Sunday morning we watched the sunrise over downtown Houston through the window of our hotel room by the loop highway, and what dialed up with first light was a ready-made book cover for some 1970s science fiction novel set in the overheated future of 2022, the office towers of the petrochemical giants bathed in a weird haze that you wanted to convince yourself was just some tropical springtime fog, but the air quality warning on the weather bot let you know was more than natural moisture. It was uncomfortably beautiful with its dissolved palette of oranges, greens and grays composed in a perfect horizontal bleed, an auspice that we should alter our plans and take our kid to the Rothko Chapel instead of the zoo.
The afternoon before we had gone to the butterfly arboretum, a big conical greenhouse at the museum of natural history filled with tropical plants and fluttering lepidopterans. In one case in the entry hall, we saw a score of golden chrysalises ready to hatch. With tiny shiny clockwork machines, you might reasonably believe, until you look it up and find the secret origin of the white nymph.
Thinking back on it a week later, it makes perfect sense that in the hometown of the fossil fuel industry, there is a tiny replica of all the tropical rainforests of the world, maintained with the unspendable wealth of the families who have profited off the burnable surplus of hundreds of millennia of marine biomass accumulated beneath the surface of the planet. Like the clip I saw someone share the other day for one of my favorite childhood movies: 1972’s Silent Running, in which crazy hippie Bruce Dern tends the last remnants of the earth’s forests in a greenhouse spaceship orbiting Saturn. Spoiler alert: everyone except one cute robot dies in the end, while Joan Baez sings bespoke laments.
On my phone I read about the African flamingo that was spotted in Port Arthur the week before, seventeen years after it escaped from the Wichita zoo. They knew it was him because he still has the band on his leg identifying him as No. 492. The Texas Parks and Wildlife social media team renamed him Pink Floyd, even though Port Arthur is the hometown of Janis Joplin, C.J. Chenier, and Lee Hazlewood. It’s also the home of the world’s largest oil refinery, making me wonder whether there is something about the industrial sprawl of the Texas coast that shields slivers of great avian habitat, in the same way the factories of East Austin seem to have inadvertently preserved several miles of the Colorado River corridor as a mostly wild riparian greenbelt.
The Thursday before I paddled a stretch of that river, showing a journalist the natural beauty that exists in the shadows of Tesla’s new electric car and battery plant, which the company calls Giga Texas. It’s a part of the story of this area that you really can’t appreciate until you personally experience it, the way this ancient ecosystem can persist in remarkable biodiverse health even though (maybe even because) it is surrounded by highways and heavy industry.
It was a perfect day, the first really warm and sunny day of spring. There were no dam releases underway upriver, so the channel was shallow, which the wildlife seem to prefer, perhaps because it is more like what the natural flow would be if there were no dams. We put in under the farm-to-market freeway that passes Hornsby Bend, the site of one of the first Anglo settlements in the region, and now an unlikely bird sanctuary that surrounds a municipal water treatment facility. We hadn’t gotten far when we spotted our first osprey, sitting in the branch of a still-bare sycamore. And when it took flight, we could see it was carrying the back half of the big fish it had been eating. My camera was accidentally set to black and white when I pulled it out, but that suits the osprey just fine.
It’s not far from there to the Tesla plant, even though it feels like you are passing through another world. You know you are there when you see the massive pylons that carry the new electrical transmission lines that run from the city power plant conveniently located right across the river. The bridge below it is a major highway, providing good access to the nearby airport and to the interstates. Amazingly, especially when you learn how big the building is, you can only see glimpses of the factory’s southern roofline when you are on the river, and even when you get out onto the bank for a closer look you can’t see much of it, at least without trespassing.
When we paddled back up, we spotted a yellow-crowned night heron coming out for the evening. Those birds are better than their cousins at evading our gazes, able to use even daytime shadow to their advantage. This one was unwary in the way some of the birds always seem to be at the beginning of the season. In a couple of months the juveniles will be out, even more unwary, and sometimes identifiable only by those tell-tale eyes that stick with you long after you paddle on.
After we got the boat back on the truck, we drove around a little. And on the road, you could better sense the intensity of the activity in and around the plant, as it rapidly transforms the site of an old aggregate mine into a 21st century automotive production facility of a scale that actually lives up to the superlatives of its techno-Barnum proprietor. It’s a building so huge that you really can’t take a picture of it: 4.2 million square feet that covers 126 acres of alluvial land that once was a prairie. An enclosed space the size of 100 football fields, say the sound bites. So spread out that its 71-foot height doesn’t seem that high. The exterior is all concrete and glass, the concrete applied in a way that makes it look almost like plaster. Architecture as applied science fiction, realizing the leviathan wonders of dreaming teens who never really grew up but got insanely rich anyway.
