The Terrestrial Status of Boston

The terrestrial status of Boston is an unexpectedly fascinating topic. A city built on land rescued from the sea, it is not only unusually at risk from sea-level rise; it also hides parts of its marshy past beneath its streets and buildings.

As a project by the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center recently wrote, “No city in the U.S. has a more striking history of landmaking than Boston, with about a sixth of its present land area sitting on estuaries, mudflats, coves, and tidal basins that would have been submerged at high tide prior to the seventeenth century. Mapping the growth of the city into the surrounding ocean has been an interest of Boston’s geographers for centuries, and our modern maps of shoreline change are some of the most popular objects in our digital collections.”

[Image: Boston, courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center.]

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal explained last year, some of Boston’s most expensive houses are more like docks or wharves, sitting atop wooden pilings driven deep into flooded ground. In one specific case, “the underground wooden pilings supporting the foundation had been rotting for years, to the point where the building’s walls were ‘almost floating,’ [the home’s owner] recalled.”

Recall the the incredible story of William Walker, a diver who “saved” Winchester Cathedral in England by diving beneath it for a period of six years, repairing its aquatic foundations from below. “When huge cracks started to appear in the early 1900s,” we read, “the Cathedral seemed in danger of complete collapse. Early efforts to underpin its waterlogged foundations failed until William Walker, a deep-sea diver, worked under water every day for six years placing bags of concrete.”

Ben Affleck’s next movie, perhaps—scuba diving beneath the streets of Boston and saving the city from below…

While the bulk of the Leventhal Center’s project focuses on the economic value of reclaimed land in the Boston area—what they call “the ultimate financial asset: brand-new urban land, ready for development”—there is at least one amazing detail I wanted to post here.

Like buried ships in New York City and San Francisco, Boston has its own maritime archaeology: “Sophisticated networks of fish weirs can still be found buried beneath the streets of the [Back Bay] neighborhood, which were laid out in a tidily gridded pattern in the nineteenth century to facilitate the engrossment and sale of property.” Indigenous hydrological infrastructure, hiding in plain sight.

Writing just today, meanwhile, in an op-ed for WBUR, Courtney Humphries suggests that, ironically, Boston’s future survival might depend on doing more of what got it into trouble with the sea in the first place: building more land and further modifying the shoreline.

What future weirs and dams and levees and pilings, architectural anchorages all, might we see beneath the streets of Boston, a city halfway between terrestrial and maritime, ground and ocean, bedrock and marsh, in the years to come?

White Out

I’ve been reading Christopher P. Heuer’s book Into the White. It looks at how the landscape and climate of the far North—the Arctic—threw the European imagination into a bit of a tailspin, presenting a kind of non-configurable problem that shut the operating system down, often leaving ship-bound humans bereft of words and struggling to create comprehensible images.

Early on in the book, Heuer describes journeys of Arctic exploration as “a confrontation with conditions that simply did not fit into European schemes of pictorial composition, space, selfhood, and communication.” Indeed, what Europeans saw there could not even be described in terms of similar landscapes back home—because there were none, Heuer writes: “being like nothing else, the Arctic regions confounded literary strategies of analogy.”

Frigid seas with no permanent land forms; drifting icebergs without clear shape or scale, constantly fragmenting into smaller masses and thus resisting the most basic concepts of counting and quantification; vast snow fields in places like Greenland and Canada where techniques of mapping and surveying broke down, and where—lacking visual features beyond sheer, endless whiteness—the burgeoning art of perspectival representation became impossible. Fathomless expanses of open water where alien hulks of ice, obscured by fog, drift through.

[Image: “The Sea of Ice” (1823-1824), Caspar David Friedrich.]

Often unable to sketch, describe, or explain what they saw there, European crews often left these bizarre and frightening experiences undocumented—as if an experience or situation can be so otherworldly, you cannot even describe it. No coordinate points, no baselines, no solid ground. (Of interest here would also be the work of expeditionary art historian William L. Fox, who has suggested that the Antarctic is equally challenging to human representational practices to the point of resisting human cognition itself.)

