Forest Accumulator

Ten years ago, this would have been a speculative design project by Sascha Pohflepp: “hyper-accumulating” plants are being used to concentrate, and thus “mine,” valuable metals from soil.

[Image: Nickel-rich sap; photo by Antony van der Ent, courtesy New York Times.]

“With roots that act practically like magnets, these organisms—about 700 are known—flourish in metal-rich soils that make hundreds of thousands of other plant species flee or die,” the New York Times reported last week. “Slicing open one of these trees or running the leaves of its bush cousin through a peanut press produces a sap that oozes a neon blue-green. This ‘juice’ is actually one-quarter nickel, far more concentrated than the ore feeding the world’s nickel smelters.”

A while back, I went on a road-trip with Edible Geography to visit some maple syrup farms north of where we lived at the time, in New York City. The woods all around us were tubed together in a huge, tree-spanning network—“forest hydraulics,” as Edible Geography phrased it at the time—as the trees’ valuable liquid slowly flowed toward a pumping station in the center of the forest.

It was part labyrinth, part spiderweb, a kind of semi-automated tree-machine at odds with the image of nature with which most maple syrup is sold.

[Images: Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Imagining a similar landscape, but one designed as a kind of botanical mine—a forest accumulator, metallurgical druidry—is incredible.

And it’s not even a modern idea, as the New York Times points out. For all its apparent, 21st-century sci-fi, the idea of harvesting metal from plants is at least half a millennium old: “The father of modern mineral smelting, Georgius Agricola, saw this potential 500 years ago. He smelted plants in his free time. If you knew what to look for in a leaf, he wrote in the 16th century, you could deduce which metals lay in the ground below.”

This brings to mind an older post here about detection landscapes, or landscapes—yards, meadows, gardens, forests—deliberately planted with species that can indicate what is in the soil beneath them.

In the specific case of that post, this had archaeological value, allowing researchers to find abandoned Viking settlements in Greenland based on slight chemical changes that have affected which plants are able to thrive. Certain patches of flower, for example, act as archaeological indicator species, marking the locations of lost settlements.

In any case, my point is simply that vegetation can be read, or treated as a sign to be interpreted, whether by indicating the presence of archaeological ruins or by revealing the potential market-value of a site’s subterranean metal content.

Indeed, we read, “This vegetation could be the world’s most efficient, solar-powered mineral smelters,” with “the additional value of enabling areas with toxic soils to be made productive. Smallholding farmers could grow on metal-rich soils, and mining companies might use these plants to clean up their former mines and waste and even collect some revenue.” That is, you could filter and clean contaminated soils by drawing heavy-metal pollutants out of the ground, producing saps that are later harvested.

Fast-forward ten years: it’s 2030 and landscape architecture studios around the world are filled with speculative metal-harvesting plant designs—contaminated landscapes laced with gardens of hardy, sap-producing trees—even as industrial behemoths, like Rio Tinto and Barrick Gold, are breeding proprietary tree species in top-secret labs, genetically modifying them to maximize metal uptake.

Weird saps accumulate in iridescent lagoons. Autumn leaves glint, literally metallic, in the sun. Tiny metal capillaries weave up the trunks of black-wooded trees, in filigrees of gold and silver. The occasional forest fire smells not of smoke, but of copper and tin. Reclaimed timber, with knots and veins partially metallized, is used as luxury flooring in suburban homes.

Read more at the New York Times.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the tip!)


The USDA has announced a grant-giving program “for robots to roam farmlands,” Modern Farmer reports. It’s called the “National Robotics Initiative,” and it’s “getting $3 million to give in grants to robotics programs around the country to create robot-led agricultural advances.”

Farmland World

[Image: “Farmland World” by Design With Company (Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks)].

One of the runners-up for the recent Animal Architecture Awards is also one of my favorites from the competition: “Farmland World” by Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks of the Chicago-based Design With Company.

The project is an ironic investigation of how humans relate to farm animals—more specifically, how the ongoing spatial separation between humans and the animals they rely on for food and other forms of agricultural work can make animals seem to be nothing more than utilitarian machines.

[Image: From “Farmland World” by Design With Company; view larger].

In the architects’ words:

The everyday life of the average American is almost completely disconnected from the land and animals that support them. Even farmers perform their duties primarily through automated mechanisms that remove them from the subject of their industry. The constructed distance between the human “us” and the animal “others” is increasing to the point that distinctions between machines and animals look blurry purely from distanced detachment. From our removed perspective, the extreme demand for cheap food production and the diversion of the pet economy distorts animals until they look more like utilitarian machines (bacon) or anthropomorphic projections to entertain and decorate (tea-cup terrier). As we relate to animals and machines similarly, where each begins to exhibit characteristics of the other, their converging trajectories point to an impending crisis at their collision.

Farmland World makes the human-animal encounter spectacular, proposing an absurdly over-the-top farm animal theme park—a “human/machine/animal hybrid adventure-land.”

[Image: From “Farmland World” by Design With Company].

Farmland World “is a chain of agro-tourist resorts sprinkled across the American Midwestern countryside”:

Part theme park and part working farm, guests arrive to the resort via train and stay as part of 1-day, 3-day or 5-day experience packages. Capitalizing on both recent governmental investments in high-speed rail infrastructure and the plentiful subsidies for farming, the network of resorts combine crowd-sourced farm labor with eco-tainment.

“As train-loads of itinerant fantasy farmers arrive,” Newmeyer and Hicks drily write, “they are herded to the Grazing Coliseum to receive their complimentary overalls. From there, the adventure begins.”

[Image: From “Farmland World” by Design With Company; view larger].

Foregrounding the idea that humans have increasingly come to confuse animals with machines, Farmland World is populated by robots, rides, and representations.

Inflatable mega-pigs and hollow, roving “cow combines” act as “robotic performers,” in the designers’ words. Animal replicants, these false creatures “extend the tradition of machines using and mimicking animals for moving, operating, branding and processing food crops.”

[Image: From “Farmland World” by Design With Company; view section in more detail].

Meanwhile, the architect adds, “temporary farm excursionists”—paying visitors—”work, sowing and harvesting fields, becoming part of the herd. Farmland World embraces this hybrid human-animal-machine relationship, reinvigorating the rural landscape.”

[Images: The robotic super-cows of “Farmland World” by Design With Company; view section in more detail].

As you can see in the project’s overall guide, there are a whole series of these giant robot animals. A “chicken planter” stands beside a mechanical “sheep baaaler,” which, in turn, is neighbors with a pig plow and a mechanical horse that spreads real horse manure from its techno-derriere. Think of it as Westworld in an age of vast industrial farming—a livestock Disneyland.

[Image: From “Farmland World” by Design With Company; view larger].

On the project plan, you’ll also see such places as “Beeville” and “Veggie Row,” the latter promising an internally-animated range of machine-plants sprouting from beds of artificial soil.

Having gone to elementary school in a small town in rural Wisconsin, I vividly remember being taken to see farm animals over at UW-Madison, including one that had had a window surgically implanted into its side; you could actually watch the cow, in section, digesting its food.

To go from this—a bovine proto-cyborg—to Design With Company’s beautifully rendered “Farmland World” doesn’t actually seem like such a stretch.

In any case, congratulations to Allison Newmeyer and Stewart Hicks for placing as second runner-up in the Animal Architecture Awards; for more, see the Animal Architecture website as well as this earlier post today on BLDGBLOG.