The Surface of a Terrestrial Sea

[Image: A sinkhole in Wink, Texas, surrounded by oil extraction and wastewater injection infrastructure].

A story I meant to include in my link round-up yesterday is this news item about a “large swath” of active oil well sites in Texas “heaving and sinking at alarming rates.”

In other words, previously solid ground has been turned into a slow-moving terrestrial sea.

“Radar satellite images show significant movement of the ground across a 4000-square-mile area—in one place as much as 40 inches over the past two-and-a-half years,” Phys.org reports. The land is tidal, surging and rolling with artificially induced deformation.

“This region of Texas has been punctured like a pin cushion with oil wells and injection wells since the 1940s and our findings associate that activity with ground movement,” one of the researchers explains.

[Image: Infrastructure near Wink, Texas].

What’s particularly fascinating about this is why it’s alleged to be happening in the first place: a jumbled, chaotic, quasi-architectural mess of boreholes, abandoned pipework, and other artificial pores has begun churning beneath the surface of things and causing slow-motion land collapse.

For example, “The rapid sinking is most likely caused by water leaking through abandoned wells into the Salado formation and dissolving salt layers, threatening possible ground collapse.” Or a nearby region “where significant subsidence from fresh water flowing through cracked well casings, corroded steel pipes and unplugged abandoned wells has been widely reported.”

This utterly weird, anthropocenic assemblage—or should I say anthroposcenic—has also changed the terrain in other ways. Water leaking into an underground salt formation has “created voids,” for example, which have “caused the ground to sink and water to rise from the subsurface, including creating Boehmer Lake, which didn’t exist before 2003.” It’s like upward-falling rain.

The site brings to mind the work of Lebbeus Woods: jammed-up subterranean infrastructure, in a sprawling knot of abandoned and semi-functional machinery, causing the solid earth to behave more like the sea.

Read more at Phys.org.

Fossils of Lost Neighborhoods

[Image: Near Barren Island, Brooklyn, New York, via Google Maps].

I’ve always liked the story of Mary Anning, an amateur paleontologist who collected fossils along the cliffs of southwest England in the early to mid-1800s. Her work was greatly assisted by the coastal weather, as landslides, slumping, and severe storms helped to reveal the remains of extinct creatures in the rocks.

“Although she had an eye for fossils,” Christopher McGowan writes in The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin, “she could not find them until they had been exposed by weathering—an achingly slow process. But when wind and rain and frost and sun had done their work, she would find them, peeking through the surface. Others were buried so deeply in the cliffs that it would be aeons before they were ever discovered.”

I love the tantalizing prospect here of as-yet unknown forms of life still hiding in the cliffside, awaiting future landslides or heavy rain, and the imaginative possibilities this implies—from straight-forward tales of scientific discovery to darker, H.P. Lovecraft-inflected horror fiction. A catastrophic future storm strikes Cornwall, and, as the townspeople walk stunned through the wreckage of their high street the next morning, they can’t miss the massive bulk of some thing “peeking through the surface” of a nearby cliff.

[Image: The cliffs at Lyme Regis, via Wikipedia].

I was reminded of Mary Anning again this morning while reading about a place called Barren Island—“whose name apparently comes not from its long association with desolation but from the Dutch word for ‘bears’”—a coastal neighborhood in New York City that was demolished by the freeway-obsessed Robert Moses in the 1930s.

Anthropologist Robin Nagle, author of Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, took some students to visit the site, explaining to The New Yorker that fragments of a now-lost neighborhood keep reappearing on the beach.

That same beach, of course, is well-known for its weathered glass bottles, but, we read, “Visitors usually assume that the refuse has washed up from the body of water still known as Dead Horse Bay, but most of it has actually washed down, from an eroding bank above the sand. ‘The bank is the outermost edge of a landfill,’ Nagle explained. ‘It keeps receding, and stuff keeps appearing.’”

Awesomely, Nagle points out that you can at least partially piece together the history an erased neighborhood from these traces:

Some of the exposed material, Nagle believes, originated in a Brooklyn neighborhood that Moses levelled to make way for one of his road-building projects, more than a decade after Floyd Bennett Field had been supplanted by LaGuardia Airport. “We don’t know which neighborhood,” she said, “but we do know the period, because when we find remnants of newspapers the dates are between early February and mid-March of 1953.” The beach is a window into that era. She went on, “I tell people to imagine that they’re a props master for a film about a working-class Brooklyn family in 1953, and they have to fill their home with goods that would have been part of their everyday lives—shampoo bottles and cooking tools and car parts and flooring and makeup and children’s toys and furniture and electrical outlets. People say the beach is covered with garbage, but it’s actually covered with the material traces of homes that people had to abandon when Moses forced them out.”

