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Riders on the Berm
And beavers behind the strip mall
When I returned from my trip Monday morning, the East Austin Street Retriever and I headed out for a walk right at daybreak. I wore sandals, because all my other shoes were locked in the room where my wife and daughter were sleeping, and what passes for November cool in Austin seemed balmy after a long weekend in the North. We walked down past the new bus depot that connects passengers to the small towns to the east, cut through the deserted traffic island, and then worked our way up the giant mound the regional tollway authority built a few years ago between the onramp and the loop road.
The big berm is one of those landscaping features whose enigmatic purpose lends it a certain archaic mystery, even though it just appeared and I saw them build it. At the beginning, they constructed a huge concrete vault at the base, which looked like some sort of engineered drainage but had the right dimensions for the burial tomb of a frontage road pharaoh, and when the whole thing was done, its bulldozed gradients and wild foliage recalled the effigy mounds that dotted the landscape of my Midwestern youth. Maybe it's because I was raised among the ghosts of ancient mound builders that I felt the compulsion to climb this one and greet the dawn, which appeared like a sliver of fire burning through the aperture between two layers of low morning clouds, parallel to the overpass.
A month ago the mound was covered in tall sunflowers, but they mowed the ones that hadn’t already died off after the big bloom, and as we walked up it you could see how many of the wild canids that live in the woods behind the factories have been using it as a high vantage trail—coyotes and foxes and free-roaming dogs who left fresh weekend tracks in the mix of mud and mulch that the mound builders layered over their project. More surprising were the tracks of horses, there on top of the tracks left by the treads of the last bulldozer to come through. Two riders on big mounts, headed into town.
It’s not that unusual to encounter riders on horseback in Austin, where it’s still legal to ride in the public streets, but it’s always remarkable. They featured in a story I wrote a few years ago, but the hipsters on horses craze I foresaw never materialized. The riders you see are mostly guys from the neighborhood, who gravitate to horses and mules the way some guys gravitate to modded-out muscle cars. But I wonder how they looked to the passing cars, trotting along the man-made ridgeline like apparitions from another time. Nomads of the future.
The week ended with what the nerds who try to turn farmer’s almanacs into clickbait call the Beaver Moon. I saw it coming up Thursday evening as I attended a happy hour on the deck of a downtown office building, briefly orange as it appeared above the horizon. It woke me that night around three a.m., filling our room with cold white light through the window. I thought about the name and its evocation of animals getting ready for winter. And then I remembered how the anthropologist I went artifact hunting with before my trip mentioned that a beaver has moved into our neighborhood, in a spot I have long been meaning to explore.
If you cross the street behind Poco Loco Supermercado Numero Seis, the one that’s next to the Walgreen’s and across from the old petroleum tank farm, you’ll find a big weedy island between three old roads. On one side there are some playing fields that no one has bothered to mow for a while. Walk a little further and you’ll come upon this concrete creek that runs between two berms. Follow that creek, or cross it, and you’ll find yourself in a secret swamp hiding in plain sight.
The foliage is thick on every side, mostly with the dried out growth of summer, but on the ground you can see the flowers of the Blackland prairie already coming up at the beginning of the winter growing season that lets them bloom in March. And if you don’t mind bushwhacking your way through, you will find yourself in a wetland so wondrous you could almost forget it was made by municipal engineers from concrete and pipe.
There’s an important spring there, not that you’d know it from looking at it, in the spot where the spring first pools in a culvert by the road next to the entrance to the elementary school. I’ve heard the stories about the fights neighborhood environmental advocates had to get the springs preserved from development, and I’ve seen the site’s slow rewilding over a couple of decades driving by, but had never bothered to stop and check it out. From the street, you can’t see the wetland—it just looks like a weedy empty lot—but I had noticed the water on the satellite maps. So I jogged there Friday on my lunchtime run, scouting it out, and then returned more properly attired at first light on Saturday.
It’s kind of astonishing to see how lush an urban island like that can grow to be in such a short period of time, even when the watershed has been so heavily engineered. The spot is a natural basin, with a hill to the north that is thick with old growth live oaks. A poured concrete edge defines the full circumference of the marsh, but you would never notice it unless you were standing on one of the spots where it hasn’t yet been covered by mud and foliage, and the water has taken over other sections of the island, especially along the edge of the southern berm. The cattails were spreading their felt-like seed squibs around, and the other aquatic plants were all in bloom, the most beautiful of them the ones that had not quite popped.
