Rootstocks and Rhizotrons

Edible Geography explores the exhumation of whole trees in a new post called “Rootstock Archaeology.” Don’t miss the incredible rhizotron, “an underground corridor whose walls consist of forty-eight shuttered windows, which researchers can open to peer out onto the root systems of adjacent trees and plants.”

Village Design as Magnetic Storage Media

[Image: “Magnetic Field” by Berenice Abbott, from The Science Pictures (1958-1961)].

An interesting new paper suggests that the ritual practice of burning parts of villages to the ground in southern Africa had an unanticipated side-effect: resetting the ground’s magnetic data storage potential.

As a University of Rochester press release explains, the “villages were cleansed by burning down huts and grain bins. The burning clay floors reached a temperature in excess of 1000ºC, hot enough to erase the magnetic information stored in the magnetite and create a new record of the magnetic field strength and direction at the time of the burning.”

What this meant was that scientists could then study how the Earth’s magnetic field had changed over centuries by comparing more recent, post-fire alignments of magnetite in the ground beneath these charred building sites with older, pre-fire clay surrounding the villages.

The ground, then, is actually an archive of the Earth’s magnetic field.

If you picture this from above—perhaps illustrated as a map or floor plan—you can imagine seeing the footprint of the village itself, with little huts, buildings, and grain bins appearing simply as the outlines of open shapes.

However, within these shapes, like little windows in the surface of the planet, new magnetic alignments would begin to appear over decades as minerals in the ground slowly re-orient themselves with longterm shifts in the Earth’s magnetic field, like differently tiled geometries contrasting with the ground around them.

[Image: “Untitled” by Larry Bell (1962), via the L.A. Times, via Christopher Hawthorne].

What really blows me away here, though, is the much more abstract idea that the ground itself is a kind of reformattable magnetic data storage system. It can be reformatted and overwritten, its data wiped like a terrestrial harddrive.

While this obviously brings to mind the notion of the planetary harddrive we explored a few years ago—for what it’s worth, one of my favorite posts here—it also suggests something quite strange, which is that landscape architecture (that is, the tactical and aesthetic redesign of terrain) and strategies of data management (archiving, cryptography, inscription) might someday go hand in hand.

(Via Archaeology).

Shining Path

One of many things that we’ll be looking at tonight in the Blackout seminar that I’ve been teaching over at Pratt in Brooklyn is organically generated electricity—things like virus batteries, biogeobatteries, sediment batteries, and more.

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige (2006)].

By way of getting there, though, we’ll be taking a very brief look at Christopher Nolan’s under-rated film The Prestige—specifically the scene in which we see a hillside covered in giant incandescent light bulbs, none of which appear to be plugged into anything but soil and all of which are powered wirelessly by a generator located over 12 miles away.

The geological form of the mountain plateau becomes a shining grid framing our two featured characters.

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s film The Prestige (2006)].

Although The Prestige does not suggest that this is what’s happening in this scene, what if the soil itself was powering these light bulbs? What if soil could be turned into a landscape-scale, distributed electrical device?

Awesomely, as Nature reported just two months ago, there is growing evidence to back up “a suggestion within the geophysics and microbiology communities that bacteria can grow tiny ‘wires’ and hook up to form a biogeobattery—a giant natural battery that generates electrical currents.”

[Image: From Popular Science].

Then Popular Science picked up on the story:

Scientists have known that bacteria can create electricity when mixed with mud and seawater, and have even built microbial fuel cells around the little buggers. Now they have begun figuring out just how bacteria create electrical networks that serve as long-distance communication, at least on the microbial scale—the distances ranged up to 2 centimeters. Yet those few centimeters equal roughly 20,000 times the body size of individual bacteria.

Imagining soil itself—the ground all around us—as a giant electrical transmission network is astonishing. And, again, while there is no mention of anything like biogeobatteries and their ilk in The Prestige, the very idea that perhaps someday we could plug light bulbs directly into the soil—an organic battery coextensive with the living surface of the earth—amazes me.

[Images: From The Prestige (2006)].

And biogeobatteries are not even the only option here; there are also virus batteries.

