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Occultations, Chiltipineros, and a Ringtail
The last full moon of the year came up over the concrete horizon of the eastern freeway just as I was getting home the first Wednesday of December. It looked as cold as it was supposed to, and right next to it was Mars, which has been very prominent in the sky for weeks, from nightfall to sunup, its red color always visible to the naked eye. It was also Pearl Harbor Day, with pictures of centenarian old sailors in the morning paper, a holiday that has accrued a weird nostalgia for the official start (for Americans) of a violent world war. So when I saw that Mars was being eclipsed by the Moon, for the length of the evening news, I wondered whether some pacific portent could be divined from the occultation, as the stillness of winter sets in. Then I found myself remembering the passage in Blood Meridian, when the men are watching the stars above their camp and the Judge renders his opinion about what can be learned from the red planet:
The question was then put as to whether there were on Mars or other planets in the void men or creatures like them and at this the judge who had returned to the fire and stood half naked and sweating spoke and said that there were not and that there were no men anywhere in the universe save those upon the earth. All listened as he spoke, those who had turned to watch him and those who would not.
The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.
Walking the dog the next morning, my daughter and I came upon this Polaroid by the side of the road. Another occultation: forehead without a face, with spiky blonde hair against a ceiling decorated to recall the night sky. Relic of the lively nocturnal world this neighborhood hosts in the old machine shops. A nightlife I rarely see, living on Ben Franklin’s clock.
The morning after that, I walked my mom up to the bridge, where we watched an insanely red sun rise over the tollway, while a flock of cormorants flew through the frame. I told her how they have been on the move a lot in recent weeks. When she asked me what that meant, I told her I didn’t know. As similar as we are, she likes to read the mysteries that always resolve in an orderly way, whereas I don’t even need a plot, as long as the wonder is there, or even just the jazz.
A couple of mornings later we went for a walk in the woods along the river and behind the factories. My mom is astonishingly intrepid at 82, an experienced bushwhacker and mushroom forager who is very curious to see what it’s like in these warmer climes. There are a few spots we’ve gone where she’s said no thanks, you can go ahead without me, and even in the easier spots I sometimes wonder if she’s small enough that I could ensure her safety by putting her in the backpack carrier I used to haul our daughter before she could walk. Not that she would let me, as tough as she is.
That day it was finally dry enough and the foliage finally receded enough to be able to walk about anywhere without too much trouble. We watched an osprey as it stalked a fish in the river below, hovering and then pulling back several times. We spotted two caracara in the bare tree they have been using for a month, and managed to get right up under it where we could see them. Then we passed through the crazy swamp camp and down into the dirty wetland, where someone had tried to extract the old metal folding chair from the muck, as if it were some edgeland Excalibur, an abandoned throne of the Texas Druid King.
On the walk we saw a lot of chile piquín ripe and ready to pick after all the rain of the preceding weeks. So when we got back and my daughter threw a fit about not getting to go on the walk (even though she had declined an offer to do so in order to stay cozy with a warm blanket and her mom and a streaming screen), I invited her to grab her basket and head back out to collect some chiles with me. Her little hands proved well-suited to the delicate art of the chiltepinera, and we got a nice haul that I am going to use to make some salsa picante for Christmas.
Chile piquín, aka chile pequin, chiltepin, chile petin, bird pepper or turkey pepper, is among my favorite plants that grow around here. As longtime readers have read here before, the plant really only grows in areas left to wild, the seed having evolved to germinate only after passing through the digestive system of a bird. It is also said the the piquín is the ur-pepper of the Americas, the one from which all the other chiles on our table were derived through human intervention, making me wonder how they did that, and whether it involved some collaboration with or control of the birds, or if they were able to do it all through manipulation of live plants. The fruits’ seasonal ripening around Christmas makes it a wonderful edible mistletoe.
