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.

 

Sunday morning spelunking in the abandoned semiconductor fab

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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.)

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Corporate creek going back to wild.

 

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Whiteboard cave painting in an abandoned conference room.

 

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Command and control.

 

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Inter-office escalator.

 

bridge

Bridge to the exhaust tower.

 

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Server room.

 

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A note from the Bureau of Radiation Control.

 

cafeteria

Employee cafeteria.

 

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Clean room smocks.

 

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Designated smoking area. “SQUIRRELS WILL BITE.”

 

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Abandoned auditorium, after the last all-hands meeting.

 

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Applied symbolic logic.

 

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Feral skywalk.

 

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Cubicles in the labyrinth.

 

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Stairway to the acid pit.

 

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Fab room floor, like an abandoned spaceship.

 

phone

The number you are dialing has been disconnected.

 

columns

Coded columns.

 

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Wafers on a trophy wall.

 

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Hold your breath.

 

chair

Accidental abstract expressionist portrait, 3×5, in an abandoned corporate library.

 

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Close up

 

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Done.