The second Thursday of April, as the storm clouds gathered at day’s end, you could hear the dirt bikers down there, tearing up the hidden woods across from Secret Beach. I didn’t notice until one of my neighbors started a thread, the neighbor who would be best qualified to play Damnation Alley-era Jan-Michael Vincent motorcycling his way through post-apocalyptic America, and who made clear he was both envious of how much fun those riders were having and concerned about the kind of damage such activity can wreak in a wildlife sanctuary. The Watership Down sequels practically write themselves.
The machine noises of the city tend to be pretty muffled in the earthen bunker we have made our home, so I stepped outside to listen at the edge of the woods. You could hear them, but not see them, moving through the park across the river to the vast empty lots and municipal preserve on this side. To my surprise, it didn’t aggravate me that much. Maybe I have outgrown the settler’s hubris of appointing myself steward of the commons, or maybe I have just come to accept the inevitability of the ebb and flow between our destruction of nature and its capacity to come back once we move on, however momentarily. I also knew a big rain was coming.
I slept through the storm, mostly, though I saw the distant lightning when we went to bed. It must have just blown over when I got up in the early morning. You could feel the life it brought, even if it didn’t bring the flood that cleanses.
That Saturday morning the East Austin Street Retriever and I headed out late for a walk in the woods, while baby and mama headed off to dance. It was around 10:30, a time when one is unlikely to see much wildlife. We were supposed to be out of town, visiting my mom in Iowa, but a cancelled flight had us change our plans. The light was gorgeous, and I am working on a collection of black and white photos of these places I write about, so I loaded a roll of film in the 1970s F1 I liberated from my dad’s closet a while back, and went out to see what we could see.
Back behind the industrial park at the base of the tollway onramp, there is a strange zone where wild nature has mostly recovered what was, a century ago, the route of a road that led east out of town. You can get there walking on publicly-owned land, but to do so you would have to find your way almost by accident, through urban woods and empty lots hidden behind hurricane fences garlanded with barbed wire. In one spot, where the old rights of way converge behind the construction supply warehouse, a thick patch of scrubby woods grows up around a drainage ditch. An interstitial woods so tiny in terms of actual square footage that, if it were cleared, you would pass it in a dozen steps. But come summer, the foliage is so dense that the only way through is to get down on all fours and crawl through the tunnels the animals make. (Yes, I have, in case you are wondering.)
As Lupe and I approached, I saw the movement. Not one fox, but two. In the brush, headed from city space back into woodland. We all stopped to watch each other. They looked at me, those little beings furred with silver and rust who marry canine and feline qualities, and then looked around, as behind them moved the silhouettes of ghost dogs. They all could tell that my own dog was, if not yet a ghost, no longer much of a hunter. I could feel the arc of her life here in this place, and our own, since we adopted her as an abandoned puppy living at the edge of these woods thirteen summers ago.
Here’s a 30-second phone video of the foxes. Watch for the mystery shadows in the background, and for the way their tails are their most characteristic feature as they move, especially when they jump.
The first time I ever saw a fox was the same summer we adopted Lupe, right after we moved here, living in a little rented cottage next door while we tried to make our house a reality. Agustina and I were coming back from a movie on a Saturday night, and saw the little creature running down the street along the edge of the curb, phasing in and out with the underpowered arcs of the streetlamps. We knew immediately what it was, even though neither of us had ever encountered one in real life. We watched it, until it disappeared through the gate where the road dead ends. Returning home, in all likelihood, from hunting the buck-toothed little mammals who live off our food trash.
Not long after that, I saw one of the foxes in the daytime, running away from a realtor I had let in through our back gate. The realtor, one of those tall and fratty scouts who puts the bro in broker, didn’t see the animal, and I didn’t call his attention to it. The experience sharpened my desire to work to protect the slivers of wild habitat that have managed to persist in the urban periphery. Over the decade since, we’ve had some successes in doing just that. But you can feel the pressure of what’s coming, here and in all the little spots like this in other towns, as the world gets smaller, and capital gets hungrier.
The Saturday before I had been invited to hear our new mayor talk with my neighbors and allies at Austin’s La Raza Roundtable, making a pretty compelling pitch to use a big patch of unimproved municipal parkland near here to build affordable housing. This was right before he denied that the Texas State Troopers he had invited to supplement Austin’s police force were focusing on minority neighborhoods, only to have the astonishing data come out two weeks later that 9 out of 10 people they have arrested since being deployed a month ago are Black or Hispanic. It was a good reminder for this middle-aged white lawyer enjoying his solitary walks in the woods that there are more urgent injustices screaming for our attention, even if we are just as good at ignoring those. And that helping people see the connections between our social and economic injustices and our abusive relationship with the land is what it will take to find our way to a greener future.
