Slackers of the Apocalypse
The swallowtails heralded the arrival of real Texas summer this week, big wings working their way through muggy air that heated up to just short of triple digits every afternoon. Tigers and pipevines, often in pairs, slurping from the lantana and fluttering around the trumpet vines and passiflora that have begun to burst open in thick clumps along the chain link that partitions most of our downzoned neighborhood.
The cross vines that hang from our green roof are coming in a little more slowly, beaten back by the hard freezes of the last two winters and probably under-watered. For the past few weeks I’ve watched the cardinals who nest in those vines every season coming around and busily searching for this season’s best spots. The vines grow over the steel beams at the edges, dangling as much as ten feet down from the eaves, separated from the windows by four inches or so. The cordons and tendrils provide a surprisingly rigid and woody structure on which to tether a nest, high in the air, protected from the rain and very hard for any snake or big lizard to reach.
This year the leaves haven’t come in as thick, and I hadn’t seen an active nest in our courtyard until this week. The one we found was not in the native vines, but in an ornamental tree my wife potted a couple of months ago by our bedroom door. A quince tree, whose name evokes some medieval English conception of strange fruit.
The tree is not quite as tall in its pot as us, still taped to a stake and shaped the quaint way they pruned it at the nursery, like a version of a tree you would see in one of our daughter’s books for toddlers, a single straight trunk topped with a little ball of thick green leaves. You wouldn’t notice the nest unless you knew to look for it, the ingenious way it is nestled in the heart of that ball, at the crook of two small branches, sheltered from the elements by a modernist overhang. Like all the cardinals’ nests we find here, it is ingeniously woven from a mix of last season’s dried out native grasses and industrial packaging materials harvested from the factories and warehouses that surround us. A layer of fine strands of grass, then of clear plastic, then thicker grass, a nice wrap of Polyethylene open-cell foam, and finally the broad blades of inland sea oats.
The mama is in there most of the day and all of the night, tending three perfect-looking speckled eggs. Now that we know she’s there, we try not to look as we pass, for fear of scaring her. But she seems to have already gotten used to us. Not to suggest she trusts us. She knows her babies could be our food.
Our daughter has become intensely interested in a French picture book about dinosaurs that she borrowed from her grandma’s shelf, especially the part where the juvenile brontosaurus (a species whose existence I thought had been erased from the corrected paleontological record) who narrates the story shows off the newly hatched eggs of its siblings. As we were reading it Thursday night, my wife pondered aloud whether, as human civilization implodes from its abuse of the planetary habitat, our remains will leave behind oil deposits like the creatures of the Mesozoic. It got me thinking of the conversations we had, as the possibility of 21st century parenthood loomed, about whether it’s even responsible to bring a child into this world. But then you put on the Cole Porter record, and try to trust nature’s way.
The week before, going through our daughter’s art from school, amid the sparkles and stars and handprints I found a bit of protean collage featuring four gators fighting to grab a plucked pink chicken dangling from a wire. An image more like something out of a Nature is Metal feed than her usual princess fare:
My smiling enthusiasm as I pulled it from the stack and put it up on the fridge evidenced my bad influence, and the capacity of a young mind to serve up powerful Rorschachs. When I asked her what it was, she said it was a kangaroo going swimming.
At the parent-teacher conference on Wednesday, the director explained, innocuously, that it had been Reptile Week.
It was her third birthday on Mother’s Day, and her big brother flew home for the weekend to help celebrate. Monday morning he and I walked with our old rescue dog down in the woods, planning to cross the river and explore some spots from his youth, but the water had been released upriver, as the authorities cranked up the hydropower to keep the air conditioners running. Even the ancillary creeks were uncrossable, flooded out with dirty water, so we worked our way back along through the understory. It was like a river of grass back in there, the wild rye brushing against our ribs as we walked. We didn’t see much wildlife, maybe because we were talking, but we did catch one unusually regal looking caracara, silhouetted on a high bare branch.
We decided to walk back on the street, following the loop road past the dairy plant, where the old trucks are parked at the edge of the field with their refrigerators turned off for good, the creepy images of Elsie the Cow peeling off and fading out. One of the trailers was open, the side hatch overflowing with big balls of transparent plastic wrap, and I got to wondering how long it will be until they become occupied by the folks who live in the big tent camp we had passed moments before. I remarked how the zone Hugo and I started exploring two decades ago seemed to be getting a little less wild. He expressed the opposite view. Maybe we’re both right. Nature’s marginal ebb and flow in the boom and bust of urbanity always reveals how tenuously and temporarily we hold the wild in check.
On Thursday night I streamed Slacker, the debut film of local hero Richard Linklater, featured in a watchlist of his early work and shorts running this month on The Criterion Channel. I had seen the movie once before, in the theater upon its release in 1991, when I was around the same age as most of the twentysomething characters who amble through that earlier iteration of Austin.