Nagle, you might say, is a kind of Mary Anning of the Anthropocene, collecting the fossils of forgotten neighborhoods as the land in which they’re buried erodes away.

Typographic Ecosystems

[Image: From Google Maps].

Many weeks ago, after listening to the podcast S-Town, I got to looking around on Google Maps for the now-legendary hedge maze designed by the podcast’s protagonist, John B. McLemore. Other people, of course, had already found it.

As these things always go, however, I began panning around the map of the region, following waterways and forests to various places, zooming in on interesting geological features and more, and eventually found myself looking at a strange patch of forest on the Arkansas/Missouri border. In a place called the Big Lake Wildlife Management Area, huge glyphs have been cut into the trees, in repetitive shapes that appear to be letters or runes.

There are distended Ss, upside-down Us that resemble hoofprints, cross-like forms that could be lower-case ts or + signs, and simply large, empty blocks. The figures repeat across the forest in no apparent pattern, but they are clearly artificial. I figured these were a property-marking system of some sort, or perhaps some kind of recreational landscape, leading to a series of unusually elaborate hunting blinds; but they could also have been—who knows—an optical calibration system for satellites, cut deep in the woods, or perhaps, if we let our imaginations roam, some secret government design agency performing unregulated typographic experiments in the forest… Perhaps it was really just SETI.

Then I stopped thinking about them.

[Image: From Google Maps].

When I mentioned these to my friend Wayne the other night, however, he was quick to dig up the real explanation: “the odd shapes are part of a habitat restoration project,” local news channel KAIT reported back in 2013.

“In wildlife management, you know, disturbance is a good thing,” biologist Lou Hausman explained to KAIT. “When you put sunlight to the forest floor, that’s one of the basic components of habitat management. It stimulates growth in the understorage and stimulates growth on the ground.”

The different shapes or letters were thus chosen for research purposes, the goal being to learn which ones produced the best “edge effects” for plants and wildlife on the ground. If the S shape allowed more efficient access to sunlight, in other words, well, then S shapes would be used in the future to help stimulate forest recovery due to their particular pattern of sunlight.

Think of it as ecosystem recovery through typography—or, heliocentric graphic design as a means for returning forests to health. Kerning as a wildlife management concern.

This perhaps suggests a unique variation on artist Katie Holten’s “Tree Alphabet” project, but one in which alphabetic incisions into a forest canopy are done not for their literary power but for their strategic ecosystem effects. Golem-like sections of wilderness, brought back to health through language.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for his champion-league Googling skills).

Dumpster Honey

[Image: Photo courtesy of the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab’s amazing Flickr set, via Science Friday].

In a poem I clipped from The New Yorker a while back, Davis McCombs describes what he memorably calls “Dumpster Honey.” It remains a great illustration of altered natures—and the fate of food—in the Anthropocene.

McCombs shows us bees wandering through a rubbish heap “of candy wrappers and the sticky rims / of dented cans, entering, as they might / a blossom, the ketchup-smeared burger // boxes,” mistaking a stained world of “food-grade waxes / mingling with Band-Aids” for healthy flora.

Hapless bees slip their little bodies past “solvents / and fresheners,” picking up industrial food dyes and “the high-fructose / corn nectars” of artificially processed edible waste.

With this in mind, recall several recent examples of bees feasting on edible chemicals in urban hinterlands, in one case actually turning their honey bright red.

As Susan Dominus wrote for The New York Times back in 2010, a stunned Brooklyn beekeeper “sent samples of the red substance that the bees were producing to an apiculturalist who works for New York State, and that expert, acting as a kind of forensic foodie, found the samples riddled with Red Dye No. 40, the same dye used in the maraschino cherry juice” being mixed at a nearby factory.

This had the dismaying effect, Dominus writes, that “an entire season that should have been devoted to honey yielded instead a red concoction that tasted metallic and then overly sweet.” (Amusingly, Brooklyn’s cherry-red honey also inadvertently revealed an illegal marijuana-growing operation.)

[Image: Photo by Vincent Kessler, courtesy of Reuters, via National Geographic].

Or, indeed, recall a group of French bees that fed on candy and thus produced vibrant honeys in unearthly shades of green and blue. This honey of the Anthropocene “could not be sold because it did not meet France’s standards of honey production,” perhaps a technicolor warning sign, as the very possibility of a nature independent of humanity comes into question.

