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).

Escaping from the Garden

[Image: An example of Periplaneta japonica, via New York Daily News].

Ornamental vegetation planted on New York City’s famed High Line park might have inadvertently brought an “invasive cockroach” to the United States. From the New York Daily News:

The High Line, a park that turned a dilapidated stretch of elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into one of New York’s newest tourist attractions, may have brought a different kind of visitor: a cockroach that can withstand harsh winter cold and never seen before in the U.S.

Rutgers University insect biologists Jessica Ware and Dominic Evangelista said the species Periplaneta japonica is well documented in Asia but was never confirmed in the United States until now. The scientists, whose findings were published in the Journal of Economic Entomology, say it is too soon to predict the impact but that there is probably little cause for concern.

“The scientists suspect the little critter was likely a stowaway in the soil of ornamental plants used to adorn the park,” the newspaper adds.

I’ve always been fascinated by how gardens—ostensibly well-controlled landscapes meant to reach maturity under the guise of human supervision—accidentally become beachheads for invasive species.

In the UK, for instance, and this is only one example among very many, it is estimated that nearly “one-quarter of plants sold to ornamental gardeners since the 1800s have escaped, and 30 per cent of these are firmly established in the English countryside.”

As naturalist Richard Mabey points out in his highly recommended book Weeds, sometimes these botanical escapees can even be tracked step by step—or rail line by rail line, as the case may be.

[Image: Buddleia; photo by Steven Mulvey via the BBC, who describe it as “the plant that dominates Britain’s railways”].

Consider buddleia, a popular plant described by writer Laura Spinney, in a great old article for New Scientist (that no longer appears to be archived on their website), as “one of the commonest destructive weeds in Britain.” Buddleia is “not a native of the island,” on the other hand, but rather was “brought from the Himalayas in Victorian times to offer a long flowering season and attract butterflies.”

Ironically, however, “buddleia grows fast and its many seeds are easily dispersed by the wind. It has powerful roots used to thin soil on rocky substrata, ideally suited to penetrating the bricks and mortar of modern buildings. In London and other urban centres it can be seen growing out of walls and eves.”

It is, Spinney suggests, a long-term vegetative threat to the masonry structure of the city itself, a demolition tool hiding in plain sight.

Even in the descriptions of this phenomenon there is such strange poetry to be found—phrases both ominous and inspiring, like, “a plant establishing itself outside the garden,” as if John Milton had somehow reinvented himself as a horticultural critic with a penchant for sci-fi.

In any case, read more about New York City’s newest inhabitant—another alleged escapee from a garden—over at the New York Daily News.

(Roach story spotted, like the previous post, via Chris Woebken).

chill.once.waddle

what3words[Image: Screen-grab from what3words].

Using the bizarre three-word addressing system known as what3words, the now-destroyed curb in Hayward, CA, mentioned in the previous post, is located at a site called “chill.once.waddle.”

As you can tell, of course, what3words is not a descriptive language, and these phrases are not intended to mean anything: they are simply randomly-generated sets of words used to give any location on earth a physical address.

As Quartz explained the system back in 2015, it is, at heart, “a simple idea”:

…a combination of three words, in any language, could specify any three meter by three meter square in the world—more than enough to designate a hut in Siberia or a building doorway in Tokyo. Altogether, 40,000 words combined in triplets label 57 trillion squares. Thus far, the system has been built in 10 languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swahili, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish, and, starting next month, Arabic… All together, this lingua franca requires only five megabytes of data, small enough to reside in any smartphone and work offline. Each square has its identity in its own language that is not a translation of another. The dictionaries have been refined to avoid homophones or offensive terms, with short terms being reserved for the most populated areas

The addresses are poetically absurd—shaky.audit.detail, salsa.gangs.square, dozed.lamps.wing.

I mention this, however, because I meant to post last month that “Mongolia is changing all its addresses to three-word phrases.” Again, from Quartz:

Mongol Post is switching to the What3Words system because there are too few named streets in its territory. The mail network provides service over 1.5 million square km (580,000 square miles), an area that’s three times the size of Spain, though much of that area is uninhabited. Mongolia is among the world’s most sparsely populated countries, and about a quarter of its population is nomadic, according to the World Bank.

While, on one level, in an age of stacks and infinite addressability, this seems like a thrilling, almost science-fictional step forward for locating and mapping physical spaces, it also seems like an alarming example of national over-reliance on a proprietary address system, one that the state itself ultimately cannot control.

Imagine a nation-state losing influence over the physical coordinates of its own territory, or a population stuck living inside an outdated, even discontinued address network, and needing to start again, from scratch, renaming all its streets and buildings—not to mention all the lost local histories and significance of certain place names, from avenues to intersections, that need to be reclaimed.

Granted, in this particular case, the system is being adopted precisely because “there are too few named streets” in Mongolia, that does not change the fact that the country will soon be dependent upon the continued existence of what3words for its packages to be delivered, its services to run, and its spatial infrastructures to function. It will be interesting to see how the transition to the use of these peculiar place tags goes—but, even more so, how this decision looks in five or ten years’ time.

Bacteria Rule Everything Around Me

HInder3[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

I somewhat randomly found myself reading back through the irregularly updated blog of the British Museum earlier today when I learned about a project by Bristol-based artist Heidi Hinder called Financial Growth.

Financial Growth, Hinder explains in her guest post for the blog, is a still-ongoing “series of petri dish experiments.” It “reveals the bacteria present on coins and suggests that each time we make a cash transaction, we are exchanging more than just the monetary value and some tangible tokens. Hard currency could become a point of contagion.”

Hinder1[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

While Hinder develops this train of thought into a lengthy and provocative look at other means by which human beings could exchange microbes and bacteria for the purposes of financial interaction, I was actually unable to go much beyond than sheer awe at the basic premise of the project.

Hinder4[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

By culturing individual coins, Hinder has revealed a vibrant ecosystem of microscopic lifeforms thriving, garden-like, on every monetary token in our pockets; these are landscapes-in-waiting that we carry around with us every day.

Hinder6 [Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

I was reminded of the famous shot of “the bacteria that grew when an 8-year-old boy who had been playing outside pressed his hand onto a large Petri dish,” posted to Microbe World last autumn.

IMG_6288[Image: Via Microbe World].

We’re surrounded by the unexpected side-effects of these portable microbial communities.

We leave our traces everywhere—but we bear the traces of innumerable others, in turn, trafficking amongst microbiomes that are content to remain invisible until we force them to reveal themselves.

HInder2[Image: Via Microbe World].

Think of artist Maria Thereza Alves’s project, Seeds of Change, for example, a “ballast seed garden” that explored the hidden landscapes unwittingly carried along by ships of European maritime trade, with seeds unceremoniously dumped as part of their ballast, often centuries old.

[Image: Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change garden, via Facebook].

These were seeds left behind specifically from the ballast of ships—yet isn’t that exactly what Hinder’s project also explores, the portable, everyday ballast of bacteria left behind on our cash, our coins, our hands, our bodies?

After all, 94% of the money we handle every day has human feces on it. Put it in a petri dish and be wary of what begins to grow.

While Hinder’s larger point is that perhaps we could design a microbe-exchange economy based on the already-existing trade in bacteria we are all currently engaged in, whether we know it or not, the brute-force power of revelation makes Financial Growth grotesquely compelling.

We bring with us nearly infinite potential landscapes, carrying them in our wallets, purses, and pockets—on our hands, in the random waste left behind by ships and even airplanes—forming new, erratic ecosystems, a pop-up micro-wilderness we’re unable to control.