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Monday evening, headed to happy hour with a friend who programs robots, I saw Argo self-driving robot car Number 93 chained down to be taken away by a big human. The car’s minders stood nearby, masked and staring into the smaller robots they carried in their hands, awaiting further instructions. Vehicula de Maneja Automatica read the warning below the rear license plate, probably written by one of the lawyers in Pittsburgh to prepare the bot for its deployment to the fleet lab in Texas. What is the appropriate response to the notice that the car in front of you is being driven by an artificial intelligence?
If you go to the website, you can see the view from Argo’s nine-eyed rooftop sensor stalk as it cruises the red brick streets of its hometown. It’s meant to show how mindful of its neighbors Argo is, but the machine lens it reveals adopts the aesthetic of cyberpunk dystopias, spawn of Agent Smith and a Predator drone. I got to wondering whether Argo 93 had just broken down like its analog petropunk ancestors, or whether it had gotten in trouble for breaking the rules. And then I wondered how its trainers have been teaching it and its siblings to see objects in nature, and whether the robot future will bring an end to the roadkill our vultures thrive on.
The first week of autumn in Texas felt like it for once, as the nights dropped into the fifties, a welcome change after the weeks of intense heat that ended the summer. The cool air put a bounce in the step of our street retriever, especially when I grabbed the long lead to walk down to the river Wednesday morning. Along the trail, we came upon the carcass of a skunk, without the smell that usually goes with it. I’ve only seen a live skunk once around here, one warm morning ten years ago in the empty field behind the dairy plant. All I really saw was its tail, which it stuck up above the tall grass as a warning when it saw us. It was reassuring to see another one, even a dead one. I wondered what had the nerve to kill it, and if it was a big owl, as seemed likely—the only creature I can imagine catching a skunk before it has time to spray—why it didn’t carry the thing away.
When we got to the river, three ospreys were doing some kind of raptor West Side Story dance over the water. If I better understood their high-pitched chirps, I might have been able to tell whether they were flirting or fighting or teaming up. Chances are the change in weather has the big fish out, and all three birds had been drawn to the same spot. Their calls always sound distant, even when they are right over your head, and in that moment they heralded the change in the season in a way that was both eerie and alluring.
So did the pair of robins I found bathing in the pool when we got back. A less exciting bird, perhaps the most common of my Midwestern childhood, but a species I had rarely seen until last year, when they were all over these woods. What climatic changes they reflect is harder to deduce.
Out on the streets, the old man’s beard is blooming its white fuzz all over the chainlink fences, and the vines of autumn are beginning to fruit on the barbed wire.
Tuesday morning after a productive couple of pre-dawn hours working on my novel-in-progress, Lupe and I walked over the freshly landscaped berm of the new overpass. I was thinking about the scene I had written, about a young urban forager walking through an abandoned edge of the city, when I found a how-to-write-a-novel book lying there in our path, on the shoulder between the closed onramp and the deserted traffic island. It was open to page 80. Plan and Purpose, Danger and Dreams.
There was another water-logged book about how to create works of art, this one about digital photography, and a grey couch with no cushions. The writing book was right at the head of a narrow path that tracked into the woods at the side of the road, so we followed it.
It’s curious how a gnarly little patch of woods between two onramps and an empty lot can serve as a portal. Not to the lands of make believe you looked for in such places as a kid, but to a little corner of reality that has escaped the erasure of nature that capitalism imposes in its exercise of our dominion. This one is neither big nor beautiful, but when you step in there you appreciate how much bigger a patch of land feels when allowed to grow dense with foliage, and with the abundant life such cover can harbor. Even when it shares the cover with the sort of men who make their temporary homes in such places, until the owners of the private property nearby call the cops to clear them out.
Last year that traffic island hosted a coupled pair of red-shouldered hawks I caught mating in spring, on a low branch right by the old basketball hoop whose court had devolved into a tallgrass prairie. This week what I noticed there under the hackberrys and pecans was all the chile piquin plants that had grown on the forest floor. They are not beautiful plants—scrubby little bushes with wiry branches and fruit the size of pinched peas—and they are easy to ignore. At least until you learn their backstory, and their connection to deep time and a world before us.
The ur-pepper of the Americas from which all the chile peppers we eat were apparently derived, chile piquin can only germinate when its seeds pass through the digestive system of birds, and when you see a dozen of its fruiting plants clumped together you know there have been lots of birds perched above. And when the ripe fruits of all those bushes are almost all already gone, you get an idea of how rich an avian habitat that little corner of invisible woods is, probably because of its invisibility to capital.
The empty lot next to it is no longer invisible in that way. The basketball hoop is gone, replaced by an architect’s rendering of a little office building with unbranded Audis parked out front, and a newer sign putting the birds on notice of a proposed rezoning. The old metal workshop buildings behind it have been taken over, too, with one of them hidden behind a cheap fence designed to keep even your eyes from looking in to see what’s going on.
The 21st century city is habitat for robots, who you can be sure will have the regimens of private property well-encoded into their systems.
That evening I walked back to that place, amused and slightly fascinated that I had stumbled upon that how to write a novel book as I worked on my own, so much so that I decided I should retrieve the book. How to write books are a wonderfully useless genre, packed with seemingly essential keys that you will always find don’t match the locks you are trying to open. You have to pick all those locks with the tools at hand, namely the internalized understanding of all the stories you have read or told and all the life you have lived and seen. It’s a lot like bushwhacking, through the bramble of your own brain. But those books have their own role as portals of a sort, especially for outsiders trying to find their way in, and I wondered if the guy who had left that book at the side of the road when forced to abandon his camp was also a writer, or if that was just the book he found to read by whatever light was available when he had time and enough sense of comfort and safety to read.