In the post-natural microcosm of “Dumpster Honey,” meanwhile, McCombs depicts his polluted bees “returning, smudged with the dust / of industrial pollens, to, perhaps, some // rusted tailpipe hive where their queen / grew fat on the the froth of artificial sweeteners,” a vision at once apocalyptic and, I suppose, if one really wishes it to be, ruthlessly optimistic.

After all, perhaps, amidst the litter and ruin of a formerly teeming world, some new nature might yet spring forth, thriving on the sugared colors of factory sludge, beautifully adapting to a world remade in humanity’s chemical image.

It’s worth reading the poem in full. It stands on its own as a vivid encapsulation of these sorts of overlooked, peripheral transformations of the world as we forcibly transition an entire planet into a new geo- and biological era.

(Somewhat related: Architecture-by-Bee and Other Animal Printheads.)

The Remnants

[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

Photographer Robert Burley has a new book due out in two weeks called An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands.

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

While it would seem at first to be only of local interest to those living in and around Toronto, the photos themselves are gorgeous and the conditions they document are nearly universal for other North American cities: scenes of natural, remnant ecosystems butting up against, but nonetheless resisting, the brute force of urban development.

[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

As Burley explains, many of the parks depicted are informal—that is, they are undesigned—and almost all of them follow old creeks and ravines that meander through the ancestral terrain. (This, as you might recall, is also the premise for much of Michael Cook’s work, who has been tracking those same waterways in their Stygian journey underground.)

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

However, Burley warns, “these ravine systems are in danger of being loved to death by city dwellers desperate for green space.” From the book:

Toronto has one of the largest urban park systems in the world, and yet it is unknown to most, including many of the city’s three million inhabitants. This extensive ravine network of sunken rivers, forested vales, and an expansive shoreline has historically been overlooked, neglected, or forgotten, but in recent years these unique wild spaces have been rediscovered by a growing population embracing nature inside the city limits. The parklands were not designed or constructed for a greater public good but rather are landscape remnants of pre-settlement times that have stubbornly refused to conform to urban development.

The book comes out later this month, and a number of events are planned in Toronto over the coming week, including an exhibition of Burley’s work from the book; more info is available at the John B. Aird Gallery.

Corporate Gardens of the Anthropocene

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

One of the most interesting themes developed in David Gissen’s recent book, Manhattan Atmospheres, is that the climate-controlled interiors of urban megastructures constitute their own peculiar geographical environment.

Although this idea has lately been taken up with interest in the study of indoor “microbiomes”—that is, the analysis of the microbes and bacteria that thrive inside particular architectural structures, such as single-family homes and hospitals—Gissen’s own focus is on “the interior of the office building,” he writes, literally as a different kind of “geographical zone.”

For Gissen, in other words, there are deserts, rain forests, plains—and vast, artificial interiors. “I argue that the atmosphere within [New York City’s] office buildings emerged as a distinct geographical climate,” he proclaims, and the rest of the book is more or less an attempt to back up this claim.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

A particularly compelling example of this emerging “geographical zone” is a huge residential complex built atop the access road to New York’s George Washington Bridge. The four towering structures of the Washington Bridge Apartments actually “included the first building examined as an ‘environment’ by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Gissen points out.

As such, this seems to mark an inflection point at which the U.S. government officially recognized the interior as worthy of natural classification. Surely, then, this moment deserves more discussion in the context of the Anthropocene? A constructed interior, as exotic as the savannah.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Street View].

In any case, Gissen’s look at the world of corporate interior gardens is where things become truly fascinating. He describes these well-tempered landscapes as strange new worlds cultivated in plain sight, grown to the gentle breeze of particulate-filtered air conditioning.

These “technicians of the garden,” in Gissen’s words, “imagined the indoor air of an office building to be more like the geographic zones at the peripheries of the Western world. Its climate was more akin to the tropics than to anything found in the symbolic ancestral landscapes of the United States.”

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

Indeed, this interior corporate bioregion even inspired new types of botanical research: “landscape architects and horticulturalists sought to identify those species of plants that would thrive in the unusually consistent indoor climate,” he writes. “In the 1980s and early 1990s, literature from the field of indoor landscaping mentions informal expeditions to discover new cultivars in the tropical world that were suitable to the inside of office buildings and other commercial applications.”

This vision of botanists traipsing through rain forests on the other side of the world to find plants that might thrive in Manhattan’s rarefied indoor air is incredible, an absurdist set-up worthy of Don Delillo.

A delicate plant, native to one hillside in Papua New Guinea, suddenly finds itself thriving in the potted gardens of a non-governmental organization on 5th Avenue; three decades later, it is the only example of its species left, an evolutionary orphan clinging to postmodern life in what Gissen calls “the unique thermal environment of an office building,” the closest space to nature it can find.

