Atlas of the Underworld

[Image: Via Science].

A “complete x-ray of Earth’s interior is coming into focus,” Science reported last week. Using computerized tomography, or CT scanning—the same technology used to visualize the interior of the human body for various medical diagnoses—Dutch Earth scientists are piecing together what they call an “Atlas of the Underworld.” They are documenting invisible landscape features—the ghostly remains of entire continents—hidden inside the planet, locked beneath the surface we dwell upon everyday.

Awesomely, these features include “oceans and mountains lost to Earth’s history,” we read, an Earth’s surface within the Earth’s surface:

The reconstructions are also resurrecting mountains that had been lost to time. For example, in a study published several months ago, [tectonicists Jonny Wu and John Suppe] reconstructed the travels of 28 slabs to recreate the Philippine Sea as it was more than 50 million years ago. Beyond identifying what appears to be a previously unknown piece of ocean crust, they predicted that as one of their paleoplates plunged into the mantle, it threw up a large chain of volcanoes that eventually collided with Asia. That convulsive process could explain mysterious folded rocks in Japan and beneath the East China Sea.

For now, however, these “lost mountains” remain digital projections based on available data, not real, physical discoveries. They are, we might say, tectonic fictions, unverified models of past Earths inside our own.

A researcher at the University of Oslo named Grace Shephard points out, for example, that she will soon “publish a comparison of 14 different models that will assess which slabs seem most likely to be real” (emphasis added).

[Image: The long-buried Farallon Plate, visible nowhere on the Earth’s surface—or, rather, only visible through its indirect, mountain-building effects; courtesy Karin Sigloch].

Twenty years ago, poet Gary Snyder published a book called Mountains and Rivers Without End. As the Freer and Sackler Galleries describe it, the book is an “epic celebration of nature and humanity that encompasses Asian artistic traditions, Native American storytelling, and Zen Buddhist philosophy,” all in the guise of a book of landscape poetry.

I mention this not because Snyder’s book is the only example of such a thing, but because it’s interesting to imagine a tomographic expansion of Snyder’s “mountains and rivers without end”—adding revelatory geophysics and otherworldly Earth-scanning technology to the book’s already eclectic mix of myths and texts.

In other words, where is the poetry of lost ghost continents, buried mountain ranges, drowned ocean basins, landlocked archipelagoes, melting thousands of miles beneath our feet, swirling slowly below us in the Earth’s deep interior?

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the tip!)

Cryptoforests and Spatial Folklore

[Image: Photo by Gary Warner, from the cryptoforestry Flickr pool].

In his ongoing exploration of “the forest in the city,” Wilfried Hou Je Bek has produced a voluminous quantity of writings worth exploring in more detail, and so it is somewhat arbitrary to lead with this link; but the title of a recent post, “If the forest is empty so is the mind,” compelled me to point your attention to his blog Cryptoforestry (previously mentioned here).

Cryptoforesty, as Wilfried describes it in that post, emphasizes “the psychological effects of a forest” rather than the forest’s pure ecological function; indeed, he writes, “The point is not that wolfs and bears are needed to fulfill ecological functions that are now null and void, the point is that a forest with such animals fuels the imagination and adds zest to life, even to those who would never visit such a ‘full’ forest.” And, thus, he quips, “If the forest is empty,” devoid of its animal sentience, “so is the mind.”

Further, his point that European forests are now actually “being replenished from the east” with wild creatures is both politically symbolic and environmentally interesting.

[Image: Photo by Gary Warner, from the cryptoforestry Flickr pool].

The “What is a Cryptoforest?” essay is a virile and spirited defense of landscape ferality. Quoting at length and hoping to give a rhetorical sense of the writer’s interests, which range from the poetry of Gary Snyder to pre-Columbian rock art:

Cryptoforests are those parts of the city in which nature, in “secret,” has been given the space and the time to create its own millennia-millennia-old, everyday-everyday-new order by using the materials (seeds, roots, nutrients, soil conditions, waste, architectural debris) at hand. Cryptoforests are sideways glances at post-crash landscapes, diagrammatic enclaves through which future forest cities reveal their first shadows, laboratories for dada-do-nothingness, wild-type vegetable free states, enigma machines of uncivilized imagination, psychogeographical camera obscuras of primal fear and wanton desire, relay stations of lost ecological and psychological states. Cryptoforests are wild weed-systems, but wildness is equated not with chaos but with productiveness at a non-human level of organization. What starts with weed ends with a cryptoforest, and in between there is survivalism, with plants eking out a living against all odds, slowly but determinedly creating the conditions for the emergence of a network of biological relationships that is both flexible and stubborn, unique and redundant, fragile and resilient. Cryptoforests are honey pots for creatures that have no other place to go. Animals live there, the poor forage there, nomads camp there and the cryptoforester who has renounced the central planning commission re-creates there (free after Henri Thoreau). In the future, young people will no longer want to play in bands and they will become guerrilla gardeners and cryptoforesters instead.

“What starts with [a] weed ends with a cryptoforest”—the cryptoforest is a nearly all-encompassing botanical category for vegetation untamed. “The cardinal rule of cryptoforestry is that you can’t search for a cryptoforest,” we read. “You stumble upon them, they are already right in front of you.” Further, becoming sites of spatial folklore, cryptoforests are “always larger on the inside than they appear from the outside.”

[Image: Photo by Gary Warner, from the cryptoforestry Flickr pool].

Cryptoforestry offers fives diagnostic categories for this marginal terrain:

1) Feral forests (Planted tree zones, for instance along motorways, that have been allowed to become wild to the point that their wildness is outgrowing their manmadeness.) 2) In limbo forests (Tree-covered plots that feel like forests but technically probably aren’t; states of vegetation for which lay-language has no name.) 3) Incognito Forests (Forests that have gone cryptic and are almost invisible, forests in camouflage, forests with a talent for being ignored.) 4) Precognitive forests (Lands that are on the brink of becoming forested, a future forest fata morgana.) 5) Unappreciated forests (Forests regarded as zones of waste and weed, forests shaming planners, developers, and the neighbourhood. NIMBY forestry.)

These are less climax ecosystems than purgatorial ones, we might say—false gardens beyond cultivation, in which a different sort of nature is discovered growing “already right in front of you.”

The whole blog is worth bookmarking for later return.

(Consider joining the cryptoforestry Flickr pool).