Ice crystals, waxwings and other foragers
Saturday morning I stepped out to see a bright orange contrail cutting a straight line up through the eastern sky. You could still see Venus, bright and low, but Mercury and Mars were already enveloped in the light of dawn, and most of the other stars were gone. I looked up the flight on my phone, which you can do in the same way you look up a bird—easier, really, because the flights are all logged and tracked in the registry of human commerce. Southwest 2035, carrying sunbirds from Houston to Phoenix, the airport they call the Sky Harbor.
I had flown over Arizona myself the week before, headed to Los Angeles for meetings. My flight got in early enough that I was able to make time on the first day for lunch with a friend, someone who has generously helped us out in recent years, and as is always the case in Los Angeles you meet your friends where they are, and learn to get your head around that city’s confounding geographies. I had the idea to carve out a couple of hours after lunch to find my way to the Los Angeles River and maybe check out Lauren Bon’s land art intervention in same, but was daunted by the press of inbound copy edits on the new book and other work tapping at my shoulder, along with my uncertainty about whether the amble I had in mind would drop me down some Jim Jarmusch time hole. So I settled for a morning jog through a Santa Monica pocket park consecrated to the Tongva, sandwiched between the headquarters of the RAND Corporation and Bay City’s Marlowe-grade City Hall. And, when I walked to meet my friend for tacos in Echo Park, a glimpse at what might be the last empty lot on Sunset Boulevard, a feral grade of entropic infill I stumbled upon between an old house and a billboard.
When I looked through the hole in the chainlink, thinking about sneaking in, the cat lounging back in the weeds warned me off.
As I walked on, I caught sight of a hawk flying over, headed in the direction of the river, or maybe Dodger Stadium. It made me want to go back and look at those Ed Ruscha photo books to see if there are any animals hidden in there, unnoticed in the negative space of Every Building on the Sunset Strip or Some Los Angeles Apartments.
I got back to Austin just in time for our first real cold snap to settle in. The temperature plummeted to 16°F Sunday night, and stayed in that zone for much of the week. The door factory and the drywall supply yard were open on MLK Day, but a little quieter, and the woods behind them were dead quiet under grey skies. It almost snowed—some icy drizzle—and the only life on the move in the urban forest were tiny birds. Cardinals and jays, mostly, but I also spotted a couple of ruby-crowned kinglets poking for holes in the hackberrys, the little red spots on their heads more visible when they ruffled their feathers in the cold.
It seemed perfect conditions for the frostweed to fully express, and when the dog and I got deeper in the floodplain, we found a patch—native plants that sprout trippy ice crystals from their stems when the first freeze happens after the autumn rains.
If you came upon Verbesina virginica in high summer, you might find it a weedy-looking thing. It tends to grow in shady patches under the canopy of tall trees, with broad, richly green leaves that remind you of tobacco (and apparently are similarly smokable). There’s a ton of it growing along the old ravine behind the industrial park next door to us. The stems grow straight and tall, sometimes as tall as me. They’re one of the latest bloomers in the Texas edgelands, even later than the last sunflowers, with which they are closely related. The flowers are small and white, and their prodigious and well-timed bloom makes them a critical source of nectar for butterflies, both locals and migrants.
The ice flowers appear long after the butterflies are gone, when the ground is still warm but the air above is below freezing. The roots remain active, absorbing water from the earth and pushing it up through the plant’s vascular system. Above ground, it freezes, cracking the stems open and expressing in ribbon-like formations of ice the color of styrofoam. Not all that different than the pipe that cracked on our pool pad later in the week, at least in terms of the physics, but a lot more beautiful.
By lunchtime Tuesday, the overcast skies cleared, and in the afternoon the deer were out lounging in the brome behind the factory, right by another patch that had been frosted out on Monday. It was a striking juxtaposition, the Edenic vignette of contented and peaceful vegetarian animals soaking up the winter sun in a thick carpet of grass, while on the other side of the bamboo-shielded fence you could hear the sounds of the shop floor, metal on metal bangs and grinds backed by a soundtrack of metal on the radio. I wondered if the deer eat the frostweed, and what they make of their Anthropocene sonic environment.
Wednesday morning I noticed a subtle flurry of activity in the grove of hackberrys that surrounds the back of our house, where a section of the old pipeline is still buried at the edge of the hill. Like a hundred spastic little shadows, accompanied by barely audible whispers of birdsong, and flashes of yellow and brown. Waxwings.
Cedar waxwings are not a rare bird, but they are a special one to me. One of the first wild birds I ever learned to pay attention to, one summer day in Iowa City as I finished law school, in an experience that helped me learn to appreciate the everyday wonders of the wild nature we share our cities with. And one of the happy surprises of this weird little home we made at the edge of the urban woods is how, every winter, the waxwings come back to our place for a pool party.
The first time I saw cedar waxwings after moving to Texas, I read some lore in a local bird book about how the timing of their appearances here reveals something about the likely length of winter up north. This year they came two or three weeks earlier than usual. But I can’t remember a year in the fifteen we’ve been here that they did not come through in the peak of winter. Seeing them devour the little fruits still hanging on the branches of the hackberrys made me appreciate the food that oft-derided tree yields in our most barren season.
Researching my new book, I came across a nugget I did not end up using, about how the fossilized hominid dubbed Peking Man was discovered in a cave filled with the shells of hackberry seeds that appeared to have been crushed during the eating, suggesting hackberrys provided an important component of the diet of at least that particular community of Homo erectus. Last fall I saw a video meme from the paleoforaging savant Cyrus Harp showing how to gather and eat hackberries by stomping around on the neighbors’ roof, and Native American techniques to ground them into a meal from which you can make cakes:
Sometimes I wonder how many such ways of making food and medicine from these common plants we mostly ignore have been fully erased from our knowledge. And when we may have to learn their lessons again. Today’s NYT has a story about suburban Californians spending their weekend in the woods with a military SERE instructor, learning techniques to hide from other humans by disappearing into the landscape. Getting ready, the story alluringly suggests, for a coming breakdown of order. And having fun along the way—in the way that pretending to be hunter and hunted, instead of the office worker or laborer you are required to be, is guaranteed to make you feel more alive.
