Design Futures, Sacred Groves

[Image: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

[Nearly a decade ago, I wrote a series of blog posts as part of a Fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Those posts appear to be falling into an internet memory hole, so I thought I’d reproduce lightly edited versions of some of them here, simply for posterity.]

Toward the end of 2009, the journal Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes published an interesting paper by garden historian Patrick Bowe, called “The Sacred Groves of Ancient Greece.”

Specialized landscapes animated by very particular forms of cultural use, sacred groves “held a significant place in ancient Greek life over ten centuries,” Bowe writes. Indeed, “They formed significant landmarks in the landscape, both urban and rural.”

Geographers described them. Poets evoked them. Philosophers discussed them. In them, natural woodland was conserved and new wood planted, primarily for religious, but also for recreational, purposes. Architectural and sculptural elements were disposed. Prominent natural features were highlighted. Some individual trees, being considered sacred, were also conserved. In these various activities, the beginnings of the Western tradition of designed landscapes can be found.

Bowe’s ensuing history of sacred groves describes these “ritual zones” of the forest in terms of “the physical aspects of sacred groves, their location and size, the different kinds of trees of which they were composed, the architectural and sculptural elements that were installed in them and the adaptation for use of some of the natural features located in them.”

This has the effect, he notes, of filling a noticeable hole in historical scholarship: “No detailed description of a sacred grove survives from ancient Greek literature. However, a compilation of the many passing and diverse references in the literature, dating from the eighth century BC”—by which Bowe means Homer—“to the second century AD”—by which he means Pausanias—“may provide us with a composite picture.”

Somewhat obviously, sacred groves don’t leave much to see in the archaeological record—”archaeological evidence is sparse,” Bowe writes with understatement—as their vegetation dies, rots, spreads, or is deliberately torn up and replaced over time (all of the above, in fact, often erase Greek sacred groves from the terrestrial record).

Landscape historians are thus left searching for other sources of information about the ancient world’s enigmatic sacred land-use patterns. Interestingly, these sources include poems and even coinage—archaeology by way of numismatics. Bowe writes that “the evidence of contemporary coins” implies what these groves might have looked like, these coins’ obverse images depicting “boundary walls and entrances,” gates and artificially arranged stone features, as certain groves were shown in miniature on the backs of these moneyed pieces.

The very idea that money might serve as a useful object of study in an art historical survey of lost landscapes is inspiringly unexpected. A visual history of landscape told entirely through coins!

In any case, Bowe assembles a list of tree species most often associated with these sacred sites, including cypress, poplar, olive, oak, cedar, willow, plane, ash, apple, pine, and even palm trees. These groves were quite varied locations, botanically speaking, and they consisted of both wild and cultivated varieties of the trees at hand.

It simply wasn’t the case that a sacred grove had to be one particular type of tree, or that it had to be wild; the sacred qualities came from how the grove was treated, used, interpreted, and even deliberately rebuilt. In the latter case, adding small architectural features, including fences and gates, or even statuettes to the grove were ways of making sacred what in other circumstances might have been a mere garden.

While Bowe’s literary-numismatic archaeology of sacred groves is already fascinating, I found myself wondering what sorts of uniquely specific groves or small forests of our own time might be seen, even if only millennia from now, as “sacred” in some way or another. The “sacred grove,” seen in this light, would really be a kind of specialized forestry service, and thus something interpretatively present in a variety of surprising sites.

After all, it is distinctly possible that a landscape now retroactively seen as sacred might not have been anything of the sort; perhaps it was simply being grown for timber; perhaps it was the subject of a property dispute; perhaps it was over-run with insects for a decade or two and thus left untouched. It should always be assumed, in other words, that ancient sites we jump to call “sacred” might actually have been utterly mundane.

Accordingly, I’ve put together a short, entirely subjective, and by no means anywhere near exhaustive list of a few speculative landscape design proposals and real-life forestry sites that strike me as particularly worthy of consideration in the context of the ancient Greek sacred grove. If, in some future catalog of lost landscapes, one of the following sites was to be listed alongside the sacred groves of a forgotten civilization, how might that transform our understanding of their intended spatial role?

Consider this list nothing more than a brief conversation-starter.

The Shapely Grove

[Image: From “Atree?” by the Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD)].

Rotterdam-based design firm Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD) recently proposed a grove of twisted and looping arboreal forms called “Atree?

[Image: From “Atree?” by the Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD)].

“Imagine a project that does not need to be constructed,” they write, “because—being a tree—it grows by itself.”

Such a project only needs to be planted. Therefore the transportation of the materials for such a project is very energy efficient, because as a matter of fact, no major transportation of materials is actually necessary. The only materials to be transported are the seeds for planting. And the only energy spent is to prevent hastiness and impetuousness as such a project needs a lot of time and patience to grow.

Using clip-on bioplastic molds that “can easily be transported by bike to the site and fixed simply to the trees,” along with “a fast growing willow that reaches a height of more than two meters in only one year,” BOARD’s roller coaster of a grove would put even Axel Erlandson’s so-called tree circus to shame.

[Image: From “Atree?” by the Bureau of Architecture, Research, and Design (BOARD)].

Are these formal manipulations of a traditional thicket nothing more than stylistic play—mere ornamental tweaking—or do they reveal something more fundamental about how we can relate to the growth and tending of global forests?

