The Labyrinth of Night, The Polar Gothic, and a Golden Age for Landscape Studies

It’s hard to resist a place called the Noctis Labyrinthus, or “the Labyrinth of Night,” especially when it’s on Mars.

NoctisLabyrinthus[Image: Courtesy ESA/DLR/FU Berlin].

“This block of martian terrain, etched with an intricate pattern of landslides and wind-blown dunes, is a small segment of a vast labyrinth of valleys, fractures and plateaus,” the European Space Agency reported earlier this week.

“As the crust bulged in the Tharsis province it stretched apart the surrounding terrain, ripping fractures several kilometres deep and leaving blocks—graben—stranded within the resulting trenches,” the ESA adds. “The entire network of graben and fractures spans some 1200 km, about the equivalent length of the river Rhine from the Alps to the North Sea.”

In other words, it’s an absolutely massive expanse of desert canyons and landslides, stretching roughly the distance from Switzerland to Rotterdam—a “700-mile labyrinth of fractures and landslides,” in the words of the reliably interesting Corey Powell on Twitter.

Imagine hiking there.

NoctisLabyrinthusAerial[Image: Courtesy ESA/DLR/FU Berlin].

We are living in something of a golden age for landscape studies. Over a remarkably short span of time, for example, we’ve learned that there are sinkholes on comets—that is, that comets have undergrounds. They have pores, caves, and tunnels, with sinkholes explosively airing this subterranean world into outer space. These “mysterious, steep-sided pits—one up to 600 feet wide and 600 feet deep,” as National Geographic described them, indicate that “there must be gaps inside.” Picture caves and tunnels evaporating in the darkness, before collapsing in on themselves in a crystalline flash.

Meanwhile, I have always loved the fact that there is a mountain range on Mars named after dead American astronauts, as if the Red Planet is somehow haunted in advance of human arrival by the mythological figures of explorers who never made it there. But this is just one small example of how a radically unfamiliar environment can gradually become known through the process of naming.

2016-01-01 22.59.25[Image: From India’s Mars Orbiter, via @coreyspowell].

My wife, Nicola Twilley, was actually at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory for the recent Pluto flyby, covering it for The New Yorker; she wrote a great description of how the former planet became a true landscape:

As the scientists traced tendrils of reddish brown and speculated as to the rate of melt at the edge of a two-toned ice patch near Pluto’s equator, the impossibly distant world came to life. Fed up with referring to features as, for instance, “the black circle at two o’clock” and “the big white patch,” the team had started to give them names—first nicknames, such as “the heart” and “the whale,” and then unofficial but more formal names drawn from the mythology of the underworld. The whale became Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, and a nearby dark smudge was christened Balrog, after the demons of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. An alien landscape had started to become a collection of places: knowable, if not yet known.

Interestingly, it seems that names come first, algorithms later.

In any case, while naming, of course, lends an air of familiarity to alien terrains—or knowability, we might say—the utterly bonkers nature of these landscapes remains extraordinary.

Nicky later revisited the subject, for example, writing that “the reddish patches” seen on Pluto might actually be “the organic material nicknamed ‘star tar,’ a precursor to life”—sludge awaiting sentience—and that “cryovolcanoes—volcanoes that spew slushy methane and nitrogen ice rather than molten rock,” might exist at the planet’s south pole.

There, this slow-moving matrix of frozen elements would circulate amongst other “exotic ices” in the distant cold, surely another kind of “labyrinth of night,” if there ever was one.

Think of what writer Victoria Nelson has called the “polar Gothic,” referring to an era of science-fictional representations of the Earth’s own polar regions as places of psychological menace and theological mystery; now picture weird slurries of nitrogen and star-tar sinkholes in a region named after Cthulhu, and it seems that perhaps the great age of landscape exploration has only now truly begun.

Consider, for example, this tweet by Rob Minchin, referring to the latest geological revelations coming from Pluto, a world of nitrogen glaciers and ice tectonics. “Water ice floats on nitrogen or CO ice,” he explains. This means, unbelievably, that “numerous mountains on Pluto appear to be floating.”

pluto[Image: Pluto, via @CoreySPowell].

Even within our own solar system, it seems, if you have an idea for a landscape so unreal it borders on pure fantasy, there is a planet, comet, or asteroid already exceeding it.

(In addition to @CoreySPowell, another good Twitter account for offworld landscape studies is @LoriKFenton, as the images seen at the link make clear).

Nocturnes

merrell4[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Filmmaker Alec Earnest—who we last saw here for his short film about the death of a mysterious map collector in Los Angeles—is back with a mini-documentary about landscape painter Eric Merrell.

