Immaculate Ecologies

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

“We will put up the mountains. We will lay out the prairie. We will cut rivers to join the lakes.” So says the narrator of a nice piece of ecosystem fiction by my friend Scott Geiger published over at Nautilus.

This corporate spokesperson is building virgin terrain: “all-new country, elevated and secured from downstairs, with a growing complement of landforms, clean waters, ecologies, wilderness.”

I was reminded of Geiger’s work when I came across an old bookmark here on my computer, with a story that reads like something straight out of the golden age of science fiction: a corporate conglomerate, intent on spanning vast gulfs of space, finds itself engineering an entire ecosystem into existence on a remote stopping-off point, turning bare rocks into an oasis, in order to ensure that its empire can expand.

This could be the premise of a Hugo Award-winning interplanetary space opera—or it could be the real-life history of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The Company was the first to lay a direct submarine cable from the United States to East Asia, but this required the use of a remote atoll, 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, called Midway, not yet famous for its role in World War II.

At the time, however, there was barely anything more there than “low, sandy island[s] with little vegetation,” considered by the firm’s operations manager to be “unfit for human habitation.” The tiny islands—some stretches no more than sandbars—would have been impossible to use, let alone to settle.

Like Geiger’s plucky terraforming super-company, putting up the mountains and laying out the prairie, the Cable Company and its island operations manager “initiated the long process of introducing hundreds of new species of flora and fauna to Midway.”

During this period, the superintendent imported soil from Honolulu and Guam to make a fresh vegetable garden and decorate the grounds. By 1921, approximately 9,000 tons of imported soil changed the sandy landscape forever. Today, the last living descendants of the Cable Company’s legacy still flutter about: their pet canaries. The cycad palm, Norfolk Island Pine, ironwood, coconut, the deciduous trees, everything seen around the cable compound is alien. Since Midway lacked both trees and herbivorous animals, the ironwood trees spread unchecked throughout the Atoll. What else came in with the soil? Ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes; millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.

Strangely, the evolved remnants of this corporate ecosystem are now an international bird refuge, as if saving space for the feral pets of long-dead submarine cable operators.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The preserved ruins of old Cable Company buildings stand amidst the trees, surely now home to many of those “millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.” Indeed, “the four main Cable Company buildings, constructed of steel beams and concrete with twelve-inch thick first-story walls, have fought a tough battle with termites, corrosion, and shifting sands for nearly a century.”

It is a built environment even down to the biological scale—a kind of time-release landscape now firmly established and legally protected.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the constructed frontier lands of Scott Geiger’s fictions and the national park of curated species still fluttering their wings at Midway share much with the even stranger story of terraforming performed by none other than Charles Darwin on Ascension Island.

This is, in the BBC’s words, “the amazing story of how the architect of evolution, Kew Gardens and the Royal Navy conspired to build a fully functioning, but totally artificial ecosystem.” It’s worth quoting at length:

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and [his friend, the botanist Joseph] Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens—where Hooker’s father was director—shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The “cinder” would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

It’s not a wilderness forest, then, but a feral garden “run riot” on the slopes of a remote, militarized island outpost (one photographed, I should add, by photographer Simon Norfolk, as discussed in this earlier interview on BLDGBLOG).

[Image: The introduced forestry of Ascension Island, via Google Maps].

In a sense, Ascension’s fog-capturing forests are like the “destiny trees” from Scott Geiger’s story in Nautilus—where “there are trees now that allow you to select pretty much what form you want ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road”—only these are entire destiny landscapes, pieced together for their useful climatic side-effects.

For anyone who happened to catch my lecture at Penn this past March, the story of Ascension bears at least casual comparison to the research of Christine Hastorf at UC Berkeley. Hastorf has written about the “feral gardens” of the Maya, or abandoned landscapes once deeply cultivated but now shaggy and overgrown, all but indistinguishable from nature. For Hastorf, many of the environments we currently think of as Central American rain forest are, in fact, a kind of indirect landscape architecture, a terrain planted and pruned long ago and thus not wilderness at all.

Awesomely, the alien qualities of this cloud forest can be detected. As one ecologist remarked to the BBC after visiting the island, “I remember thinking, this is really weird… There were all kinds of plants that don’t belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened.” It was like stumbling upon a glitch in the matrix.

In the case of these islands, I love the fact that historically real human behavior competes, on every level, for sheer outlandishness with the best of science fiction for its creation of entire ecosystems in remote, otherwise inhospitable environments; advanced landscaping has become indistinguishable from planetology. And, in Scott Geiger’s case, I love the fact that the perceived weirdness of his story comes simply from the scale at which he describes these landscape activities being performed.