Further, could a grove of deliberately misshapen trees—that is, trees that have been formally remade—be archaeologically mistaken for a place of religious significance? If so, what beliefs might we assume were being celebrated in these carnivalesque examples of what Bowe would call “ritual zones”—and who might we think had constructed them? Perhaps a strange race of druidic geometers once turned their forests into prayers and diagrams.

The Moon Trees of Apollo
One of the strangest entries on this list is also very real: the so-called Moon Trees are a distributed forest of redwood, sycamore, loblolly pine, sweetgum, and douglas fir saplings grown from seeds that were taken to the moon and back as part of the Apollo space program.

Apollo 14 launched in the late afternoon of January 31, 1971 on what was to be our third trip to the lunar surface. Five days later Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the Moon while Stuart Roosa, a former U.S. Forest Service smoke jumper, orbited above in the command module. Packed in small containers in Roosa’s personal kit were hundreds of tree seeds, part of a joint NASA/USFS project. Upon return to Earth, the seeds were germinated by the Forest Service. Known as the “Moon Trees,” the resulting seedlings were planted throughout the United States (often as part of the nation’s bicentennial in 1976) and the world. They stand as a tribute to astronaut Roosa and the Apollo program.

Fantastically, grafts and seeds from the original Moon Trees have since been planted elsewhere, producing second-generation Moon Trees that grow freely in private backyards, public parks, and open forests around the planet.

Compare Moon Trees to the space seed program run by the Chinese government, “a mission that will expose 2000 seeds to cosmic radiation and microgravity.” These cosmically exposed seeds have since been planted here on earth, in the hope of producing a slightly ominous-sounding batch of “super-crops.”

But what about a super-forest—cosmically exposed Moon Trees grown on a continental scale, in a vast sacred grove shaped by radiation from deep space?

The Duplicative Forest

[Image: The Duplicative Forest—17,000 acres of identical trees—courtesy of Atlas Obscura].

I have written elsewhere about a place in Oregon called the duplicative forest, but it seems worth mentioning again in the present context. The “duplicative forest” is a 17,000-acre farm whose poplar trees are “all the same height and thickness,” we read courtesy of Atlas Obscura, as well as “evenly spaced in all directions. The effect is compounded when blasting by at 75 mph. If you look for too long the strobe effect may induce seizures.”

The discovery of an optically mesmerizing forest landscape, one with potential neurological effects on its visitors, and one that was very clearly planted according to an artificial geometric plan, will perhaps not instantly seem like a tree farm several hundred years from now; until its actual quotidian purpose is deduced, the duplicative-forest-as-sacred-grove would be a wonderfully odd thing to ponder.

Jaguar Wood
In England, the car company Jaguar has planted a forest of walnut trees, partially to offset its harvesting needs for the fine wood used in its cars’ interiors. As Jaguar themselves describe the specialty landscape:

The Jaguar Walnut Wood is located at Lount in the heart of Leicestershire, less than 50km from Jaguar’s UK HQ. It was first planted on former farmland in 2001, but there are now more than 13,000 walnut trees and 70,000 other trees in a scenic 80-hectare woodland. Within it is a 27-hectare experimental zone researching the growth of different varieties of walnut tree for use as a hardwood timber and as a source of nuts.

The mathematical logic of an “offset” landscape—something planted or maintained in one location in order to make up for the loss or insufficient quantity of something elsewhere, forming an economic chain of surrogacy and doubling—is already quite fascinating, but a forest specially cultivated by an automotive firm adds an interesting touch.

While wood from these groves does not actually make it into Jaguar cars, the “experimental zone” inside the forest might seem rather regal—or perhaps simply surreal—to anyone stumbling upon records of it in a thousand years’ time.

And who knows: perhaps we might even someday discover that a small grove of walnut trees growing on a hill in upstate New York, on a distant tributary of the Hudson, was actually planted for no other reason than to panel the interior walls of a specific skyscraper in 1950s Manhattan, a grove now derelict and teeming with weeds, its original purpose gone, the rooms it was once meant to panel now themselves long dismantled; or an entire forest somewhere north of Athens, Greece, originally planted to serve as wood stock for a Mediterranean fleet, its trunks and branches grown only for hulling warships, now lies abandoned, bearing no historical trace of that earlier purpose.

How do we account for these missing histories of specialty groves in our sense of landscape mythology?

Her Majesty’s Shipbuilding Forest
The New Forest in England was, in fact, once extensively used and harvested for the purpose of Royal shipbuilding. From the period 1685 to 1875, “timber requirements of the Navy dominate[d] the Forest,” we read in a short history of the landscape. There are even now remnant groves left over from those ship-planting days:

Admiral Nelson, ever mindful of the needs of shipbuilding, visited in 1802 and declared the “finest timber in the kingdom” had sunk to a deplorable state! So, 30 million acorns were planted across 11,000 acres. But before the oaks were half grown, they were redundant, replaced by iron and steel in the shipbuilders’ yards. Thanks to Nelson, however, the forest now contains the country’s largest area of mature oak.

In other words, scattered across an area of nearly 11,000 acres are trees that never became ships—escaping that fate in which whole forests would go to war at sea, their wood sailing into battle in the form of imperial fleets.