Lupe and I followed the path of the foxes, more or less. I’ve always figured they have their den back in there, but never wanted to intrude on that secret sanctuary they have carved out. And I like the idea that they move between worlds in other ways, able to step into places we cannot.
Crossing the narrow ravine where the culvert empties the rainwater from the endless pavement on the other side of the fence, you could almost believe the foxes really do disappear here. And right after I took this picture, I found a skull, fanged and small enough to hold in your hand, along with other bones. The third one I’ve found like that over the years. Likely raccoons, based on the snout, but it’s hard to say for sure, and it got me wondering how many generations of foxes have lived out their lives there in the fifteen years we’ve been next door, and where the current one will go if displaced.
We walked on, down into the woods, where the inland sea oats and wild rye have come in thick and tall under the canopy, a lush green shag that covers the forest floor behind the dairy factory. On one blade we found a black swallowtail half-emerged from its cocoon, hindwings still curled unto themselves like paper straws, frozen in the moment.
Deeper in the preserve, we found the tracks cut by the dirt bikers. Along the main path, and then right through the middle of the wetland, which is still pretty dry from winter.
When we got to the river, a wake of twenty-some black vultures had gathered at the low water crossing by the overpass. Their find: a huge carp beached in the shallows, half of its body above the waterline, shiny scales exposed to the morning sun, and to the hooked beaks of the carrion crows taking turns shoveling out the good stuff from the new orifice they had cut into its side. A reminder that the river authority will soon begin its summer releases from the highland dams, sending water for the rice farmers at the coast, emptying more big fish from our downtown lake, and rendering the river and wetland impassable to the bikers. Maybe even Anthropocene habitats find their equilibrium, in time.
We got to Iowa the next weekend, where we found Oma in good health and spirits, and our daughter was excited to find her first morels, even if my mom was unhappy with the quantity this dry spring has yielded. We returned home just in time for May Day, a holiday whose pagan and revolutionary variants I have been trying to find a way to merge. Instead, it came and went almost without notice, in the way neither version of that holiday has been allowed to take hold in the USA. But that evening, our daughter saw her first fireflies, glowing on and off in the crepuscular shadows where the mustang vine hangs thick over the rubble-strewn hillside behind our house.
I grabbed one from the air and opened my hand to let her see it do its thing up close, and then follow it as it flew off. It was a more abundant quantity than I’ve seen the past few years, but still a fraction of the numbers I remember from my own childhood, when we would try to steal their glow to paint our skin.
The next day, a package from big brother appeared behind the front gate, and we opened it early, ahead of little sister’s fourth birthday. Inside was a wonder: a unicorn hand-carved from wood, with an arrow of love magically sharing its space without touching.
I also got some film back from the lab, with the first rolls I had shot with the old macro lens my dad, a dentist, used to record images of his patient’s teeth in the seventies and eighties. When he died last year, and I went through his slides looking for photos for the memorial, I found boxes and boxes of pictures of people’s smiles. Not their faces, just their smiles. I tried using that lens to take pictures of the wild life growing in our yard, and the results were pretty amazing, even as the insanely narrow depth of field makes the focus challenging.
Thursday we finally got confirmation that our efforts to build political support to protect the wildlife sanctuary had been successful for the moment, and the scheduled City Council vote I mentioned last month on the proposal to remake the dairy factory and the empty lot behind it into a gigantic new luxury mixed-use development had been postponed to facilitate further review and negotiations. But the next day, as the unimaginably huge crowds of revelers gathered to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, our American imitation of a Mexican holiday that replaces May Day with a beer marketers’ bacchanal to summon the summertime dream of liberation from the Protestant work ethic, you could see just how hard it is going to be to keep people from filling the last empty spaces where wild animals can live in the margins of our dominion.
On the other side of the world, Cinco de Mayo brought a penumbral lunar eclipse. Here in North America, we just got a full moon, the one the almanac writers dub the flower moon. It woke me up around 3:30, which I didn’t mind, as I have a book to finish. When I stepped outside to soak up its glow, I could hear sirens in three directions. And then I heard the barred owl calling from down in the woods, much closer. I wonder if the foxes heard it, too.
