From Bullets, Seeds

[Image: From the “Flower Shell” project by Studio Total].

The Department of Defense is looking to develop “biodegradable training ammunition loaded with specialized seeds to grow environmentally beneficial plants that eliminate ammunition debris and contaminants.”

As the DoD phrases it, in a new call-for-proposals, although “current training rounds require hundreds of years or more to biodegrade,” they are simply “left on the ground surface or several feet underground at the proving ground or tactical range” after use.

Worse, “some of these rounds might have the potential [to] corrode and pollute the soil and nearby water.”

The solution? From bullets to seeds. Turn those spent munitions into gardens-to-come:

The US Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) has demonstrated bioengineered seeds that can be embedded into the biodegradable composites and that will not germinate until they have been in the ground for several months. This SBIR effort will make use of seeds to grow environmentally friendly plants that remove soil contaminants and consume the biodegradable components developed under this project. Animals should be able to consume the plants without any ill effects.

The potential for invasive species to take root and dominate the fragile, disrupted ecology of a proving ground is quite obvious—unless region-specific munitions are developed, with bullets carefully chosen to fit their ecological context, a scenario I find unlikely—but this is nonetheless a surprising, almost Land Art-like vision for the U.S. military.

Recall our earlier look at speculative mass-reforestation programs using tree bombs dropped from airplanes. This was a technique that “could plant as many as a million trees in one day,” in a state of all-out forest warfare. Here, however, a leisurely day out spent shooting targets in a field somewhere could have similar long-term landscape effects: haphazardly planted forests and gardens will emerge in the scarred grounds where weapons were once fired and tested.

In fact, the resulting plants themselves could no doubt also be weaponized, chosen for their tactical properties. Consider buddleia: “buddleia grows fast and its many seeds are easily dispersed by the wind,” Laura Spinney wrote for New Scientist back in 1996. “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 also, however, slowly and relentlessly breaking apart the buildings it grows on.

Pack buddleia into your bullets, in other words, and even your spent casings will grow into city-devouring thickets, crumbling your enemy’s ruins with their roots. Think of it as a botanical variation on the apocryphal salting of Carthage.

In any case, if seed-bullets sound like something you or your company can develop, you have until February 7, 2017 to apply.

(Spotted via Adam E. Anderson).

Animal Ballast

[Image: Veduta dell’Anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo (1776), by Giovanni Battista Piranesi; courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art].

While going through a bunch of old books for another impending cross-country move, I found myself re-reading an interesting detail in The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard.

In a discussion of that ruined megastructure, now symbolic of the entirety of ancient Rome, Hopkins and Beard point out that the colosseum was once home to a rather unexpected ecosystem, a displaced environment that did not correspond to the natural world outside its crumbling walls.

“For whatever reason—because of the extraordinary micro-climate within its walls,” they write, “or, as some thought more fancifully, because of the seeds that fell out of the fur of the exotic animals displayed in the ancient arena—an enormous range of plants, including some extraordinary rarities, thrived for centuries in the building ruins.”

The idea of entire landscapes, even alien ecologies populated with otherwise unrecognizable species, lying hidden in the fur of exotic animals, gradually encouraged to flourish by the weird winds of an architecturally induced micro-climate, is absolutely fascinating to contemplate. You could think of them as animal ballast gardens, stuck like burrs on the unseen surfaces of the everyday world, waiting to prosper.

The Anthropocene is much older than today’s conversations seem able to admit; it began in patches, sprouting here and there in the broken stones of old buildings, transported across continents one seed at a time until the entire planet now is ablaze with artificial landscapes, a planet out of joint.

(Don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s two-part interview with Mary Beard, discussing her “Wonders of the World” series).

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).

Escaped Pets are Ecosystems in Waiting

[Image: Photo by Stephen Beatty, via the New York Times].

A few years ago, we learned that the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze—or, rather, its rapid fizzling-out—led to a spike in illicit turtle releases in England’s Lake District. As a result, the District today is suffering through a minor invasion of orphaned turtles, unwanted pets struggling to return to a state of nature.

Zoom-in on an historic landscape in Britain, in other words, and you will find the living remnants of a 1980s pop cultural fad splashing around somewhat pathetically—somewhat sadly—in the brisk water.

Now, in thematically related news, discarded goldfish have been taking over entire river landscapes in Australia: “Two decades ago, someone dropped a handful of unwanted pet goldfish into a creek in southwestern Australia. Those goldfish grew, swam downstream, mucked up waters wherever they went and spawned like mad. Before long, they took over the whole river.”

Liberated from endless circling inside glass bowls in children’s bedrooms, the fish are able to reach their expected size, “with some fish growing as long as 16 inches and weighing up to four pounds—the size of a two-liter soda bottle.”