We might ask, then: Could a sacred grove be something in which future ships are deliberately cultivated? For me, the most interesting aspect of that question would be the idea that, hovering negatively like a ghost around a forest’s growing branches, are the devices, ships, buildings, and machines that those forests are meant to become—like wooden Transformers, whole groves will unlock their roots from shattered bedrock, clip together in filigrees of undergrowth, and assemble into some vast and fearsome battleship, which then floats out with a monstrous roar into the wine-dark sea.

Growing a Hidden Architecture

[Image: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

As it happens, this very idea was the premise of a fascinating graduate student project at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London several years ago.

[Image: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

For Growing A Hidden Architecture, Christian Kerrigan proposed an awe-inspiring series of contraptions—collars, tourniquets, hinges, corsets, and belts—that could be attached to still-growing trees, bending and shaping their growth into a functioning, sea-ready ship.

[Images: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

“By controlling the manipulation of refined armatures, calibrating devices and designed corsets,” Kerrigan writes, “the system is capable of controlling the growth of a ship inside the forest. The ship will grow over a period of 200 years and will exist as a hidden architecture inside the trees. The ship growing in the forest is the ship from the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ a tale of man’s relationship to mortality.”

[Image: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

In a particularly awesome detail, “the artificial system harvests resin from the trees to measure time passing”:

Slowly growing to completion, the end of the system within the forest is signalled by the Amber Clock, the resin cycles in the trees keeping time. The armatures alter the geometries of the copse with technologies, which are spliced into the hull of the ship.

Kerrigan’s vision of a ship self-assembling through carefully restricted tree growth—and the architectural implications of such a technique—is both astonishing and powerful.

[Image: From Growing A Hidden Architecture by Christian Kerrigan].

The entirety of his project is worth exploring in full.

The Grove as Growth Assembly

[Image: From Growth Assembly by Sascha Pohflepp, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sion Ap Tomos].

Rounding out this short list of possible “sacred groves” is a project by Sascha Pohflepp, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and illustrator Sion Ap Tomos that explored a similar idea to Kerrigan’s.

[Image: From Growth Assembly by Sascha Pohflepp, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sion Ap Tomos].

Called Growth Assembly, their project included the added splash of gene-splicing: the trio proposed a grove of genetically modified trees that could sprout machine-parts instead of fruit.

Pohflepp writes: “Coded into the DNA of a plant, product parts grow within the supporting system of the plant’s structure. When fully developed, they are stripped like a walnut from its shell or corn from its husk, ready for assembly.”

[Image: From Growth Assembly by Sascha Pohflepp, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sion Ap Tomos].

This genetic revolution in plant-based manufacturing—wherein the gears used in your car’s engine might actually be the hard fruit of modified trees—would have a corresponding effect on the world’s economic landscape:

Shops have evolved into factory farms as licensed products are grown where sold. Large items take time to grow and are more expensive while small ones are more affordable. The postal service delivers lightweight seed-packets for domestic manufacturers.

Like some Industrial Age “Jack and the Beanstalk,” you simply plant a few seeds and watch as vast, living factories soon grow.

[Image: From Growth Assembly by Sascha Pohflepp, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and Sion Ap Tomos].

So, with these projects in mind, and having read Bowe’s essay, what other unexpected forest landscapes might we suggest as viable candidates for inclusion in a broadened definition of the sacred grove—a new kind of sacred sci-fi, with mutated trees and fruitful juxtapositions? What is the design future of the sacred grove?

Computational Landscape Architecture

[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo, via FNN/Colossal].

In 2017, researchers attending the annual Cable-Tec Expo presented a paper looking at the effect certain trees can have on wireless-signal propagation in the landscape.

In “North America in general,” the researchers wrote, “large swathes of geography are dominated by trees and other foliage which, depending on seasonal growth and longitude, can interrupt a good many LOS [line of sight] apertures between BS [a base station] and client and present performance challenges.”

That is to say, parts of North America are heavily forested enough that the landscape itself has a negative effect on signal performance, including domestic and regional WiFi.

Their presentation included a graph analyzing the effects that particular tree species—pine, spruce, maple—can have on wireless signals. “The impact of deciduous and conifer trees (under gusty wind conditions) suggest that the leaf density from the conifer more frequently produces heavy link losses and these,” they explain.

In other words, for the sake of signals, plant deciduous.

[Image: From “Can a Fixed Wireless Last 100m Connection Really Compete with a Wired Connection and Will 5G Really Enable this Opportunity?”]

What interests me here is the possibility that we might someday begin landscaping our suburbs, our corporate campuses, our urban business parks, according to which species of vegetation are less likely to block WiFi.

There is already a move toward xeriscaping, for example—or planting indigenous species tolerant of arid climates in cities such as Phoenix and Los Angeles—but what about WiFi-scaping, landscapes sown specifically for their electromagnetic-propagation effects?

One of my favorite studies of the last decade looked at whether trees planted around a fuel-storage depot in England known as Buncefield might have inadvertently caused a massive gas explosion. In this case, though, a site’s landscaping might instead cause data-propagation errors.