One of the most provocative aspects of the whole book for me is its implication that interstellar navigation, beyond planetary bodies, will pose similar—though certainly far more intense—challenges to human cognition, mapping, language, and measurement. This difficulty would presumably not be limited to the European imagination, of course, but to the terrestrial one. (Although it does raise the strange prospect that humans from Arctic regions could be the savviest interstellar navigators.)

In any case, Heuer’s book also points out that European expansion into vast new terrestrial regions, such as the Arctic and the South Atlantic, not just for scientific documentation but for “corporate resource exploitation,” as Heuer describes it, began just as perspectival representation was being developed in Renaissance Italy. That is, just as Europeans were attempting to conquer the infinite void of abstract architectural space through a series of mathematical grids and vanishing points, other Europeans were sailing off into novel terrestrial environments that resisted those same techniques, where the concept of scale itself broke down.

Hidden within this is perhaps a comment on art and commerce as equally concerned, in their own very different ways, with describing quantities beyond calculation—sheer plenty, limitless reserve, infinite exchange.

This leads to another of Heuer’s historical points—albeit one that, to me, reads more like coincidence than causation, but is nevertheless stunning in its visual power.

[Image: “Interior of Saint Bavo, Haarlem” (1631), Pieter Jansz, Saenredam; courtesy Philadelphia Museum of Art.]

Heuer writes, at some length, about how iconoclasm was surging through Western European churches at the time, with the effect that the same nations that were sending mariners out to map and exploit distant environments were also convulsing at home with the widespread destruction of religious imagery. He draws a wonderfully surreal comparison here between white-washed church interiors, denuded of their statues and ornamentation by iconoclasts, and the huge, featureless super-objects of the Arctic, the vaulted spans of icebergs loose on the waves, the looming glacial cliffs of Greenland, the apparently empty wastes of northeastern Canada.

This seems to suggest that iconoclasts painting church interiors white were psychologically of a pair with distant ships’ crews landing in all-white lands, sailing into all-white fog banks, gazing fearfully upon all-white ice, as if the interiors of European churches had become their own sort of Arctic but also that the Arctic had taken on the terrible, sublime dimensions of a religious experience, a theological encounter with the iconoclastic void. A fathomless void, an immeasurable drift.

So, contrary to Heuer’s own claim of Arctic landscapes “being like nothing else,” they were, in fact, like iconoclastic church interiors.

Nevertheless, again, this seems more like a historical coincidence to me—albeit a highly provocative one—than anything like cause and effect.

In fact, it might be fruitful to reimagine Heuer’s observation as the basis of a novel—or, for that matter, as the structure of a Terrence Malick film. A father, consumed with rage against the church, rallies with his compatriots to raid the interiors of cathedrals, stripping them of anything that represents the divine, decapitating statues, shattering windows, painting frescos white, endless white, everything white; even as his son, a mercantilist, perhaps angry with the world itself, on a quest for life-affirming capitalist novelty, sets sail into the Arctic, discovering—instead of abundance and plenty—a world exactly like that created, in acts of rage, by his father. Endless white, lacking in features, silenced of music. A void.

We are left, as our story comes to an end, staring into an expanse that suggests almost no visual difference between cataracts of ice looming over the son’s ship, lost in the Arctic, doomed, and the eerie, seemingly immeasurable interior of a church brutally whitewashed by a God-obsessed father.

Of course, these characters should probably be reversed: it is the parent who is mercantilist, looking for a life of material improvement and capitalist profit, setting sail in the name of imperial, corporate exploitation, while the child stays at home, consumed with new fundamentalisms, painting over images of the past out of a mistaken belief that negation itself is enough for societal rebirth and personal self-discovery.

Either way, both characters are left not cataloging new forms of significance or abundance, but in a world devastatingly whitewashed of meaning.

Anyway, Heuer’s book is interesting and worth a read. It has also achieved the seemingly impossible, which is that it has made me genuinely excited to read Erwin Panofksy again.

