Winter of the Storage Locker Patriarchs
I spotted the first spiderwort flowers of the season Thursday morning, in the scruffy right of way behind the old neon plant. Just two early blossoms, right at the foot of this remarkable yucca that hides there in plain sight under the barbed wire, in the shade of a gnarly tree that has conjoined with the chain link. The yucca bloom is more spectacular, when it happens, lush white cups big enough to hold a whole bird, but that’s some weeks off. And in the case of this plant that has naturalized into the negative space of the city, there’s a good chance not a soul will see it.
Maybe that privacy is a good thing.
The spiderwort is even hardier than the yucca, and a reassuring herald of the persistence of spring even in the places we do our best to foul. The Tradescantia coming up green now all over this trash-strewn bluff is one of our most adaptable native plants, and one that thrives from its ability to rapidly mutate and hybridize.
The industrial lot where I spotted the spiderwort has housed many curious operations in the decade+ we have lived here. It’s a brownfield, whose older uses left hydrocarbons in the ground, and not long after we moved in they erected a weird little shed over a remedial well they drilled. For a couple of years it would run all day and night, spewing mysterious vapor as it sucked the gas from the soil and turned it into actual gas. Gentrifying Mordor.
The shed is still there, right behind the fence along which the spiderwort is blooming. The wind chime factory from down the street has taken over the office out front, but they still let the old hippie electric taxi impresario keep his carts in the yard full of salvaged neon signs. Behind the shed there’s one busted-up e-cab sitting there slowly sinking back into the earth, its removal deterred by a piece of plywood spray-painted with a warning: “DON’T TAKE - THIS IS SEAN’S.”
When we first moved here, renting a little casita while we tried to get our house built, that lot was the secret staging area for #Occupy, in the heart of the post-9/11 financial crisis. Gatherings at night charged with revolutionary fervor, people who believed the possibility of real change was at hand, that they might be able to stop the machine and bring about a future they would actually want to live in. Almost as if they were channeling the same animating force that makes beautiful flowers grow from dumpsites. I still see traces of that movement around here, mostly in people who redirected their energies from changing the human trajectory to nurturing the pockets of wild ecology left in the edges of the city.
Wednesday morning, on one of the nearby buildings sometimes tagged with the fresher and more authentically radical revolutionary slogans of the East Austin Maoists, I came upon a creepier stencil of a very different band of self-proclaimed rebels. It was there in duplicate, on the wall of an old gas station whose collapse has been temporarily delayed by some jury-rigged wooden braces. I later looked up the website encoded in the tag, and it was as creepy as I suspected—the manifesto of militarized white supremacists, with pictures of General Washington and General Patton next to images of the so-called patriots outside the Capitol on January 6, slickly designed around a brand identity of retro-dystopian alterations of the American flag.
I thought the image in the stencil was some deformed animal, only to eventually realize on the fourth or fifth viewing that it was the profile of a husky white guy in a ball cap patched with one of those alt-flags.
The next day I made a trip to visit a site across the river that I had originally planned to visit on MLK Day. Maybe it was that alt-right stencil that got me to go look for the graves of slaves at the beginning of Black History Month.
You probably wouldn’t notice it’s a cemetery if you happened to walk by it. It looks like an empty lot, in a neighborhood full of empty lots and old houses. Some very close friends of ours, Katrina refugees who never went back to Nola, live in the house across the street. The first time I went to a party there I was drawn to the overgrown lot, and went to check it out, only to find the headstones, and then learn some of the story.
It’s a little better tended now, at least in the plots whose occupants still have family living nearby. But many of the headstones are illegible, overturned, or hidden behind foliage.
Burdett Prairie Cemetery dates back to 1850, when the site was a cotton plantation run by three brothers overseeing 25 slaves. After the war, the area became a freedmen’s community, centered around a church founded in 1863 that is still operating today. The wider neighborhood of Montopolis shows that heritage, even as it has become ground zero in Austin’s gentrification battles.
It’s an intense place to visit, seeing the native grasses of the prairie coming up around the graves of the enslaved people who were forced to bring it under the plow and pick the harvests that followed. Walking through there, you realize it’s the one island in that neighborhood that can’t be re-colonized by 21st century real estate capital. Not that the existence of a burial ground stops them from trying. When I went to explore the woods behind the cemetery, I found the tall metal fence protecting the new apartments they built on land that may have included some of the graves.
There was an abandoned camp there in the trees by the fence, and a trail. I followed the path, not really knowing where it would lead, thinking I could find my way through the secret woods to the old highway. The woods were young, with stubby trees, and few signs of wildlife. After a quarter-mile or so, they opened up onto a right of way where a big work crew was on lunch break in the shadows of a platoon of high-rise power transmission pylons marching off toward the south. I could hear the road now, and headed the other way, north, along the edge of the truck trail they had blazed, following the tracks some deer had made the night before, figuring they might show me the way.