You can imagine, for example, vindictive foreign governments purposefully surrounding an American embassy with trees unpermissive of signal propagation, even deliberately donating specific indoor plant species known for their negative effects on electromagnetic signals. A kind of living, vegetative Faraday cage.

Hostile houseplant-gifting networks. Like the plot of some future David Cronenberg film.

[Image: Lucian Freud, “Interior in Paddington” (1951), via Tate Britain].

In any case, this brings to mind many things.

A recent study published in the MIT Technology Review, for example, suggested that WiFi could be used to spy on human movements inside architecture. The paper documents how researchers used WiFi “to work out the position, actions, and movement of individuals” inside otherwise sealed rooms.

It’s worth recalling the use of WiFi as a burglar alarm, whereby unexpected human intruders can be detected when their bodies perturb the local WiFi field. Is that someone walking toward you in the dark…? Your router might see them before you do, as their movement cause bulges and malformations in your home’s WiFi.

The more relevant implication, however, is that you could potentially use WiFi to spy on movements in the broader landscape. Deciduous forests would be easier than coniferous, it seems.

You could soak a forest in electromagnetic signals—yes, I know this is not the greatest idea—and measure those signals’ reflection to count, say, active birds, beetles, badgers, or other participants in the wilderness. It’s WiFi as a tool for ecological analysis: you set up a router and watch as its signals reverberate through the forests and fields. Animal radar.

Finally, consider a study published last year that suggested WiFi signals could be turned into a computational device. According to researchers Philipp del Hougne and Geoffroy Lerose, you can “perform analog computation with Wi-Fi waves reverberating in a room.”

Read their paper to find out more, but what seems so interesting in the present context is the idea that forested landscapes could be grown to cultivate their WiFi computational ability. Like botanical pinball machines, you could design, plant, and grow entire forests based on their ability to reflect future WiFi signals in very specific ways, artificial landscapes destined to perform computational tasks.

A bitcoin forest. WiFi forestry.

Or forest supercomputers, pruned for their ability to plumb the mathematical sublime.

(Thanks to Jameson Zimmer for the tip re: WiFI and trees. Earlier on BLDGBLOG: The Design Forest of the Sacred Grove, Forest Tone, and many others.)


[Image: Typing messages with Katie Holten’s tree alphabet].

You may recall artist Katie Holten’s tree typeface, written-up here a few years back.

Holten has now created a whole new tree alphabet, based on trees growing in the New York City region. “Each letter of the Latin alphabet is assigned a drawing of a tree from the NYC Parks Department’s existing native and non-native trees,” Holten writes, “as well as species that are to be planted as a result of the changing climate. For example, A = Ash.”

That typeface is also available as a free download, so you can type your own forests into existence with abandon. All the world’s literature, translated into trees.

What’s more, Holten is overseeing a program to actually plant the trees referenced by the alphabet, resulting in what she calls an “an alphabetical planting palette: people can give us their messages and we’ll plant them around the city with real trees.”

Follow the project on Holten’s website for updates.

Hospital Interiors / Dolby Suburbs

[Image: “Mix House” by Joel Sanders Architect, Karen Van Lengen/KVL, and Ben Rubin/Ear Studio].

Between cross-country moves, book projects, wild changes in the online media landscape over the past few years, and needless self-competition through social media, my laptop has accumulated hundreds and hundreds, arguably thousands, of bookmarks for things I wanted to write about and never did. Going back through them all feels like staring into a gravesite at the end of a life I didn’t realize was mortal.

For example, the fact that the scent of one of Saturn’s moons was created in a NASA lab in Maryland—speculative offworld perfumery—and that, who knows, it could even someday be trademarked. Or that mountain-front suburban homes in Colorado were unwittingly constructed over mines designed to collapse—and that of the mines have already begun to do so, taking surface roads along with them. Or the sand mines of central Wisconsin. Or the rise of robot-plant hybrids. Or the British home built around a preserved railway carriage “because bizarre planning regulations meant the train could not be moved”—a vehicle frozen into place through architecture.

In any case, another link I wanted to write about many eons ago explained that legendary producer and ambient musician Brian Eno had been hired to design new acoustics for London’s Chelsea and Westminster hospital, part of an overall rethinking of their patient-wellness plan. Healing through sound. “The aim,” the Evening Standard explained, “is to replicate techniques in use in the hospital’s paediatric burns unit, where ‘distraction therapy’ such as projecting moving images on to walls can avoid the need to administer drugs such as morphine.”

This is already interesting—if perhaps also a bit alarming, in that staring at images projected onto blank walls can apparently have the same effect as taking morphine. Or perhaps that’s beautiful, a chemical testament to the mind-altering potential of art amplified by modern electrical technology.

Either way, Eno was brought on board to “refine” the hospital’s acoustics, much as one would do for the interior of a luxury vehicle, and even to “provide soothing music” for the building’s patients, i.e. to write a soundtrack for architecture.

We are already in an era where the interiors of luxury cars are designed with the help of high-end acoustic consultants, where luxury apartments are built using products such as “acoustic plaster,” and where critical governmental facilities are constructed with acoustic security in mind—a silence impenetrable to eavesdroppers—but I remain convinced that middle-budget home developers all over the world are sleeping on an opportunity for distinguishing themselves. That is, why not bring Brian Eno in to design soothing acoustics for an entire village or residential tower?

