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.

Rings

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.

Forest Megaphone

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

These architectural objects are “gigantic wooden megaphones” for the forest, part of an acoustic installation in Estonia’s gorgeous Pähni Nature Centre for amplifying the sounds of the landscape.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

“According to interior architect Hannes Praks,” we read in a newly published press release, “who leads the Interior Architecture Department of the [Estonian Academy of Arts] that initiated the installation project, the three-metre diameter megaphones will operate as a ‘bandstand’ for the forest around the installation, amplifying the sounds of nature.”

The actual design is by a student named Birgit Õigus.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Part building, part furniture, part recreational folly, they’re meant to focus visitor attention on the smallest acoustic details of the site—rainfall, branches brushing against one another in the breeze, distant footsteps, thunder.

[Image: Photos by Tõnu Tunnel].

Sit in them, read books, whisper to friends, listen to birds.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Not having visited these in person, I can’t speak to their performance—i.e. whether they function as planned—and the relatively orderly placement of each structure in the woods might very well lead to some unfortunately conservative acoustic effects.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Nonetheless, it’s a great idea for a project, and the geometric simplicity of the stained timber frame is compelling.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Of course, these bring to mind the so-called “acoustic mirrors” of coastal Britain that we looked at here more than a decade ago.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

In turn, makes me wonder how these forest megaphones might appear six or seven decades from now, when small groups of hikers stumble upon the moss-covered forms of this old acoustic infrastructure, trying to determine amongst themselves if the strange audio effects and interrupted echoes they notice still filtering through the wooden forms are a curious accident or an engineered goal.

[Image: Photo by Tõnu Tunnel].

Typographic Forestry and Other Landscapes of Translation

[Image: The cover for About Trees, edited by Katie Holten].

Artist Katie Holten—who participated in “Landscapes of Quarantine” a few years back—has just published an interesting book called About Trees.

It is essentially an edited compilation of texts about, yes, trees, but also about forests, landscapes of the anthropocene, unkempt wildness, altered ecosystems, and, more broadly speaking, the idea of nature itself.

It ranges from short texts by Robert Macfarlane—recently discussed here—to James Gleick, and from Amy Franceschini to Natalie Jeremijenko. These join a swath of older work by Jorge Luis Borges, with even Radiohead (“Fake Plastic Trees”) thrown in for good measure.

It’s an impressively nuanced selection, one that veers between the encyclopedic and the folkloric, and it has been given a great and memorable graphic twist by the fact that Holten, working with designer Katie Brown, generated a new font using nothing less than the silhouettes of trees.

Every letter of the alphabet corresponds to a specific species of tree.

[Image: The tree typeface from About Trees, edited by Katie Holten].

This has been put to good use, re-setting the existing texts using this new font—with the delightful effect of seeing the work of Jorge Luis Borges transcribed, in effect, into trees.

This has the awesome implication that someone could actually plant this: a typographic forestry of Borges translations.

[Image: Borges, translated into trees, from About Trees].

Speculative short stories realized as ornamental thickets in the backyards of arboreally inclined landowners.

Given all the urban parks, hedge mazes, and scientifically accurate themed gardens of the world—two of my favorites being the exquisite Silver Garden at Longwood Gardens and the scifi otherworldliness of the Desert Garden at the Huntington—surely there is room for a kind of translation landscape?

Stories and fables—koans, slogans, poems, wisecracks—planted as cryptoforests, literary labyrinths you could somehow, impossibly, read provided you know what each species is meant to signify.

Just take Holten’s typeface as a new kind of planting guide, and see what landscapes might result.

[Image: From About Trees].

Holten’s About Trees is available for purchase, of course, if you want to check it out; in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that someone actually implements a typographic grove somewhere, a planted language of texts flipped into readable tree-signs, sequenced using the font from About Trees.

In fact, recall the myth of Odin discovering the Nordic runes: hanging upside-down from a tree and mistaking, in the especially complicated carpet of roots sprawled out beneath him, the beginnings of a new typeface, an arboreal symbol system that could be written down and shared with others. Runes came from roots—and, as Holten implies, every tree contains a library.

Tree Receivers

[Image: “The Trees Now Talk” cover story in The Electrical Experimenter (July 1919); image via rexresearch].

Way back in 1919, in their July 14th issue, Scientific American published an article on the discovery that trees can act “as nature’s own wireless towers and antenna combined.”

General George Owen Squire, the U.S. Army’s Chief Signal Officer, made his “strange discovery,” as SciAm phrases it, while sitting in “a little portable house erected in thick woods near the edge of the District of Columbia,” listening to signals “received through an oak tree for an antenna.” This realization, that “trees—all trees, of all kinds and all heights, growing anywhere—are nature’s own wireless towers and antenna combined.”

