Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Riot of Life

It's not much of a meadow, really.

That is, when compared with the 'real' meadows that inspired Thoreau or Emerson or Whitman, this little patch of Texas grass and where I sit to write is quite modest, to say the least. There is no Walden Pond here.

In fact, where I sit is really nothing more than a rainwater collection pond. The city built it back when this neighborhood was developed some thirty years ago. It was designed to prevent Williamson Creek, which runs the length of the greenbelt that defines one edge of this neighborhood, from flooding.

There are many such 'ponds' in and around Austin. Ninety nine percent of the time, they are empty. Many are elaborately built concrete boxes and channels designed to funnel water off of impervious cover like parking lots. But this one is made for flood control in a neighborhood so it's just a simple ditch, really. It's about the size of a football field, with inner sloping sides about twelve feet deep.

These ponds are here in large part because as a community, Austin has been more conscious of the relationship between people and the land we live on. Here in Central Texas, we live right on top of the Edwards Aquifer, from which we derive a great deal of our water, even if we don't realize it.

It is easy to think of the water above ground, in lakes and rivers and even little 'sometimes' streams like Williamson Creek, but in fact most of the water used for agricultural irrigation, and a lot of what we drink here in Central Texas, is out of sight. It gets pumped out of the Edwards Aquifer.

These 'ponds' then, are actually collection places for rainwater. When we get a heavy rain, water collects in these boxes, channels and ditches. It builds up briefly before being filtered through the limestone below. Eventually, most of the water is passed directly into the Aquifer instead of channeling it into the waste-water collection system and from there into Town Lake.

But from where I sit, this empty 'pond' is anything but simple. This place is a literal riot of life.

The first thing I notice are the flowers. There are at least a dozen varieties of wildflowers and this is at the beginning of Summer. A month ago, during our 'Spring' there must have been fifty varieties of flowers in bloom out here. It was a record year for the bluebonnets, and they were just the first to show their heads.

The insect life is even more overwhelming. In spite of recent evidence that there are likely fewer insects in the world that we once thought, there are still plenty of them to go around.

Today is the day of the butterfly. A hundred thousand or more of the tiniest yellow butterfly imaginable pump the jagged surfaces of the flowers and grass with crazy uninhibited motion. Not one seems to be inclined to alight on a flower in the morning sunshine. They swoop and dive in the morning air as if to dry off the dew from their wings before breakfast.

These butterflies are merely the most visible of the insects. Besides the tiny yellow butterflies, there are white, brown and golden ones as well. I know that even more exotic and elaborate creatures are here as well.

As soon as I sit down, I a single miniature blue dragonfly hovers in the weeds not a foot from Loki's nose. Flies and bees and beetles are also hard to miss. The ants are here too, a zillion of them. And, don't get me started on the mosquitos, as they have already started in on me. That's just those that I can see. As a boy, I know from experience that many, many more bugs are also hard at work out there, tending to their tiny territories like indefatigable itinerant farmers.

Then there are the birds. Mostly I can just hear them, hiding in the branches of the trees surrounding the meadow, calling to one another and plotting their day's assault on the insects below. The littlest birds are already at work, darting above and through the grass jungle, snaring breakfast out of the air from the giant writhing mass that are the butterflies.

There are mammals here too, but for the moment, Loki and I are the only two that are actually visible. Loki keeps an eye out for the others, but this morning there are no squirrels, possums or even other dogs to entertain him. I have seen plenty of raccoons and even deer out here, but at this moment, they have already had the good sense to retreat to the darkest parts of the brush. The sun is rising rapidly in the sky.

There are numerous small copses of oak and mesquite that surround this meadow, but mostly what I see out here is grass. There must be a thousand varieties of grass in this tiny meadow alone. It seems boring at first glance. It is, after all, just grass. But this grass sustains all this other life, including me and Loki.

He is most anxious for me to quit writing and start walking again, but he will only have to wait a few more minutes. At eight am, it's is already hot.

As we walk, my eyes are drawn down to the flowers. It is hard to distinguish the 'wildflowers' from the grasses because so many of the grasses also have wonderful wildflowers. These flowers are either so tiny or so briefly present that we notice them only when they are in vast numbers. This morning, the flowering grasses are certainly here in number. They create a not-so-subtle background wash for those big and bright sex advertisements that are the more noticeable and similarly promiscuous wildflowers.

The butterflies are almost indistinguishable from the flowers and grass where they live and procreate. They are like flying flowers. Their shapes and colors are identical and in some ways interchangeable; they are sex on the wing.

It's all about sex and reproduction. It's hard not to notice just how intense and relentless life is, even in this place.

This is comforting to know, in such a real sense, for in the back of my mind is the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I will not poison this essay with many of my thoughts and feelings about that incident. That, as the saying goes, "is another story".

That said, however, as dismayed, angered and hurt as I am about the oil pouring into the Gulf for the past six weeks; as sick as I am to consider how much damage will be done, how much life--again, including us--that will perish as a result of this act of cowardly act of hubris; in spite of all this, I still have some hope.

Seeing this meadow--just simply being here now, to see how even this artificially sculpted and 're-purposed' landscape has been claimed and dominated by the riot of life gives me cause, for the moment, to be hopeful.

Why? Because life, that beautiful riot, is relentless.

I don't think life ever relinquishes even the tiniest morsel of the planet. This relentless drive to conquer may well be what saves even hypocrites like us from the ever bigger and even more lethal environmental disasters sure to come.

If I have another hope, it is that the foolish and willfully destructive corporate institutions of Man that bring about these disasters are not nearly so resilient as the hundred of millions of lives that they threaten.

The Gulf of Mexico will eventually recover. Let's hope that BP does not.

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