On the morning of the vernal equinox, Lupe and I headed out right at daybreak to stretch our legs and heads. We had no specific destination in mind, just the idea to travel some of the usual zone in a way that still felt like we were managing to get lost. Sous les pavés, le fôret. It’s amazing how easy that is to find that unfindable place, with a little practice.
All through the woods behind the factories, the inland sea oats are coming in green, at least in the patches where the plants have established enough to keep the invasive brome out. Little clumps of thick dark blades arising from the leaf litter, crowned by the taller, browner growth of the year before. The sea oats don’t mind the shade, and it’s interesting to sea how well that species of native grass thrives by virtue of that adaptation, while the areas where we have cleared the trees get quickly overtaken by invasives adapted to sunnier and warmer climes. There’s still a good bit of brome grass down in the woods, too, but in better balance. In the moment between winter and spring, the mix of grasses gives the forest a bright green shag carpet across its floor, underneath the more austere timbers of tall bare trees and the lattice of thick woody vines that hang from them. The contrast is stark, especially in a season like this when the wildflowers are a few weeks behind schedule.
Lupe is in her silver years now, and less inclined to chase after the big groups of deer we see moving through the woods. We tracked one septet down along the lost path of the old ferry road, then diverged where that road dissolves into a wetland where the road used to cross the river. We walked into the labyrinth of hackberrys that grow up out of the decades of dumped concrete, in the heart of the parcel that once was a gravel mine but now is a preserve, the kind of “park” in an industrial part of town where the municipal authorities don’t really do anything to manage it, and you get to see how nature can quickly establish its own fresh ferality in one of those pockets of urban negative space where it is left alone to do its own thing.
As we walked, a big dark shadow flew right over our heads. Not actually a shadow, but a raptor, thicker than a hawk and faster than a vulture. We watched it alight on the branch of one of the trees along the path. A barred owl, one of the ones whose eerie calls across the woods I have been hearing in the mornings and evenings since winter began to finally wind down. I have seen many of those owls in these woods over the years, but they usually take off at the first sign of human eyes. This one didn’t mind us, at least once we paused and it could tell we were going to give it its space.
When you have a close encounter with a big owl, it’s not hard to assign them some mystical authority. Night hunters, operating at the apex of the weird little pocket habitat they have found in the urban forest. Barred owls are more intense than other North American species, mostly because of those dark brown eyes that are like staring into black marbles, little ocular palantirs that help you understand where those UFO abduction dreams come from. Whitley Streiber was a nature writer, too.
The name owl is an Anglo-Saxon onomatopoeia derived from a proto-German word, and the words for owl in other languages I know seem to similarly encode the sound of the bird’s eerie call—búho, hibou. The symbolic associations of the owl are more varied. In medieval Europe it was evidently associated with spiritual blindness, and in the 15th century directly represented the devil. Some scholars say that’s what all those freaky owls are about in the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch—the predator from the shadows waiting to trap you in the temptation to express your animal nature.
The more benevolent association of the owl with wisdom and intelligence came with the classical revival and its iconic representation of the ideal of Athenian order. In his Diccionario de Simbolos Tradicionales, Juan Eduardo Cirlot claims that, in the Egyptian system of hieroglyphs, “the owl pertains to the realm of the dead sun” (though curiously, that entry in the NYRB translation cannot be found in my Spanish edition, suggesting some Borgesian trick at work). In certain Native American and Celtic traditions, if you can believe the Internet authorities who report on such things, the owl symbolized both death and wisdom—the guide who could give you the power to travel to the underworld, and maybe back.
Staring at this particular hoot owl roosting in the urban woods as the post-pandemic rush hour traffic rumbled over the nearby tollway bridge, I wasn’t thinking about it in any of those objectified ways. Encounters with animal predators have a way of getting you out of your head, breaking the alienated haze, maybe because of the instinctive sense of danger and response that they trigger (even if the animal is too small to prey on you). An owl is not a guide, but it is a creature who can teach you some the ways of the wild dark.