He called this “talking through the trees.” Indeed, subsequent tests proved that, “[w]ith the remarkably sensitive amplifiers now available, it was not only possible to receive signals from all the principle [sic] European stations through a tree, but it has developed beyond a theory and to a fact that a tree is as good as any man-made aerial, regardless of the size or extent of the latter, and better in the respect that it brings to the operator’s ears far less static interference.”

Why build a radio station, in a sense, when you could simply plant a forest and wire up its trees?

[Images: From George Owen Squire’s British Patent Specification #149,917, via rexresearch].

So how does it work? Alas, you can’t just plug your headphones into a tree trunk—but it’s close. From Scientific American:

The method of getting the disturbances in potential from treetop to instrument is so simple as to be almost laughable. One climbs a tree to two-thirds of its height, drives a nail a couple of inches into the tree, hangs a wire therefrom, and attaches the wire to the receiving apparatus as if it were a regular lead-in from a lofty copper or aluminum aerial. Apparently some of the etheric disturbances passing from treetop to ground through the tree are diverted through the wire—and the thermionic tube most efficiently does the rest.

Although “40 nails apparently produce no clearer signals than half a dozen,” one tree can nonetheless “serve as a receiving station for several sets, either connected in series with the same material or from separate terminals.”

[Image: Researching the possibility that whole forests could be used as radio stations—broadcasting weather reports, news from the front lines of war, and much else besides—is described by Scientific American as performing “tree radio work.” Image via IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation (January 1975)].

In a patent filing called “British Patent Specification #149,917,” Squire goes on to explore the somewhat mind-bending possibilities offered by “radio transmission and reception through the use of living vegetable organisms such as trees, plants, and the like.” He writes:

I have recently discovered that living vegetable organisms generally are adapted for transmission and reception of radio or high frequency oscillations, whether damped or undamped, with the use of a suitable counterpoise. I have further discovered that such living organisms are adapted for respectively transmitting or receiving a plurality of separate trains of radio or high frequency oscillations simultaneously, in the communication of either or both telephonic or telegraphic messages.

This research—the field of “tree radio work”—has not disappeared or been forgotten.

[Image: A tree in the Panamanian rain forest wired up as a sending-receiving antenna; from IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation (January 1975)].

In the January 1975 issue of IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation, we read the test results of several gentleman who went down to the rain forests of the Panama Canal Zone to test “the performance of conventional whip antennas… compared with the performance of trees utilized as antennas in conjunction with hybrid electromagnetic antenna couplers.”

The authors specifically cite Squire’s work and quote him directly: “‘It would seem that living vegetation may play a more important part in electrical phenomena than has been generally supposed… If, as indicated above in these experiments, the earth’s surface is already generously provided with efficient antennae, which we have but to utilize for communications…’ These words were written in 1904 by Major George 0. Squire, U.S. Army Signal Corps, in a report to the Department of War in connection with military maneuvers in the Pacific Division.”

The authors of the IEEE Transactions report thus establish up a jungle-radio “Test Area” in a remote corner of Panama, complete with trees wired-up as dual senders & receivers. There, they think they’ve figured out what’s occurring on a large scale, as signals propagate through the forest canopy, writing that we should consider “the jungle as a maze of aperture-coupled screen rooms. In the jungle case, the screens, in the form of vertical tree and fern trunks, and the horizontal forest canopy are of variable thickness, have variable shaped apertures, and are composed of diverse substances that contain mostly water.”

[Image: Inside the Panamanian jungle-radio Test Zone; image via IEEE Transactions on Antennas and Propagation (January 1975)].

The design implication of all this is that an ideal radio-receiving forest could be planted and maintained, complete with spatially tuned “aperture-coupled screen rooms” (trees of specific branch-density planted at specific distances from one another) to allow for the successful broadcast of messages (and/or music) through the “living vegetable organisms” that Squire wrote about in his patent application.

What other creatures—such as birds, bats, wandering children, foxes, or owls—might make of such a landscape, planted not for aesthetic or even ecological reasons, but for the purpose of smoothly relaying foreign radio stations or encrypted spy communications, is bewildering to contemplate.

In any case, this truly alien vision of forests silently crackling inside with unexploited radio noise is incredible, implying the existence of undiscovered “broadcasts” of biological noise, humming trunk to trunk amongst groves of remote forests like arboreal whale song, inaudible to human ears, as well as suggesting a near-miraculous venue for future concerts, where music would be played not through wireless headsets or hidden speakers lodged in the woods but through the actual trees, music shimmering from root to canopy, filling trees branch and grain with symphonies, drones, rhythms, songs, sounds occasionally breaking through car radios as they speed past on roads nearby.

