Potsdamer Sea

[Image: From Kiessling’s Grosser Verkehrs-Plan von Berlin (1920).]

It’s funny to be back in Berlin, a city where I once thought I’d spend the rest of my life, first arriving here as a backpacker in 1998 and temporarily moving in with a woman 14 years older than me, who practiced Kabbalah and had twin dogs and who, when seeing that I had bought myself a portable typewriter because I was going through a William Burroughs phase, blessed it one night in her apartment near the synagogue in a ceremony with some sort of bronze sword. It’s almost literally unbelievable how long ago that was. More years have passed since I spent time in Berlin—supposedly to study German for grad school, but in reality organized entirely around going to Tresor—than I had been alive at the time.

Because I’m here again on a reporting trip, I was speaking yesterday evening with a former geophysicist who, when the Berlin Wall came down, found work doing site-remediation studies and heritage-mapping projects on land beneath the old path of the Wall. He was tasked with looking for environmental damage and unexploded ordnance, but also for older foundations and lost buildings, earlier versions of Berlin that might pose a structural threat to the city’s future or that needed to be recorded for cultural posterity.

Ironically, in a phase of my life I rarely think about, I wrote my graduate thesis on almost exactly this topic, focused specifically on Potsdamer Platz—once divided by the Wall—and the role of architectural drawings in communicating historical context. When I was first here, in 1998 into early 1999, Potsdamer Platz was still a titanic hole in the ground, an abyss flooded with groundwater, melted snow, and rain, a kind of maelström you could walk over on pedestrian bridges, where engineering firms were busy stabilizing the earth for what would become today’s corporate office parks.

As I told the former geophysicist last night, I remember hearing at the time that there were people down there, SCUBA diving in the floodwaters, performing geotechnical studies or welding rebar or looking for WWII bombs, I had no idea, but, whatever it was, their very existence took on an outsized imaginative role in my experience of the city. Berlin, destroyed by war, divided by architecture, where people SCUBA dive through an artificial sea at its broken center. It felt like a mandala, a cosmic diagram, with this inverted Mt. Meru at its heart, not an infinite mountain but a bottomless pit.

What was so interesting to me about Berlin at the time was that it felt like a triple-exposure photograph, the city’s future overlaid atop everything else in a Piranesian haze of unbuilt architecture, whole neighborhoods yet to be constructed, everything still possible, out of focus somehow. It was incoherent in an exhilaratingly literal sense. In Potsdamer Platz, what you thought was the surface of the Earth was actually a bridge; you were not standing on the Earth at all, or at least not on earth. It was the Anthropocene in miniature, a kind of masquerade, architecture pretending to be geology.

The more that was built, however, the more Berlin seemed to lose this inchoate appeal. The only people with the power to control the rebuilding process seemed to be automobile consortiums and international hotel groups, office-strategy consultants not wizards and ghosts or backpacking writers. Perhaps the city still feels like that to other people now—unfinished, splintered, jagged in a temporal sense, excitingly so, a city with its future still taking shape in the waves of an underground sea—but it seems to me that Berlin’s blur has been misfocused.

In any case, with the caveat that I am in Berlin this week for a very specific research project, so many people I’ve met have pointed to the fall of the Wall as an explosive moment for geophysical surveys in the East. Engineers were hired by the dozen to map, scan, and survey damaged ground left behind by a collapsed imperialist Empire, and the residues of history, its chemical spills and lost foundations, its military bunkers and archaeological remains, needed to be recorded. The ground itself was a subject of study, an historical medium. On top of that, new freeways were being built and expanded, heading east into Poland—and this, too, required geophysical surveys. The future of the region was, briefly, accessible only after looking down. The gateway to the future was terrestrial, a question of gravel and sand, forgotten basements and fallen walls.

The SCUBA divers of the Potsdamer Sea now feel like mascots of that time, dream figures submerged in the waves of a future their work enabled, swimming through historical murk with limited visibility and, air tanks draining, limited time. Their pit was soon filled, the hole annihilated, and the surface of the Earth—which was actually architecture—returned with amnesia.

Underground Cathedrals of Radiation and Zones of Irreversible Strain

[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]

There’s a great line in Tom Zoellner’s book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World where he describes the after-effects of underground nuclear tests. Zoellner writes that, during these tests, “a nuclear bomb buried in a deep shaft underneath a mountain would vaporize the surrounding rock and make a huge cathedral-like space inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity.”

I thought of Zoellner’s vision of a “huge cathedral-like space inside the earth” recently while reading a paper by Colin N. Waters et al., called “Recognising anthropogenic modification of the subsurface in the geological record.” Among other things, the authors describe the long-term “structural effects of subsurface weapon detonations.”

[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]

They suggest that these detonations produce spaces—such as collapse cones and debris fields—that have “no direct natural analogue,” although they do helpfully contrast weapon-test craters with meteor-impact sites. (The authors also break underground nuclear test sites down into “zones,” which include a “zone of irreversible strain,” which is an amazing phrase.)

