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).

The Season of Burning Trucks

Stories of GPS directions run amok are a dime a dozen these days: gullible travelers led astray by their iPhones or dashboard navigation systems, driving for hours into the desert night, straight into mountain lakes, up unpaved rural roads that are clearly no more than footpaths, or even halfway across Iceland before they realize something’s wrong.

But there is still something remarkable and almost Raymond Carver-esque about this story of a small town in Arkansas being visited—over and over again—by runaway trucks, their drivers misled by GPS, their vehicles mechanically unprepared for the town’s sharp curves and steep terrain. “Several of them go through here with their brakes smoking or on fire,” a local resident tells ArkansasOnline.

This vision of a town—population a mere 100—now seeing the blazing and violent side-effects of digital navigation technology is both hilarious and beautifully symbolic of the larger phenomenon, of people becoming over-reliant upon algorithmic systems and finding their journeys no longer proceeding as planned.

Like freak weather caused by atmospheric events halfway across the country—bringing unexpected local snow or unseasonably heavy rain hundreds of miles away—intangible changes in route-mapping software send burning trucks roaring through a remote mountain town.

It is both a macabre spectacle and a symptom of bigger technological shifts—before, of course, those same algorithms receive slights tweaks and all those trucks, as mysteriously as they first arrived one night, halo’d in oily flames, now cease to appear.

Imagine being five or six years old in a town like that, not knowing what GPS is, looking out from the darkness of your bedroom over several weeks of late nights, and living through this season of burning trucks, those infernal visitors from further up the mountainside, tumbling down past houses, trailed by smoke, their fiery wheels reflecting bright red in the windows of parked cars. It’s like the visions of Ezekiel, updated for an age of car accidents and Google Maps.

Where are they coming from? And why? Then it all stops and the mystery deepens.