I had turned over the cover to try to identify the book, the way one does with natural objects found in the same such places, but the title had been erased by the elements, its bold promise eaten by mold. A closer look at the text that remained revealed it was a book by a science fiction writer: Orson Scott Card’s 1988 Character and Viewpoint. “A set of tools: literary crowbars, chisels, mallets, pliers and tongs…to pry, chip, yank and sift good characters out of the place where they live in your imagination.”
I have never read Ender’s Game, Card’s immensely popular novel about a boy trained to pilot video game spaceships only to learn they are real ones and he is winning the war against the alien horde, partly because I mostly read outside or at the edges of genre, and because I always sensed something slightly creepy about the patriarchal persona of the author. I did see the movie adaptation, but the only thing I remember is Ben Kingsley as a face-tattooed space admiral.
When I walked back that evening, approaching from the opposite direction, I saw that my fantastic traffic island is currently hidden behind a billboard for non-fungible tokens. Which is probably what Ender’s real game is, even if it’s also the real threat to the planet.
Saturday morning my daughter got into the baby backpack, which she is almost too big to travel in now, and we went for our own walk in the woods. The skunk was gone, as were the ospreys, but we found big patches of frostweed in bloom at the head of the ravine behind the door factory. We stopped to soak up the aroma, and then took more notice of the birdsong all around us, and the planes. In winter those plants will sweat their own ice crystals, something I only recently figured out, but my daughter will hopefully always know. Perhaps this winter she’ll see they’re even cooler than Disney ice princesses.
The morning before I read the news of fossilized human footprints recently found at White Sands that can be carbon-dated to 23,000 years ago, about 10,000 years earlier than could previously be established. Indicating that humans arrived in the Americas during or before the last Ice Age, and were roaming this Southwestern landscape at the same time as mastodons, dire wolves, and giant sloths, when White Sands was still a lake. The dating is based on the seeds of aquatic plants that were embedded in the earth with the footprints, and the evidence seems exceptionally compelling.
The footprints are mostly of kids and teens. They have flat feet, evidently reflecting their barefoot lifestyle. And they spent a lot of time running around at the edge of the lake, playing. At the time, the lake was already shrinking as temperatures warmed, and the footprints left by the kids in the areas that had been exposed by the receding waterline.
Before we set out on our walk, my daughter and I had quite a fight over the need for her to wear warmer shoes and and a hoodie, rather than the sandals and sleeveless sun dress she insisted on. We ended up with a compromise that I convinced myself was a good one when the truth is she pretty much won. When we were out there, it didn’t matter, especially not when she grabbed the thick rope of a mature mustang vine and felt its connection to the whole forest. Later, I got to thinking about whether I should trust my contrary instinct that letting a kid be a little more wild and self-regulating is probably healthier. Maybe next time we will try to go barefoot. It could be a good thing to practice, given how hard it is to see what kind of future she will find herself walking into.
Further reading (and listening)
There was a ton of coverage this week of the fossil footprints of White Sands, but the best piece I found was this piece at Artnet.
My fascination with traffic islands preceded my discovery of J.G. Ballard, who wrote an entire novel about an architect marooned in one after he drives his Jaguar through the guardrail of a London overpass. Concrete Island is short, probably novella length, and it could have been shorter—it’s one of those Ballard works in which the conceptual riff is so great you wonder if it wouldn’t work best compressed into a Borgesian fable. It’s brevity made it well-suited to be one of the books I listened to on audiobook during my mid-day runs this summer, after having read it in my early twenties, and it holds up pretty well, rich with Ballard’s closely observed details and keen understanding of our real natures.
My son, who reads better books than me and is the only person I believe when he tells me he read all six volumes of Knausgaard’s My Struggle, turned me on to the unique flexibility audiobooks provide of being able to adjust the speed. In his case he listens at up to 1.5x, depending on the book (making Knausgaard less of a struggle). In my case, I have been trying to improve my Spanish literacy, and this week got the idea to see what untranslated works might be available on audiobook and tuned to slow. Turns out there’s a ton. Marquez’s Cien Años de Soledad, narrated by Gustavo Bonfigli, is still challenging for me at 0.7x. Borges’ Cuentos Completos, narrated by Gerardo Prat, is much easier, especially with stories I have read many times in English. Friday during a long run I listened to “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the first Borges story I ever read, and it was amazing to hear it voiced by a narrator who really brought out the character of the language in a way that even the best English translations lose.
When I returned from that run and put my headphones away, I noticed a big bug fly out from under my trailer. It was a wasp the size of my thumb, with a wing buzz that sounded every bit like a tiny helicopter. It disappeared for a moment, then reappeared carrying a payload: a cicada that was bigger than it. For several long minutes I watched it struggle to figure out a way to hack physics and freight its fresh kill back to its nest. Over drinks that evening, our entomologist neighbor explained that the cicada hawk likes to use available structures to get enough altitude to drop and get airborne with payloads to heavy to lift from the ground. That’s what it appears to be doing here, ultimately unsuccessfully. Chances are it will come back and try again.
Have a great week.