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In the Black and White Woods
In midwinter the woods the city hides between the onramp and the river open up to the bushwhacker, especially after an early and intense freeze like the one we had before Christmas. The change in the density of foliage alters your experience of space, opening up vantages to your bipedal tread, and to the hunter’s eyes that go with that upright lope. The paths made by others, mostly animals, sometimes people, are both easier and harder to see. There’s a deer trail in the picture above, that looked quite obvious in person, but seems almost invisible to the lens.
We have an extra dog this week, our dog Lupe’s sister, who was adopted by our neighbors after another neighbor rescued the two of them from their life as abandoned puppies living on an old couch behind the diner down the street. They are natives to this place, doppelgänger curs of mirroring color, black and blonde-gone-white, and they have roamed this zone from dumpster to deer trail their entire lives. They love the river, being native retrievers—Lucy once killed a deer much bigger than her by chasing it into the water, climbing up on its back, and drowning it. They are old now, both a little silvered, and in a few years they will pass into legend. So Friday afternoon I took them for an extra walk down into the woods, at the beginning of the three-day weekend.
I had hawks on the brain, having seen two big red-tails on the hunt earlier in the week, a species we don’t see often here in the riparian forest, where the smaller red-shouldered hawks dominate. I saw one over the west side freeway, alighting on a street lamp to watch for rodents playing Frogger. The other was calling from a dead tree behind the YMCA, above the railroad tracks that run parallel to that freeway. But we heard no skree on our walk, and saw only a few songbirds. The night predators are especially active this time of year—owls, coyotes, foxes and the ringtails I have been seeing on our trailcam since December. But in the afternoon one only sees the terrestrial hunters’ dens—theirs and the armadillos’, rendered easier to find by the receding foliage. The deer, who do not go underground, were everywhere.
I saw the deer before the dogs every time, and in many cases I was the only one who saw them. The dogs, in their defense, were always on the scent, noses to the ground, their vision impeded by the foliage, even when cut back by winter’s renewal. If I had let them, they would have followed those scent trails and had a good chance of taking one of the young ones. In the woods with dogs, you get to experience the predatory advantages and disadvantages of our upright bipedal adaptation. You don’t get much of the smells, which are the real vocabulary of forest and field. But if you use the trick I learned twenty years ago from a Subaru salesman named Chance, and always aim your eyes as you are walking at where the horizon line would be were there no foliage or topography to impede your view, you will see a lot of wildlife. That is the distance, it seems, at which the animals know it is safe to be from you.
Chance also taught that animals will typically move along ten seconds before you walk into their space, unless you are able to arrive with enough stealth, something that is hard to do with dogs, especially when they are on the scent. We succeeded in surprising a lot of large birds, as we periodically poked out from the trees along the river bank. The caracara, though, always saw us before we saw them, flying off to fresh seclusion. I wondered what other life might have evaded our notice, or at least mine.
The effects of the frost were most evident down in the secret swamp, where the man-made creek that flows from the storm sewers behind the factories meets a woodland bog, down below the lot where the dairy trucks line up awaiting their fresh loads of processed milk. Normally the most impassable part of these woods, thick with native water grasses and invasive elephant ears growing up out of boot-sucking muck, it was dry and dormant, if not quite dead, with new growth already emerging, in the season when you can find wildflower rosettes popping up all over town.
In the deepest woods, we found new human paths, including this foot bridge over the the Anthropocene creek improvised last year from flotsam lumber and a shipping palette. The swim buoy standing in the background is aimed right around that spot where Chance would tell you to look, and then to scan along that plane. It is also pointed in the general direction of the lake where it came from upriver, almost ten years ago now, but you couldn’t use it as a compass to find your way there. The stories our trash tells make less sense than the signs the animals leave.
During the week I had been reading a curious tome I found in a used bookstore last weekend: Birds of the Austin Region, a guide published in 1925 by UT zoology instructor George Finlay Simmons. A 98-year old time capsule that provides a window in what these zones we live in and explore were like back then, when the city occupied much less sprawl. You can recognize the places he describes, even as you quickly realize how much of the blackland prairie was still extant back then. And how much more tolerable the weather was:
About August 13 the first signs of autumn appear, heralded a few days in advance by migrating shorebirds; late in the afternoon the leaden sky sulks, and about dusk a shower strikes, bringing a slight drop in temperature and a swirling northwest breeze, both of which help to shake the numerous hackberry shade trees of the city and cause them during the next few days to begin to drop their leaves to yellow to the ground below. About ten days later, usually between August 22 and 26, another cool wave strikes the Region with shower and swirling breeze, heralded this time by migrating waterfowl. The days are still warm, and the nights are back to the warmer average in a few days. Then the next wave strikes about September 12, as usual about nightfall, or perhaps later in the evening toward midnight; gradually the nights become warmly moderate once more. These cool waves become stronger and stronger as the season advances, occurring usually about September 23, October 11, October 24, November 10 and November 20. They are then blizzardy northers, which bring a sudden drop of many degrees in temperature, frequently within an hour, driving man to overcoat and muffler, birds to thicket shelter in bottomlands, and mammals and reptiles to quick hibernation.
