their seemingly bottomless supply of fresh peanuts, tossed on flyby the way the guys who work around here toss their tall boys after work on Friday.
After lunch on that insane first day, I went out to help family and neighbors (more shoveling) and take care of the one thing we hadn’t planned ahead for (putting a full tank in our main car, now our only reliable source of heat, the only to way to charge the suddenly fragile devices we needed to get information and communicate, and our means of escape in a pinch). When I returned around four, the power had come back on. We broke out the celebratory mezcal too early, as that was just another kind of taunt, and it went out again two hours later as the sun was setting.
It’s hard to convey what it feels like to learn that, on the coldest night in sixty years, the electrical utilities have elected to turn your power off and leave you to find out whether your house will retain enough heat in the night to survive. I have camped outside in winter, and lived in northern dorm rooms where the glass of water on the windowsill would be frozen in the morning, but in those situations you already know what to expect, and are generally prepared for it. Having a young child in your care compounds the stress.
We were lucky. Over two nights without power or heat, our house never dropped below 60°F, even as outside temps dropped to the single digits, without factoring in the wind chill. We had gas and running water throughout the week. Living like hobbits in an earthen house that adapted the learning of Native American pit houses served us well. We got cozy, and figured out how to make the best of the situation. The stress was intense and abrupt, but the situation was also liberating in a way—the focus on immediate survival needs of household and neighbors has a way of obliterating one’s usual self-absorbed preoccupations in a hurry. I remembered the lesson of Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, that times of catastrophe are when you feel most authentically alive.
In the disaster area
Texas is the only state I have ever lived that has its own creation myth, one that feeds an intensely libertarian ethos of self-reliance and unapologetic dominion. The environment that was conquered in Texas lore was an arid and inhospitable one, by people who figured out how to take that crappy land to get rich, or at least get by. The getting rich part mainly came from the oil business, and the pinnacle of Texas hubris is probably expressed in the boastful sense of energy independence that led to this week’s disaster, which may also result from extreme climate conditions to which Texas disproportionately contributed (and profited by).
Texans rarely talk about how concentrated the wealth that has been extracted from this land is, but you can really see it in times of disaster, even as the more evenly distributed sense of personal freedom and responsibility shows its face in the crisis. And like the rest of America, we live in a place where the institutions of community our grandparents knew have been hollowed out by consumer capitalism. The result is a Darwinian barbarity always lurking just below the putatively civilized surface, which becomes much more evident when you abruptly strip away the core perks of urbanized civilization—electricity, winter heat, running water and navigable roads—and leave people to fend for themselves.
I went out into the disaster area every day this week, and got a good sense of what the all-American version of a failed state would really look like. As is always the case in disasters, most people immediately turn to helping each other, and that is mostly what you saw in Austin this week—neighbors helping neighbors, putting each other up, restaurants giving away food to those who need it, bars turned into warming centers, brew-pubs dispensing clean water by the drum. The elected officials mostly seemed pretty useless, with the exception of our new County Judge, but the public employees were heroes, fixing broken water mains and downed lines in extreme conditions, understanding the lives of others depended on them.
But out on the streets, especially in those first few days, the scene was grim, and surreal. The municipality has no snow removal capability, and most of the locals have no experience with real winter, here in a place where February normally means flip flops and the most common wheels are 2WD pickups, the most useless vehicle you can have on an icy road.
I saw crowds of people in sweat pants and sneakers roaming through the snowpack in the bracing cold, lining up at the few stores that were open, getting ready to get by on the chips and soda that could be found on the shelves at Dollar General and the corner gas station. People made fires in their bathtubs to stay warm, and three houses within walking distance of us burned down from it. And out there among the people just trying to keep their families alive you would see the predatory dudes who sensed fresh opportunity in the situation, adding to the feeling we had just woken up in some mashup of Blood Meridian and Parable of the Sower.
Adding to the weirdness was the ingenuity Texans displayed in figuring how to pull together some semblance of a winter wardrobe from what was in their closets. This frontage road prowler I spotted out foraging along the interstate Tuesday afternoon best embodied the spirit of our week, and I will be filing this image away for the next time someone asks me where I come up with the ideas for my dystopian stories of climate refugees roaming a ruined America:
The outside house
This was not much of a week for non-required reading, but one book’s lessons came to the front of my mind as our world went white, a book I read when it came out in 1989: Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich. In my memory, it’s one of the most beautiful works of nature writing I’ve read, but that probably has more to do with the character of the writer and his subject than the quality of his prose.
At its core, Ravens in Winter is a fascinating story of a naturalist’s discovery through field observations of the ways ravens and crows share knowledge about the location of food in the winter woods. It’s also a story of the naturalist himself, learning how to stay warm enough in the cold of February in Maine with no more shelter than an abandoned building through the walls of which he watches the birds take the dead animals he has dragged to the site as bait. When I read that book while living in Iowa, I tried applying those lessons myself (no, not the carcass dragging), and they served me well this week.
For more on this crazy week in Austin when the outside came inside, I kept something of a diary on my Twitter feed, and our friends at the Austin Chronicle did a pretty great job of coverage of the disaster, somehow getting a print paper on the streets in these insane conditions.
As I write this Saturday afternoon, the sun is out, the temps are back in the 50s, and the snow is mostly gone. Many people are still without water, some still without heat, and we are all under a boil water notice. Monday morning, the machine plans to be back in gear.
Like most Austinites, I kept working all week, somehow keeping the treadmill running while also dealing with the basics of survival. But the experience put the money-making in fresh perspective, revealing how out of balance the system we serve really is, and giving each of us a glimpse into what it feels like to be connected to our more basic natures.
It wasn’t until I went to get batteries Tuesday from the last souvenir shop open in the otherwise Covid-shuttered bar district downtown that I remembered this crisis was hammering us after a year of pandemic. Between that and the scenes of true dystopia, it’s hard not to get the feeling we are in the early stages of a big correction. Poseidon clearing the way for Malthus.
This newsletter is about seeing ways nature exists in the heart of the city, with a view to imagining how the human city could more actively embrace the wild. Weeks like this make it easier to see how that could be, but they also help you see how many more weeks and years like we have just endured it will take to get there.
Stay warm, stay safe, and have a good week.
“Poseidon clearing the way for Malthus”
Great line Chris. David Byrne’s “Once in a Lifetime” popped into my head as I read it. Yes, could also be described as a looong initiation. Also liked the nod to Walker Percy. For some The Moviegoer was the first truly modern novel. Good article in Jan 2019 New Yorker about The Moviegoer. I’ll have to revisit his essays. I’m a follower of crows. How they survived a week of subzero here in central Illinois is an amazing mystery. Urban intelligence!
It was such a disturbing, difficult week, wasn’t it? I’m so glad you and your family got through it okay.