MIT reported back in 2006 that a team of researchers had “harnessed the construction talents of tiny viruses to build ultra-small ‘nanowire’ structures for use in very thin lithium-ion batteries. By manipulating a few genes inside these viruses, the team was able to coax the organisms to grow and self-assemble into a functional electronic device.” The resulting virus batteries are tiny, but they could vary in scale “from the size of a grain of rice up to the size of existing hearing aid batteries.”

The future design possibilities are bewildering. Could deposits of virus-impregnated soil be used as electricity-storage devices in rural, off-the-grid areas?

[Image: From Nature].

After all, bacteria might already be “wiring up the soil,” Nature suggested three years ago. Indeed, “bacteria can sprout webs of electrical wiring that transform the soil into a geological battery,” meaning that “the earth beneath our feet might act as a gigantic circuit built by microbes to power their metabolic systems.” And you can build a soil battery yourself:

The researchers filled plastic columns with wet sand infiltrated with a nutrient compound (lactate), and allowed S. oneidensis to grow in this “fake soil.” Only the top of the column was in contact with air. Electrodes inserted at various heights up the columns revealed that, after about ten days, electrical charge was coursing up the column… threaded by a web of filaments between the bacterial cells.

I’m reminded here of the work of Philip Beesley, which often uses self-fertilizing yeast-packs, gels, and seeds to create living geotextiles. In fact, a Beesley Battery doesn’t seem at all very off: a living mat woven through the soil, generating and storing electricity based on pre-existing bacterial activity in the ground.

You infect the soil with a genetically-modified virus patented by MIT and electrical currents start to flow…

[Image: From Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006)].

Perhaps someday, then, we could simply show up somewhere, in the middle of the night, surrounded by pine forests and hills, and just crouch down, push a light bulb two or three inches into the earth—

[Image: From The Prestige (2006)].

—and watch as everything around us starts to glow.

Extreme agricultural statuary

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I mentioned a recent issue of Mark Magazine the other day, but I deliberately saved one of the articles for a stand-alone post later on. That article was a long profile of the work of Philip Beesley, a Toronto-based architect and sculptor, whose project the “Implant Matrix” BLDGBLOG covered several years ago.

In issue #21 of Mark, author Terri Peters describes several of Beesley’s projects, but it’s the “Endothelium” that really stood out (and that you see pictured here).

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

Peters refers to Beesley’s work as a “lightweight landscape of moving, licking, breathing and swallowing geotextile mesh” – a kind of pornography of ornament, or the Baroque by way of David Cronenberg. “Inspired by coral reefs,” she continues, “with their cycles of opening, clamping, filtering and digesting,” Beesley’s biomechanical sculpture-spaces are “immersive theatre environments” in which “wheezing air pumps create an environment with no clear beginning or end.”

I’m reminded of the penultimate scene in James Cameron’s film Aliens, when Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) meets the alien “queen.” The queen is laying eggs, we see, through a gigantic, semi-prosthetic, peristaltically-powered external ovarian sac – and the scene exemplifies the encounter with the grotesque in all its H.R. Giger-influenced, sci-fi extremes. Put another way, if organisms, too – not just buildings – can reach a point of ornamental excess, then James Cameron’s aliens are perhaps exhibit number one.

[Images: Screen grabs from James Cameron’s Aliens].

In any case, Beesley’s work is a fascinating hybrid of advanced textile design, geostructural modeling, and rogue biology experiment. Peters’s descriptions of the “Endothelium” are worth quoting at length:

[The structure consists of] a field of organic “bladders” that are self-powered and that move very slowly, self-burrowing, self-fertilizing and are linked by 3D printed joints and thin bamboo scaffolding. The bladders are powered using mobile phone vibrators and have LED lights. It works by using tiny gel packs of yeast which burst and fertilize the geotextile.

This latter detail – “using tiny gel packs of yeast which burst and fertilize the geotextile” – brings to mind something at the intersection of an improvised explosive device (or IED) and a green roof: you hire Philip Beesley to design a landscape-machine for installation atop a new building downtown, and, over the course of many decades, it vibrates, yeast-bursts, rotates, crawls, and grows through extraordinary cycles of grotesque architectural fertility. A solar-powered landscape of mold and microroots, generating its own soil. Within a few years, the original sculpture it all came from is gone, archaeologically undetectable beneath the vitality of the forms that have consumed it.

One wonders what Philip Beesley would think of the mushroom tunnel of Mittagong.