Mass Effect

[Image: The weight of a human being; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

Over at the consistently interesting Anthropocene Review, a group of geologists and urbanists have teamed up to calculate the total mass of all technical objects—from handheld gadgetry to agricultural equipment, from domesticated forests to architectural megastructures—produced by contemporary humanity.

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

Their seemingly impossible goal was to gauge “the scale and extent of the physical technosphere,” where they define the technosphere “as the summed material output of the contemporary human enterprise. It includes active urban, agricultural and marine components, used to sustain energy and material flow for current human life, and a growing residue layer, currently only in small part recycled back into the active component.”

The active technosphere is made up of buildings, roads, energy supply structures, all tools, machines and consumer goods that are currently in use or useable, together with farmlands and managed forests on land, the trawler scours and other excavations of the seafloor in the oceans, and so on. It is highly diverse in structure, with novel inanimate components including new minerals and materials, and a living part that includes crop plants and domesticated animals.

Their “preliminary” calculations of all this suggest a mass of 30 trillion tons.

[Image: Interior of Hughes Aircraft Company cargo building, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

The authors immediately put this number into a darkly awe-inspiring perspective:

If assessed on palaeontological criteria, technofossil diversity already exceeds known estimates of biological diversity as measured by richness, far exceeds recognized fossil diversity, and may exceed total biological diversity through Earth’s history. The rapid transformation of much of Earth’s surface mass into the technosphere and its myriad components underscores the novelty of the current planetary transformation.

This “rapid transformation of much of Earth’s surface mass into the technosphere” means that we are turning the planet into technical objects, dismantling and recombining matter on a planetary scale. The idea that the results of this ongoing experiment “may exceed total biological diversity through Earth’s history” is sobering, to say the least.

Read the rest of the article over at The Anthropocene Review.

(Originally spotted via Chris Rowan).

Animal Ballast

[Image: Veduta dell’Anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo (1776), by Giovanni Battista Piranesi; courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art].

While going through a bunch of old books for another impending cross-country move, I found myself re-reading an interesting detail in The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard.

In a discussion of that ruined megastructure, now symbolic of the entirety of ancient Rome, Hopkins and Beard point out that the colosseum was once home to a rather unexpected ecosystem, a displaced environment that did not correspond to the natural world outside its crumbling walls.

“For whatever reason—because of the extraordinary micro-climate within its walls,” they write, “or, as some thought more fancifully, because of the seeds that fell out of the fur of the exotic animals displayed in the ancient arena—an enormous range of plants, including some extraordinary rarities, thrived for centuries in the building ruins.”

The idea of entire landscapes, even alien ecologies populated with otherwise unrecognizable species, lying hidden in the fur of exotic animals, gradually encouraged to flourish by the weird winds of an architecturally induced micro-climate, is absolutely fascinating to contemplate. You could think of them as animal ballast gardens, stuck like burrs on the unseen surfaces of the everyday world, waiting to prosper.

The Anthropocene is much older than today’s conversations seem able to admit; it began in patches, sprouting here and there in the broken stones of old buildings, transported across continents one seed at a time until the entire planet now is ablaze with artificial landscapes, a planet out of joint.

(Don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s two-part interview with Mary Beard, discussing her “Wonders of the World” series).

Escaped Pets are Ecosystems in Waiting

[Image: Photo by Stephen Beatty, via the New York Times].

A few years ago, we learned that the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze—or, rather, its rapid fizzling-out—led to a spike in illicit turtle releases in England’s Lake District. As a result, the District today is suffering through a minor invasion of orphaned turtles, unwanted pets struggling to return to a state of nature.

Zoom-in on an historic landscape in Britain, in other words, and you will find the living remnants of a 1980s pop cultural fad splashing around somewhat pathetically—somewhat sadly—in the brisk water.

Now, in thematically related news, discarded goldfish have been taking over entire river landscapes in Australia: “Two decades ago, someone dropped a handful of unwanted pet goldfish into a creek in southwestern Australia. Those goldfish grew, swam downstream, mucked up waters wherever they went and spawned like mad. Before long, they took over the whole river.”

Liberated from endless circling inside glass bowls in children’s bedrooms, the fish are able to reach their expected size, “with some fish growing as long as 16 inches and weighing up to four pounds—the size of a two-liter soda bottle.”

Indeed, the New York Times explains, “Freed from the constraints of a tank, goldfish balloon to the size of footballs. Within a few generations, they revert to natural yellow and brown colors, in place of the bright orange that breeders try to achieve.” Their success in the wild should not come as a surprise.