Indeed, the New York Times explains, “Freed from the constraints of a tank, goldfish balloon to the size of footballs. Within a few generations, they revert to natural yellow and brown colors, in place of the bright orange that breeders try to achieve.” Their success in the wild should not come as a surprise.

While there’s much more about the invasive ecology of this species over in the original article, it’s hard not to be struck by the anthropocenic absurdity of an ecosystem constituted entirely by escaped pets.

Hypertrophied beyond recognition, re-wilded by their unexpected freedom, feral pets remake the world in the distorted image of what their human owners thought nature should look like. Toy poodles will stalk our future woods.

Awakener

A few examples of landscapes waking up after long periods of time lying dormant have been in the news recently.

[Image: Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change garden, via Facebook].

First, there is artist Maria Thereza Alves’s “ballast seed garden” project, called Seeds of Change, which arose from a moment of revelation:

Between 1680 and the early 1900s, ships’ ballast—earth, stones and gravel from trade boats from all over the world used to weigh down the vessel as it docked—was offloaded into the river at Bristol. This ballast contained the seeds of plants from wherever the ship had sailed. Maria Thereza Alves discovered that these ballast seeds can lie dormant for hundreds of years, but that, by excavating the river bed, it is possible to germinate and grow these seeds into flourishing plants.

While Alves seems not to have literally dug down into the old layers of the river in order to harvest her seeds—instead sourcing contemporary examples of species known to have sprouted from mounds of ballast over the last few hundred years—her project nonetheless has the character of a long-lost landscape waking up, popping up like a refugee amidst the rubble in a return to visibility.

[Images: The ballast garden, via Facebook].

This idea of accidental ballast gardens—heavily detoured landscapes-to-come lying patiently in wait before springing back to life several centuries after their initial transportation—is incredible; I might even suggest parallels here with such 21st-century problems as how we might sterilize spacecraft before sending them offworld, to places like Mars, lest we, in a sense, bring along our own bacterial “ballast” and thus unwittingly terraform those distant locations with escaped landscapes from Earth. Might we someday culture “ballast gardens” on other planets from the tiniest of remnant organic compounds found on our own ancient and dismantled ships?

[Image: Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change garden, via Facebook].

Meanwhile, in a headline that reads like something straight out of Stanislaw Lem or H.P. Lovecraft, we read that “Nunavut’s Mysterious Ancient Life Could Return by 2100 as Arctic Warms.” In other words, forests that thrived in the hostile conditions of “Canada’s extreme north” nearly three million years ago might return to re-colonize the landscape as the region dramatically warms over the next century due to climate change.

This is a relatively mundane resurrection—after all, it is just a forest—but even the suggestion that future climate conditions on Earth might re-awaken ancient ecosystems, dormant environments in which humans might find it less than easy to survive, is an incredible cautionary tale for the future of the planet. That, and this story offers the awesomely mythic image of human explorers wandering across the thawing earth of the far north as strange and ancient things bloom from cracks in the ground around them.

[Images: Various herbaria pages].

In both cases, I’m reminded of an essay published in Lapham’s Quarterly a few years ago, by novelist Daniel Mason. There, Mason writes about “nature’s return,” a scenario in which dormant and waylaid seeds thrive on the rubble of the present-day landscape. “In the dusty cracks between the concrete, seedlings would germinate, grow,” Mason writes, heralding unpredictable landscapes to come.

[Images: More herbaria pages].

However, referring to these remnant seeds left over from older landscapes, Mason writes that “most would not germinate straight away,” even if given free rein over an empty field or cracked streetscape. “Rather,” he adds, these seeds “would lodge in microscopic nooks and crannies, some to be eaten or crushed, others to be paved over, but most, simply, to wait. A square meter of urban soil can contain tens of thousands of seeds persisting in a state of suspended animation, waiting to be woken from their slumber. After the fire brigades rescued the London Natural History Museum from German incendiaries, Albizia silk-tree seeds bloomed on their herbarium sheets, liberated from two hundred years of dormancy by the precise combination of flame and water.”

A square meter of urban soil can contain tens of thousands of seeds persisting in a state of suspended animation, waiting to be woken from their slumber. In Mason’s words, this return of dormant life “suggests the parallel existence of a hidden world, fully formed, simply awaiting the opportunity for expression.”

Whether dredging up old riverbeds full of ballast from previous centuries, or watching new storms form over the Arctic, bringing back climates unseen for millions of years, what might yet wake up from the ground around us, return from dormancy, resurrect, as it were, and make itself at home again on a planet that thought it had since moved on?

(Ballast garden link spotted via Katie Holten).