There’s not a lot of nature in Slacker, at least not in a foregrounded way, but if you look for it it’s there in every other shot. Not just in the way you can tell in every scene that it’s a hot Texas day, filled with that harsh glare of summer sun burning the damp air. But also in the surprising ways the city looks ruined and half-empty, full of vacant lots and demolished buildings being overtaken by green. Seeing the cinematically-preserved entropic languor of the town I moved to a few years after that movie was made, I was astonished by its sense of abandonment.
I hadn’t ever thought of Slacker as the last post-apocalyptic movie of the 80s, but it makes sense when you know that it was shot in a city whose economy had been decimated by the savings & loan crash, a regional crisis of capitalism that made housing so cheap young adults could briefly experience a world without work.
The next day I got to thinking how that bust and its devaluation of all the real estate must have been what paved the way for what followed, as all the properties sold off in insolvency proceedings for pennies on the dollar got redeveloped while the digital economy gathered steam, building the foundation for the boom town that has emerged in the three decades since.
In my feed the next morning, an acquaintance shared a picture of downtown from an airplane window, Austin looking like some kind of mini-Manhattan, packed with brand new high-rises occupied by technology behemoths and the personal LLCs of the very rich. Even pandemic couldn’t slow it down.
The evident prosperity is hard to complain about, if you don’t know how unequally it is distributed, and how destructive it is of the creative character it tries to co-opt.
The genius of the Austin I moved to was that it was one of those rare cities that felt like it had not yet been fully conquered by commerce, and instead got its culture from hosting both the major university and the state government. Madison without the snow. Tracing the city of today back to the city of Slacker got me wondering if there might be a third way of urbanism, one that’s unbound from the original sin of agricultural surplus, wealth inequality and indentured labor that lies at the origin of cities. A future that finds social and ecological promise in entropy, in a less intense and more aimless human presence on the land, like Austin after the 80s crash, New Orleans after Katrina, Berlin after the wall, Tijuana after the cartel wars. The promise of those kinds of cities where the kids can take over the abandoned storefronts and briefly make real the world they would actually want to live in, instead of the one we have given them.
As Saturday afternoon melted down into evening, I spotted a dude flip-flopping along the main drag near our home, dressed in bright yellow and black like some New Wave bumblebee and carrying a trombone. He was on his phone as he walked against traffic, and didn’t seem to notice the building he was passing—a roadside motel turned apartment complex whose owner reportedly stopped paying the property taxes a few years ago, leaving the tenants to become squatters who live off generator power and bottled water. You could see the gas cans stacked up against the stucco, the improvised barricades on the doors, the cars slowly morphing into the last of the V-8 interceptors.
The next few properties have all been redeveloped as popular restaurants and beer gardens getting their post-Covid party on. In the block’s exhibition of alternate futures, that complex gone full Cormac McCarthy feels more plausible, especially on a weekend when the authorities are warning the heat wave may break the power grid and the almanac promises a total lunar eclipse. The hipster trombonist passing through that micro-multiverse, en route to his gig in one of the last outposts of the authentically weird, felt like a sign of hope for what might hold out in the margins. Almost like when you see an ancient raptor scavenging roadkill behind the dairy plant, or a cardinal making better nests from our trash.
If you share my curiosity about the word quince, the Online Etymology Dictionary can get you started down the root hole.
For more on the Anthropocene materials used by nesting cardinals, check out my dissection of one abandoned nest from this past Valentine’s Day, or my 2020 post about “The redbirds of May Day.” I haven’t found much scholarship or scientific research on the subject—if you know of any, please feel encouraged to send it along (you can reply to the email version of this newsletter, or leave a comment on the site).
You can screen Slacker here at The Criterion Channel (a subscription site). The film holds up much better than I expected, though its almost complete lack of diversity tells a lot about where we come from. Locals might be interested in this post at The End of Austin that does a great job mapping the Austin of the film against the Austin of today (or at least 2014).
My paddle to the Tesla site featured here last month made this wonderful Will Bostwick article at Texas Monthly, on the ecological impact of the new Gigafactory on the banks of the Colorado River. And David Ferris at Energy & Environment News has a really comprehensive report up this week on all aspects of Elon Musk’s Texas projects, situating them in the context of the tech-driven development that has made Austin one of the least affordable and most economically segregated cities in America. It’s great journalism, and sober futurism.
Have a green week.
The trombone guy was likely part of the Minor Mishap Marching Band. Their colors are yellow and black. They're loads of fun.
You are a wonder, my friend. I admire your writing and your intellect very much. Makes me wish I was back in Austin, tagging along on one of your amazing rambles. Perhaps when we return.