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Killer ladybugs and drowned monuments
Sunday morning we walked up to the old bridge to give baby a look at the wild world from up high. I suppose it is a weird thing to take your toddler for a stroll through the construction zone, and we stayed away when they were repainting the thing or tearing up the old road surface, but now it’s our favorite place to walk en famille, an unofficial pedestrian walkway over a feral stretch of the urban river.
Walking up there the Sunday before, we had run into a guy we know who lives in an abandoned building a little further north. It was raining, and, when he finally recognized us as we approached from opposite ends of the bridge, Phil told us we looked “like a couple of hobos walking to Houston.” We caught up over the sound of our three dogs barking at each other, finally getting them to shut up by all walking together a ways. A while back I gave Phil a copy of the new novel by John LeCarré, a writer whose first book Phil had recently given me a copy of. He had since read the book, and we shared notes about how the old bastard still has it. But then we got to talking about the precarity of Phil’s situation, and the mood tuned in to the weather.
This past Sunday as we approached the southern end of the bridge, we heard the high-pitched whine of a two-stroke engine, and then saw the source. A figure on a chopper-handled bicycle, like an old Stingray but hand-built and modded out with a moped engine. As the figure approached—some dude from the neighborhood, we assumed, but so geared-up that the normal indicia of gender could not be discerned—you could see they were fully outfitted for the end of the world, head and face entirely covered with two layers of cloth and a pair of Dieselpunk goggles, and the rest of their body similarly layered up with improvised padding, like a fantastic traveler in one of those old Arthur Suydam comics. The cyclist did not greet us as we passed, and looking at baby look at them, I wondered if her world will be full of people similarly adapting to a more dangerous environment with the materials at hand, finding self-expressive fun in the necessities of climate change survival.
A few minutes later, as we walked back toward home, a rare group of four caracara flew slowly past us there where the bridge meets the treetops of the old gravel pit gone back to green, and baby definitely registered that. A caracara is like a kids’ version of an eagle made cooler, or like a vulture dressed up to make fun of an eagle, white head on burly brown body with an exaggerated yellow raptor beak and a dark flat crest that on some specimens looks like an ill-matched toupee. This is the bird that Huitzilopochtli screened to the Dog People as they wandered out of their homeland not far to the south of here, with the bird perched on a cactus clutching a defeated snake in its talons, the sign they were to look for to know where to settle.
To me it was a sign to come back with my real camera. Every winter I see tons of caracara around that old bridge, and every time I see one it fills me with fresh wonder. Something about how ancient the birds seem. So Monday morning I walked back up there with the dogs, trespassing behind the dairy plant and cutting down to the old roads where the big trucks used to haul out the fresh-mined river rock. But the alt-eagles were nowhere to be seen, as gone as the occupant of the recently abandoned camp we found right there where the urban forest opens up onto the staging area under the bridge.
Tarps and wheeled carts, like you always find. A wheelbarrow for this guy, next to a box mattress leaned up against the tree. A big spool of ethernet cable connected to nothing. Some books soaking back to pulp, and a lonely abandoned Smurf. In a bucket inside a plastic storage container, in the brown rainwater next to a padlock without the key, three small placards with charismatic Christian invocations of the deity. CLOSES IN LORD, TURN BACK TO PRAISE, and the last one obscured but for the final word: DARKNESS.
This was the week when the killer ladybugs returned. The ladybugs that are not ladybugs, but an invasive beetle imported from Asia to multiply and devour the aphids that eat money-making plants. They went native in the last year of the Reagan administration, when the first wild population was found in a field in Louisiana, and spread rapidly from there. Every year when warm sunny days interrupt a cold month at our place, they suddenly appear in Old Testament numbers. They usually emerge from the underside of the shipping container in our yard, a shorty that I bought from a surplus yard in Houston, on the exterior of which is recorded the log of its journeys to and from the Persian Gulf carrying the cargo of a private military contractor during the Iraq and Afghan Wars. The gray paint has faded closer to white over the years, and the beetles the color of plasma are drawn to that hot bright steel like lacquered little magnets.
As the week progressed, you couldn’t go outside without them landing all over you, and soon they were inside, especially in my trailer, which barely counts as inside in any season. When you touch them they secrete a defensive effluent that smells like some rich mildew and stains your hands a deep yellow. The common name in this region for Harmonia axyridis is a mildly racist descriptor that makes them sound like Geishas from a John Wayne yellowface movie, but it is still used by all the pest control companies who dominate the search results for this remarkable little creature with offers to exterminate them. It may be invasive, but the ecological niche it has carved out seems to be useful, and it’s nice to see a spectacular occurrence in nature repeat itself in the same season every year, in a world where even the seasons are no longer predictable.
I have been reading a nerdy new book this week, The Latin American Ecocultural Reader edited by Jennifer French and Gisela Heffes, just out from Northwestern. After you live here a while you start to understand how Texas is best understood as a part of Latin America that has been conquered and colonized by the Anglo USA. Not just politically and demographically, but also ecologically. One of the “New World”-era entries in the book is a passage from Bartolomé de las Casas describing a plague of stinging ants that infested Hispaniola around 1518, not long after smallpox had decimated the indigenous peoples of the island. De las Casas characterizes the ants as divine justice for the colonizers. But reading his account, it’s evident the more likely cause is the alien plants the colonists brought with them.
