From Star Seeds
The beeblossom is mostly gone now, especially after the days of cold rain that led into Easter weekend, but for a couple of weeks it was everywhere, one of those remarkable wildflowers that appears in the untended margins of industrial fencerows and empty lots, areas otherwise overtaken with weedy grasses that come up early and mostly choke out the good stuff. It was there behind the abandoned lighting factory, by the old shipping container we keep our garden tools in, in the unmowed side of the road. The blossoms are tiny but ornate, four petals arrayed like some alien crown above eight stamens and a pistil, the petals a rosy white that turns hot pink with time. Its taxonomy was rewritten not that long ago, and there are many variants, some native, some naturalized, in a way that lets you know we don’t really understand it.
Its evident adaptation to the post-industrial edgelands is further confirmed by the remark in some of the field guides that its “fragrance has sometimes been compared to cat urine.”
As the beeblossom faded out, the first winged ants of the season completed their nuptial flights over the city, and we waited for the Pink Moon to poke out from behind the storm clouds, I found myself reading Frederick Law Olmsted’s account of his saddle trip through Texas in the fall of 1853, in the company of his younger brother. A half-accidental library find, the book provides a glimpse of what the conditions were once like as you approached Austin from the east, through the eyes of the nation’s founding landscape architect, who four years later would be planning Central Park:
Soon after fording the creek, we ascended a steep hill, the forest still continuing, till, reaching the brow, we came out suddenly, as if a curtain had risen, upon a broad prairie, reaching, in swells like the ocean after a great storm, to the horizon before us; a thick screen of wood edging it in the distance on the left, and an open grove of low, branching oaks breaking irregularly upon it, with spurs and scattered single trees, to the right.
In the distance, as they follow the trail along the edge of a woodland, watching deer duck back into cover at their appearance, and then through the wide prairie, they see the “red and black clouds of distant fires.” Olmsted complains of the heat as noon approaches, and then they come up over a swell into a zone just burned by wildfire, “the whole surface of the ground charred and black as ink.” Soon a cold north wind blows in, followed by a storm, and they find a farmstead and ask for food and shelter for the night. Olmsted did not know of the regenerative power such fires had for the prairies, but he gives us a glimpse of their monumental grace and beauty, with images of waves of light and air moving slowly across a tallgrass sea that spans the horizon.
The prairie is gone now, all but 99 percent of it taken under the plow or the pavement, but the seeds are still there, their erasure from the scraped landscape not yet complete.
They’re there in the terraformed earth of the new berm that supports the tollway onramp, prodigious blossoms of Castilleja this season, little towers of new life competing with the vertical tanks of the milk plant across the loop road. It bloomed early in March, just as the tourists were arriving for SXSW, and it has persisted into April. The color of the plant the settlers named Indian paintbrush doesn’t actually come from petals, but from bracts that grow up around the less conspicuous little flowers you can see more clearly if you look with a Georgia O’Keefe kind of eye.
Not far from there, a couple of Thursdays ago, I stumbled upon a lone firewheel growing up from the cracks in the asphalt of a tiny traffic island, where the trucks come off the highway on their way downtown.
There was more firewheel along the right of way next to the onramp, along with bluebonnet, Helianthus and winecup. Purples, yellows, oranges and plums, coming up in every spot we leave alone, thicker than the last few years, even though they say we are still in drought.
In the drainage ditch along the main arterial, patches of wild onion were in bloom, almost thick enough to hide the empty tall boy of Lone Star.
If you wandered down the uninviting cul de sac next to the dairy factory, past the rows of semi trailers awaiting their next load, you might find the unlocked fence that opens to a wide field. An empty lot, maintained as a buffer in case, one supposes, there’s a spill at the plant. The wildflowers are popping there, too, with no audience but the butterflies who come up out of the municipal wildlife sanctuary in the floodplain below the field, grabbing their moment before the Johnson grass takes over. And in the sanctuary, below the canopy of the riparian forest, carpets of inland sea oats have come in lush and green, in the shade where the invasives can’t cut it. Wander down there, into the zone inadvertently hidden from us by the factory, and you might find the kind of native life that returns your gaze. Barred owls, weird herons, loping coywolves, and big stags, enjoying one of the last pockets of the city largely free from human traffic, forty quiet acres where nature has managed to recover in just a few decades since that part of town was finally declared off limits for mineral extraction. An ephemeral urban wilderness that can disappear as fast as it came into being.
