Terrestrial Warfare, Drowned Lands

While looking at maps of rural New York State, roughly 70 miles northwest of Manhattan, near the border with New Jersey, I noticed a series of small communities called “Islands.” Pine Island, Maple Island, Black Walnut Island, Pellets Island, etc.—these are tiny hamlets otherwise surrounded by dry land, well away from the sea, the Hudson, or any other large bodies of water.

It turns out these are the “drowned lands of the Wallkill,” a river with such an irregular bed, that so commonly flooded every season, that high points in the landscape would become temporary islands.

According to The History of Sussex and Warren Co., NJ by James P. Snell, it wasn’t until legislation was passed in 1807—creating wonderfully named “drowned-land commissioners”—that the region was eventually drained.

Briefly, anyone interested in liminal landscapes should find Snell’s description of the Drowned Lands, prior to their drainage, fascinating. The Wallkill itself had no real path or bed, Snell explains, the meadows it flowed through were naturally dammed at one end by glacial boulders from the Ice Age, the whole place was clogged with “rank vegetation,” malarial pestilence, and tens of thousands of eels, and, what’s more, during flood season “the entire valley from Denton to Hamburg became a lake from eight to twenty feet deep.”

The landscape is also almost literally Biblical: “On the Southwestern border of the swamp, in the town of Warwick, two lofty and isolated mountains rear their summits. They are called Adam and Eve. Formerly they swarmed with rattlesnakes, but these the inhabitants have exterminated.”

In any case, this eerie, terrestrial-aquatic borderland—reminiscent of John Langan’s novel The Fisherman—was radically redesigned following the construction of a large drainage canal and a subsequent series of dams.

But the dams were controversial, and this is where things get novelistic.

A half-century of “war” broke out among local supporters of the dams and their foes: “The dam-builders were called the ‘beavers’; the dam destroyers were known as ‘muskrats.’ The muskrat and beaver war was carried on for years,” with skirmishes always breaking out over new attempts to dam the floods.

Here’s one example, like a scene written by Victor Hugo transplanted to New York State: “A hundred farmers, on the 20th of August, 1869, marched upon the dam to destroy it. A large force of armed men guarded the dam. The farmers routed them and began the work of destruction. The ‘beavers’ then had recourse to the law; warrants were issued for the arrest of the farmers. A number of their leaders were arrested, but not before the offending dam had been demolished. The owner of the dam began to rebuild it; the farmers applied for an injunction. Judge Barnard granted it, and cited the owner of the dam to appear and show cause why the injunction should not be made perpetual. Pending a final hearing, high water came and carried away all vestige of the dam.”

And so on and so forth, dams rising and falling, lands drowning and being drained again, farmers pitted against hydrologists, for generations. You can easily imagine this as the backdrop for a historical epic, set within a day’s journey from Manhattan on the cusp of modernity, a family committed to raising land from ambiguity and murk colliding with primordial forces led by hostile neighbors dedicated to maintaining inundation.

Two visions of landscape, at war.

Today, the land is hugely fertile and apparently a great source of topsoil; it has become known as the Black Dirt Region. You can even buy Black Dirt Bourbon.

But still, these isolated hills and ridges call themselves islands, as if awaiting the return of the flood.

(All images via Google Maps. Vaguely related on BLDGBLOG: Tactical Landscaping and Terrain Deformation; readers might also enjoy David Blackbourn’s superb book, The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape, and the Making of Modern Germany.)

New Spatial Contract

The theme of the next Venice Architecture Biennale has been announced by its curator, Hashim Sarkis.

“We need a new spatial contract,” Sarkis writes. We need to “call on architects to imagine spaces in which we can generously live together: together as human beings who, despite our increasing individuality, yearn to connect with one another and with other species across digital and real space; together as new households looking for more diverse and dignified spaces for inhabitation; together as emerging communities that demand equity, inclusion and spatial identity; together across political borders to imagine new geographies of association; and together as a planet facing crises that require global action for us to continue living at all.”

You can read the full statement at the Biennale website. The Biennale itself will open next year, in May 2020.

Terrestrial Oceanica

I’m grateful for two recent opportunities to publish op-eds, one for the Los Angeles Times back in May and the other just this morning in the New York Times. Both look at seismic activity and its poetic or philosophical implications, including fault lines as sites of emergence for a future world (“A fault is where futures lurk”).