The larger purpose of their paper, though, is to look at long-term “signatures” that humans might leave behind in our underground activity, from nuclear tests to mineralogical carbon-capture to deep boreholes to coal mines. Will these signatures still be legible or detectible for humans of the far future? On the whole, their conclusion is not optimistic, suggesting instead that even vast subterranean mines and sites of underground nuclear weapons tests will fade from the terrestrial archive.

“Many of the physical and chemical products of human subsurface intrusion either do not extend far from the source of intrusion, lack long-term persistence as a signal or are not sufficiently distinctive from the products of natural processes to make them uniquely recognisable as of anthropogenic origin,” they write. “But the scope and complexity of the signals have increased greatly over recent decades, both in areal extent and with increasing depths, and seem set to be a fundamental component of our technological expansion. There will be some clues to the geologist of the far-future, when historical knowledge records may not be preserved, that will help resolve the origin.”

[Image: Nevada test site craters, courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library.]

Nevertheless, it is totally fascinating to imagine what future archaeologists might make of Zoellner’s “huge cathedral-like space[s] inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity,” long after they’ve collapsed, and where sand has been fused into unnatural glass and anomalous traces of radiation can still be found with no reasonable explanation for how they got there.

Could future archaeologists deduce the existence of nuclear weapons from such a landscape? And, if so, would such a suggestion—ancient weapons modeled on the physics of stars—sound rational or vaguely insane?

(Vaguely related: “fossil reactors” underground in Gabon.)

Strange Precipitation

It’s not only snow falling from the sky this winter, but microplastics, a holiday season marked by petrochemical drifts accumulating on our windowsills and roadsides.

European researchers have found much more than just plastics, in fact, snowing down on our shoulders: “Acrylates/polyurethanes/varnish/lacquer (hereafter varnish) occurred most frequently (17 samples), followed by nitrile rubber (16 samples), polyethylene (PE), polyamide, and rubber type 3 (13; ethylene-propylenediene rubber).”

That’s plastic, rubber, varnish, lacquer, and polyethylene—a true precipitation of the Anthropocene—snowing from the sky, as if we’ve embalmed the weather. Zombie snow.

Meanwhile, it seems as if snow itself is being redefined by these studies. For example, every winter, terrestrial landscapes are buried not just by crystals of frozen water, but by the remains of dead stars.

In what would read like a poem in any other context, ScienceNews reports that “exploding stars scattered traces of iron over Antarctic snow.” In other words, metallic fragments of dead stars can be found sprayed across ice at the bottom of our world.

This has cosmic implications:

The result could help scientists better understand humankind’s place in space. The solar system resides within a low-density pocket of gas, known as the local bubble. It’s thought that exploding supernovas created shock waves that blasted out that bubble. But the solar system currently sits inside a denser region within that bubble, known as the Local Interstellar Cloud. The detection of recently deposited iron-60 suggests that this cloud may also have been sculpted by supernovas, the researchers say.

Sculpted by supernovas. We exist within that space, once carved by the detonations of stars whose metallic remains snow down onto dead continents, forming drifts—someday, entire glaciers—of plastic, rubber, polyethylene, and more.

(Image: Snow, via the Adirondack Almanac. Related: Space Grain.)

Great Basin Autoglyphs

[Image: Michael Light, from “Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas”].

A new exhibition of work by photographer Michael Light opened last night at the Hosfelt Gallery in San Francisco.

[Image: Michael Light, from “Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas”].

Called “Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas,” the work is part of an “ongoing aerial photographic survey of the arid American West… moving from habited, placed settlements into pure space and its attendant emptiness.”

[Image: Michael Light, from “Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas”].

Along the way, Light reframes human civilization as a series of abstract lines inscribed at vast scale through remote areas, less like infrastructure and more like planetary graffiti.

“Twelve thousand years ago,” Light writes, “the Great Basin—that part of the country between California and Utah where water does not drain to the ocean—was 900 feet underwater, covered by two vast and now largely evaporated historical lakes, Bonneville and Lahontan. The remnants of Lake Bonneville today are the Great Salt Lake in Utah and its eponymous salt flats, while the most famous portion of the former Lake Lahontan is the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, an alkali bed that floods and dries each year, creating the flattest land on earth.”

[Image: Michael Light, from “Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas”].

Light is an incredibly interesting photographer, and has done everything from wreck-diving old military ships scuttled during nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific to releasing a book of retouched archival photos from the Apollo Program.

Nicola Twilley and I interviewed Light several years ago for our Venue project, where we discussed these projects at length.

[Image: Michael Light, from “Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas”].

In you’re near San Francisco, stop by the Hosfelt Gallery before March 16, 2019, and also consider ordering a copy of Light’s forthcoming book, Lake Lahontan/Lake Bonneville, with related images.

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.

Patent Diagrams for Artificial Trees

At least, after we’ve cut down every last tree and forest, once we’ve rid the world of natural species, we’ll know how to build their replacements. Here are some diagrams for artificial trees, signed by their inventors, down to specific tufting techniques and mechanisms for branch attachments. Our future forests will be colorfast and fade-resistant—perhaps machine-washable—filled with recordings of historical birdsong, the world a puzzle we took apart believing someone else would know how to put it back together.

(All via Google Patents.)

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.