North of the Colorado River, Austin spreads out over an alluvial terrace shaped like the palm of your left hand. The loose U of the palm is defined by the course of the river which exits the Texas Hill Country within sight of downtown. Etched into the palm, creeks cut "life" lines deep into the gravel and clay.
The grid of the city sits on top of the wobbly boundaries of the creeks and their water sheds. I live beside Johnson Creek, or what is left of it, just over a mile from downtown. I can see Austin’s sparkling new skyline through the branches of an ancient oak when I sit on the balcony of my apartment.
Usually dry, Johnson Creek roars to life following a heavy rain. With each rain, the sedimentary layers of its banks erode and the accumulated debris gets churned up leaving an ever-changing mosaic in its wake. The creek bed is a jumble of limestone gravel and boulders, broken glass, porcelain fragments, fossils, flint, broken chunks of concrete and garbage from the homeless camps hidden in the thickets.
For most of its history Austin has cast a wary eye on its creeks. Flash floods could occur at any moment and our “city fathers” viewed them as nothing more than dumping grounds and drains. But, thankfully, the threat they posed also created blank spaces, fingers of green.
For long stretches of its course, Johnson Creek has been channelized or buried. Just a block from my home, it emerges from a tunnel that was dug as a storm water diversion project. From there, down to the river, it is accompanied by a freeway and rail road tracks. A "hike and bike" trail parallels the creek bed and both dive under an elaborate highway exchange before reaching the shores of Ladybird Lake – the dammed Colorado.
Rather than staying on the concrete trail, I prefer to walk to the lake by slowly combing my way down the creek bed, eyes alert for fossil patterns and knapped flint. I find shards of cobalt blue glass and celadon glazed porcelain, discarded toys and tools, fragments of ammonite spirals, arrowheads and primitive stone axes. I try to read the history of the creek and my city through these artifacts in the same way a palmist might try to read the haphazard tracks of my hand.
Located in what used to be a Cedar Elm “flat” that sloped to the creek, the apartment house I live in sits on the edge of a neighborhood that has transitioned from middle class respectability to exclusive privilege over the course of the past thirty years. Our building’s units were sold-off as condominiums in Austin’s first high-tech boom and I have lived here since that time (minus a ten year stint when I moved into a more spacious home with my former partner.) Our early 60’s apartment building feels a bit out of place now amid the McMansions, fancy new condos, and stylish estates, yet we remain a happy if slightly bedraggled anomaly.
I started caring for the grounds of our complex soon after moving in 1984. A few years later, I talked the homeowners association into letting me transform our shared concrete courtyard into a lush garden. Over time I also improved the soil in two large spaces on either side of our parking area and planted an array of small native trees, shrubs and perennials under the old Cedar Elms. My intent was to create a simulation of the native plant communities found along our local creeks and those of the Hill Country.
During my ten year absence the condo's gardens decayed and were invaded by a host of non-native plants. Meanwhile, in the home I shared with my partner, I had created an elaborate garden that I hoped to spend the rest of my life tending. However, when my partner and I broke-up, I could not afford the property on my own and was forced to say good-bye to my creation.
Returning to my old apartment was not easy, in fact, when I first moved back in I could hardly stand to look at what was left of the gardens around the building. However, coming back turned out to be a home-coming and I soon found myself being reintroduced to pleasurable routines. For the past few years I have worked to restore the grounds, replenish the soil and beat back the invaders. Once again I feel the profound sense of gratitude that comes from seeing one's labor live and grow. Even if this latest iteration of home, garden and place turns out to be temporary, I feel as if my stake is back in the ground.
And so now, dear readers, I come to the point of this meandering introduction...
We live in rootless times. We are adrift in a flood of images and messages that scream for our attention and lure us always away from the places where we actually are: the living, breathing, tragic, funny, dying, poignant, loving, angry, and pulsing reality over our shoulders and just beyond our screens.
Yet, in many ways, the digital channels we wander now define our terrain more accurately than any geological map and, just like Johnson Creek, they are also choked with trash and treasures. We scan this cyber-world like drones - always searching - and yes, at times finding artifacts as expressive and perfectly worked as an arrowhead or the fossilized imprint of a species that breathed its last over one million years ago.
I live in the same world you do - torn between actual place and artificial site... between mucky reality and fantastic simulation. "Reflections from a Dry Creek Bed" will be my attempt to navigate those two shores and to assemble my own mosaic of images, ideas and inspiration from the dust and din. I will try to glean sustenance and meaning from the accretions of the past and the detritus of the present - whether they be pressed into limestone or embedded in code.
More importantly, I promise to keep a sharp eye out for the good and hopeful things that must surely follow when we allow ourselves to be both cultivated by and cultivators of our messy inheritance.
I never know what I will find when I walk down Johnson Creek or what small wonder will call to me when I step into my garden. Likewise, do any of us ever know where our curiosity and search engines will lead us when we enter this stream? And, why wouldn't we wish the same for all of these places - that the passage of our shadows through their corridors leaves them better in some small quirky / human way?
My goal for this place, this site, is that it will be a source of nourishment for your roots and mine.
Now, let's get our hands dirty and start mixing things up.