Ten years ago I wrote a novel that riffed on that persistently looming narrative of an America torn apart by sectarian conflict. It was packed with explorations of those kinds of fantasies about how to go feral without leaving town, in service of an effort to find the path to a more authentically participatory and inclusive democracy. I mined contemporary political theory to try to envision a network-enabled governance by the multitude, but found myself concluding that there will never be a more just society unless we first attend to our damaged relationship with the land on which we live, and the extractionist political economy that is the main root of the injustices and inequalities we struggle to correct and only ever mitigate. Maybe if our daily papers tried getting people excited about learning to forage at the edge of town instead of practicing for “The Most Dangerous Game,” we might get somewhere.
In the meantime, I may see if those wandering birds can teach us how to find our way to healthier habitats in a rapidly changing world.
Howard Waldrop (September 15, 1946 – January 14, 2024)
Last Sunday I got a call from a mutual friend who was with him when it happened that Austin fabulist Howard Waldrop had died that afternoon, of an evident stroke, at the age of 77. Howard wrote short stories of the fantastic, masterfully so, and was one of those artists so uncompromising that he refused to make money doing anything else, in a field of dying markets and pulp era pay rates. I met him in 2002 or ‘3 when he returned to Austin from his years long sojourn outside Seattle, and he showed up at the local workshop I had joined back when Bruce Sterling was running it. Howard brought a manually typed manuscript about Ben-Hur author General Lew Wallace dreaming of Egypt, pencilled over with corrections that were about as easy to read as the hieroglyphs they described. The narrative was a kind of Borgesian Americana, simultaneously folksy and labyrinthine, an approach to storytelling that earned Howard a devoted following and critical admiration among those who got what he was up to.
Late that year I bumped into him in the lobby of the frontage road hotel hosting our local literary sf convention, doing a scratch-off lottery ticket he had just picked up. When I asked him what he was up to, he answered “How the hell do you think I pay my rent?” Then assured me he had a system.
We did not become instant buddies, and we were never really close, but we got to know each other over the years, mostly through our shared love of the outdoors, and when another mutual friend on the West Coast asked me to help him in a time of need as a favor to her, my suit world skills proved useful. I even got to become his pro bono defense lawyer, in a traffic case, and I still regret our decision not to try the case, missing out on the material that would have been provided by putting Howard, who was even better at telling tall tales live and in person, on the witness stand. In the fall of 2022 Howard came to a reading from an early draft of my forthcoming book, A Natural History of Empty Lots, and when he later pulled me aside for one of those knowledgeable assurances that you sometimes get from a writer you trust, it stuck.
More about Howard here at Texas Standard, John Clute’s SF Encyclopedia, and the blog of his buddy George R. R. Martin. For an example of his work that puts the natural history into the alternate history, check out “The Ugly Chickens,” a tale about extinction.
I was also sorry to read this week of the passing of composer Peter Schickele. I used to hear his show Schickele Mix (archived and streamable here—amazing) on public radio beginning in high school, and for a kid who grew up without much of a musical education, it illuminated an otherwise intimidating world. It was only recently that I learned Schickele also was the composer of the soundtrack for one of my favorite pop-cultural bummers—Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 Silent Running, a cinematic eco-dystopia in which Bruce Dern plays the botanist in charge of Earth’s last forests, now planted in greenhouse domes on corporate barges cruising the rings of Saturn. Two of Schickele’s tracks are performed by Joan Baez, and they really capture the elegiac mood of the Ecology Flag days. And make you wonder, thinking back over the intervening decades, why that spark of awareness never really catches fire to burn through our collective apathy.
Here’s the second of those Joan Baez tracks, “Rejoice in the Sun,” cued with a clip of Dern ministering to the three robots he is programming to tend our trees and flowers after the last humans are gone:
(Scroll back to the beginning of the video for the whole thing, or go stream the movie.)
For more on frostweed—and native seeds by mail to plant your own ($3.29 for 10 square feet!)—prairie whisperer Bill Neiman and his crew at Native American Seed have a pretty great primer here.
Thanks to the folks at The Architect’s Newspaper for including Empty Lots on their list of books to look out for in 2024. And watch this space for news very soon about the final title and cover.
In Echo Park, before lunch I stopped by the awesome Stories Cafe on Sunset, one of those bookstores that shelves used and new books together, curated according to the tastes of the staff, and all good. I got my Chandler fix with Frederick Jameson’s insightful critical take in The Detections of Totality, which I devoured in the hotel that night, nabbed a used Charles Willeford novel I had missed, and enjoyed a cup of Stories’ coffee in the cool sun out back while I got some work done that morning. Check it out if you are in the neighborhood.
If you’re in Austin, on Saturday, January 27 I’ll be one of the readers for Pain Don’t Hurt, a celebration at Alienated Majesty Books of Sean T. Collins’ book of the same name, product of an experiment to write about the movie Road House every day for a year. The reading will include a streaming of that insane movie. Come by and check out the store’s Nature and Ecology section, which is the best in town, and probably one of the best in the country.
Have a great week, and stay safe. I hope to be publishing Field Notes on a bi-weekly basis for the next few months, a schedule that seems to make sense for the increasingly crowded newsletter environment. Thanks for reading.