Typographic Ecosystems

[Image: From Google Maps].

Many weeks ago, after listening to the podcast S-Town, I got to looking around on Google Maps for the now-legendary hedge maze designed by the podcast’s protagonist, John B. McLemore. Other people, of course, had already found it.

As these things always go, however, I began panning around the map of the region, following waterways and forests to various places, zooming in on interesting geological features and more, and eventually found myself looking at a strange patch of forest on the Arkansas/Missouri border. In a place called the Big Lake Wildlife Management Area, huge glyphs have been cut into the trees, in repetitive shapes that appear to be letters or runes.

There are distended Ss, upside-down Us that resemble hoofprints, cross-like forms that could be lower-case ts or + signs, and simply large, empty blocks. The figures repeat across the forest in no apparent pattern, but they are clearly artificial. I figured these were a property-marking system of some sort, or perhaps some kind of recreational landscape, leading to a series of unusually elaborate hunting blinds; but they could also have been—who knows—an optical calibration system for satellites, cut deep in the woods, or perhaps, if we let our imaginations roam, some secret government design agency performing unregulated typographic experiments in the forest… Perhaps it was really just SETI.

Then I stopped thinking about them.

[Image: From Google Maps].

When I mentioned these to my friend Wayne the other night, however, he was quick to dig up the real explanation: “the odd shapes are part of a habitat restoration project,” local news channel KAIT reported back in 2013.

“In wildlife management, you know, disturbance is a good thing,” biologist Lou Hausman explained to KAIT. “When you put sunlight to the forest floor, that’s one of the basic components of habitat management. It stimulates growth in the understorage and stimulates growth on the ground.”

The different shapes or letters were thus chosen for research purposes, the goal being to learn which ones produced the best “edge effects” for plants and wildlife on the ground. If the S shape allowed more efficient access to sunlight, in other words, well, then S shapes would be used in the future to help stimulate forest recovery due to their particular pattern of sunlight.

Think of it as ecosystem recovery through typography—or, heliocentric graphic design as a means for returning forests to health. Kerning as a wildlife management concern.

This perhaps suggests a unique variation on artist Katie Holten’s “Tree Alphabet” project, but one in which alphabetic incisions into a forest canopy are done not for their literary power but for their strategic ecosystem effects. Golem-like sections of wilderness, brought back to health through language.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for his champion-league Googling skills).

Nature Machine

[Image: Illustration by Benjamin Marra for the New York Times Magazine].

As part of a package of shorter articles in the New York Times Magazine exploring the future implications of self-driving vehicles—how they will affect urban design, popular culture, and even illegal drug activity—writer Malia Wollan focuses on “the end of roadkill.”

Her premise is fascinating. Wollan suggests that the precision driving enabled by self-driving vehicle technology could put an end to vehicular wildlife fatalities. Bears, deer, raccoons, panthers, squirrels—even stray pets—might all remain safe from our weapons-on-wheels. In the process, self-driving cars would become an unexpected ally for wildlife preservation efforts, with animal life potentially experiencing dramatic rebounds along rural and suburban roads. This will be both good and bad. One possible outcome sounds like a tragicomic Coen Brothers film about apocalyptic animal warfare in the American suburbs:

Every year in the United States, there are an estimated 1.5 million deer-vehicle crashes. If self-driving cars manage to give deer safe passage, the fast-reproducing species would quickly grow beyond the ability of the vegetation to sustain them. “You’d get a lot of starvation and mass die-offs,” says Daniel J. Smith, a conservation biologist at the University of Central Florida who has been studying road ecology for nearly three decades… “There will be deer in people’s yards, and there will be snipers in towns killing them,” [wildlife researcher Patricia Cramer] says.

While these are already interesting points, Wollan explains that, for this to come to pass, we will need to do something very strange. We will need to teach self-driving cars how to recognize nature.

“Just how deferential [autonomous vehicles] are toward wildlife will depend on human choices and ingenuity. For now,” she adds, “the heterogeneity and unpredictability of nature tends to confound the algorithms. In Australia, hopping kangaroos jumbled a self-driving Volvo’s ability to measure distance. In Boston, autonomous-vehicle sensors identified a flock of sea gulls as a single form rather than a collection of individual birds. Still, even the tiniest creatures could benefit. ‘The car could know: “O.K., this is a hot spot for frogs. It’s spring. It’s been raining. All the frogs will be moving across the road to find a mate,”’ Smith says. The vehicles could reroute to avoid flattening amphibians on that critical day.”

One might imagine that, seen through the metaphoric eyes of a car’s LiDAR array, all those hopping kangaroos appeared to be a single super-body, a unified, moving wave of flesh that would have appeared monstrous, lumpy, even grotesque. Machine horror.