They both follow on from the Wired piece about the Walker Lane, as well as this past weekend’s large earthquakes here in Southern California.

The L.A. Times op-ed specifically looks at hiking along fault lines, including the San Andreas, where, several years ago, I found myself walking alone at sunset, without cell service, surrounded by tarantulas. I was there in the midst of a “tarantula boom,” something I did not realize until I checked into a hotel room and did some Googling later that evening.

In any case, “Faults are both a promise and a threat: They are proof that the world will remake itself, always, whether we’re prepared for the change or not.”

The New York Times piece specifically looks at the philosophical underpinnings of architecture, for which solid ground is both conceptually and literally foundational.

The experience of an earthquake can be destabilizing, not just physically but also philosophically. The idea that the ground is solid, dependable—that we can build on it, that we can trust it to support us—undergirds nearly all human terrestrial activity, not the least of which is designing and constructing architecture… We might say that California is a marine landscape, not a terrestrial one, a slow ocean buffeted by underground waves occasionally strong enough to flatten whole cities. We do not, in fact, live on solid ground: We are mariners, rolling on the peaks and troughs of a planet we’re still learning to navigate. This is both deeply vertiginous and oddly invigorating.

To no small extent, nearly that entire piece was inspired by a comment made by Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, who I had the pleasure of interviewing several years ago during a Fellowship at USC. At one point in our conversation, Jones emphasized to me that she is a seismologist, not a geologist, which means that she studies “waves, not rocks.” Waves, not rocks. There is a whole new way of looking at the Earth hidden inside that comment.

Huge thanks, meanwhile, to Sue Horton and Clay Risen for inviting me to contribute.

(Images: (top) Hiking at the San Andreas-adjacent Devil’s Punchbowl, like a frozen wave emerging from dry land. (bottom) A tarantula walks beside me at sunset along the San Andreas Fault near Wallace Creek, October 2014; photos by BLDGBLOG.)

Folktales for the Offworld

The vocabulary in this new book on Extraterrestrial Construction Techniques is amazing, from the design of “Earth-independent habitats” to the use of “space-native metals” and other “non-terrestrial construction materials in the alien environment of space.”

The full manuscript also contains a section on “high-fidelity simulants”—another great phrase—as well as one on artificial crystal-growth techniques in space. Here, the ideas themselves are architecturally evocative: “It is envisioned that fragments of bio-like materials could be launched in an inactive state during space flight, and once landed at the Moon or Mars, would start to grow into construction materials or even pre-engineered habitats.” Controlled crystal architecture!

You can easily imagine some new version of Jack and the Beanstalk, about a relentlessly growing crystal building, a future folktale for life in space.

Walker Lane Redux

It’s been an interesting few days here in Southern California, with several large earthquakes and an ensuing aftershock sequence out in the desert near Ridgecrest. Ridgecrest, of course, is at the very southern edge of the Walker Lane—more properly part of the Eastern California Shear Zone—a region of the country that runs broadly northwest along the California/Nevada state border and that I covered at length for the May 2019 issue of Wired.

[Image: My own loose sketch of the Walker Lane, using Google Maps].

To make a story short, a handful of geologists have speculated, at least since the late 1980s, that the San Andreas Fault could actually be dying out over time—that the San Andreas is jammed up in a place called the “Big Bend,” near the town of Frazier Park, and that it is thus losing its capacity for large earthquakes.

As a result, all of that unreleased seismic strain has to go somewhere, and there is growing evidence—paleoseismic data, LiDAR surveys, GPS geodesy—that the pent-up strain has been migrating deep inland, looking for a new place to break.

That new route—bypassing the San Andreas Fault altogether—is the Walker Lane (and its southern continuation into the Mojave Desert, known as the Eastern California Shear Zone).

What this might mean—and one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by this idea—is that a new continental margin could be forming in the Eastern Sierra, near the California/Nevada state border, a future line of breakage between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.

If this is true, the Pacific Ocean will someday flood north from the Gulf of California all the way past Reno—but, importantly, this will happen over the course of many millions of years (not due to one catastrophic earthquake). This means that no humans alive today—in fact, I would guess, no humans at all—will see the final result. If human civilization as we know it is roughly 15,000 years old, then civilization could rise and fall nearly 700 times before we even get to 10 million years, let alone 15 million or 20.