[All links found via an old message from Shawn Korgan posted to the Natural Radio VLF Discussion Group of which I am a non-participating member. Vaguely related: The Duplicative Forest and Pruned’s Graffiti as Tactical Urban Wireless Network. See also a follow-up post: Antarctic Island Radio].

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.

First-Strike Reforestation

Earlier this month, Macleans looked at the idea of “aerial reforestation,” or the large-scale dropping of tree seedlings using decommissioned military aircraft. Of course, we looked at this same plan many, many years ago—and it turns out the same guy is behind this latest round of journalistic interest.

[Image: Courtesy of Getty Images/Macleans].

Moshe Alamaro, still affiliated with MIT, had previously been pushing his plan for “using a small fertilizing plane to drop saplings in plastic pods one at a time from a hopper,” Macleans explains. The biodegradable canisters would then have “hit the ground at 200 m.p.h.,” MIT explained back in 1997, “and imbed themselves in the soil. Then the canisters decompose and the young trees take root. A large aircraft could drop as many as 100,000 saplings in a single flight: Alamaro’s system could plant as many as a million trees in one day.”

But, Macleans points out, “it wasn’t very fruitful—most pods hit debris during pilot tests and failed to actually take root.”

The idea has thus now been “upgraded,” using different technical means “to create new forests on empty landscapes.”

The process Alamaro advocates places trees in metal pods that rot on contact with the ground, instead of the low-tech and less sturdy plastic version. He says the process can be adapted to plant shrubs, and would work best in places with clear, loose soil, such as sub-desert parts of the Middle East, or newly habitable Arctic tundra opened up by global warming. “What is needed is government policy to use old military aircraft,” he says, adding that thousands are in hangars across the globe. Although the original pitch failed, Alamaro says the growing carbon market is creating new interest, and he hopes to find funding for a large-scale pilot project soon. Once Alamaro gets planes in the air, the last step, says [Dennis Bendickson, professor of forestry], will be to simply “get people out of the way.”

In this context, it’s difficult to resist pointing out Iceland’s own soil-bombing campaign: “Iceland is big and sparsely populated,” the BBC reported in 2005. “There are few roads. So, Icelanders decided to ‘bomb their own country’,” dropping special mixtures of fertiliser and seeds “from a WWII DC 3 Dakota”—carpet-bombing subarctic desert in an attempt to make that emptiness flower.

I feel compelled here to point out a brief scene from the film Hellboy 2, in which we see a “forest god” killed in the streets of Brooklyn (roughly 2:36 in this clip); his green and bubbling blood blooms instantly into a carpet of soft roots and lichen, splashing onto the roofs of cars, sending seedpods from wildflowers and pollinating plants down in drifts along the New York sidewalks. Should a substance that fertile be developed in real life, Alamaro’s—and Iceland’s—plans could be realized in the blink of an eye.

In any case, will Alamaro finally succeed? Will we see whole new woodsy landscapes grow in the wake of sustained rural bombing campaigns—druidic warfare—cryptoforests spreading out from craters and abandoned fields far below? Will we launch seed grenades from sapling artillery, plant improvised explosive devices packed dense with forest nutrients?

(Story found via @treestrategist).

The Reforestation of the Thames Estuary

[Image: “The Dormant Workshop” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

While studying at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, recent graduate Tom Noonan produced a series of variably-sized hand-drawings to illustrate a fictional reforestation of the Thames estuary.

[Image: “Log Harvest 2041” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

Stewarding, but also openly capitalizing on, this return of woodsy nature is the John Evelyn Institute of Arboreal Science, an imaginary trade organization (of which we will read more, below).

[Image: “Reforestation of the Thames Estuary” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

The urban scenario thus outlined—imagining a “future timber and plantation industry” stretching “throughout London, and beyond”—is like something out of Roger Deakin’s extraordinary book Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (previously described here) or even After London by Richard Jeffreys.

In that latter book, Jeffreys describes a thoroughly post-human London, as the ruined city is reconquered by forests, mudflats, aquatic grasses, and wild animals: “From an elevation, therefore,” Jeffreys writes, “there was nothing visible but endless forest and marsh. On the level ground and plains the view was limited to a short distance, because of the thickets and the saplings which had now become young trees… By degrees the trees of the vale seemed as it were to invade and march up the hills, and, as we see in our time, in many places the downs are hidden altogether with a stunted kind of forest.”

Noonan, in a clearly more domesticated sense—and it would have been interesting to see a more ambitious reforestation of all of southeast England in these images—has illustrated an economically useful version of Jeffreys’s eco-prophetic tale.