What interests me here is that, in Wollan’s formulation, “nature” is that which remains heterogeneous and unpredictable—that which remains resistant to traditional representation and modeling—yet this is exactly what self-driving car algorithms will have to contend with, and what they will need to recognize and correct for, if we want them to avoid colliding with a nonhuman species.

In particular, I love Wollan’s use of the word “deferential.” The idea of cars acting with deference to the natural world, or to nonhuman species in general, opens up a whole other philosophical conversation. For example, what is the difference between deference and reverence, and how we might teach our fellow human beings, let alone our machines, to defer to, even to revere, the natural world? Put another way, what does it mean for a machine to “encounter” the wild?

Briefly, Wollan’s piece reminded me of Robert MacFarlane’s excellent book The Wild Places for a number of reasons. Recall that book’s central premise: the idea that wilderness is always closer than it appears. Roadside weeds, overgrown lots, urban hikes, peripheral species, the ground beneath your feet, even the walls of the house around you: these all constitute “wilderness” at a variety of scales, if only we could learn to recognize them as such. Will self-driving cars spot “nature” or “wilderness” in sites where humans aren’t conceptually prepared to see it?

The challenge of teaching a car how to recognize nature thus takes on massive and thrilling complexity here, all wrapped up in the apparently simple goal of ending roadkill. It’s about where machines end and animals begin—or perhaps how technology might begin before the end of wilderness.

In any case, Wollan’s short piece is worth reading in full—and don’t miss a much earlier feature she wrote on the subject of roadkill for the New York Times back in 2010.

The Remnants

[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

Photographer Robert Burley has a new book due out in two weeks called An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands.

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

While it would seem at first to be only of local interest to those living in and around Toronto, the photos themselves are gorgeous and the conditions they document are nearly universal for other North American cities: scenes of natural, remnant ecosystems butting up against, but nonetheless resisting, the brute force of urban development.

[Image: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

As Burley explains, many of the parks depicted are informal—that is, they are undesigned—and almost all of them follow old creeks and ravines that meander through the ancestral terrain. (This, as you might recall, is also the premise for much of Michael Cook’s work, who has been tracking those same waterways in their Stygian journey underground.)

[Images: From An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands by Robert Burley].

However, Burley warns, “these ravine systems are in danger of being loved to death by city dwellers desperate for green space.” From the book:

Toronto has one of the largest urban park systems in the world, and yet it is unknown to most, including many of the city’s three million inhabitants. This extensive ravine network of sunken rivers, forested vales, and an expansive shoreline has historically been overlooked, neglected, or forgotten, but in recent years these unique wild spaces have been rediscovered by a growing population embracing nature inside the city limits. The parklands were not designed or constructed for a greater public good but rather are landscape remnants of pre-settlement times that have stubbornly refused to conform to urban development.

The book comes out later this month, and a number of events are planned in Toronto over the coming week, including an exhibition of Burley’s work from the book; more info is available at the John B. Aird Gallery.

To roam hither and thither rather than plod a linear course

The blog Landscapism takes a look at the “integral but largely uncharted topography” of the combe, the “amphitheatre-like landform that can be found at the head of a valley.” There, the post’s author writes, amidst lichen-covered rubble and interrupted creeks, “these watery starting lines disguised as cul-de-sacs are a gift to the rural flâneur; sheep tracks, streams, crags, ruined sheep folds—all encourage the curious visitor to roam hither and thither rather than plod a linear course.”

Immaculate Ecologies

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

“We will put up the mountains. We will lay out the prairie. We will cut rivers to join the lakes.” So says the narrator of a nice piece of ecosystem fiction by my friend Scott Geiger published over at Nautilus.

This corporate spokesperson is building virgin terrain: “all-new country, elevated and secured from downstairs, with a growing complement of landforms, clean waters, ecologies, wilderness.”

I was reminded of Geiger’s work when I came across an old bookmark here on my computer, with a story that reads like something straight out of the golden age of science fiction: a corporate conglomerate, intent on spanning vast gulfs of space, finds itself engineering an entire ecosystem into existence on a remote stopping-off point, turning bare rocks into an oasis, in order to ensure that its empire can expand.

This could be the premise of a Hugo Award-winning interplanetary space opera—or it could be the real-life history of the Commercial Pacific Cable Company.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The Company was the first to lay a direct submarine cable from the United States to East Asia, but this required the use of a remote atoll, 1,300 miles northwest of Honolulu, called Midway, not yet famous for its role in World War II.

