In the nadir of the financial crisis, we moved into the brownfield.
Capital abhors empty lots. The very idea of the “empty lot” is an invention of capital, or the human knack for viewing the natural world through an extractive eye. The American real estate business calls empty lots “unimproved land,” a phrase that encodes the core engine of American history, a history recorded in countless county courthouse murals celebrating the prairie being brought under the plow.
The land we bought in 2009 had been brought under the excavator. Situated in a downzoned industrial sector of East Austin, it was one small slice of the large portion of the Texas landscape that has been colonized by the petrochemical business. The property was diagonally bisected by a buried petroleum pipeline and the wide zone of the oil company’s right of way. On one side were factories and truck roads. On the other were the urban woods that had grown up behind the fences, in the floodplain of the river as it flows below the dam that keeps downtown more domesticated.
In the middle of the lot was a hatch into the Earth, a steel valve box with a big wheel like you would find on a ship. A huge colony of harvester ants had appropriated one of the walls to reinforce its subterranean mound, and built a network of trails through the weeds. It was only later that I learned those ants regulate the comings and goings of their seed foragers using an algorithm that closely matches the TCP/IP protocol that manages Internet packets.
We got the idea to build a home on that lot while preserving its character as ecologically liminal space, one of those zones where the heaviest of human development dissolves into wild nature. To restore the land instead of exploiting it, and subjugate house to nature rather than the other way around. So with the aid of some young and innovative architects we built the house in the ditch left after the guys in the blue hazmat suits dug the old asbestos-coated pipe out of the yard. We put a green roof on it, designed by our friends at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, a roof that stays green in the Texas heat by emulating the floral ecosystems that once thrived here, a biodiverse pocket prairie.
Eight years into the project, we have learned the benefits of yards gone wild. We have other friends in Austin who are doing similar projects, turning their urban lots into recreated remnants of the blackland prairie. Instead of lawns to mow, we have fields of tall grass and wildflowers that we need to periodically weed to keep the invasives under control. (Pro tip: doing yard work with a backpack flamethrower is more fun than collecting mower clippings.) And we have all the critters those plants attract — the entomophiles that get crunk on spring’s pollen, the lizards that eat them, the snakes that eat the lizards, and all the birds that prefer landscapes like the ones their ancestors adapted to. The coyotes try to come in and play, and at night the armadillos feast on the tiny crustaceans living below the leaf litter. Our archipelago of green islands in a concrete sea is growing, as more people see the potential of rethinking how we occupy the landscape. Human habitat is better when it also provides a home for the wild nature it would otherwise displace.
Living here in this zone where nature reasserts itself in the cracks of the city, the spots that have outlived their productive potential or never had it in the first place, you witness the resilience of nature. Sous le pavés, le fôret. Walking the secret woods below the overpass, you interact with the animals — and sometimes the people — who occupy the surprisingly bounteous zones of our inattention on the other side of the no trespassing sign. The English have an entire literature of these places the ecologist Marion Shoard named “edgelands,” but over here we give them rare notice. I wrote a novel informed in large part by my time exploring the trails that sneak under the chain link, viewed through a science fictional prism — trying to find the path to utopia, or at least some measure of ecological redemption, through our ravaged landscape. The Tropic of Kansas is an imaginary place, but you can see it from here. So when my publisher asked me to join my fellow Harper Voyager authors in celebrating Earth Day, I thought I would compile a few of the field notes I have been accumulating about a part of the American wilderness that gets a lot less attention than our national parks. Today is a good today to go out, get lost, and make some of your own. It’s right out there, where the weeds grow tall.
November 23, 2013
You could only find the Impala by accident. It was way off trail, in the back part of a wetland tucked between an urban river and the woods behind a bunch of light factories. They were the kind of woods and wetlands no one is really meant to explore, made from volunteer trees grown up between the chunks of concrete and demolition debris dumped in this downzoned stretch of interstitial wilderness at what once was the edge of town. The negative space of the metropolis, where nature fills in the gaps and wild animals feel free to roam in the absence of human gazes.
When you stumbled across it as you stepped out of the tall water grasses, it looked like it might have been there for thousands of years. But you also could remember when cars like that cruised the streets. Cars with Batmobile lines forged in a pre-apocalyptic Detroit. Cars whose profiles of postwar strength and Rust Belt wonder persist even as they weather into ruin. It was of that certain vintage, after the assassination of JFK and before the resignation of Nixon. Baked by the sun to primer working on gunmetal, with water plants growing up out of the seats and the engine block, guarded by the herons and egrets who filled the secret sanctuary of the wilderness hidden under the roar of the old highway.
You couldn’t tell how it had gotten there. It might have washed downriver in a big flood, or been driven down here at some time when the river channel was different. You would go back and look for it once in a while, and it was always there, but every time you went you needed to intuit a different path through the impassable wild vegetation and knee-sucking muck. It manifested different forms with the changes in the river, sometimes almost completely submerged, at other times almost ready to fly off with its steel hood extended like a gull wing. A mystical motorhead Ozymandias that transported you in ways its designers never intended.
