Over at Medium, some of my field notes from the Anthropocene, recompiled for the #HVScienceFair being conducted by my publisher Harper Voyager this week:
In the morning I took my visiting parents just past the limits of the northwest suburbs for a nature walk. The place we went is a wildlife refuge carved from old ranches to protect two endangered species of songbirds who rely on this very specific habitat threatened by encroaching subdivisions. The drive took about forty-five minutes as we passed through a series of landscapes—urban freeway, frontage road, suburban chain sprawl, county road, and finally an old ranch road that followed the course of a gorgeous creek flowing clear and full over denuded limestone. A sanctuary of ecological recovery, where even the invasive ash juniper trees whose noxious spores fill the winter skies were finally being cleared out.
We walked a trail that followed a beautiful stream lined with cottonwoods and live oaks and dotted with the long-haired muelys we have growing on our roof but which I had never seen in their native riparian habitat. My mother, who lives in the woods up north, is more interested in mushrooms than people, and does not own a mobile phone, found a spot that I would have walked right past where there was a small redbud tree with the first fresh fuchsia blooms of spring. She sat down on a rock and watched the different butterflies come and visit the tree, slowing the walk into a long stillness that required no spoken language to communally summon.
I looked at my phone as I was taking pictures and noticed I had no signal, after hours of nonstop breaking news bulletins while the regime drama of the day unfolded. And I realized the butterflies had momentarily replaced the phone alerts, and the only thing streaming was the burbling creek. Some kind of pointer in how to secure liberated territory in the age of atemporality.
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.
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.
The other day I found a military helicopter hovering over my house. We live in the flightpath—the ancient avian flightpath and VFR aid of the Lower Colorado River, and the approach to the airport—so passing helicopters are a daily experience. But you could hear how close this one was, and you could hear the distinct chop, that heavy and slow Nam vintage sound of a Bell Huey. Apocalypse Now. When I stepped out of the old trailer I use as my front yard office, there it was, close enough that if you were on the roof you could probably jump and grab the rails. And as soon as I got my phone out to film it, it peeled off as if caught snooping.
We see all sorts of curious things in the sky over here. An abundance of raptors live in the woods between the highway and the river. This time of year, when the trees are still naked, the hawks lord over the forest floor and the big barred owls come out at dusk. In the morning the osprey cruise over the river, dive-bombing the fat fish when they come up close to the surface. Sometimes you will see a northern caracara, the rugged crested eagle of the Mexican flag, sitting on the rocky beach gnawing on fresh kill. The belted kingfishers buzz around in pairs, their rattling calls like machine reels. If you walk back around the old wetland remnant behind the dairy plant, chances are one of the big herons will lift up into the foggy air before you like the last pterodactyl.
Under skies like this, it’s easy to become both a birder and a planespotter. If you pay attention, you start to notice weird stuff passing over. I saw a Mitsubishi Zero once, Tora Tora Tora all the way, the first of many warbirds, usually old fighters flown by the outfit that used to call itself the Confederate Air Force, and sometimes a big bomber. Once in a while the fighter jets will come screaming over at a low altitude, presumably trainers from one of the USAF bases in San Antonio. The Austin airport used to be an Air Force base, with B-52s pointed at our southern border. Wolverines!
I started using one of those flight tracker apps on my phone to augment the silhouettes I see in the sky, pulling up flight plans and call sign info. They don’t show military aircraft, but they show everything else, and I am sure at some point I will have a Trevor Paglen-worthy revelation of some dark traffic beyond the corporate jets headed out to the oil patch and the mysterious windowless cargo planes lumbering off to faraway shores. Last fall I saw an eastbound jumbo jet at around 20,000 feet with an escort of five fighters in tight formation. The app didn’t show the 747 or whatever it was, but said the fighters were registered to NASA. I watched their avatar on the screen, supposedly en route to Ellington base in Houston, but then they headed out over the Gulf and suddenly disappeared. The truth is out there.
Seeing signs of the military-industrial power of the federal state used to be a curiosity more than a threat. Little moments of wonder, manifestations of the technothriller fantastic in the mundane fabric of everyday life. They feel different now, under the dark mien of the new jefe and his scowling barons. When I posted the video of the chopper over my house a friend joked that I must have provoked such attention with my writing. I should be so lucky, I said, knowing that the likely explanation was the curious design of our house, a buried modernist bungalow camouflaged by a shaggy green roof, and the natural proclivity of all pilots to gawk at interesting sights. But there’s no question that the everyday projections of federal force are now infused with fresh fear, because that’s how they want us to feel. Especially, it seems, how they want some of our neighbors to feel, here under the Six Flags.
