The Big Molt
Tuesday night I found an empty can of Freedom in the parking lot of the strip mall where I stopped to pick up a couple of avocados on my way home. They renovated the grocery store that anchors the shopping center last year, and took a stab at upgrading the tenants of the other spaces, but were only half successful, and it’s still one of those centers of American commerce where you can feel the collective desperation sweat out of the asphalt at the end of a long hot day, with cash stores and junk food and aftermarket parts to keep your car running so you can get to work the next day. And ice to keep your 12 ounces of Freedom cold enough to drink when you get off work, if you have it.
The can was right by the curb, at the edge of the little median along the covered walkway behind the budget dentist. There were three more cans nearby, one a tall boy of Modelo and the other two some High Gravity Lager. In the shade next to the back wall a bearded old white dude in tank top and shorts was sitting in a camp chair drinking another beer and watching the sun work its way town. When I looked at him, he looked back, and I noticed he was framed by a diptych the landlords had commissioned from some upbeat muralist during the renovation, with two words in rainbow colors: “DREAM” (on the left panel) + “BIG” (on the right).
When my wife and I were dating at the tail end of the Financial Crisis, she briefly worked for a local landscape architect who had gotten the commission to improve the urban streetscape along the major east-west road that strip mall anchors at its eastern end. An earnest effort at dialing up the utopian, with walkways and bike lanes and intersections reimagined with cobblestone and lined with century plants that blossom like floral fountains in springtime. The road is the main route that connects the airport with downtown, and the idea no doubt was to pretty it up to welcome visitors. Like most such undertakings, it was no match for the entropic power of the late capitalist city.
The bike lanes and walkways are still there, but half the old businesses are shuttered, and the other ones are more endangered than the jaguarundi one of the readers of this newsletter reported has recently been sighted a little east of our place. The anonymous apartment blocks are beginning to replace it all, bringing new people from faraway. But the post-apocalyptic Sonic is still there, the shelter of its drive-up lanes turned into shanties, and in the evenings the guys who live along the concrete creek behind the rec center come out to party. You might reasonably wonder why they don’t build a new apartment block for those folks who already live there, if you were a visitor from the future who did not understand the Darwinian political economy that is this society’s operating system.
Further down the street and closer to home, the next morning I came upon a dozen black vultures scavenging some roadkill behind the abandoned lighting factory. They were having quite the jostling over who got the choicest morsels of still-moist innards, roostering without audible sound in the way vultures do, arguing amongst themselves while ignoring their arriving audience like some kind of demonic mime troop from the world of Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth. One of those scenes where the more you look the more vultures you see—over there on the fence, up on the telephone poles, flying in from farther away. You wonder how they know, those birds that do not sing. The answer is they are always watching, and waiting.
The vultures were so intent on their prize that they didn’t even move until we got close enough to smell them, close enough that you could almost feel the air rush from their lazy, reluctant wing beats. Even the dog didn’t deter them. Maybe because that was what they had claimed. Not just any dog, but a wild one that had emerged from the woods behind the industrial park to hunt the night city, only to get hit by a car. A big fox, flattened like Wile E. Coyote after the Road Runner drops the anvil on him, but still recognizable from the trademark banding of its tail, even if it had been sullied by the filth of the street.
On the wall of the lighting factory behind them, a tagger named Søma had painted a new message the night before: THE GOLDEN YEARS ARE OVER.
As we worked our way back, I noticed that the guy who lives in the hand-built shack behind the wind chime workshop had set up an archery target made out of a cardboard box. And had been practicing, grouping his arrows pretty tightly in the bullseye at the center of the five rough circles he had drawn on the bottom of the box. Maybe he’s getting ready for what he senses is coming, or maybe he’s just having fun. He’s a good neighbor.
The bugs of summer have finally started to make their appearance, their coming heralded by the big butterflies that started fluttering around the yard a couple of weeks ago. Aphids, assassins, scarabs and stink bugs, finding abundant food as our green roof gets actually green. The grasshoppers in particular thrive in our yard gone wild, chirping as they pig out all through the long season. The bugs provide food for the lizards and birds, and the accumulated menagerie endows the house with a sense of biodiverse life that provides a welcome refuge from the grind of the city you can still hear outside the gate.
The bugs often find their way from the green roof onto the inorganic surfaces of our windows and house frame. A very visible zone for what are often seemingly private activities, like when the big walking sticks copulate for days on a grey beam of painted steel, making me wonder if those surfaces provide some kind of accidental shelter from predators.
Wednesday afternoon I was chatting with my wife through the door to her office when I noticed the Giger-esque scene of a grasshopper molting, three extra legs emerging from its ass-end. I couldn’t even tell at first which parts were the new and which the old, confounded by the patterns of pigmentation and the absence of motion. Then when I looked away for a moment I saw that the new body had stepped out of the shell of the old. I think it’s one of the Aztec spur throats whose brightly-colored juvenile forms appear so often on those windows, and whose Pokemon-like cycles I am only beginning to parse.
