Terrestrial Chiaroscuro

[Image: Reuben Wu, from Lux Noctis].

I’ve been a fan of photographer Reuben Wu’s work for years—it’s hard to visit even his Instagram feed and not come away in a state of awe—so I was thrilled to contribute a short essay for his new book, Lux Noctis.

[Image: Reuben Wu, from Lux Noctis].

Lux Noctis is also the name of an ongoing project of his that uses drone-mounted LED lights to illuminate remote geological formations, towering figures highlighted against the landscape with what appear to be haloes or celestial spotlights.

It’s an ingenious approach to landscape lighting that Wu continues to push in new directions, and one that I compare in my essay to chiaroscuro, the use of dramatic, often single-point lighting to create deep contrasts and a sense of roiling, three-dimensional activity, a technique dating back to the Renaissance.

In Wu’s case, this is terrestrial chiaroscuro: unexpected, robotic sources of aerial light that transform how landscapes can be depicted.

[Image: Reuben Wu, from Lux Noctis].

The book is now available for preorder from Kris Graves Projects, publisher of many other artists books also worth a browse while you’re there.

Second Central

I’ve been delinquent in mentioning an open landscape design competition, with a deadline in October, seeking designs for “a new, 21st century Central Park.” Sponsored by the journal LA+, the competition brief “asks you to redesign New York’s Central Park, which has been fictionally devastated by eco-terrorists.”

The journal suggests bearing these four main points in mind, if you proceed:

1) If in parks, no matter how faux or superficial, we manifest a collective aesthetic expression of our relationship with the “natural” world, then what, on the occasion of nature’s disappearance, is the aesthetic of that relationship today? 2) What is the role of a large urban park today? 3) How might issues of aesthetics on the one hand and performance on the other coalesce into what [Central Park’s original designer Frederick Law Olmsted] described as “a single work of art”? 4) Given the extraordinary history of the Central Park site, the competition asks how the new interprets the old, and how together, the new and the old anticipate the future.

Basically, it’s an opportunity to propose an entirely new kind of urban park, in the heart of New York City, for an explicitly interdisciplinary group (I should mention that I am also on the competition jury).

Perhaps it’s a chance to rethink the Park as an act of social justice and equitable access to urban wilderness; perhaps it’s a chance to explore the financial implications of large-scale landscape reserves put aside in the very center of the metropolis; perhaps it’s a chance to explore biotechnology, synthetic life, and the topographic implications of the Anthropocene.

There is much more information on the competition website, including how to submit. You have until October 10th, 2018.

Vernacular Vermicular

[Image: Photo by Pierre Gros, via Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0/Washington Post].

France is apparently writhing with “giant predatory worms,” previously unnoticed but hiding in plain sight since at least 1999.

“Hammerhead flatworms, which grow to a foot or more in length, do not belong in European vegetable gardens,” the Washington Post reports. “‘We do not have that in France,’ said Justine, a professor at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. The predatory worms are native to Asia, where they happily gobble up earthworms under a warmer sun.” A rash of recent spottings has revealed the truth, however, which is that the worms have made it to France—and they are apparently there to stay.

What caught my eye, however, were the details of discovery: “The oldest sighting was a home video from 1999, made by a family who kept the VHS tape for so long because the creatures on it were so bizarre. Justine [from the National Museum of Natural History] put their mystery to rest: flatworms. In 2013, a group of terrorized kindergartners claimed they saw a mass of writhing snakes in their play field: Again, flatworms. All told, these citizen scientists made 111 observations of large flatworms between 1999 and 2017.”

A crypto-species first seen on a French family’s VHS tape from 1999—it’s tailor-made for the beginning of a landscape horror story, a kind of Patient Zero of invasive wormhood caught on film, slithering through the soil of an otherwise unremarkable suburban backyard, a predatory species given the last 19 years to develop and spread.

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.

The Search for Bill Ewasko

[Images: Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

“In June 2010, Bill Ewasko traveled alone from his home in suburban Atlanta to Joshua Tree National Park, where he planned to hike for several days.” So begins the story of an avid hiker and Vietnam vet who went missing in Joshua Tree, a mere two-hour drive from Los Angeles, and has never been found to this day.