You might also see the survey stakes down in there. Fresh ones, marking out the boundaries of the private property that abuts the public preserve, as the plans go through permitting to remake the dairy plant into a new urbanist wonderland, here in the once independent-minded city that some days feels like it has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of LiveNation. High-rise apartment towers, retail complexes, office buildings, and a hotel that together will cover up to 95% of the land and bring almost 50 times more human traffic. So it goes, as the Tralfalmadorians liked to say.
The Tuesday before last, I went down to City Hall to speak up about the project, along with some friends and allies who have been working to try to negotiate a deal with the developer that would give the preserve a chance at survival. The hearing was before the Planning Commission, which handles rezoning cases, and is as rigged a body as you will find in government, its members bound to a mandate for growth, its applicants usually represented by one of the three lawyers in Austin who handle almost all the big development cases, two of them from the same firm. When you see their paralegals laughing it up with the city staffers before the hearing begins, you better understand why the staff almost always supports the projects. And when the representative from Habitat for Humanity disdainfully brushes off his colleagues’ concerns about protecting the riparian habitat, you learn the exclusionary truth embedded in his organization’s name, a Rod Serling reveal you should have figured out long before.
“The cost of living at Austin is extraordinarily high,” reported Olmsted in 1853, when he finally got here at the end of his journey across the prairies, complaining about expensive construction and inadequate housing the same way we do in 2023. He stayed a week, and moved on.
Olmsted’s story is one of many narratives of the exploration, conquest and settlement of the Americas that I’ve been reading as I work on The Secret History of Empty Lots, thinking about those stories of how we got here, how we made our homes here, how we changed the world around us in ways we may not have been fully cognizant of, and how we might alter the extractive colonial trajectory they map. We have all read and internalized those stories, but rarely interrogate them. Doing so can help you see the violent past’s echoes all around you, and the divergent futures.
For our first decade in this house near the spot where Olmsted crossed the river, we just had one painting hanging in our bedroom, a small landscape of Prussian oak trees and wildflowers by my great-grandfather that survived two wars and a trip across the Atlantic. On a nearby wall there’s also a friend’s pen-and-ink portrait of my wife Agustina as a student here in the 90s, a drawing that shows her making art in a coffee shop. So it was serendipitous this winter when my sister-in-law gave us four paintings that Agustina made in that period—very different landscapes that fit perfectly into the only space left on geometrically confounding walls. The creator of those paintings begged me to hide them instead of hanging them, but ultimately agreed to let me try. And they turned out to be perfect for the spot, and remarkably enduring for student work.
They comprise a quadriptic of what’s probably the ugliest part of our city: the stretch of Interstate 35 north of downtown where the highway divides into two decks, one buried in a trench, the other elevated above. Many cities all around the world have such brutal infrastructure, often routed through what were viewed as blighted neighborhoods ripe for redevelopment. In Austin, the freeway was routed along the old East Avenue, reinforcing the main dividing line of Jim Crow-era segregation with as close to an actual wall as they could manage. A hundred and fifty years ago, it was the main route of the great cattle drives, when cowboys would round up semi-feral herds of longhorns in the South Texas borderlands, bring them across the river near the spot of that dairy plant, and then north in the direction of Waco, Fort Worth, and ultimately Abilene.
It’s hard to believe, when you are in the presence of that insane freeway, a road so dangerous locals used to joke that it had been designed by Aggie engineers trying to kill us, that not that long ago it was a pioneer trail that cut through prairies just like the ones Olmsted saw. A pioneer trail that had been an Indian trail before that, following the even older migratory route of mid-continental megafauna. And even there, in the zone where our obliteration of nature’s bounties is most complete, you could find beeblossom in bloom on the last day of March, even as the noise and fumes hindered you from taking a better picture of it.