In any case, these recent big quakes out near Ridgecrest do not require that the most extreme Walker Lane scenario be true—that is, they do not require that the Walker Lane is an incipient continental margin. However, they do offer compelling and timely evidence that the Walker Lane region is, at the very least, more seismically active than its residents might want to believe.

I could go on at great length about all this, but, instead, I just want to point out one cool thing: the far northern route of the Walker Lane remains something of a mystery. If you’ve read the Wired piece, you’ll know that, for the Walker Lane to become a future continental edge, it must eventually rip back through California and southeastern Oregon to reach the sea. However, the route it might take—basically, from Pyramid Lake to the Pacific—is unclear, to say the least.

One place that came up several times while I was researching my Wired article was the northern California town of Susanville. Susanville is apparently a promising place for study, as geologists might find emergent faults there that could reveal the future path of the Walker Lane.

If you draw a straight line from the Reno/Pyramid Lake region through Susanville and keep going, you’ll soon hit a town called Fall River Mills. Interestingly, following the long aftershock sequence of these Ridgecrest quakes, there was a small quake in Fall River Mills this morning.

While seeing patterns in randomness—let alone drawing magical straight lines across the landscape—is the origin of conspiracy theory and the bane of serious scientific thinking, it is, nevertheless, interesting to note that the apparently linear nature of the Walker Lane could very well continue through Fall River Mills.

[Image: The Ridgecrest quakes and their aftershocks seem to support the idea of a linear connection along the Walker Lane; note that I have added a straight orange line in the bottom image, purely to indicate the very broad location of the Walker Lane].

While we’re on the subject, it is also interesting to see that, if you continue that same line just a little bit further, connecting Pyramid Lake to Susanville to Fall River Mills, you will hit Mt. Shasta, an active volcano in northern California. Again, if you’ve read the Wired piece, you’ll know that volcanoes seem to have played an interesting role in the early formation of the San Andreas Fault millions of years ago.

In any case, in cautious summary, I should emphasize that I am just an armchair enthusiast for the Walker Lane scenario, not a geologist; although I wrote a feature article about the Walker Lane, I am by no means an expert and it would be irresponsible of me to suggest anything here as scientific fact. It does interest me, though, that aftershocks appear to be illuminating a pretty dead-linear path northwest up the Walker Lane, including into regions where its future route are not yet clear.

Insofar as the locations of these aftershocks can be taken as scientifically relevant—not just a seismic coincidence—the next few weeks could perhaps offer some intriguing suggestions for the Walker Lane’s next steps.

Ghosts Only Cars Can Perceive

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image of car-based LiDAR navigation, via Singularity Hub].

There was a lot of design interest a few years back in a product that allowed cyclists to project their own bike lanes, an idea that is still being honed today.

Transportation infrastructure that only exists in the form of a projection is a great analogy for the state of cycling in the U.S. today, but what we might call projected infrastructure—road signs, bike lanes, and crosswalks that aren’t really there—can apparently also be weaponized, turned against the machine-sensing systems that navigate and steer driverless vehicles.

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University, for example, have shown that fake, drone-projected street signs can spoof driverless cars. Amazingly, these fake street signs can apparently exist for only 100 milliseconds and still be read as “real” by a car’s sensing package. They are like flickering ghosts only cars can perceive, navigational dazzle imperceptible to humans.

As if pitching a scene for the next Mission: Impossible film, Ars Technica explains that “a drone might acquire and shadow a target car, then wait for an optimal time to spoof a sign in a place and at an angle most likely to affect the target with minimal ‘collateral damage’ in the form of other nearby cars also reading the fake sign.” One car out of twenty suddenly takes an unexpected turn.

Although this spoof is, for now, entirely visual, “a more advanced attacker might combine GNSS [Global Navigation Satellite System] spoofing and perhaps even active radar countermeasures in a very serious bid at confusing its target,” Ars Technica adds. Cars, lost in their own technical hallucinations, being steered to unknown destinations, unaware that they’ve even strayed.

Neighborhood Watch

[Image: Doorbell camera footage is already media content].

It was only a matter of time before this happened: Amazon’s camera-enabled Ring doorbell service has been looking for a “news editor,” implying that the Internet of Things—the immersive world of ubiquitously online surveillance objects we have willingly surrounded ourselves by—might someday find an editorial voice.

A doorbell company wants to report crime news,” NiemanLab reported back in April.

