Discover more from Field Notes
Metal for Orcas
The first Saturday of November, when I went out to the front gate at sunup I heard the sound of metal rolling down our street. We see all kinds of weird stuff here, on what is the vestigial remnant of an old road that once was the way out of town. Our side of the road is the only stretch of residentially zoned lots for several blocks in any direction, and everything else is light industrial—warehouses, workshops, and small factories. But behind us lies the river, the first mile that flows below the dam, as green and wild an urban river as I’ve ever seen. This collision of brutal urbanity and natural ferality generates surreal encounters. At first light, you might see a fox or an owl returning from the long night’s hunt, the last of the revelers who have been raving until dawn at The Electric Church, or a weary traveler who looks like they walked here from some end of the world movie. Wait a little while, and you might see the first of the vultures who come out with the morning sun and hang out atop the telephone poles, eyes scanning the streetscape for the roadkill that results.
The vehicle I saw coming my way that morning was unlikely to run anything over. It was a dude on a bicycle, but not your ordinary bike. I saw the rusted profile of an old kids’ bike, maybe a Stingray or a Chopper, and with the front wheel tireless. He was riding on a bare rim, the tiny front wheel grinding away on the pavement, on a bike way too small for his adult body. Riding against traffic, with a look of determined mellow on his face, to the extent you could make it out under the giant hat he wore. Enjoying a break in the rain that finally came with the Hunter’s Moon that ended October, and also brought these edgelands to life with late bloomers.
Only one of the Maximilian sunflower plants my son and I transplanted to our yard during the pandemic made it through the apocalyptic summer we had in Central Texas this year. The others wilted, browned, and returned to the ground before Labor Day. After a couple of weeks of rain our desiccated yard came back to life, with a thick carpet of green dappled with the yellow flowers of goldenrod, goldeneye, and this native sunflower adapted to grow above the tall grass of the prairie. That this plant was one we saved from the bulldozer makes it a little more precious, as does the understanding that each plant provides prodigious food to songbirds, who come around to eat the seeds when they think we are not looking.
My four-year-old daughter, who likes to bring a flower back for her mother or one of our neighbors every time we walk out into the world, has left alone the bloom named for the naturalist prince of Wied-Neuwied, maybe because it is taller than her. The goldeneye has not been so lucky, but her most common picks are closer to the ground—the weedy cover in the median and the fuchsia-colored rock rose, Pavonia, that grows at the base of the berm along the feeder road.
The second Saturday morning of November we went for our walk a little late, as I had been out for breakfast with a couple of writer friends, one in town from New York for the Texas Book Festival. It was about half past ten, a grey day, and the munchkin and I quickly got into an argument over whether she would be pulled in the wagon. I distracted her in the first block with the discovery of a strange metal object in the street, which she pocketed, and then when we crossed the big street I persuaded her to take a closer look at the roadkill we came upon when we turned the corner—a mature opossum in the eastbound lane, intact but for the eye that had been in the one exposed socket. We didn’t see the vulture until later.
We continued on down the street, as her memory of my refusal to comply with her request to be hauled like a tiny Queen erupted again. Until her tantrum was abruptly interrupted when she saw Santa, sitting there alone in a white folding chair, awaiting his first visitors under the awning of the auto parts wholesaler. An encounter even more unlikely and unplanned than our usual happy accidents around here, even as I saw folks I knew, and learned that some of our neighborhood community organizers were putting on a fair, selling handcrafts to raise money to buy presents for kids whose parents would not be able to.
The third Saturday of November, we walked down to see if there were any herons in the secret rookery. It’s not really secret—you can see it right there if you are walking down the street, but no one does, somehow, walking past the expansive concrete pad where they tore down the old blue warehouses last year, perhaps deterred by the chain link construction fencing. The rookery is not as active in the fall, six months after the active nesting season, but we still saw one great blue primping on top of the tall sycamore they have made their home, on a rewilded island grown out of what once was an unofficial landfill at the edge of town.
I have a subchapter about these herons in my forthcoming book, the second big round of revisions of which I turned in Monday, and which should be on sale in the fall of 2024. Writing that, and doing a little deeper research, I learned how surprisingly common it is for herons to nest in gnarly urban locations. From a trashed-out island in Newark Bay to an industrial park in North Portland, along the Susquehanna in Harrisburg and the James River in Richmond, and the exurban sprawl between Dallas and Fort Worth, where the forks of the Trinity River meander north of DFW Airport. All of them finding space to mate and raise their young in the marginal wild space we leave them in our relentless sprawl across the planet.