While there’s much more about the invasive ecology of this species over in the original article, it’s hard not to be struck by the anthropocenic absurdity of an ecosystem constituted entirely by escaped pets.

Hypertrophied beyond recognition, re-wilded by their unexpected freedom, feral pets remake the world in the distorted image of what their human owners thought nature should look like. Toy poodles will stalk our future woods.

Sunken Cities

[Image: Raising a house to help survive future floods; photo by Eliot Dudik, courtesy The New York Times].

The climate change-induced flooding of coastal cities along the U.S. eastern seaboard has already begun, the New York Times suggests.

“For decades, as the global warming created by human emissions caused land ice to melt and ocean water to expand, scientists warned that the accelerating rise of the sea would eventually imperil the United States’ coastline,” we read. “Now, those warnings are no longer theoretical: The inundation of the coast has begun.” In many places, “the sea is now so near the brim in many places that [scientists] believe the problem is likely to worsen quickly.”

The article is full of specific details that would not be out of place in a well-constructed novel, including dead lawns killed by exposure to seawater, vacuum trucks sent out “to suck saltwater off the streets,” and “huge vertical rulers” installed along roads to help drivers judge if the floodwaters “are too deep to drive through.”

These are the new, everyday practices of life on a future seabed: preparatory behaviors as the waters rise and whole communities face permanent inundation.

What’s so interesting about this, in fact, is the apparent lack of panic and catastrophe. While this seeming calmness is no doubt based purely in denial—not just denial that excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere retains more heat, leading to warming, but denial of the fact that this is the new normal, that these floods are not flukes but early glimpses of a fundamentally transformed landscape to come—people are nonetheless simply getting on with their lives, even as radical change occurs around them at every scale.

I’m still haunted by a small detail from a similar story published a few years ago, following Hurricane Sandy, about a place called Broad Channel, an outer neighborhood of New York City. There, rising coastal waters have been causing more and more flooding, to the extent that it has become a regular occurrence—not something terrifying, just mildly irritating.

This is true to the extent that residents have now developed otherwise calm and perfectly rational ways of warning one another that the waters are back, that the streets are flooding, and—more to the point—that they should perhaps consider moving their cars.

Broad Channel is now “a place where residents cling to tide clocks and, some joke, every child gets wading boots for Christmas. Neighbors will honk a car horn in the middle of the night to warn others of an approaching tide, and some have made pencil markings on their homes to show water levels from storms past.”

If we ask ourselves what life will be like in the Anthropocene, after the ever-mounting effects of climate change become real, it’s worth remembering these people “honk[ing] a car horn in the middle of the night to warn others of an approaching tide.”

In other words, the Anthropocene will look perfectly normal: people will simply vacuum-pump seawater out of their carports and garages, scrub encrusted salt from the walls of the homes, give each other waterproof boots for Christmas, and otherwise go on as if the world hasn’t changed.

The secret of the Anthropocene is that it’s just another kind of everyday life.

Supergrass, or the Anthropocene is Local

lawn
[Image: Artificial grass stretches onto a sidewalk in Somerville, MA; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

While reading that “land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” possibly setting the stage for an irreversible decline in biological variety around the world, it’s worth recalling a somewhat tragicomic article published last week warning that Britain has so many artificial lawns, these so-called permanent botanicals are now considered a threat to wildlife.

From the Guardian:

From local authorities who purchase in bulk for use in street scaping, to primary schools for children’s play areas and in the gardens of ordinary suburban family homes, the sight of pristine, green artificial grass is becoming a familiar sight. One company has registered a 220% year-on-year increase in trade of the lawns.
But as families, councils and schools take to turfing over their open spaces with a product which is most often made from a mix of plastics—polypropylene, polyurethane and polyethylene—there is growing alarm amongst conservationists and green groups.
They say the easy fix of a fake lawn is threatening the habitat of wildlife, including butterflies, bees and garden birds as well as creating waste which will never biodegrade.

I’m reminded of the artificial gardens of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Zero K, where plastic trees and flowers tremble lifelessly in an air-conditioned breeze, installed as part of a remote desert complex devoted to human immortality.

Only here, it’s the everyday landscape of Britain, slowly but surely being plasticized, replaced by a chemical surrogate for living matter, this ubiquitous manufactured stand-in for the picturesque English gardens of an earlier generation.

Lost butterflies flutter over plastic lawns, smelling nothing but petrochemicals. Bees land on the petals of polyester flowers and pick up the dust of industrial dyes rather than pollen. Excess drops of translucent glue glow in the afternoon sunlight.

The anthropocene is not only a global transformation; it takes place in—it takes the place of—your own backyard.

(Vaguely related: In the Garden of 3D Printers).