The ICE raids started yesterday. Forty-four people rounded up here on the first day. At the bar last night, two friends who teach grade school told us about their terrified students sharing the viral news, wondering if they would go home to find their parents gone. We heard from people we know worried about how they might be affected, asking us how we might help. The newspaper says the raids are focused only on “criminal aliens,” but you know it is also about generating fear, about actively destabilizing community. You know it’s about retribution and discipline, in a “sanctuary city” whose leaders have the temerity to express defiance. And when you see the armed representatives of the federal state now, rolling out into the streets, you realize that Texas and Yemen are not so far apart.
Not far from where I live, on a high point at the edge of town, hidden behind the woods along a generic frontage road, looms a gigantic ruin of a lost future. From the Ford Administration until the last gasp of the Long Boom, they made the brains of machines there, with acid and silicon. The company that built the fab was old tech, guys with Florsheim shoes who made 1930s police cars and cabs into networked devices. They had their own space program at the peak, launching private payloads to build a corporate orbital net twenty years before Bezos, Branson and Musk got in the game. Capital moved on not long after, the company was broken into pieces, and most of the semiconductor business offshored. The company no longer exists, but this remnant is still there, in the negative space of city.
The facility is likely get repurposed before too long, in line with a greener vision. On a recent Sunday morning I had the opportunity to help document its current state—a million-square-foot concrete labyrinth finding its way back to wild.
From the outside, as you approach through the tall grass, it’s like stumbling upon a lost pyramid of the twentieth century, a sprawling complex of big box buildings and industrial infrastructure formerly occupied by white-smocked techno-monks, getting slowly overtaken by invasive foliage. Through the door, on the upper levels, miles of abandoned cubicles, cavernous spaces for mass gatherings, conference rooms with enigmatic messages left on the whiteboards. A piece of brutally awful corporate art still hangs on the stairwell up to the C-suite, a three-dimensional explosion of wood and acrylic designed to warn you off the den of corporate authority. Past the trophy wall of MIMS chips is the old auditorium, littered with printed-out story problems from a logic test whose mass failure may have contributed to the demise of the facility. Every drawer seems jammed with binders of bound manuals left behind, obsolete volumes of design documentation and safety procedures spilling out on the floor as if through some unexplained process of post-mortem seepage. On one of the loading docks I found an old camcorder tape sitting next to a copy of Excel 98 for Mac for Dummies, perhaps containing a few minutes of footage that would reveal what really happened here, if only the playback device still existed.
Down inside the plant, where the light cannot reach, are the metal and concrete caverns of the old fab, looking every bit the marooned spaceship, seemingly endless rooms where you can’t really tell which side is ceiling and which side floor. The warnings are still marked on the doors that lead to narrow anterooms lined with symmetrically arrayed chrome valves. You need a respirator to enter, and a powerful flashlight, and a brief suspension of your sense of self-preservation. When you shine your lamp you see a piece of paper taped to a column, an obsolete certificate from the Bureau of Radiation Control.
Back upstairs on the other side of the fab, on a chair in the abandoned library, there is an altered photograph. A portrait, posed for a corporate ID badge, but smudged, and seemingly marked with pencil, like some naturally occurring Gerhardt Richter miniature. But you are pretty sure the only curator of this site is entropy.
Below is an image of that photo, and other smartphone snaps from our excursion (click for larger versions).
(This place is also a secure site, and an unsafe one, so don’t get any goofy ideas.)
Corporate creek going back to wild.
Whiteboard cave painting in an abandoned conference room.
Command and control.
Bridge to the exhaust tower.
A note from the Bureau of Radiation Control.
Clean room smocks.
Designated smoking area. “SQUIRRELS WILL BITE.”
Abandoned auditorium, after the last all-hands meeting.
Applied symbolic logic.
Cubicles in the labyrinth.
Stairway to the acid pit.
Fab room floor, like an abandoned spaceship.
The number you are dialing has been disconnected.
Wafers on a trophy wall.
Hold your breath.
Accidental abstract expressionist portrait, 3×5, in an abandoned corporate library.