Merrell, we read, “might be best known for his rigorous approach to landscape painting. For several years Merrell has been working on Nocturnes, a series of abstract desert works that he has painted all over Southern California, each solely by the light of the moon.”

merrell6[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Earnest’s film follows Merrell into Joshua Tree National Park, “where night falls and the desert takes on a surreal and mysterious beauty, where edges blur and shapes transform, and solitude takes on a whole new meaning.”

The small crew used a new Sony A7S camera “that basically allowed us to shoot completely in the dark,” Earnest explained to me over email.

The film is embedded, below:

Of course, as the video makes clear, this is a slight—but only slight—exaggeration, in that Merrell uses a headlamp and small clip lights on his painting box to help illuminate the scene.

merrell11merrell2[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

When those lights are switched off, however, the landscape takes on a silvered, almost semi-metallic lunar glow, as if bathed in ambient light.

merrell8merrell7[Image: Screen grab from Nocturnes].

Standing there in the darkness, Merrell comments on how working at night also comes with a peculiar kind of audio enhancement, with distant sounds riding the breeze with a peculiar clarity; and at one point a fortuitous lightning storm rolls by in the distance, as if to prove Merrell’s point with the atmospheric sonar of a thunder crash echoing over the otherworldly rocks of the National Park.

merrell12merrell13[Images: Paintings by Eric Merrell; screen grabs from Nocturnes].

Read a bit more at the L.A. Review of Books, and don’t miss Earnest’s earlier film here on BLDGBLOG.

(Related: In Search of Darkness: An Interview with Paul Bogard).

Extra-Terrestrial Sand Dunes

Geologist Michael Welland has an interesting post up about the “first detailed examination of extra-terrestrial sand dunes” on Mars, coming later this year. His post also briefly discusses the life and career of Ralph Bagnold, after whom the Martian dunes are named, as well as the granular physics of a remote landscape that, in Welland’s words, “just seems, instinctively, to be unearthly.”

The Snow Mine

[Image: The “Blythe Intaglios,” via Google Maps].

After reading an article about the “Blythe geoglyphs”—huge, 1,000-year old images carved into the California desert north of Blythe, near the border with Arizona—I got to looking around on Google Maps more or less at random and found what looked like a ghost town in the middle of nowhere, close to an old mine.

Turns out, it was the abandoned industrial settlement of Midland, California—and it’s been empty for nearly half a century, deliberately burned to the ground in 1966 when the nearby mine was closed.

[Image: Midland, California, via Google Maps].

What’s so interesting about this place—aside from the exposed concrete foundation pads now reused as platforms for RVs, or the empty streets forming an altogether different kind of geoglyph, or even the obvious ease with which one can get there, simply following the aptly named Midland Road northeast from Blythe—is the fact that the town was built for workers at the gypsum mine, and that the gypsum extracted from the ground in Midland was then used as artificial snow in many Hollywood productions.

[Image: Midland, California, via Google Maps].

As the L.A. Times reported back in 1970—warning its readers, “Don’t Go To Midland—It’s Gone“—the town served as the mineral origin for Hollywood’s simulated weather effects.

“Midland was started in 1925 as a tent city,” the paper explained, “with miners in the middle of the Mojave Desert digging gypsum out of the Little Marias to meet the demands of movie studios. All the winter scenes during the golden age of Hollywood were filmed with ‘snowflakes’ from Midland.”

[Image: The abandoned streets of Midland, former origin of Hollywood’s artificial snow; photo via CLUI].

Like some strange, artificial winter being mined from the earth and scattered all over the dreams of cinemagoers around the world, Midland’s mineral snow had all the right qualities without any of the perishability or cold.

See, for example, this patent for artificial snow, filed in 1927 and approved in 1930, in which it is explained how gypsum can be dissolved by a specific acid mix to produce light, fluffy flakes perfect for the purposes of winter simulation. Easy to produce, with no risk of melting.

[Image: Midland, California, via Google Maps].

I’ve long been fascinated by the artificial snow industry—the notion of an industrially controlled climate-on-demand, spraying out snowflakes as if from a 3D printer, is just amazing to me—as well as with the unearthly world of mines, caves, and all things underground, but I had not really ever imagined that these interests might somehow come together someday, wherein fake glaciers and peaceful drifts of pure white snow were actually something scraped out of the planet by the extraction industry.

As if suggesting the plot of a deranged, Dr. Seussian children’s book, the idea that winter is something we pull from a mine in the middle of the California desert and then scatter over the warm Mediterranean cities of the coast is perhaps all the evidence you need that life is always already more dreamlike than you had previously believed possible.

