Later this summer, Christopher Brown will publish his first novel, Tropic of Kansas, which imagines the United States in a time of dangerous climate change and political upheaval. Nexus Media talked to Brown about climate change, wildlife and how he built an underground home in Austin, Texas. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you build a home in an abandoned petroleum pipeline lot?
So I could live closer to nature, ironically. Infrastructure and factories often inadvertently protect wild habitat, by building zones of exclusion around them to protect people from danger. By keeping people out, they create space where animals and plants can move in, especially at the margins. The English ecologist Marion Shoard invented the term “edgelands” to describe these zones, a wonderful term that evokes some of the wonder hidden in the negative space of our cities. I grew up around such places — one of my earliest memories is exploring the woods along a freeway near the street where we lived — and have always sought them out.
That sort of urban exploration is how I found this spot — by putting my canoe under a highway bridge I noticed on the way to the airport. And here was this stretch of river ten minutes from downtown Austin… a place where you could forget you were in the city until the next airliner flew over on final approach. You could really feel your connection to the living world around you, and to the deep history in the land. My son and I spent years exploring the area before I found the lot.
The lot was one of those zones of exclusion, a property they had been unable to sell because it was bisected by a 30-foot-wide easement for an abandoned petroleum transmission pipeline… On one side were factories, and on the other, the woodland floodplain of the river, a forest where cottonwoods grow tall, drinking the water from drainage pipes, and armadillos root around in the human trash left behind by the floods.
You actually built your home into the landscape. Why did you choose that type of design, and how did you create it?
I wanted to build a small home that would preserve the memory of the past industrial use of the site, while at the same time healing the scar and encouraging the resilience of nature. I wanted a house deliberately designed to be overtaken by the wild, like an old bunker you might find in the woods.
I’m not an architect, but I was lucky to meet two smart and experimental young designers who totally got it: Thomas Bercy and Calvin Chen of Bercy Chen Studio. They saw the opportunity to implement those ideas by essentially building the house in the trench left from the pipeline removal and covering it with a green roof.
Our friend, the landscape architect John Hart Asher, had started working at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Eco Design Group. The head of that group was a pioneering English ecologist named Mark Simmons, who tragically died of cancer a couple of years ago. Mark had spent years studying how to make green roofs succeed in the harsh Texas landscape. The secret was simple: bring back the plants that were here before European settlement.
Five years later, we live in a three-room shelter under a carpet of wildflowers and blackland prairie, with wild vines cascading down the windows, weird birds and bugs buzzing about, and even the occasional coral snake slithering up to the door. In the daytime, you can hear the factories next door banging and clanging, but when you step down past the feral garden, it’s like that new Avatar theme park — but real. And once established, a landscape like this is easy to maintain.
How is your home a model for other abandoned landscapes?
The key to me is the idea of letting nature take over, recognizing that human habitation and wild habitat are not mutually exclusive. Land conservation tends to focus on setting aside big chunks of remote wilderness, but there’s an increasing recognition of the value of bringing back the wild in the heart of the city.
Great cities are starting to restore their urban rivers to pre-industrial conditions, from Munich to Houston. People see the potential for greening industrial relics in projects like the High Line in Manhattan, Austin’s Waller Creek restoration, living roofs being installed atop high rises. Our place merges those concepts, showing that you can successfully recreate the American prairie on an urban lot, and contribute ecological surplus to the city in the same way that home solar power often puts more energy onto the grid than it consumes. We aren’t the only ones cultivating pocket prairies in Austin — the idea of killing your lawn mower and letting your yard find its inner national park is easy to get excited about, especially once you learn how easy it is to do.
Your focus on the environment plays into your next book. How do the environment and climate change impact the characters in Tropic of Kansas?
Tropic of Kansas is a science fiction novel that goes outside. It follows two characters into an American landscape that has no more to give. And the deeper they get into that landscape, the more they see that the social and economic injustices of their world are rooted in the society’s damaged relationship with the land and the environment. I’m a proponent of naturalistic sci-fi, of inventing worlds informed by observed reality, and the dystopian world of the book mirrors the mid-America I have spent most of my life in, from the north woods to the Texas borderlands.
What will keep us on a healing path?
As writers like Jim Sterba have pointed out, our forests have been rebounding in the past century, as farms are turned into woody suburbs. And the environmental movement that started in the 60s has profoundly reduced industrial pollution of the landscape. Places like the New Jersey Meadowlands, rapidly recovering as a wetland habitat for wild birds in the shadows of smokestacks and skyscrapers, show us just how resilient nature is.
This interview was conducted by Josh Chamot, who writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.