You could only find the Impala by accident. It was way off trail, in the back part of a wetland tucked between an urban river and the woods behind a factory. They were the kind of woods no one is really meant to explore, made from volunteer trees grown up between the chunks of concrete and demolition debris dumped in this downzoned stretch of interstitial wilderness at what once was the edge of town. The negative space of the metropolis, where nature fills in the gaps and wild animals feel free to roam in the absence of human gazes.
When you stumbled across it as you stepped out of the tall water grasses, it looked like it might have been there for thousands of years. But you also could remember when cars like that cruised the streets. Cars with Batmobile lines, forged in a pre-apocalyptic Detroit. Cars whose profiles of postwar strength and Rust Belt wonder persist, even as they weather into ruin. It was of that particular vintage, after the assassination of JFK and before the resignation of Nixon. Baked by the sun to primer working on gunmetal, with water plants growing up out of the seats and the engine block, guarded by the herons and egrets who fill the secret sanctuary of the wilderness concealed beneath the drone of the old highway.
You couldn’t tell how it had gotten there. It might have washed downriver in a big flood, or been driven down here at some time when the river channel was different. I would go back and look for it once in a while, and it was always there, but every time you went you needed to intuit a different path through the impenetrable vegetation and knee-sucking muck. It manifested different forms with the changes in the river, sometimes almost completely submerged, other times almost ready to fly off with its steel hood raised like a gull wing. A mystical, motorhead Ozymandias that transported you in ways its designers never intended.
It’s gone now, pulled out of the muck by machines dispatched by the stewards slowly working on cleaning up the edgeland and turning it into a park. Maybe they were right that it didn’t belong there with the birds and the fish and the native plants, so close to the “scenic overlook” that there was a real possibility some Audubon Society folks might see it. But it sure seemed like an indigenous expression, an artifact that perfectly expressed the essence of this place. You can still find its digital ghosts, if you know the right place to look, but that won’t last long. The computers have nine eyes but short memories.
There’s a pink granite office tower downtown that was built on the bones of mastodons. The building was named after a savings and loan that failed, back when they would send developers to jail along with their lawyers, in the days when appraisers ran free. In the basement, a mastodon is painted on the wall. One of the custodians who waxes the floor at night says you can see the beasts’ lumbering specters out there on the loading dock while the accountants sleep.
The roughnecks who came to dig the old pipeline out of the lot were the ones who first reported just how much trash was buried there on the site — rubble from demolitions, fragments of a secret history of the city that you could try to put together like paper from a shredder. Some of it had tumbled down into the floodplain, and piled up at the edge of the bluff were big curb cuts and sewage pipes and whole staircases trying to find their way back into the earth with blooming weeds come up around them like some garden of rebar. When he first walked the site and saw all of that, the architect said we should see how much it would cost to bury it. Instead, we made a grotto of it, like some post-apocalyptic redneck Stonehenge, so new building could compete with the romance of its own imminent ruin.
“Deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road,” says the narrator, and you can see it on the faces of the investors, when they learn that the parcel they have under contract turns out to be an ancient road never legally abandoned by the sovereign. Their vocabulary does not include a word for the commons.
That forgotten right of way behind the door factory terminated at the river, and until recently, the old hippie down the street says, there was a sign still standing back in there listing the prices of the ferry. Before the ferry, it was a low water crossing where people drove animals, and before that the animals meandered in their long migrations across the chasms of time, until we showed up. After a heavy rain, relics of the past appear on the beach — pieces of pottery, twisted gnarls of blue transformer glass, Cretaceous bivalves, the stone gouges of prehistoric toolmakers, the plastic backs of old TVs. The river swallows everything, eventually, and then coughs it back up.
In their study, “Natural History of Vacant Lots,” (Berkeley, 1987), professors Vessel and Wong document the typical flora and fauna of the tracts of the city recovering from human disturbance, but omit discussion of human adaptation to living in our own remains.
The day after the awards ceremony, I went to exchange some books with Bill. Bill lives on the other side of the woods behind the industrial park, in the abandoned office of one of the old dredging yards where they harvest the aggregate that paves the city. Those places are in the flightpath, and that’s the only way you can really witness the scars they make on the landscape — in glimpses from the window of a passenger jet on final approach. To get there on foot, you need to either cross a freeway, jump a fence, or work your way through the forest of retama that hides the pits, a forest that cuts. The trees have grown so thick around Bill’s place that you can’t even see it if you are standing right in front of it, even though it’s right there on the shoulder of a major road.
Bill lives in and of the ever-replenishing ruins of the city. He has been living in that secret squat hidden in plain sight for eight years, he says, ever since he found it after walking to Missouri and back.
He makes stuff in there, from improvised designs. He makes shoes from tire rubber and caps from old blue jeans, cardboard, and plastic placemats. He makes collages from the newspapers and magazines and paper ephemera he finds in the streets. In his living room, he has a big thing on the wall made from mustang vine and string that looks like a dream catcher big enough to trap the nightmares the machine noise feeds to the REITs.
Out the back door, where Bill has his water collection system set up, you can see the black mountain where they have been dumping leftover cement so long that it’s gotten too tall for them to drive their trucks up. You wonder what the foxes think, when they come out of the riverine woods at night to hunt the rats that feed on the trash that the guys leave at the end of the day.
As the sun goes down while we are sitting there talking about the books, to the west you can see the silhouette of the new city, a city of buildings made of numbers, as if capital had finally achieved the capacity for self-expression through its well-trained human instruments. Bill says those buildings are not built on the land, but on imaginary lines that only exist on screens. And as we read the contrails in the burning-down sky, Bill asks what kind of ruins nature will make from buildings made of software, not really expecting an answer.
Christopher Brown is the author of “Tropic of Kansas,” a novel published by Harper Collins in 2017. He is working on a book about the American edgelands. More at christopherbrown.com.