We live at the end of the road in an industrial part of East Austin, but the road used to continue on, following the course of the Lower Colorado downriver to what used to be the bigger towns like Bastrop. While the old road is now an empty lot that abuts the woodland floodplain, it’s still right of way that’s used by telecom infrastructure, the line of poles marching off along the trail of the past. I read last year in Tung-Hui Hu‘s amazing book A Prehistory of the Cloud how something like 90 percent of the Internet traffic in the U.S. travels over fiber optic cable laid in old railroad right of way, and I’m sure there are plenty of other spots where data travels along the path of pioneer trails, many of which were Indian trails and before that animal trails. Google Fiber has been coming out here lately in their big cherry pickers, hanging new line on these poles, which they share with TimeWarner and probably AT&T and the local power company. The ethereal future is anchored in the deep memory of the land, and sometimes even makes inadvertent habitat for the wildlife it might otherwise displace.
The hawks that live in these woods love those telecom poles, and you find them up there most mornings from daybreak until the beginning of the work day. Their favorites are back in there past the door factory, where the right of way runs along the fenceline of the dairy plant. Between the plant and the woods are ten acres or so of empty fields, bulldozed thirty years ago for the industrial park but never developed. Dudes come in and mow those fields twice a year, keeping the baby mesquites and retama from taking over. Most of the year, there is just enough cover for small mammals to think they can probably make it through, but always patchy. And so the hawks watch, and wait, and feast, while the trucks and planes come and go in the near background of the human space on the other side of the fence. They never let a dude with dogs get too close, but close enough that you can usually make out the silhouette of what they may be holding in their talons—usually mouse, rat, or vole.
The pole in this picture is right by my front yard, visible from the door to the 1978 Airstream trailer that serves as my home office. So I often see whoever may be perched up there, and usually have ready access to my real camera, the one with better zoom than my phone. I have yet to succeed in getting my shot without causing the raptor to fly off after a second, but I’ll get there. It’s been raining all week, a freak occurrence for Central Texas in August, so I was hoping the downpour would better mask my simian stumbling. It did, but not enough.
The empty lot next to that pole sold last year, and the construction supply warehouse back in there just got listed for $11.6 million. Just west of here, Oracle is building a gigantic new campus. The economics are finally approaching the point where the numbers will work for a gigantic dairy plant to get relocated to make room for offices or apartments. Some of us work on protecting these little pockets of wild urban habitat, and we’ve had good success, but even if you keep the buildings back along the road you can’t really do anything to limit the human bustle—indeed, those of us who live back in here are the most permanent human presence, even if we try to make our own yards into better habitat. So some of the species will move on, like the barred owls that hang out in tall trees just below this pole, where the city drainage culverts empty out into an Anthropocene lagoon that nourishes the thirsty cottonwoods. Maybe we should see if Google and Oracle want to chip in for the conservation efforts.
Yesterday afternoon when I got up from my desk and the downpour had settled into a light rain, I heard a coyote howling back there in near-perfect sync with a police siren hurtling down the nearby highway. I guess that is as close as we are going to get to talking to each other, for now. But our Anthropocene future is going to require us to learn how to make better home for wild nature in the city. We could start by remembering that there is no such thing as an empty lot.