I had been worried the past couple of years that I was seeing less of it. Another indicator of the diminishing wildness of the mostly undeveloped urban corner where we have made our home, along with fewer sightings of wild canids and a general sense that the hipsters with Polaroids are being followed into the post-industrial zone by developers with spreadsheets who will remake the wild spaces into tidy parks for young professionals with dogs who have their own credit scores. When my daughter and I went out, I only planned to pick from the one full bush I had spotted at the edge of the floodplain. But she wanted to find more, discovering the joys of foraging for the first time.
Chile piquín is harder to find than you might think, as the plant hides well among the weedy backgrounds in which it flourishes. The fruits are so small that the red doesn’t jump out at you in the field, and the ripe ones don’t last long on the vine before they get eaten. So it helps to think about the movement of the birds who propagate it. We found three plants along our fence, in the most secluded spots where there is dense tree cover surrounding. The most remarkable was the last one, pictured above, growing up between big chunks of concrete rubble dumped back here before these empty lots were fenced off from the street. Christmas in the Garden of Rebar.
When we were done foraging, we set up a trailcam near one of the spots we had been inspecting. It looked well-trafficked, and is an area where I used to often see coyotes on the move, a rough pathway along the edge of the wooded floodplain. Saturday morning I retrieved it, with low expectations. And when I first looked at the captures, I saw a lot of the usual suspects. Squirrels and young deer. Raccoons in the dark and one slow armadillo who ate up several captures snouting through the rubble. Then there was one very lost mountain biker, walking his bike in the first shot and slowly riding through in the second. A few coyotes, on the small side and mostly managing to only be captured from behind. And a single red fox, caught just as it stepped out of the frame. But then there was something different. Something I had never seen before.
I thought it was a raccoon at first. Or maybe a cat. Trailcam footage is weird, the way the night shots always start with a garish flash of light, but the animals are moving through inky shadow, so that much of what you learn is divined from spectral movement. The creature moves along a dead tree lain across concrete rubble embedded in the bluff. It stops briefly, then jumps, with even more confidence than your typical cat, grabbing the chain without making any real noise, then up to the top toward the open woods. The tail seems longer than the body. And you can just make out the bands of color in the fur of the tail.
The ringtail cat, Bassaricus astutus, is not a cat. It is a raccoon cousin, a Procyonid, about the size of a fox and with some self-evidently cat-like qualities and even some squirrel-like qualities. As my son’s old copy of David Schmidly’s Mammals of Texas explains:
Ringtails are strictly nocturnal and are active mainly during the middle of the night. They are as much at home in a tree as a gray squirrel and are notably quick in running, jumping, and climbing. Their hind feet can be rotated outward at least 180 degrees, permitting them to run rapidly down a tree trunk or steep rock headfirst instead of having to back down, the way a domestic cat does.
They are most common in topographies with a lot of rocky cliffs like the Trans-Pecos and the Hill Country, but also are found in riparian woods, where they can find lots of dead trees to burrow in close to water. Their exceptional mobility and agility enables a wide home range—around 100 acres for the males and 50 for the females, which ranges do not overlap among ringtails of the same sex. My friend who manages the Circle Acres brownfield restoration across the river has told me of sightings there, but I’ve never heard of one on this more developed side, which seems too full of human commotion for these intensely feral creatures. Learning how sparsely they occupy available territory confirms the rarity of such an encounter. And learning of their preferred habitats, I found myself wondering if one might even be living in the rubble of the bluff face in the back of our lot. Unlikely, but suddenly plausible.
The ringtail’s conservation status is not threatened, but they are still a remarkable creature to find hunting within 10 minutes of downtown, given the peculiarities of their habitat requirements. Two-thirds of their typical diet is made up of small mammals, but I doubt they share the foxes’ proclivity for catching mice and rats behind the restaurants and bars at night. Even if the pictures you can find of them in the nature books seem to all be taken with flash bulbs, when they have been busted encroaching on our habitat.
Hopefully it will be a while before they show up in any after-hours Polaroids, caught up in the tentshow. I wonder if I will ever see one again.