Simmons laments the notable avian extinctions that had already occurred in his lifetime—the Great Auk, the Labrador Duck, and the Passenger Pigeon. He bemoans the careless disregard humans have for wildlife when they no longer rely on it for food, and remarks on some regional species as having been greatly reduced that are now so long from local memory that I cannot believe they once were here—like the Attwater Prairie Chicken. Others he mentions as nearing extinction now are officially extinct, like the Carolina Parakeet, while some like the whooping crane survive to this day but remain endangered. Most interesting was to see Simmons’ remark that, in the time since Austin was settled by European immigrants, “[w]ater-birds and game-birds in general have decreased in large numbers,” and the egrets, plovers, sandpipers and wood ducks had “decreased alarmingly.”
It’s hard to know whether the flocks known to the nature nerds of the flapper era were bigger. But when the dogs and I emerged from the woods and onto the bank of the river, the ducks and egrets filled the shallows (if the ducks were mostly pintails—it’s been a while since I have seen the marvel of a male wood duck here). And in that lone dead sycamore that grows out of the island of trash, the great blues were sunning themselves in their rook, the high-rises of downtown hazy behind them. Evidence, if imprecise and intuitive, of the possibility of resilience and recovery from even the worst damage we can do, here on this river that 60 years ago was filled with poison that killed all the fish for a hundred miles. Whether we can keep growing the city without crowding out the wildlife from this mostly accidental preserve, and all the others like in that hide in the interstitial city, remains to be seen.
Recommended reading (and watching)
Birds of the Austin Region was written right around the time the city was officially segregated for the first time following Reconstruction, through the urban plan adopted in 1928. And in a paragraph in the introductory discussion of the changes in bird life that have followed European settlement, the author casts some of the blame for the killing of birds on the descendants of enslaved Africans, who he asserts “for many years [have] grown fat on strings of song-birds killed in the woods near Austin.” The casually vicious racism of the passage is perhaps unsurprising for that period, when Jim Crow was ascendant across the South. What’s more surprising to me is the extent to which race persists as a factor in American nature writing, in a country where access to the outdoors is tied up with privilege, and the genre, as I wrote in my June 2020 post about “Black Nature Writing,” is dominated by white authors celebrating one kind of diversity while mostly oblivious to another.
That post, which recommended works by Evelyn White, Lauret Savoy, Eddy Harris and Camille Dungy, remains (I hope) a good starting point for finding other voices and perspectives on how race affects one’s experience of the American outdoors. For more, here’s a well-curated list of anti-racist nature writing from Point Reyes Books in California. And Milkweed Press has a promising new essay anthology forthcoming next month, edited by Erin Sharkey—A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing From Soil to Stars. I just pre-ordered it, and am excited to read it.
A work of fiction in a similar vein that I found myself re-reading this week as part of my research for the book-in-progress is John Keene’s 2015 remarkable collection Counternarratives, which (among other things) repurposes narratives of exploration, discovery and colonization through the perspective of slavery. You can read the full text of the opening piece from the book, “Mannahatta,” here at TriQuarterly.
Other research reads this week worth noting include two re-reads: Dan Flores’ amazing cultural and natural history Coyote America, which I highly recommend, and Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud, which among other things provides insight into how our digital networks usually described by their masters in ethereal terms are in fact deeply rooted in the physical world, and often travel along some of the oldest pathways across the North American continent.
I also got my hands on two remarkable vintage books about the North American beaver: The American Beaver and His Works (1868), by Lewis Morgan, a railroad executive who spent the years 1853-1868 studying beavers in his free time while building out rail lines in the area along Lake Superior, and The Romance of the Beaver (1914) by A. Radclyffe Dugmore, an English author who writes with the enthusiasm of a fanboy, and illustrates his text with a remarkable early version of a trailcam: a film camera with a flash that was tripped by the animal stepping on a wire. Both of the above links are to scanned digital copies of the books at the Internet Archive, the books having passed into public domain (another one of the many reasons older books make great research sources, at least for the kind of left-handed project I am working on).
Here’s the paragraph of the WIP that got me hunting stories from a time when beavers were easier to find:
A guide at Aspen’s Maroon Bells once told me that the North American beaver only became nocturnal after the French and English trappers showed up. I don’t know if that’s true, but it tells a truth we all know. The wild animals we learn to identify as children but rarely see in person are hiding from us. At least the ones that are still alive.
I situated my own trailcam this week at an intersection of two active trails, hoping to get more ringtail footage. Instead I got some cool but excessively close-up footage of fox and coyote, and a ton of raccoons, including this curious capture of two raccoons playing on a thick tangle of mustang vine. In the twenty-second video, you can only see one of the animals, until the very end when it gives up, and its playmate finally enters the frame.
Field Notes will be off next Sunday, as I will be in the field, and hopefully bringing back a report from a very different urban river.
Have a great week.