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Eat what you kill
Thursday morning as we drank the first sips of coffee and wondered if we had Covid, I heard the dog barking at the woods with alarm, and went to see what was up. As I stepped out into the dark at the edge of the bluff, I saw the crescent moon low in the eastern sky, and heard a barred owl in the nearby trees, tall cottonwoods normally ruled by red-shouldered hawks. When I looked for it, it went quiet—maybe it saw the black metal glisten of my unlit flashlight—emitting another call only when I turned away. A cooing variation on its hoot-hoot-hoo-hoo, sounding comfortably settled at the end of the night, probably savoring some small furry creature of the field.
In the background you could hear the not-quite-ambient pulse of car stereo subsonics, as the guys who work at the door factory sat in their rides, reclined and worn out, maybe enjoying a smoke or a toke before the 6 am clock-in. Like the safety orange ball cap I picked up in a Hill Country gas station says, distilling the one-size-fits-all curse of our indentured model of the better life: “Born to hunt, forced to work.”
Sunday morning a quieter car was parked on the street behind the neon plant, bearing a mix of stenciled proclamations of the Good News and figurative murals of more elusive derivation. We get weird sleepover rides like that all the time here on our little side street at the edge of town, vehicles you can tell belong to people who live in them, and don’t stay in any one place for long. American nomadology.
The next evening when I was out for my run, I saw a white van that I have been seeing regularly this winter, always parked on the loop road under the overpass. My friend Phil was there with his dog, talking to whoever was sitting in the drivers’ seat, but they didn’t notice me looking down from the high berm of the onramp. I wondered if the man in the van is living in the labyrinth of tall cane behind the fence. Maybe one of those folks who have work but can’t afford housing here in the fastest growing city in America.
As I crossed the bridge, I saw a fire burning in one of the camps there in the woods by the river, dark smoke rising up with the office towers of downtown in the background. The company that unironically renamed itself Meta just leased most of one of the new ones, even though few of its employees will ever be required to show up at the office again, other than for the occasional in-person meeting.
Tuesday morning there was a dense fog advisory, and the East Austin Street Retriever and I headed down into those woods at sunup to see if we could get some. There wasn’t any, or at least not much. Just the usual suspects down in the shallows where the unsuccessfully redirected creek empties out the runoff from the blocks of 80s apartments behind the park: an egret, a blue cranky, and a dapper flock of pintails who paid us no mind. Behind them was the weird platform I had seen some dude building in the trees the Wednesday before, purpose unknown.
It was a little too cold to walk in the river, so we ducked back into the woods at the bend. Right above the bank there was a little clearing surrounded by trash, a mix of things that had floated there and things someone had collected and begun to order. In the dewy grass the dog savored scents I hadn’t noticed. I looked and saw a few small bones and a little patch of white fur, perhaps from a juvenile deer some coyote had recently enjoyed in that spot.
While Lupe soaked up the story encoded in those scents, I noticed a frosted glass orb sitting on a nearby log, outdoor light pole cover turned into an edgeland palantir that lets you see the suburb it came from.
We walked through the abandoned swamp camp, checked out a few armadillo dens, then stepped down into the wetland, which was pretty dry. The freeze of the week before had killed all the invasive elephant ear that had been taking over that spot, the swamp that is an impassable tallgrass muck in summer transformed into a wide open winter field. We crossed through it, and then took advantage of the absence of bramble to explore the pocket of woods between the wetland and the river, but found no treasures there other than a lone spare tire slowly working its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
We checked out two of the other swampy spots on our way back, and saw that the elephant ear wasn't dead, just the new leaves that had frozen. When we came up out of the last one, we flushed out a half-dozen deer in the field behind the gypsum yard. They watched us for a long moment, as we admired the two big pairs of antlers of tallest ones, then bolted.
Back on the street, I noticed this week that the construction fence came down on the triangular infill lot that just a couple weeks earlier had been dressed up with signs advertising our neighborhood’s imminent transformation into a new mixed use hospitality and shopping district. At one corner there were renderings of happy young sims having fun, the kind of people that only exist in the software programs that let architects turn the developers’ spreadsheets into your fantasy of a world without work. I got to wondering if maybe those signs had been a last ditch effort to dress the site up for some prospective investors who didn’t buy the story, and the project was now abandoned. Too bad they can’t bring back the majestic old trees they cleared out to make room for their deal.
Friday afternoon as I worked to wrap up the deal I had been working on to pay my own bills, I stepped outside for a quick break. At the top of the stairs that lead down into our home, I sensed motion in the periphery, and looked up to see the bright underside of a low-flying hawk just overhead. Another followed shortly thereafter, and then another. They flew toward the warehouses along the street, then worked their way back toward the woods. No skrees or kee-ahs, which made their appearance all the more mysterious. Red-shouldered hawks are monogamous and mate for life, so we see them in pairs all the time, but this was the first time I can remember seeing a trio. Maybe they were out on some territorial expedition, or just patrolling the bounds of their dominion in advance of mating season.
A little later I saw them again through our back window, just two of them, up in the bare branches of those tall cottonwoods where earlier in the week I had heard but not seen the owl. Maybe they are competing with the owl over territory, and the food it provides. I guess they’ll be sky dancing soon, doing their power dive displays up above the trees like broadwinged rocket roosters.
When I walked back to my office I saw a patchwork little feral cat in the field beyond our fence, there under the power lines from which the hawks often hunt. Its fur was a splotchy mix of burnt brown and amber, a palette not unlike those Texas hawks. We had a little stare-down, and the cat impressively disappeared into the unmowed grass while hardly even moving, just the tips of its ears visible. I wondered if it’s the neighborhood life thief that sometimes marks our patio with a fresh little turd.
I may prefer coyotes and hawks to bird-killing cats, but I relish every reminder I get that there is no such thing as an empty lot.
If you want to read more on red-shouldered hawks, this Audubon Field Guide is a good place to start. The site has a great new feature that shows the likely impact of near-term climate change and human activity on each species. Looks like Buteo lineatus texanus is mostly holding its range, but losing a little but to development. Our little pocket of riparian woodland seems ideal urban habitat for them, but I see them all over town, often around our many creeks. I think my best photos of the species are in this post from November 2020.
There was a great short post yesterday on the Instagram of Austin nature blogger Of All Sarx about how Austin’s creeks have a long history as refuge for people who have to make their own shelter. The rest of the feed is crammed with amazing nuggets of natural history insight, from someone who really has a tremendous gift for seeing and understanding the wonders hiding in plain sight.
Also on Instagram, comics auteur Tom Kaczynski has ventured far from his usual stomping ground in Minneapolis to spend some time on South Padre Island, and yesterday shared pics from his trek to the end of Texas to see the Space X launch facility at Boca Chica. Tom’s recently re-released edition of his amazing Fantagraphics collection, Beta-Testing the Ongoing Apocalypse (which includes a foreword by me) has a brilliant new comic about private space exploration, and I can’t wait to see the pen and ink version of Tom’s impressions of the real thing.
Lastly, it’s not just wily little street cats who prowl that field behind the door factory. Here’s a bruiser of a bobcat I captured on the trailcam in the very same spot in October of 2020:
Have a safe week.