Birds and Burglary

I’ve become obsessed with birds over the past year of lockdown, after a mourning dove couple began nesting directly outside our kitchen window. We saw the doves every day, patiently handing off their nest roles each morning and evening, cooperatively raising a little one—unsuccessfully, sadly—and pecking around for seeds and nesting material on the ground. (You can see many, many pics of the doves, if you’re so inclined, over on @highlandparkdoves.) So far this year, they have not returned to nest again.

To my friends’ baffled disinterest, meanwhile, I have fallen head over heels for incredibly common birds—species like mourning doves (the greatest birds, my friends), house sparrows (so numerous, people treat them like pests), house finches, and California towhees (ugly little brown birds that act so strangely—or at least the ones living near our house do—that they are close to mourning doves in my level of obsession). More than once, following vaccination, I have sat with friends outside in our backyard absolutely losing my mind at how adorable all the towhees, sparrows, and mourning doves are as they fly in to get seeds and water, only to realize that everyone else is looking at me as if it’s finally time for this party to end…

In any case, the idea that my interest in unspectacular bird species might have something in common with my other interests, such as burglary, never really crossed my mind, to be honest, but I keep thinking about two recent stories I thought I’d post here briefly.

One was a minor post by Audobon about birds using shopping carts as cover for sneaking into grocery stores. “Birds,” we read, “have been known to linger in them like Greeks in the Trojan Horse.” You push a line of carts through the automatic doors, unaware of the little winged invaders hidden inside, and they quickly spread out, looking for rafters, food, and perhaps a cold Modelo or two.

The other is the allegedly true story of how Eurasian collared doves arrived in North America. The story goes that, back in the 1970s, a pet store somewhere in the Bahamas was burglarized and a few collared doves managed to escape; the owner subsequently freed the rest of his collared doves and, within a few years, they had made it across to Florida. Forty years later, Eurasian collared doves are now found all over the United States—including here where I live in Los Angeles.

[Image: A Eurasian collared dove swoops in to say hello; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

A few weeks ago, my wife and I noticed the subtly different coo of a Eurasian collared dove coming from somewhere nearby in our neighborhood, a song that only got louder and louder—that is, closer and closer to our house—over the weeks to come. Then, just yesterday afternoon, a slightly lost-looking Eurasian collared dove landed in our backyard, hoping for seed. (Said curious bird appears in the image, above.) From escaped cousins in the Bahamas to Southern California—via burglary.

Tying everyday common bird species back to true crime is, I’m now hoping, a good way to get my friends—and you!—interested in these little beauties. Avian crime! Birds and burglary! In fact, it brings to mind Laurel Braitman’s great story about Echo, the parrot in a witness-protection program.

(Vaguely related further bird content: Acoustic Archaeology.)

Archipasta

3D shapes can now be pre-printed onto flat sheets of uncooked pasta and only revealed during the boiling process, according to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Nestlé’s food-science labs.

[Image: Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon’s Morphing Matter Lab, via New Scientist.]

“The 2D pasta morphs into 3D shapes when boiled because each piece is lined with tiny grooves, less than 1 millimetre wide, in particular patterns. The grooves increase the surface area of some parts of a piece of pasta. Areas with a higher surface area absorb water and swell faster,” New Scientist reports. “The groove pattern in terms of the depth, the height, and then the spacing are all very important,” researcher Wen Wang tells the magazine. “By utilizing this we could bend the pasta into the shape we would like.”

The idea is that this can dramatically cut down on packaging costs, material use, and food’s spatial footprint, eliminating the need for bulky boxes currently used to store not just pasta but empty air around all those imperfectly jumbled shapes.

While this is interesting in and of itself, it’s difficult not to wonder about the architectural possibilities inherent in such an approach. You could take advantage of perforations, cuts, grooves, and incisions in otherwise flat materials to hide 3D shapes that are only later revealed under very particular circumstances. This could, in fact, have quite ominous uses in, say, combat robotics—flat pieces of metal that crease and unfold into pop-up weaponry—but also humanitarian possibilities for self-constructing emergency shelters.

A new architectural avant-garde, inspired by science fiction and pasta, designing a world of flat surfaces awaiting future transformation.