May Day Roundup
As the holiday approached, I re-read the ebook of Andreas Malm’s climate politics manifesto How to Blow up a Pipeline, which I had first encountered in James Butler’s November 2021 LRB essay about Malm’s work. A friend had sent me a Financial Times interview with the filmmaker Daniel Goldhaber about his new feature film of the same name, which I had seen the trailer for but not realized was an effort to dramatize Malm’s ideas—“Oceans 11 but for eco-terrorism.” As a lawyer who made his home in a trench left after removing a petroleum pipeline that was shut down through the activism of grassroots environmental justice groups I am now lucky to work with, I like to think there are ways to get there by legal means, but I think the provocation that the destruction of property that is wreaking its own violence to life on earth is a compelling one—I’ve been playing with some fiction projects in a similar vein. I was sorry to see that the film is not screening in Austin, or in many other markets. But the trailer is pretty fresh:
I also found myself reading this 2007 New Yorker profile of the Mannahatta Project, which has worked to map what Manhattan looked like before European settlement. As I work on my new book, I’ve been binging narratives of exploration and settlement of North America, and it’s ceaselessly fascinating to me to experience diverse vantages into how the land has changed, and how recent and provisional is our erasure of what was here before.
Another April re-read in that theme was George Stewart’s Names on the Land, a fascinating study of American place names and the stories they encode, originally published in 1945 and re-released by NYRB Classics in 2008. It’s great, but for riffs on the weird ways our multilingual, multicultural early history as a nation made names for places and people, it’s hard to beat the insane annotations of physician, naturalist and spiritualist Elliott Coues that accompany his edited 1895 edition of The Expedition Journals of Zebulon Pike as he paddles up the Mississippi in 1805.
From my mother’s library, I read Maria Audubon’s short biography of her grandfather John (also annotated by Elliott Coues), much of it extracted from a long autobiographical letter he wrote to his sons, and found it a fascinating window into the life of the seminal American naturalist that helped me understand some of the reasons why he has been the subject of a fresh cultural re-appraisal.
In Des Moines, we were able to stop by the Art Center for its 75th anniversary show of Iowa works (closing today), which included a drawing and painting by my late brother Alex. The painting, “Mount,” is one I had never seen in person, and it’s pretty amazing. Alex’s paintings can only really be experienced in person, as I think he intended, and the effect of their layered imaging is profound.
When we returned, the new issue of Artforum brought an excellent Jeffrey Kastner review of the recent show of Alex’s work at Cathouse Proper in Brooklyn.
If my brother were still around, he would have teased me when the news broke about the passing of Gordon Lightfoot, knowing my soft spot for his work and lots of other 60s and 70s folk. Lightfoot’s early records were on heavy rotation while I was writing my novel Tropic of Kansas, which is about a homeless teenager traveling from Canada to New Orleans through a dark mirror America. There’s an aspect of Lightfoot’s work and cultural positioning that touches on the cornball, but in his best songs he reveals himself as a brutally honest and beautiful storyteller. Some of my favorite deep cuts to revisit this week: “Seven Island Suite,” “Summer Side of Life” and “The Watchman’s Gone.”
Cinco de Mayo also brought the signed contract for my new book, The Secret History of Empty Lots, in one of those typical quirks of the publishing business where you get the deal formalized a month or so before you have to turn the thing in. As I work on getting the manuscript in shape for submission, I have also been playing with the possibility of black and white photos for possible inclusion, and it’s interesting to see which of my pictures originally shot on color translate well to the monochrome. I especially like this one from 2016:
This will probably be the last Field Notes until sometime in June, when I get the thing turned in. Enjoy summer’s emergence, if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, and when it’s here we should be back on our regular schedule, hopefully with some new enhancements.
Taking Zevon to the dog park and river yesterday we saw a fox with a small dead rodent in its jaws as it bounded through the tall brown grass. Well distant of the dog park, of course: it would not do well with the volume of large, momentarily feral canines dashing about.
The F1 was a helluva camera, and you can also use it to hammer nails. Two thoughts if you are okay with me sharing them: First, pick up a couple of filters if you haven't already. I'd suggest maybe a yellow and a polarizer. You don't need a red, since it'll make every B&W shot you take look over the top apocalyptic. Second, for macro shots of non-living or at least non-moving subjects, if you have a tripod, you can always take a series of shots with the focus in different places, scan them all, and then do focus stack with Photoshop. Although now that I mention Photoshop, Lightroom has presets that can make any photo look like you've shot with a filter. More fun to do it the old school method, I think, although you're then committed.
Also also, my wife and I saw HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE at the local rep theatre yesterday afternoon. It's a tense and angry thriller with a wonderful twist at the end. Highly recommended.
Good news about your new book! I will be excited to read it.