The reading list
Among my reading digressions this year has been to sample the works of the Catalan poet and encyclopedist Juan Eduardo Cirlot, best known for his Dictionary of Symbols, which I discovered when New York Review Books published a new English edition in 2020. I have a proclivity for those sorts of Jungian bestiaries, and ended up tracking down a copy in the original Spanish, and then learned of some of the author’s other untranslated work, including the amazing Diccionario de los Ismos—a Dictionary of Isms.
This week’s mail brought a monograph by Cirlot about the mythological symbolism of the eye, and when I shared a picture of it in my feed, one of my writer friends asked why I was reading such ephemera when I am supposed to be working on a book about urban nature. It was a good question, and I realized that I am looking for ways to better convey the dreamlike experience of encounters with wild nature inside the realm of human dominion—animals and plants as marvels and signifiers as much as objects and sources of scientific understanding. The way even a wild dog glanced moving through the woods can be as mystical a thing to witness as a cryptid. The validity of this intuition about the more subconscious ways the animals around us can help us make sense of our lives was affirmed by re-reading Cirlot’s entry on the eagle, which helped me understand the intensity of my own sightings of eagles in the weeks after my dad’s death this fall, noting the myriad ways cultures of the world have seen the eagle as sun bird, symbol of the father, and messenger from heaven.
(A Dictionary of Symbols is also one of those ideal universal gifts for literate folks on your list, and there are many curious alternate editions out there to be found.)
Last week’s mail also brought an excellent new book about the wonders of animals. The Golden Mole by Katherine Rundell, an Oxford scholar better known for her recent book about John Donne, Super-Infinite, and before that for her children’s books, collects the essays about animals she penned for the London Review of Books over the last few years, along with new pieces only included in the book. Rundell shares Cirlot’s gift for lyrical reweavings of diverse facts and sources into Marzipan-rich distillations of enlightenment, ranging from her riff on the possibility that Amelia Earhart was devoured by hermit crabs to her observations on why the peculiar marsupial adaptations of the wombat kept that otherwise charismatic creature and source of Victorian adoration from showing up in Winnie the Pooh. The book also has nice illustrations by Tanya Baldwin.
A day later Duke University Press delivered Joseph C. Russo’s Hard Luck & Heavy Rain, an amazing ethnography of the inhabitants of the petrochemical wetlands of Southeast Texas, with a particular focus on LGBTQ+ life in that region, religion and humor, economic hardship under late capitalism, and the hard luck archetypes that provide the narrative engines of the best country songs. The book is beautifully written, more insightful than any of the volumes of books that have come out in recent years trying to explain what’s going on in white rural America. And it brilliantly connects contemporary life with Anthropocene ecology, right from the opening paragraph:
All hidden kingdoms have their thresholds. Entering Southeast Texas from Houston, you cross the Old and Lost Rivers. Great egrets, vast white sheets, fly low over the Interstate 10 bridge that spans these tributaries. In long-distance flying, egrets and herons hold their legs straight out behind them, but in their leaps over the bridge, their stilt legs dangle downward in a game of chance with eighteen-wheelers careening past. I have seen the feet of egrets brush the top of trucks.
In the news this week, the NYT had a wonderful story about a couple in Columbia, Maryland who fought back when their neighbors tried to make them turn their wild yard back in to a lawn. The couple won the case, establishing a precedent one hopes will be widely imitated by other courts. It’s not hard to imagine a suburban landscape in the near future in which wildscapes make crabgrass the endangered species.
Lastly, the Dec. 2 issue of the TLS had a fascinating review by Charles Foster of Paul Pettit’s Homo Sapiens Rediscovered, exploring the ways in which we can understand contemporary human life through our roots as Paleolithic hunter-gathers—“From forager to banker.” I may have to track down a copy.
A note to visually impaired readers: This week I have tried to provide alt text for all the photos. Please let me know if you think they are in line with what some of you have asked for. Thank you for helping me understand that omission, and to find the means to correct it as best I can.
Have a great week, and travel safely if you are on the road.