At the time, however, there was barely anything more there than “low, sandy island[s] with little vegetation,” considered by the firm’s operations manager to be “unfit for human habitation.” The tiny islands—some stretches no more than sandbars—would have been impossible to use, let alone to settle.

Like Geiger’s plucky terraforming super-company, putting up the mountains and laying out the prairie, the Cable Company and its island operations manager “initiated the long process of introducing hundreds of new species of flora and fauna to Midway.”

During this period, the superintendent imported soil from Honolulu and Guam to make a fresh vegetable garden and decorate the grounds. By 1921, approximately 9,000 tons of imported soil changed the sandy landscape forever. Today, the last living descendants of the Cable Company’s legacy still flutter about: their pet canaries. The cycad palm, Norfolk Island Pine, ironwood, coconut, the deciduous trees, everything seen around the cable compound is alien. Since Midway lacked both trees and herbivorous animals, the ironwood trees spread unchecked throughout the Atoll. What else came in with the soil? Ants, cockroaches, termites, centipedes; millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.

Strangely, the evolved remnants of this corporate ecosystem are now an international bird refuge, as if saving space for the feral pets of long-dead submarine cable operators.

[Image: Via the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge].

The preserved ruins of old Cable Company buildings stand amidst the trees, surely now home to many of those “millions of insects which never could have made the journey on their own.” Indeed, “the four main Cable Company buildings, constructed of steel beams and concrete with twelve-inch thick first-story walls, have fought a tough battle with termites, corrosion, and shifting sands for nearly a century.”

It is a built environment even down to the biological scale—a kind of time-release landscape now firmly established and legally protected.

It’s worth pointing out, however, that the constructed frontier lands of Scott Geiger’s fictions and the national park of curated species still fluttering their wings at Midway share much with the even stranger story of terraforming performed by none other than Charles Darwin on Ascension Island.

This is, in the BBC’s words, “the amazing story of how the architect of evolution, Kew Gardens and the Royal Navy conspired to build a fully functioning, but totally artificial ecosystem.” It’s worth quoting at length:

Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and [his friend, the botanist Joseph] Hooker’s visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.

Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens—where Hooker’s father was director—shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.

The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The “cinder” would become a garden.

So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.

Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

It’s not a wilderness forest, then, but a feral garden “run riot” on the slopes of a remote, militarized island outpost (one photographed, I should add, by photographer Simon Norfolk, as discussed in this earlier interview on BLDGBLOG).

[Image: The introduced forestry of Ascension Island, via Google Maps].

In a sense, Ascension’s fog-capturing forests are like the “destiny trees” from Scott Geiger’s story in Nautilus—where “there are trees now that allow you to select pretty much what form you want ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road”—only these are entire destiny landscapes, pieced together for their useful climatic side-effects.

For anyone who happened to catch my lecture at Penn this past March, the story of Ascension bears at least casual comparison to the research of Christine Hastorf at UC Berkeley. Hastorf has written about the “feral gardens” of the Maya, or abandoned landscapes once deeply cultivated but now shaggy and overgrown, all but indistinguishable from nature. For Hastorf, many of the environments we currently think of as Central American rain forest are, in fact, a kind of indirect landscape architecture, a terrain planted and pruned long ago and thus not wilderness at all.

Awesomely, the alien qualities of this cloud forest can be detected. As one ecologist remarked to the BBC after visiting the island, “I remember thinking, this is really weird… There were all kinds of plants that don’t belong together in nature, growing side by side. I only later found out about Darwin, Hooker and everything that had happened.” It was like stumbling upon a glitch in the matrix.

In the case of these islands, I love the fact that historically real human behavior competes, on every level, for sheer outlandishness with the best of science fiction for its creation of entire ecosystems in remote, otherwise inhospitable environments; advanced landscaping has become indistinguishable from planetology. And, in Scott Geiger’s case, I love the fact that the perceived weirdness of his story comes simply from the scale at which he describes these landscape activities being performed.

In other words, Geiger is describing something that actually happens all the time; we just refer to it as the suburbs, or even simply as landscaping, a near-ubiquitous spatial practice that is no less other-worldly for taking place one half-acre at a time.

[Image: A suburban landscape being rolled out into the forest like carpet; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Soon, even the discordant squares of grass seen in the above photograph will seem as if they’ve always been there: a terrain-like skin graft thriving under unlikely circumstances.

Think of a short piece in New Scientist earlier this year: “All this is forcing enthusiasts to reconsider what ‘nature’ really is. In many places, true wilderness vanished thousands of years ago, and the landscapes we think of as natural are largely artificial.”

Indeed, like something straight out of a Geiger short story, “thousands of years from now our descendants may think of African lions roaming American plains as ‘natural’ too.”