No Wall Is Ever Silent

Amidst a huge number of novels I’ve been reading lately for a variety of reasons is the book Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes.

The book is set in Ninevah, a luxurious, new, South African real estate development that has been temporarily abandoned before its official opening due to an unspecified infestation; the action centers on an “ethical pest removal specialist” named Katya Grubbs. Katya has been hired by Mr. Brand, a swaggering, whiskey-fueled golfer and property developer, to clear Nineveh’s looming and empty buildings of whatever it is that has hatched there.

While I will confess that there were several scenes in which Katya’s actions seemed inexplicable to me, Rose-Innes’s descriptions of Nineveh and of the looming presence of infesting insects squirming just beneath the surface are nonetheless both beautifully written and resolutely Ballardian in tone.

For example, the land that Nineveh was built on “was reclaimed,” we read. “Katya wonders how much of the wetlands they had to drain, how many thousands of vertebrate or invertebrate souls were displaced or destroyed to make this place. In her experience, a poorly drained property is a magnet for all kinds of damp-loving pests: water-snakes, slugs and especially mosquitoes. The rising water and its travelers always find a way back in.”

“Indeed,” the narrative continues, “beyond Nineveh’s perimeter, everything is insistently alive and pushing to enter.”

This older, overlooked ecosystem, dismissed as a nuisance, now threatens literally to come back up through the floorboards.

Wandering around amidst the huge buildings, a J. G. Ballard among the insects, Katya discovers ruined rooms and even a rain-soaked smuggling tunnel used to strip the uninhabited suites of their woodwork, pipes, and copper.

Katya soon suspects that she is not, in fact, alone. She puts her ear to the wall one night, convinced she hears someone on the other side: “No wall is ever silent; always there is a subdued orchestra of knocks and sighs and oceanic rushing. The hum of pipes, the creaks of bricks and mortar settling. Or unsettling: such sounds are the minute harbingers of future destruction, the first tiny tremors of a very, very slow collapse that will end, decades or centuries from now, in a pile of rubble.”

Without, I hope, giving away much of the plot, there is a confrontation later in the book, deep in the interior of one of these buildings, in a scene where everyone realizes how flimsy the construction around them really is. The buildings are just masks on empty space. Katya’s temperament is such that she has already realized this, suspecting all along that the apparent paradise of Nineveh was all just wishful projection; other, less cynical characters fare poorly.

What follows is an insight about architecture’s false reliability—that we are, in fact, deluded to take our buildings at face-value—that I also try to make in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. This excerpt thus particularly stood out to me:

One thing about having a belief in the fixed nature of things, in walls and floors: it gives you a certain disadvantage. Mr. Brand, for all his solid confidence, in fact because of it, cannot look beyond the obvious, cannot see past the evidence of the concrete world. He can’t consider that perhaps the walls are false, or that the floorboards might conceal strange depths. Despite his rage, he would not think to punch through a wall: it would not occur to him that walls are breachable. In Mr. Brand’s world of certainties, such an in-between place is hardly possible; it barely exists.

The collapsing world of Nineveh, with its hollow walls, smugglers’ tunnels, and rising tides of storm-borne insects, twinned with Katya’s own house that is literally splitting in two from seismic disturbances caused by the heavy machinery of gentrification across the street, presents us with a precariously inhabited world barely standing still on its foundations. Yet within those foundations are the bugs and worms, beetles and snakes, temporarily beaten back by humans but on the verge of retaking the scene.

In any case, you can read reviews at Kirkus or the Guardian.

Escaping from the Garden

[Image: An example of Periplaneta japonica, via New York Daily News].

Ornamental vegetation planted on New York City’s famed High Line park might have inadvertently brought an “invasive cockroach” to the United States. From the New York Daily News:

The High Line, a park that turned a dilapidated stretch of elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into one of New York’s newest tourist attractions, may have brought a different kind of visitor: a cockroach that can withstand harsh winter cold and never seen before in the U.S.

Rutgers University insect biologists Jessica Ware and Dominic Evangelista said the species Periplaneta japonica is well documented in Asia but was never confirmed in the United States until now. The scientists, whose findings were published in the Journal of Economic Entomology, say it is too soon to predict the impact but that there is probably little cause for concern.

“The scientists suspect the little critter was likely a stowaway in the soil of ornamental plants used to adorn the park,” the newspaper adds.

I’ve always been fascinated by how gardens—ostensibly well-controlled landscapes meant to reach maturity under the guise of human supervision—accidentally become beachheads for invasive species.

In the UK, for instance, and this is only one example among very many, it is estimated that nearly “one-quarter of plants sold to ornamental gardeners since the 1800s have escaped, and 30 per cent of these are firmly established in the English countryside.”

As naturalist Richard Mabey points out in his highly recommended book Weeds, sometimes these botanical escapees can even be tracked step by step—or rail line by rail line, as the case may be.

[Image: Buddleia; photo by Steven Mulvey via the BBC, who describe it as “the plant that dominates Britain’s railways”].

Consider buddleia, a popular plant described by writer Laura Spinney, in a great old article for New Scientist (that no longer appears to be archived on their website), as “one of the commonest destructive weeds in Britain.” Buddleia is “not a native of the island,” on the other hand, but rather was “brought from the Himalayas in Victorian times to offer a long flowering season and attract butterflies.”