Imagine a whole new neighborhood in Los Angeles designed in partnership with Dolby Laboratories or Bang & Olufsen, down to the use of acoustic-deflection walls and carefully chosen, sound-absorbing plants, or an apartment complex near London’s Royal Academy of Music with interiors acoustically shaped by Charcoalblue. SilentHomes™ constructed near freeways in New York City—or, for that matter, in the middle of nowhere, for sonically sensitive clients. Demonstration suburbs for unusual acoustic phenomena—like Joel Sanders et al.’s “Mix House” scaled up to suit modern real-estate marketers.

At the very least, consider it a design challenge. It’s 2020. KB Home has teamed up with Dolby Labs to construct a new housing complex covering three city blocks near a freeway in Los Angeles. What does it look—and, more to the point, what does it sound—like?

Patent Diagrams for Artificial Trees

At least, after we’ve cut down every last tree and forest, once we’ve rid the world of natural species, we’ll know how to build their replacements. Here are some diagrams for artificial trees, signed by their inventors, down to specific tufting techniques and mechanisms for branch attachments. Our future forests will be colorfast and fade-resistant—perhaps machine-washable—filled with recordings of historical birdsong, the world a puzzle we took apart believing someone else would know how to put it back together.

(All via Google Patents.)

Corporate Gardens of the Anthropocene

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

One of the most interesting themes developed in David Gissen’s recent book, Manhattan Atmospheres, is that the climate-controlled interiors of urban megastructures constitute their own peculiar geographical environment.

Although this idea has lately been taken up with interest in the study of indoor “microbiomes”—that is, the analysis of the microbes and bacteria that thrive inside particular architectural structures, such as single-family homes and hospitals—Gissen’s own focus is on “the interior of the office building,” he writes, literally as a different kind of “geographical zone.”

For Gissen, in other words, there are deserts, rain forests, plains—and vast, artificial interiors. “I argue that the atmosphere within [New York City’s] office buildings emerged as a distinct geographical climate,” he proclaims, and the rest of the book is more or less an attempt to back up this claim.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

A particularly compelling example of this emerging “geographical zone” is a huge residential complex built atop the access road to New York’s George Washington Bridge. The four towering structures of the Washington Bridge Apartments actually “included the first building examined as an ‘environment’ by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Gissen points out.

As such, this seems to mark an inflection point at which the U.S. government officially recognized the interior as worthy of natural classification. Surely, then, this moment deserves more discussion in the context of the Anthropocene? A constructed interior, as exotic as the savannah.

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Street View].

In any case, Gissen’s look at the world of corporate interior gardens is where things become truly fascinating. He describes these well-tempered landscapes as strange new worlds cultivated in plain sight, grown to the gentle breeze of particulate-filtered air conditioning.

These “technicians of the garden,” in Gissen’s words, “imagined the indoor air of an office building to be more like the geographic zones at the peripheries of the Western world. Its climate was more akin to the tropics than to anything found in the symbolic ancestral landscapes of the United States.”

[Image: The Washington Bridge Apartments, New York; via Google Maps].

Indeed, this interior corporate bioregion even inspired new types of botanical research: “landscape architects and horticulturalists sought to identify those species of plants that would thrive in the unusually consistent indoor climate,” he writes. “In the 1980s and early 1990s, literature from the field of indoor landscaping mentions informal expeditions to discover new cultivars in the tropical world that were suitable to the inside of office buildings and other commercial applications.”

This vision of botanists traipsing through rain forests on the other side of the world to find plants that might thrive in Manhattan’s rarefied indoor air is incredible, an absurdist set-up worthy of Don Delillo.

A delicate plant, native to one hillside in Papua New Guinea, suddenly finds itself thriving in the potted gardens of a non-governmental organization on 5th Avenue; three decades later, it is the only example of its species left, an evolutionary orphan clinging to postmodern life in what Gissen calls “the unique thermal environment of an office building,” the closest space to nature it can find.

Tree Rings and Seismic Swarms

[Image: An otherwise unrelated print of tree rings from Yellowstone National Park, by LintonArt; buy prints here].

The previous post reminded me of an article published in the December 2010 issue of Geology, explaining that spikes in carbon dioxide released by subterranean magma flows beneath Yellowstone National Park have been physically recorded in the rings of trees growing on the ground above.

What’s more, those pulses of carbon dioxide corresponded to seismic events, as the Earth moves and gases are released, with the effect that the trees themselves can thus be studied as archives of ancient seismic activity.

“Plants that grow in areas of strong magmatic CO2 emissions fix carbon that is depleted in [Carbon-14] relative to normal atmosphere, and annual records of emission strength can be preserved in tree rings,” we read. “Yellowstone is a logical target” for a study such as this, the authors continue, “because its swarm seismicity and deformation are often ascribed to buildup and escape of high-pressure magmatic fluids.” The release of gases affects tree growth, which is then reflected in those trees’ rings.