Flat-pack architectural components, of course, are a very old story! I’m nevertheless intrigued by the idea of an imprinted 3D shape being only conditionally revealed: a flat board that becomes a building, say, but only at particular temperatures or humidities, perhaps even at certain altitudes or barometric pressures. You could imagine storm-triggered shelter pods, water-swollen coastal flood defenses, or even urban heat-warning architectures, among many other things, all based on similar materials.

Read more in the original paper, published by Science Advances.

Noodle Raider

There’s an interesting detail at the start of a recent Economist piece about a network of tomb raiders in China, or bands of archaeological burglars who have been breaking into and stealing artifacts from ancient sites all over the country.

“By day,” the piece begins, “Mr Wei sold pancakes in Shaanxi, a northern province. By night he led a gang of grave robbers who tunneled under an ancient temple near his shop. It took 11 months for them to reach the treasures buried beneath, which included gold statues of the Buddha and the bones of illustrious monks. Mr Wei and his cronies went on to dig several more passages from restaurants that they opened in the vicinity of shrines and pagodas.”

For as many as five years, allegedly, the crew hit graves and tombs, abetted by this false front of restaurants that were actually being used as forward operating bases for underground tunneling operations. This is quite the modus operandi—though, to be 100% clear, it is not something I am commending. Admiration of method should not be confused with advocacy for its implementation.

Nevertheless, the prospect of these restaurants’ secret purpose being discovered, or even suspected, could easily be the start of a novel or comic book: you and your single parent, say, live alone above an empty restaurant on a dilapidated side street in your depressed hometown, near an old historic site of some sort, when a new owner signs a lease downstairs. A week later, a noodle shop opens. But the food is terrible—it’s just a Coke machine and some instant ramen—and there are strange sounds at night and whispered voices coming up through the ducts. Unexplained piles of dirt begin to appear out back in the alley. Then one day you decide to investigate.

In any case, you can read more about Mr. Wei and his noodle-shop tomb raiding over at the Economist.

Cetacean Surroundsound

I was thinking about this whale song bunker idea the other week after reading about the potential for whale song to be used as a form of deep-sea seismic sensing. That original project—with no actual connection to the following news story—proposed using a derelict submarine surveillance station on the coast of Scotland as a site for eavesdropping on the songs of whales.

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image of whales, courtesy Public Domain Review.]

In a paper published in Science last month, researchers found that “fin whale songs can also be used as a seismic source for determining crustal structure. Fin whale vocalizations can be as loud as large ships and occur at frequencies useful for traveling through the ocean floor. These properties allow fin whale songs to be used for mapping out the density of ocean crust, a vital part of exploring the seafloor.”

The team noticed not only that these whale songs could be picked up on deep-sea seismometers, but that “the song recordings also contain signals reflected and refracted from crustal interfaces beneath the stations.” It could be a comic book: marine geologists teaming up with animal familiars to map undiscovered faults through tectonic sound recordings of the sea.

There’s something incredibly beautiful about the prospect of fin whales swimming around together through the darkness of the sea, following geological structures, perhaps clued in to emerging tectonic features—giant, immersive ambient soundscapes—playfully enjoying the distorted reflections of each other’s songs as they echo back off buried mineral forms in the mud below.

I’m reminded of seemingly prescient lyrics from Coil’s song “The Sea Priestess”: “I was woken three times in the night / and asked to watch whales listen for earthquakes in the sea / I had never seen such a strange sight before.”

Someday, perhaps, long after the pandemic has passed, we’ll gather together in derelict bunkers on the ocean shore to tune into the sounds of whales mapping submerged faults, a cross-species geological survey in which songs serve as seismic media.

Koala Dream Theory

I have not been sleeping well the past few weeks, but I had a great dream the other night in which someone explained to me a new conspiracy theory; in the dream, they really wanted me to investigate it.

The idea, this person explained, was that an obscure clause of the U.S. Constitution, somehow related to the regulation of commerce, requires that the federal government print two back-up copies of every dollar bill in circulation. Every one-dollar, five-dollar, twenty-dollar bill, etc., thus exists in triplicate.

What this means, the person added, was that if you know where the back-up bills are stored, you could thus steal the entire national monetary supply—twice.

