MNN ran an article rating the worst neighborhoods
near refineries in America, and Baytown, Texas
, where I was born, won first place! The winning spirit in Baytown is undeniable, and almost anyone who has lived there for any amount of time will attest to this as being a flat-out falsehood.
Yes, there is a secure economy: anyone who wants a job can go to work in a plant or factory if they stay vigilant about applying for positions — and in this gasping economy, just about any job can seem like a good job to those desperate for work. But there are certain health risks that inevitably go along with such positions because they expose workers to nearly non-stop emissions that waft through the average refinery or chemical plant, ever-present risks of toxic chemical spills, chemical fires, explosions, as well as the typical dangers that one should expect to encounter in any industrial setting. Nearly everyone who works in Baytown or grew up around this area has either personally suffered a serious injury or illness due to these industries or have family members and loved ones who have. Cancer cases abound. (I say "area" because the petro-chem industry isn't exclusive to Baytown by any means, but it is a sort of capital seat for oil production/refining in Houston, because the largest of ExxonMobil's refineries is located here.)
Yet inside the belly of this industrial beast, a pair of bald eagles has been residing for over six years. Their nest, a massive structure of limbs and twigs atop a hurricane-mangled pine tree, about five feet wide by eight feet deep, overlooks the commercial juggernaut that is Baytown. Roosting in the woods across from Evergreen Point Golf Course
on Tri-Cities Beach Road, these eagles hunt the golf course's numerous water hazards and in the nearby Trinity Bay and Tabb's Bay, both of which feed into the Houston Ship Channel; the surrounding roads and highways also provide ample sources of sustenance as well for there is no shortage of roadkill
in the area.
Recently, my father and I decided to make a day of watching the eagles, not knowing what to expect when we got to the site of their nest. As we turned off Spur 55 onto Tri-Cities Beach Road, we spotted the male eagle, the smaller of the pair, slowly coming our way, nearly hovering it seemed, just above the golf course's adjacent drainage ditch that runs between Tri-Cities Beach Road and the golf course — a good start and a good sign for the day's birdwatching.
A mile up the road we spotted the group of birdwatchers, who have made the eagles' nest a ritual stop every weekend for the last six years, looking, it seemed, right at us through binoculars as we drove up and parked near the rest of the birdwatchers' vehicles. It is here that I also had my first real encounter with birdwatchers — a taciturn, if not curmudgeonly, lot if ever there was one. Trying to get any eagle information out of them seemed close to the sensation one might get when pulling a splinter out of their good hand with a pair of rusty tweezers. After posing a series of questions to the group, which garnered no response other than a casual turn of the eyes in my direction, and was promptly fixed back on the eagles' nest, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of being the new kid at school who asks the cool kids if it's OK to sit at their lunch table, yet who is unable to move because of nausea arising due to that student's irrational fear of public speaking (or so this hypothetical student's hypothetical therapist would lead him or her to believe).
Getting over this initial embarrassment as I spotted the eagle returning from over the golf course, I cried, "Look over there!" pointing to the male bald eagle 40 feet in the sky, 100 yards off, and carrying an enormous limb in its beak. The group in unison, as if orders had been dispatched by Audubon
himself, turned their heads and fixed their binoculars in the bird's direction. That got their attention. The rotund man in the green sweatshirt and camouflage baseball cap, binoculars still raised to his eyes, said, "Yeah, they've been rebuilding their nest for the last couple of weeks. The male brings in the sticks and the female arranges it." Relieved that he broke the ice, I began assaulting him with questions about the eagles:
Q: How many years have the birds been living here?
A: They've been living in these woods for over six years, but've been living in that nest for only the last two.
Q: Why did they rebuild their nest?
A: They hatched a pair of chicks two years ago and needed a bigger nest.
Q: Where are the hatchlings now?
A: You don't know much about bald eagles, do you? When the bald eagles hatch their young, they run them off as soon as they can.
Q: Is this an instinctual behavior or one learned from observing the parental practices in and around Baytown?
A: No answer — though he did remove his binoculars from his eyes and look squarely at me. During this question and answer session another birdwatcher — a silver-headed, mustachioed man in a red sweatshirt — approached the group (making us six now, including myself and my father) and sagely replied, "You can't blame the kids for not wanting to stay around Baytown."
"And give up all this?" I said, giving an all-encompassing wave of my arm as if I were Mufasa from Disney's "The Lion King"
showing the young lion prince, Simba, the extent of his soon-to-be inherited kingdom.
But what would those hatchling eagles see if, like Mufasa to Simba, Padre Águila (my name for the eagle monarch in my post-apocalyptic screenplay of an exiled prince's return home entitled "The Eagle King" or "Do Android Eagles Dream of Electric Carrion?") were to show them the extent of their empire?
Bird's eye view of Baytown
From 60 feet above their nest, the eagles' view would encompass all of their modest wood, which is bordered by Cedar Bayou and Spur 55 to the southeast, Trinity and Tabb's Bay and the Houston Ship Channel to the south and southwest, a stretch of subsiding oilfields to the west — just behind Rocky's Pelican Junction
— and Evergreen Point Golf Course to the north. (Hollywood factoid: These picturesque oilfields were featured in the setting of John Wayne's "Hellfighters."
If ascending to the altitude of 100 feet, our proud avians could see the westside of Baytown, the old town, along with the rest of the old towns: Wooster, Cody, Lynchberg, Goose Creek and Pelly; which have been aggregating into Baytown since the early 1800s. The eagles, able to see these vestiges of decaying urbanity girted by muddy bays, the murky ship channel and bisected by grimy Goose Creek, would gain a fundamental understanding of why locals have donned the epithet "The Dirty Bay" upon this Gulf Coastal conurbation. They could study the architecture of historic Texas Avenue which was featured in "RoboCop 2."
(Hollywood factoid: The Houston Film Commission
recommended that Baytown be used for several shots in this film because it looks like "it had been nuked.") Sadly, locals, no longer taken by the charm of Texas Avenue's post-Dresden-bombing ambience, will bear witness to an urban renovation project
that will focus on several blocks of this "historic district."
If our touring convocation of eagles was to climb to the altitude of 200 feet in the air, the birds would notice an oppressive haze all around them, fogging their vision and inhibiting their breathing — they would find that soaring too high in Baytown is truly a dangerous sport and they would maybe even begin considering a suburban retreat. (Hollywood factoid: "Silkwood,"
a mystery/drama about a chemical plant worker who was poisoned and tortured because of whistle-blowing regarding worker safety issues, features some of Baytown's finest industrial cityscapes.) The oil refineries and chemical plants would sprawl before them like the undulating terrain of the hill country 100 miles to the west, and the denizens of this humble Gulf Coast town, in uniform attire of coveralls, hardhat, mustache and sincere mullet
, would appear as busy as any ant colony that had just been stepped on. No matter how well these eagles scoured and scrutinized the city of Baytown, they wouldn't find one decent bookshop.
At the apex of the eagles' flight, Padre Águila would loose a Mufasa-like cry to let all of Baytown know who the real king of nature was: "el rey naturaleza." But his cry would resound more as a sickly cackle and the upward arch of his flight pattern would begin to take on the aspect of a downward spiral — a pattern that is quite in keeping with the local tradition. The refineries and plants, the bays and bayous and creeks, would all come rushing at Padre Águila, spinning and swirling, and just as our fallen hero would find his final roost among this amalgam of industrial and natural ephemera, he would be comforted by the sheer poetry that is Baytown's motto: "Where oil and water mix."
Photos: Sean Deskin