Unicorn flowers

Saturday morning an intense thunderstorm blew in behind the sun, and the dogs seemed not especially keen to head out into it, but we went anyway, when it looked like there was a chance to catch the space between cloudbursts. The dogs were on a scent as soon as we stepped through the gate, and I let them point the way down along the old roadbed that’s now overgrown with frostbitten bamboo and blocked with fallen trees. And as we clambered over the last of those, we glimpsed a coyote maybe a hundred feet ahead, slinking around behind the construction supply warehouse.

The coyote saw us first, and immediately stepped into the thick cover grown up around the drainage ditch, the one with the old TV and the pop bottle fragments bearing the logos of long-forgotten brands. We followed its scent-track along the treeline, and then down into the secret swamp. A good place to get lost, and one we had not visited in a while.

February’s winter storm hit the flora of our urban wetlands hard, making that normally lush zone easier to traverse than usual. The cleaver that grows like weedy Velcro had carpeted the area normally thick with tall water grasses, and you could see how the spot was in the process of becoming something else. Harder ground, maybe that could support heavier trees than the spindly willows that stood out in clearer relief without the jungle foliage at its base.

Down in the creek that feeds the swamp with water flowing from the drainage ditch, someone had made a new bridge from flotsam wood of the floodplain. A bridge to nowhere, I thought, way off trail, connecting two banks that would soon be impassable. A winter traveler who made camp back in there, perhaps, or some lair of the Texas Druid King.

On the other side of that creek on a Saturday morning eleven years ago, in even more intense rain, I came upon a bearded man carrying a big wooden staff and leading five German shepherds through those woods. I had seen him and his dogs before, enough that we half-recognized each other, but never in such intense conditions, half cloaked in shadow. I never saw him again after that.

We didn’t take the bridge. We walked on and crossed the muddy creek at another spot, and then followed a fresh path some other animal had just made through the wet new grass. That led to a true path, where we found the remains of a mockingbird in the mud—just feathers, probably taken that night by a raptor, or maybe one of the urban cats we see squeezing themselves under the fences where the empty lots meet the street.

When we stepped out onto the rocky banks of the river, following a path that was once a road used by the big trucks that hauled that rock off to make aggregate, the swallows were out in force, confirming the worst of the storm had passed, and that the waxwings who had usurped their place a week earlier must have moved on.

A thick patch of bluebonnets have come up on that bank in the past couple of weeks, right where the path comes out. And as we walked past them, I noticed that one of them was not blue, but pink.

I don’t recall ever seeing a pink bluebonnet before, and when I looked them up later, I confirmed their rarity. I also found their rarity has been used as license to burden them with a load of Texas mythology, including one story of how they only grow downriver from the Alamo, stained with the blood of Lone Star martyrs. The truth is they are rare survivors of this culture that has destroyed 99% of the prairies that covered this state in the 1820s, an ephemeral variant of a species that thrives in the fields we damage through pastoralism and development. A testament to natural resilience, and a good flower to find on the morning before Easter.

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A note from the dealers room

Congratulations to Alison Stine, who won the Philip K. Dick Award Friday for her novel Road Out of Winter, which I started reading a couple of weeks ago—a beautifully written work of speculative realism about people finding their way across the American hellscape amid climate crisis and failing institutions, a book Ms. magazine called “a feminist talk-back to Cormac McCarthy, if there ever was one.” And thanks to all of you who joined the many interesting panels and chats I was lucky to be part of at Norwescon this weekend. It was the most engaging virtual event I’ve participated in since the pandemic began, and it made me hope we will be able to maintain some of the innovative tools we have developed to maintain remote community when, hopefully very soon, writers and readers are able to gather together in person again.

While I was at virtual Norwescon, I learned that my 2017 novel Tropic of Kansas has been selected for an e-book promotion during the month of April. At my Norwescon reading Friday afternoon, someone asked me, as the author of a book that ends with a popular mob ransacking contemporary D.C., if I was surprised by the events of January 6. I’ve long thought the revolutionary creation myths we are weaned on are the under-examined third rail of our politics, and Tropic of Kansas was an effort to explore that by repurposing the tropes of the adventure novel toward more emancipatory ends, imagining an American version of the Arab Spring led by a diverse coalition of people seeking a more authentically participatory democracy.

Of course, #Occupy didn’t need AK-47s. Real change mostly comes through more courageous non-violent acts of civil disobedience, and January 6 was a sobering reminder that self-proclaimed revolutions on these lands are usually hostile takeover attempts by threatened groups trying to hold onto power and property.

That doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun to imagine a revolution that’s about real justice, or green justice, and lately I’ve been thinking about how to approach those themes from a fresh angle. In the meantime, here’s a DIY book trailer I did when Tropic of Kansas came out, filmed on location here at the edge of the feral city. Feels rather 2020, for something made in 2017 with an 80s found footage vibe, and I like to think it accurately captures the aesthetic of the book. (Better with sound.)

The book spends a lot of time outside, in places like the ones this newsletter visits, but it does so through a pulp prism, in conversation with the kinds of books I liked to read as a kid. You can read the opening chapters here if you’re curious, or find more at HarperCollins. And for an incisive take on the cultural roots of one sub-genre of which Tropic of Kansas is a part, check out Brendan Byrne’s “The Speculative Civil War Novel Comes Home” at The Intercept.


Happy Easter, for those who observe it, and have a great week.

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