It’s gone now, pulled out of the muck by newer machines dispatched by the stewards slowly working on cleaning up the edgeland and turning it into a park. Maybe they are right that it didn’t belong there with the birds and the fish and the native plants, so close to the “scenic overlook” that there was a real possibility some Audubon Society folks might see it. But it sure seemed like an indigenous expression to you, an artifact that perfectly expressed the essence of this place. You can still find its digital ghosts, if you know the right place to look on the omniscient maps, but that won’t last long.
October 11, 2015
In the morning in the field behind the factory, the woods are louder than the city, at least until the sun gets up over the bridge. But the cooling motors of the dairy plant are always running, even on a Sunday. White noise background for mockingbird flirt, and the rumblings of the drifters camped out in those trees.
At sunup the redtails like to sit on top of the telephone poles, waiting for the voles to come out of their tall grass tunnels. Google has been coming through hanging fiber on those wires, but the hawks are usually gone by the time their linemen show up.
Some mornings there’s fresh kill out there. Armadillo shell, a mass of mottled feathers, a bit of bloody fur. The coyotes have been loud this year, crazy yips like psychotic cackle, sometimes even in mid-day. But it’s the raptors who really like a treeless interzone like this, where the ground animals move between forest and fence.
Men made the field. It was a roadway once, a long time ago, before they built the bridge across the river. Now it’s the private land between an industrial park and a riverine woodland preserve occupied by wild animals and human nomads. Twice a year they come through with a tractor and mow it, keeping the insurgent mesquites at bay.
Yesterday morning as the hawk spooked off, a big white Dreamliner lumbered in from the eastern sky, arriving from London with news of the future.
To find wonder in the city, sometimes you need to jump the fence. Take a shortcut that’s anything but. Try out an inverse psychogeography, where you evade the urban and seek out the interstitial remnants of what came before the concrete, and will be there when the Dreamliners are gone, and all the motors stop.
October 25, 2015
I ran into Bill O. down there in the woods today, after the rain let up a little and the river got back down into its banks. He’s cut his hair and trimmed his beard since I first met him this spring on another rainy day, when he was back in the tall weeds behind the factory with black dog and wooden staff, trying to find his way out like some run-down Istari.
Bill lives downriver in the old office of the asphalt yard, a wooden building right off the highway so overgrown with bramble that it is almost invisible. He said he’s been there for years, sharing it with another guy, making stuff and salvaging stuff.
This morning Bill was wearing a blue cap he just made. It looked like a German army cap, or one from the Civil War, flat-topped ball cap with a trim brim, sewn from old blue jeans with thick white thread. He said he was making a new one that would be better, a mix of grey and blue.
There were a lot of guys camped out in the woods behind the factories this summer. They know how to find the best spots, secret little campsites folded into the fabric of the city. A Tyvek teepee draped over long stalks of insurgent bamboo trimmed from the right of way of the old ferry crossing. An igloo of black vinyl tarp and thin PVC deep in the canebrake behind the bent chainlink along the access road. A base camp in the zone of urban flotsam over the first bank, with a good tent, a found inflatable kayak, a fresh citation for petty theft, and a stack of middle grade nature books pulled out of the piles. This morning they were all gone, washed away by the big river, not two weeks after the park police came through and cleared out their occupants.
If you ask the cops they tell you most of these dudes camping in the woods are recently released convicts you should report to the authorities as soon as you see them. Bill says a lot of the new guys are soldiers, back from long tours in the Long War. One of them this summer said he had a job but just couldn’t afford the rent in this town. All I know is that they are all good at disappearing, and figuring out ways to make shelter from the things they find in the interzone between the industrial park and the riverine woods.
This summer another guy passing through the zone built a piece of earth art, a vortex of repurposed mustang vine and broken hackberry. It was still there this morning, surrounded by a stranded school of shad shimmering on the muddy trail as if they had swum through from the other side. And I wondered if some of these guys the rich city has no home for might have found their way there. Stepped through the portal, into a better Neverwhere.
If only. Humans are harsh landlords, and the secret shelters are getting harder to find. Especially for those who can’t or won’t get on capital’s treadmill.
December 20, 2015
On a clear winter night here in the riverine woods behind the factories, it gets so dark you can almost forget you are in the city. No clouds for the lamps to shine on, the light just bleeds off into space. Not enough to bring out the night sky — just the moon, Venus, Orion, a passing military satellite — but enough to trigger primitive fears of predation as you walk from the street into the inky edge of the woods where we tucked our house.
The Texas heat bleeds off on those nights, too, like the air rushing out of a spaceship with the door left open, dropping 30 or 40 degrees between sunset and sunrise. The cold cleans, slowing down the winter growth for a day, keeping warm-weather hominids huddled in their balloon-frame habitats. And when the sun comes back over the horizon behind the dairy plant, it burns off the frost in minutes, bathing the fields in ephemeral mist.
If you walk out into it on a weekend morning, when commerce is paused, you find the woods blanketed in fog so thick it hides the trash left behind by the floods, conjuring little Böcklin frames right there under the highway bridge, in the flightpath. The monochrome silhouette of a heron seeps through ambient light, the grey flow of river and fog swirling slowly around you, and you can almost slip away into it, into a world without treadmills.