In other words, Geiger is describing something that actually happens all the time; we just refer to it as the suburbs, or even simply as landscaping, a near-ubiquitous spatial practice that is no less other-worldly for taking place one half-acre at a time.

[Image: A suburban landscape being rolled out into the forest like carpet; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Soon, even the discordant squares of grass seen in the above photograph will seem as if they’ve always been there: a terrain-like skin graft thriving under unlikely circumstances.

Think of a short piece in New Scientist earlier this year: “All this is forcing enthusiasts to reconsider what ‘nature’ really is. In many places, true wilderness vanished thousands of years ago, and the landscapes we think of as natural are largely artificial.”

Indeed, like something straight out of a Geiger short story, “thousands of years from now our descendants may think of African lions roaming American plains as ‘natural’ too.”

Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach

[Image: The new plastic geology, photographed by Patricia Corcoran, via Science].

Incredibly, a “new type of rock cobbled together from plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, and corals has begun forming on the shores of Hawaii,” Science reports.

This new rock type, referred to as a “plastiglomerate,” requires a significant heat-source in order to form, as plastiglomerates are, in effect, nothing but molten lumps of plastic mixed-in with ambient detritus. Hawaii with its coastal and marine volcanoes, offers a near-perfect formational landscape for this artificially inflected geology to emerge—however, Patricia Corcoran, one of the discoverers of these uncanny rocks, thinks we’ll likely find them “on coastlines across the world. Plastiglomerate is likely well distributed, it’s just never been noticed before now, she says.”

We’ve been surrounded by artificial geologies all along.

But is it really geology? Or is it just melted plastic messily assembled with local minerals? Well, it’s both, it seems, provided you look at it on different time-scales. After heavier chunks of plastiglomerate form, fusing with “denser materials, like rock and coral,” Science writes, “it sinks to the sea floor, and the chances it will become buried and preserved in the geologic record increase.” It can even form whole veins streaking through other rock deposits: “When the plastic melts, it cements rock fragments, sand, and shell debris together, or the plastic can flow into larger rocks and fill in cracks and bubbles,” we read.

It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to suggest that our landfills are also acting like geologic ovens: baking huge deposits of plastiglomerate into existence, as the deep heat (and occasional fires) found inside landfills catalyzes the formation of this new rock type. Could deep excavations into the landfills of an earlier, pre-recycling era reveal whole boulders of this stuff? Perhaps.

The article goes on to refer to the work of geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, which is exactly where I would have taken this, as well. Zalasiewicz has written in great detail and very convincingly about the future possible fossilization of our industrial artifacts and the artificial materials that make them—including plastic itself, which, he suggests, might very well leave traces similar to those of fossilized leaves and skeletons.

In a great essay I had the pleasure of including in the recent book Landscape Futures, Zalasiewicz writes: “Plastics, which are made of long chains of subunits, might behave like some of the long-chain organic molecules in fossil plant twigs and branches, or the collagen in the fossilized skeletons of some marine invertebrates. These can be wonderfully well preserved, albeit blackened and carbonized as hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen are driven off under the effect of subterranean heat and pressure.” Plastiglomerates could thus be seen as something like an intermediary stage in the long-term fossilization of plastic debris, a glimpse of the geology to come.

Ultimately, the idea that the stunning volcanic beaches of Hawaii are, in fact, more like an early version of tomorrow’s semi-plastic continents and tropical archipelagoes is both awesome and ironic: that an island chain known for its spectacular natural beauty would actually reveal the deeply artificial future of our planet in the form of these strange, easily missed objects washing around in the sand and coral of a gorgeous beach.

(Spotted via Rob Holmes. Vaguely related: War Sand).

Teenage Mutant Ninja District

Abandoned terrapin turtles purchased 25 years ago at the height of popularity for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been harming wildlife and changing the ecological character of England’s famed Lake District. Once an orbital center for the lives of poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the landscape is now infested with discarded pets purchased for their imaginative resemblance to kids’ toys and comic book characters.

Terry Bowes, a regional zoo director interviewed by the Guardian, has become “exasperated at the routine abandonment of creatures,” he explained, “that suffered the misfortune of becoming fashionable at the time of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze.”

“I was thinking what we could do about them all,” Bowes told the paper, “and then I heard about another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film coming out soon and steam came out of my ears. I was thinking, ‘Oh no, this is only going to get worse.'”

