Tracking the lost hour

This week felt a little bit like they had cancelled spring and were going to go straight to summer, as February’s winter storm showed its stamp on the plants that had already emerged just as the snow and ice arrived. The early bloomers looked alive but battered, with no sign of flowering at a time when, in a normal year, the purple blossoms of the spiderwort hide all the trash buried in this bluff at the edge of town. The air was warm, but that balmy greenhouse warm that feels slightly apocalyptic. I saw one flower on Monday, and took it for a sidewalk invasive, but looking at the picture now I think it must have been a yellow primrose, a native that thrives in unmowed rights of way.

Thursday morning I came upon a tiny shrine in the empty field outside the old lighting factory, which has been shuttered since long before we moved here more than a decade ago. We get a lot of unofficial shrines around here, usually at a spot where someone was killed by a car or drowned in the river, marked with a cross made someplace else and garlanded with plastic flowers. There used to be an especially ominous one behind a nearby playground at the spot where, around fifteen years ago, the body of a murder victim was dumped, back when the municipal park across the river was just some weird woods at the edge of town.

Thursday’s shrine was more enigmatic, and of the place where it was made. A tiny stack of twigs, pecans, and fragments of paper holding up a four-inch cross made of two sticks that had been split down the middle and tied with thin purple yarn, maybe the thread of a sweater coming undone. Within its orbit, more twigs holding down the torn fragment of a book cover, all caps in the same purple as the yarn: THUNDER ON THE RIGHT. Maybe it was because my headphones were playing some Yale professor’s lecture about allusion in Blood Meridian that it seemed so portentous. And then as we walked on, I found it making me think about the hour we were about to lose on Sunday.

Around the corner, on the wall of the abandoned factory, the East Austin Maoists had spray-painted a new exhortation to uprising the night before, only to have it hidden behind the trucks of the wage laborers building the new bus plaza across the street:

If you ask it, the Internet will try to convince you that the farmers are not to blame for Daylight Savings Time. I’m not really buying it. Growing up in the Midwest, the lore that people wanted to maximize the amount of field labor they could extract from their children during the months without school made perfect sense, when we city kids spent our summers working crummy jobs and mowing lawns. I do buy the stories that it’s mostly Ben Franklin’s fault—the same guy you can blame for the calendar that lets other people add meetings to your day, even when the only office you share is the computer screen in your spare room. Our founding capitalist trickster would have loved the institution of a rule whose only real purpose is to remind you that you do not control the clock, the clock controls you.

It’s probably eccentric to enjoy living down the street from an abandoned factory, and to appreciate the inability of its owners to redirect its entropic trajectory. I’m told that before we got here, back when W. was POTUS, the Secret Service used it as a staging area for their militarized black flannel Chevys, and I once found a Camp David cufflink along the curb. It was a popular outlaw skate park until the loading dock finally collapsed, and had a brief run as the location of the cantina in a direct-to-video narcothriller. One beautiful October day five years ago I was admiring one of the big trees in the lawn when I noticed a guy taking a nap in its shade, right next to the for sale sign that has since rotted away and fallen from its posts.

This zone is full of old factories that globalization left behind, like the carapaces of giant robots who broke free and migrated on. Many of them are too big, too toxic, or too encumbered by the development code to be profitably redeveloped. And so they are allowed to go back to wild.

The most epic one I have found is the massive ruin of the Motorola semiconductor plant a couple of miles east of here, where they used to make PowerPC chips. I explored it a few summers ago with a friend, with flashlights and mold masks, through the ragweed, past the EMERGENCY LEAKER CABINET, and under a feral skywalk into the once-sanitized subterranean fab that looked every bit like an abandoned spaceship. Upstairs, we climbed the broken escalator, passed through the cavernous cafeteria, and sat in the back row of an empty auditorium still inhabited by the ghosts of the final all-hands meeting.

In one conference room, I opened the wall cabinet to find a whiteboard on which someone had drawn a primitive figure of their antlered prey in dry-erase marker.

Maybe it’s because I have been reading a history of feral children this week that my thoughts of industrial facilities retaken by nature got me thinking about what it would look like to rewild the modern self. Maybe not all the way, but a little further than those click-bait stories about the mental health benefits of forest bathing. At the end of a lost year, a year in which the boundaries between workplace and home, personal time and time on the clock, have been broken open by a virus, that lost hour feels like an especially oppressive reminder that the clock, an instrument designed to emulate the cycles of nature, has become the primary means whereby we are alienated from nature.

Saturday morning the week’s balmy air finally yielded a good long rain, and the worn-out plants of early Texas spring almost immediately burst into bloom.

The peach blossoms were especially beautiful, three weeks after the branches had endured several days coated in a thick layer of ice, and you couldn’t help but wonder if they will be sweeter this year.

Right below that blossom hung the deadwood cocoon of a bagworm, made from tiny sticks a lot like the little shrine I found outside the light factory. As I wondered whether the creature inside that strange and wondrous little shelter survived the freeze, I thought about our own coming re-emergence, and whether we might figure out ways to apply the lessons of life under quarantine to liberate ourselves from the clock just a little bit, even as it demands our ritual submission to its rule.

If the plants and bugs can show up late, so can we.

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Further reading

For more pictures from the abandoned semiconductor plant, check out these field notes I posted on my main site back in July 2016.

Michael Newton’s engagingly written Savage Girls and Wild Boys (2002) is a history of feral children as both historical individuals and cultural phenomena. I originally read portions of book while researching my novel Tropic of Kansas, which features a somewhat feral teen as its principal protagonist, and am finding it more engaging on reread, no doubt in part because I am reading it as the author intended instead of jumping around the text looking for juicy nuggets like a hungry bird. It’s full of fascinating material, like the opening discussion of Ivan Mishukov, who emancipated himself at age 4 to live on the streets of mid-90s Moscow, where he managed to become leader of a pack of feral dogs.

Lastly, if you want to understand where that lost hour went, the Wikipedia entry on Daylight Savings Time is a good place to start, even if doesn’t really give an answer.


Have a great week.