That stretch of I-35 has been marked for redevelopment, too. Not without controversy, even as almost everyone would love to see them tear down that wall and completely bury the interstate beneath a park. To do so, they propose to condemn much of the existing structures along the feeder. Including a variety of eclectic small businesses, and the Spanish immersion preschool our daughter first attended, a place that already got dislocated once when its original location in the heart of downtown was leveled to build another Marriott. The frontage road that has been marked for destruction is as unlikely a place you could find for a nature walk, and so that’s just what we did on the last Friday in March.
I met my friend James there for lunch, at a frontage road cafe with two names. The last time either of us had been there, it was called Star Seeds, and that sign is still up, as is the newer one with a less cosmic variation on the name. It’s the very Austin version of a 24-hour diner by the freeway, taking the kind of crappy place one tends to find between the gas station and the adult video store and making it cool. I tried to write there once not long after I moved here, looking for hot coffee and a flat counter before dawn, but the cigarette smoke and the death metal were a deterrent. James and I are both too cynical to wax nostalgic, so we talked about books, health, and other stuff, he having been a librarian, magician, antiquarian book dealer, private detective, and digital newspaper publisher, experience that provides fodder for wide-ranging and interesting conversations.
After our omelettes, we walked the circuit to see what signs of life we could find. The Days Inn to which the cafe was once attached is now a quasi-public home for the unhoused, busy with people remaking it into some new and ephemeral communal reality. Across the street, a bigger building already abandoned and covered in graffiti, beneath a cell phone tower and a billboard tantalizing drive-by suckers to pull over and buy another lottery ticket. Beyond that, appropriately for an undead zone, we came upon a vampire supply store, in front of which was a big donation bin for the Austin chapter of the Temple of Satan.
Walking north, the structures got older, revealing traces of the past as their more recently reskinned surfaces peel off. A lingerie shop and a sex toy store, a taqueria that was once a gas station and before that a house, a beautifully painted arcade of video gambling machines with a big sign mandating NO HOODIES, a smoke shop advertising CBD and Kratom between murals of two blue-haired ladies blowing pink smoke. Across the street, through the aperture between the upper and lower decks, an abandoned IHOP turned into a lavender Tex-Mex joint, a boarded-up little apartment building whose yard has become a tent camp, the offices of the local free weekly few read anymore. And in every unpaved spot, flowers in bloom, some of them almost too tiny to see. Spiderwort, gaura, verbena, bluebonnets, and weeds. I wonder how long it would take, if we abandoned the city, for them to reclaim that zone completely.
North of the Days Inn we found one particularly interesting prewar house. Small, with sharply peaked roofs, dappled stucco, and a big yard out back, complete with wicker lawn furniture starting to rot by the old outdoor fireplace. The blinds were all closed, and it looked abandoned. The door looked like it was made for hobbits, arched wooden slats with a tiny porthole, the interior obscured with white blinds. In magic marker across two of the slats, someone had written a message too tiny to be seen except from a few feet:
JESUS CHRIST LIVES HERE!
As hidden in plain sight as that house is, you can almost believe that you might catch Him hanging out on the old lawn chairs, soaking up the Texas sun, drinking a cold one with Eostre in her bunny form. Even as you could as easily take the hellscape around that freeway as further evidence of how fallen our world is. The dream of demolishing the concrete gauntlet and replacing it with green life is a beautiful vision, one we all daydream of, as we know how against nature our lives have become. And the wildflowers somehow eking out an existence in the margins of that freeway give you an idea how easy it really could be to bring pockets of our native landscapes back. Whether we have the collective will to rewild our future while we still can, before the prairie fires finally return and do the job for us, remains to be seen.