(Very vaguely related: See also BLDGBLOG’s earlier coverage of California City).

Mehrangarh Fort

[Image: Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India; photo by BLDGBLOG (view larger)].

Continuing with the recent series of posts showing photos from India—with apologies in advance for anyone who doesn’t want to see these, as I will doubtless keep going for at least several more posts—here are some photos from the utterly fantastic 15th-century Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

[Image: Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Mehrangarh is a massive hillside castle on a rocky site filled with moats, walls, battlements, gardens (holding what was described to us, rightly or wrongly, as one of India’s first pomegranate trees), an elaborate palace of balconies, arched galleries, and heavily ornamented private residences, and seemingly miles of strategically twisty, misleading passageways and stairs.

[Image: Inside Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur; photo by BLDGBLOG].

All of it overlooks a sprawling desert city lined with the beautiful blue-washed houses of local brahmins.

[Images: Overlooking Jodhpur, including the city’s many blue brahmin houses; photos by BLDGBLOG].

Nicola Twilley and I spent the entire day wandering out from our hotel through often absurdly narrow streets, down to the city’s broad central marketplace and back—

[Images: Walking around Jodhpur; photos by BLDGBLOG].

—heading up and around again to the fort itself, that hangs over everything like a ship.

[Image: Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur, as seen from our hotel; photo by BLDGBLOG].

As I believe the next post—or, at least, a future post at some point—will show, we even did some zip-line tourism over the moats and castle walls…

[Image: Birds flying over Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur; photo by BLDGBLOG].

For now, though, here are many, many, many, many photographs, mixing both DSLR and Instagram (where I am bldgblog, if you want to follow my feed).

[Image: Inside Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur; photo by BLDGBLOG].

However, for the sake of not spending the entire day captioning these images, I will simply let the photos themselves tell the story of our visit. Note, though, because I particularly like this detail, that the spike-studded door you’ll see pictured down below is found at the end of a very long, slowly rising ramp, but that that the door itself is installed 90-degrees off from the angle of direct approach. This right angle dramatically reduced the threat (and velocity) of direct charges from battle-elephants, who would thus have been forced to turn extremely quickly in order to collide with the door at all (and, even if the elephant could pivot successfully, it would then ram its head onto the spikes).

Details like this—let alone the dust-covered otherworldly feel of the entire place—give any castle in Europe a run for its money. At times, Mehrangarh felt like a Norman castle—or remote Welsh keep—on steroids (but wait till you see the even more massive and remote fortress of Kumbhalgarh, photos of which I’ll also post soon).

[Images: Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur; photos by BLDGBLOG].

Anyway, here are some images.

[Images: Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur; photos by BLDGBLOG].

Meanwhile, don’t miss recent posts exploring Chand Baori and the Raniji Ki stepwell.

Aerial Terrains

It what sounds like the coolest job description going, the BBC reports that “scientists have been sailing across the Atlantic in a bid to track down sand from the Sahara Desert.” They are chasing an aerial landform while plying currents through the sea.

Terrestrial stability is nowhere in sight.

[Image: Photo by Thomas J. Abercrombie].

Tracking that desert in the sky, the scientists have already “encountered two large sand storms during their cruise and recorded footage of their dust-drenched experience for the BBC News website.”

It’s airborne geology, of a different kind.

Of course, the Sahara is always popping up in unexpected places. A few quick links away from the BBC and we find that Saharan sand even peppered the ground in Wales last month; and that desert often blooms northward to cover parts of France, Italy, and Mediterranean Europe more generally, going as far north as England. It’s like some shapeless, living landmass from Greek myth – or from the tales of Scheherazade. (Leading me to wonder aloud: are the world’s religious texts an untapped resource of ideas for avant-garde landscape design?)

[Image: The Libyan Sahara; photo ©Jacques Herman].

So here’s a landscape design project for your next summer school studio: go around Europe tracking down the Sahara. Map these sites of territorial spread. Find where airborne terrains stratigraphically settle onto fields and cities elsewhere. Photograph zones of undisturbed deposition – small pockets of sand in a gully in eastern Spain – where it’s already compressing to form stone.

Then you hear rumors of a particularly violent storm that blew grains as far as Japan… and so off you go in your personal jetliner, sponsored by SCI-Arc.

In any case, the future geology of Europe will come down to it from the air, a distant lamination of the Sahara. Landscape at a distance.

If we stop sweeping the streets, what new sedimentary rocks would be forming here?