[Images: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

Elsewhere in the article, Peters writes:

Endothelium is an automated geotextile, a lightweight and sculptural field housing arrays of organic batteries within a lattice system that might reinforce new growth. It uses a dense series of thin “whiskers” and burrowing leg mechanisms to support low-power miniature lights, pulsing and shifting in slight increments. Within this distributed matrix, microbial growth is fostered by enriched seed-patches housed within nest-like forms, sheltered beneath the main lattice units.

I’m a bit rhetorically stuck on “between” statements, I’m afraid, but it’s as if Beesley’s work falls somewhere between a loaf of sourdough bread and a sculpture by Jean Tinguely.

[Image: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I’m curious, meanwhile, if you could bury a Philip Beesley sculpture in the woods of rural England somewhere, and allowed it to articulate new ecosystems slowly, over the cyclic course of generations. In fact, I’m reminded of an article in the New York Times last week, spotted via mammoth, in which we learn that two abandoned landfills in Brooklyn have since been used as unlikely foundations for new ecosystems:

In a $200 million project, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection covered the Fountain Avenue Landfill and the neighboring Pennsylvania Avenue Landfill with a layer of plastic, then put down clean soil and planted 33,000 trees and shrubs at the two sites. The result is 400 acres of nature preserve, restoring native habitats that disappeared from New York City long ago.

“Once the plants take hold,” the article adds, “nature will be allowed to take its course, evolving the land into microclimates.” But what if those weren’t landfills down there but sculptures by Philip Beesley? Strategically sown seed-patches and gel packs of yeast wait underground for new roots to rediscover them.

It’s living geostatuary, buried beneath the surface of the earth – a kind of extreme agriculture, with soil-preparation by Philip Beesley.

[Images: “Endothelium” by Philip Beesley & Hayley Isaacs].

I’d genuinely like to see what Beesley might do if he was hired by, say, a NASA R&D program dedicated to terraforming other planets. Could you fly a modular, self-unfolding Philip Beesley sculpture into the depths of radiative space, land it on a planet somewhere, and watch as revolting pools of bacteriological mucus begin to coagulate and form new fungi?

Beesley’s whiskered vibrators begin to shiver with signs of piezoelectric life, as small crystals surrounded by radio transmitters and genetically engineerined space-seed-patches imperceptibly tremble, evolving into mutation-prone “organic batteries” unprotected beneath starlight. Give it a thousand years, and vast infected forests, the width of continents, take hold.

You’ve colonized a distant planet through architecture and yeast.

For more, check out Mark Magazine‘s issue #21. Beesley’s also got a book out, called Hylozoic Soil, that I would love to read.

Planet Harddrive

[Image: “Conceptual diagram of satellite triangulation,” courtesy of the Office of NOAA Corps Operations (ONCO)].

I’ve long been fascinated by what I might call the geological nature of harddrives – how certain mineral arrangements of metal and ferromagnetism result in our technological ability to store memories, save information, and leave previous versions of the present behind.

A harddrive would be a geological object as much as a technical one; it is a content-rich, heavily processed re-configuration of the earth’s surface.

[Image: Geometry in the sky. “Diagram showing conceptual photographs of how satellite versus star background would appear from three different locations on the surface of the earth,” courtesy of the Office of NOAA Corps Operations (ONCO)].

This reminds me of another ongoing fantasy of mine, which is that perhaps someday we won’t actually need harddrives at all: we’ll simply use geology itself.

In other words, what if we could manipulate the earth’s own magnetic field and thus program data into the natural energy curtains of the planet?

The earth would become a kind of spherical harddrive, with information stored in those moving webs of magnetic energy that both surround and penetrate its surface.

This extends yet further into an idea that perhaps whole planets out there, turning in space, are actually the harddrives of an intelligent species we otherwise have yet to encounter – like mnemonic Death Stars, they are spherical data-storage facilities made of content-rich bedrock – or, perhaps more interestingly, we might even yet discover, in some weird version of the future directed by James Cameron from a screenplay by Jules Verne, that the earth itself is already encoded with someone else’s data, and that, down there in crustal formations of rock, crystalline archives shimmer.

I’m reminded of a line from William S. Burroughs’s novel The Ticket That Exploded, in which we read that beneath all of this, hidden in the surface of the earth, is “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal.”