It has now been nearly eight years since his disappearance, but the search for Bill Ewasko never ended: people with no connection to the Ewasko family have continued to look, trading maps & GIS files online, scouring ever more remote regions of the park on foot, and arguing about the meaning of a mysterious cell-phone “ping” that seemed to place Ewasko so far outside of the original search area that, at first, many hikers simply dismissed the data.

The ongoing search for Ewasko has since become one of the most geographically extensive missing-person searches in U.S. history, with well more than a thousand miles’ worth of routes covered in Joshua Tree National Park alone.

[Image: Joshua Tree National Park; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

I began following the story of the Ewasko search in the late spring of 2016, following a series of posts on a blog called Other Hand, written by retired civil engineer Tom Mahood, and emailing a handful people still involved with the search. In the spring of 2017, I was able to join one of those searchers, Los Angeles musician Adam Marsland, in person on a new hike into a part of the park known as Smith Water Canyon. Then, when I was back in Palm Springs to report on the National Valet Olympics, I stayed in town for a few days to do several more hikes of my own, trying to familiarize myself not only with the landscape of Joshua Tree’s mountainous northwest, where Ewasko disappeared, but with the sensation of being alone there.

In Joshua Tree, even when the roads through the heart of the park are clogged with vehicles, it is often true that the instant you hike just one more ridge away from whatever trail you were meant to follow, you are utterly and completely on your own.

[Image: Joshua Tree National Park; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

A feature I wrote about the Ewasko search is now online over at the New York Times Magazine, part of their “Voyages” issue. The piece not only recounts the known details of Ewasko’s June 2010 hike, it also includes a look at so-called “lost person behavior” algorithms, deployed to anticipate how a stranger will act in an unfamiliar landscape, and it briefly reviews some of the more outlandish theories of what might have happened to Ewasko and how his cell phone appeared to be in such an unexpected region of the park.

[Image: Joshua Tree National Park; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

What drew me to Ewasko’s story in the first place was not just the fundamental mystery of how it could have happened—that is, how a competent outdoorsman could completely disappear from the surface of the Earth only two hours outside Los Angeles—but also why disappearance itself seems to draw so many people in. Trying to understand this led me to a long list of people, including musician Adam Marsland, as well as a cell-phone forensics expert and USC alum named Mike Melson who founded an independent search-and-rescue group inspired by a line from The Book of Matthew: “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”

As with all stories of this kind, of course, there is so much more to tell, so many more details that only add to the mystery of Ewasko’s disappearance and to the depth of character of the people involved in searching for him, but there was not enough space to get into it all. This includes questioning the very idea of wilderness, and how we define it, when a step beyond the boundaries of civilized space can occur mere yards from the edge of a popular trail.

Here is a link to the piece, which also features evocative photographs by Philip Montgomery.

(Previously on BLDGBLOG: Algorithms in the Wild).

Stairway to Nowhere

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

The Estonian Academy of Arts continues to produce interesting site-specific installations in the nation’s remote and often extraordinary landscapes, the most-recent example being an observation tower and staircase built amidst the sprawling Tuhu bog.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

According to the project’s accompanying text, “the design challenge was to provide a better view of the bog landscape and allow people to monitor the movement of moorland birds, raising observers above the landscape.”

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

The site came with some obvious constraints: “How to design an observation tower that takes its delicate environment into account whilst adding a layer of contemporary spatial design?” the school asked.

“What kind of space would hikers and ornithologists appreciate? What are the restrictions when constructing something for a location that is flooded several times a year, where the temperature can change from +25C to -25C, easily, and which is a home to a number of protected species?”

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

The piece does, admittedly, look much better in the snow, where it blends into the surrounding landscape and can even be difficult to distinguish against the quiet background; without snow, the structure looks a bit more ramshackle.

[Images: Drone photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Nevertheless, the most interesting part of the whole project is perhaps the overall educational context: the department of interior architecture at the Estonian Academy of Arts has teamed with architects b210 and Estonian Forest Management Centre to teach “a special class on small-scale buildings… focused on nature infrastructure—resulting in a number of observation towers and shelters. The purpose of the educational process is to show how considerate spatial design can add to the beauty of natural landscapes through human-scale, site-specific structures, and to advance local spatial culture.”

If some enterprising multimillionaire or ambitious school administrator is reading this, please bring this sort of collaboration here to Southern California. Observation towers for the San Andreas Fault. Desert shelters for the canyons near Joshua Tree. Acoustic listening platforms for the coast near Point Mugu.

(Previously on BLDGBLOG: Forest Megaphone).

