Squatters of the Metaverse (with butterflies)
Saturday afternoon as I was working in the yard, I found a padded yellow envelope sitting on the hood of my truck, and immediately knew what it was: a letter from my friend Phil, who I first met on a rainy Sunday morning many years ago when he was locked behind the gate of the empty lot next to us and I luckily knew the padlock code. Phil, whose real name is not Phil, has lived for more than a decade in an abandoned building not far from here, at the edge of an industrial site near the river. He is a gifted maker who crafts useful objects from the things he finds, and a book lover with whom I have been carrying on an exchange for close to a decade. I made my last drop to him on last year’s freakishly hot Christmas Day, as documented here on Jan. 2.
In the letter, Phil writes about The Peregrine by J.A. Baker, which I gave him a copy of last year and which he read and then passed along and now found himself thinking of again, as I think that book sticks with many who read it. “[H]e’s a real pilgrim,” says Phil, trying to articulate the hard-headed English character of that voice, through the perspective of an Irish-American guy who grew up in New York. Talking about the author’s descriptive gifts and capacity for holding you with slowed-down pacing, Phil makes unexpected analogies to a Foghat record (one that I recently picked up a used copy of). That line of thought leads to the story of a Bad Company concert he saw at The Woodlands with a friend who later went deaf, and a singer who “was probably a pilgrim too.” And then to recollections of Phil’s time as a middle school teacher, and the lessons of a coach on how to maintain the proper lines demarcating our playing fields.
Phil has been on my mind in recent weeks, after I attended a presentation by a group of local real estate executives of their plans to turn the industrial site where Phil lives into a grand new mixed-used development. This summer has been busy with such meetings, including ongoing talks with Tesla about environmental, labor and neighborhood issues associated with their Gigafactory on the Colorado, and more recently discussions with another local developer that plans to redevelop the dairy plant near our home into another mixed-use development. All part of what one of my neighbors, an entomologist who seems to accept the changes in the world around him with the same scientific dispassion that he documents the global proliferation of bark beetles, called “the last phase in the Brooklynization of East Austin.”
Monday morning the black mouth cur and I walked along the edge of the field behind the dairy plant, as we have done many mornings over the past twelve years living here. A quintessential American edgeland, that field legally exists as several large lots that were platted in 1978 as part of an industrial park, but maintained in an undeveloped state by the dairy company that keeps them as a buffer for their operation. In practice, the lots have become an unofficial annex to the adjacent wildlife preserve along the river. A kind of unlikely tallgrass savanna behind the chain link fences that surround the industrial sites along the road, where wildlife can roam free from human gazes in the middle of the city, even in daylight.
This field that puts the park in the industrial park is not ecologically pristine. While there are some nice trees, and the wildflowers always come up in spring, it’s mostly overtaken with invasive and noxious Johnson grass. But it is open, green space that wildlife can use as habitat in the shadows of the old highway, bathed in the ambient drone of the machines that keep the milk cold and the idling of the trucks that take it to market. The hawks love to perch on the telephone poles at the field’s edge and wait for the small mammals to make a run for it. Sometimes the mammals are bigger—I’ve seen foxes, coyotes, and skunks moving through there. And sometimes you’ll meet a fellow human wanderer back in there. One time I bumped into Phil. At the far end of that field, there’s a pretty big camp that has developed over the summer, in the labyrinth of coastal cane behind the last cul de sac. Some of the folks who stay back there have cars, but have to make their own sleeping shelter in the negative space of the city.
Tuesday morning as I headed out to meet some friends for dinner and the free tickets we had scored to an 80s hair metal concert, I saw the police conducting a raid on another such camp, a little colony of people who were displaced by the condemnation and evacuation of the affordable housing complex across the street, the one where the landlord stopped paying their property taxes and the tenants lived off generator power and bottled water for three years. When they got kicked out of there, some of the folks moved to the empty slab where an old metal warehouse structure was recently demolished to make room for a boutique hotel. The police were wearing black uniforms, a color I have never seen on local law enforcement. My Lyft driver remarked on how they looked like a death squad, and then told me about the six months he had recently spent homeless, living out of his car after losing his job.
Earlier Monday morning, the cur and I found this dusty armadillo foraging for grubs on our green roof, which was much greener when we returned from our summer vacation, as if we had to leave the country to get it to rain. In the aftermath of early September’s much-needed deluges, the native grasses are lush with energy just in time to drop their seeds, and the late bloomers are exploding with color—the violets of wild petunias, the yellow of partridge pea and sunflowers, the white of the frost weed that will grow ice from its stalks when winter arrives, and the almost unearthly pink of the coral vine that usually appears this time of year.