[Image: “Lecture Preparations” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

From Noonan’s own project description:

The reforestation of the Thames Estuary sees the transformation of a city and its environment, in a future where timber is to become the City’s main building resource. Forests and plantations established around the Thames Estuary provide the source for the world’s only truly renewable building material. The river Thames once again becomes a working river, transporting timber throughout the city.

It is within these economic circumstances that the John Evelyn Institute of Arboreal Science can establish itself, Noonan suggests:

The John Evelyn Institute of Arboreal Scienc eat Deptford is the hub of this new industry. It is a centre for the development and promotion of the use of timber in the construction of London’s future architecture. Its primary aim is to reintroduce wood as a prominent material in construction. Through research, exploration and experimentation the Institute attempts to raise the visibility of wood for architects, engineers, the rest of the construction industry and public alike. Alongside programmes of education and learning, the landscape of the Institute houses the infrastructure required for the timber industry.

They are similar to an organization like a cross between TRADA and the Wooodland Trust, say.

[Image: “Urban Nature” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

And the Institute requires, of course, its own architectural HQ.

[Image: “Timber Craft Workshop” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

Noonan provides that, as well. He describes the Institute as “a landscape connecting Deptford with the river,” not quite a building at all. It is an “architecture that does not conform to the urban timeframe. Rather, its form and occupation is dependent on the cycles of nature.”

The architecture is created slowly—its first years devoid of great activity, as plantations mature. The undercroft of the landscape is used for education and administration. The landscape above becomes an extension of the river bank, returning the privatised spaces of the Thames to the public realm. Gaps and cuts into the landscape offer glimpses into the monumental storage halls and workshops below, which eagerly anticipate the first log harvest. 2041 sees the arrival of the first harvest. The landscape and river burst in a flurry of theatrical activity, reminiscent of centuries before. As the plantations grow and spread, new architectures, infrastructures and environments arise throughout London and the banks of the Thames, and beyond.

The drawings are extraordinary, and worth exploring in more detail, and—while Noonan’s vision of London transformed into a working forest plantation would have benefitted from some additional documentation, such as maps*—it is a delirious one.

[Image: “Thames Revival” by Tom Noonan, courtesy of the architect].

Considering the ongoing overdose of urban agriculture imagery passing through the architecture world these days, it is refreshing simply to see someone hit a slightly different note: to explore urban forestry in an aesthetically powerful way and to envision a world in which the future structural promise of cultivated plantlife comes to shape the city.

*I wrote this without realizing that the package of images sent to me did not include the entire project—which comes complete with maps.

Acoustic Forestry

[Image: From Acoustic Botany by David Benqué].

We saw David Benqué’s Fabulous Fabbers project here on BLDGBLOG a few months ago, but his more recent work, Acoustic Botany, deserves similar attention.

Acoustic Botany uses genetically modified plants to produce a “fantastical acoustic garden,” where sounds literally grow on trees. “Desired traits such as volume, timbre and harmony are acquired through selective breeding techniques,” the artist explains.

[Image: From Acoustic Botany by David Benqué].

As Benqué writes:

The debate around Genetic Engineering is currently centered around vital issues such as food, healthcare and the environment. However, we have been shaping nature for thousands of years, not only to suit our needs, but our most irrational desires. Beautiful flowers, mind altering weeds and crabs shaped like human faces all thrive on these desires, giving them an evolutionary advantage. By presenting a fantastical acoustic garden, a controlled ecosystem of entertainment, I aim to explore our cultural and aesthetic relationship to nature, and to question its future in the age of Synthetic Biology.

There are thus “singing flowers,” “modified agrobacteria” that ingeniously take “sugars and nutrients from the host plant to encourage the growth of parasitic galls and fill them with gas to produce sound,” and “string-nut bugs” that have been “engineered to chew in rhythm” inside hollow gourds.

[Image: From Acoustic Botany by David Benqué].

The symphonic range of sounds is then fine-tuned and modulated inside an acoustic lab using specialized equipment; out in the field, this takes the form of pruning trees into living chords, so that “harmonic note combinations” can bloom on a single branch.

Upscaling this to the level of all-out acoustic forestry would be an extraordinary thing to hear.

[Image: From Acoustic Botany by David Benqué].

I’m reminded of at least two quick things here:

1) Several years ago in the excellent British music magazine The Wire, there was an article about Brian Eno and “generative music,” in which the acoustic nature of backyard gardens was described quite beautifully based on the seasonal popping of seedpods, the rustle of leaf-covered fronds in evening breezes, and even, if I remember correctly, the specific insects that such plants might attract and support. Does anyone reading this have experience with planting a backyard garden based on its future acoustics?