I must have been excited by this, because I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep for more than an hour—but while I was lying there, thinking about conspiracy theories, I came up with my own.

In 1973—according to my new conspiracy theory, thrown together at 3 o’clock in the morning last week—Australian researchers discovered a koala that knew how to talk. Amazed, convinced it was the scientific discovery of the decade, they filmed a whole series of long TV-style interviews with it for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation—but the tapes were immediately confiscated and never aired out of fear that anyone who saw the talking koala might panic.

However, this theory claims, the tapes still exist and are being stored in a warehouse somewhere. (Note to new readers of this blog: I do not actually believe this theory.)

Right before drifting back to sleep again that night it occurred to me that you could write a story in which someone who believes in Theory #1—that every dollar bill has two back-ups somewhere—breaks into a warehouse only, instead, to find videotape confirmation of Theory #2.

Cut to a scene of disappointed burglars sullenly sliding an old VHS tape into a machine—only for their jaws to drop in wonder at the sound of a little voice…

Uncanny Crops

Speaking of @wmmna, Régine Debatty—author of we make money not art—will be hosting a workshop next month on “plant geopolitics, phytoengineering, and uncanny crops.” Expect discussions of “plant neurobiology,” agricultural colonialism, space crops, hyperaccumulators, future foods, and much more.

Sign up over at the School of Machines, Making & Make-Believe.

(Related: Trees as radio antennas and plants as archaeological detectors.)

Planetary Supercinema

[Image: Courtesy Capella Space.]

The Geocinema group is hosting a six-week class this spring called Signals and Storms, a kind of planetary-scale media studies workshop. Participants will research and critique what they describe as an emerging super-system of always-on recording technologies, from “geosensors” and street-level surveillance cameras up to weather satellites—tools that suggest a future possible medium for “largely distributed infrastructures of filmmaking.”

The image above, meanwhile, comes courtesy of Capella Space and depicts a new satellite design—as of January 2020—that allows the company to produce “on-demand observations of anywhere on Earth” (what they have elsewhere called “persistent monitoring from space”).

These sorts of technologies—though currently out of reach for the typical budgets of a film studio, let alone an arts group—are part of an increasingly omnipresent media-production infrastructure, one that continuously records the surface of the Earth in real time and in great detail, or where Geocinema gets its name in the first place.

Read more over at Signals and Storms.

(Spotted via @wmmna.)

The Magnetic Depths

The emerging sub-genre of public service announcements about geological surveys—apparently offered not just due to FAA regulations, but to quell the growth of potential conspiracy theories—continues with this heads-up about a “low-flying airplane” over parts of Virginia and North Carolina.

[Image: USGS map of eastern Virginia, altered by BLDGBLOG.]

Of course, beyond the idea of simply preempting the development of new conspiracy theories, the work being done by the project is fascinating in and of itself: “Instruments on the airplane will measure variations in the Earth’s magnetic field and natural low-level radiation created by different rock types near and up to several miles beneath the surface. This information will help researchers develop geologic maps of the area that will be used to better understand sand resources and underground faults in the region.”

While we’re on the topic of the Virginia/North Carolina border region, I’m reminded of why there’s a strange “notch” in the state line, a story “that mostly involves collecting taxes and avoiding swamps”: “The rough and rowdy inhabitants living close to the border told North Carolina tax collectors they lived in Virginia, [Gates County historian Linda Hofler] said. When the Virginia tax man came, they said North Carolina was their home.”

In any case, check out the USGS for more on the low-flying geomagnetic airplane and The Virginian-Pilot for more on VA/NC border history.

(Related: Geomedia, or What Lies Below.)

Antarktikos

[Image: How do you resist a map with features like Labyrinth, the Asgard Range, and Inland Forts?! (via).]

A new magazine called Antarktikos has launched with an open call for papers on the theme of “Mapping Nature.”

For the inaugural issue, they’re seeking “any kind of research, story, or visualization related to the mapping of Antarctica. From ice cores containing the information trapped in 20,000-year-old air bubbles, to the architectural drawing of research stations, to imaginary maps of Antarctica in the year 3000.”

Click through for more info.