Ironically, however, “buddleia grows fast and its many seeds are easily dispersed by the wind. It has powerful roots used to thin soil on rocky substrata, ideally suited to penetrating the bricks and mortar of modern buildings. In London and other urban centres it can be seen growing out of walls and eves.”

It is, Spinney suggests, a long-term vegetative threat to the masonry structure of the city itself, a demolition tool hiding in plain sight.

Even in the descriptions of this phenomenon there is such strange poetry to be found—phrases both ominous and inspiring, like, “a plant establishing itself outside the garden,” as if John Milton had somehow reinvented himself as a horticultural critic with a penchant for sci-fi.

In any case, read more about New York City’s newest inhabitant—another alleged escapee from a garden—over at the New York Daily News.

(Roach story spotted, like the previous post, via Chris Woebken).

Sonic Warfare

The opening scene of The Forever War by Dexter Filkins presents us with the sight of U.S. soldiers preparing for their invasion of Falluja. Filkins is there to witness the attack; amidst the growl of tanks and Humvees, and “by the light of airstrikes and rockets,” he writes, there is suddenly something sonically unexpected.


[Image: “An Advanced Individual Training Soldier in the Psychological Operations Specialist Course attaches a loud speaker on top of a High Mobility Multi-Wheeled Vehicle, or HUMVEE, at Forward Operating Base Freedom, Camp MacKall, N.C.” Courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School].

“And then, as if from the depths,” Filkins writes, “came a new sound: violent, menacing and dire.”

I looked back over my shoulder to where we had come from, into the vacant field at Falluja’s northern edge. A group of marines were standing at the foot of a gigantic loudspeaker, the kind used at rock concerts.

It was AC/DC, the Australian heavy metal band, pouring out its unbridled sounds. I recognized the song immediately: “Hells Bells,” the band’s celebration of satanic power, had come to us on the battlefield.

While by no means advocating the use of sonic warfare as a tool in U.S. military adventures or police operations, I nonetheless instantly thought of this scene—of armed soldiers holding aloft rock-blaring boom boxes, like some John Milius-directed remake of Say Anything—when I read, in a very different context, that bark beetles can be driven out of the pine forests they currently infest if you play digitally-altered sounds of their own chewing back at them through loud speakers. The high-volume sound of themselves drives them away.

A research assistant suggested using sounds to aggravate the beetles, much as police sometimes blare music in hostage situations. The researchers tried Queen and Guns N’ Roses and played snippets of radio talker Rush Limbaugh backward. None produced the desired results.

Then, the beetles were exposed to digitally altered recordings of their own calls, the sounds they make to attract or repel other beetles. The response was immediate. The beetles stopped mating or burrowing. Some fled, helter-skelter. Some violently attacked each other.

Most important, they stopped chewing away at the pine tree, suggesting that the scientists may have discovered a sort of sonic bullet that could help slow the beetles’ destructive march.

Again, I do not mean to imply that infestation metaphors are the most appropriate to use when discussing Operation Phantom Fury, or that military action in that city was analogous to clearing a forest of bark beetles; but the audio possibilities here, and the specifics of the set-up, seem amazing.


[Image: A ponderosa pine forest; within those trunks might be beetles].

More about the actual experiment, run at Northern Arizona University’s Forestry Lab:

They collected tree trunks infested with bark beetles… Working in the lab, [research assistant Reagan McGuire] piped in the music through tiny speakers, the sort you might find in a singing greeting card. He watched the reaction of the beetles using a microscope. The rock music didn’t seem to annoy the bugs, nor did Rush in reverse.

McGuire and [Northern Arizona University forest entomologist Richard Hofstetter] decided to try something different. They recorded the sounds of the beetles and played them back, manipulating them to test the response.

Suddenly, every little thing they did seemed to provoke the beetles.

“We could use a particular aggression call that would make the beetles move away from the sound as if they were avoiding another beetle,” Hofstetter said.

When they made the beetle sounds louder and stronger than a typical male mating call, he said, the female beetle rejected the male and moved toward the electronic sound.

These audio simulations, in other words, had demonstrable physical effects on another species; their own warped sonic portrait drove them crazy.

So could you reprogram your Marsona 1288A (“create a personalized sound environment“) with the digitally-altered ambient sounds of termites and thus clear your house of insectile pests? The USDA, after all, has published a paper—download the PDF—explaining how a “portable, low-frequency acoustic system was used to detect termite infestations in urban trees.” Indeed, “termite sounds could be detected easily underneath infested trees, despite the presence of high urban background noise.” So why not reverse this—drive them out of the city using weird MP3s specially produced for boom cars?

Perhaps we should petition Clear Channel or Sirius XM to premiere a new, insect-only broadcast hour, killing ants and roaches in every city where it’s played (or perhaps just driving them all out, streaming from the floorboards, in a moment of utter horror).

I’m reminded here of the famous example of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, with its “dog whistle—which humans can’t hear—buried on the album’s second side.” Only, in our case, it would be a different kind of beetle-whistle, and one with anti-infestational effects.

(Bark beetle story found via @treestrategist).