As a brief aside, that article goes on to make an extreme non sequitur, claiming that, because crime is decreasing in the United States, crime news should be less interesting to American viewers (one might suggest the exact opposite, in fact, that the rarer crime becomes the more interesting its occurrence will be—there has never been a murder in our town often translates directly into more people hoping to learn about a murder when one finally occurs).

In any case, the Internet of Things is like a vast, distributed media-production apparatus, putting microphones in our cars and kitchens, cameras in our doorbells and children’s toys, and sensors of every kind in our TVs, phones, watches, refrigerators, lightbulbs, and thermostats, to name but a few.

The idea that all this would someday be absorbed into the content industry—someday mined for unscripted media shows—has been an obvious possibility from the very beginning, just one updated end-user agreement away from realization. Watching content produced by other people’s doorbell cameras sounds both inevitable and, in a sense, quite tame. To no small extent it has already happened, and it will only get stranger from here.

Supernester

[Image: Photo by Charles Ray, via the New York Times].

Apparently, dystopian near-future climate change fiction doesn’t have enough wasps. When a colony survives one year to the next, due to a mild winter, its nest “can grow to be as big as a Volkswagen Beetle and can have 15,000 wasps.”

In a regular year in the U.S. state of Alabama, for example, there are apparently only two or three such “super nests,” but, according to an entomologist interviewed by the New York Times, in 2019 there could be as many as ninety.

First of all, it’s weirdly fascinating to learn that there is an official tally of super nests at all, let alone that there might be as many as 90 of them in Alabama alone.

However, what’s more striking, at least for me, is that the scenes depicted in this brief New York Times piece read more like something from a Cormac McCarthy novel. One man didn’t enter his outdoor toolshed for two months only to discover that it now housed a sprawling super nest housing as many as 18,000 wasps; he and his son still scurry past it now and again as they grab tools, unsure of how exactly to eliminate the threat.

It’s like Alien meets The Road: unwary climate refugees of the near-future hiking through the forests of a superheated American South, unbeknownst to them approaching a super nest the size of train yard, its buzzing mistaken for the hopeful drone of distant machinery.

Shadow Cell

My friend, Wayne, sent me this link about an accidental archaeological discovery beneath a Pennsylvania prison in the 1960s that reads like the start of a Jordan Peele film.

“A hidden underground cell was found this week at the Bucks County prison here,” the New York Times reported back in 1964. “Warden John D. Case said that several inmates digging in the prison basement preparing to install new water pipes discovered an 8‐foot by 18‐foot room with a brick arched ceiling of about 5½‐foot clearance. Mr. Case said there might be a secret room under each of the original 51 cells in the prison, which dates to 1884.”

It’s easy to imagine the story of an occult 19th-century architect constructing prisons to contain both a person and their shadow self, or perhaps just a sadistic warden installing secret listening rooms beneath the cells of his prisoners to eavesdrop on the growing sounds of loneliness and remorse crying down through the ceiling.

Or, for that matter, imagine a horror novel about some strange and thoroughly debunked folk-magic architectural theory from the 1800s suggesting that all works of civil infrastructure—prisons, libraries, courts of law—had to have both a positive and a negative version constructed, an aboveground world and its subterranean reflection, and that, over the course of the novel, more and more of these underground spaces are discovered in the humid, history-rich soils of the American east coast. And that it ends well for no one involved.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the heads up!)

The Atlas of Natural Regions

[Image: “Saint-Valentin, Champagne berrichonne (Centre-Val-de-Loire), 2019, by Eric Tabuchi].

I’ve been enjoying the Instagram account of photographer Eric Tabuchi for quite a while now. Tabuchi is working on an ambitious ten-year photographic project, kicked off in 2017, that he calls The Atlas of Natural Regions, basically a catalog of spatial conditions found throughout France.

The project “aims to create a photographic archive offering a broad overview of the diversity of the buildings, but also the landscapes, that make up the French territory,” Tabuchi explains. “Ultimately, 50 shots will be taken in each of France’s natural regions, geographical and cultural entities that are simple to grasp by their size (a few tens of kilometers).”

It will include 25,000 photographs when it’s done—and I am already excited to see the final exhibition or book when it’s complete. So far, there have been flooded quarries, sports complexes, and emergency training towers, industrial ruins, coastal bunkers, and surreal scenes that resemble something designed by Simon Stålenhag.

Tabuchi’s Instagram account is well worth following, and you can also support his work by purchasing a print.