Human ownership of changing animal species responds to the quirks of popular appeal, we read, including hit films and toy lines: “Pets are just as vulnerable to fashion as anything else, said Bowes, as we passed three enormous European eagle owls he said were abandoned by their owners after they outgrew Harry Potter, and a trio of perky meerkats he said were probably originally bought after seeing the star of the Compare the Market insurance ads.” The region is an open-air zoo of animals that have escaped from popular media.

Surely, though, in a sense, this is just the latest, albeit inadvertent iteration of the infamous American Acclimatization Society, a group of literary-minded naturalists in 19th-century New York City who made it their bizarre goal to “introduce to the U.S. every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s scripts.” As Scientific American writes, “The Acclimatization Society released some hundred starlings in New York City’s Central Park in 1890 and 1891. By 1950 starlings could be found coast to coast, north past Hudson Bay and south into Mexico. Their North American numbers today top 200 million.” Shakespeare, the Bible, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—all cultural artifacts and unintended animal blueprints for infested landscapes yet to come.

(The recent documentary The Elephant in the Living Room is worth a view here, for anyone interested in the unforeseen—or, far more often, willfully overlooked—negative side-effects of exotic pets).

Design and Existential Risk

I’m thrilled to be kicking off this fall’s Design and Existential Risk lecture series, hosted by Ed Keller and the Parsons School of Design in New York. Things kick off tomorrow, Saturday, October 9th, at 6pm EST, with a simulcast lecture featuring myself here in Los Angeles and legendary writer Bruce Sterling in New York.

As you can see from the flyer, above, the whole series will address the strategic use of science fiction-inflected scenario planning and the rise of “extreme existential risks” at this particular point in human history.

As we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, we are challenged by unprecedented planetary scale events—resource wars, climate change, emerging diseases—which increase in frequency and pose unprecedented problems for mapping and design. What can the role be for design when the reality that faces us is more extraordinary than the worlds we have imagined in science fiction?

Each lecture in the series will thus “explore the ways design thinking engages sustainability and indeed our very survival across near term (5 years), mid term (20 years), through very, very long term (tens of thousands of years and longer) time frames.”

Tomorrow will involve some technical intricacies—such as getting a video feed of myself and architect Ed Keller recorded live here in Los Angeles broadcast into the auditorium in New York City where Bruce Sterling will be interviewed by Carla Leitao and introduced by Elizabeth Ellsworth. But it should work. If all hell breaks loose, though, and the video feeds fizzle, you can still attend Bruce Sterling’s talk in person at Kellen Auditorium, 66 5th Avenue, and videos from both Bruce’s and my talks will be released online later this fall.

Other speakers in the series include Benjamin Bratton, Jeffrey Inaba, Jamie Kruse of Smudge Studio, Keller Easterling, David Gersten, and many more.

Check out the program’s website for more info.

The Museum of Nature

[Image: Museum 2 by Ilkka Halso, featuring a protected mountain. If you look close enough, you’ll also see the roller-coaster, pictured below, as it wraps around the bay…].

A few years ago, I picked up an old copy of Framework: The Finnish Art Review because it looked really good and had some cool images in it – and, even now, I think it’s an interesting magazine. I don’t regret the purchase.

[Image: Museum 1 by Ilkka Halso].

So I was flipping through it again the other night, looking for something, when I re-discovered a bunch of photographs by Ilkka Halso.

The images are part of an amazing series called the “Museum of Nature,” and I’m frankly still in awe of the project.

[Image: Roller-coaster by Ilkka Halso].

The basic premise of Halso’s digitally manipulated work is that “nature” has been transformed into a museum display – yet the public’s interaction with this new, endangered artifact is limited to spectacular roller coaster rides, perfectly reflected in the still waters they pass over. Alternatively, you can visit this steamy, delirious, quasi-Parisian gallery of iron and glass roofs built arching into disappearance over pine forests.

[Image: Kitka-river by Ilkka Halso].

These are “shelters,” the artist writes, “massive buildings where big ecosystems could be stored.”

The more I think about this project, the more interesting it gets; someone should write a novel set in this place – a kind of eco-catastrophic sequel to Westworld, perhaps – or, at the very least, someone should put Halso’s images on display in the United States. They’d also make a gorgeous spread in Wired.

In any case, be sure to spend time clicking around through Halso’s site. It’s worth it. And check out another of Halso’s projects, featured on Pruned back in 2005.