Gold Fault Laser

[Image: Drawing courtesy Geothermal Futures Lab].

In the general chaos of renovating a house here in Los Angeles, I missed this lecture and reception on Friday night, launching a semi-fictional “Geothermal Futures Lab” at SCI-Arc.

It involves installing a gold-plated laser somewhere deep in the San Andreas Fault to extract geothermal energy from the landscape. Think of it as a kind of gonzo version of the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth.

[Image: Drawing courtesy Geothermal Futures Lab].

The press release, from architect Mark Foster Gage, is a great example of a solipsistic inventor’s imagination at full blast—featuring “geothermal resonance technologies,” nano-gold foil-wrapped laser components, an “experimental phenolic cured resin foam,” and so on.

The functioning of the equipment would also rely, at least partially, on existing “metal deposits along the strike-slipping continental plates,” bringing to mind both the naturally occurring nuclear reactors in Gabon and the giant Earth-battery cells circulating beneath the forests of central Canada: landscapes whose geochemistry lends them to these sorts of giant, speculative energy installations.

Or see Norway’s extraordinary Hessdalen lights, a geologically electrified valley that seems ripe for a Mark Foster Gage-like architectural-energy proposal.

In all these cases, of course, what’s also worth noting is that, as fantastic as this sort of facility might seem—whether it’s a lab extracting electrical energy from the San Andreas Fault, as Foster Gage suggests, or one positioned above geochemical differentials in the Canadian soil—as soon as the power it supplies can be made available through the national grid, it would immediately pass from some sort of absolutely bonkers sci-fi vision of the near-future to, frankly, something utterly mundane. It would simply be where the power comes from, and people would shrug it off as a mere utility (if they think about it at all).

But what this also means is that we might already, right now, be missing out on seeing the truly otherworldly nature of our own power-generation facilities, which have all too easily disappeared into the infrastructural background of the modern world. Science fiction is already here, in other words, we just tend to refer to it as infrastructure. See, for example, Crescent Dunes or PS10. Or, for that matter, take a harder look at oil.

[Images: Drawings courtesy Geothermal Futures Lab].

In any case, here’s a sample from the project text, obligatory typos and all:

The exhibited technology capitalizes on the unique tungsten-saturated substrate of the San Andres fault through the use of a visible-light Q-switched Nd:YAG lasers, tuned to extract sustainable magno-electrical energy from a +678 degree Kelvin supercritical water deposits located adjacent to a stable magma chamber 4.4km beneath the Earths surface. This supercritical water, that behaves both as liquid and gas, is vaporized through 3,780 Kelvin bursts which at peak power induce a supercritical matter state releasing energy in exponential excess of its matter equivalent. The presence of heterogeneous frequency fields in metal deposits along the strike-slipping continental plates supercharges the pockets of supercritical water with magnetic nuons which are forced upwards with velocity µ as a result of the pressure gradient along the vertical faults. Due to the variable decay rate of metals in the presence of such high trajectory nuons, the prototype laser resonance mechanism itself is encased in an experimental phenolic cured resin foam (Cas no. 000050-00-0 with a normal specific gravity of 120 kg/m3) which insulates the process from outside magnetic interference. For rapid nuon decay protection the foam resin is additionally coated with the same seven µm micrometer nano-gold foil used to encase existing NASA satellites. This thick film of gold nano-molecules particles gives the machine its striking gold aesthetic appearance.

A nuon-resistant radiant machine buried in the San Andreas Fault, extracting energy from the friction between tectonic plates? With lasers? Yes, please.

[Images: Drawings courtesy Geothermal Futures Lab].

The exhibition itself is up until March 4; stop by SCI-Arc to see more or check out the project’s website.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: San Andreas: Architecture for the Fault. Thanks to Wayne Chambliss and Eva Barbarossa for the heads up!)

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.

Ghost Reefs

[Image: 18th-century nautical chart by George Gauld, via Geographical].

A theme that has near-universal appeal for me is when old maps reveal the presence of something in the landscape that people have otherwise overlooked or forgotten. It could be a lost road deep in the mountain forests of Vermont, for example, or it could a whole series of missing reefs off the coast of Florida.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers led by Loren McClenachan at Colby College in Maine found what they called “ghost reefs” in old nautical charts drawn by an 18th-century British surveyor named George Gauld. When the team compared Gauld’s maps with modern satellite images of the same landscape, “a stark picture of shrinking coral emerged: Half of the reefs recorded in the 1770s are missing from the satellite data,” the Washington Post reported.