What was most astonishing to me, as I read more about these adaptations of great waterfowl to the post-industrial landscape, was to learn how frequent the human response is not wonder and appreciation, but annoyance. Especially when they defecate on peoples’ cars. In Texas, the state Parks and Wildlife Department even provides training guides on how to legally haze the herons, to try to deter them from nesting before the first egg drops, at which time it becomes a federal crime to mess with them.
The “scare balloons” they float by the egret nests of suburban Dallas are mild compared to the hazing techniques being deployed by the yachtsmen of the Mediterranean to deter the orcas harassing their boats as they pass through the Straits of Gibraltar. Firecrackers, fog horns, and “Metal for Orcas,” a curated playlist of death metal blasted from underwater speakers. Turns out the killer whales have been aggressively taking action against boats passing through that corridor in recent years—500 incidents since 2020, with at least three boats sunk. The New York Times reported Wednesday on how the orcas have learned to break ships’ rudders and thereby disable them, and NPR reported last week on the most recent sinking, when the yacht Grazie Mamma had its hull breached and its rudder snapped.
The quotes from marine science experts in these stories reveal how little they know, ranging from self-serving suppositions that the cetaceans like propeller wash in their faces and attack when the propellers are off, to the fear that they are taking revenge for traumatic encounters with fishing boats. Or, one might even postulate, taking revenge for our destruction of their habitat. And just getting started.
These disturbing reports found me taking advantage of the sudden free time I had Friday night without a looming book deadline to screen Orca, the 1977 Jaws knockoff produced by Dino DeLaurentis, directed by Michael Anderson and starring Richard Harris, one of those creature features of my youth that I remember being ubiquitously advertised, especially on the back covers of Marvel Comics, but which I never had any interest in seeing. The movie was both much better than I expected, and just as bad as the reviews indicated. The opening titles grabbed me—a minimalist, black screen data feed of whalesong remixed by Ennio Morricone. What followed did not quite live up to that promise, despite the remarkable cast.
The plot unfolds quickly, as a revenge story in which an aggrieved male orca sees out to get even for the murder of his mate and unborn baby after Harris and his crew, trying to make money capturing live marine animals for sale to aquariums. Keenan Wynn is the first to go. Bo Derek, the only female member of the crew, has her leg bitten off. Robert Carradine makes it almost to the end, dying right before Will Sampson, who appears mid-movie as the gratuitous Native, an Atlantic coast Mi'kmaq sharing the ancestral wisdom of his people with undeserving colonizers. Charlotte Rampling, the affectless cetologist who seems in her expository discursions to be drawing links between the violence and misguided motives of males of all species, is the only survivor, wrapped up like some bizarro Benetton neo-nomad on a North Atlantic iceberg. You hope she will found some alternate future from there, maybe build a fortress of solitude in which to plan it, but the helicopter shows up to save her as the credits roll.
The real answer to the problem of orcas attacking your boats, notes just one of the scientists in the burst of stories on the subject, is to go away. Leave the area. Leave the other species space to live. Try explaining that idea to the developers looking to erect a new urbanist wonderland along the astonishingly well-preserved stretch of wild river that runs through East Austin, as we have been doing this month, and you will be reminded why it is a just ending when Richard Harris slides off the ice and into the mouth of the whale, no matter how likable he is.
Further reading (and viewing)
I was supposed to be in D.C. this weekend for the celebration of one of my oldest and best friends, and in the few hours I would have had free Saturday afternoon I had planned to go see this new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery of Forces of Nature: Voices that Shaped Environmentalism—a curation of photos and paintings of famous American advocates for the natural world. Not the same, but I found all the images are also available online at the above link, including this silver gelatin stereograph of Teddy Roosevelt visiting the redwoods.
For a deeper dive on on vengeful orcas, there’s some serious scholarship on the subject from a group of Spanish marine scientists (for those who have the means of academic access to get through the paywall), and more on Google Scholar.
And for a deeper write-up of Orca, situating it against the wave of natural horror films of the 70s, this post at Bloody Disgusting chews on the material at some length.
For a cuter dose of wildlife occupying our margins, here’s a video I got of two grey foxes out on the prowl in the edgelands behind our house Tuesday night, maybe returning from hunting rats behind the diner.
Happy Thanksgiving and safe travels to readers in the U.S., and thanks for reading.