Along the northeast edge, huge patches of bushy blue stem, my favorite of our native grasses, were fully ripe with their seasonal spikelets. I’ve found it to be one of the hardest grasses to get to establish—the few clumps we had on our roof the past few seasons didn’t seem to make it this year—so it was exciting to see it thriving there behind the strip mall.
And the beaver sign was all over, if you knew what to look for. I learned to see evidence of beavers in the brief period I spent in 1994 living in the unlikely suburban wilderness of West Des Moines. There was a little creek that ran along a bike trail at the edge of the 1970s subdivision where I was staying, and I would walk my dog in the surrounding woods, and notice the huge number of trees that had been gnawed off close to the base, especially as autumn settled in. I never saw the beavers, but then I didn’t make much of an effort to find their dams.
When you see what’s left of the trees that have been taken by a beaver, you could be forgiven for thinking they were cut with a blade, or snapped underfoot. And I wasn’t entirely convinced on Saturday until I saw such trees out in the shallow water, not far from the densely thicketed spot where I suspect the lodge may be.
I found tracks, too, most noticeably around the springs. Beaver tracks can be confounding, because the forepaws look so similar to raccoons, the webbed back paws are so close to ducks, they have a big flat scaly tail, and they often are dragging lumber back to their build site. And when you find a spot where they are especially active, you might think there was an army at work instead of what probably is one industrious individual.
I didn’t try too hard to find the beaver in the flesh. Beavers belong to a species that has definitely earned a right to be left alone. They mostly work at night, but I’ve seen them out in the daylight, always when I wasn’t looking for them. Becoming predominantly nocturnal is thought to be a relatively recent adaptation, following the arrival of European hunters who harvested them to make hats and perfume. Their population before that time is estimated to have been as high as 400 million, but by the turn of the twentieth century they had been eradicated from large swaths of the continent. The population has rebounded some, to as much as 6-12 million.
That one has found its way to a hidden little oasis in a highly developed part of the fastest growing city in America is a remarkable sign of ecological resilience. As much as I would love to see it at work, I’m more worried about scaring it off.
I ended the week before with my first international trip since Covid, to the land of the earliest fur trappers — Quebec. Crossing borders amid pandemic is an even bigger hassle than I expected, and when I debarked at Pierre Trudeau International Airport it looked like a scene from Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of Children of Men—especially when I got picked from the passport line for the surprise nose swab by one of the brigade of hygienically armored nurses who blocked my way to the exit. I only had time before my talk to get the additional Covid test I needed for the return trip the next morning, and then to walk over the mont of Montreal to the law school where I was speaking. But it was wonderful to get back out there and start in-person conversations about topics of mutual interest again, and the dinner afterwards at Leméac in Outremont, crammed with chatty Francophones, was one I will remember.
Getting back to the U.S. was not any easier, but I managed to make all my connections and meetings. I had lunch on the Upper West Side with a writer friend who reads this newsletter, which caused us both to laugh while the others around us screamed when a rat the size of a big chihuahua sauntered aggressively between the outdoor tables of Maison Pickle. In the afternoon I took the train to Trenton and caught this wonderful view of city and marsh through a dirty window, and then spent a wonderful weekend catching up with my son, who recently returned from several years in Korea to take a job with a family business on his mom’s side.
As we arrived at Philadelphia airport Sunday, I got a glimpse of the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, right there on the opposite side of I-95 from the terminal, another urban marsh next to a petroleum tank farm and one I hope to visit on my next trip.
And when I got home that evening, I found the Sunday Times magazine featured a cover story investigating the insanity of the Austin real estate market and using it as an exemplar of what’s happening in the residential markets nationwide. I have long held the view that the home real estate mortgage is contemporary capitalism’s way of replicating the indentures of feudalism and marketing it as affluence, and reading the horror stories of all these hard-working young couples affirmed that thinking. Different paths are out there, but the system makes it very hard to take them.
All the more reason to be thankful for the continued vitality of East Austin’s “subtle springs,” as this article from the city’s watershed department documents, and for the wild flora and fauna they support.
Field Notes will be off next week for the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving to U.S. readers. If you want to go find some beavers in your town, this Seattle-focused piece by Ben Goldfarb for the Center for Humans and Nature is a pretty great guide. If you prefer to stay in, you might join me in the mythological rabbit hole of the deep history of deities of the dawn. You can start by figuring out how to say h2éwsōs, the reconstructed name of the Proto-Indo-European goddess of the ancient steppe, and then trace her lineage across time and culture.
Have a safe week, especially if you are traveling.