When I found that empty can of America in the grocery store parking lot the evening before, I had been listening to the radio news, pundits forecasting the primary results that were being subtextually treated as an early indicator of how likely it is that three years from now we will be living on the other side of a coup disguised as an election. That came against the background of weeks of dismal economic news that conjured memories of 1979, and a week on Wall Street that made you think about 1929. Even if you were not the sort who spends their evenings reading about the developing conditions of the global climate, you might reasonably wonder what happened to the idea of the future, now that the twenty-first century has begun to take its full form.
The books we write now don’t hold much promise on that subject. But the wild world that persists in the margins of the city reminds us that nature’s resilience is greater than we might think, and that you will often be surprised what fresh wonders emerge from the decay that comes to all things. Like the hot pink powderpuffs I encountered Saturday morning just down the street from that entropic strip mall, flowering in a tiny roadside patch at the entry to the new motor oil distribution yard, so small you might not even notice them as you walked by, and definitely wouldn’t see them if you were driving by. The guys with the weed eaters will probably come cut them back this week, but you can bet the mimosas will still be propagating when the oil jobbers have become fossils themselves, and the world we leave behind for those bugs will be brighter than they expected.
I slept through Monday’s lunar eclipse, even though I am usually up before five. But I did find this NASA video of the whole thing, complete with an hour’s worth of nerdy color commentary.
This week’s New York Times had an amazing piece about bison tracking in the rewilded orchards of the Transylvanian Alps. The project in Southern Romania is part of Rewilding Europe, a Dutch nonprofit that has nine similar projects underway across the continent in partnership with locals at each location. An idea worth copying over here.
My 2019 novel Rule of Capture explores an alternate Houston undergoing a more involuntary rewilding brought on by big storms, failing infrastructure, and tropical weather. That’s backstory for the main plot, which follows a lawyer defending a client who has information that could prevent home-grown fascists from taking power through a rigged election. Late in the second act, there’s a scene that takes place at a funeral in which a powerful judge’s friends burn him on a pyre made from his vintage Cadillac parked on a closed-of overpass. When I wrote the scene, its neo-pagan craziness felt like a surreal detour that stepped outside the bounds of the speculative realism I was aiming for, but it told a kind of truth about the characters and the world that made it work. So I was curious to read elsewhere in this week’s Times that cremation on a funeral pyre is now a thing in the USA, among privileged people finding a deeper connection to nature through the rituals of the past.
(For those who might be interested, I posted that excerpt from Rule of Capture here on my main site’s blog. You can find more about the book, including links to fuller excerpts and places where you can buy it, here. And if you’re looking for something other than the news to listen to while you get around town—like a version of the news where you get to fight back—check the audio book narrated by the amazing Macleod Andrews.)
Speaking of creepy judges, this Amanda Taub story from Friday’s paper about the unlikely persistence of the 17th Century English jurist Lord Matthew Hale is amazing work, laying bare in a few hundred words the roots Justice Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade shares with decisions of contemporary Indian courts deeming marital rape outside the reach of the law. A topic you might think far afield of an urban nature newsletter, until you consider the extent to which our civilization, and the legal system that supports it, is founded on patriarchal control of the reproduction and lives of others—whether plants, animals, or people.
This week the team at PODER, the East Austin environmental justice group I work with on river conservation and other projects, made news for the amazing work they did rounding up a coalition of local environmental organizations to demand the city hold off issuing any more permits to Tesla until community concerns are addressed about issues like water equity and the risks associated with the company’s proposed battery cathode plant next to its already-built car factory. Full story at Austonia.
In related news, S&P dropped Tesla from its ESG index this week, which tracks stocks ranked for the environmental, social and governance strengths. Among the factors in the decision was the electric car maker’s lack of a low-carbon strategy.
This Wednesday evening, I will be joining my colleagues Malka Older, Eliot Peper and Andrew Hudson for a discussion riffing on climate, politics and science fiction. Those are three smart people and great writers, and it should be a terrific conversation. The event will be on Zoom, Wednesday, May 25, 2022, 8pm Eastern / 5pm Pacific, and you can register here via Eventbrite.
Thanks to my friend and Field Notes reader Elizabeth Cobbe for identifying the mystery trombonist of last week’s installment as a member of Austin’s Minor Mishap Marching Band. Hard not to love a 25-piece band that comes up with song titles like “Fuck You, I’m a Wizard”:
Lastly, last Sunday’s online trawling revealed this dream job, via the Depths of Wikipedia feed:
It’s never too late.
Field Notes will be off next week for Memorial Day weekend. Have a great week.