Those beetles biting my hand this week as the invasive brome grass starts to come up in our “restored” yard remind me those are the same thing. And the caracara we see hunting along the winter corridors of the old highway and the ancient river, sometimes settling for roadkill, give us a glimpse into the world the Aztecs knew, and fodder for imagining the Anthropocene adaptations to come.
Green roofs are one such adaptation. Especially green roofs that emulate wild landscapes of the region where they are planted, like the pocket Blackland prairie we live under. I tended a portion of ours last weekend, repairing a section and removing saplings that had grown over the summer and fall, revealing the bushy blue stem that had just released its seed. A little later the above photo appeared in my feed from nine years ago this week, of migrating queens on the butterfly milkweed above our sleeping quarters, at the end of the first year we planted the roof. A testament to how quickly a little bit of rewilding can have an impact. Too bad there seem to be fewer of these creatures coming through every year.
The below image that showed up elsewhere on my feed the same day, of the Lincoln Memorial in 1917, surrounded by riverine marsh and looking almost exactly like the post-apocalyptic drowned Washington of Logan’s Run, provided a different sort of reminder, of how recent our terraforming of the American landscape really is, and maybe how easily it could be undone.
For an example of some of the kinds of ecologically purposeful projects that can be done with that goal, check out the new site of Ecosystem Design Group—the landscape architecture team that designed our green roof and recently spun their practice out of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. They are connected with a wider network of eco-designers around the world, and many of the techniques they promote are remarkably easy to implement, in the way it’s always easier to let nature do its thing.
For a glimpse into the character of the caracara, check out this video I got earlier this year of caracara and black vultures fighting over a dead armadillo in a trash-filled ditch at the edge of our yard. I shared this here in June, but we’ve had a lot of new subscribers since then, and the animal personalities on display are worth admiring more than once.
Walking through Deep Time
Thanks to Robin Rather for passing along a link to this excellent piece by Vincent Ialenti at BBC Future about how to engage with deep time as you walk through everyday life. Ialenti is a scientist whose work deals with the half-life of radioactive waste, and he does a nice job of translating those lessons in altered temporal perception into practical tips for how to see the world around you from the perspective of the long now:
Each plot of land has its own geological history that, with a little background research, can be uncovered and transformed into an exercise in reflecting on Earth’s distant past and future. The trick is to draw from information and imageries we already have in our heads of present-day landscapes, and then stretch them, analogically, across time.
Not Yet Remembered
I was sorry to read of the deaths this week of two great artists who each, in very different ways, had an impact on how I think about the landscape in which we live.
Richard Corben was an illustrator and graphic novelist who took the material of the ordinary world and reworked it into wacked-out wonder. I first encountered his work as a kid in Heavy Metal, the American adaptation of the smart French comics magazine Metal Hurlant, and connected with his Midwesterner’s knack for imaginatively conjuring portals to other worlds at the end of the cul-de-sac. Corben’s big breakthrough as a comics artist was figuring out how to use the airbrush to give his insane visions of naked barbarians flying over alien canyons an almost-tangible reality. He also was a pioneer in using underground presses and self-publishing to get his work out there, which allowed him to deliver works that unabashedly expressed his quirky mix of innocent prurience.
Harold Budd was an avant-garde composer and musician I first encountered through his collaborations with Brian Eno on ambient pieces. Eno called Budd “a great abstract painter trapped in the body of a musician,” and I think of the music they collaborated on, along with others like Cluster’s Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius, as a sonic successor to Romantic painting, fully tuned in to a world of disappearing nature and all its simultaneous beauty and melancholy. Budd’s contribution to that oeuvre stands out in that regard, using the piano as the material of a techno-minimalism that traces the clouds over the interstate highway.
This week my wife and partner Agustina Rodriguez completed her newest public art installation here in Austin, an outdoor sculpture that riffs (among other things) on the same bridge we watched the caracara from last weekend. Everywhen is located at the newly renovated Montopolis Recreation Center that bridge leads to, informed by the geography and popular identity of this unique and historically underserved neighborhood. If you’re local, go check it out while that brass and steel are at their maximum shine. There are several other new pieces inside and out, each one an amazing example of art that channels the voice of its community.
American Scientist on Failed State
This week American Scientist published a nice short review by author John Kessel of my summer 2020 novel Failed State, along with Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, considering both books as plausibly hopeful works of climate fiction. If that sounds like just the stocking stuffer you’re looking for, the hardworking folks at Austin’s indie BookPeople can hook you up with signed copies of mine, as well as the related 2019 book Rule of Capture.
Coyote of the Week
For those who made it to the end, here’s one of the neighborhood coyotes voguing aloofly for the trailcam Friday morning, in the empty lot behind the door factory next door.
Have a wild week.