Antigonon leptopus, sometimes called Mexican creeper around here, is native to Mexico and seems to have naturalized to Texas. It’s not the only vine that thrives when late summer rains finally bring the temps down from the triple digits. We also have thick patches of Virginia creeper, cross vine that’s finally recovering from a rough year of hard freezes followed by summer drought, and insanely prodigious Alamo vine sprawling around the edges of our roof. The seed pods of the Alamo vine are like little green paper lanterns, and our daughter has been experimenting with pulling the strand that dangles over our front door and causing a few of the pods to rain on her head. When you open them, the pods emit a sweet aroma like some kind of musky almond, and make you wonder what other tropical flora will head up here as temperatures climb.
The other vine that has thrived this summer is the Passiflora that grows by our front fence, and had gotten so thick when we returned from holiday that it almost swallowed the Monterey oak we planted last year on our anniversary in the spot where an invasive China berry used to grow. And now this week, just as the crazy purple flowers have dried up, the vines are covered with the tangerine wings of the Gulf fritillaries for which the plant serves as exclusive host. Every day I’ve been finding the recently evacuated chrysalises hanging from the sorts of structurally superior supports on which these butterflies like to cocoon—the curved-out wheels of my old truck, the indentations of trash bins, the front hinge of the shorty shipping container where we keep our outdoor tools.
I don’t suppose there’s much of a real connection between butterflies and homeless guys, even though they correlated in my walking mind all week long. Maybe it was the figure I encountered outside a gas station at midnight Tuesday as I walked home from the concert, a middle-aged man whose wooden staff made me think of Tolkien’s animal-talking wizards, even though he was only talking to the clerk in the barred window. I wonder if Gandalf were still around, he would need to make late night beer runs to cope with the state of things.
“There’s always a grieving process,” said the lawyer who acts as lobbyist and representative for every one of the redevelopment projects underway in this area along the urban Colorado, speaking with the dispassion of the participant-observer, even as he serves as the main agent facilitating capital’s colonization of what wild remains in the landscape of his hometown. He meant it in a more or less friendly way, maybe like the way they say Sam Houston was friendly with the Indians, even as it was loaded with reflexive confidence in how these stories always end.
I like to think there’s a way to get to a good outcome, one that lets old industrial sites be remade for other uses without displacing the wild life of the interstitial city, whether animal or human. Maybe there’s even an opportunity to achieve some more lasting conservation of the Colorado River greenbelt that has thus far mostly been preserved by accident. The year to come will tell. Living in a place like this has helped me realize, as a lawyer, how profoundly our system of real property law is stacked against the natural order, and what a tall order it is to try to reinvigorate the idea of the commons in the face of public and private institutions addicted to the accumulation of surplus from the land they occupy. It has also helped me see with stark clarity the challenges in balancing the need to provide housing for our fellow humans with the need to leave room for our animal and plant neighbors, on a planet whose habitable space seems to be rapidly diminishing.
On Friday afternoon I ran into a guy who I sometimes see hanging out with Phil. I was jogging, and he was walking, and when he stopped to visit he told me he was setting out to walk to La Grange, a distance that takes around an hour by car. After we went on our separate ways, at the end of my trail I found the stoop where he had been hanging out, drinking tall boys of high gravity lager and reading magazines as the river rolled by. He had left one of the magazines open to the last article he had been reading: a piece by the comedian Tiffany Haddish about her love for her virtual reality goggles, and the way they let her travel the world without leaving her house.
It made me wonder if there will be squatters in the Metaverse, coexisting with the digital animals the AIs will imagine to entertain us in the end times, after the real ones are all gone.
Fungus of the week
The rain also brought all manner of fungi up out of the ground over the past couple of weeks. Mostly in the woods, but some at the edge of the pavement as well. On our street, one of the neighbors has this insane yellow knob growing out of an old stump next to his mailbox. I have thus far been unable to identify it. If you think you know what it is, please be encouraged to comment or reply.
If you’re in Austin and interested in learning more about the proposed rezoning of the Borden plant site, here’s a decent local news writeup, and the first community meeting on the case will be held Monday, September 26 at 6 p.m., virtually through the City’s online meeting platform.
This week’s headlines included extensive coverage of the story that Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard gave his company away to charity. It’s hard to tell what the whole story is—the voting shares were transferred to a trust, and it’s not clear from the press coverage who the beneficiaries of the trust are—but it’s evident that most of the profits will be dedicated to the preservation of wild lands and other conservation and climate initiatives. Whether this precedent will be one other billionaires emulate remains to be seen.
If you’re looking for a guidebook to turn your own home into a conservation corridor, this week I learned about an amazing book that does just that: Douglas Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope, from Timber Press. I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but the opening section really grabbed me, and I am looking forward to the rest.
Lastly, the London Review of Books has started a cool new series on their blog—a bi-weekly series of posts “collaborating with the World Weather Network, a constellation of weather stations set up by 28 arts organisations in oceans, deserts, mountains, farmland, rainforests, lighthouses and cities around the world. Artists and writers will share observations, stories, reflections and images responding to their local weather and the effects of the climate emergency.”
Have a great week.