There are limitations to the approach, of course: “It’s impossible to tell whether the [18th-century] surveyors distinguished between living and dead coral, for example, or how long the reefs had persisted,” the Post writes, but the idea of finding ghost geographic forms in old maps is too evocative not to mention here.

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).

Nature Machine

[Image: Illustration by Benjamin Marra for the New York Times Magazine].

As part of a package of shorter articles in the New York Times Magazine exploring the future implications of self-driving vehicles—how they will affect urban design, popular culture, and even illegal drug activity—writer Malia Wollan focuses on “the end of roadkill.”

Her premise is fascinating. Wollan suggests that the precision driving enabled by self-driving vehicle technology could put an end to vehicular wildlife fatalities. Bears, deer, raccoons, panthers, squirrels—even stray pets—might all remain safe from our weapons-on-wheels. In the process, self-driving cars would become an unexpected ally for wildlife preservation efforts, with animal life potentially experiencing dramatic rebounds along rural and suburban roads. This will be both good and bad. One possible outcome sounds like a tragicomic Coen Brothers film about apocalyptic animal warfare in the American suburbs:

Every year in the United States, there are an estimated 1.5 million deer-vehicle crashes. If self-driving cars manage to give deer safe passage, the fast-reproducing species would quickly grow beyond the ability of the vegetation to sustain them. “You’d get a lot of starvation and mass die-offs,” says Daniel J. Smith, a conservation biologist at the University of Central Florida who has been studying road ecology for nearly three decades… “There will be deer in people’s yards, and there will be snipers in towns killing them,” [wildlife researcher Patricia Cramer] says.

While these are already interesting points, Wollan explains that, for this to come to pass, we will need to do something very strange. We will need to teach self-driving cars how to recognize nature.

“Just how deferential [autonomous vehicles] are toward wildlife will depend on human choices and ingenuity. For now,” she adds, “the heterogeneity and unpredictability of nature tends to confound the algorithms. In Australia, hopping kangaroos jumbled a self-driving Volvo’s ability to measure distance. In Boston, autonomous-vehicle sensors identified a flock of sea gulls as a single form rather than a collection of individual birds. Still, even the tiniest creatures could benefit. ‘The car could know: “O.K., this is a hot spot for frogs. It’s spring. It’s been raining. All the frogs will be moving across the road to find a mate,”’ Smith says. The vehicles could reroute to avoid flattening amphibians on that critical day.”

One might imagine that, seen through the metaphoric eyes of a car’s LiDAR array, all those hopping kangaroos appeared to be a single super-body, a unified, moving wave of flesh that would have appeared monstrous, lumpy, even grotesque. Machine horror.

What interests me here is that, in Wollan’s formulation, “nature” is that which remains heterogeneous and unpredictable—that which remains resistant to traditional representation and modeling—yet this is exactly what self-driving car algorithms will have to contend with, and what they will need to recognize and correct for, if we want them to avoid colliding with a nonhuman species.

In particular, I love Wollan’s use of the word “deferential.” The idea of cars acting with deference to the natural world, or to nonhuman species in general, opens up a whole other philosophical conversation. For example, what is the difference between deference and reverence, and how we might teach our fellow human beings, let alone our machines, to defer to, even to revere, the natural world? Put another way, what does it mean for a machine to “encounter” the wild?

Briefly, Wollan’s piece reminded me of Robert MacFarlane’s excellent book The Wild Places for a number of reasons. Recall that book’s central premise: the idea that wilderness is always closer than it appears. Roadside weeds, overgrown lots, urban hikes, peripheral species, the ground beneath your feet, even the walls of the house around you: these all constitute “wilderness” at a variety of scales, if only we could learn to recognize them as such. Will self-driving cars spot “nature” or “wilderness” in sites where humans aren’t conceptually prepared to see it?

The challenge of teaching a car how to recognize nature thus takes on massive and thrilling complexity here, all wrapped up in the apparently simple goal of ending roadkill. It’s about where machines end and animals begin—or perhaps how technology might begin before the end of wilderness.

In any case, Wollan’s short piece is worth reading in full—and don’t miss a much earlier feature she wrote on the subject of roadkill for the New York Times back in 2010.