I’ve written before about how tree rings are also archives of solar activity. See this quotation from the book Earth’s Magnetism in the Age of Sail, by A.R.T. Jonkers, for example:

In 1904 a young American named Andrew Ellicott Douglass started to collect tree specimens. He was not seeking a pastime to fill his hours of leisure; his motivation was purely professional. Yet he was not employed by any forestry department or timber company, and he was neither a gardener not a botanist. For decades he continued to amass chunks of wood, all because of a lingering suspicion that a tree’s bark was shielding more than sap and cellulose. He was not interested in termites, or fungal parasites, or extracting new medicine from plants. Douglass was an astronomer, and he was searching for evidence of sunspots.

Slicing open trees, searching for evidence of sunspots. This is a very peculiar—and awesomely poetic—form of astronomy, one locked inside objects all around us.

In the case of the Yellowstone study, a particular seismic swarm, one that hit the region back in 1978, apparently left measurable traces in the wood rhythms of local tree ring growth—in other words, surface-dwelling organisms in the Park were found to bear witness, in their very structure, to shifts occurring much deeper in the planet they live upon. They are measuring sticks of subterranea.

Combine this, then, with Andrew Ellicott Douglass’s work, and you’ve got tree rings as strange indicators of worlds hidden both below and far away: scarred by subterranean plumes of asphyxiating gas and marked by the variable burning of nearby stars. They are telescopes and seismometers in one, tools through which shifts in the sun and in the Earth’s own structure can be painstakingly divined.


In the forests of northern Ontario, a “strange phenomenon” of large natural rings occurs, where thousands of circles, as large as two kilometers in diameter, appear in the remote landscape.

ForestRings1[Image: From the thesis “Geochemistry of Forest Rings in Northern Ontario: Identification of Ring Edge Processes in Peat and Soil” (PDF) by Kerstin M. Brander, University of Ottawa].

“From the air, these mysterious light-coloured rings of stunted tree growth are clearly visible,” the CBC explained back in 2008, “but on the ground, you could walk right through them without noticing them.”

Since they were discovered on aerial photos about 50 years ago, the rings have baffled biologists, geologists and foresters… Astronomers suggest the rings might be the result of meteor strikes. Prospectors wonder whether the formations signal diamond-bearing kimberlites, a type of igneous rock.

While it’s easy to get carried away with visions of supernatural tree rings growing of their own accord in the boreal forests, this is actually one of the more awesome examples of where the likely scientific explanation is also significantly more interesting than something more explicitly other-worldly.

Geochemistry of Forest Rings in northern Ontario:[Image: From the thesis “Geochemistry of Forest Rings in Northern Ontario: Identification of Ring Edge Processes in Peat and Soil” (PDF) by Kerstin M. Brander, University of Ottawa].

Indeed, as geochemist Stew Hamilton suggested in 1998, the rings are most likely to be surface features caused by “reduced chimneys,” or “big centres of negative charge that frequently occur over metal deposits,” where a forest ring is simply “a special case of a reduced chimney.”

Reduced chimneys, meanwhile, are “giant electrochemical cells” in the ground that, as seen through the example of forest rings, can affect the way vegetation grows there.

rings[Image: Screen-grab from Google Maps].

One of many things worth highlighting here is this suggestion that the trees are being influenced from below by ambient electrochemical processes in the soil, set into motion by the region’s deep geology:

Hamilton was testing an analytical technique over a Matheson gold deposit to determine if there was any kind of geochemical surface signal. To his surprise, there were signals coming through 30 to 40 metres of glacial clay.

“We’re thinking there’s no way metals can move through clay 10,000 years after glaciation.”

After ruling out transport by ground water, diffusion and gas, he theorized it had to have been lifted to surface on electrical fields.

He applied the same theory to forest rings and discovered that they were also giant negatively charged cells.

Any source of negative charge will create a forest ring.

In landscape architecture terms, a forest ring—which Hamilton describes [PDF] as “a plant assemblage that is different from the surrounding forest making the features visible from the air”—could be seen as a kind of indirect electrochemical garden taking on a recognizably geometrical form without human intervention.

In effect, their shape is expressed from below. For ambitious future landscape designers, note that this implies a potential use of plantlife as a means for revealing naturally occurring electrical networks in the ground, where soil batteries and other forms of terrestrial electronics could articulate themselves through botanical side-effects.

That is, plant a forest; come back after twenty years; discover vast rings of negative electrochemical charge like smoke rings pushing upward from inside the earth.

Or, of course, you could reverse this: design for future landscape-architectural effects by formatting the deep soil of a given site, thus catalyzing subterranean electrochemical activity that, years if not generations later, would begin to have aesthetic effects.

ForestRings3[Image: From the paper “Spontaneous potential and redox responses over a forest ring” (PDF) by Stewart M. Hamilton and Keiko H. Hattori].

But it gets weirder: as Hamilton’s fieldwork also revealed, there is a measurable “bulge in the water table that occurs over the entire length of the forest ring with a profound dip on the ring’s outer edge.” For Hamilton, this effect was “beyond science fiction,” he remarked to the trade journal Northern Ontario Business, “it’s unbelievable.”

What this means, he explained, is that “the water is being held up against gravity” by naturally occurring electrical fields.

ForestRings4[Image: From the paper “Spontaneous potential and redox responses over a forest ring” (PDF) by Stewart M. Hamilton and Keiko H. Hattori].

Subsequent and still-ongoing research by other geologists and geochemists has shown that forest rings are also marked by the elevated presence of methane (which explains the “stunted tree growth”), caused by natural gas leaking up from geological structures beneath the forest.

