Wanderers in the River of Fog
At first light on New Year’s Day a dense fog settled in over the urban Colorado, thick enough to hide the tall buildings one can normally see above the western treeline. It amplified the stillness that was already there, on one of those rare days of the Western calendar when the treadmills of Capital seem to have paused, even though you know they have not, really.
You could hear a kingfisher nearby, and an osprey up high, but the only birds you could see were the nearby ducks, who were mostly silent. The more distant sounds of vehicular traffic, truck engines and wheels on pavement, were as minimal and muted as they get. Then I heard the turbine roar of a jumbo jet, pushing its way up into the eastern sky, dialing up and dialing down until it faded out completely.
It made me think of “Moss Garden,” the Bowie-Eno instrumental that marries jet noise to the serene order of Japanese koto accompanied by synthesizer. The song had come up in a shuffle while I was on a passenger jet myself earlier in the week, headed back to Austin after returning my mother to her Midwestern country home. I was immediately struck with an intense memory of the first time I heard that piece in the early 90s, on a mixtape my now-dead brother made me for a cross-country road trip. I had been inventorying his basement archives that morning, so the bot-mediated serendipity was emotionally intense. Not just for the memory of a loved one, but also for the way it captured the feeling of being alive in a world of ascendant jets and dying nature, and still driving on to the next mile marker.
When I got back, we made a quick overnight road trip to Houston on the last couple of days of the week between Christmas and New Year’s, one of those Texas getaways that combines rich cultural diversion with everyday dystopian vignettes. The marvel of a Viet-Cajun crawfish dinner, museums full of diverse young urbanites soaking up pre-Columbian, African and modernist wonders presented side by side, hotels full of international families celebrating cross-border reunions, bookended with roadside menageries of American bison fenced in with zebras and ibexes, a detour through a Mad Max hellscape of hulking front yard pumpjacks slowly thrusting the Earth while a lone kestrel watches from the power line, a farmhouse advertising “Goat Yoga” across from a lot of rusted fuel storage tanks, a hardscrabble orchard of sad fruitless trees being sold to maximize the quantity of deer you can attract to be shot on your property, and a view from a hotel window of the degraded island of green where the Buffalo Bayou winds its way between the beltway and the mall.
I walked down in there that Friday morning, looking for animal sign beneath the pipeline, but didn’t find much.
On New Year’s Eve, we made a fire in the grotto we built for our wedding from all the old concrete and metal trash we found on this land, burning down the logs I cut from the warm-weather trees that were killed by the hard freezes of the past two winters, and then loading it up with the materials of our annual cremation of care—old bills (maybe even a few unpaid), tax files past the statute of limitations, redlines from deals I did in the year before.
The next morning, down in that fog, as I soaked up the stillness I heard the sound of human voices nearby. Not as near as I thought, when I figured it out, a trick of the way sound travels down that corridor. Upstream a quarter-mile or so, in the shallows below the heronry, two dudes were shuffling around in the water, foraging for who knows what, maybe still wasted from the night before. “Look at this!” I heard one of them say, in a chatter that was otherwise mostly unintelligible. The fog amped up the hallucinatory possibility, slipstream leak from some unimagined mash-up of early Jim Jarmusch and Caspar David Friedrich.
Later in the week, walking back from the YMCA along the sliver of woods behind the Amtrak station, I noticed the guy ahead of me on the path carried a homemade machete sheathed in his backpack. A sword, you might even say. He had his hands full with the bike he was pushing up the hill, but I still made a point of greeting him instead of surprising him. He looked me over, asked me how old I am, then told me he had a 50th birthday himself coming up, and we talked about what that’s like, with the taking stock of one’s life that tends to induce. I then asked him how he was doing, and if he needed anything, and he said he was okay, not very convincingly. I didn’t have the nerve to ask about the sword, and only later did I remember how Texas recently legalized open carry of long blades.
On Friday I retrieved the trailcam I had relocated on New Year’s Day, aimed at a den whose entrance I had noticed between two exposed roots of a hackberry right at the edge of the bluff behind the door factory, above a little ravine where a very large amount of trash has accumulated over the decades of illegal dumping before we got here. It looked like an active armadillo burrow, and I was curious to see what kind of footage I could get. More than I expected, it turned out.
