The nomads of February

The waxwings are back this week. They come every year around this time, arriving stealthily, in big flocks that move like schools of airborne bait fish. For such a brightly plumed bird, they do a remarkable job of keeping a low profile, seeming to only hang out around humans when the sky is grey and they can blend in with the dead leaves still hanging on the late winter trees. Yesterday morning I pointed a few dozen of them out to two tree guys from the power company whose job it is to look at the branches, and they couldn’t even see them until the second try. In their defense, they seemed like they might be high.

The waxwings love the hackberrys that grow tall on this bluff behind the door factory, in the alluvium of ancient floods mixed with twentieth century construction debris that was dumped back when the only thing here to human eyes was an empty lot bisected by a petroleum pipeline. The hackberrys are not popular among the arboreal snobs who spend their time turning trees into furniture or maintaining man-made landscapes, but they fit in well here, almost reaching the height of the nearby cottonwoods. And in late winter, they are still covered in fruit, providing ample food for the bands of masked nomads who fly through every February, waiting for spring to arrive in their home country up north.

There are lots of migratory flocks that come through this time of year. You can tell from the crowds of bipedal bird watchers who appear atop the eroded cliffbanks of the river, with their ocular enhancements and their checklists. I’m not sure what they are looking for—maybe some of the unusual ducks I’ve been seeing, or maybe some of the more elusive songbirds that loiter in the brushy cover along the north bank, where the bugs pop early. Thursday I saw one guy standing up there watching the ducks fly off, not even noticing the big caracara sitting on the shelf below him, going full Wild Kingdom as it pulled the long stringy parts from its furry breakfast. Then we both saw it as it flew off with the prey in its beak, that profile of an eagle from a different hemispheric reality, and it was pretty epic. Definitely better than whatever is on your phone.

I don’t know the names of all the birds, or all the trees. I envy those who do, but I also have a wariness of the taxonomic exercise. The way it turns wildness into data, obliterating wonder by encoding it on the registry, breaking an incomprehensibly complex ecology into its component parts and using language as a way to keep it at a layer of alienated remove. I yearn to keep the enigma alive.

I’ve spent a healthy chunk of the last two decades looking for wild life inside the fabric of the city, bushwhacking my own paths through urban woods and creeks and sometimes jumping fences, and there’s always a surprise out there. My wife, a practicing surrealist who I met through these explorations, first described the area where we live as a zone where the uncanny happens. The river helps, bringing dramatic change every season, leaving strange artifacts of past and present scattered through the floodplain like Anthropocene Easter eggs, and preserving a sliver of woodland behind the factories where animals can live free from human gazes.

One of the things you learn quickly if you start looking for wild nature in the heart of the city is how almost all of it has recently adapted to the way we have remade the world. Last week I spotted a hawk nest up in one of the big cottonwoods behind our house—trees that take root around the mouth of a municipal drainage pipe where it spits out all the water channeled off the streets above, providing sustenance that lets them grow a hundred feet tall in a short time. The drainage also brings trash, and when I saw the red-shouldered hawk alighting in its nest I noticed the bits of industrial sheeting it had layered in between the sticks as a superior method of insulation—a trick the cardinals have also figured out for the smaller nests they build in the bois d’arc trees and the cross vine that hangs off our roof. 

The hawks like to hunt from the telephone poles and street lamps, waiting for the mammals of the field to make a run across the rights of way we have cleared. The foxes den around another drainage ditch behind the construction supply warehouse, and at night sometimes you can see them sneaking through the chainlink to prowl the streets for the smaller critters that live off the food we leave behind. The armadillos thrive on the invertebrates chomping their way through the layers of trash and dirt the urban river leaves after the flood. 

One of Austin’s most famous landmarks is the colony of Mexican free-tailed bats that spends every summer under the Congress Avenue bridge, providing adoring crowds nightly entertainment and wonder at their emergence. What the giant bat totem outside the Yeti Cooler flagship store fails to tell you is that the bats are here by a happy accident—that the bridge was designed with narrow crevasses in the bottom that turned out to be the optimal size for the bats to nestle when they are ready to get in a family way. 

Living here I have learned to pay more attention to the ways in which the wild figures out means to exist in our environment, how animals occupy the spaces we leave for them in the margins of our dominion and hack our infrastructure for their own survival. And it makes me wonder: what if we shared our habitat with them on purpose? What if we transformed our cities into authentically biodiverse places in which the wonder of wild nature was something everyone could experience every day—not just as a spectator, but as an active participant?  The things I see make me think that wouldn’t be that hard to do. Especially when you realize how recent it is that European settlers got to work on erasing the wilderness they found—recent enough that you can still find intact remnants of what was here before.

In this newsletter, I am going to riff on these themes, documenting my own explorations of the urban wild and the efforts we have undertaken in our home to take the trashed-out brownfield we found and turn it into a backyard habitat rich with diverse life. I have written a few novels that explore similar territory, including one just finished that tries to explore the utopian possibilities of such undertakings, but this format affords an approach the narrative constraints of fiction do not—including the ability to have lots of pictures. With luck, I will accumulate the material for a different sort of book. While our wildernesses and national parks have their own rich literature, the empty lots and American edgelands have been mostly ignored.

I aim to do this weekly. There will be digressions, but hopefully they will be interesting ones. All photos will be my own, unless otherwise noted.

Thanks for reading.

As a little bonus, here’s one of those grey foxes headed out from its den behind the door factory, a little after midnight on the last day of January. First time I’ve tried out the video function on the trail cam, but it won’t be the last.