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).

Dye-Tracing Archaeology

Toxic chemicals leaking from an old wastewater treatment plant in Alabama have unexpectedly led to the discovery of a 1,700-year old “pre-historic village” buried in the ground nearby. Chemicals “have seeped into the ground surrounding the old plant,” according to a local news station, so “the soil needs to be removed and taken to a toxic waste facility.”

However, a survey of the contaminated site soon revealed that the ground also contained extremely well-preserved artifacts “from a village that once thrived” there. “Lo and behold,” the head excavator remarked to the news show: “we found a massive late-middle Woodland period village.”

It’s not hard to imagine someone another 1,700 years from now accidentally discovering the forgotten city of, say, New York—or Chicago, or Bangkok, swallowed by mud—after a chemical leak at a nearby factory: radioactive liquids drain down through the topsoil, flowing around buried walls and ruins, forming iridescent pools on floors in basements—slow and toxic streams tracing the shapes of old stairways, lighting a path for future excavation and descent. Like giving the earth a radiopharmaceutical, you fire up a ground-scanning machine, trace the pollution underground, and, lo and behold, the dark outlines of buried cities start to glow.

[Images: Dye-tracing cave systems; note that the chemical used is supposedly non-toxic].

In fact, I’m reminded of dye-tracing techniques used for mapping otherwise impenetrable or overly complex cave systems. In James Tabor’s wildly uneven 2010 book Blind Descent, for instance, we read about legendary caver Alexander Klimchouk, who set about dye-tracing caves on the Arabika Massif, including Krubera Cave, currently the deepest known cave in the world.

“In 1984 and 1985,” Tabor explains, “[Klimchouk] poured fluorescein dye into several caves, including Krubera, high on the Arabika. Traces of that dye later flowed out of springs on the shore of the Black Sea far below. More traces tinged the water 400 feet beneath the surface of the Black Sea, miles offshore,” indicating genuinely—in fact, record-breakingly—huge dimensions for the overall system of caves.

[Images: Dye-tracing caves].

But even the most remote, fictional possibility that future spelunking archaeologists might someday map lost cities—London, Moscow, Beijing, Rome—by using dye-tracing packs to illuminate that underground world of collapsed halls and buried rooms is extraordinary. Cartographers in mountaineering gear and helmet-mounted floodlights descend into the New York subway system in 5,161 A.D., following luminescent trails of fluorescein dye, crawling, walking, rappelling into the underworld on the trail of shining rivers as subterranean ruins begin to shine.

(Alabama story found via @ArchaeologyTime).