An owl behind a dairy plant can also teach you, through its mere presence, about how resilient nature can be if we just leave it a little room free from our dominion. Almost ten years ago now, my wife and I found another barred owl downed on the narrow shoulder of the nearby bridge, probably after it had been stunned by some passing car. We stopped and endeavored to rescue it, in an exercise of benevolent and clueless human hubris. It did not want to be “rescued,” at least not the clumsy way we tried to steal it away in a blanket.
It was an animal we knew we had heard singing from the woods as we hung out on our porch, a creature whose simple yet magical presence filled our nights with wonder. The experience made us understand just how fragile and threatened it was by the man-machine that surrounded its unlikely habitat. And ensured that every subsequent assurance that the owls were still there provoked a deeper appreciation, accompanied by a sense of anticipatory loss, as we could also see the futility of trying to impede the coming development that will turn this neglected little echo of the frontier into a playground for people.
Reading more about the behavior and habitat of barred owls this week, including the typical bounds of their domain, I learned it’s likely just one mated pair that occupies the urban acreage behind our home, marking its territory with its song. Knowledge that makes that song seem all the more ephemeral. But I also learned of recent research that suggests barred owls do better in suburbs than old growth forests, perhaps due to the proliferation of rodents feeding off our refuse. Imagine if we made room for them on purpose.
Scary TV and other urban explorations
We managed to commune with the owl for 10 minutes, walking off without causing it to fly off, and then worked our way back along the river’s edge. The bluebonnets are starting to bloom in earnest, prettying up one of my favorite edgeland landmarks: the old plastic barrel tagged with the skull and crossbones of ScaryTV. I’ve seen those tags around over the past few years, and always dug its cathode ray charisma. But its authorship was always unknown.
Thursday evening I went for a run and spotted a newer tag by the same artist, and this one had a URL: scarytvusa.com. And what a site it is: a massive trove of work by a dude from around here named Alejandro, who shares my love of exploring weird outdoor spots. Except he does it with friends, and documents it in video with often hilarious commentary rather than portentous prose. Exploring an urban alligator pond with his pregnant girlfriend, following a massive and seemingly endless storm drain behind the Fiesta Mart to its subterranean end point, tracking down woodland sites of real-world folk horror.
Here’s the first infectious episode I watched, in which Alejandro and another Austin YouTuber named Mister Mixer and Alejandro’s pit bull explore the overgrown remains of an abandoned trailer park, leaving when they hear nearby gunshots.
ScaryTV’s site also has a bunch of great podcast conversations among Alejandro and his friends about basically everything: politics, conspiracy theories, social justice, fake news, and true crime. Plus some awesome merch. Check it out.
Alejandro might dig the stories in Nathan Ballingrud’s collection Monsterland, which the fine folks at Small Beer Press included with my copy of Richard Butner’s just-released The Adventurists, which arrived in Saturday’s mail as I was writing these notes. The authors of both volumes are friends, as are the publishers, so I’m biased, but I highly recommend these short story collections—both beautiful and spooky, full of exploration and surprise.
The Ballingrud collection was originally published with the even more awesome title North American Lake Monsters, and this edition accompanied the Hulu series that adapted the stories for television.
The Adventurists is the first from another gifted short story writer, which Publishers Weekly gave a starred review: “Landscapes and memories alter, gentrify, and crumble in Butner’s flawless debut collection… Readers of John Crowley, Ray Bradbury, and Sally Rooney alike will find a home in this beautiful, grounded exploration of pasts and futures—and the people suspended between them.”
If those stories aren’t trippy enough for you, check out this Kimon De Grief profile of Octavio Rettig, “The Pied Piper of Psychedelic Toads,” in this week’s issue of The New Yorker.
And even trippier, this week’s photo bot reminded me of this insane Cecropia moth I found in those same woods as Sunday’s owl, nine years ago this week. It was as big as it looks. Or at least that’s how I remember it.
Field Notes will be off next Sunday, exploring petroleum meadows. Have a great week.