The armadillo was out every night, foraging for the insects and tiny crustaceans that thrive in that moist, rubble-ridden dirt. But with many visitors to its spot, which is right by a very active trail that connects the area behind the plants with the riparian woodland. Opossums, young deer, huge raccoons, and the same gorgeous grey fox I had seen the week before. If you were making a story for children from what the footage showed, you might say they were coming to visit their neighbor, even if when they do so some of them piss on his front door. The best behaved visitor was the most surprising: a ringtail who passed by on its return from the woods, twenty minutes before the armadillo returned for a long day’s rest.
The ringtail was there again two nights later, headed out at 8:30 p.m. and returning at 3:30 a.m. I wonder if it dens back in there behind the factories.
Earlier in the week, one of my neighbors captured this amazing footage of a burly bobcat sauntering by in the middle of the afternoon as he worked on his dock.
It’s a reassuring way to start the year, seeing increasingly rare wild mammals maintaining a seemingly healthy existence in the interstices of the post-industrial city. The optimism is checked when you also see the soil boring crews out there in the same week, preparing the empty lots for the redevelopment that the Anthropocene machine will compel. But the way the animals seem to have a clearer sense of where they are going than we do makes you wonder if they won’t be the ones who will ultimately end up thriving in the overheated ruins we leave behind. As quickly as the Procyonids seem to be evolving to solve the challenges our urban habitat creates for them, you could almost believe they might discover fire.
Further reading (and watching)
For more about the ringtail cat, a unique species of North American mammal many people have never even heard of, see my post from December’s full moon, when I had my first sighting of what may have been the same animal as in this week’s videos. The Spanish language Wikipedia page on the cacomixtle is also very interesting.
“Moss Garden” is a track from the B-side of 1977’s Heroes, one of the Krautrock-inflected albums Bowie made in collaboration with Eno during his sojourn in Berlin. Some of the critical notes out there suggest the sound I identified as jet noise is meant to be distant thunder, but I don’t buy it. In a 2006 interview, Eno claimed he and Bowie improvised the piece using the Oblique Strategies cards Eno co-authored with the artist Peter Schmidt. More about the song here (with a remastered version you can stream) and here.
If you’re in Houston or planning a visit, Crawfish & Noodles is just one of the better known places to sample the Viet-Cajun cuisine that resulted when refugees from Southeast Asia found themselves across the planet in the remarkably similar climate of the Gulf Coast.
And if you are going to Houston, try to make it on a Thursday, when the museums are free, and open late. The always-amazing Menil Collection has impressively upped its curatorial game in the aftermath of BLM, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston now rivals the National Gallery in D.C., with three huge buildings connected by underground tunnels (one of which is an amazing James Turrell light installation), and an exceptionally wide-ranging collection. Special exhibitions we saw included a remarkable show of gold work from indigenous Colombia, Giacometti and Philip Guston retrospectives, and a Gordon Parks photos of Stokely Carmichael originally taken for LIFE.
I was pleased to able to contribute another year’s reading roundup to the annual compilation at Aqueduct Press, the Seattle-based independent publisher of feminist science fiction. All of the submissions are interesting, and a great place to find fresh recommendations.
The past week I have been binging on first-person narratives of exploration, discovery, colonization and frontier settlement, as I reckon with how the book I am working on builds on those precedents. One I have found particular interesting is The Lakeside Press Centennial Edition of Castañeda’s Narrative of the Coronado Expedition, about the 1540 entrada into what is now the Southwestern U.S. A book that, among other things, includes a kind of sequel to Cabeza de Vaca’s memoir of his years in Texas, including the further adventures of Esteban the Moor. It’s a bilingual text, and I was interested to note how every paragraph in the Spanish version is comprised of one long unpunctuated sentence. It gives you a fresh sense of the original voice, and made me wonder whether Cormac McCarthy might have read that or similar texts before he wrote Blood Meridian, recognizing Faulkner is probably the main influence on that aspect of McCarthy’s style.
This gorgeous grey fox that has been active in the back corner of our yard over the holidays got me wondering about the origins of the slang term “foxy” that peaked in the 1970s. Turns out it’s much older that I would have guessed, according to the Etymology Online entry, which excerpts some especially insane medieval English fashion commentary and health tips.
The coyotes have been avoiding the trailcam lately, but we have been seeing them almost every morning, and they have been seeing us. This last photo, taken on the phone with no zoom, gives a better idea of the usual vantage. If you’re viewing on a phone, you may not even see the coyote dead center of the frame.
Happy New Year, and have a great week.