After a while I found a muddy open in the silt fence that looked to provide a way out. I followed it, only to find myself trapped behind the even higher fences of a huge new storage locker facility next to the apartment complex. I tried four different possible shortcuts past the endless rows of doors to shadowed rooms full of people’s half-forgotten stuff, but none were safe enough to jump, so I went back to the woods, eventually finding my way out to the frontage road through the overgrown fencerow of what looked to be an abandoned phone company office, not far from the self-governing homeless community known as Camp R.A.T.T.
All along that highway stand huge live oak trees, many of which look to have been there longer than anything else around them, giving you an idea of just how old that road is. The trees are getting pretty crowded as the camino that once was a trail turns into a highway and now a major tollway. As I emerged and worked my way north, the big empty trucks raced each other down the feeder to get filled back up from the nearby pits with tons of gravel to help build the new high rises of downtown. You can see those towers in the distance when you cross the bridge, a 21st century horizon that makes the river look even more out of time than it is.
The next day, when I read the supremacist screed of the rebel stencilers, talking about the civilization their imagined forefathers made from “a savage continent,” I found myself thinking about how those shiny storage lockers looming over the airport highway are the true endpoint of the Euro-American experiment, tombs of consumer waste literally built on the graves of slaves. A national rebirth is in order, but it’s not the one the Red Dawn cosplayers with the red, white and blue daddy issues have in mind.
For more on Burdett Prairie Cemetery, this post from the fascinating graveyard blog Remains to be Seen is a pretty good start. Another site has a directory of all the persons know to be buried there. And Austin public radio station KUT has a good report from 2016 about the controversy surrounding construction of the apartment complex next to the cemetery. For a fuller history of the entire area, check out Fred McGhee’s 2014 book on Austin’s Montopolis Neighborhood.
For more on our local spiderwort and its many permutations, the entry at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a good place to start.
The same high school English teacher who turned me on to Graham Greene turned me on to ambient music, in a meeting in his office when he was playing Music for Airports in the background while we talked about some paper I had written. My friends and I had already discovered Eno’s vocal albums, and thought we were pretty cooler, but this teacher, probably fresh out of college, was way ahead of us.
I bought that album not long after, and all the others. I started to appreciate the music more intensely in my late 20s, especially on one particular cross-country trip when I listened it on compact disc for most of a 20-hour drive and realized how deeply that music is tuned into landscape and sky.
Music that qualifies as ambient is all I really listen to now when I work. I have my own curated playlists, and a couple of streaming feeds that are quite good, most notably SomaFM’s Drone Zone. It’s a curious thing that a kind of music so intrinsically tied to the idea of being inside almost always succeeds in pulling in the outside. A pure post-industrial romanticism, like Gerhard Richter paintings made from magnetic loops.
This week’s mail brought a wonderful new addition to my library—ENDLESS: Forty Years of Ambient Music by Blake Leyh. A musician, composer and field recordings artist best known for his film and TV scores (The Wire, Treme, Plot Against America), Blake is one of those people I consider a friend even though we have never met “in real life.” Endless compiles an outstanding array of diverse work from Blake’s long career, and is highly recommended for both ambient completists and the freshly curious. You can find it and much of his other work here on his Bandcamp site, as well as on his main website.
The liner notes are a compelling bit of musical memoir, in which Blake describes his journey as an English punk who ended up moving to the U.S. for his last year of high school, and then found his way to U.C. Santa Cruz, studying electronic music under the redwood trees. At the end of his first year, Brian Eno visited their studio, and Blake records the three core musical concepts he took from that talk and that year, concepts I think have some portability to other artistic practices:
The studio is not a passive recording medium, it is your primary musical instrument.
Incorporate unexpected real-world source material.
Find your own voice.
I was pleased to see my most recent novel Failed State on the Locus Recommended Reading List of science fiction and fantasy works from 2020, in particularly strong company this year. If you enjoy fantastic literature and are looking for new voices and works to discover, the list—along with the year in review write-up to which most of the February issue is devoted—is a great place to start. You can also vote for the same books in this year’s Locus Awards, whether or not you are a subscriber.
And if you think you had a rough 2020, you might appreciate this Saturday Wall Street Journal profile of the people in charge of maintaining that curiously all-American institution, the Optimist International club.
For those who made it to the end, here’s a fave photo from seven years ago this week of a flock of cedar waxwings making a boisterous water stop on the negative edge of our chlorine-free pool.
Have a great week.