For more on the proposed redevelopment of Austin’s Borden Dairy site and its impact on the Colorado River Wildlife Sanctuary, this recap in Community Impact does a pretty good and balanced job of telling the story, including quotes from yours truly. If you are local and interested in protecting the natural character of our urban river and riparian parklands, please consider reaching out to our new mayor and City Council, who are scheduled to consider this case on May 4. You can urge them not to approve any major redevelopment along the river until the environmental and community impacts have been properly studied and an updated riparian corridor plan adopted.
You can also register your support for the Rewild Zilker Park project, a counter to the City’s plans to build parking garages at the expense of parkland.
On the subject of rewilding, I was delighted to read the news that my colleague Jeff VanderMeer, author of Annihilation, Hummingbird Salamander and close to twenty other amazing novels and collections, editor of an equal number of exceptional anthologies, and chronicler of his own backyard rewilding project at his home in Florida, will be authoring Wildbook—an illustrated guide to rewilding, re-connecting with nature, and saving the planet. Jeff’s work has shown the tremendous potential of fantastic fiction to engage with our environmental crisis, and I’m excited to see him show what a coffee table book with a mission can achieve in the hands of one of the progenitors of the New Weird.
Last week the LRB blog had a lovely post by the poet A. E. Stallings about a walk around contemporary Elefsina, the suburb of Athens that was known in antiquity as Eleusina, the pilgrimage site consecrated to Demeter, at which acolytes could learn the secrets known as the Eleusinian Mysteries. Around the ruins at the end of the Sacred Way, which you can still walk but has been bypassed by a highway, now stands an industrial zone that sounds a lot like this one, with cement plants, petroleum storage, an air force base, rusting ships in the bay. A surprising choice, perhaps, for one of the EU’s 2023 Capitals of Culture. But one that makes perfect sense in the way it links the challenges of the present with the wonders of the deep past, and tries to incubate the imagining of alternate futures through that unlikely nexus.
The ultimate secret whispered by the hierophant of Eleusis into the ears of the advanced initiates was so well kept that it remains a secret to this day. We know it was tied up with the story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades and exile to the underworld, and Demeter’s revenge, myths that encode our tenuous control over the fertility of plants, and our dependence on the things in nature we cannot control. Many male scholars have, unsurprisingly, speculated the mysteries must have included the display of a phallic object. Others more plausibly infer some show-and-tell lesson about the biology of grain-producing grasses. Terrence McKenna’s theory that it involved the ingestion of a psychedelic got a possible boost this week with the report in yesterday’s NYT and elsewhere of discoveries in Bronze Age Minorcan caves of human hairs whose chemistry evidences the prolonged ingestion of hallucinogens—ephedrine, atropine and scopolamine, found in local nightshades like mandrake, henbane and thorn apple, and other plants.
Closer to home, the March 13 issue of The New Yorker has a sobering and engaging report from West Texas, in the field with entomologist David Wagner, and the mounting evidence of precipitous declines in insect populations.
If you’re in New York, “Presence Chamber,” the first posthumous exhibition of the work of my brother, the painter Alex Brown, is up for one more weekend at Cathouse Proper in Brooklyn. I got to see it two weeks ago. It’s beautifully curated by the artist David Dixon, whose own work while in residence in Alex’s studio is also now on display.
In New York, I also got to see the Gowanus Canal for the first time, even if I didn’t have time to paddle it, and learned about the visionary work of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy.
Lastly, one of these Field Notes somehow made it into an academic journal. “Alien Numbers and Winter Blooms,” about my trip to the corporate detention facility for undocumented immigrants north of Austin, is in the March 2023 special issue of Sociology Lens, on the theme of “Carceral Edgelands.” It includes amazing and diverse contributions by writer-scholars including Marina Peterson, Joseph Russo, Craig Campbell and Alexandra Villareal, and unusually for an academic journal, is available free and online (for now).
Field Notes is on a monthly schedule while I work on the new book, and will be back again around May Day. Happy Easter to those who observe it, religiously or secularly, and remember Earth Day is coming up on April 22.
As an Easter egg, here’s a rare pink bluebonnet, found last weekend down in the rewilded old gravel dredge. There are bunnies down there, too, but they are even harder to find.