Hamilton himself wrote, in a short report for the Ontario Geological Survey [PDF], that forest ring formation “may be due to upward methane seepage along geological structures from deeper sources,” and that this “may indicate deeper sources of natural gas in the James Bay Lowlands.”

Other hypotheses suggest that these forest rings could instead be surface indicators of diamond pipes and coal deposits—meaning that, given access to an aerial view, you can, in effect, “read” the earth’s biosphere as a living tissue of signs or symptoms through which deeper, non-biological phenomena (coal, diamonds, metals) are revealed.

ForestRings5[Image: Forest ring at N 49° 16′ 05″, W 83° 45′ 01″, via Google Maps].

Even better, these electrochemical effects stop on a macro-scale where the subsurface geology changes; as Hamilton points out [PDF], the “eastward disappearance of rings in Quebec occurs at the north-south Haricanna Moraine, which coincides with a sudden drop in the carbonate content of soils.”

If you recall that there were once naturally-occurring nuclear reactors burning away in the rocks below Gabon, then the implication here would be that large-scale geological formations, given the right slurry of carbonates, metals, and clays, can also form naturally-occurring super-batteries during particular phases of their existence.

To put this another way, through an accident of geology, what we refer to as “ground” in northern Ontario could actually be thought of a vast circuitboard of electrochemically active geological deposits, where an ambient negative charge in the soil has given rise to geometric shapes in the forest.

ForestRings6[Image: Forest rings at N 49° 29′ 48″, W 80° 05′ 40″, via Google Maps].

In any case, there is something pretty incredible about the idea that you could be hiking through the forests of northern Ontario without ever knowing you’re surrounded by huge, invisible, negatively charged megastructures exhibiting geometric effects on the plantlife all around you.

Several years ago, I wrote a post about the future of the “sacred grove” for the Canadian Centre for Architecture, based on a paper called “The sacred groves of ancient Greece” by art historian Patrick Bowe. I mention this because it’s interesting to consider the forest rings of northern Ontario in the larger interpretive context of Bowe’s paper, not because there is any historical or empirical connection between the two, of course; but, rather, for the speculative value of questioning whether these types of anomalous forest-effects could, under certain cultural circumstances, carry symbolic weight. If they could, that is, become “sacred groves.”

Indeed, it is quite thrilling and strange to imagine some future cult of electrical activity whose spaces of worship and gathering are remote boreal rings, circular phenomena in the far north where water moves against gravity and chemical reactions crackle outward through the soil, forcing forests to take symmetrical forms only visible from high above.

For more on forest rings, check out the CBC or Northern Ontario Business or check out any of the PDFs linked in this post.

Rootstocks and Rhizotrons

Edible Geography explores the exhumation of whole trees in a new post called “Rootstock Archaeology.” Don’t miss the incredible rhizotron, “an underground corridor whose walls consist of forty-eight shuttered windows, which researchers can open to peer out onto the root systems of adjacent trees and plants.”

In the Garden of 3D Printers

[Image: Unrelated image of incredible floral shapes 3D-printed by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg (via)].

A story published earlier this year explained how pollinating insects could be studied by way of 3D-printed flowers.

The actual target of the study was the hawkmoth, and four types of flowers were designed and produced to help understand the geometry of moth/flower interactions, including how “the hawkmoth responded to each of the flower shapes” and “how the flower shape affected the ability of the moth to use its proboscis (the long tube it uses as a mouth).”

Of course, a very similar experiment could have been done using handmade model flowers—not 3D printers—and thus could also have been performed with little fanfare generations ago.

But the idea that a surrogate landscape can now be so accurately designed and manufactured by printheads that it can be put into service specifically for the purpose of cross-species dissimulation—that it, tricking species other than humans into thinking that these flowers are part of a natural ecosystem—is extraordinary.

[Image: An also unrelated project called “Blossom,” by Richard Clarkson].

Many, many years ago, I was sitting in a park in Providence, Rhode Island, one afternoon reading a copy of Germinal Life by Keith Ansell Pearson. The book had a large printed flower on its front cover, wrapping over onto the book’s spine.

Incredibly, at one point in the afternoon a small bee seemed to become confused by the image, as the bee kept returning over and over again to land on the spine and crawl around there—which, of course, might have had absolutely nothing to do with the image of a printed flower, but, considering the subject matter of Ansell Pearson’s book, this was not without significant irony.

It was as if the book itself had become a participant in, or even the mediator of, a temporary human/bee ecosystem, an indirect assemblage created by this image, this surrogate flower.

In any case, the image of little gardens or entire, wild landscapes of 3D-printed flowers so detailed they appear to be organic brought me to look a little further into the work of Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg, a few pieces of whose you can see in the opening image at the top of this post.

Their 3D-printed floral and coral forms are astonishing.

[Image: “hyphae 3D 1” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

Rosenkrantz’s Flickr page gives as clear an indication as anything of what their formal interests and influences are: photos of coral, lichen, moss, mushrooms, and wildflowers pop up around shots of 3D-printed models.

They sometimes blend in so well, they appear to be living specimens.

[Image: Spot the model; from Jessica Rosenkrantz’s Flickr page].

