Where nature meets noir

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I remember a guide once told me that beaver only became nocturnal after the arrival of European hunters. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that there are a lot of wild animals living in the heart of the city that only come out while most of us are sleeping.

We live behind a row of light factories that shield a stretch of riverfront woods from human attention, a slice of ephemeral urban habitat. At night we hear the mysterious hoots of the big barred owls that live back in there, the howls of the coyotes, the crazy skronks of the big herons. In the mornings when I walk the dogs after sunup, we see the fresh tracks in the sand of all the critters that have just passed through, and sometimes we see who made those tracks.

The human space on the other side of the hurricane fences that hem in the factories is just as wild, and one of the things you learn over time is that a lot of those animals living in the woods head out into the city to hunt while we are sleeping. Scientists have tracked the coyotes who have colonized Chicago, and I have seen their Texas cousins at the edge of downtown Austin, trotting across the railroad tracks and down alleys. They say that urban raccoons are rapidly evolving to be more intelligent than their country cousins, as they solve increasingly challenging puzzles we make for them, like how to use your proto-hands to pry open a big plastic trash bin secured with bungee cords. If you spend enough time walking back in the woods behind the factories, you start to see the little portals the wild animals travel through to leave the woods and enter our zone of food—the bent-back corners of chain link, the drainage pipes, the spaces under the gates designed only to lock out people and trucks.

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The other morning when I walked out onto the street at 4 a.m. to exercise the dogs before our early flight, there was a big semi parked along the lane, engine idling, waiting for the door factory to open for deliveries. The trucker was in there, sleeping, right by the gate where the foxes pass in and out of urban space, squeezing under the gate and through the bamboo curtain along the old roadbed to their dens back in the bramble around the drainage pipe. Sometimes we see their bushy tails in our headlights when we come home from an evening out. I wonder what they hunt in the spaces between the warehouses, after we go to bed.

That morning we didn’t see any foxes, just a free dog trotting under the streetlamps in front of the electric church. A yellow retriever mix, a color that registered luminescent in the weird municipal light.  My dogs didn’t see it it, and it didn’t seem to see us, which was fine by me under the circumstances.

We often see strays in the woods along the river, usually from afar, sometimes awfully close.  They always seem to avoid contact, and move like apparitions—through a gap in the foliage, walking along the distant bank, crossing the shallows.  Only occasionally will one approach you, and when you “rescue” a dog like that and take it to the adoption shelter, you wonder if you have deprived it of a liberty it enjoyed.

Our street is crazy beautiful at night, where nature meets noir.  That morning the sky was clear, with a crescent moon and Venus nearby in the western sky. The street is a vestigial remnant, once the road to the ferry at the edge of town.  It’s wide and straight, three long blocks, dimly lit, with beat-up metal prefabs on one side and a few houses tucked into the woods on the other. When I looked back to make sure yellow dog was not following us home, it was sitting right in the middle of the road, perfectly still, looking right at me.

Just then a raptor flew from one of the lampposts through the beam of the streetlamp, swooping for something in a neighbor’s yard. You could just make out the red of the hawk’s tail feathers for a moment before it went back into shadow. I wonder if the avian hunters have come to enjoy the light pollution of the city, the way it keeps the empty lots glowing like a dark room where someone has left the TV on.

After I put my dogs back in I took one of the leads and stepped back out to see if the dog was still there, but it was gone.

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Fiber hawk

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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.

 

Looking through holes in the border wall

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[pic: The U.S. border where it walks into the Pacific, viewed from Tijuana.]

If I had never left Iowa, the state where I grew up, I might find all this talk of building border walls more persuasive.  Iowa is a long way from Mexico. But I’ve lived in the borderzone longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, and spent a good bit of time crossing over. Since 9/11, I’ve seen the U.S.-Mexico border become one of the most fortified places on Earth.  Six hundred miles of sophisticated new physical barriers have been constructed since 2006, in the places where the Border Patrol said they were needed, expanding on the barriers that have been going up since the Clinton years—like the fortification pictured above that comes up out of the Pacific between Tijuana and San Diego.  Other sections are fortified by the “virtual fence” of sensors, drones, blimps, surveillance towers and armed patrols—much of it using technologies and methods developed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s easy to talk about border walls.  I’ve written about them—here, here and here—arguing that their real purpose is not so much to actually keep people and contraband out as it is to persuade citizens far from the border that the legal fiction the wall renders tangible really exists.

It’s not as easy to look at border walls, especially if you don’t live within driving distance of one—or don’t want to confront the reality that diversity is the future no matter what barriers we may erect.  But there are other ways to experience the reality of U.S. border fortifications that already exist.

Last year, for a conference in Monterrey, I conducted an experiment in looking at the border wall without ever getting up from my chair.  Drawing inspiration from the work of the artist Jon Rafman and the Mexican photographer Alberto Rodríguez, I traversed the length of the border in Google Street View, on both sides, looking for holes in the wall.  Here is some of what I found.  Even better, try it yourself.  Open Google Maps, find a spot along the border, launch Street View, and look for a way to cross.  If you can find a hole, click on it, and see what happens.

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Border wall gate at Brownsville, Texas

 

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21st century border wall as minimalist land art, looking at Arizona from Sonora

 

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Hole in the border wall, Matamoros

 

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View through the border wall, Mexicali

 

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Texas backyard: trampoline, border wall, nine eyes

 

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FM 1419, Texas

 

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Border wall gate, Arizona

 

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Forager in the shadows by a crack in the border wall at Matamoros, Gateway bridge span in the background

 

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DMZ of “Friendship Park,” San Diego Imperial Beach, looking at the border wall where it goes out into the Pacific

 

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Spectral street dog in Tecate, “Pueblo Magico”

 

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Under construction, Arizona

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Nogales, pedestrian crossing

 

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Arc lights over the border zone, suburban San Diego

 

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Nogales, long view

 

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Art museum with border wall, Texas

 

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Memorials to a few of those who didn’t make it alive

 

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Arizona DMZ, at the spot where this Border Patrol officer made the Google car turn around.