A Natural History of Empty Lots

Field Notes from Urban Edgelands, Back Alleys, and Other Wild Places

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Pub Date Sep 17 2024 | Archive Date Sep 17 2024

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A genre-bending blend of naturalism, memoir, and social manifesto for rewilding the city, the self, and society.

A Natural History of Empty Lots is a genre-defying work of nature writing, literary nonfiction, and memoir that explores what happens when nature and the city intersect. 

During the real estate crash of the late 2000s, Christopher Brown purchased an empty lot in an industrial section of Austin, Texas. The property—abandoned and full of litter and debris—was an unlikely site for a home. Brown had become fascinated with these empty lots around Austin, so-called “ruined” spaces once used for agriculture and industry awaiting their redevelopment. He discovered them to be teeming with natural activity, and embarked on a twenty-year project to live in and document such spaces. There, in our most damaged landscapes, he witnessed the remarkable resilience of wild nature, and how we can heal ourselves by healing the Earth. 

Beautifully written and philosophically hard-hitting, A Natural History of Empty Lots offers a new lens on human disruption and nature, offering a sense of hope among the edgelands. 

A genre-bending blend of naturalism, memoir, and social manifesto for rewilding the city, the self, and society.

A Natural History of Empty Lots is a genre-defying work of nature writing, literary...

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ISBN 9781643263366
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Somehow, just from the title and cover, I'd assumed this was British nature writing - and that despite 'empty lot', now I think about it, being more of an American term. But the Americans... surely they don't need to write about edgelands? They have all those vast open spaces, don't they? It's only on this old, crowded little island that the Anglosphere needs to grub around in the neglected corners for some tiny sliver of wildness, right? Well, apparently not. Inevitably, this means that there are times when a UK reader who pays the least attention to this stuff will be tempted to gentle condescension: aw, bless, he's seen his first urban fox and he's treating it like a big deal! But it's always good to have people on side, and the differences are fascinating, right down to little stuff: they do have feral parakeets too, but a different species to England. More broadly, though, the wild that's itching to come back is different; under their crumbling light industrial units, the earth still remembers being a prairie, and there's a wider selection of decent-sized fauna ready to slip into the gaps too. On the human end of the equation, the myth of the frontier still lingers, its roots troubling and its persistence easily hijacked by the automobile industry among others - but also potentially useful to naturalists, if they can just find the right handholds. The overall effect is oddly optimistic, at least early on, a welcoming eye on the way the world reclaims even the territory humanity appears to have most thoroughly mucked up - albeit always with a countervailing awareness that capitalism, just as opportunistic as any weed though a good deal uglier, will often be ready to grab those derelict spaces right back. And as the book goes on that's exactly what happens, Brown's own wild house project part of the gravity that makes his neglected corner of Austin an appealing prospect after all, bringing with it the usual hideous developments that kill precisely what made an area attractive to them in the first place: "The signs promised the coming of a complex that called itself The Eclectic, even as they and you knew it would be anything but." The book tries to retain at least a note of bittersweet hope, talk about allying with your neighbours to fight City Hall - but it's too aware of how rigged the game is to feel like more than a faint gleam in the darkness. Still, at the same time as he has the eye of a lawyer (which he is) for the way systems twist to maintain control, he also has the knack of a science fiction writer (which he also is) for the powerful image; the husk of the Chevy in the hidden wetlands, in particular, feels like something out of a story by Jeff Vandermeer (who provides a blurb), offers a promise that one day some approximation of the wild will win this thing, with or without us.

Running in parallel with all this, though, there's a strand of what I'm pretty sure would have been played at least slightly for comedy in a British equivalent, but is possibly even funnier for being delivered with an entirely straight face. I think I was primed for this simply by his son being called Hugo, a name which in Britain I only ever encounter on absolutely terrible people, and yes, by his father's account this Hugo is very different, but parents always feel that way, don't they? Meaning I was already prepped to read on two levels before Brown started talking about the desire to make a home which breaks down the conventional Western division between inside and out, our space and nature's. A green roof is mandatory, of course - which entails shipping barrels of special sealant from halfway across the world (much to the interest of Homeland Security), heavy watering during a drought, and of course a flamethrower. Sharing the house with large ants is already a step more wildlife-friendly than I'm prepared to go, but that's as nothing compared to the immortal line "The architects who designed our house did not intend to create an optimal habitat for deadly serpents between the bedroom and the kitchen. But that's what they did." Most of us might rethink at that point, but not Brown, who even after a litany of other lethal housemates, and a reluctant admission that he might occasionally need to kill something posing an immediate threat to his dogs or infant daughter, nevertheless cheerily concludes "But the revelation that you can coexist with the full ambit of the food chain down in the postindustrial hobbit hole you have made your home is potent affirmation of the possibility of cultivating biodiverse life in a little corner of our urbanized world." To which, fond as I am of just vibing in the various semi-rewilded spaces around my own home, I can only reply, rather you than me, mate.

(Netgalley ARC)

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A Natural History of Empty Lots is fantastically written and is entirely captivating. The author chose such an unappreciated landscape for their spotlight and absolutely shined. There are so many of these unfortunate empty lots scattered throughout the United States and when left untouched by human hands for long enough, these spaces revert to their natural wild beauty. This author reminisces on their hidden beauty and insight into how he views these spaces and which the rest of us can learn from.

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