[Image: “An IBM HDD head resting on a disk platter,” courtesy of Wikipedia].

In any case, this all came to mind again last night when I saw an article in New Scientist about how 3D holograms might revolutionize data storage. One hologram-encoded DVD, for instance, could hold an incredible 1000GB of information.

So how would these 3D holograms be formed?

“A pair of laser beams is used to write data into discs of light-sensitive plastic, with both aiming at the same spot,” the article explains. “One beam shines continuously, while the other pulses on and off to encode patches that represent digital 0s and 1s.”

The question, then, would be whether or not you could build a geotechnical version of this, some vast and slow-moving machine – manufactured by Komatsu – that moves over exposed faces of bedrock and “encodes” that geological formation with data. You would use it to inscribe information into the planet.

To use a cheap pun, you could store terrabytes of information.

But it’d be like some new form of plowing in which the furrows you produce are not for seeds but for data. An entirely new landscape design process results: a fragment of the earth formatted to store encrypted files.

Data gardens.

They can even be read by satellite.

[Image: The “worldwide satellite triangulation camera station network,” courtesy of NOAA’s Geodesy Collection].

Like something out of H.P. Lovecraft – or the most unhinged imaginations of early European explorers – future humans will look down uneasily at the earth they walk upon, knowing that vast holograms span that rocky darkness, spun like inexplicable cobwebs through the planet.

Beneath a massive stretch of rock in the remotest state-owned corner of Nevada, top secret government holograms await their future decryption.

The planet thus becomes an archive.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Geomagnetic Harddrive).

Soil-bombing Iceland

The Soil Conservation Service of Iceland is in the midst of a rather heroic effort to de-desertify large parts of the country. Iceland, in fact, is the largest desert in all of Europe.

As the BBC says, “The only difference [between the Icelandic desert and] the Sahara is that the sand here is black. Pitch black – with glaciers towering above and the sea shimmering in the distance. And the wind howling in between.” Which sounds like quite a difference.

In any case, the desert’s origins are with human activity; it is an artificial landscape, bearing traces of the island nation’s earlier inhabitants: “Despite the rather frightening name of the country, Iceland was green when Vikings came to settle. About 60% of the country was covered in bushes, trees, grass and all that. (…) But the Vikings, aside from chopping down trees for their own needs, also brought along their sheep. And what do sheep do best? They eat anything that is green.”

What interests me here, aside from the ecological message – don’t overgraze your territory – is the Soil Conservation Service’s preferred method of re-seeding: they pack finely sorted and organized seeds – virtual ecosystems, yet to occur, chosen species by species – into bombs: “Iceland is big and sparsely populated. There are few roads. So, Icelanders decided to ‘bomb their own country’, dropping the fertiliser and seeds from a WW II DC 3 Dakota.”

Earth, delivered by warplane.

(You can also listen to this story, as I first did, through an often irritating BBC podcast.)

So the bombs collide with the planet, releasing condensed and virtual landscapes: seed-bombs. Soil-bombs. The Icelandic countryside soon becomes an ironic inversion of a warzone: where the bombs fall, trees, grass, and wildflowers grow.

Instead of the lunar landscape of the Nevada test site, for instance—

—you get the opposite: strange oases of green, or gardening by artillery.

Which, conveniently, brings me to a new BLDGBLOG project.

It’s a landscape proposal: Artillery Gardens.

Unfortunately, there already is, in London, a place called Artillery Gardens, but no matter. BLDGBLOG’s Artillery Gardens will require the following: a very large parcel of land; a Howitzer; several shotguns; a military engineer who can calculate launching arcs and target distances; and some seed-packing volunteers, preferably experienced gardeners. Constant gardeners, perhaps. Everyone would fill up as many shotgun shells and old Howitzer cases as they could, using odd, rare, or otherwise exciting combinations of exotic seed; we’d all don some earplugs; and then it could begin: you’d blast a garden into existence.

Landscape planning as field artillery calculation. Landscape-at-a-distance. Gardening by artillery.

Through explosion and gunfire and heavy artillery, a rare and fragile garden is born. Species by species, day by day, through blast radii and impact fields, with the “power of endless growth and self-reproduction,” these Artillery Gardens will grow.

War as a garden, pursued by other means.