Perhaps that famous graffiti from Paris in May 1968 got it all wrong. Instead of: “Beneath the paving stones – the beach!” It should have read: “Above these roofs – the desert!”

Sailing across the Atlantic, scanning for nomadic side-storms of the Sahara, seems like a good place to start.

Kristian Birkeland’s magnetic museum: or, ‘sunspots like no one else can do better’

Kristian Birkeland, the first scientist correctly to deduce the solar-magnetic origin of the Northern Lights, at one point was obsessed with building an experimental device here on Earth that could reproduce those polar-bound auroral effects.

Though he started off only vaguely over-ambitious, a combination of hyper-caffeination in the Egyptian desert and addiction to veronal produced BLDGBLOG-worthy architectural hubris I feel should be quoted here in full. So, bearing in mind that this is a true story, as told by Lucy Jago’s book The Northern Lights:

1) Birkeland’s vacuum chamber was a ‘machine in which to recreate many phenomena of the solar system beyond the Earth. He drew up plans for a new machine unlike anything that had been made before.

…[L]ike a spacious aquarium, [the box] would provide a window into space. The box would be pumped out to create a vacuum and he would use larger globes and a more powerful cathode to produce charged particles. With so much more room he would be able to see effects, obscured in the smaller tubes, that could take his Northern Lights theory one step further – into a complete cosmogony, a theory of the origins of the universe. (…) All sorts of beautiful solar phenomena could recreated this way, such as the sun’s corona, the shining layers of the sun’s outer atmosphere, usually visible only during a total eclipse. He could reproduce sunspots that moved across the surface of the terrella [the electrical globe-mechanism inside the vacuum chamber itself]… With this extraordinary machine Birkeland was able to simulate Saturn’s rings, comet tails, and the Zodiacal Light. He even experimented with space propulsion using cathode rays. Sophisticated photographs were taken of each simulation, to be included in the next volume of Birkeland’s great work, which would discern the electromagnetic nature of the universe and his theories about the formation of the solar system.

The ensuing period of nearly hypnotised overwork is referred to later as ‘Birkeland’s immersion into the universe of his vacuum chamber’.

2) But then he got ambitious. In a letter written from a hotel in Aboukir, Egypt, where Birkeland’s addiction to caffeine and veronal was driving him insane – along with the Saharan sun – he wrote: ‘And, finally, I am going to tell you about a great idea I have had; it’s a bit premature but I think it will be realised. I am going to get some money from the state and from friends, to build a museum for the discovery of the Earth’s magnetism, magnetic storms, the nature of sunspots, of planets – their nature and creation. On a little hill I will build a dome of granite, the walls will be a metre thick, the floor will be formed of the mountain itself and the top of the dome, fourteen metres in diametre, will be a gilded copper sphere. Can you guess what the dome will cover? When I’m boasting I say to my friends here “next to God, I have the greatest vacuum chamber in the world.” I will make a vacuum chamber of 1,000 cubic metres and, every Sunday, people will have the opportunity to see a ring of Saturn ten metres in diametre, sunspots like no one else can do better, Zodiacal Light as evocative as the natural one and, finally, auroras… four metres in diametre. The same sphere will serve as Saturn, the sun, and Earth, and will be driven round by a motor.’

So, aside from conjuring up images somewhere between Frankenstein, City of Lost Children and Batman, perhaps, Birkeland’s mountaintop cosmogonic laboratory brings up the interesting possibility of modeling – even reproducing – the universe through architecture. Or, at least, through a combination of architecture and machinery (which is what architecture always was in the first place).

In any case, clue the United States Department of Energy in on this and you’ll – wait: they’ve already done it. It’s called Yucca Mountain.

Perhaps a subterranean tour of the carved radioactive vaults of Yucca Mountain will be available to someone in a few ten-thousand years. By which time Birkeland’s almost H.P. Lovecraftian visions of simulating the birth of the universe atop a granite mountaintop, beneath a copper dome, will be long forgotten.

Oh, one more thing – in fact, two more things: 1) note that cathode rays, which Birkeland used in his vacuum chambers, are also what make non-digital television possible (raising the intellectually stimulating idea that television, in and of itself, as a technical object, is a model of the cosmos); and 2) note that Birkeland says ‘next to God, I have the greatest vacuum chamber’, implying of course that the universe already is a vacuum chamber, in which case one could argue – at least rhetorically – that we are living not in the universe as such but in what is already the experimental reproduction of the universe, a universe which lies elsewhere. The universe itself, then, the universe we run tests on and live within, is just a model, a prototype even. But that’s neither here nor there…