There is an attention to accuracy and detail in each piece that is obvious at first glance, but that is also made even more clear when you see the sorts of growth-studies they perform to understand how these sorts of systems branch and expand through space.

[Image: “Floraform—Splitting Point Growth” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

The organism as space-filling device.

And the detail itself is jaw-dropping. The following shot shows how crazy-ornate these things can get.

[Image: “Hyphae spiral” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

Anyway, while this work is not, of course, related to the hawkmoth study with which this post began, it’s nonetheless pretty easy to get excited about the scientific and aesthetic possibilities opened up by some entirely speculative future collaboration between these sorts of 3D-printed models and laboratory-based ecological research.

One day, you receive a mysterious invitation to visit a small glass atrium constructed atop an old warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of New York City. You arrive, baffled as to what it is you’re meant to see, when you notice, even from a great distance, that the room is alive with small colorful shapes, flickering around what appears to be a field of delicate flowers. As you approach the atrium, someone opens a door for you and you step inside, silent, slightly stunned, noticing that there is life everywhere: there are lichens, orchids, creeping vines, and wildflowers, even cacti and what appears to be a coral reef somehow inexplicably growing on dry land.

But the room does not smell like a garden; the air instead is charged with a light perfume of adhesives.

[Image: “Hyphae crispata #1 (detail)” by Jessica Rosenkrantz and Jesse Louis-Rosenberg].

Everything you see has been 3D-printed, which comes as a shock as you begin to see tiny insects flittering from flowerhead to flowerhead, buzzing through laceworks of creeping vines and moss—until you look even more carefully and realize that they, too, have been 3D-printed, that everything in this beautiful, technicolor room is artificial, and that the person standing quietly at the other end amidst a tangle of replicant vegetation is not a gardener at all but a geometrician, watching for your reaction to this most recent work.

Pop-Up Forests and Experimental Christmas Trees

The New York Times this morning profiles a plant pathologist at Washington State University named Gary Chastagner, who “heads one of the nation’s half-dozen Christmas tree research labs.” These labs include institutions such as WSU-Puyallup (producing “research-based information that creates a high-quality Christmas tree product for consumers”), New Mexico State University (“screening provenances of many native and non-native commercial Christmas tree species”), NC State (whose research includes “support on agritourism aspects of Christmas tree farms,” as well as a related Christmas Tree Genetics Program), and many more.

[Images: Photos by Randy Harris for the New York Times, courtesy of the New York Times].

While I realize there is absolutely no connection here, and that this is purely and only an example of conceptual confusion, I will admit that there was initially something of an odd thrill in reading about “Christmas Tree Genetics,” as two ideas briefly and incorrectly overlapped: the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation (or the belief that the body and blood of Christ appears, literally, in physical form here on Earth, through the transformation of everyday materials such as bread and wine… and Christmas trees?) and the European-druidic worship of various tree species, thus implying, as if from some strange theo-botanical forestry program, the genetic modification and/or enhancement over time of new holy tree species, with iconic and sacramental trans-subtantial holiday forests cultivated on research farms throughout the United States.

In any case, this national Christmas tree research program includes apparently extreme steps that almost seem to justify such an otherwise misbegotten interpretation, including “the largest and most sophisticated of operations,” as described by the New York Times, where scientists “harvest almost a million trees a year from an 8,500-acre plantation and remove them by helicopter” for analysis elsewhere, and a brief experiment that tested “whether you can successfully hydrate a Christmas tree with an IV drip,” like some arboreal patient seeking hospice from an ecosystem that betrayed it. You could probably soon get an M.S. in Christmas Tree Science.

The goal is to develop new and improved tree species for both indoor and outdoor display during the holiday season, and, along the way, to create a tree that can last weeks—even months—in a post-mortem state without shedding its needles.

These ever more clean and tidy trees can thus pop-up in houses, retail displays, shopping malls, outdoor plazas, and Catholic high schools around the world, forming new “migratory forests” that take up residence—but not root—in our cities once a year before retreating, in wait, for the next season.

This vision of a pop-up forest—an instant indoor ecosystem of genetically perfected, not-quite-trans-substantial tree species—brings to mind a different kind of pop-up forest, one that I wrote about for the most recent “year in ideas” issue of Wired UK.

[Image: From Wired UK‘s “World in 2013” issue, courtesy of Wired UK].

That all too brief piece looks ahead to an age of “insurgent shrublands,” disturbed landscapes, and other “fast-emerging but short-lived ecosystems in an era of nonlinear climate change.” It refers to work by, amongst others, Natalie Boelman and Kevin Griffin, who are currently pursuing otherwise unrelated work at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and science writer Andrew Revkin; and it covers a variety of ideas, from the changing soundscapes of the Arctic as the rapidly defrosting polar north fills up with new, invasive bird songs, to the increased likelihood of tree-branch collapse as certain species—such as oak—grow much faster in polluted urban atmospheres.

In this context, the idea of a “pop-up forest” takes on a different, altogether less celebratory meaning.

[Image: From Wired UK‘s “World in 2013” issue, courtesy of Wired UK].

You can read the piece—as well as one by Ferris Jabr on electricity-generating bacteria and a short article by Jeremy Kingsley on open-source construction—here.