2) Alex Metcalf’s Tree Listening project (which I have also covered elsewhere). “The installation,” Metcalf writes, “allows you to listen to the water moving up inside the tree through the Xylem tubes from the roots to the leaves.” Headphones hang down from the tree’s canopy like botanical iPods, and you put them on to lose yourself in arboreal surroundsound. Imagine a shortwave radio that allows you to tune not into distant stations sparkling with disembodied sounds and buzzing voices from the other side of the world, but into the syrupy tides of trees spiked with microphones in forests and sacred groves on every continent.

More images of Benqué’s project can be seen on the artist’s website.

(Spotted on Core77, thanks to a tweet from @soundscrapers).

The Duplicative Forest

Atlas Obscura points our attention to a site in Oregon known as the “duplicative forest.”

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

The poplar trees growing at this 17,000-acre farm are “all the same height and thickness,” we read, “and 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.”

While this latter comment is clearly a joke, it would actually be quite interesting to see if optical regulations are ever needed for the spacing of roadside objects. If, for instance, the Duplicative Forest really did induce seizures in motorists—but only those driving more than 90 mph, say—thus exhibiting neurological effects, what sorts of spatial rules might need to be implemented? Every sixth tree could be planted off-grid, for instance, in a slight stagger away from the otherwise mesmerizing patterns, or the speed limit could be rigorously enforced using bumps—in which case you would know that, just over the horizon of your car’s speedometer, a strange world of neurobiological self-interference looms, as the world around you threatens cognitive failure in those passing through it at a high enough speed or intensity.

Want to find out for yourself? Consider doing a drive-by.

On an only vaguely related note, meanwhile, fans of Fredric Jameson might recall his spatial analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s absolutely excellent film North by Northwest—specifically Hitchcock’s use of rhythmically placed, identical trees.

Three Trees

1) And then there was computational wood.

For his master’s thesis, produced last year under the direction of Timo Arnall, Matt Jones, Jack Schulze, Lennart Andersson, and Mikael Wiberg, designer Matt Cottam directed this short video about a technique for growing electrical circuitry inside the trunks of living trees. Just inject the right trace metals, Cottam’s mad scientist narrator explains, do some more techno-magic, and simply let the wood grow…

If only it were true. But the day will come, my t-shirt will read, when all the trees around us are computers.

2) While researching blackouts for a seminar I am teaching this winter at Pratt, I stumbled on a strange anecdote from The New York Times, published back in 1986, about a plant physiologist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden who was seeking a way to end the risk of “trees crashing down on power lines” (a major source of power interruptions).


[Images: All photos by Adam Ryder, from On the Grid].

“One of the things we’re looking at,” the scientist explained, “is something that will directly retard the growth of trees”—that is, chemicals “that interfere with the basic growth hormones.” He was trying to develop, he adds, “a mild chemical” that would deliberately slow tree growth, “and instead of spraying we’re injecting [it] directly into the tree.”

Who knows where that research has now led them, twenty-four years later, but I’d suggest someone might want to mail them a copy of The Death of Grass. ASAP.


[Image: A fig tree grows in Los Angeles; photo by Pieter Severynen].

3) While going back through old bookmarks this morning, I rediscovered Tree of the Week, a series of articles run by the Los Angeles Times. The overall project could be described as a botanical cartography of the city: a catalog of Angeleno trees.

This week’s tree is the “highly productive fig“; last week’s was the Blackwood Acacia. With regard to the latter tree, Pieter Severynen, the series author, writes: “Given its negative properties it should be clear that a description of this tree, or for that matter any tree of the week, does not imply an endorsement to plant. Instead it is offered as a means to learn more about the existing trees that make up the fascinating urban forest surrounding us in the Southland.”

The “fascinating urban forest surrounding us in the Southland” includes the Weltwitschia, the “picturesque Aleppo pine,” and, of course, among many others, the apple, a tree genetically sculpted over the millennia through “hundreds of accidental and deliberate cross-hybridizations” around the world, Severynen writes.

Anyone interested in exploring the urban forests of Los Angeles would do well to check out the fruit maps of Fallen Fruit, who have discovered in the seemingly random dispersal of fruit trees around Silver Lake the remnant outlines of long-forgotten orchards; but if your curiosity goes further afield than L.A., the absolutely fantastic book Wildwood, by the late Roger Deakin, has truly unforgettable descriptions of walnut harvesting in Kazakhstan, old-growth Eastern European forests filled with war ruins and shrapnel, and Deakin’s own backyard in England. It is often astonishingly beautiful—and it also Deakin’s last major work.