On every road around it were trucks, cars and construction machines headed to and fro with the busy energy of a giant robot anthill. Many of the surrounding roads are private now, closed to all but the instruments and invitees of the corporation, and at least one of the roads has been renamed after the company. The only other sites I’ve ever experienced like it are places built and controlled by nation-states—massive, spy-movie grade government facilities I got to visit when I was a Senate staffer. As we got as close as we could, it was quitting time, 6:30 p.m., and you could really see just how much money is being poured into the project from the endless lines of cars and trucks headed home for the day, each with a single occupant. And with the windows open, you could hear how weirdly quiet the traffic was, because so many of them were driving the company’s almost silent vehicles.
That something that big and complex can get built that fast is an indisputable testament to the kind of intense Nietzschean will that drives it—the personality of one man whose mercurial control you can feel through the company’s representatives when you manage to get a meeting. The evidence it presents of how much power that one man has accumulated in his person is, to me, profoundly disturbing. Especially as you begin to sense how completely the local political structure has submitted to that power, and how outmatched it would be if it tried to put up any real challenge to it. It’s easy to believe the main reason Tesla moved the operation here from California was because they knew that here they can do whatever they want.
You can’t really see the change that’s coming east of East Austin when you paddle the river on a sunny spring day. But you can see it when you drive through the neighborhoods around the plant, neighborhoods that were here before. Little blocks of double-wides and factory homes clustered in tiny subdivisions between the highways and the older industrial sites, outside of the city limits in unincorporated sections of the county. Neighborhoods whose residents have to buy their water from private corporations, with few remedies when it’s not clean, even as the corporation that just landed its alien mothership across the road gets a direct supply of city water to supplement the bountiful water rights its riverfront site gives it under Texas law.
Earlier in the week I drove another reporter around on a tour with some community activists, and just outside the city limits we stumbled upon a dead-end where the homes of some of the poorest people in the county look across the highway at this futuristic castle of the richest man in the world—whose next project is to redevelop another planet. And people wonder where dystopian novelists get their material.
As I have written here and elsewhere before, it’s easy to find positives in this project, especially if you are willing to view it from a perspective that accepts the political economy of the modern world as a given. The factory will likely generate a bunch of high-wage jobs for local workers. There’s lots of talk about building new housing factory workers can afford, but not a lot of action as the forces of gentrification build up steam. The technobaron has proclaimed his desire to green up the undeveloped portions of the site, and I have seen some of the promising early plans for ecological restoration along the river. The industrial nature of the site, and the way it is closed off to the public, may help maintain the green corridor of the exurban Colorado in the same way the gravel pits seem to have done. And most importantly, maybe electric cars will really have an impact on cleaning up the polluted planetary atmosphere we witnessed in that Houston sunrise.
It’s not hard to see how so many people are seduced by the vision of a better tomorrow achieved through the marriage of technological innovation and libertarian drive. It promises continued bounty and fun, a greener future without the puritan austerity. What I find harder to understand is how so many people remain willing to sign up for a system that makes us all the indentured servants of people richer than us, spending life on the treadmill of finance and labor. That model of civilization, where we all compete to accumulate enough surplus to weather whatever is coming, feels like the real reason the weather that’s coming now may be weather we can’t endure. The viable path to the other side surely lies in a different model, one more in line with our ancestry as members of leaderless bands of hunters and foragers who took no more than they needed. But like the professor said, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world. Maybe that’s why the pockets of unpeopled wild the city still tolerates in its margins are so much more alluring to me than my unredeemed invitation to the Cyber Rodeo.
In other news, the Sunday before last we got a visit from a road runner, right on our front steps. A big one, with an intense orange flash on the wing, and the nervous energy of a creature that has somehow found itself many miles outside of the normal range of its kin. Too fast for my camera, but my neighbors had similar visits. Maybe it escaped the zoo, too. We should all be so lucky.
For an alternative to the Chamber of Commerce takes on Tesla’s Austin operations. check out some of the pieces that shared the perspectives of my colleagues at the Colorado River Conservancy, PODER and many of the impacted neighbors, including these at Protocol, Forbes, Bloomberg, local station KVUE and even The New York Post.
On the subject of Hill staffers, several (and apparently at least one Congressman) were bitten by a rabid fox living on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol over the last week, resulting in the capture and “euthanization” of the fox and its three kits. Full story at The Washington Post.
Here’s the original trailer for Silent Running, a wonderful artifact from the era of the Ecology Flag:
And in the southwestern corner of North Dakota, far from the Yucatan, scientists believe they have found fragments of the asteroid that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs—along with a fetal pterosaur and other miraculous finds that froze the moment of the asteroid’s impact in amber.
Field Notes will be off again next week, as I will be in the field. Happy Easter for those who celebrate it. And for those who made it to the end, here’s the gorgeous yucca now in bloom along the chain link fence behind the old neon plant down the street, a brownfield site that is always full of surprises.
yucca! spiderwort!! and easy way to comment, now :)
Ireland is a long way from Austin but I did live in El Paso for a few years so I have a bit of a grá for Texas! Anyway I love all your writing and thank you for sharing your neighbourhood so beautifully.